The National on Balancing Life and Art

Hudson Valley Hidaway

May 25, 2018 Photography by Graham MacIndoe Issue #63 - Courtney Barnett
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One hundred and twenty miles north of New York City, Hudson, NY, sits quietly alongside the river with which it shares its name. Established in the late 1700s by merchants from Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard who needed an inland port for their whaling ships, the historic upstate locale has endured its equal share of anonymity and notoriety over the decades, at one point serving as a haven in the early 20th century for all manner of vice, including gambling, bootlegging, and an infamous red-light district. Today, the city's sloped, downtown avenues are littered with antique and vintage clothing shops, boutiques, and art galleriesmaking it an increasingly popular retreat destination for weekend travelers coming from the five boroughs.

It's here, at a former industrial glue factory turned arts center called the Basilica, that The National decided to properly introduce their seventh album, Sleep Well Beast, with two nights of live performances. Attended by family, friends, industry insiders, journalists, competition winners, and fans lucky enough to purchase tickets fast enough, the band's self-described Guilty Party (named after one of the new record's standout tracks), saw singer/lyricist Matt Berninger, guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner, bassist Scott Devendorf, and drummer Bryan Devendorf, debuting the entire album live in the round.

While the unfamiliar would likely question the band's rationale for hosting such a high-profile and unique concert celebration in such a quaint municipality off the beaten path, the small town of Hudson holds a particularly special place in the minds of The National and the development of their new record. For the past several years, Aaron Dessner has made Hudson his home, living just a short, 15-minute drive out of town. The newest feature of his rural property: the lovingly constructed studio where Sleep Well Beast was recorded.

The morning of their first Guilty Party concert, sitting in the backroom bar of a former movie-theater-turned-hotel called the Rivertown Lodge, the band can't help but state the importance of having this new base of operations and what it did for them. "We got to a place where we all like our band again," says Aaron. Adds Bryce, "We made the songs we wanted to make, as opposed to songs we could make."

The Dessner twins first became acquainted with the appeal of the Hudson River Valley growing up together. "When we were kids we were obsessed with Washington Irving, Sleepy Hollow, Rip Van Winkle, and all those stories that took place around here and we used to come up with our parents," says Aaron. "Bryce got a place near Woodstock a number of years ago and then when I had kids I just decided to move to the countryside."

Leading up to the work on Sleep Well Beast Aaron began brainstorming the potential of building his own recording studio. "We had a studio in Brooklyn but we had a lot of ideas about if we were going to make a new studio, what it would be like," he says. "Early on in the writing process Bryce and I had been working in these churches up here, one in Hudson and one in Woodstockthese mid-19th century churchesso when we decided to build something, there was a barn on my property that we took down and built on the foundation."

Described by Bryce as a "weird church cabin" (and prominently pictured on the album cover of Sleep Well Beast), the studio is dominated by its open floor plan, an intentional design so that everyone can be plugged in and recording at any time without the separation of a control room. Add the fact that a number of windows provide some pacifying views of the surrounding landscape, the space instills a sense of being unbound. And yet for all of its aesthetically pleasing attributes, the studio's biggest importance lies in the mere fact that it enabled The National to really work together creatively in the same space at the same time. "This studiobuilding itit was the first time in many years that gave us a reason to hang out," says Aaron.

For over a decade, as a means of working around all five members' respective schedules, dispersed geography, families, respective side-projects, and to mitigate the general contentiousness that inevitably arises when five people with strong opinions work together, the band had developed a system of making their records. Aaron and Bryce would individually work out song sketches and demos and remotely send them on to Berninger, where he would then parse and dissect the material for melodies and lyrical inspiration and then send back his additions, alterations, iterations, and rejections. Parts would be laid down, many times with a portion of the band together communicating with the others remotely via phone or email. More parts would be shared, layers added or stripped away, eventually narrowing each song to a final product.

