Rhian Daly 10/05/2010
Holed up in identical rooms either side of the corridor in the plush confines of Shepherds Bush's K West, The National's main songwriters Matt Berninger and Aaron Dessner are nearing the end of the first of two days of relentless press duties ahead of the release of their fifth album, High Violet. Maybe they're tired of talking about it already but they don't let on, answering each question with erudite and considered answers. GIITTV's Rhian Daly met with both gentlemen to discuss and dissect the new record and the band's ever-growing popularity.
Can you tell me a bit about the recording process?
Matt Berninger: Yeah, we built a studio in Aaron's garage and so we wanted to have an environment that was going to be easy to... we wouldn't have to watch the clock or worry about time because we've just learned over the years that we tend to work slowly - we noodle around, we throw things away, we start over and doing that in an expensive studio has just never worked well for us. So we built this little tiny studio in his garage and so the process was Aaron and Bryce would create a lot of little music sketches and send them to me, and I'd just put them on my headphones, my ipod, my computers and listen to them again and again; start to think about melodies. One of the things I did differently was I paid attention to or just made melody a priority as opposed to lyrics. And in the past I've been thinking about lyrics from the very beginning but this time we wanted to not worry about lyrics very much. So I really just started singing along without worrying about what the words were going to be and also singing in ways I hadn't before, trying to sing in octaves and higher ranges than I had before. I did all this at home, in my bedroom so we worked very separately.
The other thing that was central to our recording process this time was... well, maybe not the process but we wanted the record to have a casual and home made.. not necessarily home made... we weren't necessarily worried about the fidelity of the record as much as we were worried about the sonic mood. A lot of things we were just experimenting, we were recording drums with one or two mics as opposed to ten mics that you might have in a proper studio. We also didn't know how to use half of the gear that we had bought, like the compressors. In some cases, I think we were over compressing stuff a lot and you can hear that in some places. But in a lot of places it gives the songs some kind of scrappy sonic personality that maybe they wouldn't have had if we'd known what we were doing. It was kind of a slow process. Because we were working in our own studio for 90% of the time, no one was cracking the whip and we weren't trying to crack out songs. We were working every day but it wasn't like we were stressing out about how long it was going to take us. It allowed us the flexibility to follow things even if they were fruitless, just to chase things into dark alleys and we didn't worry about that, because there was nothing to lose.
Aaron Dessner:I own a Victorian house in Brooklyn and there's an old decaying garage behind from the 30s or something. So, it's only 400 square feet. We hired an architect and it's weird, because it looks like a really crappy, decaying garage on the outside but on the inside it's a really cosy, nice, modern studio so that changed the way we worked. Because I could just wake up and go in there and really experiment as much as I wanted to, with no pressure... When you're in a real studio, a fancy studio, it's kind of like being in a fish bowl. This way we could just record ourselves and a lot of these songs started with ideas that might have been like a rough demo but actually in some cases they ended up making it onto the final album. There's this weird mix of spontanaeity and rough demos, and the really fine tuned, orchestarted, epic thing that we do. It ended up being a really good thing that we recorded it at home. While the album is big sounding, it's still kind of scrappy. So i think aesthetically it's charming. It's not like stadium rock, which it could have been had we done it in a hi-fi studio. So we're happy with it.
Do you listen to other records when you're writing and recording your own stuff or do you prefer to be shut off from other things?
MB: Not very much, unfortunately. People love records because it's somewhere very emotionally connected to and emotionally very awake but also they've escaped. It's different to watching a movie. Watching a movie, you're getting all the information but music you're sucked into it and absorbed by it but you're also very self aware and very much a part of it, and that's why music is so addictive and people love it so much and it becomes such a major part of their lives. That's always been the case with me. Being in a band, actually spending so much time with my headphones on and writing music, it's always made it hard to at the end of the day go put on another record. My head normally can't take anymore sound, at that point, after a day of working on a record or trying to write a song. So unfortunately being in a band has in many ways taken away one of my favourite things about life and I can't enjoy it the way I used to. I still find time to do that and I make sure of it. But the answer's no, I wasn't listening to any other records whilst making this.
