Posts Tagged ‘Matt Berninger’

matt berninger

The National frontman Matt Berninger has promised his first solo LP for 2020. ‘Serpentine Prison’ it was produced and arranged by Booker T. Jones, with plenty of guest appearances lined up too. “More about it soon,” Berninger told fans on social media in October 2019, “but basically I’m the luckiest man in the universe with lots of brilliant friends who can play instermints [sic].”

For his proper solo debut, the National frontman teamed up with legendary producer and keyboardist Booker T. Jones for a stately set of mid-tempo ballads. Featuring contributions from everyone from Andrew Bird to Mickey Raphael, the album promises to be closer to typically sparse singer-songwriter fare than Berninger’s past solo detours (see his dancey 2015 collaborative record Return to the Moon, recorded with Brent Knopf under the moniker El Vy). On the title track, Berninger has said he dug “back into my own garbage” after focusing on writing from more character-based perspectives on the National’s 2019 album I Am Easy to Find. Expect more middle-aged ennui on this batch of introspective musings, like early highlight “Distant Axis,” a co-write with Walter Martin of the Walkmen that Berninger has described as being about “falling out of touch with someone or something you once thought would be there forever.”

Berninger shared a new track “One More Second” from his upcoming debut solo record Serpentine Prison, out on October. 16 via Book’s Records. The single follows the release of the album’s title track and “Distant Axis.” “I wrote ‘One More Second’ with Matt Sheehy with the intention for it to be a kind of answer to Dolly Parton’s ‘I Will Always Love You,’ or sort of the other side of that conversation,” Berninger says. “I just wanted to write one of those classic, simple, desperate love songs that sound great in your car.”

Release date: October 16th

It’s not yet known if Berninger’s collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers, ‘Walking on a String’, will appear on the record, but it’s the first full non-National venture from the singer, who previously collaborated with Melomena’s Brent Knopf on 2015’s EL VY album.

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Matt Berninger of The National is releasing his debut solo album, “Serpentine Prison”, on October 2nd via Book, Berninger’s new imprint with Concord. Now he has shared another song from it, “Distant Axis,” via a video for it. Matt’s brother, Tom Berninger, and Chris Sgroi directed the video which features Matt lying on the floor while various objects are dropped towards him (including, randomly, a Predator VHS tape). Matt wrote the song with Walter Martin (formerly of The Walkmen).

“I met Walter Martin fifteen years ago when the The National opened for The Walkmen on a tour of shitty clubs in the American southeast. On that tour, I learned a lot about how to be in a band without ruining your life. I also learned a lot about Florida, Tennessee and Georgia. Walt and I have stayed friends, and about three years ago we started passing ideas back and forth. Distant Axis started from a sketch Walt sent me named Savannah. I think it’s about falling out of touch with someone or something you once thought would be there forever.”

Previously Berninger shared the album’s title track, “Serpentine Prison,” via a video for it. Booker T. Jones produced Serpentine Prison, with additional production by Sean O’Brien. The album features an array of special guest players, including: Matt Barrick (The Walkmen, Jonathan Fire*Eater, Muzz), Andrew Bird, Mike Brewer, Hayden Desser, Scott Devendorf (The National), Gail Ann Dorsey (David Bowie, Lenny Kravitz), Booker T. Jones, Teddy Jones, Brent Knopf (EL VY, Menomena), Ben Lanz (The National, Beirut), Walter Martin (The Walkmen, Jonathan Fire*Eater), Sean O’Brien, Mickey Raphael (Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan), Kyle Resnick (The National, Beirut), Matt Sheehy (EL VY, Lost Lander), and Harrison Whitford (Phoebe Bridgers).

Back in February, before the pandemic overtook America, Berninger shared a cover of Mercury Rev’s classic “Holes,” from their 1998 album Deserter’s Songs. The cover is part of the 7-Inches for Planned Parenthood series and was originally shared via a video for the track. In April, for Late Night with Stephen Colbert Berninger performed the cover from home, aided remotely by Steph Altman on piano.

In April Berninger contributed guest vocals to “Quarantine Boogie (Loco),” a hilarious new COVD-19 themed song by Walter Martin.

