Interview

Processing The Darkness: The National On Their Adventurous New Album And The State Of The World

Residents of Hudson, NY have a way of noticing outsiders. It’s a small town, so that’s reasonable enough, but they always seem to know when someone’s wandered up the river from New York City for a weekend. It takes them approximately two sentences to guess. Maybe because there are always city-dwellers fleeing up two hours of Amtrak rails to get a bit of idyllic escape in Hudson, or maybe it’s because we cityfolk may or may not have the tendency to walk down the town’s main drag marveling at the beautifully quaint buildings, astonished that there’s actually a sensible pace to life this close to the urban center. On a mercifully autumnal weekend misplaced in the middle of July, there’s a different angle to the conversations, though. “Ah, are you here for the National thing?” they ask me, again and again.

Just as Brooklyn was once central to the National’s identity, Upstate has become a new gathering place for them. Aaron and Bryce Dessner, the twin brother guitarists of the group, both own houses up here. Since their last album, 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, Aaron has sold his house/backyard studio in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn — once the place where he made all his records as a producer, as well as where the National would often work — and built a new one not far from Hudson. The occasion of this weekend is specific, though: The band announced two nights at Basilica Hudson, a reclaimed factory right near the river that’s been turned into a venue/arts space, and which also serves as the site of the experimental-leaning mini-fest Basilica SoundScape. These are intimate, unique shows, featuring eclectic lineups of artists they like and/or have collaborated with, and where they’ll play their forthcoming album Sleep Well Beast in full, though that part was unannounced prior to the shows themselves.

In the hours preceding their takeover of Basilica, the National have first taken over the River Town Lodge, a hotel in Hudson where the marquee-style entrance gives away its roots as an old movie theater from the first half of the 20th century. The band and its crew mill around inside and outside, looking conspicuously “I work in music” amidst Hudson’s cozy small-town context. The Dessner twins move as a unit, as they often seem to, while frontman Matt Berninger has decided to hold court at a table in the corner of the lobby’s backroom bar, flanked by Scott and Bryan Devendorf, bassist and drummer, respectively.

The National seem a little worn out. There are insinuations about a big night out last night, with a few of them just having arrived in town, the gang getting back together and all that. They’re all a bit bleary-eyed and disheveled; Berninger begins the interview with his eyelids half-drooped and talking around a beef empanada. But, as they start to dig into the story of making Sleep Well Beast, they all grow more animated.

The last time I spoke to the National, they were in a transitional phase, the liminal space between the end of one chapter and the early stages of another. There was, of course, their collective move toward diving deeper into other projects. Aaron continued to heighten his profile as a producer, working with lesser-known acts like Luluc, established artists like Frightened Rabbit, and massive names like Mumford & Sons alike. Bryce maintained his double life as a rock guitarist and as a respected, increasingly in-demand composer. Aside from serving as guiding hands for the National’s sprawling Grateful Dead tribute boxset Day Of The Dead, the Devendorf brothers also had their krautrock spinoff LNZNDRF, with Bryan also drumming in Pfarmers. Berninger stepped out into a full-fledged band aside from the National for the first time, releasing Return To The Moon with Menomena’s Brent Knopf under the name EL VY.

In the years since Trouble Will Find Me, the personal lives of the National’s individual members have changed significantly. Marriage and fatherhood became bigger factors. They all moved around, the band now living in farther-flung locations than at any other point in their existence. Getting older and taking on new responsibilities is one thing, but that issue of location can inherently alter how a band operates, how it creates. Far removed from their early days, all young(-ish) and figuring shit out in New York, Sleep Well Beast required them to congregate, to bring elements of their separate lives together into what turned into one of their most collaborative efforts to date. 

For Bryan, those inevitable life changes seeped into the tone of the album. To him, Sleep Well Beast has “an elegiac tone, nostalgic for the past,” perhaps rooted in how the years have seen each of their lives diverge from one another, but also inseparable from the climate in which it was written.

