“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” is the truism that The National’s Aaron Dessner uses to describe his band. But, having found themselves locked in a studio for six months with no songs, trying to follow up an album like Alligator, they got to a point where the sums just weren’t adding up.
_"We’d spent more than 70 per cent of the recording budget and we had less than half of an album, and we’d all lost our minds."_
Sat in a dimly lit corner of The Defectors Weld public house, Shepherds Bush, guitarist Aaron Dessner of New York-via-Cincinnati band The National appears pained in having to relive the story of how his latest album - Boxer - born into the world in May of this year, nearly didn’t happen at all.
“We didn’t have ANY songs when we started,” he recalls. After nearly two years on the road in support of their critical breakthrough long-player Alligator the band had lost their creative itch. “I don’t think any of us realised how exhausted we would get by the process of touring and I think we kinda needed to walk away from the band for a long time afterwards.” Retreating to London for a well-earned break Dessner eventually began to assemble some musical ideas naturally, whilst on the other side of the Atlantic vocalist Matt Berninger was already compiling books of lyrics and ideas. “But,” he says, “we came together around April or May of 2006 and rehearsed for a couple of weeks and still didn’t have any songs.” At this point, feeling the immense pressure to better their previous effort, many artists would begin to get worried. However, The National have never been a band to give up at the first hurdle. “We had this studio time reserved, that we’d locked out for a couple of months at Peter Katis’s studio in Connecticut, where we can also live - so we just went! We just thought, we’re not gonna let go of the time so lets just do it, see what happens.”
So, arriving in the studio without any songs and a self-allotted period of just two months to write and record an album’s worth of material, they set to work. “It was incredibly difficult! We worked straight through the summer, everyday, ‘til late September and by that point we’d spent more than 70 per cent of the recording budget and we had less than half of an album, and we’d all lost our minds.” As Dessner lets out a giggle of nervous laughter, it’s clear he isn’t joking.
Any finished outcome appeared, at that point, a distant hope. “I remember discussing this with friends. Discussing it with Sufjan Stevens, who played on the album and is a good friend.” Dessner continues: “He was around the whole summer, and we’d come home on the weekends sometimes, and see him at home. He was laughing because I think he felt, from an outside perspective, the fact that it was going to be difficult was a good thing. And then out of that there was going to be something good.” But, at that moment Stevens seemed to be the only one with any optimism. “He could tell we couldn’t see it or we’d become very frustrated and I think he had a sense that this was good. That this was the band growing.”
Once some songs did eventually begin to emerge Dessner admits that “they just weren’t good enough.” He peers down into his glass with a glum look. “Finally I, just, well, I went away for a week... When we all got back together, we talked and were just like, ‘We should stop – we don’t have an album’. And we didn’t return to the studio again until late January.” In the interim the band fled back to their Brooklyn homes, as well as brief stints in West Virginia where Dessner and, his band mate brother, Byrce’s parents have a house. “We actually re-recorded a lot of the stuff we’d done in Connecticut. Not the drums so much but almost everything else we just re-did in my attic in Brooklyn mostly,” he explains. “I have an old Victorian house and we have our own recording stuff and we just felt like we wanted a different feeling in a lot of it - that we could only discover after we had time to reflect on it. We also wrote a whole bunch more.”