Last year Berninger teamed up with Phoebe Bridgers for the new song, “Walking On a String,” which they performed in Netflix’s Between Two Ferns: The Movie. Then they shared a studio version of the song via a black & white video featuring them recording it .

The National released a new album, I Am Easy to Find, back in May 2019 via 4AD.

At the beginning of the year, Berninger, along with The National, surprised fans with a cover of INXS’ classic hit, “Never Tear Us Apart.”  Their rendition of the ‘80s hit was for Songs For Australia – a covers compilation, featuring songs mostly by Australian acts, that benefitted country’s rehabilitation efforts, following devastating wildfires.

The official video for Matt Berninger’s “Distant Axis”, from his forthcoming solo album ‘Serpentine Prison.’ Produced by Booker T. Jones, the album will be released via Book Records in conjunction with Concord Records on October 2nd.

The National’s Matt Berninger has shared the title track of his debut solo album, “Serpentine Prison”, along with the single art. The record is out October 2nd via Book Records—a new imprint from Berninger and Booker T. Jones in conjunction with Concord.

The video was directed, shot, and edited by Tom Berninger and Chris Sgroi. Berninger announced Serpentine Prison last year, revealing it would be produced by the keys-playing leader of iconic Memphis soul outfit (and longtime Stax house band) Booker T. & the M.G.’s. In recent months, Berninger has teamed with Phoebe Bridgers for “Walking on a String” and “7 O’Clock News/ Silent Night.” He’s also covered Mercury Rev’s “Holes” and Big Thief’s “Not.”

The song Serpentine Prison was written in December 2018 about a week after recording The National’s I Am Easy to Find. For a long time I had been writing songs for movies and musicals and other projects where I needed to get inside someone else’s head and convey another person’s feelings. I liked doing that but I was ready to dig back into my own garbage and this was the first thing that came out.

The title is from a twisting sewer pipe that drains into the ocean near LAX. There’s a cage on the pipe to keep people from climbing out to sea. I worked on the song with Sean O’Brien and Harrison Whitford and recorded it about six months later with Booker T. Jones producing. It feels like an epilogue so I named the record after it and put it last.

 

The album features contributions from a wide array of notable artists, including Matt Barrick (The Walkmen, Jonathan Fire*Eater), Andrew Bird, Mike Brewer, Hayden Desser, Scott Devendorf (The National), Gail Ann Dorsey (David Bowie, Lenny Kravitz), Booker T. Jones, Teddy Jones, Brent Knopf (EL VY, Menomena), Ben Lanz (The National, Beirut), Walter Martin (The Walkmen, Jonathan Fire*Eater), Sean O’Brien, Mickey Raphael (Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan), Kyle Resnick (The National, Beirut), Matt Sheehy (EL VY, Lost Lander) and Harrison Whitford (Phoebe Bridgers).

The official music video for “Serpentine Prison”, the title track from Matt Berninger’s debut solo record. Produced by Booker T. Jones, the album will be released via Book Records in conjunction with Concord Records on October 2nd.

National Fixed for Real

High Violet is one of those albums that exists as both a showcase of new music and an event. For The National, High Violet represented some sort of promise fulfilled. Just a year after Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest, Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, and Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca, the National became another indie act made good. Brooklyn was booming, and the band consisting of a wine-guzzling midwestern Leonard Cohen, two brothers plucked from guitar-nerd heaven, and two more brothers using the Grateful Dead and good vibes as the chief inspiration for the rhythm section, somehow became one of the most captivating acts in the nation.

Like seemingly every National record, High Violet begins with an absolute bang. “Terrible Love” is an all-time album opener, and perhaps the best song the National have recorded to date. Singer Matt Berninger begins with his vision blurred and words slurred, acting out the destructive tendencies he describes. His voice moves between self-contained characters at a moment’s notice, at one point almost too zonked to speak and the next completely raspy from pleading for understanding. It’s a performance, a method acting masterclass in character-based songwriting. Early National albums like Boxer and Alligator before it moved from quiet to loud and clean to messy. Here, on “Terrible Love,” the band throws away this rulebook, with the Dessner brothers fuzzing up their guitars from the outset as the Devendorfs use the rhythm section to slowly pull the song toward its thrilling apex.

