The National interview – Beauty of the Beast
Approaching their 20th year and having overcome the struggles of their early career, The National have become the worst-kept secret in indie music; the thinking-man’s stadium band. In seventh album Sleep Well Beast, they’ve made their most ambitious, experimental record yet – and have been rewarded with their first No. 1. Gary Walker meets the band’s guitar-playing twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner to find out how they did it…
Matt Berninger surveys the sprawling human vanishing point of Glastonbury’s vanquished Pyramid Stage crowd, while either side of him the Dessner twins hold aloft their vintage guitars, howling feedback ripping into the twilight sky. Sandwiched into a surreal slot between the absurdist circus of international pop megastar Katy Perry and headliners Foo Fighters, The National have just previewed their seventh album, the electronic-infused Sleep Well Beast, to 80,000 people and a global TV audience.
Two decades on from their formation, Ohio’s kings of immersive melancholy find themselves in this vertiginous position, receiving payback for their early years of grinding struggle, under-the-radar albums and endless touring. It’s taken a long time, but the slow, organic rise of a band whose music seeps into your consciousness and digs in its hooks has carried them to the pinnacle. They’re now one of the biggest indie acts in the world and album seven, their most sonically diverse, has landed the band their first UK No. 1.
Whole orchestras fired through guitar pedals co-exist with skittering electronic drum beats, time signature shifts, mesmerising harp arpeggios and savage guitar solos, while Berninger probes the dissolution of marriage and the current political malaise afflicting America – the sleeping beast that is our reaction to mass trauma. The National have done it their way.
“I think there is definitely a sense of ‘we earned it’,” reflects the album’s producer Aaron Dessner, the band’s chief sonic architect alongside twin brother and co-guitarist Bryce. “Nothing came easily, we didn’t compromise, we never benefited from any kind of hype or media frenzy. It was hard and we put in a lot of work, craftsmanship, attention to detail and obsession.
“I wouldn’t say it’s myopic, but it takes a long time to make records and it took us a long time to become a good live band. I don’t know how many live shows we’ve played, but it’s thousands and we’ve earned the right to enjoy this.” – Aaron Dessner
“It’s humbling when you find yourself in front of 80,000 people at Glastonbury and you’re like: ‘Really? Our awkward little rock songs?’. We used to play in basements and attics for three friends, and for quite a long time it was just a small thing. But we kept at it and, at some point, we started to have this drive and really put our heads down
to make something great.”
Sleep Well Beast is the most experimental album in a catalogue of majestic, refined records that have seen the band grow exponentially, supported by exhaustive globe-spanning tours as the world slowly caught on. But for many years, the band’s intricate sonic tapestries, sorrowful melodies and lyrics exploring anxiety and existential fear fell on deaf ears. Their first two albums – The National and Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers – went unheard by all but a few thousand early evangelists.
Berninger, The National’s besuited frontman with a mournful Malbec-soaked baritone, tells an anecdote about how, in 2005, having signed to Beggars Banquet and released third album Alligator, the band embarked on a tour with New York friends Clap Your Hands Say Yeah as support. Opportunity knocked. Yet on the eve of the tour, the support act’s debut album became an unexpected cult hit, and the shows sold out. Each night, The National would sit in the dressing room listening to the crushing sound of much of the venue emptying after the support act finished. Six years into their career, it felt like a nadir, but stiffened their resolve. They were in their 30s, living together in Brooklyn and flat broke.
“To tell you the truth, that hurt,” said Berninger, years later. “I just guess at that time, people weren’t that interested in our band. We slept in youth hostels and vans. At that time, I’m 32, 33, laying in a hostel with drunk Scottish kids puking and screaming. I remember lying there nearly in tears, like, ‘What am I doing with my life?’. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stared at the roof of a van, or the ceiling, on somebody’s floor thinking, ‘What am I doing with my life? This is not worth it’.”
It was worth it. Following the success of 2007’s Boxer, an album that’s cherished as a cult classic by many music fans and saw Barack Obama adopt its opening track Fake Empire as a campaign anthem, in 2010 High Violet catapulted them further into the mainstream. Three years later, the sonically lush, cerebral and deeply melancholic Trouble Will Find Me elevated The National to the rarefied status of arena tours and festival headliners. The question became, how could they follow it?
