Posts Tagged ‘Bryce Dessner’

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Upon announcing their eighth studio album “I Am Easy To Find”, due out May 17th via 4AD Records, The National released its opening track, “You Had Your Soul With You” but next up is the album’s closer, “Light Years,” out now.

The Grammy-winning quintet’s new single arrives alongside a video featuring scenes from I Am Easy To Find’s short companion film of the same name, starring Oscar winner Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl), who also appears on the album’s cover art, and written and directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Mike Mills (20th Century Women).

“Light Years,” is a plaintive reflection on lost love structured around a deft, tumbling piano figure, follows a trend set by “You Had Your Soul With You,” which prominently features vocals from longtime David Bowie collaborator Gail Ann Dorsey, contrasted with those of frontman Matt Berninger the album to which these songs introduce us hinges on this dynamic. Sharon Van Etten, Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Lisa Hannigan, Mina Tindle, Kate Stables (This Is the Kit) and others also sing across its 16 tracks, their points of view spanning I Am Easy To Find’s prismatic and expansive 68 minutes. This might be one of Matt Berninger’s most poetic odes to love and loss to date: “Oh, the glory of it all was lost on me/’Til I saw how hard it’d be to reach you/And I would always be light years, light years away from you.”

Mills, also credited as a co-producer on the album, had a major hand in its multidimensional direction. Bryce Dessner says of I Am Easy To Find, “It’s a movie about a woman, so shouldn’t there be women’s voices? We’re a band that’s been largely defined by the sound of one person’s voice where suddenly now we’re hearing others.” Berninger says, “Yes, there are a lot of women singing on this, but it wasn’t because, ‘Oh, let’s have more women’s voices.’ It was more, ‘Let’s have more of a fabric of people’s identities.’” He adds, “It would have been better to have had other male singers, but my ego wouldn’t let that happen.”

The National have also revealed that their previously announced, already-sold-out “An Evening with The National” shows in Paris, London, Toronto, New York and Los Angeles in April will also include a screening of their I Am Easy To Find short film, as well as a Q&A session with the band, Mills and others.

The band’s world tour begins in Philadelphia on June 11th, running all the way through a Dec. 5th show in Stuttgart, Germany. Courtney Barnett and Alvvays will open on select dates.

From The National’s new album ‘I Am Easy to Find’ out May 17th

Big Red Machine (Photo by Graham Tolbert)

Big Red Machine was a decade in the making, starting with the sketch of a song The National’s Aaron Dessner sent Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon for the Dark Was the Night charity compilation. The duo enlisted more than two dozen collaborators, including vocalists like Lisa Hannigan, Phoebe Bridgers, This Is the Kit’s Kate Stables and Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, and string arrangements from Rob Moose and Dessner’s twin brother Bryce. Side projects like this often seem tossed off, but Big Red Machine feels like the opposite—something remarkably ambitious, a labor of love that sees two of indie rock’s most talented and creative minds pursuing a passion without pressure, or limits.

The resulting music can sound at times like a National album with Vernon’s echoing, manipulated falsetto serving as a stark contrast to the warm, intimate baritone of Matt Berninger, and at other times like a Bon Iver album with more complex and inventive chordal patterns and rhythmic structures. It’s experimental but affecting with Vernon’s snippets of heart-on-sleeve vulnerability popping up screaming from a cloud of otherwise opaque lyrics.

Alongside the album, they’ve unveiled new videos for three tracks from the record: “Gratitude,” “Forest Green,” and “I Won’t Run From It.” The visuals were directed by Eric Timothy Carlson and Aaron Anderson, and they feature colorful layers of graphics, text, and images.

Aaron Dessner & Justin Vernon are Big Red Machine. A project evolving through the PEOPLE collective.

Here’s music with a great backstory and unique evolution. “Music for Wood and Strings” began with an idea from Bryce Dessner who not only conceived of the music but invented the instrument the music was played on. As So Percussion’s Adam Sliwinski has been playing these “chordsticks” while they perform “Music for Wood and Strings” and explains that “chordsticks are a hybrid instrument which cross the sound properties of an electric guitar with the playing action of hammered dulcimers. In order to write any of this music, Bryce first had to commission the instruments from Aron Sanchez (Buke and Gase). Once he had a few built, he brought them to us (So Percussion) to discover what they could do.“Music for Wood and Strings grew out of Bryce watching us play the chordsticks. He decided that playing string instruments didn’t prevent us from still playing intricate rhythmic patterns! Aside from one string on the bass instrument, none of the chordsticks have frets — each chord is fixed and the musical texture is achieved by bouncing notes around the ensemble. We play them with plain #2 pencils, which started as placeholder beaters but ended up doing the job well.”

