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The National's Anthem

The National reach for the stars on their fifth album, ‘High Violet’

As if by stealth, Brooklyn-by-way-of-Ohio band, The National have slowly become one of our most emotionally resonant bands working today. After years of toiling away in white collar jobs whilst making music, they had a breakthrough with their 3rd album, 2005’s ‘Alligator’ which in late-night songs of drunken brawls and gin-soaked Buchowski laments, very precisely captured feelings of loneliness and isolation in a way that resounded with many. They followed this up with the stately gloom of 2007’s ‘Boxer’ which made it to many best-of-the-decade lists and raised their profile on the back of unlikely endorsement by the Obama campaign. New album, ‘High Violet’ presents no real surprises, but like stellar albums this year from now-established acts, Hot Chip and LCD Soundsystem, this is by no means, a bad thing. Anchored as always by Matt Berninger’s sober, world weary baritone; they confidently refine and expand on their musical repertoire to paint a denser, more complex picture of an America falling apart. “I’ve heard ‘Fake Empire’ in a Wal-Mart”, grimaces guitarist Aaron Dessner, settling down next to Berninger to talk with Dazed Digital; still coming to terms with their ever-increasing success over the last few years. But with the first single from the album, the epic ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ already making waves in the blogosphere and a prominent feature in the New York Times, 2010 should see their brand of lush romantic desolation go supersonic.

Dazed Digital: There seems be an increasing ease with sounding big and anthemic on the records.   
Matt Berninger: I think we wanted to swing for the fences. ‘Alligator’ did something for us where it opened the door a little bit. When we were making ‘Boxer’ we were in a potentially great spot, but also an awkward spot. We wanted to walk through the door and cement our position as a band that did matter. So there was a lot of pressure on ‘Boxer’. The flipside to that was I desperately didn’t want to be a band where the guy screams his head off – like on songs like ‘Mr November’. So we were walking a tightrope on ‘Boxer’ – making a record that was awesome but didn’t paint us into a corner. So we avoided it. There was a lot of anxiety and insecurity about that but it paid off. We rolled the dice and we ended up winning. People did give it a chance and listened to it and it ended up being more successful than ‘Alligator’. So that allowed us with this record to do whatever we wanted and follow our whims and not worry about what those expectations were. At the same time we wanted to undo our last album. We didn’t want it to be this delicate, tension filled thing. We wanted to release that tension. We wanted the catharsis. We wanted this record to instantly effect people and knock them over. We wanted the record to feel a bit more casual and not so tense. It was done in a more lo-fi, homemade way. We didn’t worry about it being overdone so we really went for it in the songs. That being said, we did take a lot of the songs too far, they sounded too epic and overblown so we pulled it back so it didn’t sound so bombastic and ridiculous.

DD: Does the fact you play much bigger venues now like the Royal Albert Hall influence how big the songs sound?
Matt Berninger: I’m sure it does. We opened for REM and they did a lot of big shows. What we realized was that you just have to write good songs and passionately. You don’t have to write giant rock anthems to capture a room of that size. Sometimes it’s the delicate moments of those huge shows that are the most effective. Watching Michael Stipe connect with the back row of an 18,000 capacity room just by the songs or his presence. We weren’t thinking too much about that and we let the songs do what they wanted to do. A lot of the songs wanted to explode so we let them.

DD: The lyrics remain as opaque as ever. Were you worried about being too exposed?
Matt Berninger: I’m never worried about being exposed. Even the lyrics that sound the most naked, literally, y’know I sing about “dancing on a table with my cock in my hand”, that’s pretty exposed. I’ve never been embarrassed or shy about that kind of stuff. Not all of it is autobiographical. Some of it is just moments or scenes. Lyrics have to work with music, where if you connect the dots too much, it’s not trying to be cryptic or obtuse, but if it’s too coloured in or unfocussed, it’s overdone and overwritten. There’s nowhere for me to go with that – it’s too one-dimensional, if it’s a bit blurry, it allows the listener to fill it in. These songs evolve and shift and change their meaning over the years. I spent a lot of time editing and removing lines, if it doesn’t work within the song, you’ve got to kill it.

