A creative Haven

Interview with The National's guitarist and co-songwriter, Aaron Dessner to talk about Denmark, art and his long-standing friendship with Mikkel Borg Bjergso.


The National is arguably one of the most highly regarded rock bands to have emerged from the US in recent years, thanks to its knack for pairing memorable melodies with lyrical intimacy and heartfelt performance. They’ve also always struck me in interview as very thoughtful, humble musicians, with a great respect for craft. So I jumped at the chance to catch up with Aaron Dessner, the band’s guitarist and co-songwriter - in the midst of a US tour - to talk about Denmark, art and his long-standing friendship with Mikkel Borg Bjergso. Dessner’s connection to Denmark goes back a long way.

The National first played there in 2005, at Loppen, a rock club in the city’s bohemian Christiania district, and quickly realised the Danes felt a special affinity with their music. The feeling was definitely reciprocated, and it was in Copenhagen’s renowned venue Vega two years later in 2007 that Aaron met Stine, who he would later marry. Through Stine, he also became friends with a Danish Army officer named Jacob Alsing. The pair hit it off right away. ”Jacob was the first friend I made in Denmark and he came along to a lot of our shows, and sometimes brought his friend Mikkel with him,” recalls Aaron. “We’d sit back stage, drinking the beers that Mikkel brought in, and I could tell this was something special and unusual. So when Jacob told me he was considering leaving the Army and joining Mikkeller, I said he definitely should. So it was a combination of friendship and being interested in this incredible craftsmanship at Mikkeller that brought us together.”

As Aaron spent more of his time in Denmark, the friendship between the three flourished and, finding they shared many of the same interests and values, it wasn’t long before they began talking about ways of working together. ”The band was in town to play a big show at an arena called The Forum, and Jacob and Mikkel took us down to Refshaloen, a former shipyard where Mikkeller’s barrel room is now,” Aaron says. “It was this crazy post-industrial landscape, but Mikkel and Jacob told me the people who ran it were really cool. We started playing with the idea of holding an unconventional music festival out there; more than just bands on a stage.

From the beginning, we wanted it to be an art festival, a beer festival and a food festival too, with all those elements integrated. ”This idea came at a time when The National as a band was getting pretty tired of playing the same venues and festivals, where you can basically just cut and paste the experience into a muddy field anywhere in the world. I had also just started a music festival in Wisconsin called Eaux Claires with Justin Vernon from Bon Iver, which brought together all kinds of different artists to explore how these things could be done differently.”

The idea of collaborating to create the Haven festival was undoubtedly born that day, but began to gain momentum when culinary entrepreneur and food activist Claus Meyer (who co-founded Noma and became the figurehead of the New Nordic Cuisine movement) came on board. ”Claus was another friend I’d met through music. He’d invited us to play at his not-for-profit Apple Flower Festival - a tiny event in his orchard on the island of Lille - and it was such a great feeling, playing for 600 people, families and children, with Claus cooking for everyone. ”We knew then that this is what we wanted to do: create something that feels intimate, where you’re just as likely to experience a band on the stage as you are other moments of generosity, like someone handing you a tasting, or walking into a visual art installation.”

Aaron explains the name ‘Haven’ was chosen for its dual-meaning. In Danish, the word means ‘garden’, but in English it has connotations of being apart from the world, ‘a place for ideation and discovery’. First and foremost, this will take the form of collaboration, within and between the different creative disciplines represented there. ”The whole experience will be like an installation where all these various elements come together to stimulate the senses in different ways,” Aaron explains. “So, I’ll be playing with The National, but also with other musicians, some of whom I’ve never even met. I’ll also be working with people in other fields completely, which has always been one of my favourite things, whether it’s making a beer with Mikkeller, or collaborating with the Icelandic visual artist Ragnar Kjartansson.

Everyone who’s involved has bought into creating a really special collaborative space.” The result, Aaron hopes, will be a ‘village atmosphere’, where people can move through a landscape of different experiences, participating and contributing, rather than simply consuming entertainment. In short, they’ve ‘created the kind of festival we’d want to attend”. In addition to The National, the festival’s eclectic line-up includes (at the time of writing): Chance the Rapper, Feist, Iggy Pop, The Danish String Quartet and Conor Oberst. Understandably, Aaron is full of praise for his partners Mikkel and Claus, and says the Mikkeller culture and values permeate the festival.

”This is the kind of experience Mikkeller is so good at creating,” he says. “You can go into any of those Mikkeller bars and feel that they’re related. The Haven festival is another outpost for that. We’re planting a flag and creating something of uncompromising high quality, saying ‘you can go to a music festival and have the best beer in the world, and the best food, and the most interesting cultural experiences’.” While the festival will run for two days in August, the site is also now the home of the Haven bar, a year-round expression of the spirit of escape and collaboration which drives the festival.

Mikkel has personally curated the beer and spirits, while Aaron has curated the music and Claus has worked with the chef at the Michelin-starred Studio restaurant to create a menu of quality bar food. ”As I’ve gotten older I’ve realised - whether it’s the friendships with other musicians or artists, chefs or brewers - that I’m drawn to creative minds,” he says. “To me, that’s just what Mikkel is; he’s an artist, and his field is brewing, but it extends into the bars, the running club, Keith Shore’s fantastic designs, the whole way of life that Mikkeller has come to embody. I’ve obviously been to a lot of bars, but there’s something very special about Mikkeller’s take on what bars and beers should be.” 

Haven takes place on 11 and 12 August 2017. Tickets and line up are available at havenkbh.dk 

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