Five Conversations with The National
When The National brought the curtain down on their last record, Trouble Will Find Me, by finally ascending to international arena status at London’s O2, it marked as many endings as it did beginnings.
The period of transition that the band entered into immediately after that show, in November 2014, would reshape them, and lead up to a legitimate break from the past with their next album. For a start, their long love affair with Brooklyn finally fizzled out. Frontman Matt Berninger swapped coasts, settling in Los Angeles, whilst twin guitarists Bryce and Aaron Dessner left New York City too - the former for Paris, and the latter for the considerably quieter surrounds of Hudson, a town about 130 miles upstate.
It was here that Aaron would buy a house and build his own studio, inspired by his friend and collaborator Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, and his April Base facility in Fall Creek, Wisconsin, which fosters a community atmosphere with its seclusion and residential quarters. By the time it was finished in 2016, The National were raring to go again, rejuvenated by an extended break that all of them had used to delve into decidedly un-National musical projects, from a six-hour charity record of Grateful Dead covers to a collection of krautrock wigouts that the group’s rhythm section, bassist Scott Devendorf and his drumming brother Bryan, put together with its trombonist, Ben Lanz. Aaron christened his new place Long Pond. It became more than a studio; it’s now The National’s de facto headquarters.
It is the beating heart of their seventh LP, Sleep Well Beast, which explains why it’s on the cover. The vast majority of the album was made there, although that’s not to downplay the significance of the string work, recorded by Bryce in Paris, where he effectively lives a double life as both rock musician and classical composer. The vocals were largely cut in Matt’s house in LA, where he and his wife Carin, a former New Yorker editor, painstakingly pored over an avalanche of lyrical ideas and hammered them into shape. Some of the more impressionistic tracks developed in Berlin, where the Dessners curated a collaborative residency with an eclectic group of artists.
But Long Pond was home. It was where, for the first time in a while, The National could all record in the same room together, no longer constrained by the physical restrictions of Aaron’s old garage. It’s where their kids played together, where they hung out after work, and where they weathered the fallout from last November’s presidential election. As a property, it is a marker of their status as one of the world’s most successful indie rock bands but as a place, it is testament to the deep friendships that remained intact over the years of the slow burn to where they are now. It is home.
Sleep Well Beast marks a departure from the last four National records, scored through with genuine compositional daring; it brings electronic textures to the forefront, incorporates freewheeling guitar solos for the first time, and takes its cues not from the band’s illustrious cast of alt-rock peers but from such leftfield sources as the experimental German duo Mouse on Mars and the similarly avant garde Brooklyn pair Buke and Gase. It’s a stormy collection that faces up to the anxieties of raising young families in Trump’s America. It is the dividing line between what The National were and what they’ll go on to be, as musicians and as people.
This is the record’s story, told by those who know it best; the band’s five members, over the course of five individual conversations, touching upon their other musical identities, their new one as a group, their new home in Hudson Valley, the current state of America, and - most crucially - family.
Bryce Dessner: I think that, typically, we always try to get back to real life at the end of an album cycle. We all have families, and touring is really taxing.
Scott Devendorf: We played our last show of the Trouble Will Find Me tour at the O2 in London. That seemed like a good time to step away and take stock.
Bryan Devendorf: I think there was a feeling that we didn’t want to bore the audience; eventually, you have to move away so that you’re not constantly getting in people’s faces. “Here we are again!” They get tired of that.
Aaron Dessner: I think it’s especially important for Matt, because he feels as if he has to go away and live life for a while in order to have something to write about, to make sure there’s a shift from the last record to the next one.
Matt Berninger: I mean, the album was cooking from early on. Even if you go back to maybe two years ago, we had something like 20 songs that we were trading back and forth, so it was in the kitchen. We all wanted to do different things for a while, and I made a record with Brent Knopf from Menomena, as EL VY. I wrote the lyrics for that album on tour with The National, and when I was on the road with EL VY towards the end of 2015, I was writing lyrics for Sleep Well Beast.
