In the run-up to the release of their highly anticipated new album, High Violet, DiS got a chance to sit down for a chat with Matt Berninger & Aaron Dessner to talk about making the new album, having babies, and the burdens of travelling.
DiS: So it’s been 3 years since Boxer came out. But you’ve been busy playing shows, recording The Virginia EP and making Dark was the Night. How has that period of gestation affected this new record?
Matt: I can’t remember how long it was between Alligator and Boxer?
Aaron: 2 years. It doesn’t feel like it’s been a long time, but that’s because we toured a lot. We even played festivals last summer. One of the main things that did maybe have an influence is that my brother and I were working on a weird 70 minute long song cycle for the Brooklyn Academy of Music that Kim & Kelley Deal and Shara Worden [My Brightest Diamond] were a part of and it was kinda 70 minutes of continuous music with a small orchestra and a weird multimedia project which was a lot of pressure but I think it got us into the mode of making a lot of stuff. We’d built a studio in my garage and as we were making this piece we were also starting to make a lot of new music for The National. Mostly, we did need to take a step away from the band. Certainly Matt did I think?
Matt: Yeah, I’d had a baby. After touring that long it was good for us to unplug for a while although it doesn’t feel like we unplugged for very long. Even when we stopped touring off Boxer there were already a bunch of music sketches that we were starting to cook up and work on. So there was only really a 2 or 3 month period where my wife was 9 months pregnant and the first couple of months of my daughter being around that I didn’t do much else. But there wasn’t that long when it was a complete ‘unplug’. But that time and the things that were happening did have an effect on this record.
DiS: Did it change direction from there those initial musical sketches were heading?
Matt: We didn’t know what we wanted to do. We had some vague ideas and a general feeling that we wanted it to be a record that was a little more aggressive, a little more fun; less stately, less delicate and sensitive than Boxer. In fact Boxer was a reaction against Alligator and we wanted to undo that record. This time was the same. We didn’t necessarily want to go back to those records but, what that process was, came through experimentation and doing things differently. One of the things we talked about when we built our own studio was that we wanted to record in a new way. You know, in an environment with no clock on the wall and that we could save every scrap of every sound we did and use them if we wanted to, instead of writing songs and then going into a fancy studio and recording them. We wanted to record and write them simultaneously. And we were looking for those sounds we hadn’t quite found before and I encouraged Aaron and Bryce not to do any finger picking, just send me stuff that had different ways of playing guitar that were more about searching for tones.
Aaron: Yeah, early on it became more of a record that was about texture and different colours. I’d wrote a lot of songs that sounded like it could have been on either of the last records but we avoided all of those because it’s easy for my brother and I to write songs based on these interlocking finger picking patterns and that naturally pull a song along and gives it a lot of clarity and harmony. That’s the basis of a lot of our songs and then Bryan composes drum beats to them and they tend to… well, they work. But we knew we could do that and if we’d done a record full of those it would definitely sound redundant. That’s not to say we won’t return to it one day but there’s only one song on this record that has any sort of finger picking which is ‘Runaway’. But that’s actually kinda different because it is in a weird 12 / 8 and is a sort of ballad. That was one of the earliest in the batch of songs and it was so beautiful we couldn’t leave it behind.
DiS: You’ve been playing that one for a while live haven’t you?
Matt: Versions of it, yeah. I think it’s changed…
Aaron: The first time we played it was at the Tibet House Benefit concert at Carnegie Hall and it developed. But there were things that we talked about; Matt had an idea in his head of a sound. He called it ‘loose wool’ or ‘hot tar’. It was kind of a joke but also kind of serious. So I bore that in mind as I was searching for music and making up things. Usually you’re just playing an instrument and you hear something that in some way tugs on you or has some sort of emotion and you chase that thing until you find it. And if you still like it then you develop it into a song. It’s like a sketch; it has no vocal but it does have melody and harmony in it. And then I’d send it to Matt. So one of the earliest ones was when I was looking for what ‘loose wool’ might sound like and it was this thick, incredibly loud guitar that I’d tuned right down through a tremolo pedal and it was getting a lot of natural distortion. It was throwing off these weird harmonics so I called it ‘Loose wool’ and sent it to Matt and he loved it. He said “now that is ‘loose wool’, that ‘wurh-wurh-wurh-wurh’ noise”. And that became ‘Terrible Love’. Actually, ‘Terrible Love’ on the record is the demo version. I was looping myself playing and on the record it’s a weirder song than it is live because there are some pitches and some seconds layered into it that are a bit odder. But once we’d figured that out it did start to become something and we were then looking for ways of playing the guitar that were outside of our usual vocabulary and that might be a little more spontaneous, rougher, atmospheric and weirder. And then we built these songs, gravitating towards darker orchestration like bass clarinet, French horn, double bass and bass flute as Matt was singing higher and more out there with these layers of vocals. So we were building this thick, woolly texture that had a lot of accidental harmonies in it. It’s less clear than Boxer and Alligator but more beautiful and aesthetically interesting. Like a weird, muted… I dunno, it’s not like My Bloody Valentine or a wall of sound?… but there is something about these 4 chord songs that have all these weird textures moving in different directions with these saved mistakes and accidents layered over.
