How Aaron Dessner found his voice (with help from Taylor Swift)
Big Red Machine is not exactly a band. “For me, it’s like a laboratory for experimentation and also a vehicle to collaborate with friends and try to grow,” Dessner said. “And also to just get back to the feeling of what it’s like when you start to play music – what it’s like to create stuff without really knowing what it is.”
Dessner’s musical imprint is a fondness for patterns: small, evocative patterns that can interlock in complex ways. In the songs The National has released since its debut in 2001, they can be soothing and meditative, or they can allude to the commotion behind a thoughtful exterior. For Dessner collaborators, these small musical cells help to generate larger structures.
“I’m going to surprise myself in small drawings, where I have a feeling you could build some kind of architecture out of it,” he said. “A lot of times there’s something a little weird about the timing, or something that I maybe pulled out of a classic piece that I heard. There is a core, and then I start to to build.
For Dessner, there is also healing in repetition. “When I really started playing music seriously, I was going through pretty severe depression when I was a teenager,” he said. “I wasn’t at all at a disadvantage, there was nothing wrong – it was brain chemistry. I have found playing music this way calming for me. The rhythm and the melody are in this circular way of playing. This is when I feel the best with music. At one point, ideas started to take on stranger time signatures, and there was more experimental sounds around them. But all the same, at the heart of it is this emotional, circular musical behavior. “
Big Red Machine was born out of a fruitful misunderstanding. Dessner wanted to write a song with Vernon for “Dark Was the Night,” a 2009 all-star indie-rock album the Dessner brothers produced for the Red Hot Organization, the nonprofit HIV charity. He sent Vernon a sketch of a song he called “Big red machine” after his hometown baseball team, the Cincinnati Reds; Vernon, ignoring the sports benchmark, instead wrote lyrics on the human heart.
Dessner and Vernon then created and organized the Clear Waters music festival in the mid-2010s and bring together an idealistic music collective style 37d03d (which reads, backwards, as “persons”). In 2018, they released Big Red Machine’s debut album, a set of happily experimental songs featuring Vernon right off the bat, full of cryptic lyrics and electronic effects, and they assembled a jammy live band for a handful of gigs in 2018 and 2019. (A song from the new album, “Easy to Sabotage,” was made up of loud concert improvisations, new Naeem lyrics, and complex computer processing.) Before going on tour in 2020, Vernon convinced Dessner to play in arenas as the opening act for Bon Iver.