The National express
With Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver popping in to their Brooklyn base for a chat while they were producing their latest album, it’s no wonder The National delivered another corker. The slow burn has suited them, Aaron Dessner tells KEVIN COURTNEYahead of their Electric Picnic performance
IF YOU’RE going to Electric Picnic this weekend, you’re bound to bump into a handful of bands from Brooklyn. Over the past few years, the New York borough has become a music mecca for many a young American alt-rocker, a place of pilgrimage for bands in search of a spiritual home – or just a good place to party.
The National are long-established Brooklynites, having moved there from Cincinnati in 1999. When the band arrive in Stradbally, they’ll spot a few familiar faces from their neighbourhood, including LCD Soundsystem, Antlers and Here We Go Magic.
“Well, this is a big city and it’s kind of like all spread out,” demurs Aaron Dessner, multi-instrumentalist and the band’s music writer. “But when we went in to rehearse for the first shows [of 2010], we could hear someone playing in the room next door, so we stopped to listen and of course it was LCD Soundsystem, and we saw James Murphy wandering around. But it’s a stimulating environment, and there are a lot of places to play, and I think it’s a good place for a band to base themselves.”
Dessner has built a studio behind his home in the Ditmas Park area of Brooklyn, and it’s here that The National recorded their new album, High Violet– with a little help from their widening circle of musical friends. Among the guests who dropped in to Dessner’s backyard were Sufjan Stevens, Doveman aka Thomas Bartlett, Justin Vernon aka Bon Iver, Richard Reed Parry from Arcade Fire and Australian musician Padma Newsome.
“Maybe it has to do with my brother and I being twins and born collaborators – it just kind of comes very naturally to us,” says Dessner. “We play on a lot of other people’s records, and we’ve become close friends with a lot of musicians, just ’cos we have a lot in common, and there’s just so many people we’ve met. And the way we work in The National is very open.
“And because the studio is just behind my house, there’s a lot of people passing through. We’re lucky to know a lot of amazing musicians, and we’ve benefited from that. But mostly we’ve benefited from having classical musicians on the album. They’re all world-class, and they all live within a few blocks of here. So you can literally make a phone call and there’s five trombone players on my block. And they’re all amazing.”
The reaction to High Violethas been ecstatic, which must be a relief given that The National’s last album , Boxer, would have been a career high any band could be proud of. Released in 2007, Boxerpacked a critical and commercial punch that knocked the Cincinnati five-piece in to the big league. Up until then, the band – singer Matt Berninger, twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner and brothers Scott and Bryan Devendorf – had been flickering on the periphery of the indie scene, their resolutely not-in-your-face sound taking its time to work its way into the collective consciousness. With muffled guitars, baroque arrangements that seem to swell up from somewhere deep below the earth, tunes that drip with melancholy, and Berninger’s murmured, hunched baritone, The National were never going to challenge Kings of Leon or The Killers in the rock arena. Closer in spirit to Tindersticks or American Music Club, The National’s brooding chamber-rock pieces are an acquired taste, but, once acquired, they may well become an essential part of your listening regime.
For Dessner, the sea change in the way people consume music has levelled the playing field a bit, and given bands like The National a greater chance to score a hit.
“I think the mainstream music industry is broken as far as the old model goes, and I think people are finding more and more music, and we’ve benefited from it. We’ve always been a back-alley whisper kind of band, and maybe now we’re finally getting more exposure. Even more in countries like Ireland – we’ve done really well there, and I think it’s a sign that people are finding things they like and talking about it.
“When we write songs we are looking for some kind of emotional weight, not in a heavy-handed emo way, it’s more just anything we write, there’s a kind of tug on you, and people respond to that. They’re not always very direct or literal songs, but I think all of them have some kind of emotional tug on them, and people feel that. But I will say that in Ireland, the live experience, the audience in Ireland is very passionate, and that really works well for us, because the audience gives those songs more dynamic and gives it a more epic quality by singing along to every word. Our first show in Whelan’s a few years ago was one of the best shows we ever did.”
You couldn’t call The National a “firework” band – they’ve been on a slow burn since forming in 1999. Berninger worked as a creative director in a graphic design company in New York, and his lyrics often deal with the soul-destroying emptiness of corporate careerism; as a result, he’s been called the “white-collar Bruce Springsteen”, addressing the fears and concerns of the modern-day commuter class.
“Matt had to hire and fire a lot of his friends – during the boom he hired them and during the bust he ended up having to fire them, and he was caught up in that whole New York rat race. It did influence his writing, especially on Boxer.”
It took a while for The National to come out from behind the suits and show their potential, says Dessner. “The first album was made when we weren’t really a band, and we hadn’t done any live shows; the second one was us kind of experimenting.”
When they signed to Beggars Banquet and released their 2005 album Alligator, the band found themselves in receipt of rave reviews in such august publications as Billboard, Uncutand the LA Times. Uncutcalled it “the band’s first masterpiece”, which, in light of their subsequent releases, was bang on the money.
Boxerwas the moment The National took their place in the indie premiership. They found themselves touring with the likes of REM (the band have made a strong friendship with Michael Stipe) and appearing on Letterman, and their song Fake Empirewas used by the Obama campaign as a kind of musical totem. By the time they arrived, exhausted and drained, to the end of the tour cycle for Boxer, however, none of the band members was sure if they’d be able to make it a hat-trick of magnum opuses. So they decided instead to make it sound as non- magnum as possible.
“We gravitated towards the weirder, scrappier, uglier guitar sounds, maybe to give it a sense of humility, but also to make it something different than Boxerand Alligator. We needed this album to be different.
“Some of the home-made roughness of it – that’s mostly just us not knowing yet how to record ourselves very well – but we were afraid if it sounded too good it might come off as stadium rock. There’s a version of one song, Lemonworld, and it’s the stadium rock version. We spent the next month trying to get back to the demo sound of the song. I think maybe we are just aware that the charm of the music is in the awkwardness and the looseness and the roughness of it.”
The roughness is evident from the first distorted, fuzzy chords of the album’s opening track Terrible Love, which will have you jiggling your iPod headphones to check if there’s a loose wire somewhere. Soon, however, the album opens up into a wide-eyed musical vista, with such tracks as Bloodbuzz Ohio, Anyone’s Ghostand Little Faithgrowing in stature with every listen.
Many of the songs come across like internal dialogues, the sound of a troubled mind crouched in a dark corner trying to work things out. Others, such as Afraid of Everyone, have a more straightforward, universal theme.
Berninger is married with a small child, and Afraid of Everyoneaddresses the fears of the nuclear family as it faces an uncertain future. “He hides away by himself for months and months, and he won’t tell us anything. So we’ll be working on 20 or 30 ideas, and we have no idea where he is in his process or whether he’ll ever finish them. Eventually he’ll start to pull them all together.
“It’s hard for us to finish songs, because we’re looking for that elusive quality of a good National song where it has to work on every level and it has to have layers that reveal themselves. We do agonise a bit about making records, but after that it’s all fun.”
For Dessner, the real rewards come when the audience takes the songs to their hearts. “That’s what means the most to us, when they sing them back at you and obsess over them, the way we obsessed over bands that we loved.
"By the time we get to Ireland we should know what we're doing. We'll be ready."