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The National: “It's up for the offering, not trying to be uptight or claustrophobic and leaves you with a sense of trying to have fun with the songs.”

The National: “It's up for the offering, not trying to be uptight or claustrophobic and leaves you with a sense of trying to have fun with the songs.”

13 May 2013, 12:00

It’s the song ‘Sea of Love’ that provides the title of The National’s sixth record; during a sudden lull in the music, Matt Berninger rumbles “If I stay here / Trouble will find me” – a classic National-esque line full of worry and dread.

Yet Trouble Will Find Me often comes across as the least worry-heavy album the band’s produced so far. It’d be quite a stretch to say it’s The National reborn as a carefree act full of the joys of spring, but there’s a lightness of touch – lyrically and sonically – and a variety and depth that make it possibly their best work, alongside 2005’s Alligator (my all-time favourite record, probably. Should that sort of thing matter to you). Trouble Will Find Me is a record that mixes the typically gnomic lyrics of Berninger with much more direct and personal writing, and finds the brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner (along with the other set of brothers, Bryan and Scott Devendorf, the best rhythm section at work in music today) at the height of their musical powers, crafting complex melodies that have both depth and directness across thirteen excellent tracks. It’s the sound of a band, as Aaron Dessner put it, “freewheeling” again.

The Line of Best Fit recently had the opportunity to chat to bassist Scott Devendorf – a man who has been part of The National’s DNA right from the point he and Berninger first formed a band together back in 1991 – about the writing and recording of Trouble Will Find Me, about how the band finds it difficult to part with some songs, and always being tempted to take things that little bit darker.

At the end of the High Violet tour, I saw The National play a show at Edinburgh’s Corn Exchange, a performance that saw the band free of the last of their promotional shackles and delving into some rarely-played tracks from their back catalogue. It looked like they were having fun doing what they wanted to after close to two years of playing the songs from that claustrophobic album. So, it came as no surprise to read that there was no immediate intention to write a follow-up record – but then something changed. Well, not changed exactly; more that The National couldn’t stay away from what they seem to enjoy doing most. Scott explains more: “Basically we wanted to take some time off, because we’d done a lot of touring for two years or so… but we’re also kinda workaholics, I guess.”

“We don’t like sitting around so sometimes our ‘leisure’ is to work on other projects, so Aaron and Bryce are always doing something either with the band or other projects, or producing records so I think Aaron just started writing sketches for Matt…” Many bands might partake in such practices, but it’s often nothing more than throwing ideas around, ideas that might not make it to the demo stage, but for The National, it yielded some surprising results. “Y’know, we weren’t really expecting anything because we know our recording process always takes a long time,” says Scott, “and our writing process longer still! But Aaron was home a lot, he just had a new baby who was born in September 2011, so he was home and up really early, and up all night sometimes, so he was writing but not really expecting anything to happen right away. Then he sent different things to Matt, and Matt started to react and find some good ideas really quickly”. The exchanges between Dessner and Berninger led to the opening track on Trouble Will Find Me: “The first song on the record came out really quick, and soon as that came together we realised we were right in the process of writing a new record.”

It seems that out of all the inter-band relationships, it’s the connection between the Dessners and Berninger that drives The National forward, and it was the surprising reserves of energy found by the singer post-tour that led to the creation of the new album. “Matt was really just so focused; I think he had a lot of energy,” notes Devendorf. “The end of High Violet touring had given us a fresh perspective – we all felt good about how it ended up. We played six shows in New York and the band was playing really well. Things were going – I mean, we were happy to be done touring – well and we had ended in a good place. The record had done well, Matt was energised and thought about starting on new stuff… and so we did!” Is it the case, then, that with Trouble Will Find Me the band finds itself a little bit ahead of schedule? Scott disagrees. “In the end we’re kind of on the same schedule we’ve always been on, like three years between every record, two years or a year and a half or so of touring. I guess we’re on schedule but I don’t think we expected to be here, we probably thought we’d take another half a year or so off to get ready, but things progressed.”

