Aaron Dessner is on drugs. The guitarist for The National had to push back this interview twice because he was visiting the doctor for a stiff neck, an occupational hazard, it turns out. “I think it might have been from that six-hour ‘Sorrow’ thing,” he says, before adding, “We played the same song for six hours and my back was super tight from that and it never really relaxed.”
Dessner, who along with his brother Bryce, writes most of the music for the band, apologizes if he seems a little loopy from the painkillers that the doctor gave him, but he seems to be making a lot of sense, discussing the band’s brilliant new “Trouble Will Find Me” album, which came out Tuesday.
METRO: How did you come to play “Sorrow” for six hours straight?
DESSNER: It was a collaboration with this Icelandic artist, Ragnar Kjaransson. He had approached MoMA about wanting to collaborate with us. He does a lot of performance art work with musicians. It’s kind of all about repetition and how things change through repetition or take on deeper meaning. So he had this very compelling, charming letter that he wrote to us, and for some reason we were in the mood at that very moment, and we were like, “OK.” And when we did it, it was amazing, but we were slightly dreading the whole thing. But we did it at this geodesic dome at PS1 in Long Island City, and it was really amazing. We played the song 108 times in a row without stopping. We’ve played a song a lot before, like on tour, but six hours would be like playing three shows in a row.
What did you learn from it? Do you still like the song?
Yeah, actually! It was kind of reborn through the process. [Kjaransson figured out that] there’s something about how that song is harmonically circular, and it is this weird meditation. We had never thought of it that way, because we kind of thought of it as a three-and-a-half-minute dark pop song or something. It sounds cheesy, but repeating it did take on a spiritual dimension and we kind of lost ourselves in it and the audience, I thought people would just come in go, but there were hundreds of people that stayed the entire time. And by the end, we were barely singing the song, because they were singing it so loud. It was really nice.
You seem to be up for doing things like that. There was the “Dark Was the Night” project and then you helped curate this weekend’s Boston Calling festival.
Over the years my brother and I have produced records that have involved many artists, like “Dark Was the Night,” which was this AIDS benefit, and also organized festivals and things before. But I think it’s because mainly because we’re in a band that’s been touring for 15 years, we meet so many people and over the years a community has grown up around the band and over the years it’s always interesting and fun to give people opportunities to play and put ourselves in situations where we’re collaborating with other people and trying new things and experimenting. I think that’s how we got involved with curating festivals and things like that. And Boston Calling was started by some friends and they were looking for help with the artistic direction. And I didn’t curate the whole thing, I mainly just chose some of the bands that are playing on our day and I just gave them advice having played festivals and having played Boston at every level, practically, we just gave a lot of feedback about what makes a great festival. It’s really exciting that it’s sold out for the first time.
Let’s talk about the new album. For you and your brother, this is your first official credit as producers. How was the process different from, say “High Violet,” which is credited to The National as producers?
I’ve always said that it’s more like an “additional production” credit, but essentially it’s the way we’ve always made records. It’s just like with this, we decided to call a spade a spade, in a way. In the past we’ve had a lot of engineering help from people, and we also did with this record, but essentially Bryce and I sit around the studio and mess with things all the time and record all of it ourselves and do a lot of the arranging. But the way we made this record is not actually different from the way that we made any of the other ones. Whether it says “Produced by The National” or whatever, we work together as a band, but oftentimes Bryce and I write the music and we’re just sitting around for hours upon hours just messing with sound. The band gets together to work things out and everything, but there is this kind of production layer that happens, and it’s been the same since the beginning.
It does seem like it is more produced though. It doesn’t feel as rough as something like “High Violet” or “Boxer.” Would you agree with that?
We chose to compress things less, like the sound is less “pushed.” Everything was recorded in analog and a lot of the basic tracks were done upstate in this beautiful studio up in the Catskills and we kind of wanted the sound to have more air and more space in it and be a little less claustrophobic, because “High Violet” was very dense, with thick layers of feedback and tremolo on everything and sort of pushed and modern-sounding. This one, I think we wanted to pull back a little bit and essentially make the quiet moments quieter and the loud moments louder. Overall it might seem a little less raw, but I actually think the unhinged moments are more unhinged. But for us as a band, I think we feel the strongest right now, about how it sounds, because we really didn’t make any compromises. We were able to do whatever we wanted.
There’s a lot of dual voices going on with this album.
We’ve always used other voices as kind of a silver lining. The juxtaposition of other voices with Matt’s voice makes Matt’s voice richer, in a weird way, and more beautiful. So we’re still doing that in this case, and there were a few places where we wanted female voices, kind of as characters, and as color. So with Sharon [Van Etten] and Nona [Nona Marie Invie] and Annie [Clarke], we’re fortunate enough to have all of these friends who have amazing voices, and also Richie [Reed Parry], who’s on it, from Arcade Fire. And we all sing also. I think it’s just an evolution of trying to do that more.
You’re involved in so much of the music. Do you and your brother have any involvement with the lyrics that Matt Berninger sings?
We do, but not a lot. If there’s things that bother us, or if he’s having trouble with something, then we’ll talk about it. I was actually there when he was recording a lot of the vocals, so there is some sort of back-and-forth.
The defining statement of the album seems to be “everything that I love is on the table” from the song, “Don’t Swallow the Cap.” Do you think that’s true?
I think that’s a good point. It’s like he’s laying it all out there. And I think in a way, lyrically, this record is the most verbose, and the most direct and personal, in places. And in a weird way it pretty much encapsulates everything we’ve ever done. So, yeah, I think that’s fair to say that’s a defining line.