Music

Department of Eagles’ Daniel Rossen: The Banjo Is “Dangerously Misused”

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Department of Eagles play Bowery Ballroom on Monday, January 19. The show is sold out, but there’s always Craigslist.

Last year was a busy year for Grizzly Bear. In the midst of playing shows with Radiohead, performing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and recording the follow up to Yellow House, multi-instrumentalist Daniel Rossen also rebooted his Department of Eagles project, which started as a song-writing venture between Rossen and his old college roommate Fred Nicolaus. Last year’s In Ear Park demonstrated a logical spin-off of the Grizzly Bear sound, while expanding on Rossen’s soft, sometimes-haunting, often-times elegant voice.

We caught up with Daniel earlier this week, from a vehicle en route to Chicago. He did not watch the season premiere of American Idol, in case you were wondering. (Yes, we asked.)–Michael D. Ayers

I’ve been fortunate enough to see Grizzly Bear a handful of times, but I’ve yet to see the Department of Eagles. What’s different live? Firebreathers or that sort of thing?

[laughs]. Well, it’s ever changing. We’ve barely done shows. We did one full band show in New York a couple months ago. And then we did some shows in Europe that were very stripped down- just me and Fred. This time around we have a new little band assembled–it’s Chris Bear from Grizzly Bear and a new bass player, whom we love. It’s sort of similar, but not entirely like Grizzly Bear. Some of the arrangements are similar, but there’s a portion of the set that is significantly stripped down–songs like “Balmy Night” and “Herring Bone” are performed pretty much how they are. It’s a little more simplicity and maybe a little less ambient space. There’s a little bit of vocal looping and that sort of thing, that is the hallmark–or something we do generally in the Grizzly Bear family, but it’s a little shorter.

How’d you put together this touring band?

Well, we actually haven’t done any shows yet. It’s a little more simple–the last time, it was a great show, but it’s a little difficult in trying to recreate the scope of the layering and the arrangements that go into those records. We’re going the opposite with this band- keeping it really simple, where it’s essentially a rock band, and let the songs be what they are. It’s really fun and a nice challenge, in trying to strip down all the textures and embellishments, and let the songs be what they are. I’ve been doing a little bit more recreating of lushness with my own vocal looping. One nice thing about these shows that I’ve really been enjoying–because it’s been open, and we can do whatever we want, I’ve been able to try really random ideas at shows. We started doing new songs that would probably be a too rough to do at a Grizzly Bear show, but I can let them grow and work on them, playing them live, which is pretty fun.

In terms of the material written for In Ear Park, has it been collecting over the years?

To a certain degree. Some of those songs have seen many incarnations–“No One Does It” has had like five or six incarnations over the last few years. But a lot of the material is actually much newer; a lot of it came while we were doing the record. So, it’s about half and half.

You all use the banjo–I feel like it’s a very underrated instrument in terms of the indie rock.

Really? I think I can fall into a certain indie rock cliché–like the glockenspiel and the banjo. I feel like it’s dangerously misused.

Well, that’s interesting. I was feeling like it was dangerously underused.

Yeah, I don’t know. I think we only use it on two tracks. I’m not the best banjo player, I’m not going to lie [laughs].

The record also have a lot of personal elements weaved throughout–are you finding it difficult to be repeating these things on stage, night after night?

No, not really. Once you play any song enough times, it just becomes a song. No matter how personal a song is, its not like you’re upheaving your soul every time you play it. So, not really. Honestly, I find most of those songs very comforting. Just because, luckily, since we haven’t done much performing live, it’s fun to just do them. I’ve been waiting around for awhile for some of these to see the light of day, so it’s been pretty satisfying. And I think Fred would say the same thing.

We’re you all surprised at all by the reaction this record has had?

No, we really weren’t surprised–it was just more about getting it done. We didn’t know if anyone would take it seriously or if anyone would even want to put it out. So, there were a lot of those hurdles, which are a victory in itself. Any positive response is nice, but, I don’t think we expected much more than to release it and feel proud of it. I’m glad it’s done okay. I haven’t had much time to gauge what people are feeling about it. We pretty much jumped straight into recording the Grizzly Bear record, so there was really no time to think about it, really.