Scott: Bryan and I worked on a record under the name LNZNDRF, with Ben Lanz, who tours with The National.
Bryan: LNZNDRF originated completely spontaneously at a National show, and we played as the opening band. The whole story is probably on the internet somewhere. The impulse was to record something just as a project, for fun, but we had a major stroke of luck and it ended up coming out on 4AD.
Scott: Ben, Bryan and I are all big krautrock fans, and for years, we’d always been saying we should do something along those lines. We recorded the whole thing in two days in Cincinnati, all these droney, twenty-minute jams, and then Ben cut them up and pieced them together. We mixed it up in Woodstock, and the whole thing was basically done in a week’s time.
Bryan: It was the opposite of The National in the studio - or, at least, the opposite of the former National. When we had a sort of opening discussion about Sleep Well Beast, we were aware that we didn’t need to write another Boxer, another typical National album with straightforward arrangements. I think LNZNDRF was one of the things that fed into that.
"It’s just the nature of each of us as musicians to go away and collaborate...Justin Vernon’s on the new record quite a bit, purely because we were hanging out, not because I called him up." - Aaron Dessner
Scott: LNZNDRF rubbed off on The National record, and I think to a larger extent so did the Grateful Dead record that we made, which we were kind of the house band for.
Aaron: The Grateful Dead had been a band that Bryce and I grew up really loving; they were part of our fabric, and the same was true for Bryan and Scott. We made a previous charity record for Red Hot called Dark Was the Night that came out in 2009, that involved a lot of different collaborators, and we approached Rhino Records and the Dead and asked if they’d be supportive of us doing something similar with their songs. It ended up being this crazy four-year journey.
Bryce: We felt the Dead legacy was one that could use a new approach. They’re very often reduced to jam band culture in America, but their songbook is amazing, and their history touches on so many surprising places.
Aaron: People don’t necessarily make a connection between ‘indie music’ and the Dead, but Day of the Dead showed that to be an artificial separation; a lot of our heroes were coming in to contribute, like Lee Ranaldo, Stephen Malkmus and Ira Kaplan from Yo La Tengo, and they all love the Dead. Cat Power, too. Bob Weir from the Dead was involved, and he went on to make his first solo record in 30 years, Blue Mountain, which we played on, and toured with him on. It was fun to shine a light on how good those Dead songs were, and their commitment to improvisation and avant garde experimentalism. I took a lot out of it.
Bryce: We barely scratched the surface; we joked we needed to make a few more six-hour Dead records. It was a good left turn for me, though. A lot of the other stuff I was working on - a project with the New York City Ballet, and writing a big orchestra piece for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and scoring the movie The Revenant - it was all classical stuff that I was already well-versed in. Day of the Dead was a great outlet, just because of the joyful, open approach to music that the Dead had. That had a little bit of an impact on The National’s process.
Aaron: All of these things that we do away from the band tend to blend together. I mean, the title track of the new record had started out as a sketch I’d written for these amazing French classical pianists called Katia and Marielle Labèque - two pianos and two guitars, as a collaboration. I took one of Bryan’s drum loops and set that to it, and I realised, “actually, this might be a National song”.
It’s just the nature of each of us as musicians to go away and collaborate, and not deliberately; I mean, Justin Vernon’s on the new record quite a bit, purely because we were hanging out, not because I called him up. These other projects have always been a big part of the band, and they always inform the next thing. They help us to solve riddles.
Bryce: It’s not that we hadn’t used electronic elements before; it’s just that the way we were using them was different. You can find electronic drums as far back as Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers.
Aaron: We’ve been playing around with things like MIDI for many years.
Bryan: I’ve used, for a long time now, drum machines when I practice - running them through amps with effects and playing along to them. We did have some machines back on our second record. I remember the drums on "Cardinal Song", they were all drawn by hand on a computer, with a mouse, which is crazy to think now.
Bryce: There’s some of it on every record, really. You can hear beds of electronic stuff kind of rolling away in the background on the last album, on "Demons" and "Don’t Swallow the Cap".
