"The more voices there are, the better," Aaron Dessner on Big Red Machine's collaborative spirit

Interview with Aaron Dessner of Big Red Machine (MPR)

Aaron Dessner of Big Red Machine and The National joined The Current to talk about Big Red Machine's 2021 sophomore record, How Long Do You Think It's Going To Last? and how he got involved working with Taylor Swift for her Evermore and Folklore records.

Interview Transcription

Edited for clarity and length.

JILL RILEY: I'm joined by a special guest, both on the radio, and also a Zoom call, so we're in person. So it's always kind of funny where I'm like, "I'm a radio person. I'm a video person, not really quite sure which one I am." But I do know that I know how to do the radio thing. Aaron Dessner is joining me, you would know him from The National, Big Red Machine--we're going to spend some time talking about Big Red Machine today--also as a producer, and co-founder and curator of actually a handful of festivals, but we know the Eau Claire festival best around these parts. Big Red Machine is the topic of discussion today, because there's new record coming out this Friday. So Aaron, how are you? Thanks for joining us.

AARON DESSNER: I'm good. Thanks for having me, I really appreciate it. I love your radio station. So very happy to be here.

Appreciate that. So Big Red Machine--before we really dive into the new record for anybody that's new to Big Red Machine but maybe familiar with the world in which you work, and a lot of the musicians that you collaborate with are certainly from this area, or at least known to people who listen to The Current--maybe just like a little bit of background on Big Red Machine and when you started working with Justin Vernon on it, because I know for me, my first introduction was a few years ago at the Eaux Claires Festival. I remember that being the show, "Are you going to go see Big Red Machine? Are you going to go see Big Red Machine?" That was my introduction, so how did it start?

I mean, to be honest it started in 2008 because I wrote Justin on MySpace before we ever met, because I was producing this record called 'Dark Was The Night' with my brother Bryce. It was a charity record to benefit AIDS and HIV charities. It was sort of focused on our generation of musicians that are in loosely our community. Then the first Bon Iver record that just come out, and like everyone else, I thought it was so beautiful and inspiring. I just wrote him on my space and that was when The National was touring behind Boxer. So it was fairly early for us too, but he was totally excited to contribute and a week later or something he sent us a song called "Brackett, WI" which had these multiple baselines and like mix meter--it was this really amazing song. Quite different from the first Bon Iver record and much more of a band sound. It was just really inspiring. We couldn't believe it, and I think I was like, "Huh. How--like, maybe if we--could we get him to do something else?" I've always been very collaborative so I recorded myself playing the piano and I just titled the sketch Big Red Machine. It was also kind of this minimalist piano piece that was kind of hard to follow because it changed meter, and the harmony changed and everything. But I sent it to him, and like three days after that he sent back a song that he had written called Big Red Machine, where he interpreted Big Red Machine as a heart.

The reason I call it Big Red Machine is because I was born in Cincinnati in 1976, when the Cincinnati Reds beat the Yankees, and they called themselves the Big Red Machine. So anyways, long story short, that was the beginning of our friendship, and our--I guess our collaboration. Over the years we found that we became really close friends, and we just worked on many different things together. A lot of times, we would just hang out and not work at anything at all. But when we started the Eaux Claires Festival, I think the idea was born to maybe resurrect Big Red Machine almost as an installation, then at some point where we would maybe play the song, but in a different way. But when we got up to play it, we didn't play the song at all, we just started playing other things. So that's sort of how this band, if it is a band, was born was just like out of almost like structured improvisation. And like kind of reconnecting with the joy of just being spontaneous and music and like getting outside of the lane that you've been in and seeking, like new sounds and new songs and new collaborators. So it's like a band, but the windows and the doors are wide open, and the more voices there are, the better--in a way. And I think in a way, it's also our version of like The Last Waltz or something like, if you're gonna die today or something like that, just get up and play with everybody you love and make a big, warm sound. And that's kind of what this record is, I think.

Yeah, you mentioned the word collaboration, or being collaborative. I certainly get the impression that that whole concept really inspires you to be creative. I mean, you look at the list of names on this new record, but then, going back to the first one, I mean, it's like, so many people contributed to that first record. There is almost this kind of cool, like, core group of a lot of singers and musicians that it almost reminds me of, like a Broken Social Scene kind of situation where there is this like, kind of collective. You never know who's gonna show up, but you certainly have some go-to people, I would say, and that spirit certainly is carried on into the new record--it's called, 'How Long Do You Think It's Going To Last?' Again, it's due out this Friday. So when did work start on the second record?

I mean, it really started as soon as the first one. So we made the first Big Red Machine record in 2017, maybe, and it came out in 2018. Then fairly quickly, I just started making new tracks or new ideas, and Justin sort of bounces off them and we started inviting friends to work on them. It's sort of been like a loosely ongoing process this whole time. For me, it's a great outlet for when I feel like I need to just experiment and make music without really knowing what it is, and then sometimes these things happen that you couldn't plan for. A lot of those songs end up being Big Red Machine songs, but they feel connected. I think this record feels very connected because of the emotional sort of nature of the music. And also, it's almost like a bunch of different characters in a book, but they're all singing about the similar things or something. So we've been working on it probably for three years, I guess.