DD: If ‘Alligator’ was borne out of anxiety about the presidential elections when Bush got elected for the 2nd time, and ‘Boxer’ came from a peaceful resignation with the world, what kind of place does the new album come from?
Matt Berninger: I’ve used the word peaceful but I don’t know about resigned. “Fake Empire” is about wanting to turn off your brain and wanting to go to some other fantasy world because reality sucks, it’s almost defeatist in a way. This one is different. I have a kid now. This one is more aggressive, a little more desperate. There’s a song “Afraid of Everyone” which is about the state of things in American politics where everyone is so divided and they’re at their wit’s ends and have gone off the deep end. It’s terrifying you know. The news media, the desperate and vicious propaganda that people are believing is scary. There is a swelling tension on both sides. I’m a Liberal but I’m getting fiercely angry and I’m not sure we’re going to be able to talk it out. With respects to the other records, it’s not about me anymore, it’s not about getting drunk and turning off and pretending it’s all fine, it’s not just me – it’s going to be my daughter’s world. This record has a broader perspective – it’s not about a solitary guy and his problems with commitment and sex, loyalty, love and fear and anxiety, it’s less about me. It really jumps in there.

DD: You’ve had a song used by the Obama campaign and had Obama’s face emblazoned with your song Mr. November on shirts. Were you wary about wading into politics as a rock band?
Matt Berninger: We were honoured they used it. It’s a funny song for a presidential campaign to use though given the lyrics. It’s not a patriotic song! We were worried and I still am. None of us want the band to be a platform for our political agenda or soapbox. I use rock and roll as an escape. None of our songs have political messages other than “This is fucked up and I don’t want to think about it.” As for us putting our weight behind Obama, it was a no-brainer. When Bush won the second time, you realize you’ve got to jump in the fight. I don’t want our records to have any of that connection but when it came to Obama we said we would sell shirts, put on rallies. We were not unique – everybody I knew with any kind of progressive leaning was knocking on doors. We didn’t do anything special. Thank God he won. It’s been a disappointing first year because everybody thought he would change the world but just a couple of days ago, (passing of Obama’s health care reforms) it feels like a new dawn. We finally have something we’ve never been able to do. It’s going to be a long hard battle and we’re still firmly behind him. I don’t regret it for one second.

DD: Is songwriting and recording a long and painful process for you? I read a quote where Aaron said it “takes a while to get these amorphous turds into songs for The National.”
Aaron Dessner: (Laughs) I still believe that! It takes us a long time to shape things and to architect them in a way that will endure. People say our songs reveal themselves slowly and we’ve been trying to make them reveal themselves more quickly! But the things we like to do musically are more subtle – this odd mix of rough and fine-tuned that takes a while to digest. It took a while to figure out the tone. It can be elusive. It takes a bit of luck to get it right.
Give me an example of that – did the first single from the album, “Bloodbuzz Ohio” go through different takes?
Matt Berninger: “Bloodbuzz” started out as a folky ukulele sketch that turned into a massive rock powerhouse. It didn’t really work as either of those things. The drums are slamming and percussive but I’m singing in a mellow whisper. So it took a lot of experimenting to get the alchemy of that right. Also on the last song on the album, “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” used to be a Neil Young song that had a lilt to it. It had a classic rock feel to it – we loved it but then Aaron decided to gut it from the middle out and leave only the vocals and rebuild the whole foundation of the song from the inside out. We do that to a lot of songs.

DD: Aaron, you and your brother recently performed an experimental piece called The Long Count. How important is it to have separate musical projects outside The National?
Aaron Dessner: Bryce is a classically trained guitarist and we are both interested in composed music. We’re motivated to be challenging ourselves. What was satisfying about that experience is to not have the limitations of an album and to not have the pressures of The National. The Long Count was more experimental -  a song cycle with a film. Also to be able to work with Kim and Kelley Deal (of The Breeders) was amazing. To do it in the same period as The National album was stressful but a good distraction.

DD: You’re about to embark on a very long stretch of touring. When does the itch to record start again?
Aaron Dessner: Not for a while. But I’ve built a studio in our backyard and I may stumble on ideas any day. Whenever we finish an album, it’s a big undertaking for us. There is this weird collaborative thing – it takes us forever to do and we develop the music in parallel. It’s like finding a needle in the haystack. It takes us a long time – it’s a year minimum of intense work and it’s not fun. It’s fun at the beginning and at the end when we finish. But the rest of it is kind of miserable! We get better at it but it seems to remain elusive. We call them ugly ducklings but there’s definitely something about them that endures.