[INTERVIEW] THE NATIONAL on Sleep Well Beast

THE NATIONAL Opens up About Taking the Scenic Route – Literally – in Their New Recording Space

The National–comprised of vocalist Matt Berninger, guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner, bassist Scott Devendorf, and drummer Bryan Devendorf–formed seemingly on a whim in 1999. As Bryan Devendorf enthusiastically explained their inception to me by phone, it was clear that he was still enchanted by that magic from nearly 20 years ago. “We were together prior to becoming The National. It was never a ‘let’s start a band and really go for it’ kind of thing. It was pretty casual at the time,” he confessed. “Aaron and I were living in New Haven, Matt and Scott were living in Brooklyn. We took the train–or maybe we drove–to Matt’s apartment, hung out, drank beers, and messed around with a four track.” Devendorf was briefly taken aback by this memory. “It’s very surreal that we are still able to do that.”

The National

The sobering dissonance of Sleep Well Beast, the seventh studio album released this past month from The National, fits seamlessly into a catalogue plagued with self-deprecation, loneliness, and drama; frontman Matt Berninger still bears a sort of bleak elusiveness in addition to his sinister nature that has become a haunting trademark. Except this time around, his defensiveness is slightly off-putting. “Day I Die” starts with Berninger fiercely declaring that he’s better off completely off on his own: ‘I don’t need you/Besides I barely ever see you anymore/And when I do it feels like you’re only halfway there.’

“Guilty Party” places Berninger in the midst of a relationship fictionally falling apart at the seams while the title track teeters between hopelessness and the acceptance of it: ‘We leave our saviors wrapped around the necks of new machines/Or at the ends of threads that hold their bodies to the ground/And then the men who look a little like they feel like me/Offered them some bottled water then cut them down.’

The band has become sonically synonymous with blustery intensity, tumultuous buildups, and beautiful letdowns. But when asked about how the recording sessions went for Sleep Well Beast, Devendorf insisted that everything was, well, idyllic. “For this album, the place we recorded certainly influenced the sound. Aaron built a studio on his property in upstate New York and it was very homey. We were all instantly relaxed. I was surprised we were able to write anything, really,” he chuckled.

©2017 Graham MacIndoe

“It was a very rural setting; there was a pond and lots of nature surrounding the studio, which was nice because usually we’re in windowless spaces.” Being one with nature helped the band work harmoniously together. “Everything around us was just so scenic and there was less pressure on us, I think. There were no interpersonal wars or anything; disputes only occurred about the music. Battles over what elements were to be used in the songs, the lyrics. But once we started working, we started working. We let the music take us where it wanted to go.”

And perhaps that tranquil mindset also seeped into Devendorf’s outlook on how Sleep Well Beast will be received by the general public, as he admitted that in a way nerves are a thing of the past. “Maybe on some levels, I get anxious about the release of a new record but it’s more of a nervous excitement. The record was finished a while ago and I want people to like it–I want it to be loved. It’s like our baby, you know?”

©2017 Graham MacIndoe

His vulnerability flashes for only a split second, but remains poignant nonetheless. “I get nervous about the live execution of the songs: will my 42-year-old body actually be able to do a worthy performance that people would pay money to see? Yes, we are more confident than we’ve been in the past due to the fact that we’re older. But we also realize that we only have so much time left to do this, so we better do it right.”

**Photos by Graham MacIndoe

The National – Sleep Well Beast

Standout Track: “Walk It Back”

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