Adam Sliwinski says that this track is one of the bands most appealing tracks in live performance even as an instrumental track. “On this new version of the track — we think of it as more than a simple remix — Bryce, Justin and Sean (the latter two, members of Bon Iver) turn the original piece into a compelling background for a beautiful song. We never worked directly with Justin or Sean on the track because our portion is just the first four minutes of our recording. We Love what they have done with it, and are honored that musicians from a band that people hold in such high regard wanted to make something with it that is entirely their own.”

“The chains of collaboration and community that led to this song cover a lot of ground: Some of the members of So Percussion have known Bryce since his days studying music at Yale — Bryce knows Aron Sanchez from his band Buke and Gase who record for Bryce’s record label Brassland — and we’ve since become collaborators with Buke and Gase and recently cut an album with them (yet unreleased). Finally, Bryce knows the Bon Iver folks from his travels with his indie rock band The National, whom So Percussion has also collaborated with. This is a simple song, but the family tree that led to it arises from very rich soil.”

As for the video, it was created by A Noah Harrison, He wrote to say that the video considers “the relationship between man’s creative process and the greater forces of nature that permit it. The video juxtaposes human creation with the destruction of our natural world, and the inherent connection between them. As we zoom into this man-made grid, we see the artist create a form reminiscent of a snowflake alongside the artificial re-forming of polar ice caps. Reversed, water here is sucked from the sea and adheres to the glacier. Near the end of the video, these processes flip: the snow begins to melt in a natural way as man begins to un-create in an artificial way. It seems as we continue to build up our material world, we remix, edit and delete our natural world.”

The National has been slowly, sometimes imperceptibly fine-tuning its sound over the course of seven albums. A common jab is that all of the band’s records sound the same (or, worse yet, that they’re boring). Sleep Well Beast, on first listen, won’t change that, but first listens are never where The National’s albums do their strongest work. An hour-long odyssey into the darkness of our times, both political and personal, Sleep Well Beast is quietly, gorgeously insinuating, from the Leonard Cohen-esque “Nobody Else Will Be There” to the electronic thrum that drives the incredible title track. It’s music that, as usual, demands and rewards close attention.

The National’s ‘Sleep Well Beast’ came out on September 8th on 4AD Records, and on Friday (July 14) they took the opportunity to present the album in full live at Guilty Party, a two-day collaborative concert at Basilica Hudson in Hudson, New York.

Watch them perform the live debut of ‘Born To Beg’ along with ‘Guilty Party’.

The National live from their Guilty Party in Hudson, NY

Sleep Well Beast was produced by member Aaron Dessner with co-production by Bryce Dessner and Matt Berninger.  The album was mixed by Peter Katis and recorded at Aaron Dessner’s Hudson Valley, New York studio, Long Pond, with additional sessions having taken place in Berlin, Paris and Los Angeles.

The National wanted to go home. For the past three-plus years, the band had been working in studios all over the world — in Los Angeles, Berlin, Paris, and upstate New York — on the long-awaited follow-up to its 2013 album Trouble Will Find Me, which firmly established the dour indie rock band as an internationally successful arena-rock outfit.

The quintet was wrapping up its second to last day at guitarist Aaron Dessner’s newly built home studio in Hudson, New York, when Matt Berninger, the band’s lead singer and lyricist, received a phone call.

On the other end was his wife Carin Besser, a literary editor who plays a large role in sculpting, editing, and occasionally contributing to her husband’s lyrics. Up to that point, the entire band had been feeling less than thrilled with the lyrics to one of its songs, whose chorus went something like this:

“Aaron takes his acid trip in Copenhagen/ Says he wants to stay that way/ But he can’t explain it any other way.”

