We’ve Got A File On You: Daniel Rossen

Amelia Bauer

We’ve Got A File On You: Daniel Rossen

Amelia Bauer

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

“Sorry, just a second. My dog just picked up a dead rabbit from the arroyo,” Daniel Rossen explains. “That’s a dangerous game in New Mexico. You can pick up the plague, which my dog has done before. They still have that down here!”

Rossen is walking through the dry riverbed at the center of Santa Fe with Joey, a mutt he and his wife rescued from a kill shelter in Tennessee a few years back. Since avoiding euthanasia at the shelter, Joey has survived being hit by a car and at least one prior bout with rabbit fever. “She’s been through a lot, this dog,” Rossen tells me. “She’s nearly died many times.”

Such domestic concerns have been at the forefront for Rossen in recent years. The former (and future?) Grizzly Bear co-frontman and guitarist has long since left that band’s native Brooklyn indie scene behind. He now resides with his wife and young daughter in Santa Fe, which they see as a nice middle ground between the bustle of city life and their prior home in remote wilderness of upstate New York. “My wife grew up here, so we’ve been coming back here over the years,” he elaborates. “I really love New Mexico. It’s super beautiful here. I’ve been kind of obsessed with spending time here in general.”

Santa Fe is where Rossen wrote and recorded You Belong There, his debut solo album, out later this week on Warp. Rossen has ventured outside Grizzly Bear quite a bit over the years, be it with his other band Department Of Eagles, his spectacular 2012 solo EP Silent Hour/Golden Mile, or a range of collaborations and random career quirks. But he’s never released a full album of material under his own name until now. It’s appropriate that this of all albums serve as his solo debut; although Rossen planned to record these songs with a number of collaborators in Los Angeles two years ago, the pandemic forced him to make You Belong There a more truly solitary affair, with hardly any outside contributions beyond some drum parts by Grizzly Bear’s Christopher Bear.

If the branding is different, the sound is familiar. Fans of Rossen’s slicing, spiraling guitar work and intricate arrangements will instantly recognize his signature touches in these songs, some of which extend to five, six, even seven minutes. He set out to make music that’s both profoundly technical and deeply emotional — an honest portrait of his personal life and stylistic interests, regardless of whether it aligns with any kind of zeitgeist. He succeeded in every regard. You Belong There comprises some of the most breathtaking music of his career.

While Rossen strolled through the arroyo, we talked about his new album and quite a few noteworthy moments from his career so far, from the JoJo cover he recorded for Ed Droste’s birthday to performing at the blog-rock nostalgia festival Just Like Heaven to collaborations with the likes of Robin Pecknold, the National, and Michael McDonald. And inevitably, we spoke about the open-ended future of Grizzly Bear. Read excerpts from our interview below, where you can also find Rossen’s newly released video for the new album’s lead single “Shadow In The Frame” by director Luke Bern Carr.

You Belong There (2022)

The particular sound of your voice, your guitar playing, your writing style naturally strikes me as Grizzly Bear. When you’re writing a solo work, is the process different? How so?

DANIEL ROSSEN: It’s somewhat different. Writing process, it varies. It varied even within the band. But this one was much more of a journey in that way. I didn’t really bounce these ideas off of almost anybody. I worked with Chris Bear, the drummer from the band, on this record, but that was kind of more towards the tail end. I suppose it’s more freeing. It’s also much more isolating and can be much more confusing because I don’t really have anyone to tell me one way or another if anything sounds good or bad. I guess it’s maybe more intuitive, where I just have to follow the emotion of the song wherever it goes? And that can be towards directions that are harder to listen to or easier to listen to. And it’s just kind of whatever it is.

The goal of this record, if anything, was to just be super honest about my musical interests and honest about myself and my life and not really hold anything back — and not worry too much if the songs came off too dark or too long or too revealing of my personal life or any direction like that. I was just kind of like, well, I’m reaching this point in my life, I’m in my late thirties — I just wanted to make a statement that meant something in my own life and in my own family and in my own world regardless of how it is received on the other side. I guess that’s certainly a difference from the way a band might function.

