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The National’s Bryce and Aaron Dessner on the Strange Lives of Identical Musical Twins

You’d be hard pressed to find two musicians more intricately entwined in the local music community than Bryce and Aaron Dessner. The identical twins are founding members of the National (in which they play with another set of brothers). Bryce also plays in the band Clogs, and has collaborated with the Bang on a Can All-Stars and Philip Glass; Aaron is a multi-instrumentalist who’s played alongside David Byrne, Final Fantasy, and Grizzly Bear. Their latest collaboration is The Long Count, an evening-length multimedia song cycle with animated video by artist Matthew Ritchie, and featuring yet another pair of musical twins — the Breeders’ Kim and Kelley Deal (the work opens tonight at the BAM Next Wave Festival). The Dessners spoke to Vulture about their unique artistic life together.

Do you remember your earliest collaboration?
A: It was when we went to Colonial Williamsburg when we were 5, and we saw one of the marching bands. We went to the gift shop and our parents bought us a fife and a drum, so we had our own little colonial twin band. Bryce started playing the flute, and I played the drum.

B: I think our other first collaboration was our baseball-card collection, which sort of ties into The Long Count. We were obsessed with collecting and cataloging baseball cards, in the late seventies–early eighties. We got really obsessed with the stories of different players.

A: I guess we started writing songs together when we were 13. He wanted to play the guitar, so my parents ran to get him a guitar, and then the next day I felt neglected, so I got a bass. From the very beginning, we just sort of made things up together. That’s one of the great things about having a twin brother; you have a sort of feedback loop, where you can bounce things off of each other.

Was there ever sibling rivalry?
B: Aaron was better at sports, and being twins, I was kind of like his trainer, and in basketball we’d play one-on-one till ten o’clock at night every day, and I don’t think I ever beat him. In middle school, he was cuter and had girlfriends, and I had braces and acne.

A: I remember that, but the joke’s on me, because Bryce had perfect grades and could go do what he wanted after high school, and I found myself a little like, Whooa, I’m not gonna be in the NBA! We’re actually pretty hard on each other, and a lot of the communication is pillow talk in a way — we’re not really mature or articulate with each other, and on the outside it may seem insulting, but actually it’s how we get things done …

B: Basically, he’s just trying to justify himself, ‘cause he has this psychology of manipulation where he sends me these aggressive, weird e-mails!

A: [Laughs] But you do the exact same thing! We have proof on both sides of this.

Has it made working easier, to have two sets of twins involved?
A: I think it’s been really easy to work with them. We kind of idolized them growing up, and still. They’re real legends of Ohio indie rock. But the process of working with them, Bryce and I react so quickly working together, we don’t even have to talk, we can instantaneously change what we’re doing, and we’re sort of born collaborators, and I think they are too. Collaboration is a very natural thing for all of us.

This is the first work of this magnitude you’ve done together, right?
A: Yeah, this is the first through-composed, more-than-an-hour commission we’ve done. It’s surprisingly cohesive; I think as we’ve been developing it over the past few years, it wasn’t like there was one singular vision of the music at some point where we said, “This is it.” It was more bits and pieces and fragments, but somehow they fit together like a puzzle.

B: The whole BAM show is a new precedent for us — we don’t have to write an album, we can kind of do anything. Ultimately, it’s been a good marriage of this more adventurous sound, and the economy of trimmed-down, essential rock that we do in our band. Somehow, both those things have translated into this show.

Do you guys ever need a break from each other?
A: Two weeks ago, we kind of had an episode where we weren’t mad, but felt like we weren’t getting anywhere and needed to be working on the new National record. But out of that came all these good things — two weeks later, we’ve written all these good songs. And we do have time away — when you’re on tour, it’s a totally different thing, ’cause you’re not actually creating anything.

B: And we’re so closely involved, personally and creatively, that we trust each other, you know? I could take something away for a month and finish it and not even show it to him, and then bring it in and he might have a couple changes.

I’ve heard you live pretty close to each other as well.
A: [Laughs] Yeah. Both of us live on Stratford Road between Cortelyou and Beverly, in Ditmas Park, and our sister lives on the same street. If you live in this neighborhood, you definitely see the twins.

B: It happens all the time where he’ll go into the coffee shop, and 30 seconds later I come in, but I haven’t seen him, and the people are like, “What? What? You want another coffee?” It’s funny, as a 33-year-old adult, to be like, Well, this has happened since I was 4.

Photo: Getty Images