As he gets ready for the Safe Harbour festival, Bryce Dessner tells Ed Power about his plans for the event, his love of Cork, and life in The National.
EVERY two years, rock star Bryce Dessner steps outside his life as guitarist in The National. He flies from his home on America’s west coast to Cork, for the Sounds From A Safe Harbour festival. To the Irish music-going public this is a singular opportunity to give themselves over to a weekend of horizon-expanding music. For Dessner it is both an escape from the tumult of The National and also, in a sense, a journey home.
“I know Cork now,” he says. “It’s such a beautiful place. The festival has become an important punctuation in my life. I really look forward to it and miss it the year it doesn’t happen. It’s super exciting to come back.”
Sounds From A Safe Harbour 2019 welcomes an all-star line up of left-of-centre talent. Damien Rice, Ireland’s eternally enigmatic troubadour, will be in town. He’s joined on the bill by indie siren Leslie Feist. Dessner meanwhile will present a suite of contemporary music at Cork Opera House on the Saturday, including a classical piece by his friend Thom Yorke of Radiohead.
Don’t Fear The Light — named for the Yorke composition — is a collaboration between Dessner, guitarist David Chalmin and French minimalist pianist siblings Katia and Marielle Labèque. As with the rest of the festival programme, it has been curated by Dessner working with his twin (and fellow National guitarist) Aaron Dessner, festival co-founder Mary Hickson, actor Cillian Murphy and playwright Enda Walsh.
“It’s been a really beautiful process of getting to know him and perform with him,” says Dessner of his relationship with Radiohead’s perpetually inscrutable frontman.
“Watching him work, hearing the way he makes sound… As much as I’ve always loved his work I love and appreciate him more now. He’s a profoundly beautiful and important and uncompromising artist. And also a very sweet person.”
Dessner was just starting in music when Radiohead released their two masterpieces: OK Computer in 1997 and Kid A in 2000. Each was the sound of artists trying to redefine what it means to be a headline rock band.
Twenty years later, The National find themselves wrestling with the same conundrum: how do you fill arenas and top the bill at festivals without becoming a pastiche of yourself? Dessner and his bandmates have responded to the challenge in a manner no less singular than Radiohead’s, as demonstrated recently by their richly avant-garde eighth studio album, I Am Easy to Find.
“Radiohead, like Steve Reich or Philip Glass… they are voices you can’t really imitate,” says Dessner. “They are so much their own sound. If anything, we’ve tried to steer clear of that as a rock band. You brush up against that and you go, ‘Oh we certainly don’t want to copy Radiohead’. [But] the way they’ve been able to create their work without comprising is deeply inspiring. [Kid A]… it was mind blowing.”
The aforementioned Philip Glass and Steve Reich will also feature at the Don’t Fear The Light concert, which takes place at Cork Opera House on Saturday afternoon. Dessner considers Reich a friend and mentor. And he sees both him and Glass as examples of artists defying convention and forging their own path. Every musician could learn from their trail-blazing. They truly ripped it up and started over.
“They were very much shunned by the institutions,” he says. “There weren’t places for them to play. They started their own bands and their own record labels. They have more in common with David Bowie and punk than with the Lincoln Centre and the uptown orchestral world.
“Now obviously they are seen as these maverick masters and have been canonised while they are alive. Which is ironic, as they were shunned in the beginning.”
Dessner has also programmed a tribute to the Mexican-Canadian artist Lhasa del Sela, who passed away in 2010 aged just 37. He’s been a long term admirer of her work and has toiled hard to reclaim her from obscurity. Leslie Feist, Dustin O’Halloran, del Sela’s drummer Andrew Barr are some of the musicians contributing to the performance at Cork Opera House on Sunday night.
“The songs are really timeless,” says Dessner, who adds that the Opera House is perhaps the perfect setting for an homage to del Sela (Leslie Feist will step into her shoes as lead vocalist).
“The audiences in Cork are so open. It’s always surprising what happens. As much as I’m involved in planning I’m inevitably going to hear things I’ve never heard before.”
It’s remarkable that he’s been able to carve out the time. In addition to a new National album he’s put out a contemporary classical record on Deutsch Gramophone, El Chan, and collaborated with songwriter Will Oldham, aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billie, on a gothic folk LP, When We Are Inhuman.
“The band is obviously the busiest thing in my life,” says Dessner. “Typically what happens is we tour and have a few years off. What happened this time is we decided to make a record quickly. Normally we take three years off. This time we decided to do two albums [in two years]. It’s been pretty intense.”
Sounds From a Safe Harbour represents a rare respite for him. Touring with The National all he ever really sees are the insides of arenas, hotels and airports. In Cork he can draw open the curtains and exhale.
“I have friends in Cork that work with us on the festival. I get to take my morning run down by the river. I know my way around. It’s become a familiar place. Like a home.”
The National really shouldn’t be as massive as they are. Their songs can be diffuse and complicated, wrestling with life as it is lived, rather than as historically reckoned with in rock’n roll. But incrementally they have
become superstars. Dessner understands how unlikely it all is.
“We never, ever imagined playing to 1,000 people or 5,000 people or 10,000 people. We’re very grateful and feel very blessed. We try not to take it for granted. Occasionally we slip. We try to really care for the music and for each other. And to be grateful for what we’ve achieved together. To be able to make music with your family, which is what the band is really, is a beautiful experience. To be able to play songs you wrote 20 years ago….”
They are, along with all that, one of those rare rock bands to have found a way to negotiate fame and success while remaining creatively vital. One reason is that these five friends from Cincinnati go back a long way. They also bring disparate personalities: a potential weakness they have turned into a strength.
Bryce and Aaron are the stoic musical prodigies; sibling rhythm section Scott and Bryan Devendorf, the down-to-earth (literal) bros who stop the band ever getting too big for its boots.
And singer Matt Berninger is somewhere in the middle: a strutting frontman who, as he confessed to the Irish Examiner several years ago, is entirely alive to the ridiculousness of being a strutting frontman.
“It keeps it interesting,” says Dessner. “Sometimes it can be hard. We pull in different directions. But we complement each other…and keep each other in check. I would say the new album and the shows feel like a creative pinnacle.”
Before we go, it would be remiss not to ask about rumours Yorke had been approached to play Sounds From A Safe Harbour. “He’s in the middle of a super busy solo tour. He was definitely hoping to. But I think it’s such a busy tour. You never know. As of right now, it’s not meant to happen. He knows we’re here and wishes he could be.”
Sounds From A Safe Harbour runs from September 10–15