Although Bryce Dessner is best known for his work with The National, his roots are firmly planted in the avant-garde. A former member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the classically trained guitarist continues to play alongside Padma Newsome in outré classical outfit Clogs and manages Cincinnati’s annual MusicNow Festival, which over the years has debuted commissioned works by the likes of Justin Vernon, Kronos Quartet, and The Books. He graciously found time to talk to Tiny Mix Tapes in Chicago before taking the stage at Lollapalooza. Ten minutes and one broken lawn chair later, here’s what he had to say:
Before we get into anything else, as a Cincinnatian what do you prefer, Gold Star or Skyline Chili?
I’m more Skyline, but I don’t know about the others yet.
I hear that’s the right answer. I haven’t tried Gold Star yet, myself. So you’ve been super-busy so far this year. You’ve had two albums come out, you’ve contributed to at least one other, and you organize this annual music festival. How do you find time to do all this stuff?
Well, I mean, when the band’s not touring, we actually have a lot of time. We like to keep busy, both writing new songs with The National and being involved in other projects. It’s important, for my brother and I especially, to kind of interface with other bands, and work with other musicians, and to play other… You know The National is very specific in what we do, but it benefits from opening the windows every once in a while and letting in new sounds. The music doesn’t change drastically the way you might imagine it, where we’re like, “Oh, let’s add synths and dance beats,” or whatever. But we do try to really grow every time we make a record, or write a song even. Like, every song should have something about it that is pushing ourselves a little bit, and the only way to keep learning is by doing other projects. Especially it’s been interesting lately writing songs with other bands, or even just recording with other musicians. Every time you do that, you learn a new technique, or you see a little window into someone else’s song writing.
Then, I guess, about being busy… that’s just how we’ve done things. Some people work a nine-to-five job, and we’re musicians, so we like to be busy.
You’ve mentioned how your other projects influence The National, but do you find that what you do with The National influences what you do with Clogs, or what you do with your own solo composition work?
“It’s a funny thing. The harder we try to avoid it, the darker we seem. I don’t know why.”
It’s all connected, I think, especially in terms of the instruments that we play and having spent so many years playing electric guitar and, you know, finding sounds or whatever. You know, I’ve taken things that I’ve done with The National and I’ve written weird concert music with it. In a way, you can elaborate. What you can’t do in pop song, for instance, is write something with no formal precedent. “Oh, you know, I’m going to make a piece that’s 20 minutes long, and it doesn’t really do much, and it doesn’t need to be a song, just this really strange guitar sound.” Sure, I think it’s all connected.
When I first started playing music, I think everything was much more separate. I was a classical guitarist—that was one thing—and then I was in The National, and that was the other. Now it feels like these things are much more connected. I’m the same musician wherever I’m going. And obviously, right now The National has a record out and we’re touring, so that’s all I’m doing. I don’t have time or the energy really to do other stuff. It’s been very intense, especially playing bigger shows. We really need to focus on that.
You said in an interview with…[It was about this time that the leg of the lawn chair I was sitting in snapped out from under me and almost pitched me onto the ground] Oh, my God, I just totally broke this chair.
That’s alright; I’ll just come over here [Crouching on the ground next to Dessner]. So in an interview with Brooklyn Vegan, I believe it was, you said that when you completed High Violet, you were going to try to play some smaller shows at first because there’s a tendency toward this “inflation of venues, just making it bigger and bigger.” How have those been going so far?
The shows? Well, we did some small shows in Brooklyn right after we finished the record at Bell House, which [was] really nice, to play in a small club for the first time we learned the new songs, because there is a tendency when you play big venues to try to blow the songs up to fit the venue, and certainly we do do a bit of that. It just makes the product an exciting live show. But we’re actually at a really good level, venue-wise. We’ve graduated from playing big theaters, to really kind of historic places you always dreamed of playing that few bands get to do. So we’re extremely lucky. We played Royal Albert Hall, we played Radio City, we played two nights at Massey Hall. These are the places that we’ll remember, even if someday we’re more popular and we get to play… well, I guess the next level is playing a sports arena, or something, but that doesn’t sound so exciting to me. We did a bit of that opening for R.E.M. a couple summers ago, and it was amazing to play with them, but playing those huge amphitheaters and stuff… it’s pretty—it can be pretty alienating. It’s hard to connect with the audience. Unless you have some sort of massive sing-along radio hits where 20-dozen people are singing your songs, or something, it can be quite jerking.
It’s been good. I think we’re at a good level, as far as the venues we get to play, the really nice, historic theaters that you’re just so honored to even be in them, you know? But it seems like the audiences have enjoyed coming to those shows.
There was a big piece about you in The New York Times shortly before the album came out, and the writer kind of followed you guys as you were working on some of the songs, and while you were working on “Lemonworld,” at one point he quotes you as rejecting a guitar line for being “too shimmery U2.” Do you find that you guys are backing off from that a lot? Or what makes you back off from something…
“… I guess the next level is playing a sports arena, or something, but that doesn’t sound so exciting to me.”
Like, certain sounds?
