The National on “Sleep Well Beast”

What We Learn When We're Apart

Sep 08, 2017 Issue #61 - Grizzly Bear Photography by Graham Macindoe Bookmark and Share


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The members of The NationalMatt Berninger, Aaron and Bryce Dessner, and Scott and Bryan Devendorfhave all reached that enviable point in their careers where the band they started as young men is no longer the all-consuming focal point of their lives. Living thousands of miles apart from one another, they're married, raising children, and generally just enjoying the opportunities their early tenacity has paid off, among them a multitude of musical collaborations and explorations outside anything related to The National.

While such projects have been part of the group's DNA for some time, Berninger says "After Trouble Will Find Meand I would say even before Trouble Will Find Meall of us in The National started to unwind some of our anxieties and resentment about each other and everybody's creative tug-of-wars," leading to a varied and fruitful output of material over the last few years developed both separately and with each other.

In 2015 Berninger teamed up with Menomena and Ramona Falls' Brent Knopf to form the offbeat duo EL VY, releasing their debut album Return to the Moon. Brothers Scott and Bryan Devendorf meanwhile launched their own side-project, LNZNDRF, releasing two heavily improvised albums. When not continuing his curation of popular festivals like Eaux Claires, Funkhaus, and Boston Calling, Aaron Dessner could be found producing the latest albums by artists like Frightened Rabbit and Lisa Hannigan. His brother Bryce, perhaps the most prolific of the group, composed a ballet, co-composed the score to the Oscar-winning film The Revenant, and even teamed up with Sufjan Stevens and Nico Muhly on a song cycle called Planetarium. As if this all weren't enough Aaron and Bryce co-curated Day of the Dead, a massive tribute compilation celebrating the music of The Grateful Dead. Aaron and both Devendorf brothers even joined Dead founder Bob Weir on tour when he released his latest solo album, Blue Mountain, last year.

All of these interim tangents have inevitably led to Sleep Well Beast, The National's seventh full-length record. A work that was both quietly and obtrusively affected by the members' respective paths and experiences in the wake of their last album, Sleep Well Beast maintains the band's elegant sense of darkness, while at the same time highlighting a new willingness to veer from their established songcraft.

Over the phone and via email, in conversations spread across the country and over an ocean, each member of the band reflected on the things they carried back with them.

Matt Berninger: "I do think the experiences that we had prior probably colored this record with respect that nobody was worried. Nobody felt like there were any rules or confinements where it was like, 'Well this is The National so we have to stick to a certain kind of palette or something.' Everybody was just naturally scratching itches that they wanted to scratch and when we came back to work and focused on this record it was like everyone was in that same mood of, 'Everyone should try everything and nobody should feel territorial about ideas or ego.'"

Bryce Dessner: "What happened on this record, which was great, was that everybody kind of opened the windows and tried new things."

Scott Devendorft: "We're very good at being uptight in The National. The way that people interpret it, it is kind of tense and angsty. Over time I think it's mellowed, but I think also that's part of the whole band getting older and just all the experiences that we've had together and separately."

Bryce Dessner: "Matt definitely brought a keener contribution to the music itself. In the past he would give us feedback that was more abstract or general, but this time he was more direct. At times it got kind of intense because of that but I think the end product is actually really good because he was really engaged I think."

Matt Berninger: "I used to consciously think about and try to figure out what kind a singer I am. I stopped thinking about that."

Scott Devendorf: "There's definitely some musical things that [Bryan and I] took away from [LNZNDRF] as far as playing different instruments and the type of way that we played them and so forth. We definitely brought them into the process for The National."

Bryan Devendorf: "I feel like with LNZNDRF and the Weir projects, that provided a reason to kind of try things outside my comfort zone. I'm trying to avoid the 'J' word-jamming."

Scott Devendorf: "I think the kind of open-ended, you-don't-have-to-make-a-concise, three-minute-thing-all-the-time mentality was one thing that came out of that. All that LNZNDRF stuff were 15, 20 minutes things that we edited down to seven or eight minute tracks. They were a bit sprawling and I think that spirit we both kind of took into this [new album]. The song doesn't have to end. It doesn't to stop on a dime. It could be this fluid soundscape kind of thing for a while."

Bryan Devendorf: "Bob [Weir] had some great advice. It sounds very cliché but he was talking about how when you're playing live you tend to speed up or thinking about this or that, and he was like, 'Honestly, just take a deep breath. It sounds lame but it works.' And he's totally right. If you just take a deep breath in the midst of a performance or a take in the studio, I felt a niceand again I hate these wordsreset. And with Weir, you realize he's been doing this for so long. He's seen it all, and you realize how insignificant what you're doing is in the view of everything that happens, and so you realize nothing really matters, and I think that freedom to create and just breathe and not even worry sort of infected what we were doing. Like, 'You know what? We'll just do what we do. If it's not right it's not right. It doesn't matter.' I don't know, this time I feel like we were very lucky to just wait. We were able to do multiple versions of the same song. Matt was really able to take his time. I think we were able to luxuriate in the studio and in our musicianship I guess."  

Bryce Dessner: "I'm maybe a little different in that because my background is in classical music and I've always been doing that pretty seriously and it's different enough...if I'm doing something outside of the band it's usually pretty out-there instrumental music.... My role in the band has always been the subversive one, bringing in elements that maybe don't necessarily fit.... My interest in more avant garde, experimental stuff has always in a way been separate. You would hear a subtle orchestral shading on past records, whereas on this one for various reasons it came in more direct ways in some of the songwriting and some of the strange elements that are in there. They kind of translated in more organic ways." 

Aaron Dessner: "Making a record with The National is always a difficult mountain climb with stops and starts and pitfalls of all sorts. So when there's space and time to do something else between records and get my head into other music, whether that's producing a record or just improvising and making songs with friends, I feel there's growth and learning that filters back into my work with the band. This time a lot of the formative experiences were collaborative ones at Eaux Claires or the Funkhaus in Berlinbasically putting myself in situations where I'm helping someone else realize their aspirations, or flying by the seat of my pants playing music I don't know beforehand, or diving into someone else's musical world.... All these experiences have filtered into Sleep Well Beast in some way. I sampled Lisa Hannigan's voice and it forms a texture in many songs, for example. And we went to Berlin multiple times to process audio with [German electronic duo] Mouse on Mars. All of this comes from friendship and community and just making music together and I think this album feels genuinely more adventurous because we had more time to experiment and travel with these songs."

Bryce Dessner: "Every time we [start a new record] I think we all feel like, 'Are we really going to do this?' A band's a funny thing. It's like, 'How long can it really last?' I think we've outlasted a lot of bands because we're family and those ties that bind us are stronger than even the music. Some days we might take it for granted but if it ever disappeared we'd really, really miss it. Part of it, it's ephemeral. We realize it's this chemistry that exists between us, and we try to appreciate that."

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's Summer 2017 Issue (July/August/September 2017), which is out now. This is its debut online and is a slightly extended version of the article.]

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