The National’s Bryce Dessner Talks about The Long Count, the Breeders, and a New Album

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Brothers Bryce and Aaron Dessner take a break from recording the latest National album this week to perform a new multimedia work at BAM in collaboration with visual artist Matthew Ritchie. In just over an hour, The Long Count tackles such heady ideas as the beginning of time through myth, songs, and raw orchestral power. We caught up with Bryce Dessner to talk about the origins of this ambitious project, how Kim and Kelley Deal got involved, and what to expect from the new National album.

On the origins of The Long Count:

The idea started with Joe Melillo (the executive producer of BAM) asking my brother and I to create something for their Next Wave Festival. I’ve been a fan for years, and have seen a lot of really amazing productions there. It was pretty daunting at first, the idea of presenting something in the opera house. We’ve played there with our band before; it sounds great, and people love going there. But if you’re going to get up and do something for seventy minutes without singing songs people know, it requires a whole other level of thinking about how to present that.

The idea for The Long Count and working with the Mayan creation myth came from Matthew Ritchie, the visual artist who we’re working with. Matthew loves working with music. He’s a large installation artist and does painting, sculpture, and now video. (Check out Ritchie’s animation for the performance here.)

On the story of The Long Count:

It’s definitely abstract. Matthew has been obsessed with a Mayan creation story about hero twins who play a ball game. They are playing so loudly that they wake up the gods of the underworld, and they’re forced to go down and perform a series of tests. It ends up sort of like a horror story, with a lot of beheadings and ritualistic stuff. Eventually the two brothers become the sun and the moon, and that’s the creation of the universe and the beginning of the Mesoamerican calendar — the long count. A lot of New Age theorists say the end of the world is 2012 because the Mayan calendar ends then.

For my brother and I, the piece is very much about the way we play music together. The music is epic. There’s an orchestra on stage and four singers. It’s a seventy-minute piece straight through without stopping. Within that, there are songs and instrumentals. It verges on really loud, ferocious, and almost goth to sounding really sweet and quiet. It’s a pretty big dynamic range.

On getting Kim and Kelley Deal involved:

We met Kim and Kelley Deal doing some fund raising for Obama during the campaign. When we were in high school, we worshiped the Breeders. They come from the same part of Ohio as us. I have these two Breeders cassettes in my car, and had just listened to them when it occurred to me: I should ask them. They might really be into it. It was a shot in the dark, and when they said yes it was really exciting. We knew we wanted it to walk the line between pop music and more experimental instrumental music. [Download the live version of “Bull Run,” with Kelley Deal on vocals]

On his other musical influences:

I have a conservatory background. I studied classical guitar in grad school. My brother didn’t. We’ve been playing music together since we were twelve. He went the way of self-taught and playing in a rock band. When we came to New York, we started the National, and I started Clogs with classically-trained musicians who I met in school. I’ve worked a lot with minimalist and post-minimalist composers. I recently recorded and did a tour with Steve Reich and similar stuff with Philip Glass. That’s certainly informed some of the more notated composed music I do. At the core of it, my brother and I play these interlocking guitar patterns that we explored further for this show. The whole piece has mirroring themes in it that relate back to the twin idea including the fact that there’s actually a massive mirror floor on the stage at BAM in the shape of a baseball diamond.

On what to expect from the new National album:

I’m actually taking a break from recording it right now. We’ve been recording since March, so there has been tons of work done. We have about fifteen songs that are working, and we’re recording about five new ones right now. The Boxer had a restrained darkness about it, and this stuff doesn’t feel like that. Matt Berninger is singing out and jumping up into some octaves that I’ve never heard him sing in, so that’s one thing for sure. All the elements of what we sound like are there, but I would like to think — we always think of it song by song and trying to push ourselves further with our songwriting.

Photo credit: David Kressler