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.”
Dessner is in Dingle not to talk about any National-oriented goings-on (that will roll around later this year when the band release their new album) but about the rather more low-key acts affiliated to his record label, Brassland, which he co-founded with his brother. Indeed, Dessner isn’t going to – officially, anyway – perform at the event. Rather, he has been invited to curate an evening. What’s involved in that, precisely?
“The idea was to invite some friends and comrades in music who I thought would connect with the spirit in Dingle. Most of the people I have sought out have a collaborative spirit and interest in music. I don’t approach something with a view to making hit records, or even necessarily successful records – it’s just trying to make music that you can almost stumble upon, and that is compelling, magical, and so on.”
The acts featured include British indie-folk act This Is The Kit and American-Australian singer-songwriter unit Luluc. How did he get to work with them? “Through odd personal connections. This Is The Kit is Kate Stables – she’s the little sister of pretty much our oldest fans in England. We saw her about two years ago in London when she played an underground show, and after that I offered her a record deal on Brassland. Then I invited her to open for The National. She’s comfortable in any environment, whether playing in front of 2,000 or 20, and so I thought she’d be perfect for Other Voices. And Luluc? They were subletting an apartment and when I went around one day they nabbed me and asked to play music for me. It’s very sincere, fragile music and reminds me a lot of Simon Garfunkel.”
Although not officially listed to do so, Dessner will perform with the two acts. What are the differences in dynamics between solo and collaborative work and working within the format of The National? “Oh, solo is definitely more risky and potentially more stressful,” he says with a laugh, “but it’s also quite rewarding creatively when you’re trying to make interesting sounds with people you haven’t played with before. I know the music reasonably well, of course, so it’s not totally flying by the seat of my pants.
“Within The National you’re creating some kind of alchemy in the room, and the songs I could perform in my sleep. I suppose my brain works more in something like a curated evening, and to a degree it is liberating. It’s healthy for musicians to put themselves in situations that they’re unfamiliar with. If you’re playing the same songs every night, there is a chance that you stop growing as an artist, so it’s good to try.”
Dessner is an interesting sort, a Cincinnati dude now living in Brooklyn whose early academic path was chosen for him by his parents. But then music came along. Perhaps being a musician in recessionary times is actually a better career move?
“I remember my parents, particularly my dad, pressured me at some point to focus on getting a degree in business or law or something employable. My parents were very nervous that my brother and I were just twiddling around with music. Honestly, we didn’t come at it thinking we’d be successful and make money, but it is ironic how now I don’t think my parents would mind very much about the career path we took. I don’t think I would ever have achieved the same level of satisfaction from doing something different, or that I didn’t love doing. The fact that The National is successful and that we can survive from it is extra.”
Survive? If ever there was a band to look adversity in the face, glower at it and then take it on, it was this one. Did success, gradual though it may have been, come as a surprise?
“Well, there were always little glimmers of hope,” reveals Dessner, whose voice is a little louder now as the pounding sleet finally comes to a halt. “Even early on, I remember certain shows. Our first packed show in Whelan’s, in Dublin, in 2005 was one – you could feel that the energy and spirit were there. So much was being given to us by the audience, and without wishing to be horrifically cliched about it, Ireland is definitely one of the countries where we feel the most connected with our audience. Well, with the exception of the year we played Oxygen – that was when we played at the same time as Beyoncé. To be honest, that gig of ours was a bit of a disaster.”
Time is ticking. Dessner is late for a soundcheck. One more question? A nod. Any update on The National’s forthcoming album? It has, after all, been three years since their previous record, High Violet.
“We are deep into recording it,” says Dessner, now back in librarian mode. “That’s all I’m saying.”
Aaron Dessner performs with This is the Kit and Luluc on Other Voices, which will be broadcast on RTÉ, beginning next month