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Eaux Claires 2015 Festival Review: From Worst to Best

on July 20, 2015, 12:00pm
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Interview with Aaron Dessner


One day before Eaux Claires, Aaron Dessner took some time to speak with Amanda Wicks about the reason behind organizing a music festival in Justin Vernon’s backyard, in addition to commenting on his own collaborative projects.

You’re quite the festival producer right now between Crossing Brooklyn Ferry and Boston Calling. What is it about these types of events that fuels your creative spirit?

My brother and I grew up playing music together, and playing little bits on the guitar from the time we were kids, and so our music has always been a product of collaboration, and that kind of grew as we started to play with more musicians. I think some of our most favorite musical experiences have come out of these communal experiences with friends. Even from when we were kids that was sort of the way we socialized, hanging out and playing music. At camp or after school or whatever. So I think it’s just a natural extension of that. I think it allows you to get outside of the routine of touring and playing the same songs in a different city everyday.

We gather a bunch of musicians in one place and also take some risks and try new things. There can be absolutely wonderful experiences when done right, and they can also be absolutely awful. Some of it is happenstance, I think. Justin and I, we met several years ago. When I’d come hang out in Eau Claire, we would talk about doing things and he was a big part of our Dark is the Night project, and was there for that performance and all the rehearsals. It was an amazing time and very formative for all of us. And the same thing happened at MusicNOW in Cincinnati, my brother’s festival, a year later in 2010, and kind offed into all kinds of other things that happened with us.

If you think about all the people we’ve collaborated with and come across and worked with, it’s started in these communal festival experiences, where you’re getting to work on a new project, or your bands are playing the same place or something. I guess that’s how we’ve gotten into it but sometimes when you look back on it, it all seems kind of crazy that we’re doing all these kinds of things, but it’s really fun.

Festival Grounds Eaux Claires Sign_Amanda Roscoe Mayo

Photo by Amanda Roscoe Mayo

Not necessarily crazy, because I love the collaboration involved. To me, that’s what music is all about. What kind of role do you think Eau Claire will play in the festival?

The festival grounds come right up on a river that flows right behind the festival. It’s incredibly lush and green. It’s very beautiful. It’s going to be really special. They’re beautiful campgrounds. I think next year we can get access to more camping, which was really in demand. I’ve been there the last few days and it’s really exciting to see how it’s transformed. When we first went to look at it, it was winter. It was sort of not green, and we really had to picture it, and now it’s even more beautiful than we imagined.

Was that part of the impetus to plan the festival there rather than in a more populous nearby city like Madison or Minneapolis?

For Justin, it’s very much about the nucleus of his creative world here. He really cares about the town. There’s a hot bed of creativity here and it’s not just Justin. Justin is emblematic of something bigger, I guess. Partly it’s people that were born and raised here. There’s a lot of really really incredible musicians and other creative people here who are doing interesting thing. A lot of people have stayed or come back to Eau Claire. I think it’s a real scene happening here, and I think that’s exciting. It can be a celebration of what’s already happening in Eau Claire and within the region, because a lot of it has to do with a scene, in Minneapolis, too. But it’s tightly knit. That was the idea. Obviously we’re going to have people from all over the world performing here, but there is a core aspect to it which does have to do with the region and Justin’s musical community.

Festival Grounds_Amanda Roscoe Mayo_1

Photo by Amanda Roscoe Mayo

After looking at the lineup, I was surprised how many musicians have performed with one another in various ways. It seems like a family tree of sorts, from a creative stand point.

Yeah, we’ve been talking about who will play with who, and we’re hoping that a lot of collaborations happen, because everybody knows each other and there are a lot of collaborations that go back, as far as people having performed together already or having worked together. We wanted to build an atmosphere that is conducive to that, where there’s surprises and people take risks and put themselves out there a little, and in some ways it’s more fun to do that in this kind of environment than it is in a different setting where, if you play one of the mega festivals, it’s harder to have a spontaneity to it.

Since this is the inaugural year, it will be curious to see what develops. Those other festivals seem highly commercial now. With Eaux Claires, there’s the potential to foster this really lovely creative spirit because it’s so new.

Yeah, that is also coming out of our experience. My brother and I have done a lot of work in other areas of music. Bryce does a lot of classical composition, and we’ve had other art projects performed at art festivals around the world. It’s less about the bottom line and more about the process and presenting work that is new. That’s one of the things we want this music festival to do. To sort of be a hybrid where you have new commissions and real collaboration which is between mediums. There’s digital art and film, but then obviously it’s also fun to see Bon Iver play or The National or whoever.

The National_Amanda Roscoe Mayo_4

Photo by Amanda Roscoe Mayo

So we want to try to blend these worlds a little bit and push the boundaries of genre-specific work, because I think sometimes when you have a music festival you have band after band after band. That’s exciting and you hope you’re seeing some of your favorite bands, but I think if you have exposure to other projects as well and other works of art in that context, people take something more away from it, especially for the artist.

