Published Jun 26, 2010High Violet, the fifth record from Brooklyn, NY five-piece the National was recently released to near unanimous acclaim and even debuted at #3 on the Billboard charts. But don't think that all the success has gone to the group's head. "We're still not the most popular band around," says guitarist Bryce Dessner, insisting that the quintet is still all about the music. "The day we stop improving is the day we stop being a band."
How's the tour been so far?
The tour's been really nice. We did some warm up shows over in Europe, we played two shows in L.A. and a show in San Diego and now we're here. We're playing the whole album live, which is fun and the audiences are much bigger than we're used to. We're playing really beautiful venues, which is fun.
Are you playing the whole album front to back?
No, we mix it up with old songs, but we play all the songs on High Violet. Since the first record we've never done it that way. In the past there were always certain songs that were too hard to pull off. This one feels more organic to the band playing live.
Was that something you wanted with this record, a more organic, live sound?
We built our own recording studio, so there was a lot more improvising and jamming. So yes, I think we were a bit more comfortable in our own skin on this record, exploring stuff that we were interested in. We never make records thinking how we're going to pull it off live and there are definitely certain things on the record that we can't pull off live, like little special sounds that would be tricky to pull off. But in the past there are at least a handful of songs that fans love but they're just really cumbersome to play as a band. They translate really well on record and not at all as a live song. I think with Boxer we were really aware of that and tried to write songs that we would eventually be able to play.
Did you have any plan going into the studio or did you just start jamming to see what happened?
There were conceptual ideas floating around. My brother and I we write tons of demos and then the singer Matt [Beringer] decides which ones he wants to write lyrics over. That's the tip of the iceberg to defining what the record will sound like stylistically. When we do that, he's talking to us as we give him things. For sure there was an idea in the air about moving away from the pristine elegant sound of Boxer. My brother and I over the years we've developed a style of guitar playing that's based on how we finger pick electric guitars ― songs like "Start a War," a lot of the songs on Alligator ― and Matt really asked us to leave that behind in the hopes that that would give way to some newer, different sound for the band, and I think it did. It took us a while to get there, but songs like "Conversation 16," which has this pulsing guitar or "Terrible Love," the most obvious one. "Terrible Love" was actually one Matt described to us. He had an idea in his head. Matt's obviously a great singer and lyricist, but he doesn't play any instruments, so the way he talks about music is with vague description. But that led us down the path to finding things, almost more of a Velvet Underground sound. A song like "Afraid of Everyone," that harmonium drone, which reminds me of a John Cale song. I think Matt really wanted to write some pop songs this record. Originally he was talking about it being happier or brighter, but it didn't quite end up being that way. But in a way some of the songs are the most immediate songs we've done.
When Matt says "everything you normally do, don't do," is that a daunting task for you and your brother?
Yeah, it can be really frustrating. It's not like we just started doing this and this is our second record. We worked three years to develop certain sounds. But we're always trying to open up new parts of the sound of the National. Matt's voice is the one defining element in many ways and after that it's probably Brian's signature way of drumming. But after that every record we're pushing ourselves as far as we can musically. Having our own studio made improvisation and trial and error much less stressful. Songs have three to four versions. Matt and Scott were really into Pavement and some of the kind of looser indie rock stuff of the late '80s, early '90s. The way the National developed, we're so minimalist and subtle about what we do. Boxer was very refined and manicured. What happened on this record was we wanted to keep some of the looseness. Some of the songs are the original demos. It still has the qualities I mentioned but I feel like we were trying a lot of different things and feeling confident.
Was there a sense that a lot more people would be paying attention this time out?
I would say the big difference was that we were able to book tours before the album was even finished, even sell out shows before people had heard anything. So, in that sense, yes. It's always relative ― we're still not the most popular band around. I think the pressure with Alligator was huge. There were time constraints and we were really barely even surviving at the time to keep being a band. Going from that record to Boxer, which was so stylistically a departure, there was pressure there too. This one I felt less so. Any kind of stress we had was internal. Like the day we stop improving is the day we stop being a band. We're too critical of ourselves and that comes from not having a primary songwriter. A lot of our contemporaries they're collaborative bands but there's really one guy who's the songwriter. [For us] it's a back and forth process of really collaborating on writing a song. We can shoot ourselves in the foot and throw out the best thing we've done. But we have a lot of check and balances, we know when we've gone too far and not everything we do is good. In fact, most of it is bad.