Published Sep 05, 2017Coming out for an enthusiastically demanded encore, Matt Berninger takes a swig from a massive wine bottle and passes it into the crowd, sharing his high with an already buzzing room of diehard fans of the National. Berninger and his literal band of brothers — Aaron and Bryce Dessner, and Scott and Bryan Devendorf — have just played their new record Sleep Well Beast in its entirety for the first time, on a specially built stage-in-the-round at the rustically refurbished Basilica Hudson in small town upstate New York.
There's a palpable intimacy in the air, not just because of the atypically small venue for a band as huge as the National, but because everyone present has just been let in on a record that's one of the year's most anticipated musical secrets.
"I'd never been on a circular stage like that," Berninger admits the next day at the band's Long Pond Studio on the outskirts of Hudson, NY. "I felt so protected and flanked on all sides. Basically, I felt less inclined to fall off or get hit by a beer bottle."
He pauses for a second then corrects himself: "I don't get hit by beer bottles — more wine glasses and champagne flutes."
It's a telling detail about the National's audience, but the band have also achieved a level of maturity and polish since their humbler Brooklyn beginnings. And although Sleep Well Beast marks a detectable sonic departure from the intricate, orchestral indie rock sound they're known for, they've never sounded so self-assured.
"We're already playing them well, but they could get a lot more interesting going forward," guitarist and producer Aaron Dessner says, excited at the prospect of evolving the new songs in a live environment. "It's the first album that has the potential for improvisation. There's a lot of space where Matt's not singing, and that's kind of exciting."
His twin brother and fellow guitarist Bryce Dessner has also noticed the shift.
"The nature of the thing has inverted, and the roles in the band were freed of certain tropes that we had long established," he explains. "Aaron has to start a lot of the older songs and be tied to the rhythm guitar part, and now he's playing lots of different things. I was responsible for animating the songs in a live setting, and now I really don't feel that at work."
Feeling comfortable with experimentation is at least partly due to the group's new creative home at Long Pond. The cedar cabin-like studio (pictured on the cover of Sleep Well Beast) is on Aaron's own property, and was built with the intent of making this record — from the early recording process to the final mixing stages.
"There's a piece of architecture that's specific to the record," Aaron says. "I think it has a lot to do with why the record is the way it is, just being comfortable here with no pressure and an open collaborative environment where everyone can contribute."
The studio serves as a home base for the five-piece, whose members now split their time between Hudson, Brooklyn, Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Copenhagen. "We didn't want to be a band that exists by email, because that's not gonna work," Aaron explains. "Really, I have no interest in that."
In their early days, the National worked together in a single room, but as each member acquired their own home studio, "it evolved to everyone working in their separate corner," as Bryce puts it. And while it was compelling to develop on their own, he says it felt like they'd "exhausted that resource" this time around.
"The danger of a rock band is repeating oneself. It's our greatest fear — that it evolves into the myopia of a semi-successful band that's in love with its own shadow," Bryce says. "We just don't operate that way. The way to surmount that challenge was building this space — the irony of which is that it's just being in a room with each other the way one should. That really helped the creative energy collide and offered all kinds of new directions."
The results reflect that. Sure, Sleep Well Beast features songs that are sad and sweeping and slow-building like "Born to Beg" and "Empire Line," but there are also tracks that sound unlike anything the National have done before. "The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness" pulls out punchy guitar riffs, while "Turtleneck" is a raucous full-blown rocker. "Walk It Back" opens with synths, whirring sounds and spoken word, while "Day I Die" features uncharacteristic screeching guitars that surround Bryan's unmistakable rhythms and Berninger's trademark baritone croon.
"Matt and [drummer] Bryan are always recognizable," Aaron admits. "They sound like themselves even if you try to make them not sound like themselves." But to combat a sense of familiarity, he experimented by "colouring in some of the space in the record using things we've never used before."
Guests like Buke and Gase, Mouse on Mars, Nadia Sirota and So Percussion were invited to plug in and play during the recording process, blind to any of the band's existing ideas. The Dessners also fooled around with lots of found sound. "We tried to collect a lot of fragments from different sources and use that in a compositional way in the songs," says Aaron. "It's not harmonic or constructive, and it's not destructive, but subversive."
He singles out the growling beast noise that follows Berninger's romantic refrain of "I'm gonna keep you in love with me" on "Dark Side of the Gym" as one of his favourite examples of that juxtaposition.
Essentially, the band's experimental streak is the result of a more relaxed approach. "We were less uptight about being super precious about that guitar part or this sound," bassist Scott Devendorf says. "We were concerned with the overall spectrum of what was happening and less so about cutting something in half or removing it completely."
And that's just as well, because Berninger's known to have an overly active editorial ear; his bandmates have even nicknamed him "Mute."
"Sometimes I don't care, but sometimes there's too much," he says. "It tastes like caramel. And chocolate. And chicken." He jokes that it's a fine combination ("which I love, by the way") — it's just not what the National wanted to serve up this time around.