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The National

The National's Aaron Dessner talks candidly about new album Boxer

23 May 2007, 09:00

With the release of The National’s latest album Boxer, on Monday, the band have managed to improve on their already impressive repetoire. Creating an ambitious and moving album full of twisted love songs and left-field anthems that infiltrate your world. Rich Hughes caught up with bassist Aaron Dessner recently to talk about the past, present and future of The National.

How did The National form? Your wikipedia entry suggests something to do with the dotcom boom of the 90’s.

We all moved to Brooklyn in late ’90’s from Ohio, both for jobs and to be able to pursue artistic interests more easily. My brother, Bryan and I have played in bands together since we were teenagers in Cincinnati, Ohio. But the National started as an accident. Bryan, Matt, Scott and I just got together as friends one Saturday in July 1999 at Matt’s loft in this industrial building by the Gowanus canal in Brooklyn. Another friend from Ohio, Mike Brewer, had just bought a digital eight track and wanted to try making some songs. We drank a lot of beer and recorded a few loose ideas. Matt wrote lyrics for them and recorded vocals. We were shocked by the sound and the chemistry. I didn’t realize he could sing.

I read that you start with music and then fit in ready made lyrics to suit the mood? Is this true and does it always work out that way or do you have to “write to demand” sometimes?

It is true that the music usually comes together first, but Matt is always writing. He writes books full of ideas and gradually pieces together songs over time drawing on many different veins of thought I think. It is quite rare that a song comes together quickly.

Willy Vlautin from Richmond Fontaine has just written a novel. Your songs are similarly dialog heavy, would Matt, or anyone in the band, ever consider writing a novel?

Bryan worked as an assistant editor at Soho Press for a long time and he is a great writer. I wish he would write a book as I think he’s capable of it, but he claims that he has never had an original idea in his life. But then, being the musical scavenger he is, he knows that everything is derivative on some level, stolen from somewhere. So we think he is secretly writing something. I wouldn’t be surprised.

Your latest album, Boxer, sounds like a natural progression from Alligator, was this a conscious effort?

No I dont think so. We knew we didn’t want to repeat ourselves and we’re not a band that can force a certain kind of song. We don’t inhabit certain styles really and we’re very critical of ourselves. From the earliest sketches, a song has to feel alive for us to keep working on it. When we write music, it’s all very simple in the beginning. Somehow a lot of this music started as sort of hypnotic, meditative circular patterns. I thought of a lot of it as spiritual music in the beginning. Songs like Ada, Start a War, Green Gloves, Racing Like A Pro and Gospel….actually now that I’m thinking about it, most of the songs have this quality. They seemed spiritual to me in a way, not in a overtly religious sense at all, but there’s just something contemplative about them.

What were your major influences for this album and is there a specific theme that runs through it?

Bob Dylan’s “Time Out of Mind” was a reference point for me. I love many of Dylan’s albums, especially his first several, but we were thinking a lot about this recent one in terms of it’s production and themes and somehow I kept coming back to it. We have so many different influences though….for example, you can hear Steve Reich in the minimalist fanfare Padma wrote for Fake Empire and it’s obvious we love the Band, the Smiths, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. A lot of the songs seem to be about struggling to reconnect with loved ones and things that are meaningful. And there is also a sense of hiding away with someone you love, living in a kind of surreal fantasy state, both for pleasure and perhaps to avoid or escape certain realities. Matt’s lyrics are usually ambiguous, which is on purpose, so songs can be about many things at once.

Where did the idea for the album cover come from?

That photo is from Peter Katis’ wedding in Greenwich, CT. We were just there as guests. It was actually at the urging of Paul Banks and Peter that we got on stage and borrowed the wedding band’s instruments to play Geese of Beverly Road for Peter and his wife Ann. This photographer, Abbey Drucker, who was also just there as a guest randomly took one photo of us playing. That’s where it comes from… wasn’t posed!

How long after finishing an album do you think about writing / recording the next one?

I am already thinking about the next one.

I hear that Bruce Springsteen is a fan? How did that come about and would you consider working with The Boss in the future?

I think he read about us in Uncut magazine and heard one of our songs on a cover mount cd. We had a chance to meet him and he’s really a lovely, down to earth person. It was one of the most unreal experiences of my life, just to realize that he knows and loves our music. We would love to ask him to collaborate on a song for a charity record we are working on for the Red Hot Organization.

Is popularity something that your strive for or is it a pleasant / unpleasant off shoot? Is celebrity endorsement a positive thing?

We dont strive to be popular. We find our songs under rock somewhere and I am surprised sometimes that anyone likes them! Actually, that’s a joke. I am sure it helps when good artists who are respected say positive things about our music. But it’s not important to us really. Just flattering when it occasionally happens….

Do you read your own reviews?


What do you think of the current music scene in the UK, are there any bands you’d like to tour with?

I don’t really know much specifically about the current UK music scene. Though at least half of the rock music from the past I love is from the UK….so I suppose I should have a good answer for you. I love PJ Harvey and Bloc Party and Radiohead and many others. Sorry to be vague.

How does playing in the UK compare with the US and other parts of the world? Are we really too quiet?

We love playing in the UK. You’re not quiet at all, except in Manchester, which I find odd. Every country has a different atmosphere at shows. I guess in general UK audiences seem more up for it and intense than most other places.

What’s your most memorable on the road story?

Two years ago we took a detour between Orlando and Atlanta and went to the Okeefonokee swamp and rented a boat. We saw several hundred alligators while motoring around this eery swamp for a few hours. It was a rare moment of recreation. Though last night we played whirlyball in Atlanta with Arcade Fire after the show (it’s a hybrid of bumper cars and basketball and lacrosse). That was a lot of fun too. They beat us.

What are you thoughts on the file sharing and the “Myspace phenomenon”?

Both are helpful to bands I think. More people hear your music. It’s amazing how quickly people find out about new music.

Are you concerned that your album has “leaked” months before it’s due to go on sale?

Not really, though we hope people will still buy it. We’re proud of the artwork.

Are you part of the mp3 crowd or do you still buy CD’s / vinyl?

We still buy CD’s and vinyl.

What’s the last great album that you bought and are there any new and current acts that have made you sit up and take notice?

Neil Young Live at Massey Hall is so amazing. And Grizzly Bear blew me away a month ago at Bowery Ballroom.

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