While the early stages of Sleep Well Beast still hued to this template, things took a significant turn when the five members gathered together in Hudson and forced themselves to try something different. Without a timetable as to even when they would even finish and minimal distraction ("There were no strangers around," says Bryan. "There were no random employees of a studio wandering in and out. It was either family or band."), The National embraced relentless stretches of trial and error, oftentimes spending entire parts of the day chasing a single idea thought up by one of them. One particular instance Bryce remembers a marathon session with Berninger, "a 13-hour day where he was singing melodies at me that he was trying to get me to play. I was kind of humoring him, but it led basically to the main hook of 'Dark Side of the Gym.' It was an interesting experiment." Having the opportunity to really dial in sounds, the band would also without blinking an eye often re-record an entire song in a different key or with a change in tempo. "I feel like things were more tangible," says Scott. "We were doing everything on the spot. There was a continuity."

Sleep Well Beast is still unmistakably a National record (one that would eventually earn the band its first Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album). It still wears its piano ballads like "Nobody Else Will Be There" or "Born to Beg" like an oversized coat in the dead of winter. Bryan's drumming still anchors the band's rhythm with incisive precision. But there are also new things. There are honest to God guitar solos ("The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness," "Turtleneck"). Some of the more subversive, avant-garde tendencies of Bryce's work in composition inch their way to forefront ("Sleep Well Beast"). The band also makes calculated use of new electronic toys and gizmos, implementing drum machines, sequencers, and samplers ("Walk It Back," "I'll Still Destroy You") to their palette. Sonically, it is one of the band's most well constructed storm clouds, full of foreboding and fits of violence.

Lyrically, Berninger was experimenting in his own way, infusing his usual stream-of-conscious imagery of anxiety with a bit more veracity. With his wife Carin Besser serving as his co-writer (who has been doing so since Boxer), Berninger says, "It's me just trying to figure how to do shit right: parenthood, marriage, friendships. When I look at Sleep Well Beast as a thing, it is a really good collection of a lot of the interconnected desires, fears, hopes, and things that was going through this recent four-year period. I have never run out of things that I felt worth untangling in a song. It's all still there. It's not like this record was trying specifically to get at one thing more than all the others, [but] I do think it's more direct. I think it's more intimate. And I think it's more effective at capturing some of the abstract stuff than we've done."

For so many of The National's records it's been easy to simplify Berninger's baritone utterances as ornamental paperweights for the sophisticatedly lovelorn. But on Sleep Well Beast Berninger taps into a different kind of heaviness, one that sits on your chest when you find yourself lying in bed, staring at the ceiling while the person you love sleeps unknowingly beside you. Berninger captures what it's like to be a grown up, what happens when that passion, uncertainty, and insecurity of youth yields to a committed relationship, kids, responsibilityand even more uncertainty and insecurity.

Having been a band as long as The National has been, and with so many external factors pulling their attention elsewhere, all five members were in need of some form of reset. Sharing the same space the way they did, the members of the band were able to experience what can happen when you confront even the most familiar people in your life in new ways. "The thing with a collaborative band, there's these very tenuous, fragile relationships, even more fragile than a romantic relationship," says Aaron. "It's a beautiful thing when it worksthe alchemy of people coming together. There's so many things that led us back to this place, including nearly the end of the band. We've nearly broken up many times. Not where we would be sitting together to talk about stopping the band, but just personal things or creative things. Actually reaching this point was a combination of everyone being determined and having this new home where we could do it, having learned a lot and just pushing the process of how we were making music, how we were collaborating. All these things came together in a moment where in the past that wouldn't have been possible."

Berninger expands on this sentiment: "The reasons why bands break upit's not because people hate each other. It's just that it can be an all or nothing kind of lifestyle. It's like if you're going to be a rock and roll band you have to do thatand it's hard. You have to make choices and compromises, and everybody gets mad at each other when not everybody's lives are aligning the same way. But when I'm not with the band I'm feeling like, 'Okay, I'm doing my life right.' When I'm with the band I'm feeling, 'I'm doing my art right.' We're starting to find that healthy balance. That's why bands have a really hard time not imploding. There's so much emotionemotional exhaustion, physical exhaustion. How do you get all these people in the same place at the same time with such high stakes. It's really hard. We've been lucky we've been able to figure out the calculus so far."

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's Spring 2018 Issue (March/April/May 2018), which is out now. This is its debut online.]







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Sarvan Kumar
May 26th 2018

The philosophy of this article is excellent and one of the top-notch thinking skill. I really like it

Liza Brown
June 11th 2018

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