I think that is true to a certain extent with The National. I think it’s like, we’re always rubbing elbows… You know, as a rock band, when you brush up against a sound that isn’t totally your own, and that doesn’t mean… And obviously the sound of Matt’s voice is the sound of The National. That’s the one thing you can’t… I mean, he pushes himself to sing in different registers, but obviously, his range is limited. Musically, you rarely want to tread in someone else’s territory. For years we were trying to capture Johnny Marr’s guitar style, which we could never pull off. But something like U2 is so iconic and so… obviously it’s the most popular rock band in the world. It’s easy to play a guitar riff, but it’s not us. I’d say a similar thing about Radiohead. It’s so distinctive, what they do. I have a very low tolerance for bands that sound like Radiohead, because it’s like, “Well, that’s Radiohead.”
The National is famous for having this kind of melancholic sound. What draws you guys to that? Is it a factor of trying to match Matt’s voice?
I think that there’s a certain degree to… I mean, obviously we’ve been labelled that way. We joke a lot about headlines like “Gloomy Guys Get Gloomier” or “More Miserable.” And we get sick of that label, to be honest, because actually we’re pretty light-hearted as individuals. Matt, actually, the most of everyone. He’s a pretty funny, very happy person, actually. I think there’s a certain extent that the actual sound and register of his voice… I liken it to the solo cello, or something. No matter what he’s singing, it’s going to sound a little somber and dark. Even if he’s singing the lightest song you’ve ever heard, it’s still going to have a tinge of sadness to it, like hearing a solo violin, or something. It just evokes, just sort of plucks the heart strings. But obviously, we exist in a lineage of bands, coming from, like, The Smiths, The Cure, Joy Division. There is a certain earnest and heartfelt quality to our music. You know, we write songs; we don’t write dance-party hits, or whatever. If anything, we try to escape being too dark. We don’t revel in it. But it just kind of ends up, kind of, you know… It’s a funny thing.
The harder we try to avoid it, the darker we seem. I don’t know why.
I was listening to The Long Count, the piece that you did for the BAM music festival. Has that been released in a recorded form, or are there any plans to do that?
Yeah, we are recording it this fall, so we’re just working with the singers—you know, Kim and Kelly Deal and Matt and Shara Worden, [the latter of whom] sings in My Brightest Diamond. So we’re just sorting out. We’ve got a small orchestra that plays with us on that piece, so we’re just scheduling studio time, but I think we will release that record. It was an exciting project for us, musically extremely different from The National, so I’d like to have it out there in some form.
Yeah, the parts of it I heard sounded really cool, so I’d be excited to hear that. So, how is your role in Clogs different from The National? The National seems to have a very democratic sort of songwriting process, from what it sounds like.
“When I first started playing music, I think everything was much more separate. I was a classical guitarist—that was one thing—and then I was in The National, and that was the other.”
I mean, it’s very different. The National is very democratic, but it’s extremely intense, and writing our songs and recording them can be a very brutal process where we’re all arguing. Obviously, the product is ultimately something we all really love, but it’s just a really hard road to get to that. Clogs is really much more of a musical laboratory, where sort of anything goes, so it’s a very free, open environment where you can just… We’ve done some very experimental kinds of concerts and songs. Padma Newsome tours with The National and plays the violin and does some arranging on the records. He’s kind of the principle composer in Clogs, and I write a bunch of stuff, too. So yeah, but it’s a good… Live I play mostly classical guitar, and it’s a much quieter band. It’s much more ornate, almost sort of like some of the songs have a much more Medieval or Renaissance feel to them, so it’s a total… I doubt that people can even hear the bands are related, on some level. It’s a very different kind of band.
Will there be a Clogs tour in the near future? I know you guys just put out another record this year.
We’re looking at doing… You know, Clogs doesn’t really tour—you know, hit the road for 40 nights a year, or whatever. It’s more like special events. Especially the new record, cause there’s a lot of guests on it. We’re talking about doing a couple of concerts in spring.
You’ve been curating the MusicNow festival in Cincinnati for, like, 5 years now, I believe. Do you have any plans in the works for 2011 yet?
We actually… well, we’re working on some ideas. I’m always tempted to do… The venue is this really beautiful small kind of chamber music hall that seats about 600 people and sounds incredible. It doesn’t sound great for loud music, and I have been thinking about presenting some bands, some crazy, louder bands. So I’m considering doing something outside or doing something in a bigger venue, more of rock thing. But we’ll see; I never know, to be honest.
Usually MusicNow involves some sort of new music that’s never been performed, like last year, Bon Iver came, and Justin Vernon came and did an entirely new concert of music he’d never played before, new formations. I usually like to do something like that, that people won’t get to see elsewhere, and to provide an opportunity for musicians to really branch out. That takes a little bit of searching and checking with people to see if they’re interested. Usually it works best with people who are off-tour. It’s not a great festival, if you’re just slotting it in between Chicago, and…
Right. Especially since these are new commissioned works, also.
Yeah, and it works best if you can come and hang out for a few days and meet some new musicians and rehearse. And I think the audience has just come to expect that, a kind of workshop situation, so we’ll see.