The National – Bryce Dessner Interview

Posted November 17, 2010 in Music Features

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Aside from playing guitar with the National, Bryce Dessner has made him name by dipping his talented fingers into a variety of different pies. In between organizing Cincinnati’s MusicNOW Festival, playing guitar with Steve Reich, Bang on a Can All-Stars and Clogs, curating last year’s Dark Was The Night charity compilation with his twin brother Aaron and composing for Kronos Quartet (amongst others), it’s a wonder he has enough time to be playing Ireland for the second, third and fourth times this year with the National. These concerts in the Olympia Theatre represent a reprise of a three-night stint from May 2008, this time promoting this year’s brooding High Violet record, which was recently re-issued with a disc of bonus cuts.

How’s the tour going so far?

Well, this particular tour just started yesterday in Copenhagen and we had a good show, yeah but you know it feels like we’ve been on tour for the last few months and the shows have been going really well.

I was looking at your schedule of past tours you’ve done on the website and it seems like you’ve been pretty busy and that you’re going to be pretty busy as well up until May of next year it seems like there’s stuff booked in.

It looks like we’re touring more than we usually do but I actually I think we’re possibly touring a little bit less its just things get planned much further in advance now so people keep saying our schedule looks really crazy but its just cos its all announced much further in advance than it used to be.

I suppose that kind of leads me to ask you one thing: The amount of projects that you’re involved in at the moment, it seems like you’d have to be really, really organized to have everything separate and do you work with Clogs and do work with the National and I was wondering how, musically, you delineate them? How strictly do you delineate the two things when you’re working and writing music?

You know I think for me its all a part of the same continuum in a way. Sometimes if I’m coming with ideas I don’t actually know what its gonna be until later, its just an idea, you know. And as far as doing different types of music, I think especially for my brother and I, its important for us to have that diversity, to keep kind of growing what the National does, its good for us to have different kind of projects. Even collaborating with different musicians has been really interesting for us to kind of open our minds up to different sounds and different types of songwriting. And that’s just sort of the nature of the National, its a collaborative band and my brother and I especially are, by nature, collaborative musicians so its one of the exciting things for us, getting to do different projects. And I think also as bands get better known or more famous or whatever or known for a certain thing, the tendency is start repeating yourself and that’s some thing we’ve really tried to avoid. And part of avoiding that is being open to new kinds of music… I mean I’ll even do, you know I have a classical background, so sometimes I’ll play music by composers or be involved in a project that may seem totally unrelated to say, the National or even Clogs but for me its something I’m learning through.

On the Dark Was The Night project, you worked with Nico Muhly and I was wondering if the National would go down that route again of more expansive orchestration in future on different records or do you try and keep it in-house?

Well, Vanderlyle [Crybaby Geeks] on High Violet is arranged by Nico as well and you can kind of tell it has sort of the biggest arrangement on the record and he’s a friend and someone that… he’s a close friend, someone that we see a lot and I expect that we’ll be working with him again. There’s always a tension, a sort of push-pull between … we only do arrangements if they really help push the song to a place that feels more interesting or more exciting or even more subversive where its somehow inverting what might seem straightforward about a song. Sometimes an arrangement can help put it on its edge a little bit, which to us, makes it more interesting and makes it hold out better for repeated listens. But that said we often over-arrange our songs, a lot of the songs on the recent record have had huge arrangements that we ended up just pulling layer and layer away from and in actual fact Nico did a few arrangements for the record, which were amazing, but we didn’t feel like some of the others were the right kind of vibe that we were going for, so Vanderlyle was the one that we really used all of.

But we have a really open mind about it, Nico’s also someone that I work with on other [projects], we’re actually co-writing some music together now for a concert in February in Brooklyn.

Is that with the BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music]?

Its not a BAM, its actually in a place called St. Annes, sort of a similar multimedia theatre in Brooklyn in DUMBO, downtown Brooklyn.

When you’re starting a project with the National do you think then pretty clearly about what you have in mind for what the album is going to be, or is it more that all the different people who write music, yourself and Matt and your brother all come in with different pieces and it forms itself when you have the music?

We’re not a concept-driven band like the way some of our peers might be where we decide the record’s about this or that or the music’s gonna do this or that – we have maybe bigger ideas in our head, things we’d like to try. The biggest change on this record was we built or own recording studio. I think that the songs are more developed, sonically more developed and then also, we’ve always aspired to make records that sound looser and more off-the-cuff, almost more improvised, the way that some of the bands we love, like the Pixies. You got the feeling that those records were made really quickly.

They sound like you can hear the musicians playing in the same room together, that sort of feeling?

