BEFORE a crackling fire in a castle antechamber straight out of Game of Thrones, Aaron Dessner is explaining why his band, The National, probably aren’t breaking up.
“Our next record really could be our best record — or we may not make any records again,” muses the guitarist, dressed head to toe in tweed.
We’ve been circling the fact that the group’s leader, Matt Berninger, is about to embark on a new project entitled El Vy. It is to be his inagural excursion outside The National. Fans worry what this may portend.
“I think we will make another record,” nods Dessner, who has composed the majority of The National’s music through the outfit’s 16-year existence.
“What I mean is, everyone is taking a bit of a break. It’s a first for us. Maybe some people are starting to worry — ‘What’s up with The National?’ The truth is, we’re closer than than ever.”
Dessner is in Lismore Castle, Co Waterford, where he is collaborating with Co Meath singer Lisa Hannigan on her next LP (he will produce and co-write the project).
Also here is his twin Bryce, about to curate the Sounds From A Safe Harbour festival in Cork — a four day celebration of the musical avant-garde with performances by Wild Beasts, Julianna Barwick, My Brightest Diamond and an Irish premiere of ‘Wave Movements’, an orchestral piece by Bryce Dessner and Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire.
In a few hours, the assembled musicians — among them Hannigan, Laurel Sprengelmeyer of the band Little Scream and Canadian violinist Yuki Numata are to present several just completed (or semi completed) works to a sell out attendance of approximately 120 in the castle’s banqueting hall (even more Game of Thrones than the living room where Aaron and I chatted).
Here, the half dozen or so players proceed lightly through an evening of chamber pop, minimalist classical music and skewed folk.
Setting aside the stunning setting, there’s a real sense that you are witnessing something special — particularly the performance by the Dessner brothers of Garcia Counterpoint, a fugue-like splicing of Steve Reich and the Grateful Dead (it goes down well with the Duke of Devonshire, Stoker Cavendish, seated unobtrusively just across from me).
Of the new pieces, the most immediately striking is a composition by Aaron Dessner and Lisa Hannigan that, in the healthiest sense, suggests Hannigan fronting The National.
The residency was conceived by Lismore Castle owner William Cavendish and Eamonn Maxwell, director of the castle’s arts programme (Lismore has maintained a gallery since 2005) and was conceived explicitly to complement Sounds From A Safe Harbour, opening Thursday with a show at Cork Opera House by Choice music prize winners The Gloaming.
“It is an unbelievable historic castle filled with beautiful art,” says Aaron Dessner, reflecting on a week spent at Lismore, refining songs and trying new ideas in the artists’ retreat the castle owners have established.
“It does elevate what you are doing in some ways — the acoustics are really nice and the building is beautiful. It’s very different from where I grew up. You try to keep your feet on the ground as a musician. I couldn’t imagine my life being like this.”
“You take inspiration from all sorts of places,” he continues. “Friendship is a big part of it. An environment such as this is fertile also — the landscape is beautiful and has inspired many generations. You can feel the legacy all around.
“This family [the Cavendish dynasty] have always has a passion for the arts. There is no material interest for them [in the retreat]. They’re doing it because they think it’s a nice thing to share.”
When Bryce Dessner and Lismore Castle came together to plan the residency last year (which they hope to continue into 2016 and beyond) it was decided a visual component was essential. To that end, Dessner’s friend, Canadian artist Marcel Dzama, is showing at the adjoining gallery.
Seated on a bench in Lismore’s courtyard (not usually open to the public) the Canadian appears as overwhelmed as the Dessners by the castle’s Narnia-like beauty (though Lismore was originally built by Prince John in 1185, the present structure, with its whimsical flourishes and eye-catching profile, is a mock gothic affair largely constructed through the 19th century).
This by no means Dzama’s first collaborations with musicians. In fact, his ties to rock and roll run deep. He created the sleeve art for Beck’s Guero and Guerolito albums and is friendly with Kim Gordon, ex of Sonic Youth. Oh yes — he also appeared in a Bob Dylan video.
“There’s one scene where you can see me playing tennis with Scarlett Johansson,” he says giggling (the only appropriate response if you’re been filmed playing tennis with Scarlett Johansson for a Bob Dylan video).
Back in the throne room, Aaron Dessner admits to pre-concert nerves. He was last in this part of the world to play to thousands with The National at Cork’s Live At the Marquee. The prospect of road-testing new material is far more terrifying.
“Weirdly you get as nervous for this as you would for bigger shows,” he says. “It’s much easier to play songs you’ve performed maybe a hundred times already, rather than songs you’ve only played once. That being said, it’s still really exciting.”
‘Exciting’ is a word you’ll probably hear a lot more of in Cork over the next few days.
Sounds From A Safe Harbour runs from Thursday to Sunday in Cork. soundsfromasafeharbour.com