After the final show of 2014’s Trouble Will Find Me tour, at London’s cavernous 20,000-capacity 02 Arena, Aaron began building a studio at his house in upstate New York. Inspired by Bon Iver main man Justin Vernon’s April Base setup in Wisconsin, he christened the rural bolthole Long Pond. With The National now dispersed around the globe – Aaron mainly in Copenhagen, Bryce in Paris, Matt in LA, drummer Bryan Devendorf back in Cincinnati and his brother, bassist Scott, in Long Island – that was a crucial move. So much so that an image of the studio is the centrepiece of the album’s artwork.
While Trouble Will Find Me was drawn together from remote contributions, this time, The National wanted to make a ‘band album’, with early interviews citing a wish to return to the more raw, immediate spirit of Alligator. There, in the idyllic solitude of Hudson Valley, surrounded by bullfrogs, snapping turtles and herons, the band locked themselves away with no distractions and complete focus.
“I started writing a bunch of ideas towards the end of the tour,” says Aaron, “and I remember when we played the O2 Arena in November, Matt and I were talking about some of them. The music for Carin At The Liquor Store and Nobody Else Will Be There and a few others already existed, and he was excited about them, but then Bryce and I were developing a lot of new ideas and thinking about how to change the process and push it into some other spaces.
“We’ve been experimenting with electronics [since the start of the band], it was just, oftentimes, if things like that were there, they were below the surface. There was never a conscious decision to go more electronic, it was literally that we wrote so much music. Some of it was very natural, us in a room playing, and others were us experimenting with all kinds of software, drum machines, samplers… and using them as compositional tools. It wasn’t meant to be leaving behind analogue sounds.”
“We’re never deliberate, in that we don’t make ‘concept records’,” adds Bryce. “There was a feeling that, even with Alligator, we’d never captured the sound of the band live.”
That live sound is evident on a pair of songs that feature some of the most wanton guitar playing in the band’s career; the Donald Trump-scalding Turtleneck [“Just another man in shitty suits, everybody’s cheering for… This must be the genius we’ve been waiting years for”] and the album’s lead single, The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness, the latter possessing quite possibly the most memorable guitar solo of 2017.
“The big difference with this record is Aaron built a studio, where we’re finally able to work all together in a non-pressurised environment,” says Bryce. “That did lead to a looser recording atmosphere. There is a more experimental, more architectured sound, but also there are songs like Turtleneck and Day I Die that are all of us live, recorded.”
The band are famed for the tension and explosive disagreements that often punctuate recording and mixing sessions, with Aaron and Bryce spending months weaving highly evolved sonic sketches before Berninger arrives late in the process to unpick them. It’s earned Bryce a role as mediator, and the nickname ‘Switzerland’.
“This process was a lot more fun,” he says. “There was room for everyone, we all enjoyed being there. Our past records, at least the last few, even when we were living in the same city, we were more and more separate. This time, Matt really enjoyed being there and spent a lot of time with us, which was really healthy. The tension always happens more at the end of the process and that was no different. It might even have been a little worse, because typically, we’re all there, but my baby was born in the first week of mixing.
“Aaron and I develop the music very elaborately, but the moment when Matt comes in and tells us to throw our [musical] babies out of the window, that’s the hard time and Aaron had to go through that alone this time.” – Bryce Dessner
Against that backdrop of creative tension, the freedom to collaborate has been crucial in extending The National’s life expectancy. Since Trouble Will Find Me, they’ve each been involved in a dizzying array of projects. The band assembled an all-star cast of 70 indie/Americana musicians to curate the six-hour Grateful Dead tribute boxset Day Of The Dead. Berninger formed the lo-fi indie band EL VY with Menomena’s Brent Knopf, and Scott and Bryan became the experimental krautrock act LNZNDRF.
In that time, Aaron has launched several music festivals, while producing records by This Is The Kit, Frightened Rabbit, Local Natives and Lisa Hannigan. He also co-wrote the score for the film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur with Bryce, and the twins worked on the performance-art piece Forever Love with Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson. Bryce, who has a Masters in music from Yale and a background in classical composition, has been perhaps busiest of all. He’s worked on a project for the New York City Ballet, written an orchestral piece for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Golden Globe-nominated score for The Revenant with Ryuichi Sakamoto. He produced the Grammy-winning album Filament, made the solar system-inspired Planetarium record with friends Nico Muhly and Sufjan Stevens and puts on Cincinnati’s MusicNOW festival every year.
The National On Film
A Skin, A Night
Oblique, slow and arty, Vincent Moon’s film captured the band in the grips of trying to finish their fourth album
Boxer. Eschewing conventional documentary techniques, with dialogue at times inaudible, it nonetheless gets right to the heart of the album’s genesis and is a fascinating, raw portrait of a band toiling to make the breakthrough.
