Loose Wool And Hot Tar: The National Interviewed
, April 5th, 2010 07:09
Laura Snapes met Matt Berninger and Aaron Dessner to talk in-studio strife, making a scrappier record than Boxer, and “summer lovin’ torture parties” in decrepit Grey Gardens-style mansions.
After a two day long press junket holed up in some swank Shepherds Bush hotel suite, Matt Berninger and Aaron Dessner are itching to hit the bar. “I knew it was time to get out of there as Matt started telling people that we’d made a fucking great record when he was asked again if we think it’s a grower!” explains Aaron in the lift.
His frustrations are understandable – five albums in, and The National are no longer the kind of band that needs time to prove that they’re worthy of adoration. When talking about their upcoming Paris support slots with Pavement, Matt says, “there are certain bands who become so intertwined with your idea of yourself and your history and your love of music itself” – a sentiment that will sound wholly familiar to those who have spent any part of the last decade listening to the Cincinnati five piece.
The “grower” question isn’t unfounded though. Even some of their most ardent fans admit to still finding their self-titled debut a tad cringeworthy, with its soft country stylings and depressingly banal lyrics like, “Pouring my fingers across the keys, will someone review my salary please?” But gradually they moved on from their everyband acousticisms and Matt Berninger honed the bleakness of his subject matter from jolting reality to a more poetic despair. Somewhere around their third album, Alligator, they began to craft the dense sound that would become unmistakably their own by the time Boxer came out in May 2007, and ears slowly started to prick up.
Their new record, High Violet, due out on 10th May, is The National’s most cohesive statement to date, their most instantly beguiling without having lost any of their inimitable subtleties, and a testament to the band’s meticulous work ethic. Their style has become as easily attributable to them as the bright prose of a Truman Capote novel or the widescreen archness of a Wes Anderson film, creating nuanced, beautiful and elusive portraits of the usually unremarkable demands of adulthood in America. From the paranoia that comes with living up to responsibility, mundane worries about making it through the day, and giving in to the part of you that still craves sexy abandon, it’s the sound of a band who’ve taken the time to perfect and become sure of their strengths.
You must be pretty sick of the grower question by now…
Aaron Dessner: Ha, yeah.
Matt Berninger: It’s true, and it’s always made sense to us, but I think I was reacting because the other day somebody asked, “How does a totally unknown band like you sell out the Royal Albert Hall?” and I was like, er, we’re not unknown! But whatever.
What’s your relationship with High Violet like now? I read that you were still mixing and choosing songs for it as recently as January.
AD: I’ll set the record straight on that – when we did the Pitchfork interview, there was a battle raging over ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’. We had to do away with a horn fanfare that’s no longer there, but if you listen to the live version you’ll hear this “ba-ba-ba!” section, which was cool, but not unlike ‘Fake Empire’. It was too similar, and so Matt and I wanted to get rid of it, but others, especially Peter Katis [the band’s long-term producer] and to some extent our drummer really loved it, so there was a battle being fought right then! The interview was mostly about that… There were other songs that we pulled back, but that was the main one. Eventually we took it out.
MB: There were a lot of things about that song that suddenly weren’t working at that point. The version we had then was not going to be on the record. It was over muscled-up and kind of annoying, and it was too long. We’d been trying to figure it out and solve it for a long time, and sometimes I was like, y’know what, this can’t be saved. So it’s not totally untrue – we all had every intention of trying to save it – but you never know what can happens. They also called it “Lovebuzz” in that interview [sounding scathing]…
That’s one of the older songs on the record isn’t it? There are quite a few live bootlegs of it floating about.
MB: We’d done versions of it, or at least tried to!
AD: This is the first record that I can listen to so soon and enjoy, which is either a really good sign or a really bad sign! After Boxer, I was so traumatized by the process and how stressful it was, and how close we came to really getting… What we did with Boxer in the end was more dramatic I think, because we were literally taking endings off and ‘Apartment Story’ had a whole other verse, and ‘Brainy’ had this whole outro and different lyrics, we really chopped it up. This record, because we made it at home, we worked many many many many more hours on it as we could work all the time, and I think we got closer before mixing than we ever had before. A lot of the aesthetic was pre-determined by us being able to fight this battle.
Do you mean having discussions about the kind of direction you wanted to take it in before starting?
