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The National's Slow Burn

Inside the Brooklyners' hotly tipped fifth album

  • 05/05/2010
  • Rodrigo Davies
The National

“I think it’s definitely our best record.”

Critics may already be citing The National’s High Violet as one of the finest albums of the year, but lead singer Matt Berninger’s confidence marks a new chapter for a band who admit their creative process is sometimes tortured.

Unlike its similarly well-received predecessor Boxer, the Brooklyn five-piece’s fifth album was recorded in a garage studio next to guitarist Aaron Dessner’s house.

“It was a huge creative leap forward to be able to work at a pace that meant nothing,” said Berninger.

“It could take a month or three years, and we wouldn’t be bleeding money just by doing it.”

In the event the band spent 13 months conceiving High Violet, although its release date comes almost exactly three years after Boxer.

A long stretch, perhaps, compared to bands like the Dead Weather or Monsters of Folk, both of whom completed their latest works in less than a year.

But for The National, whose gradual rise has been fed by albums at a rate of one every other year since forming in 1999, the chance to spend more time writing songs made all the difference.

“When we made Boxer we were all living together in Connecticut and that got to be a lot of pressure because sometimes you don’t have any ideas, or you need to think,” said Aaron Dessner.

Nevertheless, that record’s intensity paid dividends, with the band appearing on prime-time US television shows and seeing their tracks used by several small screen series – as well as Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

The fourth album's commercial showing was critical for the band, whose previous album Alligator enjoyed widespread critical praise but found sales peculiarly elusive.

“Following Alligator was difficult because we knew we’d put a crack in the door and we had a chance to enter the room – and be a band that mattered a little bit,” said Berninger.

“We knew Boxer was our opportunity to plant our flag. Luckily we did a record that was different to Alligator, which allowed us to set the rules in a way that meant we could do whatever we wanted to.”

Although High Violet sees Berninger’s distinctive baritone drawl frequently woven into layer upon layer of instrumentation, the extra thinking time didn’t mean a more complex, constructed sound on all the tracks.

The slow march of Lemonworld, a stunning lament on the pressures of city life, made it to the finished record with many of its earliest imperfections intact.

“We ended up using a lot of the ugly early sounds we were getting when we didn’t know how to use a lot of the gear in our studio,” said Berninger.

“It has high art and low art woven together, and that’s one of the things that is central to our band.”

Perfecting that combination was Peter Katis, the producer of all but one of The National albums, and best known for his studio work with the likes of Interpol, Mercury Rev and Jonsi.

The four-month mixing process with Katis proved to be one of the trickiest phases in the record, Berninger said.

“We’d work on something for three months, have string arrangements and horn arrangements and then realise that the song is just a couple of beats per minute too fast.”

“You have to call everybody back and record everything all over again, and we did that with this record a few times.”

High Violet’s richness of sounds and instruments is rooted not just in Berninger, the Dessners and the Devendofs, but also their friends Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon among many others.

Thankfully for The National, their collaborators are a patient, calming presence.

“I’m sure they have their own tortured processes, but I think they find it funny when they come in and see us wringing our hands and at each other’s necks over minutae,” Berninger joked.

“They come in and say, ‘this song is good, go with it. What are you guys freaking out about all the time?’”

Needless to say, Berninger realises The National have set themselves up as the band’s harshest critics.

“When we were finally finished, and a few days after I was able to get up and listen to it in the middle of the night without making any changes, I was happy.”

High Violet is released on May 10 by 4AD records. The band play tonight (May 5) at London's Electric Ballroom, and tomorrow at the Royal Albert Hall.

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