Yeah. I think especially with Boxer – it’s a strength of the record, but it’s so elegant and perfectly manicured in a way, that we wanted to get away from that and use some dirtier sounds and like I said there’s quite a lot of guitar playing on it that was first-take, we just kept what was sort of improvised on the demo even. The same goes for the drums and so it still sounds like the National, maybe it’s hard to hear as a listener, but for us in anyway I think its important that we started expanding toward that.

On the one hand we had more time, some songs went through so many different versions, which I think was good to finally get to what we were happy with, but then like I said there was a looser feel, a grungier sonic, especially in the guitar tones. If you listen to Boxer, there’s a lot of finger picking and subtle acoustic guitar playing where High Violet is thicker, almost in the My Bloody Valentine atmospheric to it, which was new for us.

To answer you’re question, no we don’t really start out with a clear plan. I think the plan is usually we want to not repeat ourselves. We don’t need to make another Alligator or another Boxer. Those records stand up in and of themselves. We try to not say, “Oh, we should write another Mr. November, let’s write another Fake Empire.” That’s something we really try to avoid. Sometimes there’ll be great versions of things where’re like, “Oh, it sounds exactly like this!” The plan is to just to keep trying to push ourselves forward musically and we each do that individually as well as as a band. Especially Matt, I would say, whether it would be in writing his lyrics or the range he’s singing in, or the types of melodies he’s singing or even some of the rhythms he’s singing on this record are far more adventurous than anything he’s done before. So the plan more comes out like that but ultimately, the music decides what it’s going to be. It almost feels like the songs exist and we’re just finding where they are, you can’t really force it to be something it’s not.

I saw you in a youtube clip rehearsing with Steve Reich playing 2×5. What was it like to work with? I know you did some stuff with Bang On A Can, so maybe you might have worked with him before?

Yeah, he’s amazing. He’s a huge influence on me, I would say on all of us, and on a lot of our peers and he’s someone that kind of embodies, across genres, he’s a really important innovator in the I would say John Cage was in American music beforehand but he stands out as a really important composer and musician. If you look at the entire electronic genre there’s so much of that, whether it be the use of certain kinds of rhythms or tape loops, all that stuff kind of originates with Reich. Not only is he completely inspiring but he’s also a really kind, open-minded, generous musician. From the first time I met him, he was really encouraging and I worked directly with him on that piece as he was kind of finishing writing it. Me and the other guitarist Mark Stewart would sit with and perform certain parts of it for him. So that was something that, probably in twenty years I’ll always remember as being a really important experience. I’ve actually been asked by the Barbican in London to write a piece for his seventy-fifth birthday next May for Kronos Quartet so its sort of ongoing, the relationship, which is exciting.

Have you ever played with Glenn Branca at all?

I’ve never played with Glenn Branca. I’ve played a fair amount with Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth who, obviously they’re really influenced by Branca and actually the entire Bang On A Can movement in New York, Glenn Branca’s kind of a godfather of that. That style of guitar playing and whatnot I’ve certainly been really curious about that for a long time and there’s a couple of pieces of music that are some of my all-time favourite pieces of music.

So for the gigs coming up in December in Dublin, I know you’re reissuing High Violet, but are you going to be playing any new stuff that’s even from the next round of the National songs?

We are actually writing new songs, which we’ve never done before on the road. It’s been kind of exciting actually. There’s three new songs we’ve been working on. I don’t know, it’s hard to say – I mean there’s some new stuff on that expanded edition that we’re proud of, a song called Wake Up Your Saints, a song called You Were A Kindness that I think are in a way as good as anything on High Violet so its possible we’ll play either of those. I’m not sure if we’re ready to unveil these new songs quite yet ’cause they’re still y’know – they go through all kinds of changes before we’re ready to play them. I think hopefully the Dublin audience, they’ll be hearing a bunch of stuff that we haven’t played in Dublin before. New versions of older songs and some stuff from the back catalogue that people haven’t heard in a long time. I think it’s going to be really exciting. Dublin is, if not the greatest, then in the top three places in the entire world for us to play. It’s just an incredible audience, so warm, and the Olympia Theatre, to play there… Across Europe we’re playing venues that are usually twice the size of the Olympia so it’s really nice to come back and play that theatre which we know really well and is just so beautiful.

It’s not a coincidence that you’re back playing three nights again. The last time I saw you, you played there as well.

We really love it and we’d rather play multiple nights there than play in a big cavernous [venue]. I think part of it is, in Dublin, the choice of the next room up would be more like a sports centre. We don’t want to put our audience in that kind of situation. It certainly happens in some places, but in London you can play the Brixton Academy, which people seem to really like going to. It seems like for Dublin it made more sense for us to play multiple nights at the Olympia and just to keep doing that because we love it there.

Words: Ian Lamont


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