Michael Stipe and Aaron Dessner talk about 'No Time for Love Like Now'

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Host Jade interviews Aaron Dessner (The National) and Michael Stipe (R.E.M.) about their collaborative project with Big Red Machine. (MPR Video)

Aaron Dessner of The National and Michael Stipe, formerly of R.E.M., connected with Jade to talk about "No Time For Love Like Now," a collaboration between Stipe and Big Red Machine.

It's Jade, and I am here in our headquarters in downtown St. Paul. And I'm very excited to not just be talking to somebody, but actually seeing people, as I don't get to do that too frequently. And the two faces that I'm seeing right now are Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and Aaron Dessner of Big Red Machine and The National. Hello! Hi, how are you guys?

Aaron Dessner: Very well. Thanks for having us.

So happy to have you, and so happy that you guys are making some music together. The song, "No Time For Love Like Now," is absolutely beautiful, and I've been enjoying listening to it, and I saw that the merch proceeds are going to be donated to the Equal Justice Initiative and the COVID-19 Protest Fund so thank you for doing that as well. And Aaron, I kind of wanted to start with you. You know, they say, "Don't meet your heroes," but how did that go for you?

AD: Well, it went pretty well. As heroes go, Michael couldn't be nicer and more lovely. But yeah, we actually met probably 15 years ago, and then The National toured with R.E.M. So we've known each other for a while and only made music together more recently, but, I don't know, you know, I try not to think about it too much. It's surreal but I'm also thankful, also just to realize that people you look up to turn out to be every bit as talented and charming and, you know...it's nice when that happens so. I'm just grateful for the opportunity. It's nice with what the world is going through to have music and be able to make stuff with friends and stuff you're inspired by and people you're inspired by and for a good cause hopefully, and yeah, so, just grateful.

Yeah, yeah, music as a coping mechanism, that's what it's been for me a lot lately. I was kind of curious about how this all came together, because this all happened pre-COVID, right, the project itself.

Michael Stipe: Yes, it did. It was at the Metropolitan, Aaron, is that right?

AD: Yeah. Michael came to an opening of...Ragnar Kjartansson, the Icelandic artist, made this film, a seven-screen installation that featured my brother and I and these other twin girls, Kristin Anna and Gyoa Valtysdottir from the band Mum. We had done it for Eaux Claires, the festival. It was originated there, it was called Forever Love but then Ragnar took one of the songs and made a film of it called Death is Elsewhere where it's just my brother and I and Gyoa and Kristin Anna paired together moving in a circle in an old lava field in Iceland singing the song to each other and it's really beautiful and it premiered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and we invited Michael and he came. Then we just reconnected more recently and I mentioned that Justin and I were working on a lot of Big Red Machine music and kind of tried my luck and asked if I could send Michael some music and he graciously said, "Sure!" And that's kind of how a seed was planted, I guess.

I know with a lot of Big Red Machine stuff or some of Justin's stuff that he's been working on, it's been a lot of send something out and then somebody sends something back to you? Were you guys able to actually get into a room together and make music together, or was it very much sending things back and forth?

MS: We were sending things back and forth but that's, for me, historically that's a very typical way to work, going back to the early '80s, because my contribution is often very solitary, and the place that I have to go to in order to, whatever, do my best work, I can't really do with other people around. So, I go into this, you know, sort of whirlwind of thought activity — I don't know what you'd call it — and what emerges is sometimes great and sometimes not great, but I think with this song, I'm actually proud to say I think it's a really stunning, stunningly beautiful piece, and I'm so thrilled to work with Aaron.

There is a quote that I keep thinking about when I'm thinking about the music people are releasing now that they maybe worked on, you know, a while ago. Nick Cave, in this documentary, said that sometimes when he writes songs, he feels superstitious about it, almost, because suddenly it feels like those lyrics are almost coming true. Do you have a tendency, Michael, to feel like some of the things you write are prescient? Because this song feels very much in the moment.

