The National expects island influences
BY MARIE CARVALHO / Special to the Star-Advertiser
When Brooklyn-based band The National lands on The Republik stage in Honolulu, don’t count on happy music. Expect something more oceanic.
“The kind of atmosphere where you are, and how people are, inevitably does change the concert,” says Aaron Dessner, guitarist and composer.
» Where: The Republik, 1349 Kapiolani Blvd.
“We’ll be all the way out, six hours out by plane, in the ocean,” he continues. “Hopefully something special will happen.”
That buoyant sentiment could be a metaphor for the group’s sixth studio LP, 2013′s “Trouble Will Find Me,” which like its breakthrough predecessor, 2010′s taut “High Violet,” debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200.
Call it wading into the waters, or a new sincerity, but “Trouble” doesn’t only recall previous work: it also feels, aurally and tonally, like a release.
Or, more precisely, oceanic.
The band has subbed out some of its characteristic orchestration for ethereal vocal and synthesized backgrounds, which float around lead singer and lyricist’s Matt Berninger’s raw voice line. The layered guitars of Aaron and twin brother Bryce Dessner, anchored by rhythms of bassist Scott Devendorf and drummer Bryan Devendorf (also brothers), build a dense turbulence beneath the sonic surface.
The effect ranges at times toward a more acoustic, easy sensibility, with Berninger’s tremulous baritone and the guitars less at odds, plumbing roots music and 1970s radio as fluidly as synth-driven new wave and The National’s own catalog.
“We’ve grown out of the place where we worried so much about how we were perceived,” Dessner says. “Finally people are starting to see us not just as this melancholic, miserable, dark rock band — that maybe there are two sides to it, or a weird silver lining.”
Dessner contends that the “actual” The National is funny, too. His claim has its merits. The new album, after all, leads with a sardonic, “Don’t make me read your mind. You should know me better than that.”
THOUGH PRESS about the band’s fraught revision process may fuel the image of discontent, for The National, compromise is a source of growth: Where there’s tension, there’s aspiration.
“You always wish you can do better, you always hope … you can make music that’s more interesting and beautiful than you have ever made before,” Dessner says.
“And we’ve never been a band that’s really been trying to write hit songs or radio singles — although we aren’t not trying to,” he adds with a laugh. “But that’s not what we set out to do. We want to make songs we personally like, and that can be hard, because we have different tastes.”
The composer, who recently went on an iTunes binge to hear what pop music fans are scoping — “Beyonce’s record is pretty darn good” — admits his own ear leans to timeless standbys: Bob Dylan, old country and blues, Benny Goodman, Art Tatum.
But The National is no throwback: Eight months into touring, the band has sold out hip venues worldwide, with no sign of slowdown. A previous tour lasted 20 months.
“The truth is that touring is the primary source of income for musicians, and you can’t really survive without it …” Dessner says. “Record sales don’t really keep pace with selling tickets.”
The band is philosophic about that reality.
“At times you do start to reflect — is it worth it, or what could I do differently, how could I change so that I’m not gone so much,” Dessner says. But “there’s a noble aspect to a tour. Music does have a purpose and emotional meaning to people, and to ourselves, and so we find a healthy way.”
“We don’t want anyone’s personal life to be a casualty of the band,” he adds.
There’s been discussion, Dessner reveals, of playing some future shows “more stripped back — for fun, or for ourselves. I can see that happening.”
For a 2013 concept gig at MoMA PS1, brainchild of Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, The National performed one song — the circular “Sorrow” — for six hours in black suits under a white dome, dry-ice smoke graying out the stage.
“That day we played ‘Sorrow’ 108 times was one of my favorite days of being in the band, and one of the best memories we have, because it was a transcendent experience,” Dessner explains. “The song took on a different meaning, and through repetition became funny, and then became extremely sad, and then at some point we didn’t even have to sing it anymore because everyone was singing it.”
In days of synth- and pre-recorded loops, the human-made endurance produced its own palpable energy. One might even say it was fun.