Because we made it at home it is probably our scrappiest record? It’s funny really, we can now afford and are capable of making a really well produced hi-fi record but the way we wanted to work changed and we’d actually learned from our friends on Dark Was The Night. We know a lot of musicians now and a lot of our friends make their own records, so after talking to Justin Vernon, Sufjan Stevens or Richie from Arcade Fire a lot of how they work is to predetermine sounds; shape them before they ever mix them. Whereas in the past we’ve often recorded tons of stuff and then made ‘a sound’ out of it later on. This time we wanted whatever came out of that amplifier or drum to sound just like that.
Peter Katis [our producer] hated us because we loved these rough mixes and they weren’t album quality but to us they felt like they had that ‘thing’. There was one called ‘Lemonworld’ and the first, rough mix of it had this weird elusive quality to it that – when we started mixing it – fucked it. And we spent a month fucking it up, until we finally realised, ‘ok, let’s go right back to where we started’ and ended up barely improving the song because we realised, ‘that’s the song’.
Matt: In many ways, I think Peter Kadis saved a lot of the songs. We always have the same kind of dance that we do with Peter where it’s us trying to hold onto some things that maybe aren’t that wise to hold onto, and we push and pull in these different directions and ultimately we find a middle ground between high fidelity and low fidelity which creates the right personality for the record and we’ve done that every time and this was no different.
DiS: Yeah, I’ve read before that you have a ‘democratic process’ when you make an LP and that you spend ages refining each one. But without wanting to sound overly critical, something massively changed around Cherry Tree seemingly where every song had a far higher level of quality control?
Matt: Yeah the first record that we did was more or less just us introducing ourselves to each another. We didn’t know what kind of record we’d make or band we’d be; not even a notion of being, say, an Americana band despite the slide guitar on it. So that was like, ‘hey, we can make songs together and some of these are great songs. But where to go from here?’ The second record Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers was where we were just opening up doors and sticking our heads in and trying all sorts of different stuff and that shows in that record. It goes all over the place; it’s got screamy punk songs like ‘Available’ and these weird songs like ‘Cardinal’. What kind of a song that is I don’t even know! Or ‘Fashion Coat’, another odd song we were exploring. But you’re right, Cherry Tree was when we started getting a different sense of what kind of music we were going to make.
Aaron: After that second record – which was a pastiche of all these different genres – there was a sense that we all had these really serious jobs and there wasn’t a whole lot of time to make and finish a record. It was kind of haphazard. And Cherry Tree is a shorter, more focused record and the process started to change. Bryce wasn’t in the band on the first record - he played a quick little guitar line but nothing else. Early on some of those songs were literally the product of playing 4 chords on a 4-track, Matt singing over it and we had a song - but there wasn’t a whole lot of thought to it. There was a whole lot of thought and experimentation put into Sad Songs… though. I wouldn’t call it quality control, but we weren’t as aware that a foundation of a song has to be inspired and unique. And after that record it became a cardinal rule. We don’t talk about it, but a song won’t get very far unless it has musically and vocally something really special and a lot of things get weeded out. I remember starting to think: “I can’t give Matt something unless it’s really good”.
Matt: Otherwise I will write to it and we’ll be stuck with it.
