Big Red Machine Is the Next Logical Step in Justin Vernon's Evolution
The Bon Iver frontman’s collab with Aaron Dessner from the National is the first big release from their new publishing and festival arm PEOPLE.
Photo by Graham Tolbert
I remember sitting in a small practice room in the Funkhaus – a listed building on the outskirts of Berlin, previously home to East Germany’s state radio – watching a performance that included Bon Iver, members of the National and, perhaps crucially, a dude plucking a harp to make it sound like it was on drugs. I’d felt close to having a panic attack: the room was claustrophobic and made me feel on edge. But there was also the music – a violent spasm that oscillated between the smooth and collected grooves of a jam session and complete derangement.
This was two years ago, at a festival I’d largely assumed was an extension of the release party for Bon Iver’s 22, A Million (they played the album in full at a hotel owned by one of the festival’s proprietors, and performed more songs again in the Funkhaus). Despite having a name in Michelberger Music, and despite also including performances from tens upon tens of artists, the timing made it feel as though 22, A Million was the centrepiece and the weekend’s performances had been placed around it: a unique way to launch a new record. Surely the same thing wouldn’t happen next year.
Except, of course, it did. In 2017. Then, again, this August. Now rebranded, PEOPLE Festival is the live event arm of the new venture between Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National, and Berlin hoteliers Tom and Nadine Michelberger. For the uninitiated, the event sees 100-plus musicians descend on the Funkhaus for a week-long residency. At the end, they perform new work at a two-day festival. There is no line-up, persay. You don’t know who you’ll see before they go on stage. All you can really rely on is a sense of anticipation and excitement – the result of collaborative musical experience that hasn’t really been attempted before.
Across the weekend you might see a performance featuring Bon Iver and London-based rapper Trim. A folk circle, where a guitar is passed between Vernon, Damien Rice, Erlend Øye and more. Or something like the ambient noise storm I witnessed a couple of years ago. What PEOPLE are doing is exciting, progressive stuff – a kind of living experiment. And it doesn’t stop with the festival, either. They’ve recently launched a streaming portal where PEOPLE’s growing family of artists can upload their collaborations, free from label constraints. The beta version is up and running now and features the service’s first banner release, Big Red Machine, an album from Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner that came out last Friday 31 August. If you haven’t already, check out one of their track’s below.
Big Red Machine is also on Spotify and Apple Music, but is best seen as part of Vernon and Dessner’s expanding musical vision. Across the album’s credits you’ll find the likes of Phoebe Bridgers, This Is The Kit, Arcade Fire and The Staves – collaborations likely born from PEOPLE music events. It’s also a not-so-distant cousin to 22, A Million – an album that defied definition through its non-traditional song structure, minimalism touching busy production, and vast swathe of influence. If you’re a fan of that one, you’ll likely be into this, since both records don’t fall so far from the same tree. You could describe both albums as soulful, but they also feature an arsenal of production trickery, where tones drift across with the lightness of smoke but feel as impactful as a week-long fog.
There are similarities with The National’s Sleep Well Beast album too, but Big Red Machine has more in common with Bon Iver. After all, Vernon is the project’s singer. Just like Frank Ocean, whose album Blonde was released in the same year as 22, A Million, Vernon carves a unique lane in an ever-changing music industry, seemingly able to create a sound that’s wholly his own and free – at least in some ways – from commercial restraints. His idea with PEOPLE is to push artists to keep releasing music whenever they want, however they want.
In an interview with the Guardian he said: “It feels like one of the major reasons ‘pro’ musicians get caught up and lose focus, consistency and confidence is because they sometimes have to wait to put albums out months after they are done. and that really screws with your rhythm. So for me, PEOPLE is a necessity for publishing certain music without cause for PR alarm, or any other reason than just to publish it.” Of course, it is worth mentioning that Vernon is in this position of relative artistic privilege and freedom because of the mainstream success of his debut album For Emma, Forever Ago. In a way it’s a similar trajectory to the actor Ethan Hawke, who is able to take creative risks on latter day indie films such as Boyhood or First Reformed thanks to the success and fanbase brought on by Training Day or Dead Poets Society. IE – Vernon had to make the big Hollywood blockbuster before he could finance the passion projects of the future.
It’s difficult to gauge how that will work for PEOPLE going forward – whether there will soon be more long-running projects on the service, or if it will remain largely as it is now, a portal for what are mostly sketches between various artists. Still: the potential is there. It happened in the flesh, at the event I witnessed at the Funkhaus in 2016, and again and again in the years after. For now, Big Red Machine is a good indicator of things to come. And, depending on if you look at it was as much importance, it’s an indicator of the ever-growing artistic mind of Justin Vernon and his various cohorts.
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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.