Bryce Dessner has both feet on the ground. The legs just do completely different things. Dessner has been part of the indie rock band The National since 2003. He plays guitar, piano and keyboards alongside his twin brother Aaron. On the other hand, the 46-year-old composes classical music and has made a name for himself as a soundtrack expert. Dessner produced the score for the Netflix drama The Two Popes and the survival film The Revenant.
Working with other artists has always been crucial for Dessner. This applies both to his career as a guitarist and to his work as a composer. Dessner has played with indie darling Sharon van Etten, Sufjan Stevens and Paul Simon, among others. As a producer he was responsible for Taylor Swift’s folk album “Evermore” and also in his role as a composer he worked with big names. Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who won an Oscar in 2014 for Birdman, brought Dessner on board a year later for The Revenant soundtrack. ROLLING STONE reaches the ever-busy Bryce Dessner on his phone.
ROLLING STONE: You once said in an interview that you make music to learn something and that you like to be challenged. After 23 years with The National and the same band members, is it difficult to still be challenged?
Dessner: For some reason it’s not difficult at all (laughs). Because we always want to reinvent the wheel – so we try to find new sounds, new ways to work and new artists to work with. There is a word for this in English, “evergreen”, meaning fertile soil that never stops growing. After 23 years, the floor should be old, but surprisingly it isn’t.
ROLLING STONE: In your career you have worked with artists like Taylor Swift, Phillip Glass or Sharon van Etten. How did you get in contact with them?
Dessner: Hm…in different ways. Some come to us because they like our music, but a lot is also possible through joint communities. For example, we lived in New York for a while and I know Phillip Glass from New York, where I played with him in the late 90s and early noughties. Music is just a beautiful force that connects. You can get very close to people very quickly if you share the passion for music.
ROLLING STONE: Is there anyone you would like to work with in the future?
Dessner: To be honest I’m very happy just working with the band right now. We haven’t been able to play a show for two years because of the pandemic so it’s very refreshing to be back on stage, especially with our drummer Bryan Devendorf. For me he is the best drummer there is. It’s great to play with him. Sometimes it’s just nice to come home and make music with your family.
ROLLING STONE: You mentioned Corona: How has the pandemic changed rehearsals with The National?
Dessner: Corona was a difficult time. But maybe we needed a break after 20 years. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if the band would still exist after Corona. As for many bands, it wasn’t an easy situation economically, I think we had to cancel over 100 shows. Because it was so difficult to make music together, we all got busy with other projects. Nevertheless, we are very grateful that we were able to spend this time with our families. We all have young children and it was nice to have a break from the constant travelling. It definitely changed the band, now there’s a new energy.
ROLLING STONE: Were you able to devote yourself to music during Corona or did you have to deal with other things?
Dessner: The band (The National) recorded an album during the pandemic. We actually did it, it’s almost done.
ROLLING STONE: Is there a release date for the album yet?
Dessner: I don’t know when the album will be released, but we’ll play the songs live in the summer. The album is really almost finished, we only take care of small things. It will be released either late this year or early 2023.
ROLLING STONE: Is there already an album title?
Dessner: Yes, there is. Unfortunately, I’m not allowed to say it, otherwise the others will kill me. sorry
ROLLING STONE: In an interview with your brother you once said that you make emotional and pictorial music. How is music rich in images created?
Dessner: It was always clear to us: When we make music, the music has to have a heartbeat. She has to create an emotional connection even before there are lyrics. This applies to a song as well as to classical music. I believe these emotions create images in the minds of the listeners. We often hear that our music is very visual and I take that as a compliment. Music is like a universal language that doesn’t need words or images. She can communicate by herself. But it’s always interesting to see what appeals to the fans and what emotions music can evoke.
ROLLING STONE: You did the soundtrack for the Netflix film The Two Popes and also for The Revenant. How does the work with the directors work? How much freedom do they give you?
Dessner: The great directors I’ve worked with are very open. Iñárritu – I just recently worked with him on his new film due out this year – is probably one of the most inspirational artists. A good director is open to ideas and surrounded by talented people. I would say that about Meirelles (Director of The Two Popes editorial) also say. He didn’t tell me what to do, he let me explore. Controlling were the lesser directors who just wanted me to reproduce a sound.