What kind of stuff were you thinking about, or what parts of yourself were you trying to share, while working on these songs?

ROSSEN: The last 10 years or so of my life there’s been a lot of big transitions. I moved out of the city. I moved kind of way out into the middle of nowhere for a long time and kind of started this new life in a way. I’ve never been a very careerist person, but especially starting at that point, like after Shields came out, I kind of started to walk away a little bit from my own career. A lot has happened the last few years. I got married. I have a child now. I’ve been through personal struggles and interpersonal changes in my life. I felt like I hadn’t put out a set of songs that really dealt with my own emotional experience in a more direct way since probably In Ear Park or something. This was a good opportunity for me to dig into that side of myself a bit more and just be a little bit more, I guess, vulnerable in a way that you can’t really do in a band setting.

So that was part of it. And then the other side was just exploring my older music interests, which veer towards more through-composed music and classical stuff and jazz stuff that I loved and blurring the line between arrangement and improvised songwriting. Like trying to pull off songs that involve the extensive, whatever, craft I have, but trying to do it in a way that’s emotional and direct and honest — not just, like, wanky riffing, which is always a risk with more technical music. That was a big interest for me: How can you do a record that’s like soul through craft. Not necessarily alienating technical music. Some of my favorite music is very technical but it’s super emotional and beautiful, you know? So I wanted to see if I could do that.

Do you feel like you figured out how?

ROSSEN: Not really. [Laughs] But I mean, it’s no different than it’s always been. You don’t want to think too much about technical details in music ever when you’re writing. It should always be intuitive. But I’ve noticed that in music discourse in recent years there’s a lot of “craft vs. culture” conversation, and I think it’s all super interesting and valid, and I agree with a lot of it. But when I dig into the deep past music history that I really love, a lot of my favorite music is actually pretty technical. But you wouldn’t necessarily think of it that way. Like the playing of somebody like Baden Powell. There’s Brazilian records that are super technical but really beautiful and really direct. It was something I really wanted to try to do. In some ways I think that’s maybe going to be the project for the rest of my musical life is taking all those parts of myself and applying them at once if I can.

I understand you learned to play woodwinds to perform the arrangements on this record?

ROSSEN: Sort of. I mean, I wouldn’t say I exactly learned, but I learned well enough to hack through it, yeah.

Was that a convenience and economics thing, or was it about challenging yourself, or what?

ROSSEN: It was a convenience thing. I do enjoy learning new instruments. It’s something I’ve always like to do. But that was more convenience. This record, over the course of the pandemic, the way I did this — I had the studio time in LA planned for about April of 2020. [Laughs] And then of course everything changed. I was going to go out there and try to work with some string players and horn players and start doing that, but then of course everything fell apart. And I couldn’t travel. I have a young child. I couldn’t leave. So this record became much more about learning how to do everything I possibly could myself.

And yeah, part of that was picking up some cheap instruments and trying to improve [my ability] on them. I’m just not really the kind of person that can write down arrangements and send them off. That’s just not really how I work. So I figured if I’m going to do this the way I want to, and do the arrangements intuitively and on the fly, I kind of have to learn some more skills. I wasn’t interested in using all the synthesizers and fake parts. [Laughs] I just wanted to do it for real. I felt like that challenge has always been exciting to me. So it was in keeping with the spirit of the record. A lot of the basic guitar tracks were fluid takes. Like, some of the stuff wasn’t even done to a tempo or a click, it was just me rolling with the takes that I had and building from there. So it sort of made sense to me to pick up whatever acoustic instruments I could and layer it that way.

Performances With Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold: With Van Dyke Parks In London (2012), Covering Pearl Jam On Fallon (2013), Gene Clark Tribute Tour (2014)

You have a longstanding creative relationship with Robin Pecknold. He is working in a similar vein where he’s got these very elaborate folk-rock arrangements happening. Is a similar musical vibe what drew you guys together? How did you hit it off?

