When most reach a plateau of success in the rock and roll world, they rest. For Bryce Dessner, part of the popular indie rock group The National, he couldn’t be more energized. Dessner recently completed the tenth version of his own MusicNOW Festival in Cincinnati, a festival that brought together like-minded musicians for a one-of-a-kind weekend of collaborations. The National performed with the Cincinnati Symphony and Dessner himself collaborated with the likes of Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, the Kronos Quartet, Nico Muhly and more. I caught up with Dessner to reflect on ten years and finally get some answers about that mysterious Grateful Dead tribute album. On May 9 and 10, Dessner will curate Mountains and Waves a weekend of music in London.
The National has been active on Instagram over the last couple of weeks sharing updates from the studio as you guys record the long-awaited Grateful Dead tribute album. How is that coming along?
Yeah, we’re pretty deep into it. Tracks are coming together, and we did some sessions up at this amazing—it’s called Dreamland Studio in upstate New York. So we’re looking to wrap that up in May, I think. There’s a bunch of exciting tracks that are happening, and we’re just now getting singers done and some of the mixing happening. So yeah, it’s going well.
From a musician’s viewpoint, what has it been like to dig into that catalog of music?
I mean, it’s impressive what the Grateful Dead did musically. In general, the compilation is really focusing on the great songs, you know, the songwriting element. The legacy of the Dead is so vast, and their influence is so important. What we’ve been trying to do is really focus on some of the more surprising types of people that you maybe wouldn’t necessarily think would be Dead fans, but very much are. And so we’ve been inviting really different types of bands and different types of songwriters, guitarists, whatnot.
Once you kind of skim the surface of the Dead catalogue, the bar is pretty high as far as getting inside the music, because they were an incredible live band. So we’ve spent time really trying to be faithful to certain things about some of the arrangements and live arrangements—but it’s not a cover band, so we’re not doing it in a direct, kind of tribute way. We’re trying to kind of incorporate elements of what made them so great, but also to make new versions of songs.
A couple years ago, my brother, Aaron, Bryan [Devendorf], Scott [Devendorf] and some other of our collaborators—a guy named Josh Kaufman, who’s also involved in the Dead record—went out and did a big set at the TRI Studios with Bob Weir, and since then we’ve had Bob Weir join The National at Outside Lands—actually, the day we opened for Paul McCartney—and then again at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre. So we’ve worked directly with Bob a bit. And, like I said, it’s not a purist approach, but basically the musicians involved all really know the songs—not just the songs, but the ins and outs of some of the more elaborate musical sections that they would do. So we’re trying to do it in a way that feels fresh and that is faithful but also kind of makes a departure and goes somewhere new. You know, obviously it sounds more like us than it does them.
Did I read this right—your sister Jessica was nominated for a Grammy for the Grateful Dead’s Spring 1990 (The Other One) box set? [Jessica Dessner was nominated for her artwork]
That is right. She didn’t win. Jack White won. But she should have won. [Laughs]
MusicNOW at ten years. Festivals don’t usually make it to ten years these days—is that a point of pride for you?
When I started it, I really felt that I wanted to kind of stick with it. You gotta stick with something to grow it into something and people start to understand it, or it to have some kind of identity. It’s easy in the music world to start a band for a year or two, especially in the contemporary music world, to start a kind of ensemble or something, but it’s a lot harder to stick around. So, myself and the people that have worked on it in Cincinnati, we all felt like we wanted to make it something substantial. And I think that we also really love it. It’s a great kind of communion of a moment where we all come together, and it’s a bit of a celebration of music and feels like a great punctuation to the year to go home to Cincinnati and do the festival. So ten years, it’s interesting to make it ten years of the festival—I think The National’s probably been around for fifteen years, a bit more maybe. So it’s interesting, as you start to get a bit older, of course we reflect on that.
I liked your quote about the festival where you said it’s a “creative refuge for artists.” How important is the collaborative aspect for you?
Because MusicNOW exists in a smaller, regional city, and it’s out of the mainstream media spotlight—and also its size, it’s an intimate festival that we only do—probably over the whole weekend we’ll sell five-six-thousand tickets, something like that, and it used to be much smaller—it allows for artists to come in and collaborate and to try—we always have a couple new commissions, which are usually in the kind of contemporary classical range, there’s very often works in progress, artists who’ve never played together working on a new set of songs or whatever it is.
Basically, people feel comfortable taking risks. I think that’s a combination of the size of the festival and the fact that it’s not New York, London or LA. And then on top of that, the fact that it’s very much artist-run—I’m there kind of facilitating the whole time—helps people feel comfortable. And that’s what makes it unique as a festival. You know, when we started, it might’ve been a fairly progressive kind of festival. Now there’s lots of opportunities like it, but what remains special is its size and the kind of artist-friendly feeling that MusicNOW has.
Does it help that this is an artist-curated festival?
I think so. I think the music industry is a business, so when you’re playing even in the most friendly way, sometimes if it’s a bigger festival, it’s very much a kind of—you know, those artists really live off the finances involved in big festivals, it’s how a lot of artists survive, right? So MusicNOW exists outside of that framework. It’s less about your big summer play and more about your creative development of “what do you want to do?” Not necessarily what fans want to hear, what songs off your record that your label wants you to promote—it’s definitely not that.
So we often get artists who are off-tour, who don’t have a new release, who are coming in because they want to, and they have an idea they want to try. Like when Bon Iver—he’s been a few times—when he first came, I said, “You know, you don’t even need to sing. You can come and do an electronic set or whatever you want to do.” And I think that sort of openness about it is part of what helps people feel like it’s a good environment to take risks.
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