So how do you decide when--you've got this, I would say, wide network of those singers and songwriters and musicians that you guys like to work with? How do you decide who to call? Fleet Foxes, Sharon Van Etten. Anais Mitchell--you'll have to tell me more about her as well--Taylor Swift is on the record, which you've worked with her before. So how do you--are you moved by the by the songs you're writing? Like, "Oh, I know who would be great for this." How does that process work?

Yeah, I think it's some of it's just like a discussion where a lot of these songs initially, Justin would sing ideas or like spontaneously, the melodies that he would hear in his head. So for example, Anais Mitchell who's one of our favorite songwriters, and she's from Vermont, and people know her partly because she wrote the Hadestown musical, which one performed like 14 Tony Awards last year, but she's also like one of the main people in Bonny Light Horsemen, and she makes her own songs as well. She's just really, really gifted singer and songwriter. And so she, for the song "Latter Days," it's the first song on the record, there was a sketch of it that Justin and I did a quite a while ago. Then she listened to it and she sort of wrote the words to it and sings the verses, and he sings the choruses with her. I think we both felt like listening to that song that Anais would be inspired by it, or would have ideas for it. Whereas, you know, the song that Robin Pecknold sings, from Fleet Foxes, that was something that I wrote.

It's almost like I was channeling Phil Cook or something playing the piano. I feel like I was maybe--I've seen him play so many times and love his playing and also I was imagining the band maybe. But when Justin heard, he kind of wrote the chorus early-on to that song, but then it was just a chorus. And we felt like--I don't know, I've always wanted to work with Robin and he had been at my studio in upstate New York. And so I just sent it to him, the music with the chorus--and he wrote the verses and the pre chorus and that's how it happened. And then Anais rewrote the words to the chorus and then Justin and Anais sing it together and it's just a very like organic process. So there's no like master plan, that's for sure. It's just kind of like, wherever the chips fall, they fall.

I'm talking with Aaron Dessner about the new Big Red Machine record, 'How Long Do You Think It's Gonna Last?' Aaron, what does that title suggest? Is there a theme going on? Is there an overall creative message there? Because there are some really, I think, personal moments on this record.

Yeah, the title 'How Long Do You Think It's Gonna Last?' is a line from the first verse of "Latter Days," which is the first song on the record, and really, it was actually Taylor Swift, who pointed out to me that she thought it would be a beautiful album title, because that idea touches on a lot of themes that are in the record, like, how long is your childhood gonna last, or your innocence gonna last? How long is this family going to last? How long is this friendship going to last? Or this pandemic, or this depression or this creative streak you're on, or this losing streak or winning streak. So in all of these things they kind of appear in different ways in the, in the record. And so to me that was kind of a brilliant idea, and it really connected it all. But the record is quite personal. I think that there are these, like, I realized that a lot of it is about childhood, or about a nostalgia for a time before you've made mistakes or encountered the uncertainties and anxieties of adulthood or dealing with family trauma or depression or things people go through. So a lot of it is kind of looking back for maybe a time before you've lost people or searching for remedies. There's some beautiful--the first song "Latter Days" and the last song "New Auburn" are kind of like bookends, and I feel like in a way they're about very similar things. But the last song Anais asked the question at the end, like, where do we come from out of thin air? And it's kind of like, I don't know, it's this like thinking about the ephemeral nature of life and how it's like a fleeting passing cloud or something at times. And people can be gone in an instant, and I think singing about that can help you feel better. So there's something hopeful about it, even though it sounds like it's very depressing, but actually I find it hopeful.

Yeah, and you mentioned 'How Long Do You Think It's Gonna Last?' and people that can be gone in the blink of an eye. Tell me about the song "Hutch".

Yes, so "Hutch"--I was very friendly with the band Frightened Rabbit from Scotland and the singer songwriter Scott Hutchison. They toured with the National many times over the years, and I produced their last record, and a few years ago, woke up to the news that he had gone missing. And obviously, you know, it was confirmed that he took his own life. And it's something like, you know, anyone that had ever read his lyrics, or listened to his songs, would know that he struggled with depression or had suicidal thoughts, but like, there's a difference when somebody actually does it. It was just a very, very sad thing to lose someone--and for his family, and for his band. So I thought, I wrote the music not long after that, and it was just kind of very sad, but spiritual, moving, like piano music that I kind of--I don't know, it just reminded me of him so I called it "Hutch". At some point, Justin heard it and wrote melodies to it and eventually we wrote the words. Justin actually never met Scott, but he kept--he was thinking through me empathetically, in a way, but it kind of asked the question, like, did I do enough? Or did I not pay enough attention to how you were feeling, or signs you were giving us and how did he get that bad, but also I wish we could pick you back up, or that there are remedies. I also think it's because I've gone through fairly serious depression myself, especially when I was younger, and it's a blink of an eye if you pull out of a tailspin or not. So I think it's just maybe calling attention to the fact that people need to ask for help. I certainly do when I feel feel that I need it, but anyway, so that's what that song is about.