The next few tracks on the album do more to establish tone and aesthetics than shine through in their own right, as “Sorrow” builds off of trembling acoustic guitars and a cleaner baritone from Berninger. The drums are nearly echoless, bright in tone and simple in composition. “Little Faith” scurries in panic, with sirens for guitars blaring above melodic and stagnant synthesizers. Bryan Devendorf shows off just how impressive of a drummer he is, giving the song its entire pace with just a few scattered ghost notes on his snare drum. Berninger’s desperation is palpable as he sings, “All our lonely kicks are getting harder to find / We’ll play nuns versus priests until somebody cries.” In the narcotized Upper Manhattan world that the National often watch and comment on, any emotion at all will suffice; even if it causes tears.

Afraid of Everyone” is the album’s second single after “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” and while the album’s second-half is a masterpiece in a way the first doesn’t quite reach, these two tracks are an apt thesis on the National’s changed approach for High Violet. Sufjan Stevens lends harmonies to the former, giving an ethereality to a band that’s so often rooted in a cold, broken reality. Berninger goes nearly breathless during the song’s finale, “Your voice has stolen my soul, soul, soul,” he sings, literally losing his voice as he does so ― a masterful showcase of descriptive vocal performance.

“Bloodbuzz” was released about two months before the album came out, and it’s a brilliant dividing point between the album’s two halves. Devendorf’s drums again steal the show, bouncing across the recording like a proton looking for its partner. The horns build with a quiet fury, and Berninger’s voice is more delicate here than on most of the record. The song is an emotional ode to the state that birthed the band, with lyrics from Berninger like, “I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees / I’ll never marry but Ohio don’t remember me.” Even when the images are nostalgic, they’re dipped in pain and regret: “I never thought about love when I thought about home.”

Berninger’s characters tend to always be running from things, and on High Violet his imagination doesn’t stop trying to escape, but perhaps these voices have grown comfortable with the practice. The album is a reconciliation of broken faith and half-hearted regret. There’s no point in letting pain linger if it doesn’t hurt that badly in the first place. The album’s back half begins with “Lemonworld,” an imagistic narrative from Berninger that’s more of a novel in verse than lyrics to a song. It’s spare and precise, with Berninger’s words cutting cleanly: “You and your sister live in a lemonworld / I want to sit in and die.” Among the layers and layers of the National’s elegant and pain-stakingly assembled compositions lie Berninger’s lyrics, which deserve their own listen outside the context of the music. His storytelling is incredibly intoxicating and he’s able to conjure the emotions of the words he sings in a way I’ve never heard before. It’s poetry, plain and simple .“Runaway” is a slow-building triumph, stadium-ready in a way the National began to master throughout High Violet. The album’s closing run is flawless, with “Conversation 16,” “England,” and “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” each succeeding in independently ecstatic ways. “Conversation 16” moves with the propulsion of a Hollywood thriller, while “England” is unabashedly anthemic, epically stirring without ever becoming corny. “Vanderlyle” is somber and mournful with hints of optimism, which is perhaps the only way to rightfully end a National album.The creation of the album was rumored to be an intense and volatile process, with the band spending days on certain details that nearly ripped the threads of the group’s foundation apart. It’s dramatic, but it also makes sense considering how thoroughly technical every detail of High Violet is. The band’s ability to stitch together a quilt and hide the seams betrays the work of masters, and it foreshadows a run of records that solidified the National as one of the most thrilling bands we’ve seen in a decade or more. Now, the group is more an entity than a band, with a festival and documentary populating album releases, but High Violet propelled them to this place. It was the last time The National were simply a band, before the world truly came calling. Prior to High Violet, they never had to answer.This edition of High Violet is about as deluxe as it comes; it’s on 3LP, comes with bonus tracks, and is housed in a triple gatefold sleeve. It’s the National album that broke them on the Billboard charts; the one that has arguably their most potent fist-pumper (“Bloodbuzz Ohio”) and it’s also the one that feels most underrated in their catalouge. Revisit 2010’s best indie rock album by getting this reissue, now. The National‘s 2010 album High Violet will be reissued as an expanded 10th anniversary 3LP coloured vinyl package in June.
This includes unreleased tracks ‘You Were a Kindness’ and ‘Wake Up Your Saints’ as well as alternate versions, B-sides, and live recordings. The album proper is across the first two LPs, with the third reserved for the bonus tracks. As can be seen from the image above, this release is being pressed on stunning white/violet coloured vinyl mix. These are numbered and come with a foil-blocked cover and a ‘bellyband’ (presumably the purple strip on the image).
High Violet (10th Anniversary Expanded Edition)