What stands out most about Trouble…, certainly compared to the dense and sonically similar tracks on High Violet, is the variety on show. There’s never any doubt that you’re listening to The National, but at the same time the record goes places the band’s not really visited in the past; from the finger-picking quasi-folk of ’Fireproof’ to the motorik drive of ‘Don’t Swallow the Cap’, to the piano-and-trumpet woozy waltz of ‘Pink Rabbits’, it’s the sound of The National freeing up and being willing to experiment a little with their trademark sound. I ask Scott if he agrees with this take, and whether or not this was the intention: “Yeah I think that was definitely a conscious-slash-subconscious idea; basically when we write we try and write a lot of songs knowing that probably only a third will make it to the final record.” So how many songs would the band write and then discard before getting to the final track listing? “I think we started with about 30 different ideas or so, and then got it down to 20, then to 15, then to what’s on the record,” says Scott. “Through that process we’re always really bad about throwing songs away; we get really attached to certain aspects of them… almost to an unhealthy degree sometimes.”

“We try and ‘leave no song behind’ and focus on that whole group of songs in the recording process and sometimes that leaves us with a lot of variety,” Scott continues. ‘There’s really quiet songs like ‘Slipped’, which is basically the demo version of the song, and this time around there were a lot of songs like that, where there was something about the initial idea or initial sound was recorded in such a way that we really liked it and kept that.” Is there any song that particularly stands out for the band and shows how successful the original version was? “The synthesiser sounds on ‘I Should Live In Salt’ that you can hear doing their little dance in the background,” he begins, “that was there in the original recording. It was hard to recapture, so we kept that aspect. So things like that, from our perspective, give some variety but also some lift… or lilt… a quality.”


The National 2

While not quite playful – as that’s not really something that would ever really fit The National – there’s a certain openness to some of the songs, not in meaning as such but sonically speaking, certainly compared to High Violet. Devendorf is a little unsure of this: “I dunno, I’ve heard Matt speak of the recordings as having lightness or a freshness. I mean, the songs aren’t necessarily easy from a listening perspective; there’s odd time signatures that make them jump a little bit… I think this is the first record that has at least three, four songs that are in non-4/4 time signature.” The first song I heard off the record was ‘Heavenfaced’, and that’s the best example of The National messing with time signatures; it’s a difficult song to get a hold on at first, the drums seem out of place but as the track develops it becomes the main attraction: “It’s a bit fragmented, yeah,” agrees Scott. “You can’t just tap along – a friend of ours was joking, saying ‘yeah these songs are great but they’re going to be really hard to clap along to!’ I mean, I think there are some more straightforward ‘rock’ songs on the record… there’s a good bit of variety.”

Given the relative commercial success and more obvious critical acclaim that’s followed the band since Boxer, The National has shown remarkable restraint when it comes to musical indulgence – you’d be hard pressed to find any stories of diva behaviour – and despite the starry connections the band has (more of which later) there are no overwrought guest spots. I ask Scott if it’s been difficult not to indulge; hasn’t there been the temptation to throw a 20-piece orchestra at a track or two? “Well, we have done that!” he exclaims. “I guess that part of the reason that our recording process takes a long time is that we do – well, not quite throwing a 20-piece orchestra at it – spend time on that side. We had some time upstate recording an eight-piece string section, and a barrage of horns, and did we use any of it? Yeah, we used some of it. We had a bunch of stuff in ‘Graceless’ and at the very last moment we muted all of it! We felt there was something about the original song and when we cleared that stuff away it just felt better.” Has this long been a part of how The National works? “Yeah, we’ve done this in our recording process probably from Cherry Tree onwards where we had strings and a lot of orchestration. This time around Bryce did a lot of the orchestration on the record, along with [Arcade Fire’s] Richard Reed Parry, and we have a lot of friends who help us – and we don’t always end up using all of it, but I guess we always do too much and then strip it away!”

