In 1966, when the rock group Cream was formed with guitarist Eric Clapton, bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker, Rolling stone the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Jann Wenner, reportedly called them a supergroup. All three had been the stars of well-known bands such as the Yardbirds and the Graham Bond Organization and their meeting made them kind of a super group.
They probably weren’t the first music supergroup (Wikipedia lists at least a few others). And they were certainly not the last. The most recent notables seem to be The Smile, a group made up of Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead, and Tom Skinner of Sons of Kemet. 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 postmodern form of a loose, collaborative and experimental supergroup. A recent example is PEOPLE, an artist collective founded about 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 frontman of Bon Iver. The idea was to have a forum where artists, mainly musicians, could spontaneously and freely collaborate, experiment and find a free outlet for their creativity. One of the things that emerged from PEOPLE was a band, Big Red Machine, which released two albums since 2018, the first eponymous, and the second, released in late August, titled How long do you think it will last?
This is where the loose collective character of Dessner and Vernon’s project takes on its full meaning. The last album, lasting more than an hour, is a matter of stars. Of the 15 tracks, nine are guest artists, a who’s who list of indie and mainstream music. There are so many people that mishmash, that quaint English word, might just be used for the effort. The course, however, is enjoyable – and the format just might be the future of musical supergroups.
Because, the collaboration between Dessner and Vernon illustrates how musicians collaborate in the digital age. It dates 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 later collaborated on for a song. In a decade, this collaboration led to an album, the first of Big Red Machine.
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The two complement each other. Vernon’s music is a new take on folk, with an independent psychedelic element but also a lot of depth and emotional intensity. In 2007, for example, Vernon, now 40, created an entire album, For Emma, there is always, isolated in a cabin in northern Wisconsin, United States.
As part of The National, Dessner, 45, is steeped in post-punk and art rock, characterized by their often dark undertones. 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 The day of the Dead, a gigantic Grateful Dead tribute album (nearly six hours, 59 tracks and more than 60 artists). Collaboration seems to be in his musical genes.
So while he and Vernon would have played the central role in Big Red Machine’s debut album, doing much of the songwriting, playing multiple instruments, and doing the arrangements, there was an impressive array of others. artists who have collaborated with them – names that include Bryce, The National drummer Bryan Devendorf, and singer-songwriters such as Phoebe Bridgers and Lisa Hannigan. It’s an album where creativity flows freely: Dessner created an eccentric soundscape with Vernon’s varied vocal style and unique abstract lyrics. In Acknowledgement, for example, he sings: Well I’m on the big bean field / In the palm of your hand / And the palms are decimated where the frosting of the glass lay dead.
The second album is a perfect showcase of the loose collective of Dessner and Vernon’s project. Taylor Swift appears on two tracks; Anaïs Mitchell sings on three; Robin Pecknold of the Fleet Foxes is featured on a memorable track (the song is called Phoenix). There’s Sharon Van Etten, S. Carey, British singer Ben Howard, rapper Naeem, and many more.
There are so many people, in fact, that each of the 15 songs seems to have its own rudder. Take, for example, Hutch, a heartbreaking 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 on the vagaries of love. Vernon sings: Well if someone tells you that 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 in the other way. Naeem follows with: Arranged like a book / You read my whole mind / Highlighter highlighting the intimate things they found / Shame, shame, shame, shame is the one that leads you down / The wrong road to be robbed blind.
It’s in the contrasting mix, however, that you’ll find the allure of Big Red Machine’s massive collaborative creativity. Even if you can’t find a common thread or common theme, the tracks are so immersive that each takes you on a journey so satisfying that you don’t really care whether there is one theme, several, or none. The future is shaping up.
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First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.