I only got the record this morning so I've not had much chance to listen to it. But on the few listens I've had, it seems to be more reminiscent of Alligator than anything else.
MB: It's less like Boxer than... it has catharsis, it has release. Boxer had a lot of tension that was never released. This record is uglier than that, and gets louder and explodes a little more. So it has certain things that Boxer didn't and that was on purpose that Boxer didn't have that stuff. Is it like Alligator? In some ways. It's also our most musically complicated and developed record, I think. Some of the songs may sound very home made and lo-fi but what's happening in them is the most sophisticated arrangements... sophisticated is a weird word to use.. but more adventurous arrangements. We worked a meticulous weaving of flutes and strings and clarinets into there along with ugly, distorted, mushy-sounding guitars and drums recorded with one microphone and stuff like that. So we've woven together some very lo-fi things and ugly sounds with some very delicate chamber music and arrangements and stuff. So I would say it's different to Alligator and more like Boxer at least on a level of musical academically... interesting things, maybe. But much more so than even Boxer. It's got sides of both. It's the child of both of those records, maybe.
AD: It's a weird mix of Boxer and Alligator and other things. I think it's new in the sense that Matt is singing out a lot more than he ever has, and he's singing at the top of his range. Musically, it is more cathartic like Alligator - whereas Boxer's more restrained. I think it's kind of more of an experimental record although we're mostly interested in songwriting not production or experimenting for the sake of experimenting. But there it's not as normative, or as straightforward as Alligator is. So in that sense I don't think it's like Alligator. This record has a blurrier, weirder sound but it is similar in the sense that it rocks a lot, and musically at times is intense. So yeah, it's more like Alligator than Boxer. But I think the most important thing for us is that we don't repeat ourselves, so that's the main thing you think about when you're making records. Cos we did write a lot of songs that sounded like they could be amazing songs but they kind of sounded like something we'd done before. I think we're not a band that can get away with that. At least, we can't feel good about it. We could easily write songs like ones we've already written. It wouldn't be that hard, I don't think. But what's the point?
When you were recording, do you have a conscious idea of how you want the songs to sound or is it more of a spontaneous thing?
MB: I think it's a lot of exploring. There's one thing I was saying to Aaron and Bryce that I want to avoid finger-picking. I wanted it to sound like loose walls or hot tar. It should sound less delicate and more fuzzy and woofy. Whatever those words mean sonically, I think we did have some ideas and were chasing some of those abstract concepts and ideas but it takes a lot of trial and error to get sounds that excite us so we often don't know what a song is going to sound like at all and we don't have a very clear idea. It's just a lot of walking into dark rooms and feeling around until we find something.
It sounds more confident than your other records...
MB: We knew that following up Alligator was a tough thing. It was the first record that anybody on a whole other level paid any attention to and it seemed like the thing they were paying attention to the most were the screaming songs like 'Mr November' and 'Abel'. So following that up was tough, because we purposely didn't want to paint ourselves into a corner by doing more of that and being the band with the guy who screams his head off. We didn't want to be that band because there's more to it than that. So Boxer was a lot of anxiety to follow up Alligator and to do it in a way that was going to release us from any kind of expectations. And that paid off. The fact that it paid off and Boxer did well, sold a lot more. You know, people have debates over which album is better, so to at least prove that we could avoid what we'd done in the past and still connect with a great record... So we knew that's all we had to do this time. Just make something awesome. We didn't know what that was going to be or what people were hoping or expecting for, or what trends were going on musically in indie rock - we knew none of that would ever helps us make a record so we didn't. It was all just about making ourselves really excited and finding songs that we loved and we thought were awesome was really all we had to worry about. That's all we did worry about it.
