THE NATIONAL The X-Press Interview

Just like many of their songs, The National’s career could be seen as something of a slow burn. Having formed in 1999, they have steadily increased their fanbase to a stadium filling capacity that has found them placed at the pointy end of the festival circuit. Latest album Sleep Well Beast comes after the band’s biggest break between records and has seen then barely skip a beat, claiming their first ever commercial radio #1 in the USA with the single The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness. The album was recorded by band member Aaron Dessner in a purpose built studio in Hudson Valley. The latest chapter for The National is a step into a darker sound without requiring a total reinvention for the Brooklyn outfit. CHRIS HAVERCROFT talks to founding member, producer and principal songwriter Aaron Dessner about making the record.

This is the longest time between records for The National…

There have been four years since the last one. It has been really positive for everyone. There has been a lot of renewal and personal development. I built a studio upstate and worked with a lot of different people and everyone has been doing a lot of different music. I think a lot of the ideas have filtered back into the band and have allowed us to open a new chapter and have pushed through to some new ideas and a new way of working. We have given each other the space to rediscover what it is that we love about making music with each other so it feels positive.

You speak of ‘pushing through’ and ‘new ideas’. Did you feel that you needed that at this point in time for The National?

There was certainly discussion between Bryce (Dessner, guitar) and I about how we were working. We were more collaborative this time. We wrote separately, but also together. There was a lot of experimentation that happened in the studio. The studio was designed to be open plan so that everyone could be plugged in at all times. It was a more reckless and casual environment, so that helped to open up new territory. Everyone felt like we couldn’t just make another version of Trouble Will Find Me or High Violet. It has to feel like we are progressing. That being said, it was an organic process.

The electronics and experimentation is coming from a soulful place, and were things that we had used in other contexts. It never felt forced, but it took a long time. We wrote 60 songs and we recorded 25 of them and eventually narrowed it down to 12. There was a reason that it took three years to make.

You say that this is a ‘reckless’ record, whereas I would think most people would think of The National as making very considered records. You speak of being plugged in at all times. Can you elaborate on that?

You hear a mixture of things. There are some of these songs that originated three years ago and there are others that had their origins much later. There were different eras of making the record, it wasn’t that we were working consistently for three years. There was certainly some ongoing work that was happening on the record – certainly since we stopped touring in fall of 2014. The studio was finished about a year and a half ago, and once we started working there it became more focussed and the brain of the record started to emerge. There are quite a few songs where you can hear the band playing in the room like Turtleneck and Day I Die, and then there are other songs that are really architectured from live performance or from elaborate experimentation from Paris or Berlin. I think that is the beauty of the record is that it is pretty diverse in terms of its sound.

It has a few more beats per minute than the other National records…

It is not really intentional, but there is a pace to it. We were having fun with some songs. We were just having fun and that created more space in the music for improvisation or different kinds of expression where it is not so tightly composed around the vocal. That opened things up for sure.

This record must have a special place for you as you managed to build a studio and build a record all at the same time…

We didn’t really think about it as we did it. I basically bought this old farm in upstate New York. It was an 18th century farmhouse with an old barn on it with a beautiful pond. We thought it would be amazing to make a record here and I just jumped at it. I pulled the barn down and planned a new one. I said to the people working on it, that if we could complete it in five months the band could make a record here and wouldn’t that be cool. Everyone pitched in and it was like a ‘barn raising’ where all the people in the community came over and helped with it.

It came together and the band came and enjoyed being there. It is a great place to make music but also just a great place to hang out and be friends. It was a great realisation to see that through. There is something about the artistic process of designing a space to work a certain way and then hearing the result of it. It is a full circle.

Being your space, you were best placed to produce the record…

That is the role that I have always played in the band, to be an engine of things and leading certain processes and pushing everyone else and writing a lot of the initial ideas. And then having the studio and having everything headquartered there is also something that I do for other people. Over time Matt (Berninger, vocals) wanted to call a spade a spade, but everyone is contributing to production. There was something nice about having a more cohesive process in a space I had built. Everyone was also fairly spread out so someone had to play the role of host and that fell to me.

Is there tension between being a band member and then also the producer who may be called upon to make the final decision?

In that way it is very collaborative. Matt and I particularly battle things out as we are trying to marry the music and the vocals together. Sometimes rhythms and tones have to change and that is where it gets difficult at times, but we work it out. We also really trust each other and if he feels that there is a reason that he has to do something a certain way, then I don’t fight him on that. Maybe in the past I would have. When I feel strongly about something, he tends to come around.

There is a lot more electronic input on this album…

Bryce and Bryan and myself and Scott have been doing a lot of experimenting with electronics over the past few years. In particular a bunch of sections of songs were written. Essentially they are able to be written on a small keyboard with a drum machine while we are travelling. It is essentially taking those ideas and arranging them for the band and then taking the ideas further is generally what happens.

When Bryan is playing in his basement he usually has a lot of drum machines going through amplifiers and he is playing along to that and making little voice recordings of those. It hasn’t been heard so much on National records before, but it has always been something we done individually. In Berlin we have been collaborating with electronic musicians who are further into the scene than we are and they took some things that we had done and manipulated them. I would take it and edit it and play with it and bring it back in. It was a multi-layered approach as some of the electronics came at the beginning and then others came at the end when we brought them back in through manipulating sounds.

The way people listen to music has changed, and the current buzz is the rebirth of vinyl. Do the current trends around the medium that people are using, change the way The National approach recording and how you want the music to be heard?

I have a big problem with over-compression. There are so many records where it is such a shame because the songs are good and there is wonderful musicianship but it is slammed beyond belief where the wave form is just a solid block and you can’t listen to it on headphones. Maybe you can listen to it out on a stereo, but we think a lot about fidelity for our records. We really focus on sound quality and we built our studio to have a real focus on fidelity. We were very aware not to compress things and to keep the dynamics. I think the volume war of radio and Spotify where everyone listens to playlists and therefore you want your song to be as loud as the next song has ruined the organic beauty of recording. It is something we think about a lot and I want people to be able to listen to our music on headphones and not feel like they are getting slammed over the head.

When searching the internet, there is a version of the album called pre-live. Was that someone being creative with recordings from different live shows over the years?

With the new album we did play it live completely a few times already. Once was for the Pitchfork Live Session that we did recently. We will do it again. I encourage people to record the concerts. With the next tour we are going to be pulling from a lot of different places, and rearranging songs and hopefully taking liberty with some of them. I like listening to live recordings of bands where it is not as perfected and there is raw energy. Obviously, The Grateful Dead are the biggest case in point of that.

I’m reading Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011 by Lizzy Goodman and The National are quoted a few times. How were those interviews for the book, where you looked back at a very different time for the band?

I have been so busy with making the record that I haven’t had a chance to read the book, but I can’t wait to read it. It was an important time for us, that formative period of the band and we were almost completely unknown when The Strokes and Interpol exploded. The bar was set so high that you learned a lot by being around those bands at that time. A lot of those bands had lightning in a bottle or something, and we never really did. We were more like the turtle. It was interesting to have lived through it and be part of that time in some way and still be around today and hopefully making better and better music.

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