MOOD MUSIC The National playing at the Bell House in Brooklyn in March.
By NICHOLAS DAWIDOFF
Published: April 23, 2010
The New York Times
By NICHOLAS DAWIDOFF
Published: April 23, 2010
IN THE DEAD of late January, the five members of the band the National were sprawled around a music studio in the attic of a weathered, gray Bridgeport, Conn., mansion. The studio belongs to the National’s producer, Peter Katis, and after many long months of recording and rerecording their fifth album in Brooklyn, where the band members all now live, they had come to Connecticut for an efficient few weeks of mixing. Things were not turning out that way. The National is composed of the identical-twin guitar-playing brothers Bryce and Aaron Dessner; a second pair of brothers, Bryan Devendorf, the drummer, and Scott Devendorf, who usually plays bass; and Matt Berninger, the band’s vocalist. Matt also writes the lyrics. He is tall, with a sturdy jib, cool blue eyes, a three-day reddish blond beard and enough lead-singer swagger to hold his own among all those siblings.
Especially tenacious are Bryce and Aaron, sideburned former Cincinnati high-school soccer midfielders. More laid-back are the Devendorfs; each can half-disappear behind his large eyeglasses even though one is strikingly lean and lanky (Bryan), while the other is strikingly spare of pate (Scott). At the moment, though, everyone was looking pretty depleted. The day was past noon, but the band had been up working so late the night before that they all had early-morning eyes. The air smelled of unchanged flannel shirts and uneasy expectations. Out in the world, the new album was due at the record company, 4AD, in February for release in May. Up in the attic, the National was still making it up as they mixed along. As yet the record had no title. Several of the songs had no lyrics. Those that did were otherwise askew. Four weeks into the mix the band was, as Aaron put it, “kind of in a circling-the-vortex mode.”
It was supposed to be the National’s moment. After years of mostly anonymous struggle, the National’s two previous albums, “Alligator” (2005) and “Boxer” (2007), were so full of strangely isolated songs about friendship, romance and work that they had created for this new release the sort of expectant critical murmur that has been rare to hear since the end of the age of record shops. “Alligator” and “Boxer” did what excellent rock ’n’ roll albums did in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s: transcended the sum of their singles to offer something larger. In the National’s case, it was a powerful, probing feeling for the inner lives of average people out in the American heartland. So good was the music that with it came the promise of what might follow, the heady potential that the National would soon take things one step further, go ahead and make the great Middle American novel as music, an album for our time. But now, they seemed intent on holding all that off as long as possible.
The track currently under consideration was called “Wrath,” although they were renaming it “Lemonworld” — unless they decided to go with “You and Your Sister.” “We just redid the drums; now we’re redoing the guitars,” Aaron said, as his brother, Bryce, began fingering a new riff to accompany a chorus that began: “You and your sister live in a Lemonworld/I want to sit in and die.” They were all long past finding any irony in that.
“You like it?” Matt, the singer, asked Aaron when Bryce was done.
“No,” Aaron said. “It’s too shimmery U2. He should keep trying.” Then to his twin he instructed, “Try something else” and suggested “a more interesting rhythm that circulates around the chords.” At the word “interesting” Matt winced. Bryce’s orientation is classical — he studied guitar at the Yale School of Music and collaborates with the likes of Steve Reich and Philip Glass — but Matt can neither read notation nor play an instrument. His musical predilections generally run more along the lines of “a heavy metal thing,” which he would later, in a band debate regarding the song “Bloodbuzz, Ohio,” also shorthand as “some hot Jimmy Page scuzz,” and the twins would dismiss as “Berninger black-fantasy guitar.”