Besser had a solution. She had found an early demo with a different set of lyrics Berninger had initially written, years earlier, and thought they might be a better fit. After the band had called it a day, Matt and Carin spent the evening texting tweaks to the old lyrics back and forth until they had rewritten the lyrics overnight.

The following morning, Matt, “red-eyed from no sleep and too much coffee and weed,” plugged his laptop into the studio speakers and started playing the alternate demo his wife had found on repeat as the band filtered into the studio to pack up gear and put a few final finishing touches on the record. The second time the song began to play through, Aaron stopped what he was doing and stood silently in front of the speakers, listening intently.

“Well, that sounds better than what we had,” Matt remembers Aaron saying to him. “I’m willing to chase this, if you really want to do it.”

“We do that sometimes,” says Berninger, recalling the eureka moment that resulted in the entirely revamped, current version of “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness,” the lead single to the National’s latest album, Sleep Well Beast,  “We flip the table over at the last minute, and if we don’t find anything when we flip the table over, then we know we’ve got the one.”

Over the past decade, the National has developed a reputation for being some of the most obsessive recording perfectionists in indie rock, a group that will record or mix a song in 80 different ways until they settle on something resembling consensus on a final product.

So when Scott Devendorf, the National’s bassist, recalls the moment when Matt and Aaron committed to reworking “The System Only Dreams” at the 24th hour, he remembers having one simple thought: “Okay, we’re going down that path again.”

For the past decade and a half, ever since releasing its self-titled debut album in 2001, the National has gradually developed one of the more fascinating collaborative songwriting methods for a band in any genre. Berninger writes lyrics to musical sketches made most often by guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner, with Scott and drummer Bryan Devendorf, who comprise the National’s rhythm section, later offering structural feedback and contributing additional instrumentation in the studio.

The National worked on its first several albums locally in Brooklyn, after the band moved to New York from their native Cincinnati in the late ’90s. But in the past five years, the group began to adjust how it made records after its members dispersed geographically, with Matt living in Los Angeles, Bryan back in Cincinnati, Scott in Long Island, Bryce in Paris, and Aaron splitting time between Copenhagen and upstate New York. As a result, much of Trouble Will Find Me was the product of several years of emailing song sketches, lyrics and instrumental parts back and forth.

The band’s newfound separation was one of the driving factors behind Aaron Dessner’s decision to build his new studio, a space where the band could once again convene to work for extended periods of time.

“That’s the big story of this record,” says Bryce Dessner, the guitarist and classically trained composer whose musical role tends to be pushing his bandmates towards left-field experimentation. “Finally having a place where we can all play together after all these years was really amazing for collaborating.”

Sleep Well Beast is the National’s seventh album and their first release in more than four years. In the period following their last album, the band devoted a good chunk of time toward Day Of The Dead, a three-disc tribute to the Grateful Dead organized by the National and featuring artists that ranged from Lucinda Williams and Mumford & Sons to Courtney Barnett and Lucius.

“It definitely rubbed off,” says Scott, who thinks the group found themselves more willing to make less structured, more improvisational music after absorbing so much of the Dead’s influence.

The National - Tour

Since their inception, the National have been defined by the push-and-pull creative dynamic between Matt Berninger, a pop traditionalist who, as the group’s sole lyricist, gravitates toward recognizable melody and straight forward song structures, and the Dessner twins, progressive-minded multi-instruments who tend to favor the avant-garde.

That dynamic is more plainly on view than ever before on Sleep Well Beast, which contains strong dosages of both the most straightforward pop balladry and the most far-out experimentation the five-some has ever put on record.

Songs like “Carin At The Liquore Store” and “Dark Side Of The Gym” are straightforward pop numbers with hints of doo-wop and r&b, the latter a reference to Berninger’s hero Leonard Cohen’s 1977 tune “Memories.” Meanwhile, songs like “Walk It Back” and the title track are full of spoken word interludes, programmed drum beats, and complex rhythmic patterns. 

“We allowed ourselves to try so many new things and take a lot of risks, but at the same time, if the song was special and obviously strong, we didn’t rule it out because it had something to do with our past,” says Aaron.

In the National, most songs begin with Aaron Dessner. He usually comes up with his initial ideas — typically some sort of “rhythmic or harmonic behavior” — by mindlessly tinkering around on guitar or piano.