ROSSEN: I’ve known him forever. I honestly think he wrote me on MySpace. I had done that Judee Sill cover, and I think he wrote me on MySpace in like 2007 or something? Robin’s a really sweet guy. He’s super funny. He’s just a great person, and I always have a lot of respect for him. I think he’s an amazing singer and songwriter. He’s one of those real people in the music world that I’ve always wanted to keep up with ’cause I just think he’s a great person.

But yeah, I think we first started talking about music because of our, I guess, shared love of Judee Sill’s music? He has really wide-ranging tastes, as I guess I do too. It’s been cool to witness the whole arc of his career out there. It’s pretty wild.

Van Dyke is another shared love of ours, I guess. And we’ve both had the chance to interact with him over the years. He’s a real character. He’s pretty fun to be in a room with. So we were excited about that just for the experience of it. And obviously Song Cycle is clearly an album that I love, and so does Robin.

I don’t remember how the Pearl Jam thing happened. That was something Robin was invited to do. He’s somewhat connected to the Pearl Jam world via Seattle music stuff. I don’t exactly know the details of that. But he was invited to do one of those songs, and he was like, “Why don’t you do it with me?” That was purely having a good time, just trying to do something fun. It was pretty casual.

Childhood Elvis Impersonation (1987-88)

ROSSEN: I was five. That was one of those first loves, I guess, musical obsessions as a little kid. I think it was “Jailhouse Rock” my parents put on, and I got really fixated with imitating him and holding the guitar. I obviously didn’t play anything yet or sing or anything, but I would look at picture books and listen to the records and try to mimic his poses just based on the pictures. I think the only video I had seen was the ’68 comeback special, which is pretty ridiculous. It’s pretty great. But yeah, that was like my first musical interest, I guess, was Elvis for about a year. And I got really into trying to style myself and pose as best I could. Didn’t lead directly into any sort of musical life, exactly, but it’s one of those funny early childhood things.

Do you still ever listen to Elvis now?

ROSSEN: [Laughs] Uh, not really. I mean, he comes on the Christmas mixes for sure. There’s lots of good Christmas material if you want to dig into that. It’s obviously classic, but there’s a lot of other music and a lot of interesting rock ‘n’ roll out there. It’s not just this one thing. I’m much more of a Little Richard guy now, I would say, of that era of music.

Covering JoJo’s “Too Little, Too Late” (2007)

Moving on to a very different kind of pop music, what is the story behind this cover?

ROSSEN: That was a birthday gift to Ed [Droste], actually. He likes his pop music. He always did more than I did. But he enjoyed that song. He sent it to me as a challenge, like, “Can you do this? Can you make something out of this?” It was kind of jokingly. And I recorded that and I sent it to him personally as a birthday gift. That’s the origin of it.

Were you familiar with the song before he sent it to you?

ROSSEN: No. I was not. But it was a fun challenge. I love doing stuff like that. I enjoy covering anything, especially music that’s really different from mine. It’s always an enjoyable exercise. I think it was a good gift. He seemed like he enjoyed it at the time. It was a fun moment back then — way back.

Barry Jenkins & Chopstars’ Chopped And Screwed Grizzly Bear Album Purple Veckatimest / Painted Ruins (2017)

Were you guys involved at all in that? Do you know anything about the genesis of it?

ROSSEN: We were not involved in it. We met him afterwards. He happens to be a fan, and he also is a huge — he loves everything chopped and screwed. I think that’s his preferred mode of listening, or it was at the time. I don’t know what he’s up to now. But yeah, it was his idea to put that together. I thought it was great. It was fun.

Have you listened to much chopped and screwed music yourself?

ROSSEN: [Laughs] We did, back in the day. It’s not something I think about too much, but I enjoy it. OG Ron C. He’s great.

Michael McDonald Jumping On “While You Wait For The Others” (2009)

Was that unusual to have another person singing your lyrics, or was that something that happened a lot between you and Ed?

