Rock star Aaron wants to help document Rhodes’ Jews
Jewish Telegraph, October 2003
AARON Dessner is in danger of giving rock stars a good name. It’s not sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll for The National guitarist — it’s more shool, Holocaust archiving and Jewish education.
Cincinnati-born Aaron — and twin brother Bryce, the group’s bassist — were brought up in a Reform Jewish household. His father was a jazz drummer who moved to Brooklyn.
‘‘My grandfather on my father’s side was verging on Orthodox,’’ he says. ‘‘We were more secular, although we had a good Jewish education and were barmitzvah.’’
Aaron and Bryce have been playing music since they were little, starting out jamming jazz with their father — then they discovered rock ’n’ roll.
They met drummer Bryan Devendorf in high school and formed their own group. When Aaron went to Columbia University and Bryce to Yale, the trio still found time to perform together.
In fact, whilst at college, they released three albums as Project Nim with a female vocalist.
‘‘It was very poppy,’’ Aaron, 27, says. ‘‘But we were never satisfied with it. I have always loved klezmer so I learnt the mandolin and we wrote a few film scores.’’
At college, Aaron studied modern European history, mainly because of his interest in modern Jewish history.
‘‘I studied the art and culture which spawned the Holocaust,’’ he said.
He graduated in 1998 and then spent a year on a fellowship at Yale for the Holocaust archives.
‘‘The history that has survived the Holocaust is very spotty,’’ he said. ‘‘Yale established research partnerships with universities in Eastern Europe — places where the killings were different than in concentration camps.
‘‘Yale found people in these places who witnessed events. The research was done by fully-trained historians and they don’t solicit interviewees, it’s all volunteers.
‘‘Every testimony was translated into English and it was my job to analyse the transcripts, compare them to historical records and create a catalogue library.’’
He added: ‘‘After a year of that, I intended to take a PhD in Jewish history but I needed more time to decide if it was the right move.
‘‘I’m still a student of Jewish history. I’m currently developing a concept for a documentary on Rhodes’ Jewish community.’’
This subject is particularly close to Aaron’s heart as his wife’s family is from the Greek island.
‘‘My wife, Nathalie, comes from a South African family, originally from Rhodes. We married in July on the island. It was the first Jewish wedding there since 1943 when the community was deported — including many of Nathalie’s family.
‘‘The synagogue was built in 1577 and is one of the most endangered monuments in Europe.
‘‘Nathalie’s mother was born in Belgium Congo and has a much more old world approach to Judaism than me, but it’s been great to discover a new way of relating to Judaism from them.’’
After Project Nim ‘‘exploded’’, Aaron, Bryce, Bryan and his brother Scott (guitar) hooked up with singer Matt Berninger to form The National in 1999.
Aaron says: ‘‘With two sets of brothers there is obviously some friction, but Bryce is a world class classical guitarist and he occasionally challenges me over the arrangements to some songs.’’
They chose the name The National because ‘‘it was the most generic name possible, but people have read a lot more into it — especially in France where we’ve had some success.
‘‘We are proud of our country but have issues with the way it is run.’’
Aaron adds that although the group is based in New York, they are ‘‘on the fringes’’ of the current New York scene which has made stars of The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Rapture and Interpol.
‘‘It’s nice to be in New York because great music is happening,’’ he said. ‘‘But we aren’t jumping on the new wave bandwagon. We operate in our own little vacuum.’’
The National release their second album Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers (Talitres Records) on November 3.
The album was recorded in seven different studios because ‘‘of limitations’’. Aaron says: ‘‘We ran out of money at one stage and had to record one song in our living room. We weren’t aiming for a folk sound, but we were very happy with it.’’
Aaron currently works for a media production company but as interest in the group increases, he is planning on giving up his job.
The National arrive in Britain on November 7 for a short tour that calls in at Manchester’s Night and Day Cafe on November 10 and Nice & Sleazy in Glasgow, the following night.
‘‘Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers has been compared to Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen, but I think that’s mainly down to the vocal style,’’ Aaron added.
‘‘It’s wonderful when people make references to artists we love.
‘‘I’m not too happy about being tagged Alt-Country because on the next record we could come up with a totally different style.’’
Aaron also hopes to one day take The National to Israel.
He said: ‘‘If the opportunity arises, we would do it.’’