Mike Mantin 28/04/2007
The National's magnificent 2005 album 'Alligator' was a staple of critics' best-of-the-year lists, having taken the year for its subtle melodies and incredible lyrics to really impact. We talked to bassist Aaron Dessner about how their new album 'Boxer', out May 22nd, looks set to do exactly the same.
How are you and what are you doing today?
We're in a hotel in Bloomsbury near the Astoria in London, a bit hungover…
What did you do last night?
We hung out with people from [record label] Beggars and did an XFM session with John Kennedy
The new album 'Boxer' is out soon. How long did it take to record?
The whole process took 13 months but we only recorded for 5 months, the rest was arranging and writing. We started recording in June and finished in February but the whole process took about a year.
The situation when writing it must have been different considering the amount of attention 'Alligator' received. How much did this affect the process of writing and recording the album? Did you feel under any pressure to deliver a follow-up?
I don't think we felt pressure from outside. We're a very collaborative band, so we can't really worry about the outside world, there would be no way for us to endeavour to write an album that would compete with 'Alligator', that's the way it is, we're happy with it, we feel it's different and better than anything we've done before.
But do you feel there's a sense of continuity between the two records?
Yeah, it makes sense that it goes from 'Alligator' but this process shows the band getting better at its craft, we're glad we didn't make Alligator 2.
Many people called 'Alligator' a 'grower'. A lot of the tracks on 'Boxer', I think, are very subtle and layered, with the listener noticing new things each time. Do you think this one will be described as a 'grower' as well?
I think the kind of songs that we write, Matt [Berninger, lead singer] especially, try to avoid obvious hooks. Sometimes Matt's sense of melody is subtle but it creeps up on you, some of it's the natural chemistry of the band creeps up on you too. We arrange the songs on purpose to unfold, in the orchestral details you don't notice everything on the first listen, the songs expand, to be honest every record I love would be what I call a 'grower: it's not something that immediately hits me, it's albums that you live with and can come back to after months, the test of a great album is that you notice it over time.
Do you think that explains all the comparisons to people like Tom Waits?
Yeah, everyone loves him, Matt also loves Nick Cave and Dylan, we all share a lot of reference points
How do your songs come together? Do the rest of the band have a say in Matt's lyrics?
It's definitely his contribution to the band to write the lyrics, but it's back and forth. He gives us a lot of feedback about the music and influences the direction it takes. If there's something that rubs us the wrong way we'll tell him, if he does something we don't feel that strongly about we'll tell him or he'll figure it out on his own, there's also lyrics he's written for another song that we'll use, there are a few songs that are drawing on old sketches we used long ago.
Yeah, I noticed that, so the lyrical references to past songs are deliberate?
Yeah there's things like the '29 Years' [a song on The National's first album] reference, the way it appeared on our first album it was a recording that Matt had done on his own without 'proper' instrumentation. When we were writing the song 'Slow Show' we went through many variations with different lyrics and different parts and I think when I came up with the melody at the end which is like a coda, it felt like the song was taking a left turn, for some reason it came into my head to put those words against this melody, to reappear, it just clicked, he just went in and did it, we have accidents like that.
How did Sufjan Stevens and Marla Hansen [of My Brightest Diamond] end up on the record? Did you plan to include guest musicians?
I think we've always done that. We've had both of them play with us live, there's a lot of arrangements for them, my brother Bryce plays in Sufjan's band, he's an amazing musician. I do a lot of the piano playing on the album, but for a couple of songs we wanted someone who could be more expressive. At the end of 'Racing Like A Pro', that's Sufjan. In Marla we wanted to have a female voice. Sometimes if it's just Matt, we'll all sing as well, but it can be nice to break up and add voices. Marla's from near Ohio, we like her, she doesn't really sing out, it works with Matt's voice.
How do you feel about the record leaking?
It's inevitable, I think it's great 'cos people can form their own opinions of it rather than the media telling them. It's good but I hope people buy the album as well. I like owning the physical album, finding out what's inside the thing. But the way music is acquired is changing rapidly, I personally don't illegally download, partly 'cos I don't know how.
That's a nice attitude to have.
Yeah, in the fact they can check it out and then buy it there's a certain respect for the artists. If you can't support music by buying records, it's hard for people doing this to make a living.
According to your website you haven't played any shows since 2006, with the first batch of shows starting in May. Is this true?
Yeah that's true, we haven't played since October 2006. Our first shows are in May with the Arcade Fire.
How did that come about?
They're friends. There were lots of festivals when we were with them. Richard Reed Perry is also in Belle Orchestre and has now become a very good friend of ours. When the European Arcade Fire showers were cancelled, he flew over here. It was then when Bryce heard we might be offered these shows. They loved 'Boxer', we gave it to them a while ago.
How much of the album will be incorporated into your live show?
I think a lot of it will be, maybe not all the songs but definitely 80% of them. I'm sure we'll play 'Alligator' tracks and maybe older stuff
Will your line-up be changing at all?
Not at the moment, at some point we may add someone to handle the wind parts but not for a while yet.
You seem to be good at picking support slots both for your own shows and ones where you're supporting [The National booked a tour with a pre-fame Clap Your Hands Say Yeah just before they exploded] - who's supporting your forthcoming shows?
We're doing a few shows in New York, Sufjan has a band signed to his label called Shapes and Sizes, we're taking them out and we're taking out a band called Broken West and Talkdemonic, which is instrumental music from Portland. I think Annuals are supporting us at Astoria too.
Will you be doing the festival circuit?
It may actually be next summer that we do all the European ones, but we've got some planned.
You guys seem to be into making videos, with the website www.thenationalboxer.com, I'm also told you've finished the video for 'Mistaken For Strangers'…
Those little teasers are part of a project by a French filmmaker called Vincent Moon, he's making a film of which we were the subject, it's more of an art project with us in it. We like his aesthetics so that's why we agreed to the film. Matt's brother Tom made the 'Mistaken For Strangers' video mostly in Matt's apartment in Brooklyn, it's funny and charming, more like an anti-video.
On Americanmary.com there's an interesting video called Gator Around with references to the song City Middle. What's the story behind this?
We had a day off on tour between Florida and Atlanta, Georgia and there's this huge swamp called the Okefenokee swamp. We grew up outdoors in arural environment and I've always liked swamps, we just saw the turnoff for the Okefenokee swamp and rented a boat. We didn't realise just how many alligators we'd find there though.
Are you managing to find time to keep up with your label, Brassland?
Yeah I think were trying to keep up with Brassland. We're putting out an album by this Czech duo called Irena & Vojtech Havlovi. It's an instrumental record featuring a baroque predecessor to the cello. We're also putting out a new Clogs record, and hopefully a record by Doveman.
Thanks very much for your time.
Thank you for being interested.