W W W. C R A F T BY U M H . C O M Aaron Dessner is a busy man. If you don’t believe that, try writing an introduction for him. Saying he’s based in upstate New York is like say- ing there are airplanes based at LaGuardia. While that may be technical- ly true, catching either at home base can be tricky. He produces records, curates several music and arts festivals, runs a digital music platform, writes film scores— and those are just his side gigs. As a founder, gui- tar player, and creative force behind The National he’s seen his band transform from the latest indie rock darling to an indie rock staple. So much so in fact, that even a hyper-commercialized music industry that typically undervalues their brand of creativity saw fit to bestow them with its biggest prize this year. CRAFT was able to catch up with Dessner to ask him about the award and a few other things. First off, congratulations on your first Grammy win earlier this year for Sleep Well Beast. It seems like on this album the recording process was a bit more relaxed than it normally is for you guys. Was that the case and if so did this Grammy validate this change in your process? The album was definitely a more experimental process, and there was a lot more room for that. For one, because I built this recording studio in upstate New York on a farm that we live on. It was built with recording in mind, so it’s a great place to hang out. Everybody can stay on the farm, and everything is wired so that anyone can be play- ing at any time. It’s not a formal recording studio, it’s more like a mixture of an open visual arts studio and a recording studio. The space feels very open, and there’s a lot of glass so you’re looking out at nature. I think that affected the process, and we were just having a better time. It was more relaxed. But, when you get to the end there was still a lot of tension when you have to actually finalize something. There’s a lot of things that happen at the very end when you’re trying to marry the music to whatever Matt, who sings and writes the words, is doing. We work very separately for long peri- ods of time. It was great to see it actually come together. It was a funny thing to win a Grammy at this point because we’ve made a lot of records. Do you think the next time you go back into the studio that will put any more pres- sure on you, or maybe it takes pressure off because you’ve gotten that validation? I think it’s neutral. We have friends who’ve won Grammys, and friends, who I consid- er to be brilliant, that haven’t even been nominated. Sufjan Stevens, for example, who I think is one of the greatest songwriters of our generation hasn’t been nominated. He’s been nominated for an Oscar, actually. Grammy nominations are a very com- mercial accolade. I don’t think the nomination is representative of the quality of art that you’re making. The hardest thing for us is to make something that we can all see ourselves in and that we all feel is a level of craftsmanship and quality that we can re- ally get behind. That’s elusive. We throw away so many songs. We have to really work hard to get to a point where there’s an album of stuff that’s working. That mountain is always going to be there to climb. I don’t think having a Grammy or not having a Grammy is going to motivate us one way or the other. But, it’s obviously nice and we’re thankful. We realize how lucky we are to have gotten this far and still be playing good shows and writing good songs. A lot of bands we came up with are not around anymore, or they haven’t sustained in the same way, so we feel very thankful for that. You guys hit the headlines back in 2013 when you played the song “Sorrow” for six straight hours at MoMA. Was there any moment during that performance when you thought maybe this was a mistake? Did anyone in the band get PTSD afterward? Yeah, definitely. It was after two hours, then after four hours, and then after five hours. There were these milestones. I remember my fingers started to bleed a lit- tle bit and Bryan’s back gave out. But it was kind of transcendent. The artist, Ragnar Kjartansson, who’s an amazing Icelandic visual artist and performance artist, is very strong conceptually. I think he knew the song would take on this deeper meaning through repetition and become almost like a spiritual experience. And it did. Just the words repeated over and over felt like a six-hour prayer or something. It was mov- ing. We thought people would just come and go, but most people stayed for the whole time. So it was pretty interesting. It was a six-hour concert of one song. Experimentation seems pretty important to the band, and to you in particular. Has it been hard to protect that ability to experiment from the pressures that come with success? Or has the success given you breathing room to do more experimentation? That’s a good question. I would say for the most part successes have provided more breathing room to do more experimentation. We’re very lucky in that sense. My brother and I have often done a lot of stuff that’s more in the art world and more in the composed music world where it’s not so much about what’s popular. More and more we’re seeking out opportunities that are just music for music’s sake or collabo- rations with people that, whatever they do, they do it with integrity and independence. The National has never tried to write any hits, and we never signed any bad record contracts or anything like that. Every decision we’ve made I feel like has been in the interest of making the best possible music that we can make and care about, without really thinking about what’s commercial. I think in that sense, we’ve always had a lot of freedom. The more that I can find ways to be stimulated as a musician and to chal- lenge myself the better I feel. Sometimes when you’re on tour for long periods of time, it can get hard. It’s like Groundhog Day or something. Every day is another town. As much as it’s nice to play the songs, there is a point at which you want to just create again. I’m sure. You made a reference to the days when bands would get signed to a bad deal and then get pressured to put out new albums. I’m sure that still happens on some level, but it seems like a lot of that has gone away. Do you think the digital revolution has played a part in that? Yeah, that is true. I think the digital revolution also has in some ways done the op- posite. If it’s hurt anything, it’s that music can get overproduced because it’s so easy with the software now. You’re not on tape, and you don’t have as many limitations. You can suck the life out of something. I call it viral music, because of how accessible streaming is to everyone. There’s so much noise, and there’s so much music coming out. There’s a tendency with pop music to hit you over the head. © Hundred-to-One LLC 2018. All rights reserved.