Given that they all live in different places, the National put the album together via a series of writing sessions in various locations. There were early sessions at Future-Past, a studio housed in an old church in Hudson, and at something called Earthstar Creation Center in Venice Beach, California, a spot Berninger describes as “This tiny little place behind a fence.” 

”The thing we really loved about it is it had a lot of erotic wood art,” he quips in his customarily matter-of-fact sardonic tone. “Lady wood. Vaginal driftwood stuff.” 

Though those early sessions were bountiful, little material the band worked on then wound up on Sleep Well Beast.

A more crucial stepping stone was when the Dessners holed up in a special residency in Berlin’s Funkhaus, a place Aaron describes as “a crazy complex of studios and theaters” that dates back to the 1950s and has recently been restored. Continuing in the spirit of what Aaron and Justin Vernon have often tried to bring to their Eaux Claires festival in Wisconsin, it was an open-door, improvisational residency driven by collaboration with dozens and dozens of artists coming in and contributing however they felt, culminating in an idiosyncratic, seemingly immersive performance. Though the National had already begun experimenting heavily in the studio, Aaron and Bryce pushed the limits further in Berlin, coming out of it with ideas for fairly straightforward new National songs like “Carin At The Liquor Store” but also significant left turns, like Sleep Well Beast’s title track.

“It was helpful for us,” Aaron tells me in a separate conversation in the River Town Lodge’s lobby, Bryce seated beside him. “Collecting experiments and audio processing happened there, and then we went back and edited through.” 



“It’s kind of like building a building within a building and then tearing down the outer building and then building another structure that looks like the first one, then tweaking the windows and removing the roof,” Bryce says of the compositional process. “We’ve done versions of that in the past, where we were imploding our process, but this was in deeper ways. We weren’t sacred about anything.”



Sleep Well Beast really cohered in stints at Aaron’s new studio Upstate, though. For a band that’s often been open about internal strife bordering on wanting to tear each other limb from limb, and for a band that plays songs cataloguing the darker corners of human anxieties and impulses, the whole scene sounds downright wholesome. The tranquility of the setting seemed to encourage a more peaceful recording process, the band gathering and spending weeks at a time together, working through the various ideas they’d brought from various places and sessions. 



“Often times the band would come and everybody else would get out and go to a coffee shop, and Matt would sometimes not leave the property for like, three weeks,” Aaron recalls. “He’s kind of a country boy. All you hear at night is coyotes.” 



“We all grew up in Ohio and up here is kind of a nice version…” Bryce ventures, before concluding, “The wilderness is much wilder.”

As the band members describe it, the cohesion wasn’t just derived from the setting, or from Aaron having built a studio custom-designed for the National to work in. Coming out of the tail end of the Trouble Will Find Me era, there was something in the air, a sense that all the band members figured whatever happened next would have to be different in some way, carve out some new territory, even if the impulse to experiment more wasn’t always a conscious one. So, then, the obvious question: Is that the end result with Sleep Well Beast?

***

The National’s new album is subdued, even by their standards. Anxiety runs through the entire thing, but very rarely crests into the brand of conflicted catharsis they’ve perfected over their last few albums. It opens quietly, with the hushed and beautiful “Nobody Else Will Be There” and mostly continues apace, with even the technically uptempo songs often coming across insular and restrained. More so than ever before, they’ve made an album that seems designed for solitary, nocturnal walks, the kind of music well-suited for tracing the paths of years past and what they yielded.



The moments where Sleep Well Beast starts to awaken are varied. There’s “Day I Die,” a song they’ve been playing for some time (and one that dates back to some of the album’s earliest sessions) that is an instant National anthem; it’s easy to imagine it sitting alongside “Don’t Swallow The Cap” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio” early in a live set. Lead single “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness” occupies a similar space, but continues trends from Trouble Will Find Me, moments where the band played with different rhythms and didn’t shy from poppy melodies. “Turtleneck” is one left turn amongst several on Sleep Well Beast, a caustic rocker where gnarled guitars and graveled screams from Berninger will remind fans of “Abel” or “Mr. November,” yet its closest precedent is really the brooding-then-scathing “Available” from 2003’s Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers.

