Published May 04, 2019According to frontperson Matt Berninger, the National's forthcoming new album, I Am Easy to Find, almost didn't happen.
"We weren't originally trying to make a record," he tells Exclaim! in an interview. "It felt like when you get to the bonus round on Galaga where you don't get killed because there's a force field around you, so you just fly around and blow everything up. We had just won a Grammy for our last record [2017's Sleep Well Beast] and were about to take a break. We weren't ready to do battle again, but then this added challenge round came and we were like, 'Okay, we'll just do this and score extra points and have fun.' That's what it felt like the whole time. But now we have to do battle."
On May 17, the National will release the album, the famed indie rock band's eighth, along with a short film directed by the Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Mike Mills (20th Century Women, Beginners) that stars Academy Award winner Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl, Ex-Machina). (Here's a preview.) Mills reached out to the band in September 2017, just as they were releasing Sleep Well Beast, to inquire about some sort of collaboration. At first a music video seemed likely, but Mills, a long-time fan of the National, was thinking even bigger.
"I think we sent him about 12 pieces and asked him if he could do something more than a video," says Berninger. "Right then, I thought, 'Maybe there's a new project already, if he takes the bait.' And he did. Then right away he came with this score and talked about doing a short film. That was when we knew we had something significant cooking, and that inspired the rest of it. Because we're huge fans, we were open to anything we could get Mike to do with us. We wanted to use every bit of him."
Mills shot the film in March 2018, while the band were in the midst of a year-long tour. But both sides continued to spend the time working on the project, both together and separately.
"To me it was deliciously long, like this luxurious project, probably because of Alicia's schedule," admits Mills. "We did so much back and forth, which was neat. I don't often get to do projects like this. Because they were touring I thought, 'Oh, I'll just do the film.' But then it was a much longer journey. Then at the end it went really fast."
Mills' role was multi-faceted. On top of writing and directing the short film, he also edited the score with Jonathan Low, served as creative director for the various media, and earned the title of co-producer alongside the National. Though he's quick to clarify just what his producer credit consisted of: "I deal with music a lot in my films, obviously. I have a lot of friends in bands and have seen the process of making a record, so it wasn't foreign to me, but to be so involved was new to me.
"They're being very generous in calling me a producer [though]. Aaron [Dessner] is a producer, and I was more like a pal on the side. [But] it's such an honour being called the producer. I really love it and weirdly name-drop it. My wife teases me when I bring it up in conversation. But really I was more like an art friend. I was the official 'art friend,' which is a bigger compliment really. Everything just kept falling into place. The film was a small miracle, being able to shoot it with the budget and the star we had."
Dessner praises Mills for giving the band a new approach to recording, but he also describes him as something more than a producer.
"This project, to me, is the most successful realization of a conceptual, broader artistic goal," he says. "I think that Mike created a different vibe for us. We sometimes call it a 'vibe tech,' you know, the way Rick Rubin produces. Like, he doesn't really say anything, he's just in the room. Some of it was like that. We felt more confident having Mike there. We were pushing further. It was a very different process from the previous records."
As such a big fan of the National, the experience was clearly a meaningful one for Mills. After years of directing numerous videos and designing album sleeves, he chose a return to music as the follow-up project to the Oscar-nominated 20th Century Women.
"The film world can be a real grind. Shooting is so fun, but there are so many parts that are warlike. This is so fast, so fluid," Mills says. "Music is such an emotional, fun thing. It's so magical to be around them making something. They're really fucking good. Like watching Aaron come up with something on the piano or Matt play with the lyrics and figure out this beautiful ambiguous thing. It was just such a treat.
"I found it very contagious. I've since been writing and wondering, 'How do I make my film more like that experience?'"