The National on Bringing Their Friends to Cincinnati for MusicNow & Homecoming Festival Double-Bill

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Graham MacIndoe
The National

"They're all artists we really like," National guitarist Bryce Dessner.

What better reminder is there of how far you've come than gazing at a sea of people rocking out at a festival you organized in your hometown on a beautiful spring weekend? That's the sight that promises to greet the members of The National when they take the stage for two headlining sets at the inaugural Homecoming Festival on Saturday and Sunday on the banks of the Ohio River in their former home base of Cincinnati.

"They're all artists we really like... Future Islands are on our label, Feist is one of our old friends, we've known Father John Misty since he was in Fleet Foxes, Big Thief is one of our favorite new bands, same with Julien Baker... and The Breeders were a huge influence on us," National guitarist Bryce Dessner tells Billboard about some of the bands the group tapped for the first edition of their riverfront blowout. Making things even sweeter for Dessner is the fact that Homecoming will take place at the same time as the 13th edition of his long-running avant garde new music festival MusicNow, whose lineup tends to skew more esoteric end surprising.

"Some of the quieter music [at MusicNow] doesn't work on a big stage, so these are all the artists who make more sense up there," he says of the A-list indie rockers the band corralled to help them celebrate the Queen City. The guitarist, who composes contemporary classical music in his spare time, compared the feeling he's going for with the dual events to the revered annual three-week Scottish performing arts Edinburgh Festival.

It's an ambitious leap, but since The National aren't really on tour at the moment, Dessner figured it made sense to use the allure of the band playing two headlining sets to get music fans out to see a mix of things they already love and acts he hopes they'll discover. MusicNow tends to premiere contemporary classical works with surprising pairings of indie rockers and symphonic players (the aforementioned "quieter music") and it will take place from Friday through Sunday, presenting unique works at a handful of fine arts venues around town. The parallel fest will feature sets from legendary German electronic duo Mouse on Mars (who are also playing Homecoming), Irish minimalist group Crash Ensemble, classical ensemble Eighth Blackbird featuring Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Bryce & his twin brother Aaron Dessner debuting their finger-picking acoustic guitar instrumental duo, electronic composer Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and former Icelandic rock band múm member Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir.

"The National have played MusicNow twice in the past, usually as special, one-off, intimate shows, but since we're not really on tour now it made sense to ask, 'if the band were to play how would we do it?'" says Dessner, who plays in the band alongside singer Matt Berninger, guitarist brother Aaron and brothers bassist Scott Devendorf and drummer Bryan Devendorf. He's excited to see MusicNow spread to such revered hometown institutions as the Cincinnati Art Museum, Contemporary Art Center and the Underground Railroad Freedom Center, with Homecoming -- produced in conjunction with Bonnaroo founders AC Entertainment -- putting down roots on two outdoor stages in a riverside park for the first time ever.

"It's so nice to hear music in different spaces, especially if you're in an outdoor setting and you're hearing loud music and then you go indoors to hear quiet music... it's a great way to start your day," he says of the overlapping weekend schedules which will present daytime MusicNow talks and performances at three museums and Homecoming sets from Lord Huron, Spank Rock, Irish singer (and MusicNow vet) Lisa Hannigan and Big Thief before the more raucous music begins on the outdoor stages in front of a potential crowd of 10,000 each day.

In addition to half a dozen shows he plans to play over the course of the weekend, Dessner and The National will offer up a rarity for the fans who he says are traveling from as far away as Argentina and beyond: the band's popular 2007 album Boxer in full on Sunday night. "We've done it once, in Brussels [a recording that was released as part of this year's Record Store Day] and it will be fun to play it since a lot of people are traveling [to Cincinnati]," he says. "For the more intense fans that's a really special event and the other night will be a totally different set." 

Dessner is super excited about fans checking out acts such as Moses Sumney, hometown percussionist Ben Sloan and Sam Amidon. And while it will take a strong constitution to see every single event, the Homecoming schedule was created to allow attendees to see every set if they're game. "You can see quite a lot and there is additional stuff we're announcing... special events all over town," he says, teasing some last-minute additions.

"To me Cincinnati lends itself to something like this because it's a beautiful small city that works better for this ambitious citywide programming, which is harder to pull off in Chicago or New York. Part of it is hometown love that's fun to share with a broader audience," he says. "To put together a special event for people who know the band in other parts of the world to see where we're from because it's so essential to our identity and what we're all about."

And though The National are only playing a handful of shows this year, Dessner says they are "pretty deep" into the follow-up to 2017's acclaimed Sleep Well Beast. "We're further along than I would have thought," he says. "The world can expect new music from us sooner than later... but probably not this year."

Click here to see the full weekend schedule.