an interview w/ Bryce Dessner of The National whose show, The Long Count, opens @ BAM tonight ++ 2 MP3’s
by Andrew Frisicano
DOWNLOAD: Aaron Dessner – We Were Born (from the Long Count) (MP3)
DOWNLOAD: The Long Count – Bull Run (feat. Kelley Deal) (MP3)
Twins! (the Dessners & the Deals)
The Long Count kicks off its three show engagement at BAM’s Gilman Opera House tonight (10/28). Tickets are still available for the show, as well as for the Friday (10/30) and Saturday (10/31) performances.
The 70-minute music and multimedia piece, commissioned by BAM Next Wave Festival, is the work of Bryce and Aaron Dessner of the National and visual artist Matthew Ritchie. But they haven’t been working alone. At every step of composing and arranging the Long Count over the past year, the brothers have tapped into their crew of skilled collaborators. The 12-piece orchestra that will be joining them on stage counts talents like NYC violist Nadia Sirota (who played last month’s Archipelago series show), sax/bass clarinet player Colin Stetson, and Antony & the Johnsons’ guitarist/violinist/conductor Rob Moose (who in particular assisted with some of the arranging duties).
As previously mentioned, the Breeders’ Kim and Kelley Deal (twins) collaborated with the Dessners (also twins) on much of the music – they sing for nearly half of the show. Other vocal turns will be taken by the Nationals’ Matt Berninger and My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden.
All four singers play roles in the narrative of the Long Count, which takes its story from the Mayan creation myth of Popol Vuh. In that, multiple sets of twins (in the story and on stage) experience repeated cycles of life and death until giving birth to the world as we know it. The original tale ties in strongly with a ballgame played by its main characters – an element which the Dessners have woven in with their love of baseball, particularly Cincinnati Reds and the Big Red Machine.
Musically, the Long Count sections posted above, both from the show’s work-in-progress performance at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on September 11th, showcase the piece’s diversity. The first, “We Were Born,” highlights the minimalist pedigree of the show, while “Bull Run” layers those elements with fearsome orchestral lines and extremely creepy vocals by Kelley Deal.
Paired with the spooky nature of Mathew Ritchie’s animation (which you can preview here) the show looks to be a good Halloween night warm-up as any. In fact, the early Saturday night show has the most tickets available, and it follows a pre-show Q&A (ticketed separately) led by Brandon Stosuy (who’s curating the Mount Eerie + metal show at Market Hotel later in the night).
Bryce generously answered some of our questions over the phone while in the last week of rehearsal (and in the hectic center of CMJ week). More photos from the production, and that interview, where he reveals the existence of an unreleased Christmas album he made with Sufjan, details on the new National record and more, below…
The Long Count
What have you been up to these past few days?
Bryce Dessner: We’ve been working pretty frantically all the time on our piece for BAM, The Long Count, which is coming up, we start on Wednesday night, but we’ve also kind of simultaneously been doing a lot of detail stuff on the National record so it’s been a really busy fall. Pretty much all year we’ve been working on both.
Do those projects feed into each other at all, with you writing both at the same time?
BD: I think that they’re really different in that, with the band we’re working for a certain format, and then creating this collaborative show for BAM was really undefined. I think it pushed us and in many ways my brother and I as musicians have really grown by doing it. We co-wrote a bunch of songs with Kim and Kelley Deal for this show and have gotten to really know them both personally and musically, which has been really really great. Definitely on the one hand it’s a good outlet for creative music that just doesn’t fit in the band but at the same time it’s expanded our vocabulary, so I don’t think it’s limited us in any way. I think we’ve actually been writing more music than we ever have.
Can you talk a bit about the theme of The Long Count – there’s Mayan mythology from Popol Vuh and the 1976 World Series all tied into the narrative?
