Indie is Dead: The National Detail ‘Day of the Dead’ Compilation

Mike Greenhaus on May 16, 2016

This excerpt originally appears in the April_May issue of Relix. To read more from this cover story, click here and to read the full story along with additional content on Graham Nash, Explosions in the Sky, Steve Kimock, Lake Street Dive and others, subscribe here.

Far from just an “indie rock tribute to the Dead,” Day of the Dead also boasts banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck, bassist Edgar Meyer and The Wood Brothers’ frontman Oliver Wood on an acoustic, rustic “Help on the Way;” 80-year-old minimalist composer Terry Riley’s twist on “Estimated Prophet;” pianist Vijay Iyer’s jazz variation of “King Solomon’s Marbles;” Lucinda Williams & Friends’ chugging “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad;” and a piece of music by electronic/noise musician Tim Hecker in the style of John Oswald’s “plunderphonics” album, Grayfolded. Some artists submitted their tracks remotely; others hunkered down with the Dessners and their house band at two country churches in Upstate New York to channel those American Beauty vibes.

The sessions also had a lasting effect on Weir, who has gradually outgrown his reputation as the Dead’s “little brother” to emerge as the torchbearer of their legacy. After bonding with Kaufman— who served as a co-producer on Day of the Dead—at TRI, Weir started working on a new set of cowboy tunes that will blend his stable of Bay Area pals with many Day of the Dead participants, including Scott, Aaron, Doucette and Russo. Josh Ritter also signed on as a songwriter.

Key Day of the Dead collaborator Doucette first met Bryan through indie-rock circles, and the drummers became fast friends—he attended Fare Thee Well with the Devendorfs this past July. He says that when Bryan would sit in with his band, they would “cheerfully debate who was Mickey and who was Billy.” He’s been able to witness Weir’s renaissance first hand. “What sets Bob apart is an inspiring desire to carve his own space in a piece of music,” Doucette says. “He’s creative and headstrong enough to know that it doesn’t do a song or the players any good to be merely content and mildly blending in. Instead, he seeks to cross into a song’s fourth dimension, weaving his way in and around the pathways of a song, not apparent to either listener or even performer. He’s often said that he found great inspiration in the playing of McCoy Tyner, particularly Tyner’s left hand, which supported the song with unlikely and inventive parts.”

Aaron also points to the “closeness” that he’s formed with Weir in recent years and describes their onstage collaborations as career high lights. Sitting on the floor of his den—listening back to Lucius’ bouncy “Uncle John’s Band,” Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Prince-like “Shakedown Street,” Tal National’s Zappa-style “Eyes of the World” and a hardcore reworking of “Cream Puff War” by Fucked Up that will surely scare the children—Aaron flips through the old Dead records that are spilling out of his cabinet. The vibe recalls the Dessners’ early days discovering the Dead’s music in their bedroom. Bryce notes Riley’s contributions, explaining, “He’s senior to the Dead and almost unaware of the music itself, but he’s from the same town and they were totally part of the same universe.”

While in the studio, the house band kept their focus on the Dead’s songs, particularly Garcia’s work with Robert Hunter, but they weren’t afraid to stretch out as the tape ran. Aaron mentions a pair of “Dark Stars” that pushed toward the 20-minute mark and a choice 10-minute version of “Playing in the Band” with Ranaldo and Tunde Adebimpe. The Dessners looked to the Dead’s early-‘70s period as a rallying point, especially given the country and church studio settings. (Aaron says they had around 70 ideas in the works, but eventually culled 59 complete statements for the final release.) Some artists had their own requests. “Jim James wanted to do ‘Candyman,’” Aaron says. “We’d recorded the music and sent it to him, and he just sent it back in like 30 minutes and said, ‘Dude, I’ve sang this song 11,000 times.’”

Even before they started working on Day of the Dead, the members of The National and Grizzly Bear joked about starting a Dead cover band, so they naturally tackled “Terrapin Station,” one of the most complicated songs in the Garcia/Hunter catalog, together. “If you listen to Grizzly Bear’s music and hear them as players, they have the feel and the sensibility of the Dead,” Aaron admits, noting that they recorded the full “Terrapin” suite the Dead never played live. “They possess a real, high level of musicianship and there is nuance in their playing. Daniel Rossen was nervous at first, but his voice makes the song feel timeless. I love it as much as when Jerry would sing it.”

On the flip side, Aaron made a point to weave in some left-field choices like the Jerry Garcia Band favorite “Reuben and Cerise,” which the Grateful Dead only played during their final years. “It’s cool to hear a song that some people might not know in the context of these other songs,” he says with a prankster grin. “That song is pretty involved—it’s long—and has a tricky timing. We ran through it a few times and then, Will absolutely nailed it.” Like-wise, Aaron handpicked Garcia folk ditties like “Jack-aRoe” and “Shady Grove” in order to explore “all the different aspects of Jerry as a musician.” They narrowed in on a sense of loneliness and yearning that, like both The National and Garcia, felt high-brow in style, yet populist in perspective.