ROLLING STONE: Speaking of current conflicts, you once said that music is a place of comfort and salvation. In times like these, would you still agree with that attitude?
Dessner: I think artists should be honest. Honest with yourself, but also honest with the audience. I think art is still important now, not only as a place to feel good, but also as a place where honest feelings and emotions can be shared. For me, that is the difference between art and marketing. Marketing always has an ulterior motive. Of course, music only plays a small part in comparison to the incredible suffering people endure, but it can be a balm for the soul.
ROLLING STONE: Is music always political for you, even if it’s explicitly not political?
Dessner: I believe that art can be a form of resistance. I believe that dictatorships or the denial of women’s rights suppress creativity. It’s all a form of oppression. I believe that creativity protests precisely against such forms of oppression. So for me, making art is a form of activism.
ROLLING STONE: Is there any music that you listen to yourself when you’re feeling overwhelmed by political conflict? Or do you prefer to make music yourself?
Dessner: Funnily enough, during the pandemic, I listened to a lot of Japanese ambient music from the 80s. Then, of course, classical music, but not much more current songs, to be honest. It kind of depressed me, while music by 12th-century composers relaxed me.
ROLLING STONE: Because you mentioned that you haven’t listened to much current music, would you say music is a form of escapism for you?
Dessner: Well, I do listen to music from friends or artists I work with. That’s always interesting. I also loved the new Kendrick Lamar album, but I prefer to discover music live. But that wasn’t possible for a long time, which is why I mainly listened to classical music.
ROLLING STONE: It must be easier to listen to live music these days.
Dessner: Yes, we were in Oslo today, we’re playing concerts again and we’re excited to see bands live again. Experiencing music together with people is very important, I think.
ROLLING STONE: How does it feel to be back on tour?
Dessner: Great. After not being able to play for three years, we were back on stage for the first time in Spain. For a long time it wasn’t even clear whether we were allowed to perform at all. Feeling the warmth, the love and the energy on stage again, that was unique, even though we’ve already done so many shows. We were unsure at first because we don’t have a new album for the tour, but it was great to rediscover the old music. We play songs that are 20 years old, songs that are three years old and songs that nobody has ever heard and they all feel new. And the reaction of the audience was something special, it really surprised me.
ROLLING STONE: Did you sense in the audience that people were longing for concerts?
Dessner: Yes, I think so. And songs are like old friends, many people weren’t allowed to see their friends because of the pandemic, and then they can see their old friends again at the performances. “Oh, there you are” – it’s like seeing someone you’ve missed again.
ROLLING STONE: How did it feel for you on stage? Did you feel comfortable straight away or were you still uptight because of the break?
Dessner: Because we’ve performed together so often, there was a lot of routine on stage. And to forget those habits was very healthy for us, I think. We rediscovered a lot and that was very nice.
ROLLING STONE: How do you prepare for a show?
Dessner: We changed that too. There’s a new energy in the band that feels less destructive. Less alcohol, for example. We definitely approach performances in a “healthier” way. For example, we like to explore the city before the show. We look at museums or find nice restaurants. I think before a performance you have to find some kind of connection with the venue. The concert halls are always the same, but the audience is not.
ROLLING STONE: I read that you are a big fan of the city of Cork. Are there any other cities you fell in love with on tour?
Dessner: There were so many cities we got to play in…Brazil, Japan and Mexico were fascinating countries to get to know. It was also great in Berlin, Hamburg and Vienna. One of our first shows was in Innsbruck, where we could explore the mountains and go hiking. Also many small towns in Germany like Heidelberg or Freiberg were really nice. We would never have met them otherwise. When it comes to audiences, Irish fans are definitely the craziest. The same applies to Portugal and Croatia. Concerts there are just amazing – you come on stage and the fans sing louder than you.
ROLLING STONE: You mentioned that you only recently worked with Iñárritu. Is there anything else you are working on right now?
Desner: The two biggest projects are definitely the new “National” album and the soundtrack for Iñárritu. But I also work with my brother from time to time, who produces many albums.