“I don’t think we’d do it again, the way we did _Boxer, because it was nearly a disaster. We came very close to giving up.”_
Eventually things began to take shape for the better. Slowly but surely they began to see the forest from the trees. Dessner recalls: “‘Fake Empire’_ existed but it didn’t have the fanfare at the end. There was this big hole at the end of the song. It kinda worked in a way but it was like, what is that hole? Should there be lyrics? Is there something? Finally we realised what if there was a fanfare, ‘cause it just enigmatically worked. So we asked Padama [Newsome, violinist for Clogs and The National], who was back in Australia, to think about that and he wrote this minimalist fanfare, sent it to us and we recorded it in my attic. A lot of the time we got local players to do it and a lot of the stuff on Boxer happened that way. Then we went back in to Peter Katis’s [studio] for another six weeks in January/February and that’s when we bought it all together. But we did tonnes of recording at home.”_
I question whether they ever felt scarred during this time? “Well, yeah, we were scared until...” He pauses, before continuing: “I remember really only hearing the album for the first time on the way to mastering. We’d stayed up all night the night before and on the drive down from Connecticut to New York City to master it, at like eight in the morning, it was a freezing cold day and I was bundled up in the back of the car and we were playing what we thought was the album, unmastered.” It was exactly the bleak picture he portrays. In that tired and blurry state he remembers, “I was too close to it to realise it was any good at all and was like, ‘We shouldn’t master this!’. But I think that happens to a lot of musicians. When you get too close to something, you can’t actually see it.” But, by that point, things had gone straight to the wire. Dessner reasons: “The good thing was that the original ideas were all inspired ideas. The foundation of everything was good, the tempos, the feeling, et cetera – but something was missing. A lot of the stuff did not have lyrics until the very, very end. Then Matt eventually found this lyric for _‘Squalor Victoria’. That song didn’t have lyrics until the night before we mastered it. Many songs we pulled apart at the last minute and took out, like ‘Brainy’ had an entirely different ending and we took it off.”_
But they got there in the end and what we were left with is one of 2007’s best albums (review). “It was a very difficult record, for sure. But that was mainly our fault for jumping into it before we had songs. We could have been patient and just let them evolve. Alligator was more like that - it had more songs already written before we really tried to record them. I don’t think we’d do it again, the way we did Boxer, because it was nearly a disaster. We came very close to giving up.”
When The National first formed in 1999, singer Matt Berninger was 31 years of age and had never been actively involved in making music prior. Gaining their first ‘big break’ five years ago when a small label in France, called Telipe, first licensed their music, nothing seemed to have come easily or overnight for the band. “I think that first of all we really relied on ourselves,” he explains. “For example, we created a label ourselves with a friend, it was all pretty manageable in the sense of there was no outside expectation. We were like, ‘Let’s do it mainly for fun and our own enjoyment; if something comes of it, then great’. But we’re not left having devoted too much or having signed contracts with somebody.”
But after their French connection, things really started to roll. “We went to play in Paris, and there had been some press, and it was our first sold-out show. It was really the first time we had the sense that people might see something interesting in what we were doing. We knew we weren’t going to be like a ‘buzz band’ or a hot new band, because it was difficult at first and back then we weren’t great live. We only actually signed to Beggars [Banquet] when we really felt like we were ‘doing this’ and we’re not able to advance or reach the audience that we’d like to on our own. Now I think we could, but at that point we were really stuck at a point where it had plateau-ed after Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers_.”_
_“It’s okay to be a band for a few years, mainly playing for your friends, if you are developing what you are doing.”_
Dessner’s advice to young musicians reflects the arduous route that his band took in gaining a fan base. “Just be patient about earning an audience,” he says. “It’s okay to be a band for a few years, mainly playing for your friends, if you are developing what you are doing. In some sense that could be better because you’ll have more time to reflect on it and really develop a depth to what you’re doing that you can sustain because if you hit it with one album, or an EP, and you’re touring all the time and THEN you have to be creative, and create a depth of music and a catalogue and repertoire of stuff that you can play – it’s really hard to do I think.
“I think we’re maybe lucky in the sense of having two sets of brothers in the band. It kinda felt like a family expedition, and maybe, because we all had jobs before, I think we had that experience of working for several years with money and knew we could go back to it.” But there are benefits of a slow rise to the top. “Now I am thankful that we have all that earlier stuff, both because we can sell those records and make more money off them, and because we can play those songs live. Plus, if people really want to get into the band they can delve further back before Boxer and Alligator - there’s a whole lot more to sustain it.”
For Dessner and his band mates there must be something quite satisfying, having finally attained this level, completely on their own terms. “I think success is all relative still though,” says Dessner. “For example, our friends like Sufjan or Arcade Fire, those bands are much more popular in that sense, so you’re just grateful for where you are. I don’t think it’s really about how many records you sell or how big the places you’re playing are. It’s more about the feeling you get, that you take away from it. Like playing: if you’re satisfied in having a meaningful relationship to the music, then that’s a good feeling – and if people are there rather than not. That’s the most important thing, I think.”
And as he buttons his jacket, ready to leave to play in front of 4,000 people at London’s Shepherds Bush Empire over the next two (sold-out) nights, all the adversity of the past pales into insignificance. After all, they’ve earned their rewards.
Check DiS this Friday, December 14, to see if Boxer (out now on Beggars Banquet) will feature prominently in the results of the reader-voted top albums of 2007 poll. The band’s MySpace – more information, tour dates, et cetera – can be found here.