AD: Yeah, I think we're more confident, we're more capable with our tools, whether it's playing instruments or pre-determining songs or Matt, lyrically. I think these are the best lyrics he's ever written and the best melodies he's written. We've continued to get better. It might take a second for people to... we're a weird band. We don't have casual fans. Either they're really obsessive or they don't give a shit. So, whenever you love something and people were so attached to Alligator and they did become so attached to Boxer. At first when they hear this record they might not know what to think but I'm pretty sure it's a big step forward. I think it has to do with confidence and working really hard and not repeating ourselves and having a studio where we could just experiment and just basically try everything. We actually tried everything. Literally, if you can imagine a drum beat on a song that's not there, we probably tried it. We literally would do that, or for like a guitar part or something. Between all of us, especially my brother and I, we're busybodies so we just work all the time and we can't stop. There's this weird chemistry between us and it's like back and forth “you try that”, “I'll try this” until it works. So I think that ends up being a good thing.
Do you have a favourite song or moment on the record?
AD: The way we make records, it's like they have to satisfy us across the... we're really an albums band. It's not about singles or anything. So I don't really have any favourite moments, except obviously I have moments on every song that I love. The song 'Little Faith' to me was a big accomplishment because it's really different to anything we've ever done before. Musically and vocally, I think it's amazing. Just the feeling of that song and the textures and the kind of like... everything about it I think is really interesting and different to what we've done before. Definitely that one excites me. But I would say that about many songs.
'Bloodbuzz Ohio' is an older song compared to the rest of the album...
MB: Yeah, that's one of the earlier songs we wrote. What's cool about that one is the drums are just slamming. It's almost like the slamming song, but I'm singing in almost a whisper. It's a very mellow vocal thing. And actually I think the whole song was very mellow and I was singing to a version of the song that was written on ukulele, I believe, and it was almost this delicate, folky thing. Then, Aaron and Bryan took it and turned it into this aggressive rock monster. Again, I started singing aggressively and when I started singing to what was happening with the drums and the guitars after they turned it up and made it this really muscular thing, it lost it's personality. So then, now the fact that I'm whispering and other things are hitting you over the head a little bit is what creates the weird magic in that one.
What it's about... I think it's a little bit about missing my past or all of us feeling disconnected from the past or our youth. Or Ohio, maybe. I don't know if it's so geographically specific, really. Missing Cincinatti, the town. Maybe. But it's also about being taken back to part of your past that you loved but you feel like you've lost.
Where did the title High Violet come from?
MB: I think the idea was to have a title that people would not know what this record was going to sound like. I think if we'd had a one word title or a one word title that began with the letter 'C', people were speculating and it would have been obvious and unnecessary so the idea was to confound expectations a little bit. The title doesn't mean anything really but it also seems like it could mean a lot of stuff. After we'd called the record High Violet suddenly it did start to have all these meanings. I listen to it now and it's like “Oh, that's what it is”. It's this weird, abstract mood or it's a state of mind. Or we have these colour coded terror threat levels. There's like orange... I think you guys might use the same colour code system... but now I hear that, this fake made up terror alert level. Or the US is the red states and blue states and there's this unbelievable tension between those two and High Violet's somewhere between that. So it's started to have all these different meanings. Sometimes when you put words together they just start to create chemical reactions and spit off all these things that you didn't expect, and that's usually a good title.
In the industry nowadays, bands are picked up and signed etc before they've barely formed and aren't really given time to develop. You've had a lot of space and time to grow without ridiculous amounts of media hype, though. Do you think the devotion you inspire in your fans is a direct consequence of that?
MB: I think that our records - and we've been told this so it must be true - are growers and they take a while for people to connect to. It was never on purpose but it makes sense to us because the songs that end up on our records are the songs that aren't always the most accessible and instant, and took us a while to feel connected too and the ones that have lasted for us. So the fact that the songs that are on the records are the ones that, after working on a record for months and months, sometimes a year/year and a half, we feel really personally connected to the ones that make it on to the record that's why it makes sense that there's this progression in the relationship people have to our songs. By not getting any attention for a long time has allowed us to not take for granted how hard it is to get any to pay attention or care about your music. You got to put the work in, you've got to have great music. You've got to work hard and not put out a record until it's something awesome and so we really respect that and value that, and not squander that. We do know how easy and how quickly you can get a lot of attention and how quickly that attention just disappears. We've always been a little terrified of every little bit of attention we've gotten, even before Alligator. We were so afraid of losing it. In some ways, we felt like we had something to prove and we wanted to put our stake in the ground. But we've been hungry and we've stayed hungry for a long time because we never exploded. So now we're getting a lot of attention, there's something about just realising how much you've got to value that and it's not something that you can count on so you've got to deliver.