Over the years, Matt has accumulated a flock of snide nicknames from his band mates, including the Dark Lord, the Naysayer, Mumbleberry Pie, Mr. Knee Jerk, Mr. Sony Headphones and the Echo Chamber — the last for the coterie of musically astute persons whom Matt frequently invokes supporting his opinion of whatever song they are arguing about. Since the only one of these gifted listeners Matt has ever introduced to the others is his wife, Carin Besser, who until recently edited short stories at The New Yorker, it is Aaron and Bryce’s belief that Matt is not the only fiction expert in the marriage. Matt’s assessment of the situation is: “Everybody thinks everybody else has secret ulterior motives because we all do. We purposefully set up decoys and red herrings to attack a song. That we’re all playing mind games is sort of funny, but it’s also frustrating.”
With the National, it’s never only rock ’n’ roll. Watching them record a song is like looking on as a group of skilled chefs make a sandwich together; even in a B.L.T., they can foresee endless possibilities. They are now five men in their mid- to late 30s, with mortgages, children, wives or serious girlfriends and musical tastes that have likewise settled into convictions. Each National song is a microbatch creation integrating their obsessive, often-diverging feelings about rock ’n’ roll. These range from the formally inventive, high-art aspirations of Bryce to the garage-band purism of Matt, who, Aaron says, “is all about if there’s heart or purpose in it. He has no interest if it’s theoretical.” By striving to accommodate these disparate points of view, the National gets what all bands want and few achieve, a sound of its own. Michael Stipe, the lead singer of R.E.M., told me that when he took Mike Mills, R.E.M.’s bass player, to hear the National perform in London, it took Mills only half of one song to exclaim, “This is the most amazing thing I’ve heard in years.” Stipe explains: “It’s instantaneous. It touches you.”
THE NATIONAL SOUND has a layered, seductive quality that is filled with intimate male feeling and uneasy cinematic portent: a storm coming up outside the window; leaves blowing in the road. It’s distinctive music born of an apparent limitation — Matt’s voice. His is a classic baritone with a resonant, melancholy timbre, but it lacks range and tonal variation; Matt often half-talks his vocals in the style of singers like Tom Waits and Nick Cave. Over the years, the band’s solution has been to create shifting instrumental shapes and colors just beneath the vocals. The twins’ signature is a hocketing guitar line, their instruments chiming in and out, mirroring each other as they share the melody. All the intersecting sounds mesh with Matt’s voice in a way that seems to deepen his texture, and with repeated listening the songs achieve emotional intensity. In part this is because the drums are given unusual prominence. A very good drummer controls the beat; a better one defines it. When Bryan’s cymbals splash in a song about a rainy-day loss of faith, you don’t just hear the water; you see a thousand dead umbrellas. Since Matt excels at writing about sensitive people whose lives slump within that chapfallen key, the result is songs that are rich with mood, slow-cooked all the way down.
Although Bryan says of Bryce, “Bryce has always been ambitious; you could light a cigarette off his ambition,” the truth is that all five live for the measure-by-measure rigor of building, tearing down and rebuilding four-minute songs. Their process often seems like a musical parlor trick since they delight in belittling their own work and can seem happier about rejecting another successful reinvention than actually completing anything. “Lemonworld,” for instance, had by now sustained upwards of 80 takes followed by upwards of 80 onslaughts of derision. Versions of the song had been fragged for being really annoying, really bombastic, really boring, really cheesy, too destabilized, really meatball, really saccharine, too sludgefest, too Dave Matthews swank and too all-fancy razzle-dazzle. At one point, Bryan worried aloud, “We’re throwing the baby out with the bath water,” to which Matt replied, “What is the baby?”
This was all fun in its way, but it really was getting too late in the game, and a migraine disaffection was spreading through these boys in the attic. Rock groups are always calling themselves bands of brothers, but the National truly does function, and dysfunction, like a big Midwestern family. They express their caring for one another in the time-honored fraternal way, with bickering and insults. Because they all agree that Matt is the most mature, they are hardest on him. “Basically the band is like this,” Bryan said. “Matt’s the dad. Scott’s the long-suffering wife. I’m the black-sheep uncle. Aaron and Bryce are the twin daughters who like to control their parents.” Scott’s take on the twins is that “they argue and fight with each other about stupid things until someone else says something and then they join together and try to defeat him.” Another thing nobody disputes is that Scott is “the nicest” of the group.