Aaron, who composed the majority of the music for the band’s new album, goes into great technical detail when describing his group’s music, detailing a litany of harmonic patterns, rhythmic intervals, and chord inversions that comprise the National’s latest record. Aaron Dessner is an enthusiastic promoter of the National’s musical synthesis, eager to talk about the theory and process that defines the group’s creative dynamic; in our 30-plus minute chat, I ask him a mere total of five questions.

Over the years, the National’s internal studio arguments and laborious decision-making have become the stuff of indie rock legend. Bryce Dessner, for one, can still point to specific musical disagreements that happened nearly a decade ago. “Aaron resents me for writing ‘Lemonworld,’” he says, unprompted, at one point while calling from his home in Paris. “He thinks it’s not an interesting enough piece of music.” 

Aaron recalls one particularly tense moment in Hudson. The group had been discussing the song “Sleep Well Beast,” an atypical musical sketch that Bryce and Aaron had become particularly invested in seeing to completion. But Berninger had been having a hard time connecting with the song, and at one point put forth a suggestion: “Why don’t we mute everything except for the drum loop, and we can write something else to it?”

Before Aaron went to sleep that night, he turned to his wife, and said, “I think we just destroyed the one song I’m most excited about.”

What happened next is typical of the National’s chaotic process: The band appeased Matt, using the drum loop to form the foundation of a new piano ballad, “No Guilty Party.” After writing that new song, Aaron, still trying to convince Matt of the musical possibilities of “Sleep Well Beast,” took the lyrics from “No Guilty Party” and inserted them into the “Sleep Well Beast” backing track. It worked: Matt slowly warmed up to the initial song sketch and began writing separate lyrics to that piece of music, which ended up serving as the record’s concluding moment (and the longest studio recording the National has ever put on record).

The resulting two songs, “Guilty Party” and “Sleep Well Beast,” are just the latest in a long line of examples of the National deploying its inherent creative tensions in its favor.

“We’re experimental and quite adventurous in our tastes and in what we do live and what we all do separately,” says Bryce. “Our records have tended to be a little more buttoned-up and … not conservative, but economical. If they’re adventurous it’s in more subtle ways, the way we would use an orchestra or the fact that we would make these weird hits out of all these sleepy songs.”

Those sleepy hits — be it 2007’s morose ode to disillusionment-turned-Obama-campaign song “Fake Empire,” 2010’s Great Recession-era lament “Bloodbuzz Ohio” or 2013’s anxious arena rock anthem “Sea Of Love” — have formed the backbone of the band’s songbook.

But on its latest, the National mostly abandons a core feature of its signature sound — the slow-building musical climax that’s been described as “crescendo rock” — for a more subtle approach. On Sleep Well Beast, the band allowed its sparse ballads to remain as such. And when the group did build exuberant musical landscapes, during the endings to “Walk It Back” or “I’ll Still Destroy You,” it composed entirely separate pieces of music and stitched them together.

“Where in the past we’ve been hammering this sort of anthemic thing,” says Bryce, “these ones have more information in them.”

Matt Berninger is surrounded by notebooks. He’s calling from his home in Los Angeles, where he’s lived since 2013and at the moment, he’s sitting in a room where he stores all of his old writing journals.

Berninger used to depend on these notebooks: he’d constantly jot down lines and lyrics, fill them up with color-coded page markers, and write notes to himself in the margins.

“They stressed me out, all these notebooks, and staring at them gives me a bit of anxiety,” he says. “I don’t need to dig them up again. Those notebooks are dead bodies. Let them rest in peace.”

In recent years, Berninger has adopted an entirely new, unstructured approach to lyric writing. Nowadays, he doesn’t write unless he has music in front of him, and when he is writing, he now relies on a mix of improvisation and free-association. He’ll receive a demo from Aaron or Bryce, lie down on a recliner with some wine and weed, turn the music on, and begin singing the first thing that comes to his head.

“I find it much more exciting to just keep running forward through the woods, not worrying if I’m going in the right direction,” he says.

Berninger now uses one-page Word documents when he’s ready to begin gathering the countless revisions and rough takes he records — often directly into his laptop microphone — on GarageBand.

