Big Red Machine: “We find solace when we bring people together”

The National’s Aaron Dessner and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon have always emphasised community with their collaborative project, and their second album is no different, they tell Hannah Mylrea

Main image credit: Graham Tolbert

When Aaron Dessner sat down to create ‘How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?’, the second album from Big Red Machine – his indie-rock project with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon – he started to ask himself some big questions.

Fresh from releasing their self-titled debut in 2018, the pair were enjoying playing their first collection of songs live. Dessner, who’s also a founding member of The National, explains to NME that these fluid tunes – filled with expansive soundscapes and sweeping production – were built around “structured improvisation”, but when the time came for album number two, his mindset changed.

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“I started to feel like I wanted to actually think about it, and try to write songs that were specific to Big Red Machine and figure out: what is Big Red Machine?”

So, what conclusion did he draw? “It’s almost like Big Red Machine is a laboratory for me to try ideas, work with people I wouldn’t have been able to before and experiment with my recording [and] with my songwriting,” he explains, speaking to NME over Zoom from a hotel lobby on the Italian coast, where he’s celebrating his sister’s wedding anniversary.

“Obviously it is a primary outlet for me as a songwriter, in addition to The National. There’s a part of my brain that is very collaborative and my approach to music is very collaborative.”

Collaboration is a key part of the Big Red Machine ethos, harking right back to the group’s origins. The earliest foundations of the project date back to 2008, when Dessner reached out to Vernon – who he hadn’t met in person at the time – to collaborate. At that point, Dessner was producing a charity compilation record called ‘Dark Was the Night’ alongside his twin brother (and fellow The National member) Bryce. As part of the album, he sent Vernon an early draft of a song titled ‘Big Red Machine’, which Vernon then finished, giving the song what Dessner calls its “beating heart”.

The two finally met when they performed at Radio City Music Hall in New York for a show in aid of ‘Dark Was the Night’ in 2009. Of their blossoming professional and personal relationship, Dessner says: “It was just a very easy, natural friendship and we had a lot of mutual interests and inspiration”. Since then, they’ve worked together both musically (Bon Iver’s fourth record ‘i, i’ boasts contributions from Dessner, while Vernon has worked on multiple albums by The National), and on events like the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival in Wisconsin – an occasion where Big Red Machine was “reborn”.

Aaron Dessner Big Red Machine
Aaron Dessner CREDIT: Josh Goleman

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“We decided the first year [of Eaux Claires] to perform the song [‘Big Red Machine’] as an installation almost,” Dessner remembers. “We got up with no plan, I had made this electronic version of it and then we improvised for an hour and we had such a good time, and there would be songs coming out – that made us realise we should do more of that. So we did, and we kept doing it and eventually, there was enough there for an album, which is the first Big Red Machine album.”

Last week saw their second offering ‘How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?’ join Dessner and Vernon’s collective canon. The record is a striking next chapter in the Big Red Machine journey. Spanning 15 tracks and assisted by a bevvy of guest vocalists (including Taylor Swift, Sharon Van Etten, Fleet Foxes and Ben Howard), Dessner and Vernon’s natural songwriting chemistry shines brightly, enveloped in lush instrumentals and glitchy production. Despite the host of collaborators, there’s a cohesiveness to the record, as Dessner explains: “The music binds it all together, and it’s almost like chapters of a book with different characters that are all singing, all interrelated.”

Progress began on ‘How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?’ in spring 2019, but the turning point in songwriting came when Dessner was working on ‘Birch’, a hopeful amalgam of peeling piano licks, skittering drums and ethereal harmonies courtesy of pop superstar Taylor Swift. “I wrote the music at a time when I had basically given up making a Big Red Machine album because time had passed and you end up on endless touring – I got into this mode of being on tour with The National and it makes you feel exhausted.”

The long weeks on the road were knackering, but when Dessner started working on ‘Birch’ he knew he’d crafted something special. “It suddenly felt like I’d figured something out about what I wanted to be making, and I sent it to Justin and he immediately wrote those lyrics and his vocal melody…there was this weird moment of this electricity coming back on.” While the album was half-written at this point, stumbling upon this new centrepiece sped up the process.

Another key figure in the album sounding the way it does now, or getting finished at all, was Swift. Alongside working on the Big Red Machine release, Dessner also spent time during the pandemic working on her game-changing lockdown records ‘Folklore’ and ‘Evermore’ (picking up the Grammy for Album of the Year for his contributions to the former), turning him from an indie darling into an in-demand producer.

“Big Red Machine is a laboratory for me to try ideas” – Aaron Dessner

When he did return to Big Red Machine, his blossoming creative relationship with Swift meant there was no question that she would show up on the album (she sings on ‘Birch’ and leads the driving single ‘Renegade’). As well as pushing Dessner out of his comfort zone to find new epiphanies on the album, she’s also responsible for its title.

“I didn’t have a strong idea at the time because I was so focused on finishing the song,” he explains. It was Swift, then, who suggested ‘How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?’, “because so many of the songs refer to themes connected to that question – a childhood, a pandemic, a family, a marriage, a friendship, a winning streak, a losing streak… it covers so many things that feel connected. That was one of those moments where I was like, ‘Ah thank God for you naming it because you just crystallised what it’s about in my mind’.”