That leaves “I’ll Still Destroy You,” perhaps the most stunning song on the album. It begins with a stuttering programmed beat and a persistent synth pulse that keeps flickering in the way streetlights pour through the window of a car for brief, rhythmic seconds when you’re driving down a highway at night. The song then mutates, becoming more organic, continuing from its spaced-out intro into more traditional National passages until it all flares out into an unraveling cascade of strings, fluttering guitars, and percussion.

One of the most surprising and evocative songs on Sleep Well Beast, “I’ll Still Destroy You” is also one of the more extreme examples of textural and structural experimentation that crops up all over the album. Drum programming and synths are prominent in a way this band has never explored; in the past, such elements were most often relegated to background embellishment or early sketches from the era when they were still finding their voice. Another preview of the album, “Guilty Party,” hinted at this new sonic framework that dominates the album, and it’s there on “Empire Line” and “Dark Side Of The Gym” and “Walk It Back,” the latter also allowed a wandering coda the likes of which the band would’ve rigorously edited out before (as they did for “Brainy” on Boxer). Some of these sound like National songs dressed up in a new context. Some sound truly adventurous for the group. Aside from “I’ll Still Destroy You,” the album’s closer, its title track, is most striking. Again, it’s a skittering beat and synths like gentle, distant sirens. It sounds like Leonard Cohen singing over a soft-focus interpretation of Amnesiac-era Radiohead before the song reaches its dissolution at the end, like the album is dissipating into dozens of little pieces, challenging you to trace each one as it drifts up into the air. 


“I think we felt very liberated, when I think about ‘Sleep Well Beast’ or ‘Walk It Back’ or ‘I’ll Still Destroy You,'” Aaron says. “When I think about some of the more ambitious songs sonically or structurally, there was never any fear or self-doubt. It was pure…I wouldn’t say joy, but just an embrace.”

Though the album spiritually and thematically feels claustrophobic and constrained in many moments, you can also hear that openness in the music. This wasn’t a situation where the band explicitly set out to write a record that sounded different for them. It came from one person playing around over here, then another thing there. Bryan would mess with beats through a Bluetooth speaker, then send them over to Aaron, who in the meantime spent a while traveling and writing on a tiny modular synthesizer. And while there’s a certain darkness — almost an emotional static — hanging over Sleep Well Beast, the album is defined by its clarity. 


“It’s less murky,” Berninger asserts. “A lot of that has to do with Aaron’s production, him trying things, and us knowing our records do sound a little bit like molasses in terms of sonic spectrums. I think there was an attempt to change some of [that].”

There’s also a realistic attitude behind why the album is the way it is. “It doesn’t read as really avant-garde to me,” Bryce says. “The songs are stronger to me — the songwriting itself, what Matt’s bringing. The way I see it is, we made the songs we wanted to make as opposed to the songs we could make, or managed to get across the finish line.” 


In fact, the very existence of Sleep Well Beast wasn’t a given. All those different sessions occurred over the span of something like two years, and the band came out of all of it with an unusual excess of material. Part of that goes back to something like the Future-Past session, in which the band all played in a room together to see what would happen. In 2015, Aaron played me sketches from around that time — they’re looser, jammier, and somewhat sunnier (as far as the National go) than what wound up on Sleep Well Beast. 

”A lot of those recordings had a certain magic to them,” Aaron says. “It was the first time that we actually managed to play in a room as a band and capture something that was really spare and I actually felt like, ‘Wow, I don’t want to change anything about this.'”

Two years ago, there’d been a whole different ethos in play. The band were toying with a phrase, “razor lemon,” much like they’d aimed for music that sounded like “hot tar” or “loose wool” on High Violet. As Berninger remembers it, they began looking back at bands like the Minutemen, formative artists from their youth. “For a while, we’d been looking for guitar tones that cut through the muck a little bit, brighter and tinnier,” he says. That would’ve been the “razor lemon” aesthetic, something harsher but catchier, as far as the examples I heard. 

Except for “Day I Die,” most of the material from these earlier sessions didn’t survive — as of yet, at least.