AD: I think it could have gone the other way and maybe that would have been good but I do think one of the reasons why we're where we are today - which is a lucky place to be which is we're more of a back alley whisper kind of band and we're quite a big band now - is because we earned it, one fan at a time. We had supporters. We've always had supporters, pretty vocal ones in different countries and stuff that have come out and said... now, it's becoming more like we have media coverage but we never really... at the end of Alligator we were on Jools Holland which helped, or Uncut said Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers was brilliant. We've had our isolated little supporters but by and large we haven't benefitted from media and we haven't been a trendy band that's blown up, and I think that's meant that we've had to work really hard and that we didn't suffer from over-exposure. We've been allowed to grow at our own pace and there's a lot of depth... Like, when you come to see the National play, we don't just play the hit single and then people leave. I don't know what we would do if we were that kind of band that had those fans who knew something from the radio. We're a band that makes albums and when we play live it's like a whole experience and for us to enjoy it, I think it's important for us to have that kind of relationship with the fans where it's kind of intense. It feels like we're all in this experience together when we play shows and every song on the playlist matters, in a weird way. It's not just about a few songs. So I'm thankful for that.
Sometimes we say “Oh, I wish our records were more immediate” or something but it's not that they're not catchy. It's just that they have many layers that unfold over time. So it just takes a second for people to figure it out. And we don't make obvious choices sometimes, I guess, because we get sick of those. I hope people don't say that this one's a grower but it seems like people just like saying that about us. They are catchy! The beat's good, the lyrics are catchy, the music's beautiful. It's not that hard to like! But everyone's like “It's a grower”. Is that because it doesn't sound like Arctic Monkeys or something, or what?! Mainly the grower term comes from England. I think it's like English rock might be more catchier or immediate. Like, the things that get really big here. Although then you have Radiohead who aren't that easy... hopefully now people will stop saying that.
What sort of situation are you in in America? Have you got the same level of popularity over there as you do here?
AD: It used to be that we were more popular in Europe and then with Boxer, America kind of like surged past. It's all pretty similar now, though. We have a weird thing where wherever we go, we play similar sized places and it's easy for us to sell them out, and we seem to have an audience whether it spreads by word of mouth or whether they actually buy records. Certain countries, everybody knows all the words but we don't sell any records, y'know? That's fine but I think we've grown a lot everywhere. Boxer was the moment for that, that was the one that really broke through.
How are you feeling about playing the Royal Albert Hall? That's a pretty big deal
AD: Yeah! I've seen Don't Look Back like a hundred times so... it's a weird feeling to actually be in a situation where you going to play this iconic place that's massive and massively beautiful. It's definitely a moment for the band to kind of take it in and I think we will. We'll definitely be like “...woah”. I think the fact that it sold out so quickly is... I didn't believe it. I accused our manager of allowing computer scalpers to seize all the tickets to screw fans over. I woke up on the day it went on sale and both Radio City [in New York] and Royal Albert Hall were gone, or tickets were basically gone, and those are huge places. So I was like “This is a conspiracy!” It was before we'd announced the album or anything so it just made no sense. There was nothing on the radio, there was nothing out there. But then that wasn't actually the case, it was actually just people... although I do think there's some funny stuff that goes on here with the second party sites. That's why we added the extra show at the Electric Ballroom and we tipped fans off to it. Cos there were so many really supportive people that didn't have a shot, so that really sucked. Like, some computers getting the tickets and them appearing right away for five times the amount so real fans can't come. That was a big bummer because we wanted to do a really special show with the new material - which we will still do - but we just wanted to make sure that the people who really want to see us can get to see us.
What are your plans for the rest of the year? I'm guessing there'll be a nationwide tour in support of the album at some point?
AD: We're playing Latitude and Glastonbury and I think the iTunes festival... I don't really know what that is. It'll be a busy year though. We're going to play over here in November as well, probably do Brixton a couple of times.
High Violet is out now on 4AD