ROSSEN: It’s pretty unusual. The idea of that at all was just like, I am not always a huge fan of remixes. At the time it seemed like a more interesting thing to just keep the song exactly as it was and have somebody else sing it. That happens to be a song that that might work for. A lot of stuff that I personally do, or even the band does, doesn’t translate well to other singers or other performance — which might be a discredit to our songwriting ability, honestly. Really good songs usually you can do that. But it seemed like a fun approach to a remix was to have somebody totally different from us perform the song. I don’t remember who had the connection. I think Chris Taylor somehow had some way of contacting him, and amazingly, he was up for it. I couldn’t believe he was willing to do it at all.

I love Michael McDonald’s voice. I think he’s an incredible singer in general. Obviously there’s a certain tongue-in-cheek aspect to it given the difference in the kind of music he usually does and what our music is, but it was an honor to have him and he’s amazing.

Did you correspond with him at all? Like, did you discuss how he was going to approach the vocal?

ROSSEN: No, we just sent it over. I think we sent him a lyrics sheet. Taylor might have had some contact with him, Chris might have. I had no contact with him ever. I didn’t even meet him. We just sent him the instrumental with the lyrics, and he did it. The first time hearing that was just the isolated vocal played super loud on the bus system without the track underneath it, which was quite thrilling and amazing to listen to, as you can imagine. Yeah, that was a highlight. That’s like a life highlight, that happening. It was great.

I guess that was a couple years before there was Bruce Hornsby on a Bon Iver album, but it seemed like a lot of that soft-rocking type stuff was starting to get a reconsideration around that time.

ROSSEN: Michael McDonald, I think, occupies a special spot. Because he’s a really incredible singer. I feel like he’s a respected character outside the, like, “yacht rock” world, to be honest. I think he’s more than that. But obviously that association cannot be shaken.

Covering “Terrapin Station (Suite)” With The National On The Grateful Dead Tribute Album Day Of The Dead (2016)

Are you a longtime Dead fan/Deadhead?

ROSSEN: No. [Laughs] Not really. I mean, I enjoy Jerry Garcia. I think he’s a very charming, great singer, and I love his playing. There’s a few Grateful Dead albums that I’ve enjoyed, like, obviously, the classics. American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead and Shakedown Street, stuff from that era. I enjoy those records. But no, I am definitely not a Deadhead. I don’t have any knowledge of the concert tapes. A lot of the songs I really don’t particularly like very much. And “Terrapin Station,” to be honest, it’s an interesting song — definitely not my favorite, and was very much not a choice of mine. Especially the lyric is so crazy and felt insane to sing. Like, trying to sing that seriously was pretty hard. “Let my inspiration flow,” and all that, and “the spiral light of Venus.” Really, really insane thing to try to sing seriously. So that was part of the challenge.

Chris Bear and I worked quite a bit on some of the secondary instrumental sections to try to make them feel more unique. That felt like a similar kind of challenge to — well, it’s not the same as the JoJo cover. Obviously that was way different from the song. And the National guys worked a ton on the “Terrapin Station” thing. Like, obviously, they did a huge amount of work on that and it was a collaboration, et cetera. But for me and Chris it felt similar to [the JoJo cover]. It was like, how do you cover a song as ridiculous as this and not feel like you’re faking it? Not feel like you’re faking it, feel like you’re actually taking it seriously. Which is tough. But it’s an interesting tune. I enjoyed doing it. It was fun. I’m not going to talk shit about the Dead.

Was the National like, “We feel like you’re a perfect fit for this song in particular”? How did you end up on that song?

ROSSEN: I had requested doing something simpler. I think I chose “High Time” from Workingman’s Dead. It’s just kind of a straight up country ripoff kind of song. And I did it, and it was fine. But they specifically were like, “You have to do this song.” Like, “We want you to do ‘Terrapin Station.'” Which seemed crazy to me, but you know, I was game to try it.

Playing “The Party” On Stage With St. Vincent (2009)

ROSSEN: We were on tour together. I think we did it a fair number of nights. It was for that tour in particular. I think she was traveling alone at that time, and she was looking for a little support on a couple things. It was a kind of off-the-cuff thing, but I think we did that every night in Europe.