“What happened was…time passed,” Aaron explains. “Bryce and I started writing other things together and separately and experimenting. I think when Matt dove into writing, it was literally just whatever was on top of the heap.” None of this in of itself is entirely unique. Any artist might go through a few albums worth of sketches before finding their way to the one they want to put out into the world. But the band still seems excited about everything else they were working on since 2013, still hint that there’s a lot more material to cultivate than what appears on Sleep Well Beast.

“I think when we started bringing all the different things together, some of it felt thematically and sonically of a family, so we started grouping those,” Berninger says. “So Sleep Well Beast is one family, and these other songs…I don’t want to say much, because, I don’t know, we always have extra songs that we put on a shelf and never go back to.”

It makes sense that Berninger would be cautious about making any promises. Back when Trouble Will Find Me came out, the band had talked about wanting to release a sister album quickly on its heels; it’s four and a half years later, and we’re just now talking about a new National album. By Aaron’s estimation, they have more “strong, raw material” than usual, clearly enough for “another album of stuff.” Sleep Well Beast was, partially, just the material that was further along. 

”Some of our favorite music is not on this record, actually,” Aaron says. “But it’s kind of an interesting problem to have and we’re excited about that situation.” 



“We’ve never had this much,” Bryce adds. “In the past, it’s been clear that things were cast off.”

Regardless of what happens with the leftover material or how Sleep Well Beast became the National’s seventh album instead of its eighth, it’s a record that feels like it had to happen now, at this particular juncture in their career. Whether as epilogue, new beginning, or a transition to something else, it’s an album that feels outside of an arc preceding it, an arc that began with the solidification of the National on Alligator and closed with Trouble Will Find Me, the album that cemented their status at the top of the indie world. There are ways in which the album still sounds very much like the National. There are ways in which it sounds different, departed from the indie anthems that made their name and couching an older, wearier tone in cold, glitchy atmospherics.

As Bryan puts it: “Alligator to Trouble Will Find Me is like a series, and this seems like something new.”

***

Though it wasn’t any more intentional than their experimentation this time around, Sleep Well Beast arrives at the end of another arc, too. Boxer — the band’s landmark, breakthrough album — just turned 10 in May. That was, of course, the album with “Fake Empire.” The song written in the waning days of the Bush years with a pointed title. The song used on the first Obama campaign, partially responsible for raising the band’s profile and characterizing them as a politically minded band (despite predecessors like “Mr. November”). Of course, given the context in which the National completed and will release Sleep Well Beast, it’s an easy assumption that it would be their most political work yet, a darkened echo of “Fake Empire” 10 years later. 

When the idea of Sleep Well Beast being a political record first comes up, the band members tend to walk around it in some fashion.

“It’s totally a political record,” Berninger says. “But every record we’ve done is a political record.”

By the time Trump was elected, the band was already deep into the process of finishing the record. But it did stop them in their tracks, to some extent. Both Aaron and Bryce recall the mood the morning after, when everyone was working through their shock and disbelief. According to Aaron, it didn’t change the content of the record, exactly, but it maybe made them more impulsive. Sounds and songs that wouldn’t have made the record did. “Turtleneck,” which previously only existed as a demo, was revisited — not because of any overt inclination to write a loud, pissed-off song, but perhaps more as a form of some kind of primal-scream therapy.

“Waking up on November 9th, you had a choice to say something or not say something,” Bryce reflects. “To at least have some kind of deliberateness about your activity as an artist.”

For Berninger, it went further back. There has always been a core quality to the National’s music and to Berninger’s perspective as a writer, this sense of constant unease and tension in the air, waiting to break. They captured a certain post-9/11, recession-era disillusionment in many of their best songs. And though some things have gotten better over the years the National have been active as popular artists, there are some things that have gotten worse, that were left to rot and fester in the dark during what, in comparison to where we are now, feels like the halcyon days of Obama’s presidency.

