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  • Interview: Department of Eagles

    Tue, 07 Oct 2008 14:36:22

    Interview: Department of Eagles - The singer/guitarist talks <i>In Ear Park</i>, therapeutic chord progressions and romanticizing the past

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    Sporting a member from the universally lauded folk outfit Grizzly Bear, Department of Eagles will undoubtedly be approached by many with a sideband-stigma. Luckily for its core members, Daniel Rossen and Fred Nicolaus, and music fans alike, their sophomore album, In Ear Park, not only steps out of Grizzly Bear's shadow, but also stands with aplomb among this year's most memorable releases. Dedicated to Rossen's late father, the album floats over the sea of finger picked chords, idyllic melodies and organic soundscapes that compose its warmly nostalgic but ultimately inimitable reveries.

    Before its release, the album's halcyon sound began earning the duo widespread recognition, with an appearance on the Late Night with Conan O'Brien and a spot on the Revenge of the Book Eaters bill alongside Paul Simon. Even with his time split between two sought-after bands, ARTISTdirect was able to share some time with Daniel Rossen to talk about In Ear Park, therapeutic guitar chords and romanticizing the past.

    In both your projects, Department of Eagles and Grizzly Bear, I've really been drawn to your guitar playing. What background or experiences have influenced the way you play?

    My background is similar to the drummer [Chris Bear] and Chris Taylor, the bassist. I grew up playing jazz and being a classical jazz nerd. I didn't really like rock music or folk music that much. I kind of liked it, a little bit. So, I had this nerdy upbringing, and then I quit music and decided that I didn't want to be a musician. I didn't want to play jazz—it was a "dead art form" or some pretentious teenage idea like that. Then I came to folk music and rock music after I had forgotten all this technique. I think that's kind of where my style comes from; I have latent knowledge of jazz. More and more I am feeling like jazz is becoming a weird influence on what I want to do, as far as guitar playing goes. That kind of experience just had a weird influence on the way I ended up approaching playing in rock bands.

    Since you have this technical background, do you approach writing music through theory or more through feeling?

    It's pretty intuitive. I know how to make complex chords, and I have a fondness for certain really weird chords, but it's pretty intuitive. It is usually just what feels good, and things that actually feel really good underneath your hands. Sometimes really good chord progressions come because they actually feel physically therapeutic to play. I like that intuitive approach—having that kind of knowledge and theory but not at all thinking about it and not really acknowledging that it is there. It is just something that you have.

    You worked with Jeff Saltzman, who went on to do The Killers' Hot Fuss, on your debut, The Cold Nose. I read in an interview with Fred—a long time back—that you were back in his studio. Did you work with him on In Ear Park?

    No, we had tried a couple years ago to record an album on our own back in his studio, because we had access to it for free. He recorded one track for us, which was "Balmy Night," and then we tried to finish the rest of the record by ourselves with no engineers and no idea how to use any of the equipment and failed miserably. It came out terribly. Actually, some of that stuff is going to be released next year on American Dust. They are going to release a weird compilation of embarrassing tracks of ours, kind of against my will [laughs]. We did try and go back there, but we don't particularly plan on trying to do it again. It was a matter of convenience, and it was a favor that they were doing for us, which was very nice. They were trying to encourage us at the time I guess.

    In Ear Park is a huge evolution from your debut. What inspired the change from your original electronic sound to the more organic, orchestral pop on your latest release?

    This has always been a funny question to answer because a lot of people don't know that that record is even older than its actual release date. Those songs are things that Fred and I did when I was 17 or 18 years old. Basically, it's been seven years, and we've grown up. Your tastes completely change as you grow older and there's just very little connection at this point between that album and what I do now. If anything, that was a very early, jokey college project that we didn't take very seriously. That's why there are so many ridicules song titles and fake British rapping on it. Just absurd nonsense is on that record. It was just a college joke basically. When we started to take music a little more seriously and actually tried to write songs in a way that I felt we weren't just making jokes, I ended up joining Grizzly Bear. All the material that I ended up contributing to Yellow House was originally going to be Department of Eagles. I just switched bands for a while, because I wanted to go on tour, and I wanted to play with them. I love them.

    There's definitely a more intimate nature and concise sound to the songs on In Ear Park. How did you decide what you were going to keep for Department of Eagles and what you were going to move to Grizzly Bear?

    First of all, there are the songs that are Fred's, like "Teenagers." These songs that either he wrote, or we wrote together just didn't make sense to take. The ones of mine that ended up going towards In Ear Park, are just way more personal. There are a few on this record in particular that have a personal thread, either to do with childhood or to do with my father. Things that felt too personal to bring to a band that's a little more of a collective thing.

    That feels like one of the biggest differences between your bands. Grizzly Bear is four distinct voices coming together while Department of Eagles is only two. How was the song writing process different with only two people involved?

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