Bryce Dessner tells Ed Power why his band are so happy to be involved in the Sounds From A Safe Harbour festival in Cork
THIS weekend one of the biggest bands in the world begin their world tour at Cork Opera House. With a capacity of about 1,000. the venue overlooking the River Lee is a tenth the size of the arenas The National usually play. Moreover, when they step on stage on Saturday it will be to debut material from their new LP, Sleep Well Beast — rightly hailed as among the group’s strongest yet. In all sorts of ways, having them in Cork is a coup.
So what brings an outfit routinely, if reductively, described as the “American Radiohead” to the city? For the answer, look over the shoulder of frontman Matt Berninger, to guitarist Bryce Dessner.
He fell in love with Cork on a previous visit and has channelled that passion into a genre-hopping festival, Sounds From A Safe Harbour (organised in conjunction with former Opera House chief executive Mary Hickson).
Safe Harbour debuted in 2015, when Bryce and his twin brother Aaron (The National’s second guitarist and in-house producer) were joined by Lisa Hannigan, Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry and others. Twenty-four months later, Dessner is proud to bring the festival back, with an arguably even stronger line up, including a rare
performance, tomorrow, by Bon Iver.
“To play a more intimate show in Ireland in a small venue is a lot of fun for us,” says Bryce.
“The first Sounds From A Safe Harbour went really well. We had great audiences. Cork is such a beautiful place. Mary Hickson and I wanted to do it again. It took an extra year to think through how we would do it.”
The National all hail from the city of Cincinnati, though are now scattered across the globe (Dessner lives in Paris, Berninger in Los Angeles). While he doesn’t want to overstate the similarities, Dessner feels there are parallels between his home town and Cork. Both are smaller cities with a friendly population and deep love for music.
“It does have a river running through it,” he says of Cincinnati. “There is a lot of green. Maybe there is a little in common. There’s a camaraderie in Cork that reminds me of the good side of the [American] Midwest.”
Radiohead comparisons have become commonplace as The National have grown in popularity. But their true forerunners are arguably REM, another band from a relatively obscure part of the US whose commercial break-through arrived deep into their career.
The National had been around for almost a decade before their popularity reached a critical mass — a December 2002 gig at Cork’s Triskel, for instance, saw them almost literally play to two men and a dog.
But now they’re bone fide stars. The week before travelling to Ireland, they performed Sleep Well Beast in its entirety on NPR radio in the US, alongside appearances on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert and CBS This Morning.
The ultimate honour was meanwhile bestowed on the group in 2012 when they graced the soundtrack to Game of Thrones.
Off stage they are conspicuously anonymous — but make no mistake, in the realm of thoughtful, grown-up rock, they are superstars.
That Sleep Well Beast is perhaps their most dynamic record in years is due in no small part to Dessner. Within the group he has the nickname ‘Switzerland’ — he tends to be peacemaker between his twin and the equally stubborn Berninger.
Still, on this occasion, it was he who put his foot down. The previous several National albums — though of stunning depth and thoughtfulness — were assembled relatively piece-meal , with individual members toiling over their contributions in isolation.
On this occasion, Bryce wanted a more organic and rough-at-the-edges sensibility. So he had Aaron — a respected producer outside of the band — build a studio, into which the group was corralled for an old fashioned, spit and sawdust recording session.
“We were over the last several years more and more isolated,” Bryce explains.
“My brother and I were writing separately. Matt was writing separately. It was very compartmentalised — which worked. But I wanted to push through into some new spaces, sonically. This is a more collaborative album. My brother built a studio where we could all be and could go crazy after a few days. It’s not that we are not proud of the other records. We felt we had done as much in that direction as we could.”
Safe Harbour isn’t just about the big names. The visual art, dance and video installation components and the real gems, arguably, are further down the bill. Dessner has a parallel career as writer, arranger and performer of contemporary (ie modern classical) music. Indeed, it was through contemporary music the Yale-educated player earned a living when The National were still bumping along in the club circuit.
To that end, he has arranged for one of his favourite contemporary groups, Dublin’s Crash Ensemble to premiere a new collaboration by Emily Hall and playwright Enda Walsh this Friday at the Everyman. The concert will also feature actor Cillian Murphy and works by Linda Buckley and Bryce himself.
“It’s quite an exciting event,” he says, agreeing that it is important the festival showcase new original works. “We have an amazing team. That event really is the centre-piece of the festival this year.”
Dessner has curated large-scale musical events in the past. He oversees the Music Now festival in Cincinnati. He has also programmed innovative bills in Berlin and Copenhagen. But these are major European capitals — rather than the second city of a small(ish ) country. Why Cork?
“I’ve been several times and I know Cork well,” he says. “It’s a small city in a country that has one of the best audiences for live music in the world. Music is of outsize importance in Ireland.
“You measure the size of the country compared to its influence, whether that be in pop music or Irish traditional music or contemporary classical — and it’s really quite profound. That is something that draws artists… We also find the people really warm and open and curious.”
Harbour Lights: best of the weekend
Crash Ensemble perform Linda Buckley, Bryce Dessner and Emily Hall (with text by Enda Walsh), opened by Cillian Murphy. Friday, 7pm
Lisa Hannigan with RTE Symphony Orchestra and Aaron Dessner, Thursday, 8pm
Bon Iver, Friday 10pm
The National, Saturday10pm
Iarla Ó Lionáird and Steve Cooney, Saturday, 7.30pm
Saint Sister, Slow Moving Clouds, Sunday, 7.30pm
The Possibilities Are Endless film screening, introduced by Cillian Murphy, Saturday, 5pm.
Ragnar Kjartansson: Guilt Trip
Some of the big gigs are sold out, but several of the stars will be showing up at the smaller free gigs that will also feed into the collaborative vibe around the festival.
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