Grizzly Bear's Daniel Rossen on His New Solo Album, the Late 2000s, the Grateful Dead, and the Future of Grizzly Bear

Grizzly Bear's Daniel Rossen on His New Solo Album, the Late 2000s, the Grateful Dead, and the Future of Grizzly Bear
Photo by Amelia Bauer
Photo by Amelia Bauer

‎I've always loved Daniel Rossen's songwriting, from his work in Grizzly Bear and Department of Eagles to his solo catalog—which is getting expanded next month with the lovely, dense, and fascinating You Belong There (out April 8 via Warp).

Daniel's also a paid subscriber to the newsletter (and you can be too if you want!), which led us to talking last year about getting together to do an interview. We finally caught up last month over the phone, with Daniel dialing in from his family home in Santa Fe.

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What is it about Santa Fe that's special to you?

I grew up in L.A., and then I lived in Brooklyn for a long time. We moved out to rural New York around 2012, which was a very interesting time to live up there—and a lot of this album deals with that time. It's very remote, and we have a 3-year-old now, so Santa Fe is a nice in-between for living in a big city and living in the middle of nowhere. It's beautiful, there's some relatable culture, and you can go to a grocery store. [Laughs] It's also just an amazing landscape. All of northern New Mexico is pretty amazing.

What's your family's experience been like over the last 18 months?

It's been hard. We are exactly in that pocket of vulnerability because we have this very young child, and my father-in-law is very immunocompromised, so we've been trapped for a long time. It's gonna be a hard out when I go on tour in March, so I don't know how that's going to go. It's been intense. We've been juggling our time, trying to accomplish things, and I'm super tired. But it's also been great to spend so much time with family and be home. I haven't been home like this my entire adult life.

What has parenting been like?

It's very exciting, very exhausting. I love my daughter. It coincided with the end of touring—Grizzly Bear did our last big shows in 2018, and my daughter was born a couple of months after that, so there was a real chapter break there. But it's been pretty amazing. We're really lucky that we're both freelance and able to be home with her so much. It's a rare thing, and it's intense and hard sometimes, but I'm aware that that's a special experience very few people get to have.

When I talked to Spencer Krug last year, he also had a kid right when the last Wolf Parade tour was ending. He said it changed his thinking about touring in general.

I just have no idea of what the future holds in general—how much of my career will be music and how much of it will be otherwise. I'm excited to get back on the road, it's been so long. The touring I'm about to do is so different from what we did in Grizzly Bear: Being on a bus all the time, being surrounded by tons of crew. I'm gonna get in my car and drive around by myself. It'll be much more like a road trip.

But yeah, parenting definitely changes your relationship to work. That was changing over time anyway. For everyone in the band, touring was getting more complicated. I feel really grateful for a lot of the shows that we played, but it's a drag after a while. I think everybody was ready for a little bit of a change.

It's funny that you're going to play these upcoming shows by yourself, because this new record is so layered and complex.

Well, a lot of this record I'm just not going to be able to play on this first tour. It's just not possible. I'm gonna play about half of it. Some of these songs did start as songs on a guitar—most of them didn't. I have to reconfigure things quite a bit to pull that off. The solo tour is more just logistical convenience. I can't spend months in L.A. finding a band and rehearsing with them—I can't do that right now.

Back in 2014, I did a bunch of shows by myself just to see what it was like, and it was a really amazing experience. The challenge of performing alone was something I never thought I'd be able to do when I was younger. I was petrified of that way of performing, but I ended up really enjoying it. I liked the challenge of having nobody to rely on if you're screwing up.

Eventually, I'd like to put a band together, assuming the record does OK—I have no idea—but maybe I could do shows down the line with a few people, that would be fun. I also have this huge back catalog of material that I've barely performed, so I can do a lot of that stuff alone. It's a nice intimate experience to go through with people, to play old In Ear Park songs or solo songs I've released for free and have never put on a record.

Does any of the material on this album predate moving to Santa Fe?

