Indie rocker heroes the National might be best-known as an indie rock act from Brooklyn, New York, but the group’s roots go back to Cincinnati.
Guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner were born in the Queen City and even though Bryce Desnner now lives in Paris, he continues to organize and oversee the annual MusicNOW Festival
It takes place on April 27, 28 and 29. As a bonus, the National will also perform in Cincinnati on April 28 and 29 at an inaugural festival dubbed Homecoming
“MusicNOW originally started 13 years ago at the Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center, which at the time had a new building and a small performance space,” says Bryce Dessner in a recent TransAtlantic phone call. “They asked me to organize a weekend event. It immediately took on the identity that it always has. It’s broad, big tent picture of music as it is in the world now with a focus in particular on new collaboration and works-in-progress. It’s what I like to call creative music. It’s non-genre music. We do things across the spectrum with a focus on contemporary classical and avant-garde music. We’ve done electronic music, and we’ve done some bands with singer-songwriters. The last few years, we’ve been working with the symphony and done orchestral music. It’s become this great way for me to spend time in my hometown and give back to what is actually a really great cultural scene there.”
This year, Dessner says the festival will collaborate with the Contemporary Art Museum and the Cincinnati Art Museum on the visuals. The Cincinnati Ballet will perform, and the Cincinnati Orchestra is participating too.
One highlight will be a Graham MacIndoe photo exhibit at the Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center. The Scottish photographer followed the band in the early days, and his photos of the group have won numerous awards.
“Graham came up while living in Glasgow at the height of punk,” says Dessner. “He’s a huge music fan and has published some books. We met him in the late ’90s through Scott [Devendorf], our bassist who’s a graphic designer. He designed most of our records. Graham shot some of the earliest portraits of the band. The earliest press photos were by him. With our last album, he took some studio shots. This exhibition focuses on his shots of the band that span that time from early in the decade to now.”
The Cincinnati Ballet will team up with Eighth Blackbird and the New York City Ballet’s Justin Peck to present a performance based on Dessner’s “Murder Ballads.”
“Justin [Peck] calls it a sneaker ballet,” says Dessner when asked about the piece. “It’s ballet dancers, but they’re not in points. They wear gym shoes. It’s very athletic. The music is inspired by traditional American folk songs. That will be great. There are three or four other dance works too. I don’t think we’ve done something this ambitious with dance. It’s an exciting element and lends to the idea that this festival is becoming a mini Edinburgh festival. I hope it continues to grow in that way.”
Dessner says that since the National drummer Bryan [Devendorf] moved back to Cincinnati, the band has become more invested in seeing the city prosper, and it made sense for the band to play a bigger outdoor show as part of this year’s MusicNOW.
“Brian is now in town, and he and I started talking about [Homecoming],” says Dessner. “We’ve played at MusicNOW twice before over the years. In the way, it’s started as an antidote or in contrast to the giant rock festivals that we normally play. It’s a more intimate idea of presenting music. This year, that has developed into the idea behind it. We didn’t know where we would do it before. And now we feel like we have so much music that we could build a festival around our music and get bands to play and combine that with the more intimate sets we do at MusicNOW. I’m excited about it. I’ve dreamt of doing an outdoor component. It feels good so far. By comparison, it’s small to other festivals. It’ll be like 10,000 people each day.”
One night, the National will perform its 2007 album, Boxer
, in its entirety.
“We never played it straight through when it came out,” says Dessner. "We’ve become more adventurous in our later years. To be honest, the songs hold up. It’s a really important for the band. It was the moment the band graduated to a larger audience. [The song] 'Fake Empire' was used in Obama’s first campaign. That music definitely feels good to play.”
Ultimately, Dessner says he feels lucky to have the "diverse life that he has."
"When you’re young and in the hard years of touring, you search for relief outside of [the band]," he says. "It’s such a pressure cooker, and it’s damaging to relationships. Keeping our interest outside the band has been good, and we have been able to survive and grow. The important message with the festival is that all this music is important to us and really different from us. If you scratch beneath the surface and look at what’s on the bill, you can see these are essential musicians and composers. It’s rare that a band like the National listens to bands that sound like the National. We search for music that is much further afield, and that’s where we find our most exciting ideas. That’s what I hope the audience will take away from the festivals."