"It's more about reconnecting with what it feels like to make music with friends for the first time..." - hmv.com talks to Big Red Machine
Aaron Dessner is best-known to most as the guitarist and one of the founding members of Grammy-winning band The National, with whom he has so far recorded and released eight studio albums over the last two decades.
In recent years, however, Dessner has been on something of a surreal creative journey that has taken him from forming a band with Justin Vernon - better known as Bon Iver - and striking up a somewhat unlikely creative partnership with Taylor Swift which has seen him producing no fewer than three of her albums in just the last 18 months, including her re-recorded version of Fearless and the pair of albums Swift released in 2020 - Folklore and Evermore.
After the emergence in 2018 of Dessner and Vernon's self-titled debut album together as Big Red Machine, the pair continued working together on new songs, releasing a collaboration with REM frontman Michael Stipe just last year.
This week Big Red Machine unveil their second album How Long Do You Think It's Gonna Last?, which features contributions from several artists including Taylor Swift and American singer, songwriter and playwright Anaïs Mitchell, to name just a couple.
The new album arrives in stores this Friday (August 27) and ahead of its release, we spoke with Aaron Dessner about its creation, his work with Taylor Swift, and why the COVID pandemic has led to one of his most prolific creative eras...
It’s been three years since you and Justin made your first record together – when did you begin putting together material for a follow-up?
“We actually started making new songs as soon as we finished the first record. I'm always recording instrumental ideas and building what I call 'sketches', and I share these with different friends, which is how the process starts.”
What was the starting point for this new album? Did it begin with a particular song or idea that set the direction for what you wanted to do?
"I think once we made the song 'Reese', which was in Spring 2019, we knew we were making another record. We kept wanting to play that song live without stopping for 45 minutes."
How does making a Big Red Machine album compare with the way you’d work with The National?
“I think Big Red Machine is much looser and less structured than the National process. It's more about reconnecting with what it feels like to make music with friends for the first time, just the weird joy and chemistry you feel bouncing off other people. The National is of course very dear to me, but it's a more tortured and drawn out process generally to make a record.”
From a lyrical point of view there are a few recurring themes; childhood, lost innocence, memory – it feels like a more introspective record than the first, would you agree? Was that triggered by anything in particular?
“I wanted to make something more intentional and song-oriented, and I guess I can only write from an emotional place. I was thinking about the past and what happens to some families over time, you lose people and obviously, there are so many ups and downs to adult life, and how I miss the innocence of childhood or sort of idealise it when I see my children.”
We understand your studio in Hudson Valley is where you usually record everything these days – has the pandemic interfered with that at all? Was there anything different about the way you approached making this record?
“I am one of the few people who maybe benefitted from the pandemic in an odd way, just being home and not on tour meant I could be so much more productive. I can roll out of bed and into the studio and I found myself in this prolific state of mind creatively. It definitely meant that I was able to push this Big Red Machine album further than maybe I would have. And obviously, I made a lot of other music over the last two years also.”
As with the first album, there are lots of outside collaborators involved – Anaïs Mitchell appears on several songs, how did she get involved and why do you think she’s ended up playing such a big part on the new record?
“Anaïs is one of Justin and I's favourite songwriters and she's been part of our community for some time. We always imagined she could be part of this and suddenly there were the right ideas for her to come in and write words and finish them with us. She's a huge part of the record, bookending with 'Latter Days and 'New Auburn' which give so much meaning and context.”
Taylor Swift also appears on two of the album’s tracks – that might’ve seemed like an unlikely collaboration not too long ago, but it seems like a creative partnership that has produced a lot in a very short space of time. How did that first start to develop?
“Taylor approached me last Spring about possibly collaborating remotely and I just sent her a big folder of instrumental sketches I was working on. A few hours later she sent me 'Cardigan' which she had written to one of them. We never really looked back. It's hard to believe how many songs we have finished in about a year but it was the most natural - and surreal - creative experience I have ever had.
“The work just bled over into Big Red Machine organically also. Taylor feels like part of our creative family and was a huge influence on this record both in terms of her contributions and her feedback and encouragement.”
As for the rest of the guests on the album, has it been a case of you guys reaching out to people you want to work with, or people reaching out to you?
“Most of the people on the record are artists we have made records with before or dreamed about making records with like Robin Pecknold. But it was a very casual process. There was no master plan. It just came together gradually.”
The was the track you did with Michael Stipe last year too – was there any particular reason that didn’t end up on the album?
“I love the song Michael and I wrote, 'No Time for Love Like Now', but it felt like it's own thing and sort of outside of this record. I hope we get to make more songs together.”
Obviously touring is still a bit of a challenge at the moment, but what sort of live shows can we expect? Will you be able to involve many of the guest artists too?
“I hope someday we can play all of these songs properly with as many of the musicians and vocalists as possible. I think it could happen maybe next year or the year after. We'd like to do it in a high production situation where we have time to rehearse and play multiple times.”
How Long Do You Think It's Gonna Last? is available in hmv stores from Friday August 27th - you can also find it here in our online store.