On the Monday night after the Austin City Limits Festival, The National taped what will be one of the last performances ever shot at the original ACL TV show studio before it moves to a swanky new location next to the W Hotel in downtown Austin. Their set consisting of everything from painfully beautiful renditions of "Runaway" and "England" to headbang-appropriate versions of "Squalor Victoria" and "Mr. November" was outstanding and worthy of a finale season. Yet, to watch this incredible musical performance delivered without pretense and rife with candid, funny banter, one might not remember that over the last few years these approachable guys with a "dark" reputation wrote what essentially became the Obama campaign theme song ("Fake Empire"), released several highly acclaimed records (Alligator, Boxer, High Violet), and produced a compilation album (Dark was the Night) that raised over a million dollars for an HIV/Aids charity through collaboration with some of the best Indie artists out there right now like the Dirty Projectors, David Byrne, Bon Iver and Yeasayer.
Since 2005, the Brooklyn band of five have been keeping busy with remarkable results and earlier in the weekend, I had a chance to sit down with The National's Bryce Dessner to chat about the new record, passion projects, the Obama campaign and what it has been like in their world over the last few successful years.
SK: So first off, I was curious: how did you guys get so involved with the Obama campaign? When I heard Obama walk out to "Fake Empire" at the victory speech it made me feel even better about the elected President. (As in, clearly he was cool).
BD: We were all really inspired by him from the Primary onwards so we were I think, truly, deep down supporters and believed in him. And we have never been a political band and have always kind of tried to steer clear of being a political band. And, you know, some of the songs have politics, a lot of the songs have politics but it's more like a backdrop to our lives. Living in New York post September 11th and during the Bush years it was kind of difficult to ignore all that was going on. But I think that the 2008 campaign coincided with our audience growing a bit, to the point that maybe for the first time we felt like, ok, well maybe there is was a group of people who would listen more to us... and at just such a crucial moment with everything going on politically. We don't like to get up on a soapbox and preach but it felt like the moment for artists to kind of take a stand and let your beliefs come out.
And then the way that video (came together), they approached us because they were doing actually (something on) Youtube. I think it was technically the Obama volunteer video to get people to volunteer for the campaign but it became kind of ubiquitous. But they used "Fake Empire" without the lyrics... the music is uplifting but the music with the lyrics would have been too politicized. But we were totally honored and flattered. So we did some fundraising for him and we are all from Cincinnati, Ohio, which is really ground zero battle ground...a conservative county in one of the biggest swing states, and we are all from there, and we all have family there and we are kind of known as a hometown band. So I think we went and played at a massive rally in Fountain Square and the Breeders opened because they are from nearby. And that was again...that felt like an important thing to do.
SK: And what was it like to hear your song? Especially as Obama walked out on stage the night of the victory speech?
BD: It was surreal, totally. And they played it in Denver when he accepted the nomination as well. We recently did a rally in Madison, like a get out and vote (thing), so it was fun and they asked us to play before Obama spoke, so that was actually the first time we met him. We were, you know...we all felt like it was a really incredible moment.
SK: I also wanted to ask you about Dark was the Night because that was one of my favorite albums of 2009. It is just an amazing collection of artists that seemed to come together very well and for such a good cause. How did that come together for you? What was that process like of deciding who would be on it, the outreach, etc.?
BD: It really started at festivals like these actually because we have been playing big and small rock festivals both here and in Europe for years, and the thing about the musician lifestyles...it's really, it can be really alienating and disorienting where you are in a different place every night and if you have a home life you're sure to be missing it, or whatever your personal life is. The redeeming part of that is there is community among the musicians and the crews and stage technicians and all that, you're really out there in different places...we have three or four really close friends playing the festival today so it's really fun actually to see people. So the project for my brother and I kind of arose out of: A) a feeling that the lifestyle we lead is incredibly self-centered, where you're, you know, getting interviewed...well, we're completely spoiled basically. So the idea of actually doing something good in music felt like...it was time to do that. And then that we could. We knew we have a lot of community amongst artist and knew a lot of the people and felt like we could actually put something pretty interesting together. We wanted it to be big, to be inclusive, to be broad stylistically as well. And while its focus is sort of on Indie or Independent musicians, it goes all the way from Sharon Jones and Gillian Welch all the way to Yeasayer...and there's some generationally, the Kronos Quartet is an incredible contemporary string quartet, or David Byrne is on it. So we just started kind of hatching these plans. Some of (the songs) are really carefully thought out...like, I wanted the Dirty Projectors to collaborate with David Byrne. And this was before Dirty Projectors had done Bitte Orca, so it was kind of early for them but I knew that he (Byrne) would be into it. That was something we kind of dreamt up. Or Grizzly Bear singing with Feist. Or my brother collaborating with Bon Iver...or me playing with Antony. Those are the things that we really kind of dreamt up I guess. Others were more just asking an artist or people that we know as well to do something. And people were incredibly generous. We just tried to ask musicians that we respected a lot and I think what was amazing is just how excited everyone was to do it. It happened at a moment, maybe. Maybe it couldn't happen again in that way, but it sort of happened in the right moment where it came together.
SK: I was just amazed at the choices of artists and the caliber of the contributions. I actually had a chance to speak with Yeasayer a few months ago and one of my first questions was: How did you choose your contribution to Dark was the Night? I loved "Tightrope".
BD: That was one of my favorite songs on that record and I think at the time it was like, it would have been the lead single on their record or whatever - it's an incredible song - and for them to give it to us as charity is amazing.
SK: I love the Take-Away Shows with Vincent Moon, and this Obama project and Dark was the Night... it seems like you make really great, rich choices for your projects. What's next for you? Are there any goals, or something you see for yourself as the next effort beyond touring for High Violet?
