The National wanted to go home. For the past three-plus years, the band had been working in studios all over the world — in Los Angeles, Berlin, Paris, and upstate New York — on the long-awaited follow-up to its 2013 album Trouble Will Find Me, which firmly established the dour indie rock band as an internationally successful arena-rock outfit.
The quintet was wrapping up its second to last day at guitarist Aaron Dessner’s newly built home studio in Hudson, New York, when Matt Berninger, the band’s lead singer and lyricist, received a phone call.
On the other end was his wife Carin Besser, a literary editor who plays a large role in sculpting, editing, and occasionally contributing to her husband’s lyrics. Up to that point, the entire band had been feeling less than thrilled with the lyrics to one of its songs, whose chorus went something like this:
“Aaron takes his acid trip in Copenhagen/ Says he wants to stay that way/ But he can’t explain it any other way.”
Besser had a solution. She had found an early demo with a different set of lyrics Berninger had initially written, years earlier, and thought they might be a better fit. After the band had called it a day, Matt and Carin spent the evening texting tweaks to the old lyrics back and forth until they had rewritten the lyrics overnight.
The following morning, Matt, “red-eyed from no sleep and too much coffee and weed,” plugged his laptop into the studio speakers and started playing the alternate demo his wife had found on repeat as the band filtered into the studio to pack up gear and put a few final finishing touches on the record. The second time the song began to play through, Aaron stopped what he was doing and stood silently in front of the speakers, listening intently.
“Well, that sounds better than what we had,” Matt remembers Aaron saying to him. “I’m willing to chase this, if you really want to do it.”
“We do that sometimes,” says Berninger, recalling the eureka moment that resulted in the entirely revamped, current version of “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness,” the lead single to the National’s latest album, Sleep Well Beast, and the band’s first-ever song to land on Billboard’s Rock chart. “We flip the table over at the last minute, and if we don’t find anything when we flip the table over, then we know we’ve got the one.”
Over the past decade, the National has developed a reputation for being some of the most obsessive recording perfectionists in indie rock, a group that will record or mix a song in 80 different ways until they settle on something resembling consensus on a final product.
So when Scott Devendorf, the National’s bassist, recalls the moment when Matt and Aaron committed to reworking “The System Only Dreams” at the 24th hour, he remembers having one simple thought: “Okay, we’re going down that path again.”
For the past decade and a half, ever since releasing its self-titled debut album in 2001, the National has gradually developed one of the more fascinating collaborative songwriting methods for a band in any genre. Berninger writes lyrics to musical sketches made most often by guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner, with Scott and drummer Bryan Devendorf, who comprise the National’s rhythm section, later offering structural feedback and contributing additional instrumentation in the studio.
The National worked on its first several albums locally in Brooklyn, after the band moved to New York from their native Cincinnati in the late ’90s. But in the past five years, the group began to adjust how it made records after its members dispersed geographically, with Matt living in Los Angeles, Bryan back in Cincinnati, Scott in Long Island, Bryce in Paris, and Aaron splitting time between Copenhagen and upstate New York. As a result, much of Trouble Will Find Me was the product of several years of emailing song sketches, lyrics and instrumental parts back and forth.
The band’s newfound separation was one of the driving factors behind Aaron Dessner’s decision to build his new studio, a space where the band could once again convene to work for extended periods of time.
“That’s the big story of this record,” says Bryce Dessner, the guitarist and classically trained composer whose musical role tends to be pushing his bandmates towards left-field experimentation. “Finally having a place where we can all play together after all these years was really amazing for collaborating.”
Sleep Well Beast is the National’s seventh album and their first release in more than four years. In the period following their last album, the band devoted a good chunk of time toward Day Of The Dead, a three-disc tribute to the Grateful Dead organized by the National and featuring artists that ranged from Lucinda Williams and Mumford & Sons to Courtney Barnett and Lucius.
“It definitely rubbed off,” says Scott, who thinks the group found themselves more willing to make less structured, more improvisational music after absorbing so much of the Dead’s influence.
