Aaron Dessner Brings ‘Day of the Dead’ to Life at Eaux Claires
Over four years ago, Aaron Dessner and his twin brother Bryce embarked on a daunting endeavor that only came to fruition this past spring—the massive Grateful Dead tribute Day of the Dead. The 59-song set meticulously picks its way through a hearty portion of the Dead’s extensive catalogue with both faithful recreations and inspired reimaginings from seemingly everyone in the indie music world, from Wilco and Béla Fleck to the Flaming Lips and The War On Drugs to Courtney Barnett and Charles Bradley, along with members of Sonic Youth, Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear and so many more. Behind it all were the Dessners and their band The National, who served as part of the “house band” for many of the tracks.
Now, Dessner, along with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, prepare to stage their second annual Eaux Claires music festival in Eau Claire, WI, Vernon’s hometown. Along with the impressively eclectic lineup that includes Beach House, Erykah Badu, Mavis Staples, Nathaniel Rateliff, Jenny Lewis, Unknown Mortal Orchestra and more, the Dessner brothers will lead a Day of the Dead set that will feature many of the same artists who collaborated on the album playing their Dead interpretations live on the festival stage, marking the first and possibly only large-scale live presentation of the compilation’s tracks. Dessner recently gave us an inside look at how Eaux Claires has come together for its second year, his memories of first connecting with Vernon and curating the inaugural festival last year and what we can expect from the Day of the Dead performance.
How did you first get to know Justin Vernon?
The real connection we formed really started with Dark Was the Night and the natural evolution of creating and planning it. I got his first record very early on, and that was right when we were starting to make Dark Was the Night, which was the predecessor to Day of the Dead—a 32-track charity record that also benefitted the Red Hot Organization. So we invited Justin to contribute to that, and he wrote and recorded “Brackett, WI” and sent it back within two weeks of us asking—and it’s just an amazing song. It’s as good, in my opinion, as anything he’s written, and we were blown away by that. I was pushing my luck I guess, I wrote a song—at that time, Bryce and I were thinking we should each do a collaboration where we write something with someone.
Bryce ended up doing “I Was Young When I Left Home,” an early Dylan song, with Antony—or Anohni, as she’s now known—and I wrote this piece of music I called “Big Red Machine” after the Big Red Dynasty in the ‘70s. We were born in Cincinnati, and in 1976 the Reds beat the Yankees in the World Series. It was this idea I had about a song, and I just sent it to him on a whim. It almost sounds Steve Reich-inspired—it has mixed meter and it changes key and everything. two weeks after that, Justin sent back a fully written and recorded song called “Big Red Machine” where he interpreted the Big Red Machine as a heart. I’d never met him in person, and so that was a very special, for both of us. It was a great way to start a friendship.
We actually met in person for the first time at the rehearsal in New York for the Dark Was the Night show at Radio City Music Hall, and that was this moment where a big group of peers came together to celebrate that record, and Justin ran around and sang with everybody. He played with Bon Iver, he played with David Byrne, he played with Feist. He’s just so generous. His Midwestern roots and our Midwestern roots just got a long really well. The reasons we all make music and the attitude about it and the openness and generosity—there’s no posturing and no style over substance or anything like that. We just clicked. So then, over the years, we have just done a lot of stuff together. He helped us with High Violet, we did a set with him at MusicNOW in Cincinnati the following year where we did a bunch of his material—and that’s where he met some of the people that had played a big role on his second record, like Rob Moose and Colin Stetson and C.J. Camerieri. There’s a lot of connections.
As I spent time in Eau Claire I just realized what a wonderful musical community they have there—Justin is really just the tip of that iceberg. He’s done so much to foster a community there, and it’s very important to him, his hometown and staying connected to it. I think we also saw all this overlap between our communities, musically, and at the same time we wanted to create a different kind of festival that would be inspiring and have a lot of collaborations between musicians and also visual artists, blurring the lines between conventional performances on the stage and performances in the audience, because it would be fun, and also seed ourselves in terms of creativity and the inspiration you get from trying things. Like last year, there were a lot of things that happened that weren’t planned or that were not on a stage or that were brand new. That’s the idea: to create something that is surprising, where there are possibilities and people can work with each other and jump up and do stuff.
With that in mind, how do you think you did with all those goals last year? Any lessons learned going into this year’s planning?
