Steak tartare can be a tricky thing to plate. Chefs will stuff it into stainless steel molds so it becomes a perfect circular brick, or scoop it into spheres that are topped with micro greens or flowers or sometimes a cloud of shredded cheese -- all in an effort to mask what it really is: a great big lump of ground, raw beef. On a rainy Thursday evening, The National’s Aaron Dessner found himself contemplating how exactly he was going to approach the shapeless comfort food, which he’d been preparing in the home kitchen of his friend, the Danish chef and philanthropist, Claus Meyer.
“So . . . how should I do this?” Dessner, 41, asked.
But where some chef’s seek clean lines, Meyer strives to capture the beauty of things as they are. “It should look like food that somebody made, the real thing,” he advised Dessner, who spread forkfuls of the meat flat across a ceramic plate. As pastry bags filled with seaweed-infused mayo and smokey crème fraîche were dabbed with no real precision -- there Meyer was, leaning over the Cincinnati-born musician’s shoulder, encouraging him to appreciate the subtle nuances of what the dish was becoming. “That difference in height you’ve just created, it’s poetry!” the chef exclaimed.
The truth was, at some point the blank red canvas had evolved into a Pollock painting for the eyes and palate. “Instead of mixing these ingredients together with the meat, this all comes together in your mouth like a symphony,” noted Meyer, 54, a co-founder of Noma and pioneer of new Nordic cuisine. “It’s chaos and beauty,” he continued, “It’s what you’d call in music . . . ”
“Structured improvisation?” Dessner suggested.
The term was, more or less, what the night became. Though Dessner was in New York to workshop his first Broadway score for Erica Schmidt’s upcoming adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac, he had arrived to Meyer’s Chelsea townhouse to discuss Haven, the Copenhagen music festival that will take place on August 11 and 12 that he and Meyer co-founded along with Dessner’s twin brother and bandmate Bryce, and the Danish craft beer master, Mikkel Borg Bjergsø.
An extension of what Dessner has so successfully been able to accomplish over the past 15 years with The National, which has sold 1.3 million albums in the U.S. and will release a stellar seventh LP, Sleep Well Beast on September 8 -- the festival is about finding understated and intensely considered ways to help people feel more deeply. It's about challenging musicians to do the unexpected.
“Why can’t you have a little cabin where it’s one person playing for one person, for example? Or one chef cooking for one person? Why can’t you get two people from different bands to spontaneously perform and see what happens? I guarantee that whatever happens in a moment like that, is going to be more interesting,” Dessner said of Haven Festival. “If we can somehow give people the opportunity to have experiences with music that they wouldn’t normally—that’s what I’m interested in.”
The project is one of many the duo have partnered on since connecting three years ago through Facebook. Despite swapping home-bases -- Dessner moved from Brooklyn to Copenhagen, where his wife grew up, and Meyer moved his family from Copenhagen to Manhattan to open his restaurant Agern -- they co-own a bar together and are co-investors in a football league. "People like Claus are dedicated to their craft and innovating," Dessner said at one point over beers they were taste testing specially for the festival.
Maybe that’s why the touch-base with Meyer turned into something bigger. Long after the tartare and soup and ceviche were gone, their conversation continued on into the night. Here is an excerpt from that chat.
So you guys connected on Facebook initially.
AD: Christina, Claus’ wife, sent my wife a Facebook message about Apple Flower, the festival they do every year in Lilleø, a tiny island with an apple orchard. She asked if the National would play. It was just such a nice, charming letter. We were touched by it. And we ended up going. You have to get to the little island by boat.
CM: The island is the smallest one in Denmark. It’s three kilometers long, and only 6 people live there year round. There are no cars and its surrounded by the ocean. There are vineyards and orchards -- apples and quinces and pears and plums. When the apple trees are flourishing, it’s just a roof of white flowers and I had been looking at them every year, feeling like they were blossoming for no reason because no one could enjoy them. So we started a 600 person festival where people stay in tents under the apple trees and spend the night listening to great music. The festival was about curating everything in minutes, thinking through every moment.