BD: With mythology, there’s this universal story of these twin brothers – the idea of twin brothers extends into several kinds of famous myths – and in this case, the Mayan story focuses on these multiple sets of twins, there’s multiple sets of twins, their parents are twins and there’s always a sort of twinning going on in the story. We worked on this show as a collaboration with these other musicians. And it’s also a visual collaboration with an artist named Matthew Ritchie – his work is kind of big, layered visual art installations that often have several different stories running, like what you just said, whether its baseball or whether it’s this Mayan story,
When we first started talking about doing something with [visual artist] Matthew Ritchie, he brought up this Mayan story from very early on, I think because it focuses on these brothers and they’re playing a ball game. That’s kind of the crux of the story, this game that the brothers play and immediately Aaron and I kind of thought of baseball because of our own personal mythology with that. The first ten years of our life, we were born in ’76 in Cincinnati, the second year the Reds won the World Series. Growing up in suburban Ohio with the Big Red Machine and the storied events of that time, we were living in the shadow of that era. I would say from ’76 to ’86, when Pete Rose broke the hit title [at the end of the ’85 season], we were really sort of obsessed, and living with a twin brother you have that – we were pretty much shut in with each other which was awesome. What now has become our musical relationship back then was sort of just collecting baseball cards for us. Associating [The Long Count] with the Big Red Machine was just giving it another layer of meaning and a personal connection.
I think the idea that baseball in general does have this kind of nonlinear conscious mythology, where you have a character like a Babe Ruth that exists without time – he doesn’t belong to one era he kind of belongs to every era – we tried to find a contemporary version of some of these more mythical events. Matthew Ritchie has been adapting the Mayan story into a narrative for a year, and from there it wasn’t too hard to get to song lyrics. Kim and Kelley really wrote their own lyrics where they were pulling different story lines out of that and shaping them themselves.
The Dessners & the Deals
Does the idea that 2012 will be the end of the world factor into the piece at all?
BD: It’s funny, there’s tons of stuff coming out about that. The Long Count, the name of the piece, refers to the Mayan calendar which is supposed to end on December 20th, 2012. Our culture tends to be more obsessed with the doom and gloom than the other things – we’ve actually not dealt with that at all in the piece. We’re looking at the beginning of time that happens at the beginning of the Long Count calendar. Certain gods and myths in their calendar are associated with certain periods of the year, so they recur, these kinds of ceremonies and things. So the end of our piece is the beginning of the Long Count. It’s actually the number one. We don’t really deal with any of the destruction, although there’s a 70 minute animated film that Matthew Ritchie created, and in that you certainly see multiple cycles of birth and destruction. The Mayan story is based on this idea of death and rebirth, which is interesting because it’s kind of connected to our Western creation myth of rebirth. The twins themselves are actually killed off and reborn multiple times in the story.
Matthew Ritchie & The Dessners
Talking about Matthew Ritchie, I know he likes to put elements of chance and variables into his work and be influenced by spontaneity. Do you do that in the music at all? How does that factor in?
BD: With something like this we felt that it needed to be tightly put together with the orchestra playing and the four singers, but that said, the sounds of [Aaron and my] guitars and what we play is much looser and more improvised. Definitely what you say about Matthew liking chance is right (laughs), which can be really inspiring. It can also be very frustrating. Even up to the last minute he keeps trying to throw certain curve balls at us. A guy that’s helping us has infant twin boys that I think are like nine months old and Matthew wanted to put them on stage and have them run around at one point. As cool as that could be, we’re like “What if they fall off” you know? The music is all written for this film, so we can’t go on some ten minute jazz odyssey.
How is the finished product different than your expectations when you started?