Aaron: Also, I think my brother and I started to edit ourselves and focus on some things we were doing really well. Like if you listen to Cherry Tree, that’s the first time you hear that thing of those interlocking finger picking songs. My brother was a classical guitarist long before he was a rock musician and I grew up imitating that style and that’s one thing we can do easily and do really well. So you hear this a lot on Cherry Tree and it carried on into Alligator, where 90% is that technique - even ‘Mr November’. It helped focus the band, but as you get more confident as a band we got more aware and became pretty critical. We’ll often come up with little catchy things, Matt has a great lyric or Bryan will find a great drum beat but if it doesn’t have some sort of awkward emotion in it that grows on you or is too direct and obvious then it won’t be one of the songs that last. We used to call them the ‘ugly ducklings’. Now we like to think we’re a little more direct and immediate but we still gravitate towards the ones that are a bit harder to put your finger on.
It’s funny whenever we make a new batch of songs because people always worry ‘is it another grower?’ We don’t really worry, but it’s funny to see how people react to them. This is the first record where I feel really happy with it. I think it’s a really strong representation of what we were doing and I don’t have major issues with it.
Matt: To be really honest, we didn’t want this one to be a grower. We’d been hearing for so long: “It isn’t until the 8th or 9th listen that I start to like your records?”. We understand sometimes why our records don’t really grab you by the throat immediately and that they sink in slowly but we were honestly so tired of that. And by our second interview this week, someone said “it seems like Boxer was much more of an instant record, this one has much more of a slower growth” and we both almost screamed “Nooooooooo!!!!!”
Aaron: We shoot ourselves in the foot. The kind of music we like making reveals itself. It’s immediate in that most songs have a big hook in it that pulls you along but there are things you don’t notice right away. And you won’t hear all these things on first listen unless you’re some kind of audiophile with a perfect ear.
DiS: Did those intricacies and the resounding success of those last two records ever make High Violet a difficult record to make?
Matt: It’s been a very difficult experience, but it’s always that way with us. You get 5 people in a room plus Peter Kadis all trying to make one, creative thing when we’re pulling in different directions so ultimately that collaboration is always stressful and hard, but better than something you’d ever do on your own. Also it takes me forever to finish lyrics and get them working in the way that I like. It’s just a slow process, it’s not that I don’t work very often… I’ll spend 10 hours a day on trying out melodies and seeing how things work and often after 10 hours a day I’ll not get anywhere. It’s not because I’m lazy, it just takes a lot of work to find things that work well. It’s a hard process. I will say that we were less freaked out. With Boxer, we knew we had an opportunity. Alligator cracked open the door a little bit and we had a chance to establish ourselves and put our flag firmly in the ground, so there was a lot of pressure on Boxer. At the same time, we desperately wanted to avoid being the band which has ‘that guy who screams’ and make people realise we weren’t a one trick pony. So that record had an immense amount of pressure on it to not make us a band where you get a buzz and then it disappears. We’ve seen that happen so many times with good, good bands. We’re aware of how easy it can go away and we weren’t going to let that happen, but we had to do it in a way that didn’t paint ourselves into a corner musically.
With this record, because of Boxer’s success we did feel a bit like we had ‘arrived’ and that nobody was going to knock us out now, although we knew you can still release a horrible record and people will lose interest fast. But we didn’t have any worries that we weren’t going to deliver a record we loved. It took a long time to find that record though. The pressure was that we felt it had to be awesome. It couldn’t be just a very good one. And that takes forever to find. We were motivated and excited by that but it was pretty hard and stressful.
DiS: Was the burden of travelling anything to do with that initially? I’ve talked to you before about how difficult you find it and there are seemingly a lot of references to it on the new record. Like ‘It takes an ocean not to break this frightened company’ (Terrible Love) and ‘Put and ocean and a river between everything, yourself and home’ (England)?
Matt: There was a lot of distance and air between things on these songs. But in some ways we were more talking about New York being a place where there isn’t a lot of distance between everything and it all being so close together. I think wanting there to be somebody in L.A. or in London and there being these oceans, wide open spaces – or being ‘carried to Ohio on a swarm of bees’ (Bloodbuzz Ohio) – is motivated by a need for space and is a reaction to living in a small apartment. And then having a baby with your wife. That’s where the distance and space probably came from, almost like a need for it? But travelling and being homesick and feeling away from something you need has been a by-product of being in a band and touring, which comes into it a lot.
DiS: Will the pressures of a family and touring change the kind of venues and tours you play? I’ve noticed several landmark events featuring on your dates now like the Royal Albert Hall and Carnegie Hall?
