Interview Strength in Numbers: Big Red Machine

Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon’s new album is an ode to the power of collaboration, with the duo confronting mental health, loss and change with the help of Taylor Swift, Sharon Van Etten and more.

Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon were getting towards the end of work on their second album as Big Red Machine when the pandemic hit early last year.

Decamping to Texas, the duo were indulging themselves in their loose, improvisational side-project, which has so far spawned a self-titled debut and allowed them to break free from their more structured existences as members of The National and Bon Iver. What happened to the pair since then, however, feels like somewhat of a fever dream, even for two of indie rock’s most beloved songwriters.

Back in July, Taylor Swift released surprise lockdown album ‘folklore’, co-written and produced by Aaron and featuring a duet with Justin called ‘Exile’. With the creative juices flowing out of control, another album then followed - December’s ‘evermore’ - instantly elevating the former to one of the most sought-after producers on the planet.

“With ‘folklore’ and ‘evermore’, we wrote almost 30 songs, and when you work that hard and you go through that process, you invariably come out of it in good shape,” he says. “I was learning a lot from her, from her acumen and the way she works. She’s just very down to earth and kind, and absurdly talented in a very visceral way.”

The songwriter and producer speaks of an “electricity” in the room when an idea came together between himself and Taylor, one that “didn’t feel any different than any other creative situation with artists”. “I was just really moved by what was happening, and encouraged by how lovely and hardworking she is,” Aaron states, noting that the looming pandemic outside the studio doors added to that feeling of being separate from the real world. “It felt like the world was standing still and time had stopped,” he reflects. “It really felt like this weird life raft, and we were adrift somewhere outside of the music industry.”

Fundamentally, he explains, the process boiled down to a simple idea: “Let’s just make something that we love.” “It felt very similar to how the artists that I’ve known in more indie worlds work, like how The National tries to climb a mountain every time we try to make a record. We feel like we might not get to the top, but we do in the end. It felt like I’d been preparing for that work my whole life.”

Now, the pair’s fruitful collaborative streak continues on ‘How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?’, this month’s second album from Big Red Machine. While the upbeat, glitchy ‘Renegade’ feels like a sibling of ‘evermore’ highlight ‘long story short’, on ‘Birch’, Taylor sits in the background, assisting Justin on a slow and sombre cut.

“Having an open exchange of ideas leads to growth, as opposed to falling in love with your own shadow all the time.”

— Aaron Dessner

The origins of Big Red Machine can be traced back to 2008, when Aaron and Justin wrote a song that ended up becoming the name of their project. The improvisational track, and the band that spawned from it, was an invitation for the pair to lose the inhibitions and creative structures they might use with their other bands, instead following pure feeling.

The duo’s 2018 self-titled debut stayed true to this philosophy; while Justin’s instantly recognisable voice and Aaron’s gorgeous, dusty production were still identifiable, the record allowed them to stray off into lesser-travelled paths, indulging their instinctual tendencies and the improvisational nature that defined the origins of the collaboration.

While Aaron says that ‘How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?’ is far more of a structured record than their debut, the idea of using Big Red Machine to step out of the box and explore sounds, feelings and ways of working that they haven’t allowed themselves to do before remains strong on Album Two.

Over the past decade and more, The National and Bon Iver have travelled from self-contained bands to collaborative tour-de-forces, expanding their creative process to include a small army of regular collaborators. Among those who worked on the new album alongside Dessner, Vernon and Swift are Sharon Van Etten, Lisa Hannigan, Anaïs Mitchell and Fleet Foxes frontman Robin Pecknold. Though principally the project of the two core members, Big Red Machine’s second era is defined by its sprawling cast of contributors, who reworked parts of the songs themselves and created an interweaving universe.

“Maybe it's because I'm a twin, or just a born collaborator, but I tend to feel like having an open exchange of ideas leads to growth and to things getting better, as opposed to falling in love with your own shadow all the time,” Aaron says.

While Big Red Machine sees the pair’s musical friendship group getting bigger, this support network also allowed Aaron to step out alone, singing lead vocals on three tracks for the first time ever. The most striking instance of this is ‘The Ghost Of Cincinnati’, a hushed, Elliott Smith-esque solo effort from the songwriter and producer - a song about “someone who feels like a ghost, stalking the streets of their hometown, interrogating the past and contemplating their fate”.

Of his previous reluctance to step up to the microphone himself, Aaron offers: “It's hard when you're in a band with someone that has a big, charismatic, special voice like [The National frontman] Matt [Berninger]. With Justin and Taylor as well - all these incredible singers - I think I was insecure, and didn't really think of myself as that person.

“I think what I've been finding more recently is that it's actually important to hear what's in my head and let it out,” he adds, cutting to the core of what Big Red Machine is about: a project that sees friends helping friends to confront their demons through strength in numbers.

“[‘folklore’] felt like this weird life raft, and we were adrift somewhere outside of the music industry.”

— Aaron Dessner

Maybe the biggest step forward on the new album, though, is on the song ‘Hutch’, written by Aaron about his late friend and Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchison, who died by suicide in 2018. It’s a song of sadness, but one that brings hope and resolution too, as an army of voices (Sharon Van Etten, Lisa Hannigan and Shara Nova of My Brightest Diamond) rise alongside him and a grand, sweeping instrumental.

“He's the second friend that I lost that way, and I was just really very sad about it,” Aaron reflects. “The music I was playing felt like it was very sad, but almost had a slightly spiritual quality.

“We've all contemplated that fate or sometimes feel scared of depression. It's easy for anyone to slip into a tailspin,” he continues. “There’s also just this feeling of thinking what could you have said, or could you have asked more often how someone is? You’re searching for remedies, and it was heavy.”

Aaron says he wouldn’t necessarily have included ‘Hutch’ on the album if it didn’t feel tinged with hope and resolution. To him, across the track’s creation, it became somewhat of a “communal hymn”. “It's important to remember these things, and the album to me does shine a light on that,” he adds. “Mental health is something that’s been an issue in my life and in my friend’s lives, so if you’re hearing that song in there, it means something.”

The album’s title, ‘How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?’, feels like a question answered through the subsequent record, and an idea that spurs the music on and beckons Aaron and Justin forwards into the future. An album that seems to say, make the most of the time you have, create meaningful work and form lasting relationships along the way.

‘How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?’ is out 27th August via Jagjaguwar / 37d03d.

As featured in the August 2021 issue of DIY, out now. Scroll down to get your copy.

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