Aaron Dessner of The National recently took time out to curate an event in Dingle as part of the new series of RTÉ’s Other Voices. He talks to TONY CLAYTON-LEAabout the project – and his day job with the band
Softly spoken, a tad serious, but not so serious that he won’t crack a joke at his own expense, Aaron Dessner is in Dingle on a cold, wet and windy day in early December to join the Other Voices circus. To look at him you wouldn’t think that he’s a member of The National, one of the most successful American bands of recent times. You could peg him for a librarian, or a backpacker on his way through the town to somewhere else.
Dessner has been to Dingle before. A few years ago, The National arrived in the midst of snowstorms, compacted ice, skin-slicing wind and nose-piercing sleet. As if this weren’t enough, the band was at the fag end of some European shows and, along with debilitating weather, they were bone-tired, wiped out.
And yet, when they performed at St James’s Church on the evening of the day of their exhausted arrival, something special happened. Whatever was in the bag (possibly a blend of genie and genius) was well and truly pulled out, resulting in a performance that rocked the church and was, in truth, a religious experience. Dessner and his twin brother, Bryce, felt the earth move, but it was singer Matt Berninger who kissed the sky. The audience, meanwhile, knelt in a mixture of supplication, repentance and ecstasy. Was it as throbbingly good for The National as it was for everyone else?
“Oh, yes,” says Dessner in such a low voice that the sound of the sleet on the room’s windows threatens to drown him out. “Our experience at Dingle came at the end of a long European tour; we’d been touring for about six weeks in the middle of winter. Everyone was definitely ready to go back home, but when we arrived here we could feel a change occurring. Everyone relaxed and woke up at the same time. Other Voices is the kind of event – a televised event – that is incredibly rare, in that it’s music and community first; all the commercial production stuff is very much in the background, which makes musicians comfortable. And the town itself is very inspiring, not forgetting the church. So, yes, The National knew it was special and we clicked into that.”
Do those kind of shows happen a lot?
“Doing a show like that one is part of the ethos of The National, but it’s not spoken about. It isn’t that we can sit here with an acoustic guitar and break your heart. For us, it’s a weird alchemy that can happen on stage and that we have to always seek out; if we don’t seek it then we can really fall flat. Typically, we dive off the cliff and try to get there. That’s what we and other people get out of it. Matt says that first it’s like skiing down a slope and you can’t stop, but eventually it settles into some kind of controlled chaos.”