Aaron: The Royal Albert Hall is probably just a place where anybody would wanna play. It’s kind of surreal we’ll be going there? But we are likely to try and focus the tours a little more and do two nights in each city so we’re not moving around as much. We’re in a position finally to choose where we wanna play and we’ve made the decision to find nicer places to play in terms of the audience, like Massey Hall in Toronto or The Fox Theatre in San Francisco. Places where it’s a great event for the audience. I don’t think we’ll be doing 7 week tours anymore if possible. We’d like to do 3 week tours and still play as many places as possible. Every fan wants to know ‘are we going to come to our town?’ We respect our audiences and they’ve been with us along the way so we’re going to go wherever they are. But we don’t wanna kill ourselves or burn out. It’s more important to make good music. We used to be ‘road warriors’ as we had to earn it but now it can be destructive with babies and lives to take care of.
Matt: We’re considering setting up a Las Vegas situation where we have a 6 night a week residency at Cesar’s Palace for a few years…
Aaron: “THE MATT BERNINGER SHOW!”
DiS: That could work…? High Violet is a pretty epic record after all. In fact, it sounds as a band you’ve really ‘gone up a level’ with lots of little production techniques and bigger, grander songs. Do you see yourselves as a band that can go on to headline huge festivals and bridge that gap between the alternative and mainstream music buying public?
Matt: The whole idea of this elusive ‘mainstream appeal’ thing has always been a strange notion; chasing that or trying to find it is never the way it’s going to happen. I think R.E.M. became popular because they didn’t sound like the rest of popular radio at the time, they helped redefine what was popular music - or what was ‘mainstream’. U2 you could say also did that with some of the things they were doing earlier on. I think we know that trying to have more mainstream appeal is the quickest way to lose our audience. But I will say with this record that we didn’t want to be that dark underdog who made a sad, grower record. We wanted to make a loud, fun record that would grab people immediately and move them, and not just on a surface level. We wanted that for ourselves; we wanted a loud record that was sad and hilarious and evil and loving and hateful – a big record that was all these things.
DiS: There’s a nice juxtaposition between the sadder darker tones and the lighter moments, like when you sing: "I was afraid I’d eat your brains / Because I’m evil” (Conversation 16). It’s a lyric I wouldn’t traditionally associate with the band but it works really well in the context of the album?
Matt: Yeah, there are some lyrics that are funny. “Put flowers in my mouth and invent a summer lovin’ torture party” or “I’m off my head in the oven”. There are some dark ugly things and also some goofing around. It’s one of those things we were going through sonically and musically, where we were trying for ugly guitar sounds along side swelling beautiful flute arrangements that could break your heart. We were definitely swinging for the fences on this one because we just felt it was time and we wanted some grandslam moments. I dunno if it’ll have any mass appeal?
Aaron: We made it at home and consciously knew we could let it be epic if it was also sounding scrappy. In a few cases where something was sounding too massive and grandiose we paired it back or subverted it somehow. There are a few examples of that on the record. Like towards the end of ‘England’ we did a few things where it was even more grandiose but we brought out it’s ‘dirt’. It’s an important contrast; it has this epic, weighty orchestral arrangement that’s quite modernist.
DiS: ‘England’ was the track that hit me the most on the first play through. It sounded like a song that was simultaneously pure National and yet something altogether different?
Matt: Yeah. I think with this record we’d adopted the idea – maybe it’s because we went through some tricky, tough things along the way with Boxer? – that there’s always a chance this could be the last record we ever make and what if it was? It’s not by the way…
Aaron: We’re breaking up!
Matt: Yeah… Its like the 9th inning; you’ve gotta go for it. We’ve been a band for 11 years and we’ve slowly found an audience – or they’ve slowly found us – and in many ways this was us saying ‘Ok, let’s jump the canyon’. So we’ll see what happens. We could end up down the bottom of it.
DiS: Well if you were to [clue: they won’t], there’s one question that you need to answer first to shut up this website’s music forum community forevermore. Which album is better out of Alligator and Boxer?
Matt: Well, it’s like I said, Boxer would not be as good if it wasn’t the record that came after Alligator and vice versa. They both make each other better records because of their differences. It’s like when we sequence a record. The song ‘Sorrow’ doesn’t sound nearly as good anywhere else on the record. But coming right after ‘Terrible love’, makes ‘Sorrow’ sounds unbelievably good. Boxer and Alligator have a similar relationship. And that’s my way of not answering that question…
Many thanks to Aaron, Matt and Annette at 4AD.