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Published: 2016/05/20
by Mike Greenhaus

A Day of The Dead Deep Dig with the Dessners

It’s been a long, strange trip from the New York City-art scene that nurtured The National during their infancy to their new, expansive tribute to the Grateful Dead, but it’s also been a natural evolution. Long before they were indie-darlings, four members of The National—twin guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner and the rhythm section of Scott and Bryan Devendorf—learned to play their instruments to the Dead’s music and the quintet have survived the blog-bubble to emerge as unassuming heirs to the Dead’s storied songbook and harbingers of interfaith indie-jam cool. After a lifetime of listening to bootlegs, four years of recording and a few encounters with Bob Weir himself, the Dessners called on an eclectic mix of contributors to create Day of the Day, a 59-song tribute to the Grateful Dead and their storied songbook. (The National singer Matt Berninger appears with the rest of his bandmates on a few full-band tracks as well as a live cut that draws in Weir himself.) The members of The National are featured on the cover of the April_May issue of Relix (which is available here ) where they discuss Day of the Dead’s evolution and the album’s deep ties to the band’s own genesis. In these additional interviews, the twins dig deeper into their recording process and discuss how The National emerged at the forefront of the glimmering, Grateful Dead world.

You mentioned that you had recorded around seventy tracks and I see over here it’s fifty-nine tracks. Were there other tracks that you guys had started the work on that you never finished or tracks that were ideas that were never put together?

Aaron Dessner: There are more tracks than what you have. There are some we didn’t finish essentially and at some point we had to call it, probably because it became an endeavor and we could keep going forever.

Bryce Dessner: There were other things in the works that we just couldn’t finish. Almost a third of the artists we would’ve loved to be on it, but we just couldn’t. We just needed to finish it. Obviously there are a handful of really important songs that aren’t on it, but we felt like you can’t just sort of touch the surface, so we wanted to go deep. Once we felt like we’d gotten it deep, it just became about making the best record we could and at a certain point we just had to call it and draw the line.

As for it being released on a vinyl as well as a stream, is it still going to be released as a complete set or are you thinking of breaking off various sections of it for different releases?

Aaron: I think the idea is that the vinyl will be one complete package with ten or eleven vinyl. The vinyl sequence, the digital sequence and the CD sequence are all a different medium, so with the vinyl we thought even more about it like a setlist. Then the digital sequence is actually in three volumes as lighting, thunder and sunshine. I don’t know if it will actually be called that on iTunes, but we’re going to organize them in our brains that way.

Could you talk about some of the tracks in specifics that utilized the house band you put together for this and also some of the players that were involved?

Aaron: There were two churches, one near Woodstock and the other in Hudson, New York. They’re Dreamland, which is a 19th century church in West Hurley, which is a little southeast of Woodstock. It’s an amazing, pretty special studio where I made The Lone Bellows record and the Frightened Rabbit record, so I’ve gotten used to working there. There was sort of a house band, which was Bryan and Scott from The National and myself, Josh Kaufman, Sam Cohen and Walt Martin from The Walkmen playing the keys. So we were actually set up like a band playing live in the church recording almost no overdubbing. So I would I say almost half, if not more than half of the songs were recorded that way. Then there’s another batch of songs recorded with Chris Bear and Daniel Rossen from Grizzly Bear, Scott from The National on bass, I was playing guitar and Josh Kaufman was also playing guitar. So that was sort of a smaller version of the house band. Then there were also a bunch of tracks done in the garage, my studio in Brooklyn, like “Ripple,” The Walkmen track, “Althea” and “Til the Morning Comes.” It’s such a big record there’s kind of a story to each one.

Were the Mumford and Sons contributions recorded while they were recording at your house in Brooklyn?

Aaron: No, I actually did “Friend of the Devil” with them in Manhattan in March last year, two days after my son was born. We really had to figure out when we could all be there so we did that in two days in this studio in Manhattan, but it was after their record had already been recorded. Another track was actually with one of the members of Mumford and Sons, which we did part of in the garage and they did part of it in the UK.

I know when we talked a few months ago you also mentioned there were some parallel sessions going on in Wisconsin with Justin Vernon and his crew of musicians. Were there other tracks that he recorded at his studio or was that the only one that made it on the record?

Aaron: Well that one was kind of the focus. “Brown Eyed Woman” was going be done there but it actually ended up being recorded, I believe, in Nashville, so there was a similar crew of people on it, although not Justin.

How did you and Justin first cross paths and become so close? Was it through the Red Hot project you did a few years ago? Was that the first time you guys worked together?

Aaron: We invited him. We kind of got into his first record early, and then obviously he started blowing up, but before that even happened we had invited him to a be part of it. He had sent us “Brackett WI,” that amazing track, and he did it pretty quickly so I just sent him the music for “Big Red Machine,” which was just a microphone on my floor with me playing this out of tune piano in my living room. A couple months later, I got an email and it was a fully written song. Bryce and I were born the year the Cincinnati Reds beat the Yankees in 1976 in the World Series and that was kind of the height of the Big Red Machine. But he interpreted that to mean heart, so the metaphor in the song is actually a beating heart. He came the next year to Bryce’s festival in Cincinnati and just played with us and a bunch of other musicians, almost a spontaneous set, but it was one of the best concerts I’ve ever been a part of or seen. He invited a lot of the same musicians out to Eaux Claires and they became a part of the record. We spent a lot of time together and we have a lot of friends in common and started this festival. Maybe Midwestern roots or something meant that we had a lot in common.

I believe that all the ones that are proper National tracks are actually traditional songs that The Grateful Dead arranged and made their own but were actually not Grateful Dead originals. Was that a coincidence or did you purposefully try to choose some songs that weren’t written by Garcia, Hunter, Weir, Lesh and company?

Aaron: I think in every case singers try to figure out what works for them. We knew we wanted to do “Morning Dew.” Garcia is such a brilliant folklorist. That was always one of my favorite parts of him as a musician and The Grateful Dead, the way that they played a lot of the stuff. You know like “Jack-A-Roe,” “Peggy-O,” the “Shady Grove” stuff that Garcia did and all the different aspects to him as a musician. Part of this was about trying to shine a light on what was important to us about The Grateful Dead. Part of that is this exposure to folk songs and other traditional songs.

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