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HitFix Interview: The National 'High' on DIY record release, Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver
'High Violet' completes the band's contract with 4AD; what comes next?
There are plenty of positives and negatives to recording an album in one’s own, at-home studio. On the upside, after the investment of thousands of dollars into equipment, the hours upon hours of recording is free for you and yours. But, then again, there’s the hours and hours. And days, months. And then you wake one morning to find that you have 116 versions of one song.
That’s literally what happened to The National, on their track “Lemonworld,” as they worked to complete their new album “High Violet.” The set marks the first time the band recorded their own album, with a hand in production from longtime collaborator Peter Katis.
“We had a lot of failed experiments. We would scrap whole string sections of things that we composed. We’d just run and run, but then you run too far. We’d stop, and reflect, then start running again,” The National guitarist and co-songwriter Aaron Dessner tells HitFix. “Which is scary, because we’re perfectionists.
The attention to detail, though, is what helps make this rock effort different from the band’s other four. And then there’s the artificial barriers the group put up in order to keep it separate from the rest: there’s little to no fingerpicking guitar melodies (except on “Runaway”), for instance, those churning rounds between Aaron and his brother Bryce that would devolve into multi-instrumental motifs. Instead, there’s a lot of strumming, which in turn leant itself to what Dessner calls an “uglier, thicker, woollier” sound. “We loved the vah-vah-vah-vah of a tremolo [pedal],” he says. “It was kind of refreshing to try and build songs in a certain way. You’ll hear that kind of sound. Was a little bit harder, to put songs together.
“Melodically, [singer Matt Berninger] was really trying to develop melody better, less confessional-man-murmuring. The orchestration [Bryce] did as opposed to Padma [Newsome]… made things feel new, and sometimes uncomfortable. And it doesn’t have that elegant polished feel that [2007’s] ‘Boxer’ did. But we’re so happy we did it that way.”
Another change-up was the slew of special guests that the crew invited onto the effort. There’s spikes of Sufjan Stevens on harmonium or singing backup here, Richard Reed Parry building a pyramid of vocals there, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon picking away at a melody.
On the latter: “Justin is an amazingly, nice, warm, kind person. He’s one of the most gifted singers of our generation, musically one of the best guitar players. His musical skills go way beyond… He can do so many things,” Dessner says. Vernon had contributed a song to the Dessners’ Red Hot benefit album “Dark Was the Night” and the friendship flourished beyond. Dessner predicts that he, if not the whole band, will be “colliding” with Vernon, Stevens and Parry again in the future.
Click here to read Immaculate Noise’s exclusive story on how Dessner worked with Parry on the debut album of Montreal’s Little Scream.
“High Violet” could be the end of an era for The National, as this album completes their deal with Beggars/4AD. Still, Dessner says The National has few complaints about the label and estimates they’ll be working with the group again.
“We love 4AD, we have a lot of respect for them. There’s a lot of people we care about there. Have their heads screwed on straight. It would make sense to keep working together,” he says.
But the Dessners are additionally working on their own label, Brassland, and have even made a new addition to the roster: Brooklyn duo Buke & Gass. That pair will be aiding the band on tour as support abroad on select dates.
Actually, the band is naturally going to disappear from its Brooklyn homebase for a while in supporting “High Violet.” In addition to major stops in the U.S. including Lollapalooza, the fivesome-plus band is beloved in Europe, where they’ll be spending much of July and part of August at international music festivals.