Scott: We were just trying to allow ourselves to get out of ourselves, and by that I mean what the idea of the band is, and what it is that we all do in the band, and how we make the songs, and can we open them up a little bit more? The last four records, from Alligator through Trouble Will Find Me, they all seem to fit together, and we wanted to open a new door or a new window, and let some fresh air in. It meant a lot more experimentation.
Matt: I think there were two things that were key; what Bryce and Aaron did in Berlin at the Michelberger Hotel in Berlin, and the fact that I was probably more open to new ideas than I had been in the past.
Bryce: Aaron and I curated a weekend called Funkhaus, which was kind of a residency for artists in Berlin, alongside Justin Vernon and some others. We met some amazing artists there, like Mouse on Mars, who are these incredible German electro pioneers. We took sketches of some of the songs from the record over there, and we were basically collaborating and bouncing them off people that we didn’t even know. There was a lot of improvisation going on, and that was how we collected a lot of the noise and extraneous bits that we repurposed to be complementary to the song. Over time, they became part of the textures of the songs, and I think they really give this album a new dimension.
Scott: Mouse on Mars were a big influence, and they were kind of teasing us, because there were so many artists at Funkhaus that didn’t play rock music in the traditional sense. Like, “you have a singer, and a drummer, and guitars?” It was funny to them, because they just use computers to make music and blend it with noise. Watching that happen and being a part of it was really refreshing. You have to react a different way than you’re used to.
"It’s ironic that there’s new bands coming out now, like Hiss Golden Messenger and The War on Drugs, that have unbelievable guitar players, right as we finally get solos into some of our songs." - Bryce Dessner
Aaron: It was a lot of fun to play around with what a National song can be, and very liberating to have different types of songs on the record; some that are normative, and others that are pretty impressionistic. The title track is really gauzy; there’s no clear song form, and it wasn’t until near the end, when Matt sang to it, that it came into focus. That freeform way of looking at things informed these songs as much as the electronic side of it did.
Bryan: I guess I kind of had my head down when I was tracking my parts, because if I’m working alone, I tend to keep the lowest number of tracks active as I can, for clarity’s sake. So when we got to mixing, I thought “oh my god! There’s a lot more going on here than I was aware of.” It was a nice surprise. It felt like a new National.
Bryce: Matt was really open about all of it. I mean, there were some battles in the end when we were finishing the record, but for the most part, he was very much “go for it”.
Matt: I moved to Los Angeles about four-and-a-half years ago, around the time we finished making Trouble Will Find Me, so this was the first National record I’d written lyrics for since then. The sunshine and the weed give you a different perspective. I never smoked weed at all in high school, I just hated it, but out here it’s better, and it’s legal. I’m discovering it. It’s nice, you know - it’s been a creative catalyst, to be honest with you. It’s a good thing that I’m in my forties, and I’m this tightly wound, prickly man, and now this has made me a slightly less tightly wound, prickly man. Nobody’s complaining that I’m smoking weed.
Aaron: Matt was encouraging Bryce and I to play guitar solos, which was new. “You solo! OK, now you solo! Just solo the whole time!”
Bryce: We’ve played solos live for quite a while, on songs like "Afraid of Everyone", but for the most part we’ve avoided it on record. I mean, after out first album, we got pegged as alt-country, so blues riffing didn’t feel like the way to go. Plus, that whole tradition is so well-wrought; it’s ironic that there’s new bands coming out now, like Hiss Golden Messenger and The War on Drugs, that have unbelievable guitar players, right as we finally get solos into some of our songs. As much as anything, we were just trying to capture that live sound in the studio, which we’d never been able to do before, sort of for practical reasons.
Aaron: "Turtleneck" and "Day I Die" have the feel of the live guitar sound to them, for sure. I think, as much as Matt encouraged us to experiment, I felt more relaxed in myself anyway. A lot of that was to do with having built the studio upstate, which meant I could go out, drink a beer, and just freak out on the guitar every once in a while. It helped make things very loose.