AD: Yeah, Matt and I fought a lot early on about like, “Ok, we gotta write a song on the piano”, and he’d be like, “I don’t like the piano, play it on a weird guitar!” And I’d be like, “No, I don’t want to play it on a weird guitar!” and it’d go back and forth a lot, early on. But then we figured it out, we had a lot of discussions about how it should sound. Matt had a metaphor for how it should sound, “like loose wool or hot tar,” like a woolly and weird textured thing! We didn’t want to make another elegant, stately meditative record like Boxer – that’s very beautiful and a lot of it’s very… polished.
That’s something that really hits you from ‘Terrible Love’, the opening track – the sound is so much denser and heavier than anything you’ve done previously.
AD: Yeah, so “loose wool” is ‘Terrible Love’. I remember Bryce saying, “Ok, what does loose wool sound like?” and Matt went, “bam-bam-bam” [makes much more sense audibly] so then I created this effect and turned the amp up beyond loud, tuned the guitar down and just had these harmonic pedals on that make it sound weird. I was strumming simple chords – the chord progression is like a Bon Jovi progression, like G, C – but because of the weird effect it doesn’t sound like it. So we ran with that idea and a lot of the songs have a similar texture.
Like with the horn fanfare on ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’, when you’re arguing about what to do with a song, how do you present your respective cases and arrive at a resolution?
MB: That was tough, because I think I brought it up – the fanfare was in there for a long long time, and it kept nagging at me because it doesn’t sound as good as the fanfare in ‘Fake Empire’ – and that came to that song very late in the game too. To me it sounded like its pedestrian cousin, and you just don’t follow your most iconic song – or your most famous song – with the same trick, but not executed as well. It’s a stupid thing. If ‘Fake Empire’ didn’t exist, it would have been great for the song, but it did! And so when I brought it up – I think I talked with you, Aaron, about it a little bit –
AD: Yeah, I was already a bit uncomfortable at the celebratory party vibe that the fanfare brought – it’s a great vibe, it’s fun – but on record, getting at what Matt was singing was weird because he’s singing quietly and beautiful, and then this “BAM-BAM-BAM!” [excitably loud fanfare] party bursts into the room. And it’s not that kind of song.
Did Padma Newsome write the horn section?
AD: No, no, my brother wrote it. Actually on this album, most of the orchestration was done by Bryce. Padma did three songs and Bryce did the rest. Actually though, Padma did write the rest of the orchestration on ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ – the long brass that’s going through the song, he wrote that. Bryce is really good at not getting that emotional about things getting cut.
MB: He didn’t care at all actually. It was Bryan, our drummer, and Peter Katis who resisted that.
AD: Part of the problem was that the whole song had been designed around these moments – the middle and the end – the drumming builds up and kicks in, so it was one thing to cut it out, but then there was this huge hole.
MB: Something had to go there.
AD: So that’s when we had to really experiment, and Bryce, all weekend every weekend during mixing was just searching for something. It was only towards the end that we could figure it out, and the guitar stuff that’s there now is somehow more in the character of the song.
MB: It’s not trying so hard to be fancy.
It must be very different from the way that you worked on the new Clogs album.
AD: Yeah. In The National we use a lot of orchestration, and there’s more than ever on this record, but we never use it as icing, we always use it as harmonic depth. It’s that weird thing, where a song unravels before you – it might be very simple at its core, but we use this orchestration to develop it, to give it colour. So on this album we used a lot of darker orchestral instruments, like the bass clarinet, the French horn, double bass and trombone. Somehow that worked with these textures that we were going for. But these aren’t pieces that we’re writing… There’s something visceral and spontaneous about them, and it’s mostly about what Matt is doing lyrically. Even though they’re not heavy-handed literal songs, I’d never write some frilly music just because I liked it. It’s more about the vibe, the heart of the songs. Whereas what Clogs do is composition – it’s the same kind of idea, but it’s in a different world. There are these instrumental passages, it’s about that.
MB: There’s actually more orchestration and arrangement of horns and strings than on Boxer, it’s just that they’re woven in in more textural ways - they’re more subtle with what they’re doing. Like the piano thing that Sufjan does on ‘Ada’ – he plays on this record on ‘Afraid Of Everyone’, when he does these vocal and harmonium things, but it’s not so in your face. It’s just creating colours and shifts in the background that are more woven in to the layers inside the song. It’s actually more complex.
