The National on why Trump's win changed their new album

by India Hendrikse / 06 September, 2017

From left: Bryce Dessner, Bryan Devendorf, Matt Berninger, Scott Devendorf and Aaron Dessner of The National.

Long distance

They’ve been at the forefront of indie rock since 1999, but with their new album, Sleep Well Beast, The National are proving they’re still on the ball.

For fans of indie rock band The National, it’s big news that their new album Sleep Well Beast has just dropped – and in even bigger news for Auckland fans, the band is coming to Villa Maria Winery next year. Paperboy talks to lead singer Matt Berninger about being old-timers and how politics influence their music.

India Hendrikse: Do you all still live in Brooklyn, your original base?

Matt Berninger: No, nobody actually lives in Brooklyn anymore. Scott [Devendorf] lives in Long Island; Aaron [Dessner] lives half the time in upstate New York, which is where we recorded a lot of the record in his studio, and he lives the other half of the time in Copenhagen; Bryce [Dessner] lives in Paris, Bryan [Devendorf] lives in Cincinnati and  I live in Venice [California].

That must be a bit hard sometimes?
It’s actually not, weirdly the way we’ve always sort of worked as a band is, even when I lived above Aaron in the same house – he was my roommate – is I’d email him ideas and he’d email me music sketches [compositions] and I would work on them for a couple of months and email them back and we would barely be in the same room together. This time, since we all live in different cities, when we do get together we have these long 10-day or two-week sort of band camps where we just focus. So, in an odd way, the distance has created opportunities for us to have these really great intense workshops. For this record we did like four of those. One was in Berlin… then a big session in LA and it all came back together in New York. So the distance has actually been a kind of strange catalyst for more collaboration, if that makes sense.

I guess you probably all have different sources of inspiration living in each of your respective places then?
 I’m sure. The vibe of the stuff that they [Aaron and Bryce] brought back from their experimentation in Berlin at this funk house had a personality to ‘em that felt kind of Berlin-y. I’ve been out here in California for four years now and the sunshine, the ocean, the weed has probably realigned my wires in some ways. I do still find I’m writing about the same stuff, which is not a problem for me, as long as I’m not saying the same thing. It’s about the same stuff but maybe my perspective on marriage and parenthood and fear and politics and all the stuff I always sing about, maybe that’s changed a little bit because of California. But it’s also because I’m in my forties and I have a kid, I dunno.

Speaking of politics, do you feel like the political situation in America has influenced the lyrics in your new album?  Yes. When Trump won, we took a bunch of songs and put ‘em to the side because they just felt weird. When Trump won, the fundamental understanding of America, for most Americans, totally changed. I went into a very aggressive work mode, not necessarily about him, but I had to turn off cable news, I had to turn everything off. I was mostly sad, just grossed out and super sad. There’s one very cathartic song on it [the album], ‘Turtleneck’. It probably wouldn’t have been on the record or written had it not been for Trump winning.

Because you’ve been around for a long time as a band, do you feel like you have a certain sense of responsibility with the lyrics you write?
Or do you write for yourself? I write for myself, but I do know people are going to pay attention now. I mean I always hoped people would pay attention, but I used to be writing more for an imagined audience. But now that we actually have a real audience and a real fan base, I don’t have to write for them anymore, I can write for myself. Nobody wants to be pandered to and nobody wants you to serve the same dish. I’m a music lover who much prefers an artist who takes a chance to fall on their face than doesn’t. Not that we’re the most radical, jumping off creative cliffs. We do have a kind of chemistry that works and sometimes have a hard time breaking out of it. I think this record we’ve broken the furthest out of it.

So how would you describe the sound in this album in comparison to your previous albums?
I think sonically and production-wise, the most significant difference is what Aaron did as a producer. It was a conscious choice, it was cleaning out some of the space in the sound; a visual metaphor would be the pruning of a tree. And other things like I was whispering a lot of it because I was recording in weird places like a tent in the backyard or while my daughter was sleeping or in buses and hotel rooms, so I was up really close on my laptop microphone which created a style of singing that I just discovered through the necessity of the process. 


The National will play at Villa Maria Winery, Sun 25 Feb, 2018

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