“Everything I love is on the table. Everything I love is out to sea,” Berninger intones in “Don’t Swallow the Cap” — which could also be earnest assessment by a band that has put in all its chips and gone swimming in the deep.
Catch them while they’re in Honolulu’s waters.
HONOLULU STAR-ADVERTISER: For someone not familiar with your music, what song is a good entry point to the new album, “Trouble Will Find Me”?
AARON DESSNER: We do different things over the course of an album. We’ve never been a band that every song is a formula, and we repeat it. There are bands that do that, and it’s great, or can be. But we do different kinds of songs — like a fast rock song, which we’ve always enjoyed, songs that have more of an edge and a punk aesthetic to them, or a more forceful aesthetic, like “Graceless” or “Sea of Love,” or “Don’t Swallow the Cap.” Those are good examples. But on this album a song like “I Need My Girl” or “Pink Rabbits” or “Slipped” — sometimes the more awkward, quiet, beautiful songs, you feel more emotion in them. Those are good ones to start with.
SA: Guest artists Sufjan Stevens, St. Vincent and Sharon Van Etten, among others, appear on “Trouble.” At what point did you bring them on board, and how did those collaborations impact the album — or did they?
AD: Yeah, they did. Someone like Richard Reed Parry from Arcade Fire — he’s on practically every track — is a close friend, and someone we’ve worked with a lot. We invite people to help us deepen or expand the sound, or explore other ideas.
We probably use 10 percent of what people do, but it really helps to vary the chemistry and the sound, and we love doing that. Sharon adds a harmonic element to the vocal world for us. And she’s such a brilliant singer: Literally, it took her a day to add those harmony lines, and that was special.
Sufjan Stevens has always helped in little ways along the process. His musical mind is so brilliant: he’ll hear things we don’t hear, re-harmonize chords, play rhythms we haven’t thought of. … We’re lucky we have all of these friends who happen to be great musicians.
SA: A four-day power outage hit as you were about to lay down the album’s first take. The band got drunk instead and played the entire set acoustically by candlelight — a scene you’ve commented would never happen again. Why not? The vibe seems fitting for an album that suggests a more stripped-down, vocal sensibility.
AD: Yeah, I love the idea of us playing music in a more stripped-down (way). My brother and I, especially, we play acoustic instruments more often than we play electric; that’s what we come from. And it’s nice. A lot of these songs work with one or two instruments and Matt’s voice.
It’s actually fun — these songs, we’ve enjoyed playing them more than we ever have before. When I said that, I thought it was odd (to play acoustically); but now maybe it’s not so odd. Matt and I have even done a little performance recently in San Francisco, just the two of us. I was playing acoustic guitar and piano, and he was singing; it was nice to hear the songs that way.
Although I think what happens live with us is something special, and people want to see that. But it’s always interesting when you put artists in situations where they play more stripped down, and you hear songs in different ways.
SA: You’ve said that the album meant to invoke, or you were listening to, mid-1970s Bowie and T. Rex — from what specifically did you draw?
AD: The first song, “I Should Live in Salt,” is a breezy strumming pattern, and that was specifically an attempt to write a song that was relaxed, not tense. Because a lot of “High Violet” is very tense — there’s a tension about to break — we had an interest in trying to design an album that had a different feeling.
So we thought about certain Cat Stevens songs, or Bowie has a way of pulling off a pop song with a mid-tempo strum and some really interesting production of turns. … And I think we pulled it off in places, like “Pink Rabbits” and “I Should Live in Salt” for sure. Also, in terms of the sound world, I was using some synthesizers from the late ’70s. Funny, now I listen, and I can hear they’re like these amoebas beneath the surface, swallowing the guitars.
Over the years we’ve used a lot of orchestral instruments, especially darker wind instruments and brass. This time, we were still using those, but more than that, we were using synthesizers to replace those elements. You hear it a lot on “I Should Live in Salt,” but most of the songs have them.
It’s funny now, because probably for the success of the record, it might be better if there weren’t these dark amoebas floating under the songs. But it was an important aesthetic.