To put it in a song, I mean, when we lose people in our lives, whether it be to old age or if somebody is suffering through depression, and they take their own life, or someone dies of cancer, or a child dies--we're the ones left to process the loss. The people who have passed on, they're not processing that anymore. We're the ones left to process it. I imagine that's therapeutic for you, but also very relatable for people that are listening to the music.

Yeah, I hope so. I hope so. He's not the first friend that I lost in that manner and there aren't many easy answers really, it's a very mysterious thing whether someone will be able to overcome depression or whether they succumb to it, but I think it is helpful to give voice to whatever doubts or misgivings you might have and that's--Lisa Hannigan and Sharon Van Etten, and Shara Nova all sing with Justin on the song and it gives it this choral, almost like, angelic feeling at times where it's very uplift--it is obviously a very dark thing to think about, but then there's like this catharsis at the end. Also just not to let someone's memory slip away, you know?

I'm talking with Aaron Dessner, the new Big Red Machine record is due out this Friday, 'How Long Do You Think It's Gonna Last?' I know I gotta let you go pretty soon here, and we've talked about some of the folks who have contributed to this new album, one of those people being Taylor Swift. This is not the first time that you've worked with her, you worked on 'Folklore' and 'Evermore'--those records were such a cool surprise. Now, I don't think that Taylor Swift in any way as ever boxed in herself, I mean, that's for the music industry, and the fans, and the music media to do I suppose, but it was really cool to get to hear another side where it was like, "Oh, Taylor's gone indie." I was super into it. So you worked with her on those records--did you have this moment where, now you didn't reach out to her on MySpace because now we're in the in the era of non-MySpace, but when did you know that things were clicking creatively between the two of you?

She had texted me during the pandemic. One night, like, I was sitting at dinner at the end of April last year, and she just sent a text saying, "Hey, it's Taylor, Would you ever consider collaborating remotely? How are you doing?" It was very casual, but I was like, "Well, sure." Because I've been a fan of hers. And I mean, she's kind of this crazy mastermind, such a versatile, brilliant songwriter, but I didn't have any expectations. But I had been writing a ton of music at that time as a response to Justin also, he had sent me like a folder of starters, these ideas--like just little kernels of things and I'd been like, making a lot of material and I just sent her a big folder of things I was working on and a few hours later, she sent back the song "Cardigan," like fully written to something I had done and then it was immediately clear that there was chemistry. It was kind of like a lightning bolt hit the house. I've said this before but it literally that's how it felt--it was just like, "Woah," because you don't usually--I don't think I've ever had that. She just--the clarity of her ideas and the way she can--her storytelling and stuff is very, very, very clear, and it was beautiful when she sent that. So it started this process that then just picked up steam.

Well, Big Red Machine, we've been playing the song "Renegade" on The Current, in fact we've been playing a handful of the songs from the new record, but how did "Renegade" come together? I've even had, you know, I run into people and they're like, "Hey, I heard a new Big Red Machine song--was that Taylor Swift's voice?" It's like, "Yeah, that's her." I think it can be really unexpected to people who are not expecting it. But that song in particular, how did that one come together? Because that one really seemed to even click with her fans because that one has been pretty successful.

Yeah, it's literally like, you know, I wrote the music at some point after we finished Evermore and sent it to her because she was inspired by a lot of the Big Red Machine stuff we were working on and she had already sang on "Birch," a song that hasn't come out yet, but is kind of one of the major ones in the record. I think she wanted to write a song for Big Red Machine, or she very much feels like part of this community to me. So I wrote "Renegade," the music and sent it to her. And then not unlike a lot of the things we've done together, one day I woke up to a voice memo from her. She had written this incredible song about how anxiety and fear get in the way of loving or being loved, and she was clearly thinking about Big Red Machine. Then we recorded it, her vocals and everything the week of the Grammys when I was there in LA, and it was really nice to have something to think about that wasn't related to the Grammys, just to make music because you feel like making it. That's how she is, she's super cool and down to earth and just crazy talented. So I was very thankful.

Yeah, it's very cool that, that she's entered your world because it's just kind of another space for her to step into that I really respect. I'm also a big fan--her live show, those are some of the like coolest productions that I have ever witnessed. It's almost reminds me of watching a huge Broadway production. It's pretty incredible. But to be able to see her enter this sort of new space has been cool. Aaron Dessner, Big Red Machine new record new out this Friday. Thank you so much for taking the time and and best wishes and we'll hopefully see you down the line.

Thank you so much for taking the time.

External Link

Big Red Machine - official site


Host - Jill Riley
Producers - Jesse Wiza, Christy Taylor
Technical Director - Eric Romani

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