So she was doing a solo show?

ROSSEN: She was just playing solo with us on the road. I don’t think she had any band with her.

That’s interesting to think about considering the way her show is now.

ROSSEN: I know! It was a very different time in her career for sure.

The Veckatimest Leak (2009)

This is one of the more famous leaks of the blog era. At the time I remember you guys being upset about it. The audio quality on the leak was pretty bad. It was super frustrating, I imagine. Looking back now, do you think it was a net positive? A net negative? Do you have any different perspective on it now?

ROSSEN: I don’t really. If anything now it seems like just gossip. It doesn’t feel like anything. I don’t know if it changed the course of our lives in any significant way. At the time it was expected. Leaks would happen all the time then. It was, “How soon is it going to leak? Right when the record comes out or a few months before?” And it’s kind of bullshit, really, like, “Who cares?” My perspective on it now is I haven’t thought about it in probably 10 years. It seemed like a shame at the time. Obviously you want people to hear it with the right audio quality. But four months later or so the record came out. It all worked out. It was fine.

Jay-Z And Beyoncé Attend A Grizzly Bear Show (2009)

At the time there was a lot of talk about indie rock crossing over to a mainstream audience, and maybe the iconic moment for that was Jay-Z and Beyoncé checking out one of your shows. I assume it wasn’t a case where you actually saw them standing there in the audience, but did that have any kind of personal or career impact for you guys?

ROSSEN: I don’t think so, really. It was exciting. That was obviously an honor to have them there. That was a confusing period, I think, for a lot of bands. We were kind of arty indie rock whatever band from the aughts. I think we were in a strange position because a lot of our strengths were kind of not at all related to making anything to do with pop music. We just happened to have a couple songs that kind of did a little bit for a time. Something like “Two Weeks,” it’s fun to play, but it doesn’t particularly represent most of what we ever did over the course of our career. It’s one thing, but it’s not really connected to much else that we did. If anything, this allure of indie rock or whatever genre crossing over to some kind of idea of mainstream feels very quaint now. The default mode now is to do something that is pop-adjacent. That is the correct choice. That’s what you’re supposed to do. And we were mostly just making weird arty music, and we continue to do that. And we had a couple kind of pop-adjacent songs.

I think if anything that period affected the course of the band a little bit in sort of pushing us to feel like we had to pursue more pop-adjacent music. And I think some cool things came of that. Like I don’t even necessarily think that’s wrong. I think some of what we did was great in that realm, and I don’t have a problem with it. But I do think it changed the trajectory in general. Not them being at the show. Whatever, that was fun enough. Having that song and having this glimmer of connection to the Billboard charts or something. It changed the way we thought about what we were doing, for better and for worse, in all different directions. It definitely influenced the course of the band profoundly, I’m sure.

That’s interesting because I don’t think of Shields as a pop record.

ROSSEN: Well that’s ’cause in a lot of ways it was a very direct attempt to go in the other direction. With the exception of a couple songs like “Yet Again” and maybe “Gunshy” or something. Most of that record is, like, very pointedly trying to do the opposite of that. That was another larger conversation that we were having. But I think it felt like kind of a triumph at the time to do that, to push to make a more challenging, strange record at that moment. I’m very grateful for that period of the band. Getting to play pretty big venues, play like Radio City and close the show with a song like “Sun In Your Eyes,” which is this totally bizarre eight-minute moving piece of music that has no real chorus, really. The fact that we were able to pull that off still is crazy to me. I don’t understand how we did it. I look back very fondly overall on that period for sure. I’m pretty grateful for that time that we had.

That’s my favorite Grizzly Bear album.

ROSSEN: I know there are certain songs on that record that people enjoy but that’s not usually a favorite of people’s, I feel like. Shields is not generally the top of people’s list. It’s interesting to hear you say that. I’m still fond of that record.

I feel like it has a big following in the Stereogum comment section.

ROSSEN: Huh. That’s funny. That’s cool! That’s good to know.