BD: When we started out I think we were pretty daunted by the task of doing it. I have a background playing contemporary music and my brother is less so, and I think we really wanted to meet in between and make something that was adventurous and kind of pushed boundaries of what we could do, but would also have melodies and appeal to people. That’s a hard thing to do so it definitely took a while to figure out what the sound would be. One of the first songs that was conceived of for this was “Big Red Machine,” which is a collaboration between my brother and Bon Iver that they wrote for the Dark Was the Night charity. Essentially what happened was we were working on Dark Was the Night, and Justin [Vernon] was writing something for it, and my brother had essentially made that piano piece, which is what it’s based on and titled it “Big Red Machine” because he and I were talking about Big Red Machine being the title of the BAM piece, obviously for the baseball reason. He just sent it to Justin on a whim and Justin fell in love with it and sent back that song exactly as it is, pretty much finished, which is amazing. He had interpreted Big Red Machine as a big beating heart, and written the song not even knowing that it was based on the baseball thing, and that was a moment where it clicked for us, because that song in itself kind of embodies – it felt like that was the kind of song that would work in the show and Justin gave us that kind of confidence by doing this. Aaron had written this very strange piece of music. If you’re a singer trying to follow that, it’s very repetitive, this kind of pulsing piano thing, but in the actual chords themselves there’s almost a different meter every other bar. So after that we started at zero in and the next step was to ask the Deal sisters. There’s a certain aesthetic to what they do, and also being twins they immediately bought into the storyline itself. In the end they’ve become the narrators in a way, which helps because they have a kind of personal connection to everything.
Bon Iver w/ Matt Berninger: “Big Red Machine” 5/3/09 @ Radio City
To change gears, are there any updates on the new National album? Any news about its release?
BD: It’s probably like late spring, I’d be very surprised if it weren’t out by then, but I think May or June is something more that’ll happen. It always happens that we get really far along and then we go through a phase of either rewriting everything or arguing about what the direction should be. So we’re in that phase now, which I think is a rite of passage. Every National record has happened that way, but it can be difficult at times. I could play you five or six things that are finished and that we love and then ten or so others that sound like they’re not quite there. Sometimes stuff sounds really amazing in process, but other times it’s like, Oh that’s not right. We are starting to mix it in December actually, it’s happening and I think it’s going to be really exciting.
From what I’ve read, you are usually pretty specific about the sound they’re going for. How would you characterize this album in comparison to Alligator, which has a more upfront rock sound, and Boxer, which is more restrained?
BD: We try to make a concerted effort to push the music. I think we feel the need to try new things, whether it be new sounds or actually just extremely different kinds of songs. “Fake Empire” on the last record was a song like that, it was just a really different kind of song for us. That is happening all over this record for sure. There’s already several things I could say that “Oh we haven’t done that before.” There are moments that sound more epic than we’ve ever gone, not in terms of a Pink Floyd epic but certainly really big and beautiful that’s different. It’s not as dark and restrained as Boxer. We sat for so many months on the road with that, and this record definitely has some really upbeat stuff. Lyrically… that’s really a question for Matt [Berninger]. I’m pretty sure he just spends everyday locked in a room with the music, so we’ve heard a lot of the songs but they’re constantly changing so I could start talking about the thematic elements of it, but he might get angry if I say something that’s not quite right.
The literary references in the lyrics themselves are always interesting to pick apart. Does lyric-writing come up for discussion at all?
BD: It does. We respect him, we love his lyrics so we believe in what he’s singing. Occasionally there are moments where we can tell him what we think if we don’t like something or if we like something better the way it was. Part of why it takes us so long to make records is that it is really democratic and we do work together. Matt doesn’t write the music, he writes the words and the melodies, but we collaborate on everything. The good thing about that is there’s checks and balances. We know it when one of us writes a bad song.
You talked about pushing the sound forward, and I think you guys have a unique perspective on the classical world that other bands might not. Playing with people like Steve Reich has to get you thinking about what you’re playing all the time. How does that affect you sitting down to write music for the National?
