DEPARTMENT OF EAGLES began in 2000, when New York University assigned freshmen Fred Nicolaus and Daniel Rossen to share a room. To pass the time during an uneventful spring semester, the two began making music together, collecting samples and turning them into songs. In 2004 Daniel joined the group Grizzly Bear as a singer, guitarist and songwriter. In the meantime, Fred was working a 9-5 job and opening a savings account. However, after work he would record ideas and email them to Daniel, who was also working on a new batch of material between tours, much of which felt far too personal for Grizzly Bear. Over the years, stealing time on weekends and between tours, they slowly accumulated bits and pieces, and by late 2007 an album had begun taking shape. Chris Taylor acted as producer/engineer and also played electric bass and horns. Chris Bear, Grizzly Bear’s drummer, also contributed heavily to the album. The idea was to take the songwriting dynamic developed between Daniel and Fred and meld it with the band dynamic that Daniel and the two Chris’ had honed on the road. Nat Baldwin drove down from Maine to play double bass. The resulting album, In Ear Park, is a colorful and expansive album, an intimate and personal collection of songs; much of the material that Daniel brought to In Ear Park draws on memories from his childhood, especially those relating to his father, who passed away in 2007 and to whom the album is dedicated (the title track is a nickname for a park in Los Angeles that the two used to visit). Many of Fred’s contributions relate to similar themes of nostalgia and mortality, giving the album at times an elegiac feel. In Ear Park is also full of joyful moments, lush production and concise songwriting.
PHAWKER: How’s it feel to finally be touring with Department of Eagles? Do you find the album translates well to the stage?
FRED NICOLAUS: It’s kind of surreal. Because we’ve existed as such a bedroom-style project for so long, to be playing in front of people is nice—for a long time, I thought we never would. The album doesn’t translate exactly because there’s so much production on the album, but the comforting thing is that some of the songs still sound good even pretty stripped down. That was kind of reassuring for us—I was very nervous going into it thinking, “Wow, we don’t have three pianos, or a double bass, or five backup singers…how the fuck is this going to work?”
PHAWKER: You guys have a show coming up next week in Philly—are you familiar with the city at all?
FN: No, sadly not…I like cheesesteaks, though—does that count? That’s pretty half-assed, but I’m from the west coast, and coming to New York was such a big thing that even leaving the city feels dangerous. I heard The Walkmen moved to Philadelphia, so that means it’s fuckin’ cool.
PHAWKER: Yeah, that’s a good barometer for a city’s coolness.
FN: Wherever the Walkmen are is cool. That much I know to be true.
PHAWKER: Do you prefer playing a smaller venue at this point? Would you object to going larger?
FN: Well, we’ve only played a very few shows. We played one in New York, and (the rest) in Europe, which would range from a hundred-person pub to a church that would hold three hundred people. At this point it’s all kind of new, so I think we’ll just take what we can get. We played at this random place in Belgium, and it was basically in a restaurant while people were eating dinner. It’d be kind of like walking into Applebee’s and playing a show. The size doesn’t really matter, though—it’s just “are people here to see me.”
PHAWKER: When you tour, is it just you and Daniel?
FN: We have help. We did a mini-tour of Europe that was just me and Daniel, Simon-and-Garfunkel-style, but on this one Chris Bear from Grizzly Bear is going to be playing drums with us, and we also have a bass player who’s a friend of ours named Matthew.
PHAWKER: Can we expect a larger tour after this one’s finished, or are you going to play it cool for a while?
FN: Grizzly Bear has another album coming out in the spring, so that will probably take over the Grizzly Bear/Department of Eagles world for quite a while. We may tour again, but I don’t think it will be anything big in the immediate future. This is sort of our one shot at getting out there and playing some shows.
PHAWKER: Do you find it hard to compete with Grizzly Bear for time?
FN: In the past it was hard because it took a long time to get the record made. We were writing it over the course of three or four years and a lot of Grizzly Bear stuff was happening…we had a record we were working on while Grizzly Bear was promoting Yellow House, but we didn’t like it that much It was like “well, we don’t have time to release this, so let’s not release it right now,” and then a year later we were like “God, this kind of sucks.” In a way, Grizzly Bear getting in the way of that being released turned out to be a huge relief. At times there’s some conflicts in terms of scheduling, but for the most part it’s a pretty good relationship.
PHAWKER: When In Ear Park was finally ready to go, was it hard to release with Grizzly Bear touring with Radiohead the month before?
FN: It turned out to be a good thing, because people were thinking of Grizzly Bear and Daniel and connecting it to that…I mean, we’re not going to be playing with Radiohead anytime soon. I do not anticipate that to be announced anytime soon (laughs). The truth of it is it’s like a different kind of project. Me and Daniel I think of as more of a songwriting group, and Grizzly Bear is more of a “band” band, so it’s not like a competitive thing.
PHAWKER: What do you see next for Department of Eagles?
FN: I’m always writing songs, and we’ll always send them to each other…just kind of like a see and feel-it-out kind of situation.
PHAWKER: You could always go the route of Lil Wayne and put a mixtape out every week…
FN: That’s a good idea, actually, but it’s just so fuckin’ easy…he just lives in the studio and records all day! I’m not sure how we can do it—given how it took us four years to make eleven songs, our rate of production is far less.
PHAWKER: I think he’s actually put out a new mixtape since we started talking, so you have some catching up to do.
FN: Shit. Yeah.
PHAWKER: Finally, someone who has no familiarity with Department of Eagles or Grizzly Bear gets their hands on In Ear Park—what would you tell them before their first listen?
FN: (pause)…You are about to enter a world…(laughs) I feel the more you talk about the music, the worse it gets, so I just wouldn’t say anything—I’d keep my mouth shut. Any time someone asks me “what does your band sound like,” you’re guaranteed to hear a bunch of bullshit coming out of my mouth. I think the more quiet I can keep it, the better.
[As told to MICHAEL DONOVAN]