Since their inception, the National have been defined by the push-and-pull creative dynamic between Matt Berninger, a pop traditionalist who, as the group’s sole lyricist, gravitates toward recognizable melody and straightforward song structures, and the Dessner twins, progressive-minded multi-instruments who tend to favor the avant-garde.
That dynamic is more plainly on view than ever before on Sleep Well Beast, which contains strong dosages of both the most straightforward pop balladry and the most far-out experimentation the fivesome has ever put on record.
Songs like “Carin At The Liquore Store” and “Dark Side Of The Gym” are straightforward pop numbers with hints of doo-wop and r&b, the latter a reference to Berninger’s hero Leonard Cohen’s 1977 tune “Memories.” Meanwhile, songs like “Walk It Back” and the title track are full of spoken word interludes, programmed drum beats, and complex rhythmic patterns.
“We allowed ourselves to try so many new things and take a lot of risks, but at the same time, if the song was special and obviously strong, we didn’t rule it out because it had something to do with our past,” says Aaron.
In the National, most songs begin with Aaron Dessner. He usually comes up with his initial ideas — typically some sort of “rhythmic or harmonic behavior” — by mindlessly tinkering around on guitar or piano.
Aaron, who composed the majority of the music for the band’s new album, goes into great technical detail when describing his group’s music, detailing a litany of harmonic patterns, rhythmic intervals, and chord inversions that comprise the National’s latest record. Aaron Dessner is an enthusiastic promoter of the National’s musical synthesis, eager to talk about the theory and process that defines the group’s creative dynamic; in our 30-plus minute chat, I ask him a mere total of five questions.
Over the years, the National’s internal studio arguments and laborious decision-making have become the stuff of indie rock legend. Bryce Dessner, for one, can still point to specific musical disagreements that happened nearly a decade ago. “Aaron resents me for writing ‘Lemonworld,’” he says, unprompted, at one point while calling from his home in Paris. “He thinks it’s not an interesting enough piece of music.”
Aaron recalls one particularly tense moment in Hudson. The group had been discussing the song “Sleep Well Beast,” an atypical musical sketch that Bryce and Aaron had become particularly invested in seeing to completion. But Berninger had been having a hard time connecting with the song, and at one point put forth a suggestion: “Why don’t we mute everything except for the drum loop, and we can write something else to it?”
Before Aaron went to sleep that night, he turned to his wife, and said, “I think we just destroyed the one song I’m most excited about.”
What happened next is typical of the National’s chaotic process: The band appeased Matt, using the drum loop to form the foundation of a new piano ballad, “No Guilty Party.” After writing that new song, Aaron, still trying to convince Matt of the musical possibilities of “Sleep Well Beast,” took the lyrics from “No Guilty Party” and inserted them into the “Sleep Well Beast” backing track. It worked: Matt slowly warmed up to the initial song sketch and began writing separate lyrics to that piece of music, which ended up serving as the record’s concluding moment (and the longest studio recording the National has ever put on record).
The resulting two songs, “Guilty Party” and “Sleep Well Beast,” are just the latest in a long line of examples of the National deploying its inherent creative tensions in its favor.
“We’re experimental and quite adventurous in our tastes and in what we do live and what we all do separately,” says Bryce. “Our records have tended to be a little more buttoned-up and … not conservative, but economical. If they’re adventurous it’s in more subtle ways, the way we would use an orchestra or the fact that we would make these weird hits out of all these sleepy songs.”
Those sleepy hits — be it 2007’s morose ode to disillusionment-turned-Obama-campaign song “Fake Empire,” 2010’s Great Recession-era lament “Bloodbuzz Ohio” or 2013’s anxious arena rock anthem “Sea Of Love” — have formed the backbone of the band’s songbook.
But on its latest, the National mostly abandons a core feature of its signature sound — the slow-building musical climax that’s been described as “crescendo rock” — for a more subtle approach. On Sleep Well Beast, the band allowed its sparse ballads to remain as such. And when the group did build exuberant musical landscapes, during the endings to “Walk It Back” or “I’ll Still Destroy You,” it composed entirely separate pieces of music and stitched them together.