Turning to those starry connections, Trouble Will Find Me has – alongside Parry – contributions from Sufjan Stevens, who takes care of some of the synth sounds and drum machine noise, and Annie Clark [St Vincent], Sharon Van Etten and Dark Dark Dark’s Nona Marie Invie on vocal duty. However, you’d be hard pressed to pick out any of their work due to the way that the band has incorporated those artists’ various styles. I ask if this is something that’s important to The National, that a “guest” spot shouldn’t sound contrived or shoehorned in for the sake of it. Scott agrees: “I think with us, we do have a recording aesthetic, and we do have an ideal, and we just don’t do ‘duets’, or ‘songs featuring’ with a big vocal solo! It’s just not our thing, and I think the way we collaborate with people is pretty casual.” It turns out the collaboration process is fairly organic: “People just come over to the studio and try a bunch of stuff. We do it because these people all have totally different perspectives, or come at recording and song writing from totally different perspectives than we do.” Devendorf uses Richard Reed Parry’s work as an example: “It’s really refreshing to have someone come over like Richard,” he says. “I mean, he’s obviously a great singer and musician in his own right, and his perspective is always from a very pure, choral place. He grew up with that, his father was a choir director and he has this really instant sense of hearing all these vocal parts, and he can sing them all, and that leads us to trying a bunch of stuff. And that’s better than us just sitting around the studio trying to come up with harmonies, something at which we are a bit, um… limited in scope! But ultimately it doesn’t, like you say, end up being a festival of a million guest stars – people are integrated into the sound of the band.”

Talk turns to influences on the record and I mention the ones that have appeared in promotional material for the album: Simon and Garfunkel, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan. Is that a fair representation of the outside influences? “I think Matt was actually listening to a lot of Roy Orbison, and that was sort of his muse in a way,” says Scott. “I think he really enjoys his music, and although Roy Orbison has a very different voice it at least inspired Matt from a melodic sense. Y’know, his angelic, high warble that he has – which is definitely not Matt’s voice – but I think the way Orbison has a constant sense of melody really inspired Matt to at least attempt to be a bit more melodic in his writing. Also, this record definitely has a lot more lyrics – probably twice as many – than High Violet per song; I don’t know if Roy Orbison’s songs are incredibly dense lyrically but I think it’s more the melodic aspect.”

As for the folk music side, that seems to come from Aaron Dessner: “Aaron likes Simon and Garfunkel; I think all the finger picking stuff – of which there’s more so than on the last record – like ‘Fireproof’, it’s probably like a slightly darker Simon and Garfunkel –“ an extremely dark version, surely? “Yeah, we always tend to go a little darker….” And as for Scott and Bryan? “As far as my brother and myself, there’s definitely some more driving rhythms that are underlying the seemingly melodic or mellow music,” he reveals, “like on ‘Humiliation’ the sort of motorik Neu!-esque beat and bass guitar. I like a lot of dance music and electronic music, and I don’t know how much of that really makes its way into the recording but I think that driving sense of rhythm – we always like that contrast. Because the song started as a piano demo and it was like ‘what do we do with that?’, but then often a song stays that way, like ‘Slipped’ because it doesn’t need a dragging drum beat through it! But in other songs I think we give it a pump and locomotion.”

You really can’t write about The National without at some point mentioning Matt Berninger’s lyrics, and so I’m not going to avoid it. It’s often business as usual in what – as Scott Devendorf has already pointed out – happens to be a lyric-heavy record. There are buzzards and alligators, pythons, water (rising, drowning in it and being under it), demons and other stark imagery, and you can add the names of Jennifer and Joe – to name but two – to those that have appeared in the band’s canon. But there’s something else too – an honesty and directness that’s often been absent in the past; I name ‘Slipped’ (“I’m having trouble inside of my skin / I’m trying to keep my skeletons in… But I’ll never be / anything you ever want me to be”) and ‘I Need My Girl’ as two clear examples and ask Scott if he agrees there’s a raw honesty at play: “Yeah. I think those two songs particularly are the most direct songs, in a way. Not necessarily autobiographical but you can read them as a direct communication with a person, versus, like you said, water rising, or blood or general apocalyptic imagery that happens in other songs.”