Mistaken For Strangers
This 2013 documentary follows Matt Berninger’s down-on-his-luck filmmaker brother, Tom, as he’s invited to join The National’s crew on their world tour. His inevitable sacking results in a moving and hilarious movie, which Michael Moore hailed as “one of the best documentaries about a band I’ve ever seen”.
With the initial demos of Sleep Well Beast in the bag, this collaborative spirit helped shape the record. The Dessners and Justin Vernon curated the Funkhaus collaboration of 80 musicians in Berlin, including members of Bon Iver, Wye Oak and alt-J. While there, they invited a selection of those artists to jam over the demos, injecting a new avant-garde sense of adventure. The presence of German electronic band Mouse On Mars was particularly pivotal.
“As a band, we tend to be quite open in our process,” says Aaron. “This goes back to how Bryce and I grew up playing music, always in the same room, and then our friends were round… we were never alone writing a song, it was always collaborative. Bryce has gone into composition, which is more solitary, but our approach to the band is very open.
“We’ve always had other collaborators. Early on, it was Padma Newsom, Sufjan, Richie [Reed Parry] from Arcade Fire, Justin Vernon, Thomas Bartlett, and all these people have really influenced the music. All that stuff feeds in, and we’re definitely not the kind of band to be in love with our own shadow. We’re still pretty critical and self-aware.
“It’s not like we think we have the best guitar tones, or best anything, we’re just trying to make great albums that we can believe in, whatever it takes. Whether that’s writing with other people or trying something totally new, or building something up and knocking it down – we do that a lot. We’re pretty restless as a group of people and I think that ends up pushing you forward.” – Bryce Dessner
The sessions continued to a third country, Bryce recruiting a classical ensemble to record Sleep Well Beast’s orchestration at Studio Saint Germain in Paris. However, that wasn’t the end of the process, as he and Aaron separated the individual channels of the recordings, feeding them through different guitar effects and piecing the results together into the otherworldly stew that underpins moments such as I’ll Still Destroy You’s stunning coda – a transcendental passage of music that gives a degree of credence to recent critiques of The National as the ‘American Radiohead’.
“That song didn’t feel finished to me, so I took the drumbeat and sampled it, and reprocessed and reprogrammed the drums,” says Bryce. “The song modulates key there, and the strings bring it up. I wrote that orchestral arrangement to tie it together. There’s about 30 strings and seven or eight wind or brass in that ensemble. We did some really elaborate arrangements and then cut them up and processed them. It’s like an orchestra played through an effects pedal, basically.”
HOW TO BUY THE NATIONAL
Beggars Banquet, 2005
The record that began their ascent. More raw and serrated around the edges than the quartet that followed, it contains some of the band’s best live songs – such as Mr November, Abel and the majestic All The Wine. Sample lyric: “Karen, we should call your father, maybe it’s just a phase/ He’ll know the trick to get a wayward soul to change his ways/ It’s a common fetish for a doting man/ To ballerina on the coffee table cock in hand”
Trouble Will Find Me
An immersive, bleakly beautiful album. Elaborately layered compositions, unusual time signatures and Berninger discovering a higher-register vocal made for a delicately woven, sedative brew. Sample lyric: “I have only two emotions/ Careful fear and dead devotion/
I can’t get the balance right/ Throw my marbles in the fight”
Beggars Banquet, 2007
The polyrhythmic piano of opener Fake Empire gives way to a varied work of striking musicianship and razor-sharp observational lyricism. Sample lyric: “You get mistaken for strangers by your own friends/ When you pass them at night/ Under the silvery, silvery Citibank lights/ Arm in arm in arm and eyes and eyes glazing under”
Possibly their most accessible record, High Violet lifted The National to a higher level. There’s not a weak song, from the anthemic Bloodbuzz Ohio, the existential paranoia of I’m Afraid Of Everyone and the elegant England through to traditional encore choice Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks. A work of brilliance. Sample lyric: “I was a comfortable kid/ But I don’t think about it much anymore/ Lay me on the table, put flowers in my mouth/ And we can say that we invented a summer lovin’ torture party”
The Dessners’ appetite for musical adventure was whetted in their childhood, soundtracked by their father’s classic rock and jazz fusion vinyl collection and their sister Jessica’s taste for post-punk and alt-rock. That shared education spawned the near-telepathic guitar style that’s the very essence of The National. “We grew up with my dad’s and sister’s records,” says Bryce. “In dad’s case, it was all 60s stuff. The big records were Sgt. Pepper’s…, Harvest, Sounds Of Silence – classic records – then all the jazz records he listened to…
“He had Weather Report records, too, a lot of Joni Mitchell, which I’ve come back to recently. The other side of it would be my sister’s music collection, which was more punk and post-punk and bands more current to the late 80s and 90s. The Smiths, Hüsker Dü, Pixies…” remembers Aaron.