 

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The National’s Matt Berninger has covered Mercury Rev’s “Holes,” which opens their classic 1998 album Deserter’s Songs, at the NYC Tibet House benefit on Wednesday and now he’s shared a gorgeous studio version of the song that is being released as a single as part of the 7 Inches Vinyl for Planned Parenthood series.

Berninger’s version of “Holes,” produced by Booker T. Jones, is the A-side; a spoken word by lawyer and former Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal, called “A Reproductive Rights Call To Action,” is the B-side. Watch a music video for Berninger’s cover below.

Berninger gave the following statement in a press release:

I found myself wasting a lot of time and energy worrying about all the threats to the world and to my kid’s rights. Finally, I just turned everything off and tried to chill. I started listening to a lot of old favorite records and re-reading books. All my energy and optimism came back and I started recording a lot. So many people I know are having this experience and doing their best work right now. Instead of watching everything being destroyed why not have fun and create things that can fight back. I’ve never been happier. Joy is an act of resistance. IDLES said that.

“Holes” originally written and recorded by Mercury Rev (Jonathan Donahue, Sean Mackowiack, Adam Snyder, and David Fridmann)

Phoebe Bridgers and Matt Berninger (Photo by Chloe Brewer).

The National’s Matt Berninger and singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers have teamed up for a new track featured in Zach Galifianakis’ Between Two Ferns: The Movie, which is out today. The song is called “Walking on a String” and the studio recording arrives October 17th via Dead Oceans.

“Walking on a String” was written for Between Two Ferns by Berninger in collaboration with his wife and National collaborator Carin Besser, as well as musician Mike Brewer. It was recorded with Walter Martin and Matt Barrick of the Walkmen and produced by Bridgers, Tony Berg, and Ethan Gruska.

It’s the first joint song from Berninger and Bridgers.

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Upon announcing their eighth studio album “I Am Easy To Find”, due out May 17th via 4AD Records, The National released its opening track, “You Had Your Soul With You” but next up is the album’s closer, “Light Years,” out now.

The Grammy-winning quintet’s new single arrives alongside a video featuring scenes from I Am Easy To Find’s short companion film of the same name, starring Oscar winner Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl), who also appears on the album’s cover art, and written and directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Mike Mills (20th Century Women).

“Light Years,” is a plaintive reflection on lost love structured around a deft, tumbling piano figure, follows a trend set by “You Had Your Soul With You,” which prominently features vocals from longtime David Bowie collaborator Gail Ann Dorsey, contrasted with those of frontman Matt Berninger the album to which these songs introduce us hinges on this dynamic. Sharon Van Etten, Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Lisa Hannigan, Mina Tindle, Kate Stables (This Is the Kit) and others also sing across its 16 tracks, their points of view spanning I Am Easy To Find’s prismatic and expansive 68 minutes. This might be one of Matt Berninger’s most poetic odes to love and loss to date: “Oh, the glory of it all was lost on me/’Til I saw how hard it’d be to reach you/And I would always be light years, light years away from you.”

Mills, also credited as a co-producer on the album, had a major hand in its multidimensional direction. Bryce Dessner says of I Am Easy To Find, “It’s a movie about a woman, so shouldn’t there be women’s voices? We’re a band that’s been largely defined by the sound of one person’s voice where suddenly now we’re hearing others.” Berninger says, “Yes, there are a lot of women singing on this, but it wasn’t because, ‘Oh, let’s have more women’s voices.’ It was more, ‘Let’s have more of a fabric of people’s identities.’” He adds, “It would have been better to have had other male singers, but my ego wouldn’t let that happen.”