Matt: In the past, all we ever really did was make it work. That’s what we were used to. Somebody’s basement, somebody else’s garage, Aaron’s attic, renting a basement practice space somewhere - whatever suited us. We were never precious about it, we never overthought it.
Scott: We’ve worked in ‘commercial’ studios before, where you’re paying by the hour and you worry about whether or not you’re making the most of your time. When we made Boxer, we had a really hard time finishing it for a short period, because we’d get to the studio, work for a certain time, and then have to leave because it was becoming really stressful. There were songs left unfinished for a while, and lyrics too, and it felt like we were spinning our wheels a bit. I think after that experience, we were like, if we could ever afford to do it, wouldn’t it be fantastic to have a project studio, where we can just work everything out.
Bryce: It’s not that we hadn’t had our own space before. We had Aaron’s garage in Brooklyn, which played a big role in the recording of High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me, and even Alligator and Boxer were basically made in Aaron and I’s house; Matt lived with me during the sessions for Alligator, and with Aaron during the making of Boxer. The big shift is that we’d been in enough recording studios to know what sort of space was going to be best for us.
Aaron: We had my garage in Brooklyn from 2007 or 2008, and before that we recorded in my attic, or my sister’s attic, or other people’s places. That garage was a charmed place, because a lot of great things happened there, but we kind of outgrew it - it was only 1400 square feet of space. It was hard for us to all gather there, set up, and be comfortable. We hated saying goodbye to it, but I think the situation had become kind of critical.
Bryce: The truth is, the record took three years to make, and it was only in the last year that the studio was finished. Aaron was based in Hudson while that was happening, and we started work on this album up there as early as February of 2015, which wasn’t long after that O2 Arena show. He and I were in a church in Hudson, spending two weeks together and writing a lot of what eventually became the record, so there’s no doubt that Hudson was the heart of it, even well before Aaron’s space was ready.
Matt: We started recording in there literally as the paint was still drying, on the day that they finished it. They turned on the plumbing and the electricity, and an hour later, we were working.
"There’s something important about having a space where you can fit a lot of instruments, where you can set up comfortably, where you can live for a while if you’d like to." - Bryce Dessner
Bryan: You know, that idea of recording in the countryside, and especially upstate New York, that was something we were aware of from the early days of the band. Peter Gabriel’s countryside thing, or such and such recorded this here, and all these mythic upstate locations that we’d heard about and never travelled to - it’s not that we weren’t interested, but back then, the cost was always prohibitive, especially when you consider that we were relying on analog gear when we started out. It was the sort of thing that just seemed overwhelming in those days.
Aaron: I think I learned a lot from my friends. Justin Vernon is a great example - he has such an incredible home for making music at April Base out in Wisconsin. I’ve been there so many times, and I took my cues from it; it wasn’t about building a commercial studio. The point was that I wanted it to be a space for us, for our musical community, where people can have the time and space to develop what they’re doing.
Bryce: Recording technology is at a point now where people can make incredible sounding albums in their bedroom, or on their laptops on the train, but it still seems like there’s something important about having a space where you can fit a lot of instruments, where you can set up comfortably, where you can live for a while if you’d like to. In terms of getting into a creative zone and focusing, that was huge for everybody in the band.
Scott: It’s funny that Long Pond ended up on the cover of the record. We hadn’t intended it that way, but it was important to Matt - he started to feel that it had some kind of full circle quality to it.
Matt: The biggest thing for me was just that I fell in love with the place. I love that it’s in the middle of nowhere, and I love that it’s surrounded by the wild, wild world: you’ve got coyotes and frogs, and herons coming by every morning. The blackbirds are ducking, and snapping turtles are popping up. It’s beautiful, it’s breathtaking, and I was quite happy to go up there and just not leave the area.
Aaron: In the end, 80 or 90 percent of the record was done either at Long Pond or in churches in upstate New York. We took some things away from the experimental work we did in Berlin at Funkhaus, and Bryce recorded all of the orchestral stuff in Paris, which is where he lives. Matt cut most of his vocals in Los Angeles, and the rest of us went out there for a couple of writing sessions, but Hudson was at the core of the album.