“America, and the world, is very unhappy and very unhealthy,” Berninger argues. “For so long, I think there’s been a heaviness that’s hard to choke down. It’s not just since 9/11. It’s income equality and the suffering of the planet and the suffering of the people of the world.”

Photo: Jonah Rosenberg

This time, Berninger was caught in that tension, that moment before any actual release — that place of being drowned by everything that is going wrong in the world, to the point where it creates a kind of overwhelming haze. That’s where the idea behind the phrase “Sleep Well Beast” came from. Berninger came across stories of “resignation syndrome,” a condition afflicting refugee children in Sweden where they fall into a comatose-like state, often upon being told they’re losing asylum. The way Berninger interprets the phenomenon, it’s like people who have simply endured too much, where the series of traumas becomes so toxic and muddied and suffocating that a person simply shuts down. Tunes it all out. Gives up. 


Whether because of their political concerns or because of the way in which they’ve often characterized contemporary life, it’s the exact kind of subject matter that makes sense for the National’s music, both as literal topic and metaphor. To Berninger, it summed up the way everything felt in recent times. 

”That’s the place where a lot of [Sleep Well Beast] was written from,” he explains. “The emotional and mental landscape [of] not seeing any way out, not really seeing a pathway.” 


It’s an even bleaker update on the scene set 10 years ago in “Fake Empire.” Though that song became re-contextualized as a rallying cry through its use on that Obama campaign, it too was originally about disenchantment, about trying to disconnect from current events. It wasn’t a challenge. It was supposed to be a catalogue of world-weary defeat. Sleep Well Beast operates in a similar, clouded space, a space where your head is too fucked-up from all the fucked-up things happening in the world for life to feel normal, functional.

By and large, the fanfare climax of “Fake Empire” or the pulse of “Bloodbuzz Ohio” or the righteous anger of “Mr. November” are all distant, lost transmissions in the world of Sleep Well Beast. The way the title track fades apart at its conclusion is hard to read: It sounds like a corroded lullaby, welcoming everyone into that state of resignation with or without the promise that things will come back around again. In a more positive light, you could read it as quiet storm, the waking nightmare fits at the song’s conclusion suggesting that the circumstances underlying an album like this will lift and there’s a comeuppance on the horizon. While Sleep Well Beast doesn’t offer the same musical escapes as earlier National albums, that seems to be the takeaway the band intended, with several members arguing for the positivity and optimism they find within the album despite its beleaguered mood. 

Perhaps that comes from maintaining the drive to address these things head-on.

“Every record coming out, to me, is a political record,” Berninger says. “If you’re not addressing it, then you’re just selling Twinkies.” 



“I think self-involvement is going out of fashion,” Bryan adds. 



“If you’re not chewing on it in some way, then I don’t think you’re an artist,” Berninger continues, wide-eyed and hands up as if in an unspoken There, I said it. “You’re not a fucking artist. You’re just making product. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Everyone loves candy. They do. I love it, too.”



Since it’s early in the morning and that comes across like a harsh refute against many of his peers, Berninger is quick to clarify. Of course, it’s hard to grapple with the state of the world in your art. Of course, the National don’t always do it perfectly. But to him, it’s “all the same soup” — being a husband, being a father, being a son, being a citizen. It all jostles together on Sleep Well Beast, channeling the thing Berninger eventually locates as the single, real thing he thinks true artists need to wield in 2017: It’s honest emotionally, inclined to shrink away, to resign, from the outside world, but refusing to disappear entirely without confronting it.

“Some of this darkness now,” he says of the world around him, “We’re processing it.” 



***

The show at Basilica Hudson turns out to be a unique one. Dubbed “Guilty Party,” after their recent single, it has the quality of a party they decided to throw with a thousand close friends, up here in the country. Inside the old factory building, the mainstage is situated right in the middle of the room — a large circle, flanked by mini-stages in each corner of the room where artists who played earlier in the night might appear at key moments to provide string or percussion accompaniment to particular songs. The band remain gathered on the circular platform the entire time, bathed in a ring of blue lights hanging above, mostly facing inwards, at each other as the proceed through the entirety of Sleep Well Beast. 