The National have also revealed that their previously announced, already-sold-out “An Evening with The National” shows in Paris, London, Toronto, New York and Los Angeles in April will also include a screening of their I Am Easy To Find short film, as well as a Q&A session with the band, Mills and others.

The band’s world tour begins in Philadelphia on June 11th, running all the way through a Dec. 5th show in Stuttgart, Germany. Courtney Barnett and Alvvays will open on select dates.

From The National’s new album ‘I Am Easy to Find’ out May 17th

I Am Easy To Find

The first single, album opener “You Had Your Soul With You” features co-lead vocals from Gail Ann Dorsey, former band member and collaborator of David Bowie. As the album’s opening track, ‘You Had Your Soul With You,’ unfurls, it’s so far, so National: a digitally manipulated guitar line, skittering drums, Berninger’s familiar baritone, mounting tension.  Then around the 2:15 mark, the true nature of I Am Easy To Find announces itself: the racket subsides, strings swell, and the voice of long-time David Bowie bandmate Gail Ann Dorsey booms out—not as background vocals, not as a hook, but to take over the song.

The album will also feature a spattering of backing accompaniment from Lisa Hannigan, Sharon Van Etten, Mina Tindle, and Kate Stables of This Is the Kit.

Along with the album’s massive, 68-minute runtime, it will also be accompanied by a 24-minute short film directed by Mike Mills and starring Oscar winner Alicia Vikander. Mills, along with the band, is credited as co-producer of the album, which was mostly recorded at Long Pond, Hudson Valley, NY with additional sessions in Paris, Berlin, Cincinnati, Austin, Dublin, Brooklyn and more far flung locations.

Frontman Matt Berninger said of the narrative for their eighth studio album, and the band’s extensive history overall: I’m pretty much just pulling apart the same onion and every album gets a little closer to the center. Sleep Well Beast was a dive into our marriage in some ways, but if that was a three-foot diving board, this one feels like a cliff dive into not just marriage, but identity. I don’t know if we’re any closer to the center of the onion, but I feel like I understand the onion a little better, and I feel better about the onion. I know that I am my dad, my mom, my daughter, my wife, my band, my friends, my grandmother, the guy who cut me off in traffic, the guy who didn’t cut me off in traffic. I am those experiences. I am those influences. This is just an aging bucket. All these records, and all these things, are my afterlife already.

Get carried by a swarm of bees down to the new track “You Had Your Soul With You” and watch the teaser for the “I Am Easy To Find” short film (featuring the studio recording of “Rylan”) below, and keep scrolling for album details

From The National’s new album ‘I Am Easy to Find’ out May 17th.

The National has been slowly, sometimes imperceptibly fine-tuning its sound over the course of seven albums. A common jab is that all of the band’s records sound the same (or, worse yet, that they’re boring). Sleep Well Beast, on first listen, won’t change that, but first listens are never where The National’s albums do their strongest work. An hour-long odyssey into the darkness of our times, both political and personal, Sleep Well Beast is quietly, gorgeously insinuating, from the Leonard Cohen-esque “Nobody Else Will Be There” to the electronic thrum that drives the incredible title track. It’s music that, as usual, demands and rewards close attention.

The National’s ‘Sleep Well Beast’ came out on September 8th on 4AD Records, and on Friday (July 14) they took the opportunity to present the album in full live at Guilty Party, a two-day collaborative concert at Basilica Hudson in Hudson, New York.

Watch them perform the live debut of ‘Born To Beg’ along with ‘Guilty Party’.

The National live from their Guilty Party in Hudson, NY

Sleep Well Beast was produced by member Aaron Dessner with co-production by Bryce Dessner and Matt Berninger.  The album was mixed by Peter Katis and recorded at Aaron Dessner’s Hudson Valley, New York studio, Long Pond, with additional sessions having taken place in Berlin, Paris and Los Angeles.

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,  “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.

The National - Tour

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 straight forward 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 five-some 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 2013and 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.’” 

Tracklist:
Nobody Else Will Be There
Day I Die
Walk It Back
The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness
Born to Beg
Turtleneck
Empire Line
I’ll Still Destroy You
Guilty Party
Carin at the Liquor Store
Dark Side of the Gym
Sleep Well Beast