Playing The Blog Rock Nostalgia Festival Like Heaven (2019)

This was basically all of the most popular indie bands of 2009 on a festival together in 2019. What were your feelings about that?

ROSSEN: I think it felt a little bit — I don’t know. It felt bad, maybe, to be honest. One thing that was funny, it was also like so many dudes. You go back that far in music and it’s like so much less diversity of experience going on. It was weird. God, I kind of forgot that it was like this. That was a weird time because we had already stopped touring. Everybody was kind of on a break. My daughter was like six months old then. That was the first trip I’d taken out of town. It felt like a very surreal experience. Like why is this even happening right now? That’s kind of what it felt like.

But you know, we had a good enough time playing the set. It felt like a real afterthought in terms of that record cycle and touring cycle and everything. It was like, “Well, here we are again. This is strange.” And not to mention it’s with a bunch of bands from 15 years ago. I think Grizzly Bear especially by that period was probably more aware of the fact that we are obviously tied to a different time. We’re tied to the aughts and early 2010s. Nobody wants to feel like they’re relegated to another era, but I feel like that festival really drove the point home. Like, “Oh yeah. OK.” That’s who we are. But it was fun enough. It was nice to see the Beach House guys. That was fun to see them again.

Do you think that sense has contributed to the band being inactive at this time and everybody doing their own thing?

ROSSEN: No, I wouldn’t say that. I think where we are now is just a very natural — you know, Grizzly Bear, I joined that band at the end of 2004, so you consider how long that was. The stretch that we were active was like 14 years. And I think if anything it’s just like, people change, lives change. I really respect bands and artists that can keep it together forever, but I think we all just wanted to do some different things with our lives for a little bit. That doesn’t mean the band’s over. It’s not. There’s no official line on that. We’re not broken up or anything. It’s just, you know, Ed is pursuing a different career. He went back to school. He wanted to do that. He was having not the most productive time on the road. It was not great for him.

It wasn’t really great for any of us by the end, honestly. It was just… we wanted to do something different. And I think especially the kind of music Grizzly Bear made, it depends very much on intuitive chemistry between us. When it was really great, I feel like that’s what was there. And you can’t really predict that. That comes and goes without any input necessarily from us, sometimes. It’s so fickle, relationships between four people. That’s what I would say. But again, we all still talk. We’re all still in touch. And I still really care about all of them. I’m sure we’ll do something in the future, I just don’t know what or when.

In the meantime, do you anticipate continuing to make records like You Belong There, or does it depend on how this one is received, or what?

ROSSEN: I’m sure I’ll keep making music in some form. Whether I’m releasing it and trying to tour it, I don’t know. Maybe. At the moment I’m working on some film score stuff, which has been interesting. That’s like a fun new experience. I’ve been enjoying that. I really don’t know. Everything feels so fluid right now. The music industry is obviously changing constantly and is very different from the one I came into. And I’m obviously quite aware that the kind of music that I do is just really not particularly relevant to any current musical cultural discourse at all. So my ambition is just to continue trying to make work that means something in the context of my life and the few people that care about what I’m doing. And whether that means putting out albums or doing scores or I don’t know — whatever it ends up being, whatever I can sustain, is what I’m going to do.

All I really want is to have a decent life, something that’s relatively modest, that allows us to both continue being artists. My wife’s an artist too. We just want to be able to sustain that. So I’m just going to do whatever I can to make that happen. I hope that means more records, but I don’t know. That does depend a little bit on how this goes. I don’t know that I set myself up too well by making a super arty record with a bunch of seven- and eight-minute songs on it. That’s not exactly going to set me up for blockbuster success, and I obviously know that. But again, I want to make records now that I can feel proud of when I’m older regardless of whether anybody hears them. That’s kind of the goal now. I want to make things that I can talk about with my daughter when she’s older and feel like they’re true statements and things that I’m proud of and represent my passion.

more from We've Got A File On You

Hi. It looks like you're using an ad blocker.

As an independent website, we rely on our measly advertising income to keep the lights on. Our ads are not too obtrusive, promise. Would you please disable adblock?