AD: It’s like a blurry mess.
MB: A lot more is going on than we’ve ever had in any songs before.
AD: For better or for worse!
Why did you choose to make it in your home studio instead of going elsewhere?
AD: Part of the struggle of Boxer was being in the fishbowl, we were paying a lot of money to be in that studio. In A Skin, A Night, you see us up there, it’s like being stuck in a sail boat.
That film makes you all look so fed up.
AD: It’s pretty accurate actually, there weren’t that many fun bits! I think we realised that the way we work is iterative, and because the music and vocals happen separately, we need the ability to redevelop stuff without pressuring Matt. Part of the tension of Boxer was that there was all this anger – we were like, “We’re trying our best and you’re not getting anywhere,” and he’s like, “I’m trying my best, I can’t do anything else!”
Matt, what are you doing when everyone’s still trying to put the songs together?
MB: Usually as they start to develop a song and add more things, I will import that version into whatever I’m working on. Sometimes I can hear that they’ll add a lot of things and it’ll ruin or fill up the space and I won’t have the space to find room for melodies. And they do that because they haven’t heard any of my melodies and they don’t know what the song’s going to be, so it makes sense. I often have to ask them to resend me the older versions and I’ll re-import those, which scares them sometimes when they’ve been working on something for weeks and I ask, “Can I have the one before all that work you did?”
AD: [Mock rage] “Argh no!” Or he’ll just decide one day that something should be slower, because he feels that what he’s trying to write has really got something going. Meanwhile there’s this massive army of people who have been pushing something -
MB: When you change the tempo of something…
AD: …you’ve got to start from scratch. That happened a lot, with at least four songs. In the end, that’s why we have the home studio so that it’s not a disaster. It’s just time.
MB: We do realise that it takes us a long time to make a record, and it’s stressful and frustrating, but we also realise that when it’s done, we’ll never be able to change it again and it’ll be out there forever. So if a song is slightly too fast, the tempo is too fast – and once you know it’s too fast, you just can’t keep using it. If there was a version that went on a record that wasn’t as good as it could be, it would haunt me forever. I would never be able to listen to it.
AD: ‘Conversation 16’ was the big one where there was a version that’s 2BPM faster, and it was recorded in late summer with a lot of humidity and the drums sounded – when it’s really humid, for some reason the drums in our studio sounds amazing, but as the cold weather comes and the humidity goes away, they start to sound not as full, not as rich. Unfortunately when we redid it, we couldn’t get quite the drum sound that we had before, although the part that Bryan found is better. It ended up being fine, but at the time there was this huge crisis – we had it, and we had to re-do it. I think that’s the best part about the studio, just that you have the luxury of trying everything. The sound of the record is literally me being able to preserve my demos, and some of them making the record –‘Terrible Love’ is the demo, ‘Little Faith’ is from band practice – I recorded Bryan’s part with two microphones and that’s why it sounds different from what we’ve done before, it’s a bit more expressive.
There are some really interesting experimental parts at the start and end of that song that are very different to anything you’ve done before.
AD: That’s Bryce improvising with Bryan as he played. It’s when they were first experimenting. So we can preserve some of that spontaneity and casualness, but then that obviously develops when we orchestrate and belabour it. It’s opened up some new territory for us – this is a very scrappy sounding record, it’s very homemade sounding. But I also think that it’s the most epic and beautiful –
MB: He said “scrappy”, not “crappy”.
AD: And the other thing is that it’s allowed friends to come in and out a lot as the studio is just at my house
Back in January you said you couldn’t say who was going to be on it just in case you cut their parts. Can you say now?
MB: Who made the cut?!