BD: I think my brother and I do want to make another Red Hot project - there's something, I can't say what it is yet, but we are hatching a new plan. So that will be coming ...and we just have a lot of touring coming up until June, so we're focusing on that. And last year we did this big project at the opera house in Brooklyn (BAM). It's a collaboration with Kim and Kelley Deal from the Breeders and Shara Worden, who is this singer from My Brightest Diamond and Matt (Berninger, Front Man for The National) sang ...it's called The Long Count: it's a 70 minute through composed piece, it has an orchestra and some loud electric guitar stuff and songs. And it has a visual art component as well, so we are touring that a little bit in 2011. But that's something where we want to record it...so we keep busy.
SK: It seems like that! I'm from New York as I mentioned and have such an appreciation for your songs because of the New York imagery; they make me feel very patriotic towards the city. I was wondering, how did it get woven into your songs so much?
BD: I think a lot of the songs sit somewhere in between where we're from, which is Ohio, and being in New York. And I think what Matt always says is that...people from the outside might see it as the big scary city or something, but actually it's a place where kind of anybody can fit in because nobody is actually from there. I mean, some people are, but it's a huge component of people who live there, so it's like a sense of everyone who is there feeling like they don't belong or trying to make it in that city and you'll never get there ...and struggling with that. And that maybe that somehow comes up in the songs, like leading this dull life in this city and measuring yourself against this incredible place. It's also such an incredible story and just beautiful city so a lot of images that come to the songs come from just being there. It's inspiring and musically inspiring as well. Also, like any night you could go hear 20 different kinds of music and hear the best version of that. It's really an exciting place for that reason.
SK: So what is the first thing you do when you get off tour and get to go back home to Brooklyn?
BD: I go visit my sister. My sister, my brother and I live on the same street. In fact, so does Matt.
SK: How did that happen?
BD: It happened in a weird way, my sister is three years older and we're really close. She and her husband bought a house, an old Victorian house in the Ditmas Park area of Brooklyn, which is one of the only areas of Brooklyn that has freestanding homes. And this was like 10 years ago. It's such a beautiful area- a few blocks South of Prospect Park...it's not suburban feeling but it is tree-lined streets and it has a kind of slower vibe about it and for a musician, you know we spend our lives being in a different city every night and spending a lot of time in the "coolest" places you can imagine or whatever, so we are not really dying for the scene or to be seen at such and such a party...so it's a nice. It's almost like if there's an equivalent of living in the country. It's sort of like that so we all kind of just collected out there.
SK: So in terms of High Violet, can you tell me a little bit about your creative process for this album? When you create songs, how do you know they are ready to deliver to an audience or album?
BD: Well, there are five of us and it's really collaborative and we always say we are kind of our worst critics. We have never read a review that said anything that we haven't already said worse, probably. And so in a way, for a song to pass each of us so that we all have signed off on it usually means that it's probably ready to go and if it doesn't end up making the record it's just because it somehow didn't fit. We basically just beat these things into what we always call "ugly ducklings". Our really immediately accessible songs we always throw out and we're always looking for the song that's hiding under the rocks, that has some weird intangible thing about it.
SK: I think it shows.
BD: It does, yeah. Michael Stipe famously challenged us to write to a pop song for this record, which we did try to do actually. There are certain songs like "Anyone's Ghost" or "Bloodbuzz" which are more straight forward in a way than the stuff we have done on past records. But the beginning of the record had a sunnier, poppier thing happening. Then all the sudden Matt (Berninger) just took a total left turn and was like no,no,nnoo ...let's go back into my dark cave.
SK: But it's funny because the lyrics can be dark, or self-deprecating at times but the melodies and riffs are so beautiful you almost don't feel the super depressing angle.
BD: Yeah, and the super depressing stuff - there's always another side to it. Matt likes to wallow in these awkward human moments because that is his subject matter. But there's always a lighter side, even in a song like "Sorrow". He can call a song "Sorrow" and it's a kind of rhetorical. Sorrow is a character in the song. Or "Sorrow's the girl inside my cake". It's light, actually.
SK: And do you write your own parts mostly, or write them for each other as well?
BD: Somebody writes the main song, the chord structure of the song. Matt will write it all, like most melodies and all the lyrics...and then Bryan, the drummer, writes his own parts. Sometimes my brother and I, we write a lot of the original sketches and things and maybe sometimes Aaron (bass guitar/guitar, and Bryce's twin brother) will have everything worked out; or I do a lot of the orchestral scoring for the arrangements, sometimes there are actually parts which are written like that...but in general it is quite collaborative, where we're developing things. I would say we don't jam in a room...we don't say "hey, here are the changes", and then jam it out ...it's a little more deliberate than that. We're working with recording things and finding the right sounds and the right part. It's rarely done with everyone playing at the same time, which is interesting because then the songs transform themselves live later. Then we really kind of own them. There's always this tension between what we do on the record and what we do live. But occasionally those things match up kind of perfectly, and we enjoy the fact that the songs change.
SK: And so whom are you looking forward to seeing the at the (ACL) festival? Are you going to get a chance to check things out?
BD: We had to move our interview because my friend Justin Vernon from Bon Iver, he is one of my closest friends, he is playing in Gayngs but I heard the set might not be happening, something about their bus...but I'm not sure yet, so I was planning on that. Oddly enough, we're playing at the same time as Richard Thompson and Nora Jones; Nora Jones I know from New York and so I would be curious to see that. But we'll probably check out the Eagles, some classic rock. I saw Warpaint this morning and they were quite impressive I thought.
For more info on the National's latest projects, check out their website: www.AmericanMary.com.