Aaron and Bryce Dessner could certainly be said to be living the dream. As twin brothers and band members of the popular Cincinnati rock band The National, a band they formed in 1999 with two other brothers, Bryan and Scott Devendorf, and singer Matt Berninger, they have built sustainable careers in an unstable industry.
The band's brooding music speaks in nuance, engages in the mortality and trials of the human experience, wrapped up in the conventions of indie-rock. Last year's Sleep Well Beast, their seventh album, was No 1 in Ireland, the UK, Canada and received critical plaudits across the board while adding experimental texture and shade to their sound. They are a stadium rock band in the era when stadium rock bands have disappeared. In June the band played two 10,000-plus capacity shows in an actual stadium in Dublin.
For many others this level of success would be enough to justify a well-earned rest on their laurels, but the Dessners have always been hungry for more. Their industrious thirst to create has seen them win a Grammy award for The Revenant soundtrack (Bryce), produce artists such as Lisa Hannigan and This Is The Kit as well as all The National's records (Aaron), write neoclassical compositions and music for ballet (Bryce) and curate a night at Other Voices in Dingle (Aaron).
“It’s actually not that hard to play guitar in a rock band,” Aaron says to the charge that they are workaholics. “It’s really hard to write the songs, but once they’re written and recorded you end up with a lot of time in the day. We’ve always enjoyed being busy and being curious, but it’s not because we’re workaholics. It’s just because it’s fun.”
Their list of accomplishments is ever-expanding. Their work is intertwined in their frequent collaborations inside and outside the band, and between the siblings, they have cofounded and curated a number of music festival worldwide including Eaux Claires in Wisconsin, Haven in Copenhagen, the Boston Calling Music Festival in Boston, the MusicNow Festival in New York, Sounds From a Safe Harbour in Cork and People in Berlin. At the core of all this activity is a desire to remain fulfilled with their work and to build a community.
“We’ve been on this path for a long time, trying to find ways to stay engaged and grow creatively,” explains Aaron. “Playing the same songs from night to night on the same kinds of stages doesn’t really do that.”
The upcoming People festival is what the brothers are currently most invested in, away from The National. The Berlin festival first took place in 2016 in Funkhaus – the former state radio broadcast headquarters for the German Democratic Republic in the 1950s – with a team that included Aaron and Bryce, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, the Michelberger Hotel and friends. The idea was to challenge the conventions of a festival by offering a week-long residency to artists they admired to come together to create, improvise, collaborate and make new work.
“We see so much music out in the world, because The National has been on tour 20 years now, and I have to say it’s fairly rare to see something, at least in the popular music world, where you feel like there’s risks being taken.”
New kind of festival
At the first People, The National were in the process of finishing what would become Sleep Well Beast. The band were already experimenting on the record, but the open-door policy of People meant fresh ears ultimately contributed to the album during the residency.
“We turned a lot of Matt’s vocals off so we just had the music playing in the room and different people we hadn’t met before came through and worked on it a lot,” says Aaron of the experience.
“No one’s experience was the same,” Bryce says. “Ahead of time, the artists send us in ideas. They might say, ‘Oh, is there a choir? Is there a cellist? Is there a German DJ? Would Aaron consider producing a song for me? Does Bryce wanna play guitar on this?’ We do try to facilitate everyone’s ideas, though. It is a fantastic thing when people come in and they don’t have a plan. We try to encourage that: don’t show up with this set of music that you already know how to play, let’s just see what happens. There’s also no pressure to perform.”
For the last two days of People, the public were be invited to witness performances. The “festival” offered no timetable, billing or programme. Instead, attendees were encouraged to wander around and artists were encouraged to collaborate.
Over those two days in 2016, Aaron and Bryce both played about 10-12 shows a day, with chamber ensembles, folk singers, Bon Iver and completely improvised sets to 5,000 people down to 20 people.
“It’s exhausting but you’re back in touch with why you started playing music in the first place and you feel like a musician: you have to listen and respond,” says Aaron.
Bryce recounts one experience he had at one of the smaller rooms.
