Interview: Aaron Dessner (of The National)

on November 09, 2010, 10:06am
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national feature box Interview: Aaron Dessner (of The National)

Though one could make a case that The National have been rolling ever since the release of their 2005 breakout Alligator, 2010 has been a particularly good year for the Brooklyn-based outfit. They dropped the CoS Top Star-earning High Violet, delivered impressive sets at Sasquatch! and Lollapalooza, and even got to meet the President, which helped form the basis for a brand new music video. And if that weren’t enough, they’re currently amidst a sold-out world tour and also gearing up for an expanded edition of High Violet, which will feature eight bonus tracks.

Recently, we had a chance to chat with National guitarist Aaron Dessner to discuss all of the aforementioned, as well as other topics — ranging from the band’s involvement in Sufjan’s new LP to status of the Dessner brothers’ project The Long Count.

Let’s start with the High Violet single “Terrible Love”. After watching you guys debut the track on Jimmy Fallon and then at the Bell House in Brooklyn, I was absolutely blown away by the pure intensity of the track. However, the first word that came to mind when hearing the album version was “withheld.” It almost felt like, maybe because of the way it was recorded and/or mixed, that the album version lacked a serious punch. Was that intentional? If not, is the new, alternate version of the single your “remedy” to it?

I think “Terrible Love” surprised us because we had never played it live together as a band until Fallon. We all loved the murky and kind of ugly Velvet Underground aesthetic of the album version of the song. It was one of the first songs where we felt like we stumbled onto the right tone and atmosphere for the album. The wooly, woofy guitar tone, which has all these accidental harmonics spilling off of it, is impossible to re-create. I can’t remember how I did it. There is this constant rumble or drone of G while the chords change. I was searching for something that sounded like “loose wool”, a metaphor that [frontman Matt Berninger] kept referring too. He wanted us to avoid finger picking, because so much of Alligator and Boxer were based on the way Bryce and I usually play the guitar. So I think we were really attached to the original rawness of the demo [so it] became the album version. The reason the album version lacks punch or low end is because we recorded the drums with one microphone. It wasn’t intentional though. I think Bryan was messing around and we had one mic up which was hitting a compressor very hard and it just sounded weird and awesome. So we kept it. The floor tom part in the verses is from my original demo. I sometimes play bad drum parts for fun but that day the floor tom I was hitting happened to be in tune with song, so we kept it.

As soon as we played the song on Fallon though and it got out there everywhere online, we realized it would be a really big song live. We also realized our fans might be a little disappointed that the album version doesn’t kick in as forcefully in the drumming as it does live. Maybe people have come to expect a big drum sound from us because of Boxer. But on High Violet we actually avoided the “bionic” drum sound you hear in places on Boxer. It can push songs too far. Anyway, we did eventually record another version of the song with proper drum mic-ing and in some ways it’s a more effective or forceful realization of the song. I’m glad they both exist. The truth is we struggle with every song this way.

As for the video, why did you choose to go the montage route? In other words, a lot of your other videos — such as the one for “Bloodbuzz Ohio” — seems to reflect the idea, theme of the song. However, the sense I get for this video is that it’s a celebration of the band and life in general, which doesn’t necessarily reflect the song’s nature.

We have a really hard time making videos. It always feels like we rush into them because there is some promotional deadline from the label and meanwhile we’re out on tour and we can’t really control the outcome. And I think directors often end up making things that are too serious or melodramatic for our band, which is our fault for not getting to know them beforehand so they can understand where we’re coming from. Our music can be dark and intense, but there’s also plenty of humor and humility and catharsis in there and the last thing we would want to do is make a self-serious melodramatic music video for a song. We actually had big budget videos made for “Blood Buzz” and “Terrible Love” that we threw away because they didn’t have a sense of humor and we couldn’t live with them. Our label was pretty upset because it was a waste of money and a lot of nice people worked really hard on them. But the “Blood Buzz” video ended up being full of New York cliches, the Brooklyn Bridge and city skyline, which obviously didn’t make sense for a song about Ohio. And the “Terrible Love” video that was made looked like a cell phone commercial. So we ended up making another video for “Blood Buzz” with some friends that is inspired by some old Serge Gainsbourg videos. And Matt’s brother Tom made another video for “Terrible Love” during our recent US tour. He’s been documenting all of the High Violet touring. So it’s basically a funny tour diary. We make fun of each other and goof off constantly, so that’s the crux of it. Tom was able to capture something that’s more a reflection of what we’re actually like in person. And there’s lots of live footage from this year. It’s by far our favorite music video we’ve ever made. Tom is a really talented and hysterically funny guy. He’s this kind of anti-hero foil of his big brother Matt. Tour is way more fun now that he’s with us.

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