Interview

Aaron Dessner On His New Song With Michael Stipe And That Whole Antifa Debacle

The National guitarist and R.E.M. singer share their new Big Red Machine single

Aaron Dessner is always working on a ton of music. Quarantine has been no different. Recently, he’s had a couple projects germinating — one of which was a new song with none other than R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe. It all sounds pretty idyllic in a way: If you’re going to have to be isolated from friends and family, at least you have some time to get into the studio and keep churning away at the work you love to do in the first place.

Today, a few weeks after Stipe debuted the song in a livestream and on Colbert, Dessner and Stipe are releasing the official recording and video of “No Time For Love Like Now,” the track they worked on together under the umbrella of Dessner’s and Justin Vernon’s Big Red Machine project. It seems like an absurd level of synergy: A songwriter and producer from the National, a band heavily influenced by R.E.M. and who opened for them on what would become their final tour, working with Stipe just as he’s finally getting back to releasing music. The result is a song that feels like a marriage of their aesthetics — someone whose songwriting was influenced by Stipe’s band crafting a song with the man himself. And, of course, it’s always comforting to hear Stipe’s voice, now more than ever. (Stipe has also designed a T-shirt and tote corresponding with the song, with proceeds going to the Equal Justice Initiative and the COVID-19 Protest Relief Fund.)

Obviously it’s an exciting thing to imagine, putting a song out with one of your heroes. Unfortunately, Dessner’s quarantine had a more negative bit of excitement last week, when online conspiracy theorists spread false rumors that Dessner could be seen in a video of a protest in Columbus, paying people to riot. The whole situation was, obviously, bizarre and disconcerting. Yesterday, I talked with Dessner about his new song with Stipe, other new Big Red Machine material, and what it was like to go through that whole Antifa debacle.

STEREOGUM: When Michael first debuted “No Time For Love Like Now,” he noted it was his first take, and everybody immediately read into the lyrics as being very of the moment. How far back do the origins of this track actually go? Were you working on it all remotely during quarantine?

AARON DESSNER: The music is part of this big pool of new Big Red Machine music that I’d been writing. I typically write a lot of music and at various points get together with Justin to work on it and write to it, and this is one of those. For years I’ve been friends with Michael, and the National toured with R.E.M. He’s been a lovely friend and we’d often cross paths or grab dinner. When the Ragnar Kjartansson Death Is Elsewhere film — with me and my brother and Kristín Anna and Gyða Valtýsdóttir of Múm, this project we did at Eaux Claires — debuted at the Metropolitan Museum Of Art last summer, Michael came.

That was when we were hanging out and talking, and it was just after I Am Easy To Find had come out. There were a lot of R.E.M. — there are references [on the album] but also people were confused because they thought Mike Mills had produced the album, so we were just laughing about that. [Editor’s note: The National worked with filmmaker Mike Mills on the album, not R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills, hence some people’s confusion.] That was when we reconnected and I mentioned all this Big Red Machine stuff, and he was enthusiastic and sort of curious, so I sent him a folder of stuff I was working on.

This song was one of the ones where he just gravitated towards it. He wrote to the song, and we got together in November maybe, and recorded it in Brooklyn. It was a very inspiring moment for me, just to be in the studio with him and see how he works. It was very different than I would’ve thought.

STEREOGUM: How do you mean?

DESSNER: He sings in the control room without headphones, not wanting to hear his voice. Just, the old school way. But then we kept working on it, and when COVID hit, all the sudden — it was as if he had written the lyrics about quarantine. All the lyrics suddenly just had so much resonance. We thought we should release a proper recording of it.

STEREOGUM: Wait, so did he edit the lyrics at all, or — 

DESSNER: It was exactly what he wrote. There was a little bit of a change from November to March, I think, but basically it’s the same.

STEREOGUM: I remember that tour when you opened for R.E.M., so I had definitely already been curious whether you guys had stayed in touch over the years. Had there ever been a conversation about working on something together before last year?

DESSNER: Both my brother and I have talked to Michael before about music. I can’t say that I thought this would happen, because it’s one of those things — you know, my 20-year old self or my 15-year-old self would never have thought that would happen. But more recently, it seemed like more of a dialogue. I think Big Red Machine and this energy of it being a collective and a community gives an opportunity to do things like this, because it’s not that big of a deal — you’re just making stuff with friends. It just happened very naturally.

