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an interview with Bryce Dessner (Big Ears co-curator and guitarist in Clogs/The National)

by Alex Lewis

Bryce Dessner (we think) @ the Big Ears Festival (more by Andrew Frisicano)

While in Knoxville for the Big Ears Festival (March 26-28, 2010), you knew you were at the right show if Bryce Dessner was in sight. When The Ex performed Friday night, Dessner was in attendance with his entourage that included his twin brother Aaron and Sufjan Stevens. This turned out to be one of the most exciting shows of the weekend. On Saturday, instead of seeing Vampire Weekend at the Tennessee Theater, he was at the Knoxville Museum of Art for the Big Ears film co-op that featured presentations of experimental films with live improvised performances from a number of the festival’s artists. Then again, it was hard to miss Bryce completely, as he performed with Clogs, The National, and in a number of other settings.

The intimate relationship between artists and audience at Big Ears is one of the most unique parts of the experience. This interface takes place partly because Knoxville is small and there are few places for artists to hide. But it’s also built into the festival’s program and embodied by its co-curator. I met with Bryce at the Knoxville Museum of Art after the film co-op. We discussed the festival, venues in NYC, and more…

How did you get involved with Big Ears?

Ashley [Capps, head of AC Entertainment] called me about a year ago, probably because of Dark Was The Night. But then also because of a much smaller festival that I’ve run in Ohio for the past 5 years. He was basically just fishing to see if I was interested in coming down [to Knoxville] and doing something. He was very open-minded about what that might be. Originally, he didn’t care if The National played. He was more interested in Clogs because we don’t often get the opportunity to do something like this. I’m usually wary of curating. Inside Cincinnati I know I can control because it’s a very small thing. It’s just a very small theater and that’s the only venue. It’s a very intimate kind of thing and because I’ve billed it for years now people understand what’s going to happen. It’s very flexible.

So in the past I’ve been asked to do other festivals and I’ve usually said “no”, mainly because it’s rare to find someone who is open-minded and cool to go with it. So basically Ashley is that person. As much as any musical collaborator that I love and have a great time with, he is that person for this. Working on a festival is so ephemeral and in the moment, that it’s kind of my favorite thing in music. More than the commercial side of the industry that’s related to releasing records, festivals just happen and then they’re over. Especially if there’s site-specific going on that’s really only happening at that festival. I think that Big Ears is kind of new. It’s a different format for hearing music. I got the sense that Ashley was interested in pushing something in that way and that’s why I said, “sure”.

continued below…

So you’ve referenced how it’s unusual that Clogs and The National are playing this festival. How important is it to you to have these different musical projects going on at the same time?

It’s important to me as an artist for sure, but not because one is popular and one is not. It’s more just totally different sides of who I am. I have been playing in bands with Bryan Devendorf [drummer of the The National] and my brother since we were 13. In that way it’s basically who I am and that travels with me no matter what else I do. It’s part of where I come from. And then contemporary, improvised, and experimental music is just stuff I find really interesting and fun to do. Also my bands are collaborative. For someone who is a collaborative musician, it’s easy to get involved. I don’t get to be like Sufjan Stevens where people see him on stage and go “ah!” Being a guitar player who plays in different bands, I can migrate across different types of music. It allows for a real learning experience all the time.

Was your perspective as this sort of collaborative musician a big factor in curating the festival?

I think so. The music industry is set up in this weird way with weird hierarchies of people and you have to go through all these channels. When I first started my festival in Cincinnati, I originally wanted to avoid all that. I said no booking agents, no managers, no publicists. We’ll just do it without any of that. It really worked for a couple of years and then I ran out of friends. So it just became too time consuming not to have those people. And I think I was idealistic on some level and I’m actually not that militant about it anymore.

People have asked about the commercial and non-commercial. It’s funny they ask that about this festival because if The National is a commercial band… we can’t even headline the smallest stage at Bonnaroo. The bands that are headlining those festivals are bands like Kings of Leon and real commercial bands. There has been some talk about that balance at this festival. And yeah, it’s certainly something that interests me because you want people to come to the shows. I’ve been to some great shows here with artists who are barely known with a good number of people really digging it. So some of the bands with a bigger draw have helped the festival do that. That said, I didn’t book the whole festival. Certain choices were Ashley’s and certain choices were mine and it does reflect our interests. But that’s part of it, just taking the risk on something.

In New York, with venues like Le Poisson Rouge, there are forums for this sort of artistic interface that Big Ears features year-round. With this festival taking place in Knoxville, do you see this sort of scene spreading further?

I am really surprised with this town. It reminds me of Austin, Texas. South by Southwest has become a behemoth partly because of the town itself. It’s set up perfectly to do this sort of thing. And this town is set up to do this. It has two of the most amazing theaters I have ever seen right next door. The Tennessee Theater is probably the most beautiful theater I’ve ever been in and the Bijou Theater, the smaller one, has some of the best acoustics I’ve ever heard. They have so many different venues and it’s all walkable. It seems like Big Ears could really catch on because the space itself is really great.

I would say Le Poisson Rouge does amazing music programming, but I don’t like going to see shows there. There are like three shows a night, people clinking glasses, and the bartender’s making drinks. It’s not a great listening environment. Here [in Knoxville] you can go and see The Ex in a sweaty rock club. You can go see Joanna Newsom in the Bijou Theater. I mean, Clogs played at 4 o’clock on a beautiful Saturday afternoon and it was full! And I think it was because people wanted to be in that room. Space really does matter.

Do you have any ideas on how the festival may change or expand in future years?

I think Ashley is interested in working with different artists each year sort of in the way ATP does their festivals. So I don’t necessarily know how involved I’ll be. But I think the format is good. Both Ashley and I are interested in the festival’s connective tissue, the more impromptu stuff. For instance, Sufjan sang a song in the middle of the Clogs set unannounced. Stuff like that happening at a festival is what’s exciting to me. And also presenting new pieces people haven’t heard. In the same way I mentioned earlier, it’s a special event not just a gig or record-release show. I’m not so interested in just hearing someone play a set of songs I already know. So I think that energy, which is brought more from the improvised music side, is definitely something we’re really interested in.

The xx played last night. I love that record and they’re a cool band but it was definitely a show with lights, etc. It was really cool, but at a festival I think it’s important that not every band does that. It was important they did that, but it’s also important for the audience to be able to interact with the artists. I’ve had people who are National fans come up to me and they’re surprised to be talking to me. And I say don’t be surprised because that’s part of it. The intimate environment to really exchange is what this festival is about.

Our coverage of Big Ears 2010 is split up by day: Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3

Alex also spoke to Sam Amidon while there.

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