Work on the song began a year and a half ago as a raw melodic sketch made on classical guitar and harmonium by the twins — one of dozens of such sketches they composed featuring all sorts of beats, keys, meters and chord changes. Some sketches tried to musically evoke material states like hot tar and loose wool, several were inspired by other people’s ideas — a Steve Reich polyrhythm, an old Johnny Cash song. They were given placeholder names after things like Civil War battles and then passed on to Matt, who lay on the couch with his Sony headphones on and listened in a continuous loop, mumbling and hum-crooning along, rejecting and rejecting until he formed a few attachments. For these he began to write lyrics.
Matt carries around a notebook that he fills with fragments of language, single lines he invents like “terrible love and I’m walking with spiders.” “The challenge,” he says, “is to write the rest of a song that holds up to that feeling of anxious, nervous love.” He likes images that are blurry and suggestive, snapshots that don’t exactly mean anything but allow the listener to feel that they do. As he writes, songs are recorded, tossed aside, retrieved and reconstituted. Mindful that careers in rock are brief when they rely on one way of doing things, the National sometimes tries so hard to stay ahead of their own curve that, Aaron said, “we lose all perspective.” While making “Boxer,” Matt hated and tried to kill a squalling little feedbacky homage to the Pixies that Aaron wrote. Eventually it became “Mistaken for Strangers,” among fans’ most beloved songs.
The “Mistaken for Strangers” lyrics, like many that Matt writes, describe a life-buffeted young man measuring his flawed adult self against what he imagines to be the airier existences of other people. With lines like “I was a comfortable kid/but I don’t think about it much anymore,” the “Lemonworld” did not fall far from the tree.
When the full band took on “Lemonworld,” the song traveled through iterations ranging from spooky to toe-tappy to hand-clappy. Through December and January, every Friday night the twins drove home from Bridgeport to Brooklyn, feeling glum about the song. Every Saturday they woke up and spent the weekend working in the studio that their older sister Jessica’s architect husband had converted for them out of Aaron’s garage. Bryce ushered in a procession of recent Juilliard graduates hired to lay down wind and string tracks, some composed for the band by the young classical composer Nico Muhly, others by Padma Newsome, an Australian who did arrangements for previous National albums. One Wisconsin singer named Justin was hired to record “ethereal” harmony vocals. Another Wisconsin singer named Marla was recruited to produce “girl next door” harmony vocals. (As Ohioans, the Dessners have idealized feelings about Wisconsin; they consider it “the purer, more wholesome Midwest.”) But at the end of January, on a day when Matt was not in Bridgeport, Aaron admitted, “ ‘Lemonworld’ is on the border of getting left behind.”
“It’s the runt,” Bryce agreed.
“It’s Melky Cabrera,” Aaron revised, referring to a former Yankees outfielder who never quite found his role and eventually was traded.
“It’s at least weird,” Bryce offered.
Then they hit on something, “a kind of tribal, throbbing sound,” as Bryan put it. This version required a soft, rhythmically complex drum part from him, and the others cheered, “Go, Seabiscuit!” as he settled in behind his kit. They were all wearing jeans and what appeared to be Truman-era sweaters. Bryan stands well over six feet to begin with, but like all talented drummers, when he’s working he seems to physically expand. Watching him now, Bryce said, “That’s where he’s most at home.” Bryan is the fellow band member whose intelligence and personality the others find most compelling. His nickname among them is Party of One, an allusion to how much beer he can hold, and also to more elusive qualities. For most of the Bridgeport weeks, while the others sat near the producer, Katis, at the sound board, Bryan was off hidden in a far corner with two sticks, tapping to himself. “Bryan doesn’t respond to any of the usual negotiations,” Bryce says.