I think it went incredibly well. We have great partners who handle all the logistics and production. Obviously there are things— there was a crazy storm—and I think we’re trying to do better with every aspect of the festival, especially beer and food. We’ve expanded the art program this year, and we’ve worked hard to improve camping. The musical side of it last year just felt very inspiring to me, and I think this year will be even better. There’s more happening, and there’s more of a lesser-known, sort of underground aspect to it, which is important. And there’s quite a bit of new music that’s being premiered, both major things that will come out as records and then other things that are just collaborations that will happen once at this event. I think that was something we wanted to more of this year, new projects or exclusive premieres and things happening. I think every year will be an organic evolution and process where we try to make it more interesting for you and for the audience and push the boundaries of what a festival can be.
How did you go about curating this year’s lineup? Is there anything in particular that you’re really looking forward to?
There’s so much—it’s hard to point out one. It’s non-hierarchical. Everything is important. I’ll probably run around and play on several different sets, but there’s a real mixture of stuff this year. We’re incredibly excited to have Cornelius performing Fantasma, which is definitely a major thing for everybody, and this amazing group that we were able to bring from Indonesia called Senyawa that we learned about through our friends who made a film about them. They’re just this amazing band; I can’t describe it. That will be one of the special things. Then we have this amazing chamber group called Eighth Blackbird that will be collaborating with Will Oldham [Bonnie “Prince” Billy], my brother and a bunch of other people performing on the Chippewa Stage. That’s where we did Forever Love last year, which was this collaboration with Ragnar Kjartansson that Bryce and I did. That stage this year will also be that sort of thing. Then I think having Erykah Badu and having Beach House and James Blake—I’m not going to say exactly what’s going to happen, but it’s going to be really special. We’re really excited to have the Melvins and Mavis Staples…there’s so many, I could go on forever.
What about the Day of the Dead set in particular? Who’s going to be playing with you, and can you reveal any plans you guys have?
It is the only time that we’re going to get the band together that did Day of the Dead, the bulk of it. Whenever it says “and friends,” that’s basically The National with Josh Kaufman, Walter Martin from the Walkmen and Conrad Doucette. That was the core house band. Then there will be many, many different vocalists and other collaborators that will come through, and it will be a longer set of music from Day of the Dead—and possibly some that’s not on Day of the Dead. The list goes on—Jenny Lewis and Moses Sumney, Phosphorescent, Lucius. Matt [Berninger] from The National will be there, Lisa Hannigan
will be there, Richard [Reed Parry] from Arcade Fire will be there, just a lot of people that were involved.
It is the one big performance of that music, and it feels very connected to Dark Was the Night and to the community aspect of what we want to do with this festival, that there’s music and making friends and people you hope to collaborate with, and it’s all for a good cause. Sharing that feels like the right thing to do.
You made a Spotify playlist of 10 of your top Day of the Dead tracks earlier this year. Do you think those still hold true?
Well, I mean, those weren’t really “favorites.” If you asked me on a different day, I’d give you 10 others. Lately, I can listen to the whole record and get a lot of joy out of it. And now that we did it, I just sometimes wonder, “How did we do that?” You know, it’s like, in the amount of time we spent doing that, we could have made a couple of National records, even. But it’s very rewarding to do something for a good cause and play these wonderful songs. But lately I’ve been listening to a lot of the more esoteric stuff, like I love “What’s Become of the Baby.” It’s a pretty rare song that s t a r g a z e, this great German chamber group, did. I love the Terry Riley and Gyan Riley’s “Estimated Prophet.” It’s such a weird take on it. I can go on and on, and I think it’s the kind record that you just keep coming back to. It’s just a great record. You can put it on really starting anywhere; you don’t have to start from the beginning, which I love. It’s like a radio station—you just kind of throw it on somewhere. So far, I do think it’s doing well—better than anyone thought a six-hour compilation would. A lot of people are just gravitating towards it, so that’s good, and it will do great things for the charity.
As we prepare for this year’s Eaux Claires, are there any standout moments from last year you’d like to share?
There were so many. Seeing the Blind Boys of Alabama sing “Watch Over Us” with The Lone Bellow was such a spiritual thing, and there was this incredible sort of energy. Also just seeing Justin and [his longtime collaborator and childhood bandmate] Phil Cook and other people get up a play with them was really moving, and seeing Melt-Banana from Japan just slaying was incredible. I’m hoping Cornelius will be a similar feeling. But I honestly think every year will be different and this year should be even better. I think people should expect a lot of surprises, and it’s definitely not something you should miss. It will be a different kind of festival.