Exclusive interview with The National's Aaron and Bryce Dessner

 

Aaron and Bryce Dessner, identical twin brothers and twin guitarists for their band The National, are so in synch that their dialogue can, apparently, be difficult for outsiders to understand.

Their bandmates call this secret dialect “pillow talk”. The same shared understanding is evident in the Dessners’ compositions; fortunately, however, their musical language is more easily comprehensible than their conversations: melancholic, euphoric, haunting, beautiful. “I can stare at Bryce’s hands while he plays,” says Aaron, “and immediately play something that’s intertwined, and vice versa. It makes playing music together really exciting, because we never have to teach each other anything.”

When the brothers were commissioned to produce a collaborative work for the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s genre-busting “Next Wave” festival last year, they naturally gravitated towards the subject of twins. “We definitely wanted a piece grounded in our own relationship,” Aaron continues, “and our musical relationship is inseparable from our personal one.” Working with visual artist Matthew Ritchie, they created a multi-media performance based on a Mayan creation myth, the protagonists of which are a pair of hero twins. The Long Count – a combination of concert, dance and a 70-minute film – is now coming to The Barbican for three nights in February.

Like the Barbican or Southbank Centre in London, BAM has long been a seed-bed for innovative new theatre, movement and musical work, and previously nurtured the careers of choreographers such as Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch, and composers Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Meredith Monk. The annual Next Wave Festival encourages such artists to produce progressive new work collaboratively, and on a large scale. When BAM approached Bryce (whose side-projects include composing for the Kronos quartet) to take part, he immediately asked Aaron to join him, and the two soon picked out Ritchie as their natural third partner.

Ritchie, who is British but based in New York, had already worked with the Dessners, when they played improvised guitar as part of his installation at the White Cube Gallery in 2009. “Matthew designed the set and created the story behind The Long Count,” Bryce explains. “He tends to make large-scale installation work – sculpture, painting, film – much of which is based on epic narratives. He has worked a lot with Paradise Lost, and with this particular Mayan creation myth, ‘Popol Vuh’, which he’s been adapting into something resembling song lyrics for more than 10 years. The songs in the show are based on those texts. It doesn’t have a clear narrative; it’s pretty abstract, and based on a pre-modern story that was never told in a traditional way. But it’s a vehicle for our collaboration.”

The Dessner twins were born in 1976 and grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, where they shared a bedroom, bathwater and a baseball card collection. At 13, the brothers met Bryan Devendorf, now the drummer in The National, while playing together for their middle-school basketball team. Devendorf, whose own brother Scott plays bass in the band, has said of the Dessners that they “make rock ’n’ roll into sports competition”. Their fondness for competitive sport is another reason why the twins were drawn, like Ritchie, to Popol Vuh.

In one strand of the stories, the hero twins, Hunahpú and Xbalanqué, play a ball game, thus awakening the gods of the underworld. “They go through a series of very gory tests, which result in the creation of the universe,” says Bryce. As boys, he and Aaron were fanatical about a more local myth: that of the Cincinnati Reds baseball team. “1976 was the second year of the famous ‘Big Red Machine’ team, which will mean nothing to people in England – but in America it’s modern mythology.”

The music in The Long Count is based on games, Bryce goes on: “There are some simple chases, which is often how Aaron and I play guitar: in simple, canon-like figures. We normally play something slightly off from each other rhythmically, by a note or a measure, and most of the music comes out of those playful, mirroring sequences. So the guitar pieces have certain qualities that we like to think reflect our own personal narrative and our way of making music together. There’s some physical movement in the show, too: at a certain point, for instance, we have a tug of war with a guitar suspended on the rope, to symbolise the game that gets out of control. We wanted a dramatic arc to the music. You go see a band and it tells a story; this, for us, is just a different way of doing that.”

Much of the movement in the piece was choreographed by the twins’ older sister, Jessica Dessner, a modern dancer who, says Aaron, “is probably the reason we started listening to what she’d describe as ‘cool’ music when we were younger: The Pixies and The Cure and The Smiths.” The Dessners have also enlisted a number of musical collaborators for The Long Count, including fellow identical twins Kim and Kelley Deal – of The Breeders and, in Kim’s case, The Pixies. “We grew up about 40 minutes south of where Kim and Kelley live in Dayton, Ohio,” says Aaron, “and we’ve always been obsessed with The Pixies and The Breeders, so they’re heroes of ours. And they’re also twins, so it was logical to ask them to take part. We spent a lot of time in Kim Deal’s basement in Dayton working on ideas.”

Meanwhile Matt Berninger, lead singer for The National, contributed his vocal chords to one song for the project (“the only song we’ve ever written with Matt for which he didn’t write the lyrics,” says Bryce). And Shara Worden, a classically trained singer who performs as a singer-songwriter under the name My Brightest Diamond, appears in The Long Count, masked and dressed magnificently to sing the soprano part of a bird demon, Vucub-Caquix. Berninger and Kim Deal will be absent from the London incarnation of the show, with Kelley Deal singing her sister’s parts, and Berninger’s shoes filled by Tunde Adebimpe, of acclaimed Brooklyn band TV on the Radio. A new song has been written with Adebimpe, and some substantial extra musical sections added. “The piece is still evolving, which is part of what’s fun about it,” says Aaron.

In time, The Long Count is likely to be recorded for a physical release, as an LP and a DVD, though their busy schedules have prevented that from happening thus far. The National has just finished a 20-month tour following its 2010 album High Violet, and the Dessners have also scored a forthcoming feature film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur. Bryce, a classically trained guitarist who studied music at Yale, is composing for the Amsterdam Symphonietta, a Dutch string orchestra whose summer concert tour will also feature music by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead. Aaron, whose background is in jazz and alt-rock, has produced an album for rising star and singer-songwriter, Sharon van Etten, and intends to collate a follow-up to Dark Was the Night – a 2009 compilation album, curated by the Dessners, which raised more than $2m for AIDS charities. The twins also run their own New York record label, Brassland.

2012, then, promises to be a busy year, provided the world doesn’t end – as predicted by the Mayan calendar. That The Long Count should be performed on such an auspicious date is, the Dessners insist, mere coincidence. “If anything,” says Aaron, “the hoopla around 2012 was a reservation when we came to work with Mayan myth. Now that we’re actually doing it in 2012, it is quite funny. But I hope the world doesn’t end.”

The Long Count will be performed at the Barbican in London on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th February.

Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us