So that gave way to Haven festival?
CM: I have made many strange things in my life, but this one was not my initiative at first.
AD: The National’s favorite experiences as musicians are when we are collaborating with people a little outside of our world as a band. After years of touring you experience music festivals that are mostly the same -- where you copy and paste the same experience into a muddy field in California or a muddy field in England. We just got kind of bored. So over the years, we started experimenting with festivals that are more about melting away the borders, melting away the genres of music and disciplines of art and other aspects.
Beer is such an important part of the festival, what’s the first one you ever drank?
AD: Probably Coors Light, unfortunately [laughs].
CM: Tuborg. That’s like the Heineken of Denmark, the flattest, most neutral watery beer.
Do you have a policy about drinking while you’re in the studio or on stage?
AD: It’s rare that the band isn’t drinking on stage. I tend to drink straight tequila on ice or Aperol Spritz. When I was younger, I drank bourbon a lot and I didn’t realize it then, but it erodes my self-control. Matt [Berninger] drinks what we call it Cincinnati Sangria -- it’s wine of any kind with ice in it and he throws it around on stage.
Growing up across the world from each other, were there any similarities in your diets?
AD: We would have Domino’s cheese pizza every Friday. We would have spaghetti bolognese out of a can with bad meat. And then we’d have chicken in the oven one night.
CM: When I was growing up, it was the 1960’s in Denmark, in a middle-class family in the southern part of the country. My mom was the first generation of women working outside of the home, so she had to find a way to feed her family while working. So I was suffering from things like beef patties in tins re-heated in water. I had potato flakes that you would add hot water to make mashed potatoes. We ate almost 300-400 grams of marjoram every night. Some of it used for sauce -- we would just melt it into a sauce and pour it all over the food. So that was . . . wow. Very bland, very industrial, very unhealthy. I didn’t know the difference until I went to France when I was 20 years old.
Did you always want to be a chef, Claus?
CM: When I was younger I wanted to be a rockstar like Aaron but I really couldn’t sing.
AD: I’m pretty sure you can sing as well as Matt can sing. [laughs]
CM: The honest answer is that during my gap year when I was au pair in Paris, I got hepatitis and ended up in Gascony in southern France. I ended up living with a couple who had always wanted a son but could never have kids and they took me into their home and treated me like their own. The man was a fourth generation chef who made me the most phenomenal food I’d ever eaten in my life. My parents divorced four years before then, I didn’t see my father after that and my mother became an alcoholic. So I was longing for parents in my life. Somehow I managed to see this experience as something magical. It felt like a calling. I went home wanting to change the food in Denmark.
What about you Aaron? Did you always want to be a musician?
AD: No, not at all. Bryce and I grew up playing music because my dad was a jazz drummer. When we were about 6 or 7 we found his drums stashed away in a closet because he couldn’t make money doing it, so he got a real job. He was an amazing drummer with an old school, Buddy Rich style. So we just started playing with him. But at that time we really loved sports and we were really into school, too. Bryce and I were seriously into playing soccer, and basketball and tennis, baseball. I thought I was going to play soccer in college. But all along we played music, and I think the reason we really got somewhere was because we were never like, “oh that’s our job.”
Do you cook a lot at home, Aaron?
AD: I do, but I wouldn’t say I cook well. I cook a lot of fish -- Arctic char or salmon in very simple ways because I fish a lot. I grew up fly fishing when I was a kid. The feeling of it is fun. I went fly-fishing on Lake Delaware once, and I caught a record brook trout.
Claus, you’ve been working on the launch of The Brownsville Community Culinary Center in Brooklyn that Aaron is going to be a board member of. What prompted it?
CM: In Brownsville, you have some of the highest rates of obesity and the shortest life spans in the country. A lot of people are not being fed well. We’ve set up a co-creative initiative that will allow 60 kids to go to school, learn how to cook and how to run micro-businesses. The complicated part comes with how to create a real relationship with the community and become a part of the fabric of that place. Patience is one key word for everything.