STEREOGUM: Once he gravitated towards this track, did you tweak it a bit? Like, what was the conversation or collaboration back and forth?

DESSNER: Well, it was in a different key. It was in C minor, now it’s in F minor. He wrote to it, and when we got together we went through it and he helped me shape what it is now in terms of changing some of the instrumentation and dynamics around what he was doing. Originally he sang to it in C minor, but we moved it up later. And we had a lot of back and forth now as we were trying to finish the song, so Michael re-sang it towards the end and my brother added orchestration. It’s related to the original thing, but it has evolved.

STEREOGUM: Michael had just recently put out some solo material, and mentioned he had 18 songs ready. But there’s no crossover here, right? This is something separate?

DESSNER: Yeah, this is separate. I could definitely imagine us doing other songs together, but I think the reason it makes sense as Big Red Machine is where it came from, the instrumental, and some of the people playing on it — Justin, Brad Cook, it’s part of that work stream. It’s from a big pool, there’s over 20 new Big Red Machine songs.

STEREOGUM: Are some of those similar collaborations?

DESSNER: Most of the stuff is myself and Justin, and there are some other contributors, but no I wouldn’t say it’s lots of guest vocalists or anything. There’s a lot more voices than the first record, but without saying too much — it does feel like a direct evolution from the first record, but just more song-oriented. There are people like Anaïs Mitchell and Justin, and I sing, but it somehow feels cohesive. The biggest difference, I’d say, is it’s more song-focused as opposed to these more experimental vibes, though there’s also a bit of that. Sometimes it’s hard to get my head around how to finish it because there’s so much stuff. I could see it being multiple records or just one big record.

STEREOGUM: I didn’t realize you were singing lead on some of this new stuff. When you’re otherwise working with an iconic vocalist like Michael Stipe, or with people like Matt Berninger and Justin Vernon, who are some of the most distinctive singers of their time — is that daunting at all?

DESSNER: I think it’s daunting initially. Whenever I write anything, I do sing to it, to try and make sure it’s interesting or compelling to sing to. I’ve gotten in the habit of sharing that with other, more charismatic vocalists. It’s not my goal to take that role necessarily, but it comes much more naturally than I thought it would, I guess. Justin’s really been the one who helped me see that. I think he just really likes how I sing. He heard it and pushed: He said, “The most interesting time is when you don’t know what you’re doing.”

But then to have the opportunity to work with people like Matt, or Justin, or Sharon Van Etten, who’s also on this new Big Red Machine album, these incredible singers — or Michael Stipe, who has one of my favorite voices ever. In a way that’s the spirit of this project: not to have fear. Just making stuff without criticism. Maybe I’ll look back when we’re about to put the songs out and be like, “Wait a minute! I can’t sing with the best vocalists of my generation, what the hell am I doing?” [Laughs]

STEREOGUM: There were all these bits of wisdom Michael gave you guys on that tour, a lot of stuff you guys would cite when High Violet was coming out. So I was just stumbling back upon so many of these quotes as I was writing about High Violet for its 10th anniversary last month. How reflective do you get about those moments? Your world has obviously just expanded more and more in these past 10 years.

DESSNER: It’s funny, I think a touring musician — we’ve toured as much, probably, as anybody. We’ve played so many shows for 20 years, and now who knows when that will come back. One of the negative sides of a really intense arc as a touring band is there are big gaps in your memory because you’re so exhausted. It’s an amazing job, and we’re so lucky and grateful for that. But one of the things that is maybe sometimes bittersweet is you miss a lot of normal rites of passages and people’s birthdays and such.

There’s a little bit of a black hole in my memory sometimes. I do have a lot of images from all these times, but it’s hard to get back to it sometimes. To remember what it felt like when we first played “Terrible Love” on TV and realized it was this different song than it is on the record. I know that in theory, I’ve read about it, but I don’t have a super clear memory [of it]. I was probably nervous and had too much to drink that night or something.