AD: There are a lot of guests on it, I’ll say the less famous ones first. Thomas Bartlett from Doveman is all over it. He’s not so much playing piano, but just because he absorbs music so easily and shapes things with very subtle keyboards and sounds. He’s a big part of a lot of the record. Padma Newsome as ever contributes, Marla Hansen who sings on Boxer also sings on a number of songs. Sufjan came in one day when we were struggling with ‘Afraid Of Everyone’ – that song was very difficult to make happen – and he just started playing the harmonium and singing along with it. He made up this little melody and he layered it four times – that gave the song a whole different dimension. That was his contribution. Richie Reed Parry from Arcade Fire is all over the record, I think he’s on six or seven songs. He played guitar and stand-up base on ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’, and the big thing he did was that he heard me working on the music for ‘Conversation 16’, and he said, “I have an idea!” So he went in and sang – his father is a choir director so he knows multi-part singing – he sang this seven-part vocal, it’s all him layered. That’s beautiful. He’s this very lovely, unassuming person – when you see someone’s musicality inserted into the room, you’re like, “woah!” And that was great – he was just staying at my house, it wasn’t like we planned to work on it like that. Justin Vernon from Bon Iver is the main harmony man on ‘Vanderlyle’. I’m playing with him next week in Cincinnati on some stuff, he’s a great guy to work with.
MB: Lil’ Wayne and Lady Gaga didn’t make the cut, we had to lose their parts.
One of you said that your aim for this record was to make it happier and more upbeat. Do you think you achieved that?
MB: Well, not happier. I think when I said happier, I think it was wanting to make a different record, and wanting to make a more aggressive, more casual record – not so stately. With Boxer the tensions build and it’s very intense, but it never quite lets loose. So the intention was wanting to make it more fun – in this case that didn’t end up being happy content, but it is fun. ‘Sorrow’ I think is a fun song, a celebration of sorrow. It’s a wallowing song. I think just by its nature of being more immediate, more contagious, more rhythmically driving and that it has this momentum to it – I think ‘Anyone’s Ghost’ is kind of like a pop song. That and ‘Lemonworld’ I think you could actually dance to, which is the first time in our catalogue, probably. So it is more fun in a lot of ways, and happier in a lot of sonic ways. Thematically it’s still pretty twisted. So the word “happy” is probably not the right way to describe this record at all, but I feel very satisfied that we achieved something new for us, which is a casual, kind of scuzzy ugly, fun rock record that is also equally sort of moving. We sort of wanted to jump the fence, wanted to swing for the fences a little bit. So some of the songs are epic and ridiculous…
There’s a lot more anthemic, no holds barred epics.
MB: Yeah, yeah – there are a few songs where we started hearing everything together and we were like, ok wait, this is too much! ‘Bloodbuzz’ – that whole thing about taking out the fanfare, part of it was because too many of the songs were just trying too hard, taking it too far. So we started picking and choosing which songs we wanted to explode, which we wanted to stay in a cool mode, and it was hard to figure that out until we were close to the end and we had the perspective. When we finally finished and we finally got the sequence – and that took forever – when we’d nailed it, none of us had actually experienced it that everyone else was about to. None of us had any idea really what our record was until a few days after we did that. I woke up in the middle of the night and said, “Ok, I’m ready.” It was about 48 hours after mastering and I felt ready. We don’t listen to it all together. I woke up at 3am, I woke my wife, I said to her that I was getting up, I couldn’t sleep, don’t worry, I’m fine, and that I might be up for a while and I might get drunk! She was like, “Ok, have fun sweetie!” So I listened to it from 3am until about 7am when my daughter woke up. I played it over and over, drinking and having a blast, and I realised that we’d made a badass, fun, awesome rock record, and it’s nothing like Boxer, but it’s still emotionally moving. I felt like we did it. I think we all were really happy and satisfied. With Boxer, he [motions to Aaron] couldn’t listen to it for months.
AD: I’m always down in the engine room fixing the engine. If we were a tanker, Matt’s the guy looking out of the captain’s area, and I’m down in the pit with oil on my face. If we get blown up, I’m pulp down in the bottom, and Matt can escape!
MB: It takes you a while, you and Bryce – all you guys are a little unsure afterwards, and I have to tell you that it’s so awesome, we did it, high five! We made the best record we could have made!
AD: I’m always like, “Hmm, are you sure?” My brother and I – it’s like a combination of our twin dynamic, this competitive deprecating thing that we do. People call it “people talk” – we’re like, “Nnngrr, you suck!” “No you suck!” So it’s very hard to switch out of that into saying, “Yeah, you did a good job!” After our Bell House shows, I sent him a text saying, “Good job.” And I know that that meant the world to him, because I can be really not very nice! That was probably the only nice thing I’ll say to him for the next couple of years.
How were the Bell House shows? They were pretty tiny compared to what you’re used to now.
