The National: In the Studio

Dec 14, 2009 Web Exclusive
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After their 2006 album Alligator, it seemed as though Brooklyn-based The National had achieved breakout status. Almost a year later, The National released the stunning Boxer, and the band was suddenly ubiquitous, a popular and critical favorite. Adding to their incredible streak, band members Aaron and Bryce Dessner produced the Dark Was the Night compilation to benefit Red Hot. Matt Berninger's singularly recognizable baritone may be the first thing one notices about The National, but it's his searching lyrics that linger long after. Under the Radar talked with Matt to discuss the progress on the band's upcoming album.

I'd be hard pressed to put a name to it, but each of your albums has had a different feeling. Is this something you go into the studio with, or is this something that emerges during the recording process?

Matt Berninger: The only thing we talk about when starting a new record is that we don't want to repeat ourselves. Everybody agrees on that, but it's usually the last thing we agree on. As rough sketches start to come together everyone has different visions of where they should go. We start having a lot of abstract debates and say things like "this one should be like the opposite of jazz" or "I want it to sound like a peacock underwater." Sometimes this nonsense helps.

How would you describe the feeling of this latest work?

We have about 15 ideas right now that keep mutating so it's hard to tell what the record will turn into. I'm pretty sure it's going to be the best thing we've ever done but I don't enough perspective on it right now to describe the feeling. One song has an underwater peacock vibe.

Has any one song separated itself as one to build the whole LP around? If so, how did it come about?

There are three sketches right now that have emerged as cornerstones of this thing. (Not the ones we've played live a few times.) They have something weird and different about them, like those people in a crowded room that you can't stop looking over at. They seem taller than everybody else.

How has your recording process matured over the years? Are you doing anything differently this time around?

I don't know if we've matured much but we are doing a lot of things differently. The biggest change is that we're recording in our own space. We converted Aaron's garage into a mini-studio. It's made the writing process more relaxed and allowed us to record everything all the time. In the past we've had little lo-fi demos that we loved but couldn't reproduce in a studio. This time we're capturing everything.

Has the amazing job all of you, but Aaron and Bryce in particular, did with Dark was the Night influenced your work with The National?

I don't know. It was a great project and we met a lot of amazing people but I don't know if it's had any specific influence on what we're doing musically. The new record won't sound much like "So Far Around the Bend"

Are you influenced by other art forms, like books, art, or films? Anything in particular that's been on your mind in the studio for these sessions?

Both Alligator and Boxer were influenced to some degree by various movies or writers, but that doesn't seem to be happening this time. It hasn't been a conscious decision; this one just seems to be happening on its own.

As your profile and reach have expanded, do you feel more pressure to continue that success? How do you keep those pressures from affecting the art and what you set out to do with it?

We're always drowning in anxiety and pressure when making a new record but I don't think it comes from a fear of bad reviews or losing any level of success. We figure if we make something we really love then other people will probably like it too. The hard part is making something we love. We write a lot of songs and work very hard on them but sometimes they just aren't very good. Our biggest fear is losing the ability to tell the difference between our good songs and our bad ones.

The National put a lot of energy behind the Obama campaign. You've never been known as a sunny band, but surely that experience must have left you giddylife seems to be going well for you. Are we going to hear some of this optimism reflected in the music? 

We are optimistic but I don't know if it's going to be reflected in the music. It's almost more frustrating now that Obama is in charge but still can't quite make any of the real changes we need.

Any thoughts on how the presidency has gone so far?

I wish he would stop playing nice. He won the election. I'm waiting for him to throw a punch.

Is there a target date for release?

We're shooting for mid May.

www.americanmary.com



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