It’s funny now, I do think all this stuff is unimportant in the context of what’s happening in the world. To me, it’s important to make music and make songs that hopefully bring people together, that have a positive message or in this case [of the new song with Michael Stipe] raise money for activists that need it. When the world of music and touring gets back to normal… of course I’m looking forward to that someday, but right now it kinda feels like, weirdly, this is what needs to happen or something. These problems in society need to be fixed and it’s our job to fix them.

I miss the band, we all miss each other, and like everyone we had so much planned that is now not going to happen and who knows when we’ll get back to it or when people can gather again in the same way. But I do feel like artists in general go to work and speak up and make stuff and try to heal. To me, what Michael wrote, even though it wasn’t about this time or COVID or unrest — it’s something I can dive into and there’s a message in there. It felt like it could be a good one to put out now.

STEREOGUM: Yeah it seems like there’d be something cosmic in there, that Michael wrote it so long ago and it taps into something he didn’t know was going to happen.

DESSNER: There’s just something about it, the way we’re all caught in this freefall and in isolation from each other. And, I don’t know — I don’t know if you heard about me getting doxxed.

STEREOGUM: Yeah, that whole thing was wild.

DESSNER: To wake up to just thousands of people threatening your life and your family and harassing you for doing absolutely nothing… it was very frightening. What it made me realize is it’s just emblematic of the problem with our society and the way these hateful feelings and racism — and, also, the recklessness of Donald Trump — can be weaponized. Instead of focusing on the actual issue, which is systemic racism, these people were looking for any way to distract from that. So it’s like, “Oh it might’ve been that guy, let’s threaten his life for a week.”

I’m fine. I’m fine other than feeling a little scared. Again, it just made me realize this is so important, this is our problem to fix. White people need to wake up and tell the truth about US history and the inequality and the ways in which racism is so entrenched. The nature of the threats and harassment made it clear to me: This problem is even worse than it seems. These people are out there. In a way I wish I could engage, like, “Why are you saying this? Why do you want me to die?” Just because you think I’m an anti-fascist? Guess what: Any nice, empathetic person should be an anti-fascist, and an anti-racist.

It took me a while, but it’s a good feeling to make music and not focus on who these people are. I know this happens all the time and it’s not just me. Anyone who’s speaking up about anything becomes a target. The saddest thing is there’s someone occupying the highest position in the country who is completely reckless and endangering people and weaponizing this kind of conspiracy theory. First it was me, and now it’s an elderly man in Buffalo who’s supposed to be an Antifa leader instead of a lifelong peaceful protester who got pushed over? That’s all besides the point of what’s really going on, but it does make you realize the lengths people will go to to distract and subvert positive activism.

STEREOGUM: Once the indie fan community came into contact with this, I think there was a photo of the whole band and puns about Antifa and National lyrics or whatever. With some amount of distance, you want to be able to laugh about what a strange tangent this is. But I can only imagine how disturbing it would be to go through that firsthand.

DESSNER: With the band, it brought us all together quickly in the sense of like, “Holy shit, those guys also got implicated in it.” But you know, we have a dark sense of humor. [Laughs] We were like, “Why don’t we just make a T-shirt with our faces and it says ‘Anti-Fascist’ and sell them for charity?” And I think we will someday. But to be the poster-boys, for a minute, of right-wing, whatever, harassment… Again, it’s nowhere in the league of if I couldn’t run down the street without fearing for my life in this country. But I think things are really bad and we need to find a way to overcome it and address these issues and also somehow disarm the hatred that these people feel.

The problem is all the propaganda and the way misinformation and conspiracy theories are bandied about and weaponized. It’s not an easy fix. Most of these people still believe I am that person. And who knows what that person was actually doing in Columbus. I have no idea. The sad thing is nobody, none of the people who are threatening or harassing me, would believe I’m not that person. Even though I was all these hours away — I’m nowhere near Ohio, nor have I been there since June of 2019.

STEREOGUM: The only lingering thing I was wondering about: As you’re in quarantine working away, are you able to preview any of the things you’re working on besides Big Red Machine, anything you’re producing?

DESSNER: Unfortunately it’s under wraps, but very soon there’ll be a lot of things to talk about for sure. The last thing I’ll say is, to write a song with Michael Stipe — holy shit, you know? Such a lovely person. Everything he’s done and represents and where his heart is, it’s just a very special thing. I’m grateful for that, and never thought it would happen.