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Is the post-modern indie rock collective the future?

Big Red Machine's new album shows Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon's project is now a huge collaborative platform 

Rehearsing for ‘The Late Show With Stephen Colbert’.
Rehearsing for ‘The Late Show With Stephen Colbert’. (Photograph by Shaun Gibson; Courtesy Instagram/bigredmachineadjv)

In 1966, when the rock band Cream was formed with guitarist Eric Clapton, bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker, Rolling Stone magazine’s editor, Jann Wenner, is believed to have dubbed them a supergroup. All three had been leading lights in well-known bands such as Yardbirds and Graham Bond Organisation and their coming together made them a sort of uber band.

They were probably not the first supergroup in music (Wikipedia lists at least a couple more). And they were certainly not the last. The most recent notables seem to be The Smile, a band that has Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood, and Sons of Kemet’s Tom Skinner. There is, however, something that goes beyond the traditional definition of a supergroup. It’s the collective.

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You could call it the post-modern form of a supergroup, loose, collaborative and experimental. A recent example is PEOPLE, an artists’ collective founded around five years ago by Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon. Dessner, of course, is a founding member of The National and Vernon is the singer and leader of Bon Iver. The idea was to have a forum where artists, mainly musicians, could spontaneously and freely collaborate, experiment and find an unfettered outlet for their creativity. One of the things that emerged from PEOPLE was a band, Big Red Machine, which has released two albums since 2018, the first a self-titled one, and the second, released in late August, titled How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?

This is where the loose collectiveness of Dessner’s and Vernon’s project comes into its own. The latest album, over an hour long, is a star-studded affair. Of the 15 tracks, nine are by guest artists, a list of indie and mainstream music’s who’s who. There are so many people that hodgepodge, that quaint English word, might well be used for the effort. The journey, however, is pleasing—and the format could well be the future of musical supergroups.

For, the collaboration between Dessner and Vernon is illustrative of how musicians collaborate in the digital age. It goes back to 2008, when Dessner, who didn’t know Vernon personally at the time, used MySpace to send him an instrumental idea that the two then collaborated on for a song. Within a decade, that collaboration led to an album, Big Red Machine’s debut.

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The two complement each other. Vernon’s music is a new twist on folk, with an indie psychedelic element but also much emotional depth and intensity. In 2007, for instance, Vernon, now 40, created an entire album, For Emma, Forever Ago, in isolation in a cabin in northern Wisconsin, US.

As part of The National, Dessner, 45, is rooted in post-punk and art rock, characterised by their often sombre notes. But he has another life: He has produced albums for dozens of artists, including Sharon Van Etten, Local Natives, Ben Howard and Taylor Swift. In 2016, he and his twin brother Bryce (also a member of The National) produced Day Of The Dead, a mammoth Grateful Dead tribute album (nearly six hours long, 59 tracks and more than 60 artists). Collaboration appears to be in his musical genes.

So, while Vernon and he would have played the central role in Big Red Machine’s first album, doing much of the songwriting, playing multiple instruments and doing the arrangements, there was an impressive range of other artists who collaborated with them—names that include Bryce, The National drummer Bryan Devendorf and singer-songwriters such as Phoebe Bridgers and Lisa Hannigan. It is an album where creativity flows freely: Dessner created an eccentric soundscape with Vernon’s varying vocal style and uniquely abstract lyrics. In Gratitude, for instance, he sings: Well I’m on the big bean field/ In the palm of your hand/ And the palms are decimation where glass glaze lay dead.

The second album is a perfect showcase of the loose collectiveness of Dessner’s and Vernon’s project. Taylor Swift appears on two tracks; Anaïs Mitchell sings on three; the Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold features on a memorable track (the song is called Phoenix). There is Sharon Van Etten, S. Carey, the British singer Ben Howard, the rapper Naeem, and many others.

There are so many people, in fact, that each of the 15 songs seems to have its own rudder. Take, for instance, Hutch, a sorrow-drenched song written in memory of Scott Hutchison, singer of the Scottish band Frightened Rabbit, who died in 2018. And contrast that with Easy To Sabotage, where Vernon and Naeem do a duet about the vagaries of love. Vernon sings: Well if someone tells you they can’t love you/ You go the other way/ Well if someone tells you that they love you/ And you can’t/ You go the other way. Naeem follows with: Laid out like a book/ You’re reading my whole mind/ Highlighter highlighting the intimate things they’ve found/ Shame, shame, shame, shame’s the one that leads you down/ The wrong road to be robbed blind.

It is in the contrasting mix, however, that you will find appeal in Big Red Machine’s massive collaborative creativity. Even if you don’t find a common thread or theme, the tracks are so immersive that each takes you on a journey so satisfying you don’t really care whether there is one theme, many, or none. The future beckons.

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