AD: We were terrified! We’d never played an entire album, especially not a week after mastering it, when we’d never played them properly as a band and had to learn the parts. It went incredibly well, it was weirdly amazing. There were hiccups and it was messy, but it was really great to play for all our friends and family, especially the second night. We really felt that these songs could be great live. It is a little strange playing songs in front of people who haven’t ever heard them before. I wish that there weren’t all these imperfect versions all over YouTube of the first time we’d played a song, but at the same time, it’s not so bad.
MB: In a way, it lowers the bar. People have some really shitty sounding version, and when they actually hear it on the record or live when they’re in the room, they’re like “Oh! It’s actually pretty good.” We don’t want it to leak, but we know well that that might happen, it’s just the nature of the business.
AD: It doesn’t really hurt us as a band, it hurts the record label.
I can’t and don’t want to ask you to explain all of the lyrics, but there were some that I’m really curious about. Firstly, what’s a Lemonworld?
MB: A Lemonworld is an invented, sexy, weird place where you can escape from New York. I had some image of it being a big beautiful, maybe semi-decrepit house. You know the documentary Grey Gardens? It’s set in a house out in the Hamptons, it’s about this crazy mother and daughter who live there in their own little world. It’s also very depressing and odd and beautiful. Anyways, I had this sense of a Lemonworld as a place where these two sexy sisters who wear bathing suits all the time and drink a lot, y’know, “put flowers in my mouth and we can say we invented a summer lovin’ torture party” – that’s awesome! That’s sexy, weird, and fun. My wife and her sister are very close in age, they’re both hilarious and sexy and brilliant, so I think I was channeling them a little bit. It’s a fun world.
The lyrics at the start of the song are perhaps the most apathetic of the whole record.
MB: Yeah, that’s like, I don’t give a fuck about any of that stuff, let’s get fucked up and turn on the radio, or the TV and watch something that means nothing, and let’s put on your bathing suits. It’s a little bit like, fuck everything. In some ways it’s very similar to ‘Fake Empire’, where you can’t deal with the reality of what’s really going on, so let’s just pretend that the world’s full of bluebirds and ice skating.
There seems to be a lot of lyrics about escaping the city on High Violet, and escaping to water especially.
MB: Yeah, that’s weird. There are things that always come back to me, like water. But then actually, I think to writing and art and poetry, everybody uses water for a million different reasons. I think I’ve probably used every type of water: a glass of water, a lake, a river, rain… There’s a song that didn’t make it onto the record that’s got wells in it too. Swimming pools all over the place, oceans… So I don’t know why! If you asked me what does water symbolize, a psychologist would tell you that it means rebirth, death or peace, all these different things. For me sometimes it means quiet, or a mood thing – like the rain in ‘London’. It’s not a strategic thing, I’m not like, “Aha, I’m going to add another piece to the giant riddle!” Certain things just keep cropping up and I try not to fight them too much.
The only theory I could come up with whilst listening was that maybe for a Midwesterner, large expanses of water are the greatest symbols of escape.
MB: On this record there is a thing about heading to the coast and leaving the middle, and that the water – when you look at the ocean, that’s what’s out there, and the land is everything else. Everything in your life is back here, and over there, none of that exists. Out there, none of the problems in my real world exist. There’s a lot of moving around, leaving New York, going to the middle, back to Ohio, and then it moves on from there – actually, it was when I was sequencing the record that I got really excited about all the movement. Then it goes to this weird Lemonworld place that’s definitely not New York, and then LA [in ‘England’], but that song is actually about London. I got really excited about that, but it’s kinda insignificant. One guy that we were talking to interpreted this whole Cormac McCarthy The Road survival narrative.
Yeah, maybe that comes through on ‘I’m Afraid Of Everything’ – you wanting to protect your family.
MB: Yeah, that song is trying to figure out where you’re going to go when there’s a calamity like a civil war or something.
Aaron, you’d named all the songs after civil wars – what happened to the titles?
AD: All the songs titles eventually disappear when Matt names them.
MB: Not all of them.
AD: ‘Gospel’ was my title. You gotta name them something, and something that you like, otherwise you get lumped with some stupid name that you don’t care about or that means nothing.
The titles seem to change so close to the wire. What did ‘Romantic Comedy’ become?
AD: ‘Conversation 16’.