“Where in the past we’ve been hammering this sort of anthemic thing,” says Bryce, “these ones have more information in them.”
Matt Berninger is surrounded by notebooks. He’s calling from his home in Los Angeles, where he’s lived since 2013, and at the moment, he’s sitting in a room where he stores all of his old writing journals.
Berninger used to depend on these notebooks: he’d constantly jot down lines and lyrics, fill them up with color-coded page markers, and write notes to himself in the margins.
“They stressed me out, all these notebooks, and staring at them gives me a bit of anxiety,” he says. “I don’t need to dig them up again. Those notebooks are dead bodies. Let them rest in peace.”
In recent years, Berninger has adopted an entirely new, unstructured approach to lyric writing. Nowadays, he doesn’t write unless he has music in front of him, and when he is writing, he now relies on a mix of improvisation and free-association. He’ll receive a demo from Aaron or Bryce, lie down on a recliner with some wine and weed, turn the music on, and begin singing the first thing that comes to his head.
“I find it much more exciting to just keep running forward through the woods, not worrying if I’m going in the right direction,” he says.
Berninger now uses one-page Word documents when he’s ready to begin gathering the countless revisions and rough takes he records — often directly into his laptop microphone — on GarageBand.
The lyrics on the Berninger’s newest batch of songs, however, are every bit as evocative in their specificity as anything he’s ever written. On “Carin At The Liquor Store,” Berninger, who’s always been at his sharpest when documenting upper-middle class malaise, paints an exquisite portrait of privileged summertime longing:
I see you in stations and on invitations
You’d fall into rivers with friends on the weekends
Innocent skies above
Carin at the liquor store
I can’t wait to see her
I’m walking around like I was one who found dead John Cheever
Over the span of his career, the essence of Berninger’s thematic focus as a songwriter has essentially remained the same. “Sometimes, I want to remind myself of ideas I’ve written, so I write them again in a different way,” he says. “Usually that idea is one of three things: I’m freaked out about the world, I want to be a good husband and dad and I’m trying but sometimes I’m a bit of an asshole, and I’m sorry. So it’s either: I’m scared, I’m sorry, or I love you. It’s one of those three things, almost always.”
With the National back in the studio together in Hudson without any immediate deadlines or time crunches, the band was able to experiment and create more freely, and more collaboratively, than they had in years.
Devendorf characterizes the band’s recording sessions as opportunities for each member of the band, “a five-headed monster,” as he puts it, to constantly give each other feedback and advice.
“There will be times when I think I’ve messed up a whole section on the drums and think it’s terrible, and Aaron will say, ‘That’s the best thing you’ve done on the whole record,’” says Bryan. “The band helps me see what’s working. Otherwise, I would just try to make things too complex.”
For their most recent sessions, Berninger introduced a few gags to help lighten the mood and foster directness. He instilled “Honesty Hour,” when the band would give unfiltered opinions about each other’s creative ideas. He also embroidered a knit cap with the word “Producer,” and whoever wore the literal “Producer’s Hat” would get to make production decisions at that moment. “Matt wore it a lot,” says Scott Devendorf. Indeed, Sleep Well Beast marks the first time Berninger receives an individual co-production credit on a National album.
Seven albums and 15-plus years into their career, the National are still finding ways to reinvent and fine-tune the way the band harnesses the talents of all of its individual members to write interesting songs and make lasting records.
“It’s kind of a cliché, but bands are all about the alchemy of individuals,” says Bryce Dessner. “There are fairly well-worn relationships that play out, and then we subtly challenge them. That’s part of keeping it interesting — we have to keep growing. How do you do that? Especially a band that becomes mildly successful, it’s easy to get overconfident. Part of it is that our self-deprecating personalities allow us to challenge ourselves. It’s like, ‘Actually, though, what we do is not that interesting, so let’s keep improving it.’”