The lyrics on the Berninger’s newest batch of songs, however, are every bit as evocative in their specificity as anything he’s ever written. On “Carin At The Liquor Store,” Berninger, who’s always been at his sharpest when documenting upper-middle class malaise, paints an exquisite portrait of privileged summertime longing:

I see you in stations and on invitations

You’d fall into rivers with friends on the weekends

Innocent skies above

Carin at the liquor store

I can’t wait to see her

I’m walking around like I was one who found dead John Cheever

Over the span of his career, the essence of Berninger’s thematic focus as a songwriter has essentially remained the same. “Sometimes, I want to remind myself of ideas I’ve written, so I write them again in a different way,” he says. “Usually that idea is one of three things: I’m freaked out about the world, I want to be a good husband and dad and I’m trying but sometimes I’m a bit of an asshole, and I’m sorry. So it’s either: I’m scared, I’m sorry, or I love you. It’s one of those three things, almost always.”

With the National back in the studio together in Hudson without any immediate deadlines or time crunches, the band was able to experiment and create more freely, and more collaboratively, than they had in years.

Devendorf characterizes the band’s recording sessions as opportunities for each member of the band, “a five-headed monster,” as he puts it, to constantly give each other feedback and advice.

“There will be times when I think I’ve messed up a whole section on the drums and think it’s terrible, and Aaron will say, ‘That’s the best thing you’ve done on the whole record,’” says Bryan. “The band helps me see what’s working. Otherwise, I would just try to make things too complex.”

For their most recent sessions, Berninger introduced a few gags to help lighten the mood and foster directness. He instilled “Honesty Hour,” when the band would give unfiltered opinions about each other’s creative ideas. He also embroidered a knit cap with the word “Producer,” and whoever wore the literal “Producer’s Hat” would get to make production decisions at that moment. “Matt wore it a lot,” says Scott Devendorf. Indeed, Sleep Well Beast marks the first time Berninger receives an individual co-production credit on a National album.

Seven albums and 15-plus years into their career, the National are still finding ways to reinvent and fine-tune the way the band harnesses the talents of all of its individual members to write interesting songs and make lasting records.

“It’s kind of a cliché, but bands are all about the alchemy of individuals,” says Bryce Dessner. “There are fairly well-worn relationships that play out, and then we subtly challenge them. That’s part of keeping it interesting — we have to keep growing. How do you do that? Especially a band that becomes mildly successful, it’s easy to get overconfident. Part of it is that our self-deprecating personalities allow us to challenge ourselves. It’s like, ‘Actually, though, what we do is not that interesting, so let’s keep improving it.’” 

Tracklist:
Nobody Else Will Be There
Day I Die
Walk It Back
The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness
Born to Beg
Turtleneck
Empire Line
I’ll Still Destroy You
Guilty Party
Carin at the Liquor Store
Dark Side of the Gym
Sleep Well Beast

The National: <i>Sleep Well Beast</i> Review

Throughout their sixteen years making music, The National have been one of the most rewarding bands to follow. Each of their six albums to date, encapsulate a new chapter in the life of the semi-autobiographical character that singer/lyricist Matt Berninger has created.

Sleep Well Beast, the 7th studio album by The National, primarily tackles themes surrounding the difficulties, and triumphs married life—in fact, Berninger’s wife, Carin Besser, co-wrote many of the album’s lyrics with him, a role she has taken in the past and it feels like the logical next step in this topical timeline. “Empire Line” addresses a marital communication gap while the couple is riding on a train through the country, “Carin At The Liquor Store” is Berninger’s promise to be a better partner and “Dark Side of The Gym” is a love-lullaby where Berninger sings “I’m gonna keep you in love with me…for a while.”

Musically, Sleep Well Beast has more unexpected turns than any record the band has ever done. Aaron Dessner’s lengthy guitar solo on “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness” is atypical of The National, who generally rely on harmonious arrangements where no one member of the band rises above the others, not even Berninger and it’s the hallmark of a unit in sync. A different, but likewise excellent guitar solo appears on “Carin At The Liquor Store,” likely emanating from the other Dessner brother, Bryce, while Aaron plays keys.

