How Aaron Dessner & Justin Vernon's Big Red Machine is the tip of a collaborative iceberg
The National’s Aaron Dessner and Bon Iver lynchpin Justin Vernon have achieved a lot during their friendship.
But before the countless touring and recording together, before they partnered to found Eaux Claires festival, back in 2008 - Dessner messaged Vernon over MySpace about contributing to Dark Was The Night, a charity compilation he was putting together featuring a who’s who of indie rock A-listers.
“That was right as For Emma, Forever Ago came out and he was just so openhearted and generous,” Aaron Dessner tells Double J’s Karen Leng. “I was already in love with his music; we’d never met in person, but I sent him music of just some piano I recorded and he wrote a song to it.” The result was ‘Big Red Machine’.
Fast forward a decade, and the pair have now released Big Red Machine – the eponymous debut album from a group headed up by Dessner and Vernon, and featuring a rotating cast of musos that includes (but is not limited to) members of Arcade Fire, The Staves, Hiss Golden Messenger, Gayngs and Megafaun.
There’s elements of Dessner’s and Vernon’s day jobs crafting arty, soulful music with emotional grandeur on highlights like ‘OMDB’, ‘People Lullaby’ and ‘I Won’t Run From It’. But despite its all-star ingredients, the album has few of the traditional supergroup trappings. It feels low-key, spontaneous, the sound of a group experimenting.
“A lot of Big Red Machine, to me, sounds wild in the sense that we didn’t really edit it a lot,” says Dessner. “I left a lot of the experiments in there and that’s what we liked about it.”
Unsurprisingly, that’s because Big Red Machine sprang from improvised jam sessions between Vernon’s April Base studio in Wisconsin and Dessner’s own Long Pond facilities in upstate New York.
“That was really the beginning, there was no masterplan or any discussion about what it is we were making,” Dessner recalls. “In fact, for a very long time there was no sense of ‘we’re making an album’. It was more ‘oh, we’re making stuff and performing it’.”
“It went seasonal, we started in the winter then did more in the summer, in the fall, and in the winter again - then we finished it,” he remembers. “There were times when we were by the fire or outside swimming… Then we would invite in different people to contribute and have chemistry with the music.”
The collaboration extended to Australian folk duo Luluc, aka Stephen Hassett and Zoë Randell, as Dessner details.
“The song ‘Forest Green’, I was actually working on it when I was in Australia. After [The National] played in Melbourne, we went out on the peninsula, and were staying there with my friends Stephen and Zoë… We worked on the song there and they actually sing on it. So that song definitely feels connected to Australia.”
Big Red Machine is also the tip of a collaborative iceberg called PEOPLE, an ambitious new grassroots venture involving live music events and a streaming website developed by Vernon, the Dessner brothers, and Berlin hoteliers Tom and Nadine Michelberger.
"It would be wonderful to emulate and do something like this in Australia and involve a lot of Australian musicians..."Aaron Dessner — Double J, 2018
The genesis of Big Red Machine was borne from a 2016 residency at Berlin’s Funkhaus, also called PEOPLE, where a vast guestlist of artists were invited to create music, in open collaboration, recording and performing what they come up with over several days.
“There were 160 artists that were at this festival,” says Dessner. “There were crazy noise performances, a chamber orchestra, a medieval choir, lots and lots of songs being written…. There were a lot of people who [left having] this feeling of ‘why have I been making music in isolation for 20 years!? I could’ve been doing this’.”
So, PEOPLE became a website. Launched in June, its part online artist community, part streaming service, hosting a growing treasure trove of ‘off-canon’ music - outtakes, demos, sketches, alternate takes, B sides – all accessed via a Wiki-styled interactive database.
Go for a deep dive and you’ll find everything from Sufjan Stevens covering Leonard Cohen to a Berlin choir performing Bon Iver; music from Beirut’s Zach Condon, Will Oldham, Erlend Øye, Nico Muhly, and something called Songs Without Words, which is essentially “The National without Matt [Berninger, frontman] - just songs we were writing and never finished,” explains Dessner.
“The process, being productive without criticism is a vital part of being an artist... I like this whole idea of showing process and allowing people into the process and publishing music that might be very raw and unpolished. Because the whole world has moved so far down the path of overproduction and polishing music to a point where you can’t hear the humanity in it.”
Right now, PEOPLE is a bit messy and unrefined, but that’s kind of the point.
“It’s a work-in-progress,” Dessner admits. “Definitely an experiment, but so far it’s interesting and eye-opening and very positive.” He likens the experience to the vinyl digging discoveries and bootleg culture of his youth.
“I grew up listening to the Grateful Dead on cassette tapes that were just being passed around. You had to listen to four hours of a concert to find 45 minutes you really loved… it felt alive and nothing was the same.”
That underground spirit defines PEOPLE. It’s not an enterprise designed to compete with streaming majors like Spotify or Apple Music. Quite the opposite, it’s meant to be niche.
Dessner describes it as a “garden” for unfinished work to flourish. A “less pressurised, less commercial” alternative to the traditional, oft complicated, major label methods of licensing and publishing. A non-curated space where musicians have the freedom to do what they want.
“For example: Annie Hamilton, an Australian musician who used to be in a band called Little May, I know them, produced some of their records. I gave Annie a log-in and she posted a track there, that’s how it should work. Then she invites someone else and then they post music."
Those utopian ideals are appealing to artists but what about the audience? Dessner says PEOPLE should excite “active listeners.” Those who prefer to seek out musical discoveries, rather than having them served up by predetermined algorithms or playlists. Fans who nerd out over credits and context moreso than streaming data and chart positions.
“We wanted to create a frame for artists to be able to recreate that three dimensional, living feeling of what it’s like to just go into your favourite record store and look for something and buy it because you like the cover, the liner notes, the essay an artist wrote on the back - that kind of thing.”
“That’s how I fell in love with buying records. I don’t want an algorithm to tell me what I’m going to like… I love Spotify because a whole database of 21st century music is at my fingertips. It’s just very two-dimensional because I personally want to know, who’s playing the bass? Which drummer that was and where it was recorded – all that.”
For Dessner, PEOPLE is a reaction to what he calls the popularity contest of social media. “YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Spotify – all these things [are] based on racking up as many likes or views as you can. ‘What’s the most popular track?’ …These hierarchies that I don’t think are benefiting the art. I think that removing that entirely is a good thing. Big Red Machine is a good example of a project that would not happen without PEOPLE.”
There’s plans to develop a standalone app for the platform, and build in search and playlist functionality, and while its Vernon, Dessner and a small group of people shepherding PEOPLE, “the hope is it grows far away from us and is decentralised, and not about any one core group of artists,” Aaron says.
“The hope is that it can be grassroots collective that is growing horizontally and vertically, growing a deep well of content but also grows laterally, very far away from us, to other corners of the world.”
Including Australia – Dessner wants to replicate the Berlin PEOPLE event Down Under. “We’ve been thinking maybe there’s some way to come down there and do it.”
He namechecks Ben Marshall, Vivid LIVE festival curator and Sydney Opera House’s Head of Contemporary Music, as the man to ‘bug’ about it.
“He’s been a friend of a long time and he was in Berlin, so he might be the one that can [make it happen]. It would be wonderful to emulate and do something like this in Australia and involve a lot of Australian musicians, I think would be the key.”
Big Red Machine is out now.