MB: It was briefly called ‘Romantic Comedy’. In the last minute I changed it – actually, it was my wife who said that the old title sounded like we were trying too hard – and there was something about it that bugged me. We wanted a title that wasn’t in the song. It’s weird, every little thing matters. What you name the record matters, what you name each song matters, the colour, the typeface you use – all that stuff changes the way you hear a record. The typeface you use on the cover changes the way the record sounds. It could be a million different things, so we’re obsessing over every little detail like that from the last minute. Is “Bloodbuzz” one word or two? I have to think about it for a couple of days, and then it’s clear that it has to be one word. Why? I don’t know. It makes the song sounds different.
That’s something that’s really struck me about the record – I know in the past, there have been a lot of literary references on your records, and it seemed as though titles like ‘Lemonworld’, ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ and ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’ could be references to something else, when in fact they’re just representative of a style that’s become very idiosyncratic to your band.
MB: Inventing, yeah. Like ‘Squalor Victoria’ – there’s something in that word that sounds like something because every time you actually try to use real words to describe it, it doesn’t sound like the thing you’re talking about anyway. This character, Vanderlyle Crybaby – I can’t tell you how long it took me to come up with the word “Vanderlyle”. There’s the Nirvana song, ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ – just the word “pennyroyal” I loved, it sounded so great and it’s just the name of a tea. I couldn’t use that – maybe I should have, that would have saved some time – and so I started looking at the rhythm of the word, and the cadence. I probably have a book of a hundred different three syllable things.
Where did “geeks” come from in the title of that song?
MB: Well it was always in the song, but the truth is, the reason I added it to the title was because a lot of people thought that I was saying “geese” – people thought it was a reference to ‘The Geese Of Beverly Road’, that the geese were back! In some ways that could have been cool, but that’s not what it is. There was a time when we were mixing it where I kind of slur those lyrics a bit, and it sounds like I’m saying “geese”. I asked Peter if I could re-record that one word, and he said no, it sounded fine, and it’d sound weird if there was suddenly this really pronounced “GEEKS!” So I asked him to turn up the “K” sound, just ride it up!
AD: He did do that! We’re taking all the mystery out of the album…
MB: Now I like the title better, it sounds funnier and goofier. I think it actually improves the song. Everything matters. It doesn’t matter that much, but a little bit, and a collection of a thousand little things really adds up.
You brought up loads of things I wanted to ask about – where did the title come from, and where did you come across Mark Fox’s sculpture that’s on the cover?
MB: I think we found the image before I figured out the title. I wanted to avoid using a black and white photograph, but I didn’t know what to do. At one point, Scott, who does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to the artwork, he and I were working on a lot of different ideas. We made these solid pink covers, we wanted something that was so different from anything we’d done before, so they were bright fluorescent pink. That didn’t look good! And then for a while, when we were working with the title Summer Lovin’ Torture Party, we were going to have a pink cover with that being the title, which would be the last thing you’d expect us to do. But then we realised that that’s also kind of annoying and silly. But Mark’s work, I started looking at a lot of different artists and randomly searching, and seeing his stuff – he’s also from Cincinnati – his stuff has this the sense of the work of a madmen, with these intricate cut up words. Most of his stuff is about ten times the size of ‘Binding Forces’, which is the album cover. They usually fill a room, and look like they must have taken months and months of elves cutting out coloured paper and doodles that are built in these giant swarms and nests of chaos. So that kind of thing just felt good for the record, because so many of the songs are these collages of thoughts and little ideas, and all these sonic elements and textures. The songs in many ways are these swarms of thought and emotion and sound. So that’s why a lot of his stuff seemed perfect. We’re actually using other pieces of his for the ‘Bloodbuzz’ single, and the one after that too, they’re all his sculptures.
Aren’t the words on ‘Binding Forces’ from some religious doctrine?
MB: I don’t know, I haven’t been able to figure it out. I can read a little of it, and he said that it’s from some sort of official document – I don’t know if that’s historical or religious. I know in a lot of his other work, he will take these papal decrees, and then there’s this specific one that’s a papal announcement, something from the Vatican. He will paint the entire script, then cut it all out, then build it into this giant cloud, that’s literally the size of a cloud that fills a room. So a lot of his stuff does that. It just felt really right for the album.
Did you know him in Cincinnati or did you just stumble across his work?