This newfound experimentation doesn’t stop at guitar solos and is actually most evident in how the album’s drums were sequenced. Yes, there are now electronic drums playing alongside Bryan Devendorf’s live drumming and it’s the biggest risk the band took on the album. Devendorf, one of rock and roll’s finest drummers, said that he’s been a longtime admirer of the synth-driven techniques used by Joy Division and New Order’s Stephen Morris and had been working for years to master electronic drum patterns. Sometimes it works well and adds depth and darkness, like on album closer “Sleep Well Beast” or on “Guilty Party,” where the digital drum intro could fool you into thinking it’s a Radiohead song. Other times though, the transition from digital-to-live (and vice-versa) leaves us pining for the masterful Devendorf to just let loose instead, like on “Walk It Back.”

It was announced back in May that The National are officially back and will release their seventh studio album, “Sleep Well Beast” , on September. 8th. The announcement of the forthcoming record was accompanied by its first single, “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness,”

The new song titled “Guilty Party,” which The National reportedly live-debuted a few weeks ago at a show in France, and it hints that the band is getting more experimental with this new record with its ambient, washed-out bleep sounds. This isn’t all that surprising, since over the last few years more and more bands have been flirting with “going electronic” and the concept of what technology means to humankind.

Band Members
Matt Berninger, Scott Devendorf, Bryan Devendorf, Bryce Dessner, Aaron Dessner

Planetarium is an album co-composed by four musicians: Bryce Dessner, James McAlister, Nico Muhly, and Sufjan Stevens.  Flanked by a string quartet and a consort of seven trombones, this unique collaborative ensemble has assembled an expansive song cycle that explores the Sun, the Moon, the planets and other celestial bodies of our solar system (and beyond) through soundscape, song, science and myth.

The subject of the album is not just the wilderness of outer space, but the interior space of human consciousness and how it engages with divinity, depravity, society and self—what does it mean to be human?  This existential question rings clear from the opening lyric: “What’s right and what’s wrong?”  The 75 minutes of music that follow provide a complex thesis: to be human is to be a total mess.  The result of this creative alliance is a musical and aesthetic journey as far-reaching as its subject: from lush piano ballads to prog-rock political anthems, curious electronic back-beats to classical cadenzas, the vast musical styles seek to explore the diversity and mystery of our cosmos.

Planetarium is a concept album that occasionally gives way to ambient interludes and majestic brass chorales, buttressed by a percussive drive that keeps the momentum skyward.  In spite of all the experimentation in sound and style, Sufjan’s vocals provide a clear and coherent center of gravity.  The album includes some of his most diverse vocal performances to date (from soft hush to guttural scream), and whether he’s singing through effects pedals, vocoders, auto-tune or not, his voice delivers an ambitious flight map through the cosmos.

The project started when the Dutch concert hall Muziekgebouw Eindhoven commissioned Nico Muhly to create a new piece for their audience, and Nico immediately thought of his friends Bryce and Sufjan.

‘Mercury’ by Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, James McAlister. Taken from the album ‘Planetarium’, released 9th June on 4AD Records:

“I’d known Sufjan for years,” says Nico, “and Bryce and I had been in each other’s business” — but, says Bryce, “we’d never worked on something this ambitious together.”  Each of the four brought their discrete and complementary strengths to the project.  Nico’s experience with composing music for cathedral choirs and symphony orchestras provided the framework for the piece, while Bryce brought his own sense of composition and orchestral color.

“Of the three of us, Bryce is the most virtuosic at his instrument,” said Nico.  A studied and accomplished classical musician, Bryce was also fluent in Nico’s unique musical language, and added a layer of rhythmic complexity to the songs.”

Sufjan became the driver behind the “song” part of the song cycle.  (Bryce: “I think ‘seven trombones’ was enough to lure Sufjan into it.”)  Sufjan also brought lyrics, and with them, the larger ideas around which Planetarium revolves: mythology and astrology, the ancient concept that stars and planets of the night sky represent gods, heroes and monsters.  As the project evolved, the group expanded the idea to encompass science and astronomy.

Sufjan also introduced frequent collaborator James McAlister to Bryce and Nico, and James brought the beats—drums, percussion and electronic sequencing.

In addition to the previously announced Paris show, Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, James McAlister will perform music from ‘Planetarium’ live at three special US concerts this summer. Listen to new track ‘Mercury’,