Our favorite experiences have always been where you were taking a risk, or were nervous about something and you tried it. That’s when you actually grow as a musician. I hope that’s the environment we’re creating here, and it will change, I’m sure. This is only the first year, so I’m sure we’ll learn a lot and I’m sure not everything is going to work, but hopefully we’ll take away some good things and keep moving forward with it.

I’ve heard you’ve collaborated with Ragnar Kjartansson, who will also be performing at the festival. How did that come about?

Ragnar is an Icelandic visual artist. He’s sort of a performance artist, really. A lot of his pieces involve performance of some kind. He’s been quietly very influential with a number of us. He’s made a number of pieces in the last several years that are incredibly moving. He has a sense of humor to everything that he does, but there’s a deeply moving quality to it. He wrote us, The National, a letter three years ago proposing that we play our song “Sorrow” for 12 hours straight without stopping. The way he worded that letter and just the idea…normally the band is a bit cynical and unlikely to embrace things like that, but there was something about his proposal, where everyone immediately and unanimously said “Yes.” We did it at Moma, at PS1, sort of right before Trouble Will Find Me came out. We ended up performing it for six hours straight because we figured out that Bryan [Devendorf] would probably destroy his arms if we played it or 12, because we have these 16th notes that never stop on the high hat.

Ragnar Kjartanson_Amanda Roscoe Mayo_2

Photo by Amanda Roscoe Mayo

I can imagine your fingers would bleed!

My fingers did bleed actually, but the song took on so many different shapes. It was incredibly sad and incredibly funny. Then it became this weird mantra. I would say every member of the band would tell you it was one of our favorite experiences as a band. We definitely learned something about what a song can do, and where it can go. You know it’s funny because we released the album for charity recently and I think a lot of people were confused by that. The point wasn’t that it was meant to be an album. It’s an art project. What was special about it for us was the way a song can change through repetition, and to kind of embrace a different concept of performance as a band. I think we really loved that. I don’t know if we’ll ever do anything like that again.

We all became really good friends with Ragnar, and started following his work, and so when Eaux Claires came up we talked about specifically doing a piece for it. It’s a stage built especially for this piece and it happens each day at the beginning of the festival. I have no idea what it will be like. It will probably be a combination of things, but it’s all new. It’s like we created a weird band and wrote an album specifically for a music festival and we’ll only perform it once and it takes place in the middle of a piece of art.

Festival Grounds_Amanda Roscoe Mayo_2

Photo by Amanda Roscoe Mayo

How cool to be pushed in that direction from not another musician but from someone who’s approaching art in a whole different medium.

Bryce and I did another collaboration with another visual artist called The Long Count with Matthew Ritchie, which was performed in an opera house, generally. There was a chamber orchestra and a bunch of different songs, and it was more composed. This is a very different kind of thing, but it’s similar in a sense that we’re specifically in collaboration with a visual artist and writing new material for it. We both, Bryce and I, and I know Gyða and Kristín and Ragnar. It’s as much about the process as it is the end result. Doing these projects that take you outside of your comfort zone and what you’re doing.

Last but not least, I have to ask how the Grateful Dead album is coming along?

I have to say it’s possibly some of my favorite music we’ve ever made. It features so many of our friends and collaborators and all kinds of people. All kinds of musicians from all different spectrums of music. I won’t go into detail, but it’s not at all from the indie rock world. It’s from all over. It was really interesting to shine a light on this music. You know that spirit of experimentation and reinterpreting things and the sturdiness of a lot of those songs, because it wasn’t just [the Dead’s] own songs they wrote, they performed a lot of songs from the blues and folk anthologies. In a way it’s been easy to make this record because the music is … it’s hard not to smile and enjoy yourself while you’re doing it. We thought we would do 30 songs, and then we thought we would do 50 songs.

The National_Amanda Roscoe Mayo_3

Photo by Amanda Roscoe Mayo

I remember when Deadicated came out. You know all of us has listened to the Grateful Dead it seems like our whole life. It was hard to narrow it down. How would you choose 15 songs or 20 songs or even 30 songs? And so as we went it just kept going and going and going, and it’s still going. It’s very expansive and kind of touches a lot of different corners of the catalogue. I think what’s exciting about it is to see the collaborations and to hear the songs treated with such respect but also taken places that maybe they haven’t been taken before. You know we’re not trying to sound like the Grateful Dead. We’re shining a lot on the songwriting and the soul of it and the commitment on experimentation and the avant-garde aspect of it really interests us. But it’s been really wonderful. I don’t want it to end. I think we need to put it out. Our manager was like, “Okay guys.”

If it’s fostering that spirit, how do you walk away from that?

Yeah exactly. It’s not just our group. It’s not just Bryce and I. Bryan and Scott [Devendorf] from The National have been hugely involved in it, and a couple of other friends, Josh Kaufman and Conrad Doucette of Takka Takka. There’s a good group of us who have been helping shepherd it. But then there’s literally well over 100 different musicians involved, and in various camps. Tracks happened in Eau Claire and tracks happened in L.A. and tracks happened in Nashville and in Paris and Iceland and in Africa. All over. We’ll tell the story soon and start releasing the music soon, maybe not for a few months, but hopefully it will come out early next year.

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