“We’d take all our dad’s Beatles, Stones, Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers, The Band and Dylan records and transfer them from vinyl to cassette. We’d be fighting over records and when our sister felt like being nice to us, she’d help us and be like, ‘Here’s the White Album, now don’t bug me for it anymore’.” – Aaron Dessner
“We were probably seven years old, and then at some point she challenged us because there was an Allman Brothers instrumental called Jessica. It was around about the time we started playing guitar and she said: ‘You’ll never be able to play that’. We were like: ‘You just wait and see…’”.
As well as the release of Sleep Well Beast, 2017 marks the 10th anniversary of Boxer. A decade on, it’s a perfect portrait of The National as masters of restraint and still regarded by many fans as their finest work. The record was made at a time of numbing self doubt and artistic struggle for The National’s members, documented in the film A Skin, A Night – an illuminating portrait of a band battling to make their defining statement, after watching Brooklyn peers such as The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol blow up overnight.
“The years of touring and harsh living… it was the moment before we became successful enough to at least pay our rent,” says Bryce. “People’s lives were falling apart a bit at that time, it was personally very hard for everyone and we were holding things together and holding each other up and doing it because we loved it. Also, politically, things were about to shift in a big way and that played into the story of the album. It was a very intense time.
“On Alligator, we were flailing around, and it was recorded in much harsher conditions. We didn’t have much of an audience. By Boxer, we’d grown a bit. On some level, Alligator was the first small success we’d had, so with Boxer there was a bit more pressure, but also we wanted to make something different. They were the first times we wrote songs on a piano and it opened things up creatively pretty fast for us as far as the different types of songs, like Green Gloves or Start A War, and then rock songs like Mistaken For Strangers and Apartment Story. The band established a pretty wide palette on that record.”
“It’s funny, I heard it the other day in Copenhagen in the Royal Opera House,” says Aaron. “There was a listening event for Sleep Well Beast. They played Boxer on a $100,000 soundsystem. It was the first moment that I’d listened to it in many years and I was struck by the focus and cohesiveness of it and how it goes to so many different places. It dawned on me what we’d accomplished. We used to think of Alligator as the first record where we figured it out, but now sometimes I think maybe it’s Boxer…”
With seven albums and sold-out shows at the 02 Arena, Sydney Opera House and New York’s Barclays Center under their belt, while being touted by Glastonbury organiser Emily Eavis as future headliners, The National are uninterested in basking in the stultifying rays of self-congratulation. So what next? With each member now a father, living in disparate parts of the globe and with myriad individual projects competing for their attention, will there be an eighth National album?
“We’re very aware that a band is a fragile thing,” says Bryce. “Even with a band like ours that has existed a long time. We have a big asset in that there’s family in the band, we have brothers, so there’s a sense of permanence. We all realise the creative partnership is more powerful than anything we do separately. But it’s hard to be in a collaborative band – you have to come in with one fifth of your ego, or you’ll get hurt.
“There are times when it’s like, ‘Oh god, can we really keep doing this?’. Our greatest fear is repeating ourselves. We’re so critical of our own work that I think the end will come when it feels like our own music has run its course. That’s the litmus test.” – Bryce Dessner
A Lot of Sorrow
2015 4AD 9LP boxset
In 2013, The National joined forces with Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson for a ‘durational performance’ at New York’s MoMA PS1. It involved playing the song Sorrow, from their High Violet album, in a live continuous loop for six hours. The recordings were subsequently released as a 9LP clear-vinyl boxset limited to 1,500 copies, with all profits going to the charity Partners In Health. Despite the somewhat repetitive tracklisting, copies now change hands for over
£200 on Discogs.
2017, 10th Anniversary Edition Vinyl Me, Please
Pressed on 150-gram grey vinyl to mark the 10th anniversary of what many critics and fans regard as The National’s finest album, this reissue was released via the subscription service Vinyl Me, Please. It comes with an art print by Philip Johnson and a 7″ single, comprising the first two songs released from Sleep Well Beast – The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness and Guilty Party.