Dark Was The Night - A Chronicle

Feature by Paul Mitchell | 06 Feb 2009

Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the National, and John Carlin of Red Hot Organisation, describe the process of creating one of the most anticipated compilation albums of all time

“As far as compilations go I don’t know of another one in contemporary music that pulls together as many artists at such a high level of quality. So many people donated time and effort to this, it would be nice if it could be considered a ‘must have’.”

So says Aaron Bryce, he of The National, and co-producer of Dark Was The Night along with twin brother and bandmate Bryce. A total of 31 exclusive tracks have been recorded for the compilation, which will be available as a double CD, triple vinyl and download album, with profits benefitting the Red Hot Organization – an international charity dedicated to raising funds and awareness for HIV and AIDS.

The National twins and Red Hot founder and director John Carlin relied on their weighty music industry contacts book to draw contributions from a dazzling array of contemporary musicians, including, but certainly not limited to, David Byrne, Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, Antony Hegarty, Feist, Bon Iver, Stuart Murdoch, Conor Oberst, Dave Sitek (TV on the Radio), Grizzly Bear and… this is a bloody tall list. As Bryce explains “We really tried to be very inclusive about it, which explains why it’s really long. We wanted it to be ambitious and big.”

Ambitious and big would indeed be a fitting way to mark the 20th anniversary of the Red Hot Organisation, which has produced many compilation albums since inception, raising millions of dollars for AIDS awareness campaigns worldwide.

Carlin seems to be particularly excited about this launch. “If you like these artists you’re going to be knocked out by the quality of music on the record,” he tells us without a hint of a sales pitch. “Everything released on the record is an original exclusive track. Aaron, Bryce and I were determined to make a classic ‘folk’ album. I’ve been around longer than those guys, and I’ve seen the way in which folk music had been used by prior generations, say Dylan, Neil Young, through to Wilco. Putting on the guise of folk artists was used as a mark of authenticity, even if those artists had come from a different place. What I was hearing with contemporary rock bands was the use of folk more as an idiom that was being arranged and utilised in a way that classical music had been traditionally. For example, new bands like Arcade Fire, The Decemberists, The National etc, almost play as if they’re a chamber quartet, very controlled, intelligent, but using folk as a populist and highly effective medium.”

Turns out, the Dessners and Carlin go way back, with Aaron having worked for Red Hot while the twins were in the process of getting their band up and running. “As we got more successful I couldn’t keep the job so I left just before Alligator came out in 2005," he recalls. "As I was leaving John suggested it would maybe be a good idea to do a record together someday. The opportunity came up quite quickly because we were meeting so many of our peers and at the same time so many of those people were starting to crest as independent musicians and were entering the top ten and things like that. That was 2005 and it’s taken two or three years to pull it together.”

So, the trio resolved to put together an album of music John calls “American Roots Music”. In the past, Red Hot compilations have tended to be ‘tribute’ albums to specific songwriters, such as Cole Porter or Gershwin, but as Bryce rationalises: “In recent years we felt that the tribute record has become so ubiquitous, like in New York every other month there’s a Neil Young, Bob Dylan or Paul Simon tribute with a bunch of artists covering those songs so that didn’t necessarily feel the right direction for this.”

The American folk theme was expanded to include reinterpretations of Celtic (Stuart Murdoch) and English (Grizzly Bear) folk songs because, according to John, “a lot of that music came to America as well.” They are at pains to point out though, that not all of the 31 tracks could be considered as folk in the traditional sense. “Sufjan Stevens, for example, really used it as an opportunity to explore a whole new sound for him,” explains Bryce. “He’s done stuff with electronics before but this song has a lot of sequence beats; it's really ambitious at over ten minutes long and pretty wild in terms of where it goes. Certainly he was incredibly generous in creating something great and we also found ourselves getting a little out of control...in a good way.”

After almost three years assembling the cast, sorting out the paperwork and the actual production, there's a tangible sense of pride in their accomplishment. All three, however, lament the absence of the Animal Collective from the compilation, with LCD Soundsystem and MGMT also mentioned as desirable contributors.

“There were some people who said no but that was because they weren’t available due to touring or whatever,” says Aaron, “but we’re quite happy that we’ve gotten a really good snapshot of who’s who in the indie music scene right now."

"We've all seen how the record industry has changed in the past few years, offers John in parting. "It used to be really difficult to get the best tracks from artists, mostly due to their management – not the artists themselves. They had to keep the good stuff for their own records because that’s how they made money. Nowadays, they don’t really make money from selling records – or from having their records illegally downloaded I should say – but they make money by raising their profile and touring and getting involved in projects like this. This record came out incredibly well because so many artists gave us stand-out tracks. Some of them have said that these are among the best tracks they’ve ever done."

Judge for yourself when Dark Was the Night is released on 16 Feb via 4AD.