The National, America’s beloved melancholy art-rock band, are unveiling their darkest album yet with Sleep Well Beast. It’s about discord, dysfunction and redemption. But, in a curious twist, it’s also their most fluid and groovy.
“I think, regardless of the subject matter, some of the intention was to try to have it be just one of those records that’s a pleasure to listen to. Not an uphill climb,” says frontman Matt Berninger in his gruff Mid-Western accent. “I’ve always thought our records are not downhill rides, but this time we really wanted to make it just right away feel like it’s not gonna be a struggle.”
Unusually for a star, Berninger calls Music Feeds direct from his current Los Angeles base. He briefly puts down his phone to accept the delivery of some plants. He hasn’t taken up gardening, mind. “They’re indoor plants – just like me,” Berninger quips. The vocalist is genial but, surprisingly, he has a quick wit – throwing shade, often self-referentially.
The National were last in Australia to appear exclusively at Bluesfest 2016. Come February, they’ll tour behind Sleep Well Beast, returning to the Sydney Opera House’s forecourt – where they performed in 2014. Berninger promises to suss out sound restrictions.
The National was formed by old friends and two sets of brothers – Berninger joining Aaron Dessner (guitar), Bryce Dessner (guitar), Scott Devendorf (bass) and Bryan Devendorf (drums). All had variously moved from Cincinnati, Ohio to Brooklyn. Success unfurled slowly. The National aired two albums prior to signing to Beggars Banquet Records (now 4AD) in the mid-2000s. Only then did Berninger quit his advertising job. The band hit the big time with 2007’s Boxer, a classic urban Americana record.
The National quickly emerged as a favourite of Hollywood’s music supervisors and were solicited by the Game Of Thrones franchise to cut ‘The Rains Of Castamere’ – House Lannister’s braggadocious anthem – for its second season. This March, Berninger accompanied composer Ramin Djawadi (“a great dude”) as a special guest for the touring Game Of Thrones Live Concert Experience. “I asked him if I could do the LA one, but the guy from System Of A Down [Serj Tankian] was already singing that one. So I took the [Las] Vegas weekend.” The troubadour goes back with one of the Game Of Thrones co-creators. “Dan Weiss was roommates with a very close friend a long time ago,” Berninger reveals. The National have even explored Westeros landmarks on set in Northern Ireland. “We’ve been to the top of The Wall and we’ve been to Castle Black and all that kinda stuff…”
After touring 2013’s accessible and successful Trouble Will Find Me, the five members took a hiatus of sorts to engage in myriad side-projects and collabs – Aaron emerging as a cred producer for the likes of Mumford & Sons, and his twin Bryce a composer. Berninger launched the combo EL VY. This year they’re returning with Sleep Well Beast, their seventh studio album.
The National have faced their own epic battles. Any band contemplating a seventh album might be wary of inertia, succumbing to repetition or complacency. “We’ve always talked in abstract terms about keeping it interesting or changing; evolving,” Berninger begins. “But it’s also kinda one of those things that’s sort of hard to know whether you are or not. It’s hard to tell when you’re inside of this if you’re actually putting on the same shoes every time and you just don’t realise it. It’s like somebody who gets a haircut and they can’t believe nobody notices.”
Typically, much of The National’s music is generated by the Dessner twins with Berninger as lyricist. The exchanges can be fractious. But, with Sleep Well Beast, The National deregulated their approach even as Aaron assumed the role of main producer in his new studio in upstate New York. “This time, more than ever, we weren’t editing anything,” Berninger says. “So it’s not like we were pursuing new things in a conscious way – we just weren’t editing.” Archly, he notes how the Dessners “constantly” indulge in guitar solos. “When we’re rehearsing and jamming and practising or when we’re trying to have a conversation or everyone else is trying to sleep.” However, until a song such as the ’80s-riddled single ‘The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness’ was born, such solos didn’t surface on albums. The National, says Berninger, recognised that they “should not put any parameters” on themselves. “Shutting each other down was what would cause all the fights before,” Berninger shares. “This time nobody shut anything down.”
Yet more intriguing than the guitar rips are the electronics on songs like ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’, a track which broaches German micro-house. The Dessners were switched on to programming when, participating in a collective residency at Berlin’s Funkhaus, they liaised with Mouse On Mars. The Teutonic techno boffins routinely take music – “these great, beautifully recorded things” – and “throw it through some grinder of an electronic thing and spit it back out,” Berninger laconically relates. The siblings were less appalled than enthralled. “It turned them on in a funny way. It wasn’t really no sweat. And so they started getting addicted to, sort of, ruining sounds and then trying to unruin them and [thinking] ‘What would that sound like?’. I think the Mouse On Mars guys had a hand in liberating Aaron as a producer.” Meanwhile, Bryan rediscovered a fixation on drum machines.
Still, lyrically, Sleep Well Beast is raw. Last year, Berninger foreshadowed it as a break-up record, although, ostensibly, he’s contentedly domesticated with wife Carin Besser and their young daughter. In fact, the singer darkly, and speculatively dramatises relationship malaise as if to purge himself of dread. The process is restorative. “The songs are personal,” Berninger says. “A lot of the songs are about my marriage – even the break-up songs. But, I mean, my wife’s a writer, I’m a writer – we’ve both been writing together and collaborating together since Boxer. So she knows that if I’m not digging into the actual real sensitive stuff, it’s not touching the live wires, the ones that are wet and sparking, then it’s not honest; it’s not interesting. So, in any relationship, whether it’s a band or a marriage, you do break up in some way, you go through things and then glue back together – and then the thing ends up better and stronger at the break point on the other side of it; once the bone heals.”
The National are a woke band – actively supporting Barack Obama (Boxer‘s ‘Fake Empire’ soundtracked 2008’s Presidential campaign) and, recently, Hillary Clinton. And Sleep Well Beast could be an allegory of Donald Trump’s US presidency with its hate and toxic rage – Berninger admitting that the country is “shattered on the floor right now, under a boot.”
“All that shit is the same kinda tangled spider web of ideas – and sometimes it sounds like it’s a romantic thing or it sounds like a global geopolitical thing,” he affirms of the album’s cultural subtext. “I don’t actually separate ’em.” Indeed, album track ‘Turtleneck’, is an overt punk satire of Trump.
Originating from Ohio, in the Rust Belt, Berninger discerns the economic forces behind Trump’s rise more than most. But, for him, that’s where the understanding ends. “I don’t think there’s actually really any legitimate excuse that I can shut down for having voted for Trump – knowing what everybody did know about him from the minute he walked down, or glided down, the escalator,” he says. “He’s the guy that was the Birther guy. So, being an idiot and a racist, that’s been on the front of his hat for 10 years. I think people are just so angry and people are so desperate – not just in America, but everywhere. Everybody just wants to, as my uncle would say, ‘shake things up’. I can empathise with the impulse to wanna do that. I cannot, however, sympathise whatsoever with the ethical choice that was made to shake things up, knowing what they knew about that guy.
“So, yeah, everybody’s desperate. Income inequality in America is similar to where it is worst in most places in the world. People are addicted to sugar and opioids and they’re addicted to fear – you know, some of our networks have really, really gotten us all addicted to fear of everyone else. So we’re addicted to all kinds of stuff. At least it does feel like we’re aware of how to the bone the sickness goes – and I don’t think we realised that six months ago.”