MB: Total full disclosure, he’s my second cousin, but I never knew him as a kid, I only knew that he’d moved to New York long before I did and became a well known famous artist. I’d met him a few times, but I was looking up work from a lot of people, and he’s a very established guy. He’s got stuff in the Whitney and all these places. It was a happy circumstance that his stuff works so well, so we started partnering on this thing. His stuff was just so perfectly suited.
You’ve been so fortunate with finding lovely artwork, what with this and the photo from Peter Katis’ wedding that became the Boxer artwork.
MB: Yeah, we got up to play that song at the wedding, and Abi just took that photo. We’ve gotten lucky, yeah. And then the title – it’s just an invention that seems to mean a lot, a mood or some sort of state of mind or state of euphoria or paranoia, I don’t know. When you put the words together, they seem to trap meaning. With that title, the record sounds different than it did when it was called other things, and in a good way. It improves the way the record sounds.
In a good way, over the course of your five albums, you can tell that you’re getting older as a band, singing about what you know. Alligator and Boxer are to a certain extent about white collar malaise, which I suppose isn’t what your lives are any more. Was there the temptation to keep writing about that kind of thing because it’s what you’re known for?
MB: I never think of what to write about, as far as themes of lyrics go, I never have ideas beforehand of wanting to write about a certain subject. I listen to the music and write lots of phrases, lots of words. There’s never a plan or an idea to write songs about white collar depression or anything like that. I must have been depressed and had that kind of job at the time, so that was where that came from.
There seems to be a definite shift in singing about family now. How many of you are married, or have kids?
MB: I’m the only one with a baby.
AD: I was married, but I got divorced before, during Boxer. Basically the twins aren’t married.
MB: I didn’t intend to or want to write anything being a father or about having a baby, but I also want whatever I’m writing about, to just let it be. I think that this record has a broader perspective. It has less about personal problems and more about the broader issues. It’s not my world any more – it’s my daughter’s world. And my personal problems as a young bachelor in New York are totally insignificant now. They’re still there, and I’ll still sing about them to some extent – romance and sex and whatever – but I think there’s a different kind of perspective on this record. So a song like ‘Afraid Of Everyone’, where I do mention my kid on my shoulders, is about realizing that you can’t just turn off the world and pretend it’s all fine to do whatever you want to do. You’ve got this responsibility that you have to try to change the world as it’s the world that your kids are going to live in. I realise that it has a more panoramic perspective, it’s not so insular. It’s also more aggressive, it’s less resigned to give up and turn away. It’s more proactive and less passive.
On ‘Conversation 16’, you sing, “I was afraid I’d eat your brains”. Is that a reference to Patrick Bateman?
MB: No, but that’s really funny because – you’re talking about American Psycho? For a second I was thinking of Jason Bateman! No, but Bret Easton Ellis, we’ve just recently heard that his new novel - which is called Imperial Bedrooms – somehow involves us. It’s actually the title of an Elvis Costello song. From what I’ve read, and what I’ve been told, it’s a sequel to Less Than Zero, and that’s also a song title from Costello. Somehow, we’ve heard that he was listening to Boxer and Alligator obsessively, and we’re brought into it. It’s funny that there’s the whole brains eating American Psycho thing. So I guess Bret Easton Ellis and The National have more in common than I’d realised.
Lastly, you’re going out on tour with Pavement – how did that come about? You must be pretty excited.
AD: It was actually random, we’d scheduled a show in Paris and theirs was already announced, it was going to be the same night. They didn’t really want the competition and of course we didn’t even, and they know we’re fans so they asked us. They’re a huge influence.
Are you going to have seen them on the reunion tour before you play with them?
AD: We have to go to Japan next week and we’ll see them play in Tokyo I think.
MB: We haven’t told the rest of the guys that Aaron and I are going…! It’ll be awesome.
Have you restrained yourselves from looking at the setlists so far?
MB: Yeah, I don’t want to see them! They’re one of those bands where they’ve become, for me, having listened to the records so much, I’m not going to be disappointed if there’s a song I like that I don’t hear. Even if it’s my least favourite Pavement song, I’ll still be so happy that they’re playing. There are certain points where bands become so intertwined with your idea of yourself and your history and your love of music itself, that they can kind of do whatever. Unless you’re Bob Dylan and you kind of squander that. Nah, I’m kidding!