“I think the record in general, from Matt’s perspective, he describes it as more direct and more immediate, and I think he’s talking about the way he found the writing to be and also the way the songs came out to him,” says Scott, and reveals writing for his singer wasn’t such a painful process: “I think he found writing a bit easier this time and tried to go with the flow a bit more. There wasn’t a whole bunch of debate between the band and Matt as far as lyrics and music this time – it was a bit more open.” Does that contrast with how you’ve worked before? “On High Violet we set a bunch of rules, in a way, that we may or may not have needed,” begins Devendorf, “and ultimately it [High Violet] ends up sounding more claustrophobic, fuzzy and dark in a way… but this record is a little more sonically and thematically open. There’s a lot more lyrics, it’s a lot more… ‘generous’ is the wrong word but there’s a lot more to grasp on to. It’s up for the offering, not trying to be uptight or claustrophobic and leaves you with a sense of trying to have fun with the songs.”


The National

Did the attempts to try to have fun with the songs, the extra tonal variety in Matt Berninger’s voice (the higher register on closing track ‘Hard to Find’ is a particular highlight for me) and little flourishes like the harmonica in the chorus of ‘Sea Of Love’ or the slightly electronic outtro of ‘Don’t Swallow the Cap’ come from a bunch of guys who don’t have to worry as much about what critical or commercial success will be coming their way any more? To an extent, Devendorf agrees: “I think a little bit, yeah. After Boxer we built a studio and that gives us a little more openness, which on High Violet was more of an experiment, like trying to learn how to use the studio and get perspective on what work, learning some sonic things.” So there was a bit of a learning curve that The National had to master? “Yeah, and I think we were able to explore that a bit more on this record. We had a bit more time to mess around I guess, be free, and the fact that Matt was able to immediately write to some of the more unusual experiments that came out of the studio… it was something that was refreshing for us and we didn’t feel like we needed to make High Violet again, nor did we want to!”

It definitely seems, compared to, say, the band that was filmed by Vincent Moon for A Skin, A Night during the Boxer sessions, that The National are a lot more comfortable with their lot at the moment. Gone – to an extent, as I don’t think The National would be what they are without it – is the worry and foreboding that dominated the previous two albums and is replaced by, not quite a sense of fun, although the lyric “I was teething on roses / I was in Guns and Noses” on ‘Humiliation’ is hilarious, but maybe a sense of freedom? I leave Scott to sum it up: “At this point in our career we’ve made six records and we know a little bit about what works, but at the same point we’re always trying… we know the band has a sound and we know the band has aspects about it that people are familiar with, so we see how we can challenge that each time. Matt has a very distinctive voice, but he’s always trying something new; in this case more vocal range and more lyrics, just sort of playing with that idea. For us it’s always about trying to make the best version of the variety of songs that we seem to generate!”

I couldn’t end our chat without some discussion of the Tom Berninger documentary, Mistaken for Strangers. A film made by Matt’s younger brother, it follows the band on tour while Tom fails to cut it as a roadie/tour manager. Scott takes up the story: “The project was kind of by happenstance in a way; Tom came on tour with us during High Violet more from the perspective that we hired him to be a roadie effectively, but he also happened to be an amateur film maker. So he brought his camera along, which was basically a crappy hand-held video recorder. He worked, and kind of failed to do well at ! But he filmed a lot of interviews with us and got our thoughts about being on the road, thinking he was going to make this documentary. The movie is basically a document of him on the road with us and his perspective on the band, but also more about him and Matt and their relationship.”

Given the scope for parody and possible embarrassment, was Scott ever worried how The National would come across in the film? “For me, it’s a totally appropriate representation of the band,” he begins, “but it’s not really a ‘band documentary’. I think fans of the band will find it interesting; there is a lot of music and there’s a lot of backstage stuff, but it’s definitely not dark or incredibly informative about us!” I suggest it’s not really about the band, but more about the relationship between Matt and his brother, meaning that the dynamic between three sets of siblings is explored, rather than any discussion about music or being on the road, and Scott agrees: “I mean, we did that film a few years ago with Vincent Moon when he tried to document Boxer, which was interesting but from a waaaay different perspective. I would say that this [Mistaken for Strangers] is the polar opposite of that… we had seen bits as Tom had worked on it along the way, it’s pretty entertaining and like I said, it’s not a documentary about the band, it’s more a document of a certain time period in their relationship… which I think is more interesting! I mean, what more is there to be said about rock bands on the road?”

Trouble Will Find Me will be released on 20 May via 4AD.

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