MS: It is. We finished it in November, before the time of COVID, and the lyrics are actually still, to me, a little chilling just in terms of how much they reference what we are now, [what] the whole world is going through. I started writing the song, the chorus came out first, and then I had to flesh it out, and that was...that happened in October. So I had the chorus, I think, and I had, I think I had sent that to you, Aaron. And then my great friend John Giorno passed away, died, and for me, that kind of riveted the place where the song took place and a big part of what it was referencing. And so, I kind of wrote John into it, and the song was finished. And then COVID hit. And then suddenly the lyric had a completely different meaning. And then George...then everything that happened in America, out of your city, and the necessary changes that come with that. It all feels like I was looking into some glass ball into the future with the lyric. And so it's a little freaky. It's not creepy 'cause it's happened before and I'm...I never get used to it but it's a little weird, it's a little odd. But I like it that the...you know, for me, music and art at their finest help us through the moment that we're moving through, and perhaps help us to see a little bit of what the future might provide. And this song feels like it's doing that, in a really sweet way.

Yeah. There's melancholy to it but there's hope to it, which I think a lot of people need right now, and I, I'm glad that you brought up...you know, where the world is because it is something that I think a lot about. I'm sure you do as well, when you're talking to your friends and your musician friends. You know, what is the music scene going to look like? What is the music world going to look like? And I'm so grateful that all these independent venues are banding together. And, Aaron, it just seems like this collective idea that you and Justin...you know, everybody who's kind of part of Big Red Machine and people in [the] Eaux Claires Fest, that almost feels like the future as well, this collective idea of musicians coming together and collaborating with each other and kind of lifting each other up. How do you see it?

AD: Right now there's hopefully seismic shifts in our society growing out of extreme sadness and frustration and centuries of oppression. Finally it seems like maybe that there's, you know, that the dam has broken and there's actually real change coming. Obviously in Minneapolis, sadly with George Floyd's murder, but I think, you know...there's a lot of leadership coming out of Minneapolis and a lot of important dialogue, I think. So I'm just trying to listen a lot and learn. You know, we're all a product of the society that we have grown up in, and I'm spending a lot of time thinking about, like, my privilege and, kind of, all the things I've done and worked really hard to do but at the same time probably benefited from, you know, a lot of things that fell in my, you know, luck, and sort of, systemic privilege. So, things like community-oriented projects and more socialized ways of thinking about everything are really important right now, and I'm trying to redistribute just how everything works in the music industry — whether that's venues and promoters or the way music gets released and, you know, how can people survive making art, and how can more, you know, voices be heard that aren't being heard enough. We have tried with Big Red Machine but more with Eaux Claires and people have been experimenting with trying to raise people up and give people voices and use this platform. You know, Justin is a great example of someone who's had tremendous success that he never really...it kind of just happened, you know. From the beginning of Bon Iver, that first record just exploded and then, it's kind of been like, sometimes an awkward thing for him because he's very much like a team player and very much never really wanted to be that kind of star. So he's often thinking about like, "How do I, you know, reinvest in the community, or like give other people opportunities?" And Big Red Machine was kind of born out of that. Like, let's create a band that's not a band and that's a way to collaborate with people you love, whether that's people you look up to or people you've never met...passing the microphone around. It's still in its infancy, but this feels like it can really accommodate a lot of ideas.

Yeah, it's been something that I've appreciated, especially with, you know, bringing voices like Swamp Dogg back to everyone's attention as well. It's been lovely, and I think that is something about growing up as well. You know, when you start out and you're a young musician, you think just by saying these words — you know, the sound that you're creating and the lyrics that you're writing down — that that's going to change the world. And I think when you get a little bit older, or maybe this is just me, but you start to think about, "okay, how can I actually create change? And how can I actually use my platform, you know, to do something tangible?" And it feels like, especially Michael, how specific you've been with the songs that you do release. Because I feel like, and this is presumptuous of me, but that you're probably constantly creating, and to choose the specific moments that you release music out to the world. It feels like you're choosing to be very intentional about it now.