Matt: It was a pretty modest architectural undertaking. It was just a barn, a big wooden place with a high ceiling, but it granted us certain freedoms. We were living up there. I’m an early riser, so I can get up and work alone on lyrics from 5am, and the rest of the guys can stay in bed and roll in at ten or eleven, and that’s cool. We could all work our own hours - if you wanted to go out for a coffee or breakfast or something, that was fine. It’s not like we were having big parties every night. Well, sometimes we did. But either way, that place sort of came to define Sleep Well Beast.
Matt: The colour of the sky changed. Everything was a little less bright. It was traumatic, I’ll be honest.
Scott: We seem to have the dumb luck that pretty much every time we’re finishing a record, it coincides with either an intensive period of campaigning, or an actual election. It became par for the course, and there we were again last November.
Bryce: We began making the record before the election, honestly, but quite a lot of it was still to be done by November 8th, so there’s no question it had an impact. Matt actually hadn’t finished a lot of the lyrics at that point.
Aaron: It was a huge shock. I don’t think anybody I knew could believe it, whether they’d woken up to the news or stayed up like I did to watch it unfold - I couldn’t sleep. It’s hard to process, to this day, that there’s somebody so unqualified in that position, somebody who - well, he’s either incredibly obtuse, or a total bigot. Or both.
Matt: I felt like I’d been talking about politics for so long, and then suddenly, when he won, I was sort of bereft of voice or thought or something. It took it out of me. We had a bunch of songs that were actually quite political, but they just felt fundamentally lame and insignificant afterwards, so we dumped them. The political stuff that remains is just of a different tone. I didn’t even really want to say his name, for a while.
Scott: I don’t particularly think we’ve ever been a political band with a capital ‘p’; it’s not like we’ve ever written protest songs, or anything like that. On this record, though, it’s probably the most direct that the lyrics have been about how these things are constantly permeating your thoughts and how you can’t escape it, how difficult the 24-hour news cycle makes it to switch off. We didn’t have the option to say, “oh, let’s just put it to one side and drift off into this dreamy world of music while we finish the album. You can’t do that. Everything is an artifact of its time, especially movies and novels, and there’s no reason why this record would be any different.
Aaron: You can’t really separate your art from your personal experience, and everything that’s happening right now - you know, these are things that are going to affect our children. Basic civil liberties are under attack, and women’s rights, and immigrant rights, and it’s as if we’re just seeing the rollback of basic human decency in the United States - we’re seeing the loss of any kind of moral compass. You can’t really divide the more intimate personal narrative that’s going on from the broader political anxiety. Matt struggles with all of that on a daily basis, for sure, and that surfaces in his writing.
Matt: Even if I didn’t want to think about it as a political record, it obviously is. Everything’s fucking political right now. It’s there in a lot of different ways; on "Walk It Back", where I’m talking about feeling helpless and self-medicating, and it’s in the love songs too - the personal ones, the breakup ones. Even those are political, because I can’t wall off the terrible things that are happening from my marriage, or from fatherhood - they’re all part of the same salad of things that I need to make work. I can’t be a good dad and not be engaged in talking about the rules that are going to define my daughter’s future.
Bryce: Something shifted a little bit in terms of purpose when we woke up on 9 November, and some of that is on the record - "Turtleneck" is certainly very angry. We’ve never wanted our songs to overtly serve as a kind of pulpit, but we realised around the time of Boxer that we maybe had a platform that we could use that didn’t involve writing songs that people might see as being preachy.
"Our kids are going to look back in five years, ten years, and say, 'how the hell did you let this happen?'" Scott Devendorf
Aaron: We were obviously involved a lot with both Obama campaigns, and we did some rallies for Hillary - I’d supported Bernie Sanders before she got the nomination, but we got behind her too once she was the candidate, and we played at some of her events, including one in Ohio four days before the election. So we’ve got a track record of being engaged in this kind of thing.