"I was supposed to meet a Peruvian guitarist, but he was lost. So I show up and there's, like, 50 people. I don't have any songs to sing. People had been waiting and they wanted some music. I'm sitting with my guitar so I just started improvising. Sam Amidon just passed by in the hall and he peeked in. He just saw me and just came in and started singing over whatever I was doing. And we had this show out of nowhere."
A new way of creating
Aaron, Bryce and their contemporaries saw a way in which they could operate as artists and musicians, separate to the album and touring cycle, removing hierarchies and offering new perspectives.
“After the first People, we were wondering how we could create a way that this new musical dialogue and behaviour can happen more frequently. How can we live like this? That’s something we spent a long time talking about with the whole group. The whole 100 artists were actually on an email chain afterwards discussing it. Is there a way we can embody this, perpetuate this and sustain it?”
Since the inaugural People, the idea and its personnel has becoming a travelling sideshow idea at the Dessners' multiple festivals. As the second edition of People approaches in mid-August, 160 artists are set to participate, including Leslie Feist, Young Fathers, Justin Vernon, The Staves, Jónsi of Sigur Rós, Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Jenny Lewis, along with Irish artists that the Dessners have encountered at Sounds from a Safe Harbour and beyond such as Lisa Hannigan, Damien Rice, Rusangano Family, Crash Ensemble's Kate Ellis and David Kitt.
The idea of a space for collaboration soon opened up questions about an online platform for the participating artists to use to share their music, that could also function as a music discovery service.
There are very few unique online music platforms outside of the established names like Spotify, Bandcamp, Tidal or Soundcloud. Licensing music is a costly endeavour and tends to curtail experimentation, but the Dessners and People have built an individual music discovery service at beta.p-e-o-p-l-e.com. The platform offers artists a place to upload music that they control and have ownership of: demos, finished work, essays, field recordings, talks or even children's books.
“One of the hardest things about being a musician is finishing a project and then having to wait three or six months to publish it and to do all the sort of promotional behaviour,” Aaron says. “We wanted to create an opportunity for people to share anything, on their own terms, revenue and all. Get away from the commerce side of music, which can be exciting and necessary but ultimately dilutes the creative impulse. The further and further you go down that path is sometimes the further you are from the reason why you started making music.”
Aaron likens the People platform to an old record store or a great radio station.
“For one reason or another, the internet, with all its vast possibilities, has never evolved in a way that mirrors how people make work for the audience – there’s no algorithm for that. Just because you listen to The National, Spotify might tell you that you want to listen to The Lumineers’ music. Well, maybe you don’t. We’re allowing the sense of discovery and not spoon-feeding anyone.”
The discovery on the site is based on the credits and metadata of each track, enabling discovery of new music through the community of collaborators.
"Take Ben Lanz, he's part of the band," Bryce offers as an example. "He's a touring musician with The National. You wouldn't necessarily know that if you're a National fan in whatever city in the world. We want it to be so that people can see that Ben played with us and he has his own song out here, and he's also done this project with this Irish musician and then that Irish musician worked with Lisa Hannigan who has this drummer and so on and so forth."
Imminent plans for the People platform involve using it as a way to distribute to the larger streaming platforms and to potentially collect publishing and streaming revenue from these sources. There are plans to offer optional patron-style memberships that could generate revenue for the artists directly. The first physical release from the platform, of Aaron and Justin Vernon’s Big Red Machine project, has also been announced (the music debuted on People and was later added to streaming services such as Spotify).
People has helped the Dessners and The National open up their process and share authorship with others. As People’s second edition approaches, it’s clear the experience it offers Aaron and Bryce and 160 other artists can be a well of creativity and a way of avoiding becoming stagnant.
“That’s why we play music, to learn from other people,” Aaron says. “You can so easily get lost in your own echo chamber. People also challenges a very patriarchal idea of authorship. ‘I am this centre, this is my work and these people are beneath me.’ We’re trying to create a more horizontal sense of what we do. Music is made in communities. It’s really rare that somebody actually makes something completely alone. The more you are open to the world, the more you learn.”
- People takes place on August 18th and 19th in Berlin. More info at p-e-o-p-l-e.com