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Interview with Grizzly Bear’s Daniel Rossen

October 19, 2009 - 4:21 pm

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Grizzly Bear is a band that likes to take their sweet time and get things right. The three years that separated their second full-length album, Yellow House and this year’s dynamic Veckitemist were spent expanding their sound and exploring a new writing process. For fans (a group that includes the likes of Johnny Greenwood and Jay-Z), the three years of pent-up excitement were rewarded with a meticulously crafted album that marks the latest development in Grizzly Bear’s evolution from folksy Suburban kids, to under-the-radar indie A-listers, to their current status as “next-Radiohead” wonderboys. They’ve been on the road since Veckitimest’s late-May release, most recently accompanied by Beach House for a handful of U.S. dates before they head to Europe with St. Vincent in November. I checked in with Daniel Rossen, singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist for Grizzly Bear, to discuss everything from the band’s Brooklyn inception to their recent collaboration with Michael McDonald, and, of course, their graduation from hip obscurity to public adoration.

CityBeat: You guys have accomplished a lot in the band’s history, including securing a large, loyal fanbase that was, until recently, mostly underground. A lot of your new fans probably feel like they need to be quickly caught up on what they missed. Everyone knows the best way to show time that has transpired in a rapid manner is a rad ‘80s movie montage. So if you put one together of the history of the band to catch up all your new fans, what are a few scenes we would see, and what song would be playing?

Daniel Rossen: [Laughs] God, I guess it has been almost five years now. It could go very far back if we wanted to. I met Chris Bear, the drummer, when I was 15 at a dorky jazz camp. I lived across the hall from Chris Taylor, the bassist, my freshman year of college and we sort of nerded out on jazz records together when we were teenagers. Then after school I met Ed [guitarist and co-singer Ed Droste]. We did our first show at an art gallery in Brooklyn and it was terrifying. We did a really strange two and a half month tour around the country that we booked ourselves and played all kinds of weird shows. We played a show at a bar in Oklahoma. We played a show in the coffee shop at UCLA. We did all kinds of weird shows over time. I couldn’t do it! There’s too many scenes. We played a million shows with a lot of sleeping on the floor in the van, all kinds of stuff. But it’s slowly gotten better. Too many things to include in one ’80s montage, now that I think about it.

CB: It would be to the entire catalog of Hall and Oates, then. Obviously things got a lot better by the time you were opening for Radiohead. What went through your mind when you heard Johnny effin’ Greenwood say your band is his favorite band?

DR: [Laughs] It was a great honor. Really sweet of him. Opening them was a huge, huge honor. I was a huge fan of them when I was young. When I was a teenager that was pretty much the one newer rock band that I really liked. I feel like when Kid A came out when I was in college, that was the record that kind of got me interested in rock music again. Because I really sort of had lost interest in newer rock music when I was in college, and all of a sudden that record came out and I was just floored. So for me it was a huge, huge honor. I mean, that was the only big, big rock star I saw when I was a kid. I never went to big arena shows, but I saw Radiohead at the Hollywood Bowl when I was 18. That was the one big show I ever went to, so it was pretty amazing for me. For everyone, really, it was a huge honor.

CB: If you lost interest in rock in college, what were you listening to?

DR: When I was a teenager I was a real jazz/classical nerd. I lost a lot of interest in rock music. I mean when I was a little kid I loved Elvis and the Beatles and had that classic rock taste when I was really young, but I lost a lot of interest and didn’t really expect to even play music when I was in college. I was kind of a nerd about it, but Radiohead was actually the band that kind of got me interested in it again. From there I actually started learning about indie rock, and I learned about newer bands. It was an entry point for me to be interested in it again, and to even consider playing it.

CB: How would you describe Grizzly Bear’s sonic evolution from Yellow House to Veckatimest?

DR: A lot of it changed from just playing so many shows, and the process of figuring out ways to perform the songs that were layered before we’d even played them as a band together. We just kind of layered and layered and made a sort of sonic soundscape for a lot of the songs. In the process of trying to perform them, we kind of gelled more as a live band and developed our own way of actually playing together as a band rather than just recording and layering. I think a lot of that fed back into the way we did Veckatimest because a fair number of those songs were brought in much earlier on. A lot of the Yellow House demos were very flushed out and had all these parts already all ready for them, and then we just kind of re-layered and recorded and all that. But Veckatimet, a lot of the songs were brought in much earlier and we actually played them together a lot before recording which was a newer thing for us. We even played some of them on that Radiohead tour. We got to flush “Two Weeks” and “Cheerleader” and a couple of other songs out on the road actually playing them live. And “While You Wait for the Others” obviously we played for like a year before we recorded it. That’s the main difference.

CB: The Veckatimest recording process took place in some interesting places including a church, one of your grandmother’s houses, and the uninhabited island that lends its name to the record. Which aspects of these surroundings inspired you guys the most?