BD: That’s always been there. Everyone has diverse taste in music. It’s funny because Bryan, our drummer, warms up every night playing “Clapping Music” on his drum pad. “Clapping Music” is something played by two people, but Bryan can play it alone. It’s funny because we’ve heard this 400 times, every night he plays it, and it’s very annoying at this point to hear on a drum pad. And for me having actually met and worked with Steve Reich now – I sort of have this ongoing project, this piece that he wrote and that I play on [“2×5″ debuted in July ’09] – it’s kind of an amazing thing. You can hear his influence all over. Very often if musicians are influenced by a contemporary composer, it’s him, which I think has something do with the repetitive nature of minimalism and putting a beat to something. One thing that I would say, I’ve been thinking about this just cause of this piece we’re doing for BAM, I think often more adventurous concepts and weird music will come through me cause I’ve been playing it, and then my brother will kind of hear it and channel it in his own way. I had mentioned “Fake Empire” before – it’s a song that’s in 3/4 but the piano plays a 4 over 3 polyrhythm. The piano part itself is really simple but that rhythm is pretty strange and I haven’t really heard it in a pop song before. But it’s something that people like Steve Reich have used for years.
You recently wrote a piece for Kronos Quartet. How has that been to work with them?
BD: It’s kind of ridiculous, I really didn’t expect them to like it or play it again (laughs). We asked them to be on the Dark Was the Night record and “Dark Was the Night,” the Blind Willie Johnson recording is really my favorite piece of music. I felt like for the record we really wanted that song to be the heart of it. Kronos Quartet is kind of like the topic we were just mentioning, crossing the boundaries of what our musical communities are, whether it’s contemporary classical stuff or a rock band. Being asked to do something for them was a real honor, and they’re playing it, which I still can’t believe. I think they pretty much have it scheduled for the whole year. They’re playing it in Philadelphia the week after BAM on November 7th at the Kimmel Center, so I’m going to go down for that.
And you played with Sufjan Stevens on his recent tour?
BD: Well I just played the New York shows.
Yeah, that was great. Was it hectic getting that together with everything else going on?
BD: Well you talked about chance operations, Sufjan also likes chance (laughs). I am obviously busy, so I don’t do everything that people ask me to do. I try to remain focused, but Sufjan is my neighbor and one of my closest friends, and he played on Boxer. We’ve actually played music a lot together over the years, more in private, and I actually made a Christmas album with him more recently, not one of the ones that’s been released. When he was doing his last big tour, I think this was before Boxer came out, I did a European tour with him, so I’d learned a lot of his songs that way, so I kind of know them from that. And he was doing his new tour with all his new songs and he had a band together. The night before he got to New York he was like, “Hey will you come play the shows in New York,” and I had heard the YouTube recordings of those songs which are totally insane and go on for 10 minutes and have crazy time signatures and crazy chords and are amazing, but I was in the middle of recording so I was like, “Sufjan I’ll play, but I can’t rehearse and I can’t soundcheck” (laughs). So he was like “OK that sounds good, that’s great, that’s what we need” and I think the other musicians on stage with him were a little bothered by that, that I was just going to come up and throw a wrench into their carefully defined roles, but I think he doesn’t want people to get so comfortable that they’re just going through the motions, which I find really… it’s great as a singer to be writing music so ornate and complex as that, to be so flexible and opened minded is really great. So I sort of embraced it for that reason. So I played all four shows here which was really fun.
And he plays on the new Clogs record, which is done?
BD: Yeah that’s done, it’s coming out in January. There’s a song that he sings on that.
And you also played on the new Doveman record, The Conformist, which came out October 20th.
BD: Yeah the three of us, my brother and Bryan from the band all play on that record. We’re kind of like the house band, so we back him up for a bunch of those songs.
Lastly, are there any National shows in NYC on the horizon?
BD: We’re definitely not playing any shows until the record is done, so nothing through Christmas or winter. Probably starting in spring we’d like to play in New York, and there’s all this talk about where we would play. I think we’d like to try some smaller shows at first. There’s a tendency with bands that for this inflation of venues, just making them bigger and bigger, so it’s always a balance of where people can enjoy a show. Where is it fun to hear music? Where is it fun to play? I think probably before the record’s out we’ll probably try and do some warm-up shows or something.
The Long Count kicks off its three show engagement at BAM’s Gilman Opera House tonight (10/28). Tickets are still available for the show, as well as Friday (10/30) and Saturday’s (10/31) performances.