In 2009, independent record label 4AD released compilation record called Dark Was the Night, featuring an all-star group of musicians who contributed various new songs from their projects and collaborated with each other to form new ones. One of the driving forces behind the ambitious project was The National’s Aaron Dessner, who worked with his brother and bandmate Bryce to produce the album and contributed to a number of the tracks, including “Big Red Machine,” a collaboration with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon.
Since then, the musical coteries of the Dessners and Vernon have intertwined—including at Wisconsin’s Eaux Claires festival—ultimately resulting in a new project, PEOPLE, an online streaming platform and worldwide collection of musicians dedicated to finding new ways of working together to create meaningful art, while sharing the process along the way.
Next weekend, PEOPLE is hosting a mini-festival at Berlin’s Funkhaus, following up a week of studio residencies featuring 200 musicians with two days of collaborative performances of never-before-heard compositions. Though PEOPLE’s goal is to grow into a far-reaching, self-sustaining platform for artist collaboration and expression, the first major project to come out of the concept (amid various smaller collaborative recordings available on the website) is Aaron and Vernon’s Big Red Machine, whose debut-album tracks have been trickling out this summer and whose full LP comes out August 31.
Here, Aaron discusses the roots of PEOPLE and the overall goals of the project, along with Big Red Machine’s album, which he calls “definitely some of my favorite music I’ve ever made, in any context,” the evolving vision of Eaux Claires and where he sees PEOPLE going in the future.
What would you say was the genesis of PEOPLE, and how did it start to become more than just some friends playing together and grow into a larger project with an ethos and a structure?
I think PEOPLE feels very connected to how Bryce and I started playing music in the first place—we were always collaborating from the time we were little kids. We kind of idolized the music we were into as kids, and it was very live-oriented and [made up of] these collectives, like the Grateful Dead and all its many offshoots. So we were just studying the way community worked; we were always interested in that. Over the many years that we’ve been touring—more than 20 years, actually, if you count before The National—I think we always looked for opportunities to step outside of whatever the normal situation was and work or learn from other people. It’s always been about this idea of community and cross-pollination and collaborating outside of your own project or your own discipline—even working with visual artists. Those are the moments where we’ve found that we really grow. And this also really helps The National to have an open door as a band. There are many people that have had major impacts on our music and have helped us solve all kinds of creative riddles and have fed into the alchemy of the band.
The pre-history of PEOPLE, I think, also takes shape around 2004-2005, when Music Now started in Cincinnati. It’s this small festival in our hometown, and the whole idea of it was always new work, new commissions, presenting something that you’re working on that’s brand new—oftentimes in collaboration with other artists and bringing people together that wouldn’t normally [collaborate]. So many of our favorite musical experiences happened there, including with Justin Vernon in 2008, or 2009, maybe. Bryce and I and Justin played an improvised show there that really crystalized some of the things we were trying to do and this energy we were trying to harness. A lot of things like that have happened, where it’s like, “Don’t bring your band and play the same stuff you always do; come in a different form.” So that evolved, and there’s been a lot of other opportunities for that kind of spontaneous-residency behavior, where you give people time and a space to work in, and interesting things happen as a conversation. And you honestly feel more like a musician—you’re listening and responding and developing, which is a little bit different than the normal behavior of being on tour for a long time and playing the same songs.
The first major PEOPLE gathering was in October of 2016 at the Funkhaus in Berlin, which is this crazy, really old East German radio campus from the 1950s that was built to rival the BBC as East Germany’s propaganda center. It’s like state-of-the-art, 1950s German acoustical engineering, frozen in time. And Bryce did some of the strings there for The Revenant, that movie that [director Alejandro González] Iñárritu did. Our friends have this hotel called the Michelberger, and it’s this beautiful, DIY hotel that we’ve been staying at for a couple of years and doing all kinds of events there. We had a mystery music festival one time where we had 800 people in the courtyard but didn’t tell anyone who was gonna play. That was like five or six years ago. And then another time, The National did a whole series of concerts there, and we’ve been collaborating with Tom and Nadine for years.
But then this idea came up: What if we convinced the Funkhaus to let us take it over for a week? And everyone can come stay in the hotel, and it’ll just be about collaboration and stepping outside of your band, and we’d invite a lot of people from diverse corners of the music world and from all over the world. And it wasn’t just us—there were a bunch of other people that were invited. So we did that in 2016. It was 100 artists, and everybody stayed in a hotel for a week. And you didn’t really know what was gonna happen ‘cause there was no pre-determined schedule, and we didn’t sell tickets. All we did was make a list of names, and we called it “PEOPLE,” ‘cause there was a list of people. And what ended up happening was that the audience came with no expectations, and the artists came eager to collaborate. So many creative seeds were planted, and there were so many transcendent moments of performance—whether it was something experimental, or a women’s choir, or a folk circle, or a crazy rearrangement of someone’s song.
