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- Posted on May 7th 2010 12:00PM by Stephen Dowling
An air of expectation has been building around the National for some time -- one that might have broken a lesser band. Three years ago they released fourth LP 'Boxer,' an album which saw singer Matt Berninger veer away from the rasping screams of earlier records in favour of a wounded croon, while his bandmates created a suitably beautiful backdrop to his stories of loneliness and fatigue. As 'Boxer' slowly elevated them to a position along the likes of Wilco as one of the most revered US bands of this decade, the Brooklyn-based outfit had to roll up their sleeves and get to work on a successor that would somehow better it.
Berninger and guitarist Aaron Dessner spoke to Spinner about that new record, 'High Violet.'
There really were massive expectations from your fans about this record. Was that a problem?
Matt: To have anticipation for a record isn't totally new for us. 'Alligator' had rung some bells and people were interested and looking forward to what we were going to do afterwards. We've had that feeling before. But it was nothing like it has been this time around. I think we're really happy we can tell there's this anticipation for it. But I do think we've done something great. I don't think they'll be disappointed. That's a great feeling. We could be wrong, but we're pretty confident in this record, that it's awesome, and that people have their fingers crossed that we're not going to blow it. The fact that we know we haven't blown it is a good feeling.
You have a reputation as perfectionists who slave over getting a record exactly right. Is that what was happening this time round?
Aaron: We're a weird band. Because of the way we work, there's sort of a lot of points at which we weed out things. Even people within the band are extremely hard to please. Our drummer [Bryan Devendorf] is famously cynical, basically. It might take to the last day of mastering for him to admit, 'Oh, there's a song.' But in a weird way, it sort of helps keep our noses to the ground and work really hard. It leads to better records, and Matt and I are both really critical. I don't think we'd put out a record that we didn't really believe in. We're not that kind of band, we're not under any pressure to satisfy a record company. This record, we kept pushing back deadlines because it just didn't feel we were there. Eventually we did run out of time and we could have pushed further, but we felt like it was done. We were crossing the 't's.
M: At one point, our manager said, 'I'm sorry guys, you have no idea. I haven't told you how much people are freaking out 'cos they haven't heard anything yet. I'm at the very end of the rope.' And we're like, 'Oh really?'
Do you get much pressure from your label or people around you?
M: We've had people who have indulged our whims, because they know we're doing it not because we're lazy, but because we're working out asses off and we have very high standards. We never take anything for granted. It's not like we're laying around sleeping in. The people we're working with know that too, and will let us go down those rabbit holes, and they give us enough rope as they possibly can -- to hang ourselves.
What keeps you working on the records for so long? What's behind that work ethic, five albums in?
A: There's some insecurity, and there's a lot of self-awareness. We're not a delusional band. I think maybe because we came to it later, and we were all obsessive music listeners of what we considered to be great bands. We don't have a delusional, arrogant dictator in the band who might force bad things. It's actually a very democratic process where there are leaders, and there are opinions that are maybe stronger than other opinions, or some members who are more stubborn, but there's a lot of give and take. Matt calls it the 'Magic Middle Ground'.
How ruthless are you? Does much get consigned to history?
A: We're pretty ruthless. We have some amazing music that was pretty far along for this record, where the songs weren't coming together, because what happens with us is, we write the music first usually and Matt's writing on lyrics and melodies and they get finished later. There's a few things that were as strong as anything on the album, but we just didn't finish them. But it's not the kind of thing where we'd force ourselves to finish them, just because there's a great idea in the music. It doesn't matter how great the drum part is or how good a string arrangement is if it's not a compelling song.
The National's post-Bush album doesn't seem like a celebration. The lyrics often seem despairing and paranoid.
M: There is a lot of mental chaos and the character is overwhelmed a lot. 'Terrible Love,' it isn't necessarily so bad, it's just about being overwhelmed by this emotion of love, whatever that is, or if you did something wrong to someone you love. There's a lot of stress and anxiety on there. And 'Sorrow' is, in some ways, a person's relationship with their own sadness. In many ways they have a very loving and needy relationship with their sadness. That one's maybe not particularly about me -- it's a little bit about Bryan our drummer, it's a little bit about my brother. And 'Afraid of Everyone' is anxiety and paranoia and not knowing how to deal with it, that's what that song's about. And desperately wanting to defend yourself and your family from the chaotic forces of evil, and you don't even know what they are, or who's right or who's wrong and what to believe. There's a bit of ... on the brink, on the edge moments in a lot of these songs.
Is it specifically a reflection of events going on in my life? No, not really. Not that bad. I had a child and I think that added a whole new perspective to my relationship with the world. Suddenly it's become much bigger, and I've got a much broader perspective, I think.
'High Violet' is out via 4AD on Monday, May 10, in the UK and Tuesday, May 11, in the US.