The drum part Bryan kept producing for “Lemonworld” was landing too hard, and so he improvised. Summoning an old trick much favored by the Beatles, who, as Bryan noted, wrapped Ringo Starr’s skins with tea towels, Bryan went downstairs, rummaged around in Katis’s linen closet and found some pillowcases, which he proceeded to tear up and tape to his snare and both toms. These mutes cushioned the sound and made it somehow lusher. At nightfall, they listened, and what they heard made them all giddy. “The Stones would put a shaker with that guitar, synch it way down and it would be hot!” Aaron cried. So they added that too. “My pillowcases!” Katis suddenly noticed. But he didn’t really mind. Now they were downright chesty, strutting around the attic in their socks, “heading for a grand showdown with the Dark Lord,” as Katis put it. Off went “Lemonworld” by e-mail to Matt, whose texted response was “Twee Smurf!” Elaborating later he added: “It’s a great dark weird murky pop song, but it doesn’t lift off. We need to embrace its simplicity, not turn it into an art piece.” In the cold, clear light of Bridgeport dawn, the twins agreed with him. “It doesn’t sound like the way that we play,” Aaron said with a sigh.
THE NATIONAL HAVE been a band for more than 10 years, but they have been playing together in some form for practically their entire lives. They were all comfortable, middle-class Cincinnati kids from prosperous East Side suburbs, except Matt, who, although his father is a lawyer, lived on the grittier West Side — “the haves and the have not,” as Aaron sarcastically puts it.As twins with bowl haircuts, Aaron and Bryce shared one baseball-card collection, played all games side by side and slept in a room with identical pairs of fixtures and furniture pieces. Every morning, Bryce would take a shower and then leave the water on for Aaron to follow. They were so close, always understanding each other in such a primary way, that when they communicated, other people couldn’t always make out what they were saying. (In the band, this is known as the twins’ “pillow talk.”) Today, though they live in separate Brooklyn houses, their bond remains so intense that when they return to Ohio with their girlfriends, they would rather the four of them sleep (platonically) in their two childhood beds than take advantage of the guest room.
At 13, the Dessner brothers were the two guards on the Cincinnati Country Day middle-school basketball team. The team’s center was Bryan, and soon he was coming by after school to play music with them. There was a mystique about Bryan. He arrived, he drummed wordlessly for hours and he left. Rumor had it that he burned down the family house. (It turned out to be only part of the house.) Bryan’s observation about Aaron and Bryce was that “the twins make rock ’n’ roll into sports competition.” A few years later, Scott was studying art at the University of Cincinnati, where he and Matt became best friends. Of all the National members, Scott always had the best record collection, and Matt says when Scott played him singers like Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus and Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices, he saw how vocal character could compensate for limited range. “People say there’s a monotony to the way I sing,” Matt says, “and I totally understand that. But maybe it’s more entertaining to watch the pole-vaulter hit the bar than go over it. Hitting the notes is less important than the attempt. If you believe what you sing, if the notes are right is insignificant. ”
Cincinnati gave him a narrative edge. “Ohio is a very common American experience,” Matt says. “It’s much closer than New York to the typical American perspective. It’s right in the middle, and there are unbelievable tensions there — social, racial, political. The Robert Mapplethorpe and Larry Flynt obscenity trials, the race riots — it’s a crucible there for some reason.” Degrees in hand, Scott and Matt moved to New York in 1996, where they found graphic-design jobs. Every day, showered and blazered, they went off to work. They were white-collar professionals who made weekend rock ’n’ roll.