Bryce: We’re humble about that; we realise that people like Bruce Springsteen, Jay-Z and Beyoncé have bigger platforms than us. I think the fact that we come from a swing state is a big part of why we get involved; Ohio swung the elections in 2004 and 2008. It’s sided with every single winner since 1964. There’s a very particular voting demographic where we grew up, and when the Democrats have asked us to help out, we have done, because any little difference you can make in a place like Ohio is important.
Bryan: I know you can sometimes get that thing of people saying that we shouldn’t be talking about politics, but a lot of what we’ve done has been things like getting out the vote, getting people registered, that kind of thing. And I’m sorry, but if people have a problem with that...it’s part of life, that sort of charitable work, helping others. You have to do it. I’ll admit I can be a little bit slacktivist, because we’ve got kids to raise too, although that comes full circle - how do you explain what’s going on to your kids? They’re too young now, but it’s going to be hard when it comes to it.
Scott: Our kids are going to look back in five years, ten years, and say, “how the hell did you let this happen?” There’s a certain amount of talk in the lyrics on the record about...not escapism, but about sleeping, and that sense of keeping your head down until this is all over. Our involvement with politics outside of the music maybe offsets that - it’s not a call to action, but it’s saying that everybody needs to pay attention. You can’t not have an opinion.
Matt: I’ve been writing about the attraction of wanting to fall asleep and stay in bed and sleep through it all for a long time now. I mean, “I’m half awake in a fake empire”, right? It goes back to then. I didn’t dig too deep on it, but I read this piece about how, in the face of trauma, children are falling asleep, going into some sort of fugue state, and you can’t snap them out of it. It’s on the rise, especially in refugees fleeing Syria - this physical reaction to trauma, where they just shut down. That’s something I was thinking about.
Bryan: Not to belittle the record, because I love it, but just the idea of promoting an album - it pales in comparison compared to some of what’s going on. But what do you do? You just do everything you can to help, from the campaign things we’ve done to Matt and Brandon’s new seven-inch project for Planned Parenthood to the Dark Was the Night stuff that we did for Red Hot. Anything practical that you can do to try to change things.
Matt: Ultimately, do I think a love song can change politics? Nope, obviously not. This is a country that’s had some of the greatest protest songwriters - Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez - and yet, down the line, Donald Trump is the president. I was going to say that at least we’re way more in touch now, and can see things way more clearly than we could before 8 November - that after what he said about Charlottesville, we could see him for what he is. But actually, it was crystal clear when he first came down that elevator that he was a white supremacist. He said that, he led with that, and he’s not even an outlier - the Republicans have been building him for 40 years. The southern strategy, the dog whistles, “Fox News, man!” Don’t pretend that he isn’t your guy. He is your guy.
Scott: Matt’s got the oldest child, but everybody has kids now. That includes Ben Lanz and Kyle Resnick, too, who obviously go everywhere with us. The kids-in-the-band factor has been with us for many years - Matt’s daughter is eight. We’re well aware by now of how tricky it can be to plan things and execute them, but we’ve gradually gotten used to it, and it’s helped that everybody’s started to have kids over the same period of time.
Bryan: It’s definitely easier now that everybody’s in the same situation, because everybody understands. In that respect, Matt probably bore the brunt of it for a little while, because he was the only one with a kid for a couple of years. That said, he’s always been the guy in the best position when it comes to the touring schedule, because he’s the singer - what are we going to do, play without him?
Matt: When I moved to Los Angeles in 2013, my daughter was four, and it just seemed like she wanted a bit more room to run around in, you know? We came out here and lived in Venice for a few weeks, just as a vacation. I quickly came to realise that maybe I needed the move too, and so did my wife - just as a change of background. Plus, Brooklyn’s too expensive. I was able to buy a little house in Venice, and I wouldn’t ever have been able to find something I liked for the same money in New York. I guess we came out here for a break, and our souls just didn’t want to go back. That realisation only took a week or two.
