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The National (Aaron Dessner)

The National (Aaron Dessner)

Interviewed by
Natalie Finnigan
Friday 17th May, 2013 8:25AM

After a mammoth world tour of their hugely successful album High Violet, The National went straight back to the studio and banged out a brand new album, Trouble Will Find Me. Natalie Finnigan spoke to guitarist Aaron Dessner about The National's evolution as a band, both sonically and socially, and why Trouble Will Find Me came to them so naturally...

Congratulations on your new album - apparently you'd intended to go home and relax after touring High Violet, but instead you went straight home and started writing again. What spurred that burst of creative energy?

There was something that happened towards the end of the High Violet tour, where we really started to settle into an interesting place and were no longer afraid of trying things. The band was every night, on tour, trying some of our old songs in really heightened situations or somewhat risky situations. Like when we played the Latitude Festival in England, and played some of the songs from our first record. The same thing happened when we headlined at the Hollywood Bowl with an audience of 18,000 people, and learned an old song from Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, and I think the band just started to relax and accept that we had come so far.

We were embracing the chemistry and the fact we have the ability to deliver a show that is powerful and intimate. So I think on the same level, when it comes to writing music, we just accepted that there is something that is working and there is a chemistry that is working. And for me personally, over the years, after you've written so many songs that have endured, you do start to trust yourself a little bit. It becomes a relief to do it - if I don't write music and take the time to develop these ideas then I feel like something is missing.

When we finally got home and had some time, I have a studio in my backyard, so I just went in there and a lot of things came out and a lot of music came out. I guess that's interesting because I hadn't expected we'd start working on a record, but I sent my sketches to Matt and immediately, well like a day later, he would send me back a song, almost completely written, so that was unusual and I think we realised there was something we needed to chase. There was a spark that was coming out of High Violet that needed to be chased.

Yes I've read previous interviews with both you and Matt, where you've talked about how you've started to relax - where do you think that sense of security came from? It must help that they were successful commercially?

It's hard to say really, but I think that having three records, Alligator, Boxer and High Violet, that we were all very satisfied with and believed in, and then it turned out that the world outside of our little dysfunctional democracy/collaborative band-thing agreed. This record struck a chord with people, and there was now a meaning to the record beyond our own relationship with it, that meant we started to have an acceptance of the fact that there is something there and we could start to trust each other.

Usually the tensions are mainly between Matt and I - I write a lot of the music and Matt writes the lyrics, and there has always been a little bit of trepidation, insecurity and anxiety about how we finish things. We've had to struggle to finish things, but I think as we've written more and more songs together and those songs have endured, we've started to trust it. And this time I think we went into to it without over-thinking it or making any rules or struggling - we just enjoyed it and wrote a lot of music, and Matt was writing to a lot of different ideas. We had 24 songs we were working on and it was almost like we'd just started the band - we were kind of free-wheeling and it was fun.

You've talked about that tension before and the struggle to reach agreement as a band and yet, as an outsider everything sounds so coherent - how have you achieved that when it doesn't necessarily come naturally?

I think it's experience. Around the time of Cherry Tree, which was the EP before Alligator, we realised that you have to have a process. Before that, us writing songs was really hap-hazard - I would just stop by Matt's house when we felt like we had an idea, and I would lay down a little chord progression on four track and he would write a song to it but the ideas weren't really developed. We had the obvious revelation that we needed to take it more seriously, and with Alligator, each idea had to have more to it than just a little ditty. That evolved over so many years to the point that there is a real cohesiveness to our albums. We're not so interested in singles and any one song so much as we're interested in the art of a whole narrative or experience. We used sound in some ways to connect the songs, so the same texture appears and reappears within an album. On Trouble Will Find Me, we did this using some synthetic elements, specifically the Korg DMS-20 synthesizer which is really amazing, and we used it in the way we would have used bass clarinet or french horn - that element connects certain songs because of the sound.

But also, I think we realised that when you write music for Matt you can be ambitious about it, you don't have to dumb it down, because he is getting better at following things. Now, when there's an odd meter, like on the first two songs of this record, one is a nine and the other is a seven, he just doesn't even worry about it because he doesn't think about music that way. Or a song like 'Slipped', has mixed half-bars in it and that was me just trying to write a Dylan song or something, and putting these irregularities in it, and having fun, and making music that I would listen to. Matt, in the past, has rejected certain ideas as being too arty or pretentious, but I think this time he felt the emotion in everything and didn't really worry about whether the music was pushing it a little bit - in fact he liked that about it. So the good feeling with this record is that it's direct and heart felt, but it's also sneaky, musically in places.

Given you've said the album came out of the 'spark' of High Violet, is it a progression, sound-wise, or have you delved into new territory? If it was easier to make is the sound easier?

For High Violet there was a conceptual idea for the sound - we used tremolo and feedback throughout the record. With this record we didn't have any rules and we didn't avoid any sounds. I think we embraced the diversity of the original ideas for songs. I think High Violet was maybe more specific sonically, but on this record, there was maybe some discussion about mid-70s/Bowie, the song 'Sorrow' and what we meant to call to mind (mid 70's Bowie and T-Rex)and songs like 'Fireproof', and 'Slipped' and 'Pink Rabbits '- I don't know if we pulled it off, but they are attempts to make something timeless.

Like Simon & Garfunkel or Cat Stevens, for me it was an attempt to write direct and heartfelt songs. I think also, for Matt, producing other records, and me with my studio in the backyard, there's more interest in sound and experimentation, and I think we've gotten better at self-producing and manipulating things in a way that I think is more creative. I've never really been that interested in quirky production or production just for the sake of it. We're more interested in songwriting, but I think that this record has a sort of sonic environment or aesthetic that I'm really proud of.

You're going to tour - the High Violet tour was 22 months which is really is long and you've had baby - will you do a similar length tour this time, and will you come to New Zealand?

We definitely want to come to New Zealand. Last time we had a show there I ended up staying for a month afterward and just really loved it. This tour will probably be 18 months or two years and we've insisted that we want to come to New Zealand, but it's just a matter of someone figuring out how that could happen. We've reached a level where it's much bigger now and it can be difficult to get to somewhere so far-flung, but I think everyone feels a kinship for New Zealand and a connection there for us, so we've said we want to come back and I hope that it happens.