DR: They were all amazing places. We’ve never recorded in a studio. Our way of recording has always been to go somewhere kind of remote, and preferably kind of beautiful and idyllic, and just be as relaxed as possible and record at whatever hour of day we feel like to make it as fun as possible. It’s kind of the way we’ve always done it. It takes a lot longer that way, but it’s just a lot more enjoyable and fun for us. Ed’s grandmother’s house in Cape Cod was particularly memorable, and that’s partially why the album ended up being named Veckatimest, which is that island off the coast there in that region. We spent a lot of time up there in his family’s house and did a lot of our early rehearsing there as a band, and there’s a really sort of sentimental value for the time that we’ve spent there as a band working on music together. So I hear a lot of that area on the record for sure. But of course that’s just all our association with being there, playing there, and working on songs there. Big part of it.

CB: Veckatimest has received a lot of positive feedback and all-around great reviews. How is this tour going in the wake of that success?

DR: Eh, there’s been stressful moments and some high-pressure shows at times, but over all it’s been really fun. This tour is especially kind of fun since it’s the second tour of the U.S., it’s kind of not as high pressure. We can just kind of play shows and have a good time, so it’s been great. We’re very lucky.

CB: How did you get involved in the whole indie Twilight super-soundtrack?

DR: I hardly even know. Essentially the music director asked if we would be interested in submitting a song and we thought, Hm, could be interesting, we’ll give it a try, because why not? I don’t know. It was just a “why not?” situation. [Laughs.] So we did. That’s basically how it happened. We ended up bringing Victoria Legrand [of Beach House] to come in and sing a lot of the lead of the song because we love her and love Beach House and it seemed fitting for her to sing it. It seemed like a melody that was really suited for her so that was great. We’ve always wanted to do something like that. I mean, we obviously brought her in for “Two Weeks” on the record, but we’ve always wanted to do something with her that she takes a little more of a prominent, lead presence on in the song. So that was fun. It was a good excuse to work that out.

CB: I was actually just going to bring her up since she is featured on the record and her band is the current support on your tour. How did you guys first meet Beach House?

DR: They opened for us a long time ago for a couple shows on our Yellow House tour… I believe that’s what it was. Yeah, the last couple shows of our Yellow House tour they opened for us and that was right after their first record came out. We just all really loved that record and after we met them we just clicked with them very quickly. We really love them as people and I think they’re certainly one of our favorite bands in the world right now. I think they’re so amazing as songwriters and she’s such an incredible singer. They’ve become like part of the family, it’s weird. But it’s nice.

CB: Speaking of collaborations… Michael McDonald? How did that come about?

DR: Umm…[laughs.] Well, it was an idea we had. We’ve done so many remix-y things, and I thought it would be more interesting that instead of having a remix where you give them the lead vocal and they redo the whole song, I thought it would be more interesting to keep the entire song [Droste starts singing loudly in the background] and just have someone—shhh. [Laughs.] Have someone just sing the lead instead of changing the entire structure of the song, and that was just an idea to ask him. We thought that would be kind of amazing and weird and amazing. And we asked, and he agreed [laughs], which was kind of unbelievable. It was a real honor. It’s the kind of thing that because it’s such an unlikely combination, it does kind of make you smile and can even make you laugh a little bit because it’s so unlikely, but he really does such an amazing job with the song that it’s actually just a really great performance. Now I find myself trying to sing some of his embellishments because I kind of prefer his version. I think a lot of people think it was an ironic thing, like we’re making fun of him or something, and that’s not at all the case. I think he’s an amazing singer who had a really cool take on the song.

CB: If he had an animal counterpart, I’d say he purrs like a majestic walrus. So, if he’s a walrus, what characteristics of an actual grizzly bear can be applied to you and your band?

DR: [Laughs.] A fair amount of sleeping. That’s probably the only one.

CB: What’s next for the members of Grizzly Bear?

DR: We’re just playing shows right now. We’re just on tour for the next year and a half. When we get done with that, I don’t know what’s going to happen. We’ll have six months off or so, so we’ll live on a farm somewhere or something. But eventually we’ll do another record. Don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m not working on anything right now outside of the band. I did a record a year ago [with The Department of Eagles]. I mean eventually I’d like to do something else, but there’s just so much going on that I kind of have to just focus on the band right now. It’s either focus on the band, or have a little bit of a life at home and that’s about it right now [laughs].

CB: Is there anything you want San Diego to know about your live show in advance so we can amply prepare for you to melt our faces?

DR: We’ve never even played in San Diego, I don’t think. We’ve never done a show in San Diego! I grew up in L.A. so I’ve been to San Diego a couple times as a kid, but… yeah. We’re looking forward to it. Our show is a lot louder than you might think, but that’s about all I can say.

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