There were just so many really special experiences that week that, after the fact, everyone was just like, “How do we live like this? How do we create more opportunities to have this kind of energy and have this kind of collaboration?” So we decided that we should create a place—sort of a platform, or a garden, or publishing tool—that would be a home for this work, which is to show everything from very raw, unfinished bootlegs and live rehearsals to finished work, and everything in between, to be able to show process and be able to provide a kind of three-dimensional context where you can share as much imagery and text as you want, and write about it too. And also to be able to have everyone linked, so anyone that contributes to something, whether they’re the author of it or not, will be associated with that piece, and over time it becomes a web of how we’re all interconnected, and to have that grow well beyond us, artist-to-artist, into diverse corners. That’s the basic idea.
I think Big Red Machine is very intertwined with it, because Big Red Machine was the first major creative project that was born in this new kind of reality. So we did this test, and I did this work embracing this whole idea of constantly collaborating with other people, with lots of different voices filtering into it. We wrote these songs together, but it’s the product of a community coming together to make something, and you hear that. I can hear it throughout. It has this communal energy.
Justin’s voice is at the forefront, but you can hear the different voices and lots of eclectic stuff going on, which makes for a really cool project.
Yeah, thanks. We took it very far on our own, with just a small crew—Brad Cook, who’s there playing and helping a lot, JT Bates the drummer, and Jon Low is the engineer. It was sort of a tight group. But at some point, we started to send it around to all kinds of friends. Mostly they were contributing small bits here and there, like vocals, but then there are larger arrangements that come into it. And over time, I would say that I was mining other people to find a lot of the raw material. But what Big Red Machine mostly illustrates to me is that I don’t know if Justin and I would have made this record without this home for it, because the idea of starting a band and launching a whole new project is…not that we wouldn’t want to do it, but it would be a different kind of thing, rather than if we’re just hanging out and having fun making stuff and we know we could just put it up. And that’s what we did. Then obviously it’s special record—we did put the effort in to take it from something quite raw and spontaneous to a finished record. But I think having that new frame to think about it in really helps us mentally to be excited and go to a place of pure creativity and joy. So it was just a nice feeling.
What I’m most interested about PEOPLE is what kinds of music and new processes might be born in this sort of community. ‘Cause if you have a lot of artists that are starting to think in a different way and starting to collaborate with each other frequently, I think it could lead to some evolution. And then the other thing is that I love bootleg culture and side recordings and imperfect things. I like that about PEOPLE, that it’s really up to the artist what they want to put up; there’s nobody standing in the way of you putting up some live rehearsal or the first time you play a song, that kind of thing. It’s a different thing than the shiny, polished new car or whatever. But I think, as a music listener, I definitely like that sort of wildness, where you can just discover things—kind of like looking around an old record store for some weird recording.
There are obviously some musicians who have been against anyone hearing their music as it progresses—anything that’s not the finished, polished product—but it’s great that you’re giving artists the ability to share that process with others.
I think it’s been interesting to see what it does for artists. It’s very early in the process, but I think just being able to look at everything you’re doing, removing the bottleneck of, “Oh, I have to go through this pipeline to be able to share my music.” There are other versions of that—Soundcloud, Bandcamp, or even signing up through TuneCore to go on Spotify—but I think we’re trying to have a community that’s supportive, where on the backend there’s a very easy way to co-work with people and revenue share. It’s incredibly simple, and all these ideas exist in other places, but bringing it together feels like it might inspire some new projects. I think that’s what we’re hopeful about, and Big Red Machine is the first example of what I hope will be a lot of these kinds of projects that maybe wouldn’t exist within the normal architecture of the music industry.
We’re a part of what I consider to be the best part of the music industry, which is strong, artist-friendly independent labels, like 4AD and Jagjaguwar. And with Big Red Machine, we’ve partnered with Jag to put out physical records and to help us with reaching all the digital distribution outlets. But I think creating something where you can plant a seed or make a song and just immediately do something with it, without having it be too premeditated, opens people up a lot. It’s like opening a faucet. It’ll lead to a lot of stuff, and we’re excited about that.