MS: You're talking about the more recent stuff that I'm putting out?

Yeah, and that it's been towards different causes.

MS: Yeah, I mean I felt, well...I was very, very lucky, and perhaps privilege is a part of it, what Aaron was speaking of earlier, a big part of it. I was very lucky within the industry of music, and then that industry changed dramatically, changed very dramatically, right about the time I got out. And then I really realized how much I love the medium of music and how much I'm able to very naturally kind of participate in that and be a part of it. And so I immerse myself back into it. Well, then comes the question, how do I release this stuff, and what do I do with it once I don't have the apparatus that was once around, this very giant thing called R.E.M., is no longer. You know, I don't have a manager, I don't have a PR person. I don't have a record company, I don't have a contract. All the physical ways of distribution have been radically altered by digital technology. What do I do? And the obvious answer was to put the music out and try to draw attention to my other great passion outside of music and art, which is activism and to support these organizations or groups of people that are doing stuff that I really admire. In many ways, I'm, you know, I'm a bit of a one-trick pony. I mean, I was actually reading earlier today...I'm going through a bunch of archives in my storage unit, which goes very deep. And I was reading an article that I did about, specifically about toxic waste, nuclear waste in 1989 in New Zealand. I was like, "Wow!" I actually had studied this and knew all this stuff and I've long since forgotten it, but this is something that goes way back. And so with these songs I really...with these songs, I wanted to release them and do so in a way that shined a light on these organizations and these people that are doing really great work. And I can continue to be creative and be an artist and make music and release music, but allow that to become for some people perhaps an entrance way into this work that's being done by these great organizations.

I don't want to keep you guys for too much longer, 'cause I love talking about this and could just ramble on myself for way too long, but I'm curious if there is a particular artist or a song or an album that you've been turning to a lot more recently? Just for your own comfort or just because it's something maybe that you just discovered that you could share with the listeners?

MS: I've been listening to classical music a lot. I tend to not listen to pop music at all. Although I love pop music, but I find it overwhelming to the rest of my life and so I tend to ignore it, although, recently, Arca released a new album, which...I didn't like the last record Arca put out but this one is pretty astonishing and it's pure, like, Europop. It's really kind of incredible Europop. So, if anyone's looking for something new to listen to, Arca.

Nice. What about you, Aaron?

AD: Well, I've been working...the truth is I've been making so much music it's kind of hard, I don't have much time to listen to other music, but...I mean, the record that Dylan just put out, I have listened to it a lot, and then I go back and I listen...these days I listen to Nina Simone a lot, or Emahoy Tsegue-Maryam, the Ethiopian nun who...her piano playing, if you don't know it, she's...just search Emahoy. She's the most amazing...just a huge influence on me the last many years. So, kind of still in that mode.

MS: Did you know that there was a beautiful documentary that came out five years ago called What Happened, Miss Simone?

Yes!

MS: A feature documentary. My friend Jason was producer on that film. It's an astonishing movie, so I could strongly recommend [it], and there's a lot of, obviously there's a lot of great music in it, but I could strongly recommend What Happened, Miss Simone? to anyone listening.

I think we could all listen to more of that right about now. In fact I probably will end up playing that out of your beautiful song...which I just want to say, thank you again. There's a particular line in it that jumps out at me, and it's, "I'm waiting for you, whatever waiting means in this new place." And for some reason that really just struck me because I do feel like I'm constantly in a holding period and I think that that's part of the tension that we're feeling not only in Minnesota but all across the world is this kind of waiting period. And, so I don't really have a question for that I just think it's a really beautiful line, and I think it speaks to where we're at right now. That's kind of the beautiful thing about music is how much it changes from, you know, when you write it to when we start playing it, and how it affects the people who hear it, and how they interpret it. So, thank you for creating beautiful music for us to enjoy and cope with. Thank you both for stopping in and taking some time out of your day to chat with us here. Aaron and Michael, thank you so much.

MS: Yeah, thanks for having us, Jade.

AD: Thank you.


Transcribed by Iman Jafri


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