Aaron’s decision to include “Standing on the Moon” stems from a conversation he had with Weir. “That song has a particular emotional quality for many people and definitely for Bob,” Aaron says of the ‘80s Dead ballad, which Phosphorescent sings. “It reminds me of latter-day Dylan, with this sense of mortality and looking back— the sense that Jerry’s not here anymore but you can feel him.” Another “goose bump” moment happened during the church session for “If I Had the World to Give,” which was recorded in a single take and showcased the Dead’s oft-overlooked vocal skills.

Australian-born Barnettt, a relatively new convert, first heard the Dead five years ago. She was quickly struck by their “communal vibes” and started “pouring through their music and got really into singing harmonies.” When it came time to hone in on “New Speedway Boogie,” she “listened to a couple of different recordings, but didn’t want to just copy what they’d already done [and] tried to forget what [she] had heard.” She ended up jamming in the studio and, as she puts it, “started again in my head and saw what path it went down.”

Vile, who snagged “Box of Rain,” believes that the Dead influenced his music “subliminally, through osmosis—riffs, grooves and melodies certainly morph into your subconscious after a while.” As he explains, “I was listening to American Beauty in my van on cassette, when I was invited to be on this compilation and ‘Box of Rain’ really moved me. J loved it lots too, so we had him rip a solo in the middle of it, and it morphed into him singing.”

Other sessions were less calculated. During ‘Wharf Rat,’” the house band waded into a calm, textured, sonic wave after, Aaron says, Kaplan “started directing traffic.”

Outside the house band tracks, the compilation’s best super-jam pairing is the long-in-the-works collaboration between Vernon and Hornsby. Vernon added some spiraling guitar riffs to the end of “Slow Show” with The National at the Dark Was the Night show that revealed a previously understated Crazy Horse influence, and it turns out that his story mirrors the Dessners. He grew up in the Midwest immersed in the Dead’s shadow, but always had open ears and eventually found fame in the indie-folk world. For his contribution he reunited his childhood band DeYarmond Edison (whose other members later spun off into the psych-folk group Megafaun and have covered Phish’s narrative “Icculus”). Hornsby stopped by Vernon’s Eau Claire studio and regaled them with stories of his time as an auxiliary member of the Dead. “Justin and his crew decided we should do ‘Black Muddy River’ because they were big fans of the version from my 2000 album, Here Come the Noise Makers,” Hornsby says. “The indie world used to look down the Dead’s nose, but they have one of the greatest song-books in American popular music.”

When it came to choosing what songs The National proper would record for the collection, Aaron says he tried to “shine a light on what was important to us about the Grateful Dead.” They eventually went with Dead-adopted folk ballads “Morning Dew” and “Peggy-O,” two numbers that ignited the Dessners’ love of roots music over 25 years ago. Aaron says their harrowing version of “Peggy-O” was partially an experiment to see what it would be like for Matt to sing so many verses. The song has already entered The National’s live repertoire.

The National’s diaspora now stretches far outside Ditmas Park, the Brooklyn town-on-the-edge-of-the-city neighborhood that fostered their growth. Bryce divides his time between France and his cabin near Woodstock, N.Y.; Matt lives in Venice Beach, Calif.; Scott moved out of the city to Long Island; and Bryan relocated home to Cincinnati. They’ve also spent their downtime exploring wideranging side-projects: Matt is one half of the dancey EL VY, the Devendorfs formed the Neu!/krautrock trio LNZNDRF as an outlet to try out grooves that aren’t far from the Dead’s jams, and Bryce has gotten even deeper into his classical work—he recently worked on the score for an Academy Award-winning film. “The Dead were influenced by the Beat poets, and you can see that same ambition with these orchestras,” Bryce says.

The National are also inching toward their first album since 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, which helped the group ascend to U.S. arenas. It remains to be seen how much of the Dead project will rub off, but Matt says, “We are writing in a different way—with all of us in a room playing together and seeing what comes out of that. Other records were done with little ideas being emailed back and forth while we worked on them privately. I’m sure that has something to do with the process they went through recording all these different bands for this Dead record. While I don’t think our next record is going to sound like the Dead, that sense of community has influenced our process and that creative mojo has gotten everyone excited.” He pauses and adds, “On a musical level, there’s a little bit of the Dead in everything The National does and also a little bit of the Dead in every American band.”

Day of the Dead has also changed how Weir views his band’s legacy. “It was easy for me to take for granted what we were doing 25 years ago,” he says. “It’s a little like looking at your face in the mirror. You can’t tell what you look like, and then you look at a picture of yourself from a few decades ago and think, ‘Wow, there’s an odd-looking dude.’ You see some character that perhaps you weren’t able to wrap your mind around. It’s like that with our music. Deep inside, we knew that we were up to something of some consequence, but now this surge of people from all walks of life has been hammering us with how important the music is to them, including a lot of musicians I really respect. After a while, that starts to sink in, and I take what we did more seriously. I still consider what we’re doing a work in progress.”