One of the songs is almost ten years old, but I recorded the majority of it in the last couple of years. My father-in-law's an architect, so he gave me his old office and I moved all my stuff in there. There's Mies van der Rohe books in there, and then there's all my instruments everywhere. That's where I've been working the last couple of years.

This record sounds very solitary, even when the arrangements are dense. What are the benefits of working in solitude?

Part of it is really difficult, because not having anyone to bounce ideas off of can be confusing. I enjoy working alone, but I really did this one without playing any of the stuff for anybody, so there was a little bit of getting stuck in my head and not knowing which way to go. But I started building this record with the idea of making something that was connected to my early interests in music. I wanted to play primarily acoustic instruments, and I learned how to play everything as much as I could without getting stuck in synthesizer land, which doesn't interest me right now.

I had some idea of going to L.A., hiring some string and horn players, and writing some arrangements, but then the pandemic hit and—it wasn't impossible, but it wasn't feasible to me. I used to build arrangements in the band all the time, I played clarinet as a kid, I play a little cello, and I can hack through upright bass, so I picked up a couple of instruments. It was a learning process, teaching myself to play a little saxophone and clarinet and experimenting with layering.

That's how I built this record—writing the arrangements the way we used to, but with my poor playing abilities on other instruments. I improved over time by the end, and now it's kind of cool. I have this little studio with high school-grade instruments, and I've developed a new way to work now that I'm alone out here.

Do you enjoy learning new things?

Definitely. I've always tinkered around on other instruments. I hacked my way through the drums for the Silent Hour/Golden Mile EP. For something that's as foreign as saxophone—which is ridiculous because I worked with Chris Taylor, an amazing horn player, for so long—it's such a different physical experience than playing guitar. It gives you a new relationship to sound and melody, which I found very useful for writing.

Tell me more about the importance of having other people's input in the creative process.

You hear things differently when you have someone else listen to anything that you've done. It changes the way you feel about it, whether they have anything to say about it or not. It just does something to the music. I wasn't sure about a lot of this material for a long time. It's not that I was ashamed of it, I just didn't feel comfortable sharing it. I barely played it for my friends, which is kind of a mistake. I don't want to keep doing that, but that's just how it went this time.

When I was much younger, I'd just send people songs as messages. That's how I started sharing music in the first place. It was very integral to what music meant in my life, and as a way to express myself. That's just changed in the last five or six years. It's an obvious thing where it's like, "Well, that's your job, you're that guy in that band." I don't think it's that interesting anymore to people in my life that I do this, so it became a more solitary thing, like, "OK, I'll just do this over here."

With my bandmates, we all became so accustomed to hearing each others' work, and we all became more critical too, so it wasn't as much fun. [Laughs] That also has changed.

Something I've always wanted to ask you about is when Grizzly Bear did the version of "While You Wait for the Others" with Michael McDonald.

That was a life highlight, it was quite fun. I don't even quite remember how we got to him. Chris, Chris, and I had a real enjoyment of the Doobie Brothers and that phase of music—partially jokingly, but also genuinely. I do think Michael McDonald is an amazing singer, and I really love his voice—but it's also ridiculous, and we knew it would be ridiculous if he sung on top of that song.

We were releasing singles, and there was always this request for remixes, and I tend to think remixes are mostly boring, so it started with a joke of, "Instead of remixing the song, let's leave it exactly as it is but have someone else sing it." Somehow, we got to Michael McDonald, and it was truly thrilling. The first time we'd heard his take of the vocal, we were like, "We just need to listen to this isolated, on the bus as loud as we can, before we hear it on the track." It was absolute glee to listen to that, just incredible.

The bio for this new album refers to you as "self-deprecating." Is that something you observe about yourself, and if so why?

I don't know, I've always kind of been like that. I think humility is generally a good quality, especially if you want to improve on what you're making and aspire to something better. It's good to be humble about what you do and not assume that what you're doing is automatically great. That's just my disposition as a person, I've always been that way.