The twins, too, were eager to say, “Goodbye, Cincinnati.” When Bryce was admitted to Yale and Aaron to Columbia, the impending separation was hard on both of them, especially Aaron, who said he fell into a clinical depression. “I don’t think either of us realized how traumatic it would be,” he remembers. “In college, I immediately rushed into a superserious relationship.” Aaron studied Jewish history at Columbia and then, after graduation, worked in Yale’s Holocaust archive. Bryce was in New York, living on $13,000 a year, teaching classical guitar. Bryan was downtown, editing books for the Soho Press. Out in their Brooklyn loft, Scott and Matt wanted to record songs together on an eight-track. They needed a drummer. Scott called his brother. Bryan called Aaron and Bryce. The sound was so good, soon enough the five of them went National. “We’ve regretted the name many times,” Matt says. “The truth is we wanted the name to be meaningless. We don’t have a collective perspective or an idea. It’s like the first time we heard the name ‘Nirvana,’ it sounded like it would be the worst kind of emotional, faux-passionate record, and then we heard the record, and the word ‘nirvana’ changed.”
They put out a mediocre first album and a second that was more promising, and they struggled, as Matt says, “to find ourselves.” That the record industry was collapsing helped them. Because there were no impatient corporate expectations to meet, they could grow at their own pace. “We never had a breakthrough moment,” says Matt. “People seemed to fall for us after listening to our records many, many times. The corporate model has collapsed, but small-label bands playing to 200 people a night can pay the bills and raise a family on it. That’s why we’ll have better and more interesting innovations.”
By the time the National was the latest buzz band from Brooklyn, they’d been together eight years and hadn’t missed a rung of the New York rock ’n’ roll ladder, from the dingy back-room gigs where the only person on hand to see them was the bartender to the five straight sold-out nights at the Bowery Ballroom when the band released “Boxer.” This June, they will fill Radio City Music Hall. At first, Aaron says, their performances were “awful.” Now, they are a riveting live act, both because their pent-up songs explode, and because Matt drinks a bottle of wine onstage and then starts climbing things. “There’s something crazy every show,” Scott says. “It’s a man-child situation.”
That feeling of risk shows up in the songs. The National’s sensibility captures the in-between feeling of being adrift in the mainstream with only a medium-size American heart to keep you from sinking. As Matt writes in the song “Slow Show,” “Looking for somewhere to stand and stay/I leaned on the wall and the wall leaned away.” It’s one of several songs that engage with the growing recognition that life out in the middle isn’t as stable as you were brought up to believe.
Each album has been more accomplished than the last. On “Alligator,” the tension and turmoil of feeling past your peak when your youth’s still unfulfilled collect into biting little everyday paranoias and aggressions lurking just below the surface. Matt and his wife, Carin, not yet married then, were breaking up and getting back together frequently, “trying to resist the person you might end up with,” as Carin puts it. Fragments of their life were feathered into lyrics. One night, Carin accused Matt of being in search of an “out–of-this-world person who’s a pure fantasy,” by telling him he was going through life “looking for astronauts,” which soon became the title of a song.
Two years after “Alligator” came “Boxer,” a record about a grown man gazing at his middle-class self and finding the sight alien to his youthful expectations. “Boxer” is so named because many of the songs feature fights between people who love each other. That would be men and women, arguing at home, after dark, experiencing the sort of frustrating marginalization that the band and politically likeminded friends felt during the Bush years — being “half awake in the fake empire,” as a song puts the situation — and taking it all out on the closest people in their lives. Although the Obama campaign adopted “Fake Empire” as a kind of theme song for many campaign events, it’s not ideological music so much as music that thinks about why people crave ideology. “Make something up something to believe in your heart of hearts/so you have something to wear on your sleeve of sleeves,” Matt wrote in “Mistaken for Strangers.” It was a triumphant record, one that has made album-of-the-decade lists and sold 350,000 copies worldwide — excellent, in these digital-download days.