This is not something they would’ve done in the past. As Bryce and Aaron recount, there was more fear in the past, even with more recent albums where it’d seem as if their stature was secured and they would be comfortable in what they were capable of achieving. But there are songs from recent albums they barely ever touched, or waited well into touring to approach. The sense of freedom in the studio extended here, however, with the band learning the entire album and presenting it from front to back, to an audience who had only heard two of the songs (or maybe four or five, if they were into scouring cellphone-shot concert footage on YouTube).

Predictably, songs like “Day I Die” and “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness” already sound like hits within the National’s canon. Experimental moments like “I’ll Still Destroy You” and “Sleep Well Beast” are even more curious live, where they morph more, spreading out and growing stranger but also finding their way into the common language the band can apply onstage to music from across their career. They perform the whole thing as it was made: They have their individual corners, barely crossing paths or interacting with each other, but the collective force of it all comes together, bottled up in that little arena they’ve set up for themselves. The whole thing has the feeling of an art show as much as a concert, particularly if you watch any of it from the big barn-esque doors leading to the outside yard. From out there, it feels like you’re looking into a film.

Happy endings are hard to come by in the world of the National, and half the time when they do materialize, they’re impermanent or illusory. At the end of the show, as Sleep Well Beast gives way to a quick run-through of National heavy-hitters, I’m reminded of a few conversations from earlier in the day. I think about Bryce, talking about how they changed their writing process, how he was burnt-out on how they had gone about it in the past and how he felt as if he had nothing left to offer under those circumstances. It sounded like an ultimatum. He talked about the old days, in Brooklyn, and the difficulty of everyone drifting elsewhere, of bringing them all back to the same place.



”It feels, on some level, like a band should,” Bryce says of the National now. “We feel more together than we have in years. Everybody feels some ownership of the music.” 



“I think we just actually enjoy being together for the first time in many years,” Aaron adds.


”It’s kind of a new beginning for the band. Or the end. Hard to say,” Bryce says, letting the last part hang. Happy endings being impermanent, and all. 

Seeing Sleep Well Beast played in its entirety live also drives home a point Berninger keeps returning to. When we talk about Sleep Well Beast being a positive record, the conversation veers into New Order, Nirvana, the Breeders, black metal. The bit about emotional honesty. Being political via a “strong creative voice” and not just trying to sell “party music.” Berninger and Bryan and Scott spend a few minutes dissecting New Order’s “Love Vigilantes” — a fun song by a fun band, no doubt. A dark song, too, the kind that can be happy or sad depending on what you bring to it, what you need from it.



”When Morrissey or Nirvana dig into all that depressing shit, you feel healthier afterwards, because you feel somebody else feels this negative, twisted shit,” Berninger argues. “Somebody else made a good hook out of that. I can feel like I was able to get some of that knot untangled just by singing along to that hook on repeat. You feel better.”



I’ve spent many, many hours listening to the National over the years. It wasn’t something I ever explicitly considered about their music. Sure, you think something is relatable. Sure, you think something is cathartic because it gets louder, noisier, more triumphant. But the idea that the specific part of digging into those darker moments, that this is where the catharsis is — that the band saying We all feel this way could be the political angle to Sleep Well Beast alone — was not how I thought about it. After the show, it makes sense. I know about the suffocating cloud Berninger is talking about in 2017. Everybody does. Hearing that set to music, first simmering on record then igniting live, it untangles the knot. Just a little bit. There is no clear-cut happy ending on Sleep Well Beast, no brass-lead parting of the skies. But there are hints of hope, little trails of humanity within a sinister fog.

This is Berninger’s manifesto on that morning in Hudson. “There’s no relief” in music that doesn’t acknowledge or engage with everything outside. “The world isn’t like that. It isn’t that fun,” he says. “But you can write a fun song, like ‘Love Vigilantes,’ that is about war and family and the things that matter. It’s a painful song, but at the end of it, you feel enlightened. Like…I’m still alive.”

//

Sleep Well Beast is out 9/8 via 4AD. Pre-order it here.

Tags: The National