Also, some of it is just being realistic, especially now. I think it's a good idea to be realistic in my expectations about what my music can still mean in the world. I'm getting older, I'm a guy from another era of music, and I'm not the most careerist person. I really did drop out for a while. There was one Grizzly Bear album that I didn't put too much of myself into, but other than that, I really was not actively pursuing any kind of life in music. So it's just realistic to have, not low expectations, but I wanna put music out and I hope the few people that will like it will like it. I don't really expect much there.

‎Grizzly Bear received a lot of attention in the late 2000s, and it reverberated through culture in that a lot of similar bands' profiles were elevated as well. How did that feel in retrospect? Everyone I've talked to from that era is pretty ambivalent about the spotlight. Some really disliked it.

That's a really long conversation. It's hard to really unpack what that was like in the moment. A lot of it was pretty unexpected. I had ambitions in the world, but I certainly didn't expect that level of exposure, at all. The band overall was ambitious, and they wanted to have some kind of crossover success, and I think that impulse brought us to doing some interesting things, and it also made life pretty difficult in the long run. It was not really a sustainable way to think about what we were doing.

It was really exciting, and it was also super overwhelming, and there was a lot of tension and pressure. It made it difficult for us to keep our eye on the ball and concentrate what we were really good at, what we were excited about, and what was exciting about making music together. Some of that was about making fun songs that will be streamed more, and some of it was a version of making music that's like conjuring—trying to express something magical. That was the side of the band I was always really excited about, but the narratives went in different directions. I get all turned around when I try to talk about how it affected the band.

But that era is weird. I feel really uncomfortable about it now. Sometimes I feel like Grizzly Bear, in particular, has come to represent an idea of Williamsburg and consumerism. Elitist, white hipster consumerism or something. It's almost shameful now, in a way. I feel strange about it, because on one hand I feel really proud about what we did. We really cared about what we were making, especially in the early days, and it sort of breaks my heart that Grizzly Bear just came to be a symbol of that time. But it is what it is. Life goes on, you move on. [Laughs]

I think Grizzly Bear had a particularly strange experience, because we started off as a bunch of nerdy, crate-digging kids wanting to make music. We happened to have this one song that people heard, and there was always this obsession with chasing the pop song, even though that wasn't our strength, in my opinion. But it became this strange goal.

I guess we viewed it in a much more old-fashioned way, the way people would've chased hits in the pre-streaming era. But it was weird. We really existed on the cusp of when everyone making something pop-adjacent was the correct choice. We were also on the cusp of that previous era where there was a bunch of bands, a bunch of dudes—it was very dude-heavy, which I didn't enjoy, to be honest. I got quite tired of that.

I've noticed a few times that you've referred to Grizzly Bear in past tense. Are you still active as a band?

There's no official line here. I still work closely with Chris Bear, I still talk with Chris Taylor fairly often—he lives in Spain now. Ed and I are still in contact, but he needs a little distance from us for personal reasons. He's pursuing a different career. We may do something again. When those tours ended, I was about to have a child, Chris Taylor just had his son, Chris Bear has a family, he was pursuing other work. It made sense to have a break there to do other things.

We've always taken time between records. I don't know what the future holds. I think for now it's safe to say we're inactive, but I'm very reluctant to make some grand statement like, "We've broken up!" I don't trust that, especially because people come back together again. I think it's entirely possible that we could, I just don't know.

You know, I really liked your cover of the Grateful Dead's "Terrapin Station" that you did for the Day of the Dead compilation—and I don't like the Dead.

I don't either.


The National guys were working on that and they asked me to be a part of it. I initially picked "High Times" from Workingman's Dead, and they were like, "No, you gotta do 'Terrapin Station'." Which, to me, is nearly unlistenable—I kind of fucking hate that song. [Laughs] The lyrics are insane. Trying to sing seriously, "The spiral light of Venus"—utterly horrible.

So it became this challenge of, "Could I do this genuinely?" Chris Bear and I spent some time reworking other pieces of that song to try and make it palatable to us. It was a weird challenge, and when it came out, I was surprised that a lot of people enjoyed it. I'm not gonna disparage the Grateful Dead, but I'm definitely not into that camp at all.

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Jamie Larson