THIS TIME OUT, the aspiration was, Matt says, to make “a light, fun, catchy record. Not so many dirgey love songs.” Yet even before they began mixing, Aaron was already admitting, “I thought we were making a pop record, but it’s turning out to be extremely dark lyrically.” Among the darkest of the songs is “Sorrow,” which begins “Sorrow found me when I was young/Sorrow waited, sorrow won.” One day Bryan and I fell into a conversation about it. We’d gone to the Brooklyn Museum to see an exhibition of photographs called “Who Shot Rock & Roll.” Bryan is immersed in the history of music, especially drumming. He saw a photograph of Led Zeppelin, and pointed out the seated figure in the background: “It’s rare you see a picture with John Bonham on a drum riser. When we opened for R.E.M. at Madison Square Garden, we were setting up, and a guy there said to me: ‘That’s where Bonham had his kit, man. Make you nervous?’ Me, I’m mostly nervous already.” Then, reflecting on Stephen Morris of New Order, Bryan said: “Listen to their song ‘Age of Consent.’ It’s fluttering 16th notes on the high-hat. The hat can get icy, but in this case it’s fluttery with a soft chik. That rhythm figure with the pulsing beat gave it all those restless, ineffable things you associate with heartbreak. It’s not melodramatic, it’s the perfect beat for the emotion.”
The same could be said of “Sorrow,” where a fast high-hat pairs with a draggy kick drum to express the enticing pull of dark feeling. “I really relate to ‘Sorrow,’ ” Bryan said. Then he laughed. “It could be ripped as a maudlin tearjerker, another song about a sad-sack white guy!” He smiled ruefully and continued: “I tend toward that. I don’t lay it on anybody, but I can be that, the restless anxiety. Drumming is something to take your mind off thoughts unbidden come.”
When I next saw Matt, we were talking about “Sorrow,” and he acknowledged: “It is a little about Bryan. The song’s about the idea of sorrow more than anybody’s personal experiences.” One early admirer of “Sorrow” is Steve Reich. (Bryce sometimes sends him songs.) Reich says the National combines “a classic rock ’n’ roll sound using repeated bass lines and pulses that have cropped up more recently. They’re the latest incarnation of a classic rock ’n’ roll band.” Speaking of “Sorrow” and “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” another cut Reich likes on the new album, he said: “A major is their gold key. The melody note will be repeated but the bass and harmony will change. You’ll find it all over my music, a lot in the ‘Mother Goose’ of Ravel, and as far back as Bach. It works very well.”
That was the feeling among the band about their record when at last they had it ready for mastering with the legendary New York sound engineer Greg Calbi. It was nearly spring. Calbi’s studio is adorned with framed notes from John Lennon — “Use your discretion, I trust your ear”— and framed past jobs like “Born to Run.” The National had decided, in the end, to call their record “High Violet,” a phrase inspired by a religious tract Matt discovered in a secondhand Seattle bookshop. “None of it makes any sense,” Matt said, flipping the pages. “It’s all so crazy, but it seems so important.”
After all the days and nights, this session zipped along, Calbi nodding approval and administering minor tweaks here and there. “High Violet” is the National’s latest album for their time. It’s the world according to a man who isn’t getting any younger, mostly wants to be a good father and husband and employee and friend — and might be happy, but for all that resistance he thinks he keeps tamped in his own head. He used to be the Great White Hope, the hero of his own box-size living room. Now he’s got a kid on his shoulder, lives on coffee and cut flowers while thinking about clearing out of the Silver City and going back to Ohio where life is simpler — until you get there and remember why you left.
Before anyone knew it, only “Lemonworld” remained. Since January they’d done it bright, done it drowsy, done it with violin parts overnighted from Australia by Padma Newsome, done it so many ways Bryce despaired, “It’s a riddle we can’t solve.” Finally, they went back to the twins’ original sketch, which Matt rerecorded in “a spare, head-cold voice.” When Calbi gave it a listen, he didn’t touch it. “With ‘Lemonworld,’ ” Matt said afterward, “we tried so hard and it always seemed to fail as a rock song. It lost the charm of the ugly little demo. Now it’s the ugliest, worst-mixed, least-polished song on the record, and it took the longest to get there.”
Nicholas Dawidoff, a contributing writer for the magazine, is the author of four books, most recently “The Crowd Sounds Happy.”