The National Talk Moving Away From Each Other & Making Their Most Experimental Album Yet

Graham MacIndoe
The National

Ask The National’s lead singer Matt Berninger about the band’s new album Sleep Well Beast, out now, and he’ll equate it to produce. 

“This record is more emotionally direct, or at least more deeper inside the onion,” he says. “The softer parts of the onion. It knows what it’s trying to say even though it’s super messy. I feel like it’s got its finger on something.”

Like a lot of music involving the National, that something isn’t easy to pin down. But since the making of the band’s last LP, 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, all five members have moved on from New York City, the place that birthed them in 1999 and provided a home base alongside other breakout indie rock acts of the 21st century like The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Hold Steady and Grizzly Bear

Now, they call Los Angeles, Copenhagen, upstate New York, Paris, Long Island and Cincinnati home. They’ve each become fathers and have taken on many projects outside the band. Some of the bigger undertakings of the last several years include multi-instrumentalist Aaron Dessner launching the Eaux Claire festival in Wisconsin with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon in 2015. And last year, the band released a massive, 59-track tribute to The Grateful Dead, entitled Day of the Dead, that featured a bevy of talent performing the legendary band’s songs including My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, The War on Drugs, Courtney Barnett, and Mumford & Sons.

All of these extracurricular activities and life changes became a factor in making Sleep Well Beast, their most experimental sounding album to date. Many of the songs feature off-kilter rhythms, electronic drum sequencing, beeps, glitches, drones, a whirr here and there -- even accidental additions that were born out of studio tinkering and open minds. At times, they collaborated with chamber-music players So Percussion and Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma of indie-electronic duo Mouse on Mars.

“We were purposely playing things we didn’t know how to play,” recalls bassist Scott Devendorf. “We were just figuring out how to play when we were recording the [songs]. That just you frees up. You don’t know everything and accidents happen along the way - a lot of those ended up in the record.” 

The band started working on song ideas immediately after the touring cycle of Trouble Will Find Me. They booked time where they would all be together to work on music, often at Long Pond in Hudson, NY -- a studio that Dessner built from the ground up near his home in Hudson. Devendorf says this way of working -- scheduling compact studio session bursts -- was new for the band and might have made them more productive. 

“In the past, we might have lingered on and worked for weeks, but waste a lot of time,” Devendorf says. “Knowing you had these focused pockets of time was definitely a better thing for us than a bad thing.”

Berninger, the band’s lyricist, worked with the group more so in the studio than in the past, too. Along with the experimental nature of the music, he plays with how he writes now, describing his composition method as using just his computer, where stacks of lyrics pile up. The stories he tells this time feel like they’re coming from a place where the end is near, a marriage is on the rocks; anger and resentment are bursting through at any moment. 

“For me, the record is all the same song with a bunch of different parts and pauses,” he says. “I feel like I’ve done that more and more. I don’t even have notebooks with pages. Now it’s just one word document. It was a big sloshy of all ideas mixed together.”

That big sloshy mess yielded the band’s first-ever No. 1 on a Billboard singles chart, when the lead single “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” earned a top spot in August on the Adult Alternative Songs chart. The song is one of the more straight-forward, driving rock songs on Sleep Well Beast and hones in on a classic National theme of relationship paranoia. 

Leading up to Sleep Well Beast, the National debuted songs in Paris as part of a Pitchfork Live series and at two intimate shows in Hudson this past July to a small audience. Recently, as a part of NPR’s First Listen Live series, they performed the entire album. Last week their rollout marched on through their former hometown, with an appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, an intimate performance at the Apple Store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and an underplay at the Bowery Ballroom for SiriusXM. 

Seven albums and 18 years in, the band sees Sleep Well Beast as a next phase of the group and doesn't think about slowing down anytime soon either, no matter what changes the music industry throws at artists between now and the release of their next album. 

“You can keep your lights on as a musician, possibly easier than before -- but is it easy to become a big artist? If you really work on the art, that’s all you can do,” Berninger says. “Be patient with the art and keep your heart and mind on that. The rest is luck, so who cares? Why even worry about it.”