Over the past decade, Swift has proven herself a musical pioneer, her distinctive songwriting and genre reinventions inspiring pop heavyweights like Halsey, Olivia Rodrigo and Griff, and indie favourites like Shamir, Hayley Williams and Soccer Mommy.

“I learned a lot from Taylor because she’s so talented, so hardworking and so sharp in her ideas, storytelling and sense of melody and rhythm,” says Dessner of his time working with Swift. “The way she’d respond to music I was making was often leaving me flabbergasted. She can carve into something in such a powerful, beautiful, incisive way that it does kind of give you… her approach to songwriting structurally, you just can’t help but be influenced by it because it’s so masterful.”

The finished ‘How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?’ is honest and open, tackling childhood and loss of innocence, mental health, and grief. ‘Brycie’ is a tribute to Dessner’s twin brother who he explains “held me up when I was a teenager [and] I struggled with fairly serious depression and he refused to let me sink or fall behind”. On it, its moving words are spun over lilting twinkles of acoustic guitar and skittering production.

‘Latter Days’, which American singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell wrote the lyrics for and lends her vocals to, is simultaneously about “childhood and looking back before a time before you lost your innocence,” while also referring to the pandemic (which was just starting when she wrote it). Elsewhere, the incredibly moving ‘Magnolia’ depicts fracturing, toxic relationships, with Dessner singing: “Did you accept / He’s a demon? / Did you regret? / Did you leave him?” over urgent instrumentals.

‘How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?’ also features ‘Hutch’, a poignant song written as a tribute to Aaron’s friend and Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchison, who died by suicide in 2018. “I wrote the music not long after Scott passed away and I was, like everyone, so incredibly sad.”

“I’ve lost other friends in the same way and every time you just wonder what you could’ve done differently. Could you have been more present, or checked in more? I spoke to him two weeks before that and he was actually encouraging me to sing. I covered a song of theirs with [CHVRCHES frontwoman] Lauren Mayberry and we were like, ‘Should I sing it? Should I find someone else?’ He was saying, ‘I love your voice, you should sing it’… I think he had a big influence on me singing on this Big Red Machine record.”

It was only two weeks after that conversation that Hutchison was reported missing. “It was shocking,” Dessner remembers. “As someone who’s struggled with depression myself, I know how easy it is to go into a tailspin that you can’t pull out of. Sometimes you do pull out of it, and other times people don’t – the line between tragedy and survival is quite thin. It’s an instant, it’s a split second in some ways.”

After playing the gothic instrumentals of ‘Hutch’ to Vernon, the pair then worked on the lyrics together, later adding backing vocals by Sharon Van Etten, Lisa Hannigan and Shara Nova.

“Aaron reached out to me directly while he was on tour in Poland with The National in 2019,” Van Etten explains to NME of her involvement on ‘Hutch’. “He sent me a link via Dropbox and shared a demo of a song he and Brad Cook worked on with Justin Vernon. It struck me as a very personal, raw, emotional song about a friend who had passed away and the friends he left behind grieving. I instantly connected with that sorrow and anger and wanted to share my voice with them.”

“It’s confirmed that heart is really the only thing that works for me” – Justin Vernon

Van Etten is part of the larger Big Red Machine coterie, having collaborated with Dessner and Vernon for over a decade after she first reached out to them when recording her album ‘Epic’. “Ever since, we have crossed paths and shared songs and collaborated on each other’s songs,” she says. “It is really comforting to see how their Big Red Machine community has grown and keeps redefining what community can be.”

She’s effusive about working with Dessner, describing him as “an incredible writer, collaborator, and great communicator”. “He has a knack for bringing people together and being extremely specific in what he wants while somehow also being very open to the instincts his collaborator brings to the table,” she adds. “I always feel warmly encouraged and challenged at the same time whenever working with him.”

Vernon echoes these words. When asked what he’s learned working with Aaron in over a decade of collaborating with him, he succinctly says: “It’s confirmed that heart is really the only thing that works for me”.

Expanding on their working relationship, and how it’s changed over the past decade, he notes that it has always centred around “fostering relief from the normal shit we’ve been doing”. “The intention of our music and work – like putting on festivals and artists residences for our communities – has always been to make the whole experience of music being your ‘job’ a much healthier and bountiful creative vocation,” Vernon explains.

“While we may not have solved this massive issue in full, I do believe that we find solace from those challenges when we make music collaboratively and bring people together through shows, festivals, and even activism.”

Justin Vernon Big Red Machine
Justin Vernon CREDIT: Graham Tolbert

During a pandemic, uniting people has become even more important. “You miss your friends, you miss being connected, so it feels good to send music to someone, whether they’re writing a song or playing drums or just sharing ideas back and forth makes you feel connected,” Dessner says.

‘How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?’ brims with this connection, their collaborators’ contributions shining brightly. It’s a celebration of Big Red Machine’s community-led ethos, with Dessner and Vernon as its conductors, creating a record that brings us together when we most need it.

– Big Red Machine’s second album ‘How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?’ is out now via Jagjaguwar/37d03d

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