Bryan: We’re all at a point now where we understand how best to work things out in relation to our families. A lot of that’s just experience; I mean, we know that doing a six or eight week tour in the dead of winter in northern Europe when everybody’s getting sick isn’t something we want to experience again just in and of ourselves, let alone when we’re this touring family with a lot of kids along for the ride.
"Having a kid made me realise that with my art and my rock band, I don’t mind falling on my face and looking like a fool, as long as I’m a good dad, a good husband, and honest with my daughter and my wife." - Matt Berninger
Aaron: The same cycle we’ve gotten used to kind of continues on, because everybody’s started families really gradually. Bryce’s is the youngest at six months old.
Bryan: We’re at a stage in the band’s life now where we understand what it means to balance family and career, and sometimes, the only way you can do it is to take them on the road with you. It feels unfair if you don’t, because they don’t know what daddy’s doing. I’ve done a little bit of that, but not tons - I think Ben definitely has the most adventurous spirit in that respect, and his kids are definitely the most well-travelled.
Scott: When we were recording last summer, everybody brought their kids up, and we all got local Airbnbs near Aaron’s place, so that we could all hand around together as this one big extended family. It was nice not to need Skype or FaceTime for a change.
Bryce: The other thing is that, for Matt, there’s a wider family involvement, because Carin’s involved with his lyrics.
Matt: Carin’s nickname within the band has been Yoko for 15 years now, and it’s totally accurate, funny, and just a tiny bit hurtful. That’s fine - we’ve all got hurtful nicknames for one another, and she proudly wears hers. She’s been one of the most important collaborators of my life on so many levels, and even just in terms of The National - she’s a big, big part of it.
Aaron: Matt’s used a lot of different names in the past in his lyrics, and I think the line was always blurry over whether they were people he knew or just characters he’d invented.
Matt: Jenny is a name that’s come up a lot in the past, and I think that’s mainly because Carin’s sister, her name is Jenny, and they’re really close-knit. There’s no point in trying to connect any dots with the names really, because that’s not the point. My best friend’s wife’s name is Jenny, and I jokingly told him all those songs on Trouble Will Find Me were about her, and that got printed somewhere. I mean, half the time when I’m talking about romance or marriage, I’m really talking about the band. Jenny is actually Aaron, a lot of the time.
Bryce: This was the first time that Matt had mentioned Carin by name not just within the lyrics, but actually within the title of a song.
Matt: The reason I used Carin’s real name was because we had a song on Alligator called "Karen", and because of that, everybody’s called her Karen her whole life. It’s actually ‘kah-ryn’, and I wanted people to know that, finally. She didn’t want me to put that in there, but it was important to me. Like I said, she’s so much a part of my writing. Tom Waits writes with his wife, Kathleen Brennan, and I think he described the process as, “she washes, I dry”. Well, our version is that I spill, I get the stain all over the clothes, and then I put it in the washer. Carin goes through it all, dries it, irons it and folds it. She’s an editor and a writer herself, and I really mean it when I say that a lot of the best ideas are hers.
Bryce: It was after Alligator that Matt got deeply into editing, and I think for this record, even though he went through the same intense process of perfecting what he was doing, it felt more freewheeling. Less precious, I guess.
Matt: I don’t mind saying something twenty times, as long as the twenty-first time feels genuine. I’ve talked about self-medication a lot in the past, and I have again on “I’ll Still Destroy You”. I’ve cut back a lot, just because I’m in my forties and I’ve got a vodka belly and I want to be around for a long time, and I know that alcohol takes away from the time you’ve got on this planet. I know that, but a little weed and wine helps me to get into the right headspace on stage. It helps me connect with the music. I write about it, but I’m not advertising it. Everybody has their own relationship with it.
For each of us, becoming fathers has changed us in fundamental ways. I don’t take the work any less seriously, any of it, but I think I realised that even if I fail at it - if I write a shitty song, or make a fool of myself somehow on this creative side of the world, nobody’s going to get hurt. Having a kid made me realise that with my art and my rock band, I don’t mind falling on my face and looking like a fool, as long as I’m a good dad, a good husband, and honest with my daughter and my wife. That’s the perspective I’ve gained.