Catching Up With... The National

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It’s been quite a year for The National.

The band released Boxer, Paste’s favorite album of 2007, just less than 365 days ago on May 22. Ever since, the band has been taking the masterful collection of songs to audiences around the world, and the trip isn't finished yet. May 23 kicks off a month of tour dates supporting R.E.M. with Modest Mouse, followed by a slew of European festival stops until August.

Boxer’s journey, however, began much earlier than last May. As slowly as the record is said to grow in the mind of a listener, the process for making it was drawn out even longer, the band holing up in a home together to work and rework the parts, then eventually to record. Vincent Moon, now famous for his beautiful, emotionally moving live videos for La Blogotèque, was there to document the process. His one-hour film, A Skin, A Night, comes out tomorrow (May 20) along with The Virginia EP, a collection of The National's demos, covers and live recordings. It explores the sometimes tortured, sometimes triumphant life of an album in the making and the musicians trying to birth it.

In March, the Brooklyn-via-Cincinnati group found itself amidst artists of every color and creed at the Langerado Music and Arts Festival in Big Cypress, Fla. Paste caught up with guitarist Aaron Dessner on a windy afternoon to talk about classifications, crowd reception and the creative process. The band played later that night opposite headliners Phil Lesh and Friends, but seemed undeterred by any sense of competition. If Boxer was The National’s fight to the finish, now these guys are taking that line in stride.

Paste: It’s funny how music can be described so bizarrely. What would you say if somebody called you “dude rock”? How would you feel about that?
Dessner: I always find that the impulse to want to classify music is sort of a sad impulse, or it’s just sort of a frustrating impulse. We joke about it. People have called us so many different things. I think at the beginning we used to be alt.country, which we actually kind of took offense to because we really weren’t pushing any kind of style in our music. We still don’t. We don’t really think about that when we make a song. It just has to do with the chemistry of the band at any one time, and we have so many different sources I would say that we listen to, and it’s coming from so many places, that it’s hard to label. But it is true that if you were to look at our concert from a bird’s eye view, you would see plenty of dudes, and probably some balding dudes, too. But hey, some of the members of the band are balding, so that’s fair. [Pause] Not me, though.

Paste: We were arguing about this earlier. A friend of mine was saying, “They are such dude rock!” I defended you, for the record.
Dessner: I would say it’s definitely split down the middle, gender-wise. But it also depends on what country we go to. I noticed that even city-to-city you have a different kind of audience. Some places it’s younger, some places it’s older. Some places it’s more dudes.

Paste: Have you been anywhere recently that has been particularly receptive to you, that you just really enjoyed playing?
Dessner: It’s been a crazy year, and we’ve just been touring a lot all over the world. It’s been weird to see that our audience is actually sort of similar, as far as size and enthusiasm, pretty much everywhere. So I think that happens at a certain point. We had a show in Croatia that was one of the craziest experiences we’ve ever had as far as audience response. For some reason the band has become quite popular in Croatia, so we were playing in Zagreb and there were like 2,000 people singing every word, literally. Even the awkward slow, quiet, weird songs, like [sings] “my mind is racing like a pro now,” which nobody ever sings. Or “Green Gloves,” or something, and that was pretty wild. At the top of their lungs, also, so it was like we almost didn’t have to sing. We’ve had similar things happen in Scotland or Ireland where the audiences tend to be really enthusiastic, but in Croatia it was just the most incredible experience we ever had.

Paste: Since Boxer came out, you guys have had a flurry of attention. Were you surprised at how popular it became? It was quick, wasn’t it?
Dessner: Yeah, I mean, it’s all relative. The way in which it became successful, for us, that was really dramatic. I don’t think it’s that dramatic in the whole scheme of music…you know there are plenty of records that do more. But I guess for a band like us, being where we were, it was dramatic, and we were surprised. Especially that it sustained, because it’s still going, kind of, actually thanks to Paste and things like that. We’re just getting a lot of support from people. We’ve had that experience where it’s definitely a slow-growing but loyal fan base. Maybe it’s at a point where there are so many more people that know about us now, that it’s growing a lot faster. It’s weird and exciting, and sometimes you just pinch yourself. Because I very much remember when we were still inviting our friends to come see us, and it was still just a pipe dream.

Paste: It was a while ago that you guys started playing together. I know that you have releases going back to 2001, but was it farther back than that?
Dessner: We started messing around in late 1999. But really, it became more serious with Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers which was 2003. It was kind of a steady thing. We never were super ambitious about it. We weren’t doing it to try to become really popular. We were just doing it because we were all friends and we all played music and we liked the chemistry of making songs together. We were all pretty cynical about our chances, actually. We like making things (making songs that we can all listen to), so that was the main thing. It just gradually became something else.

Paste: Does the fact that you have two sets of brothers in the band help at all with being able to be cohesive?
Dessner: Yeah, definitely. It feels like a family, and we’re all good friends. There’s often friction creatively when you’re making a record. Like Matt [Berninger] and I sometimes can butt heads a lot….Bryan [Devendorf] and I…Bryan and Matt…because you agonize over every little thing. There are so many different ways to approach something, and it takes a while to find the right feeling. But then the fact that we come from the same place—we all come from Cincinnati and we’re brothers and Matt’s been a close friend for a long time—all these experiences we’re having, they have another dimension. It’s not like we found each other through the Village Voice or something. We actually care about each other on another level. I hope this continues and we’ll keep making songs, but even if the band ended tomorrow I think we’d all still enjoy each other in another way. It’s not this fleeting thing.

Paste: Are you working on anything new or are you just concentrating on touring with Boxer?
Dessner: We actually are working on new things. My brother Bryce and I are producing a record for the Red Hot Organization, which is an AIDS charity based in New York that makes compilation albums. This record, which doesn’t have a title yet, is basically a lot of independent artists from our slice of rock and roll—our milieu or whatever you would say. It’s a lot of friends, a lot of people we admire. We’re trying to encourage collaborations between people; it’s really exciting actually. It’s going to be about 25 tracks and it should come out in early September. We’re about three quarters of the way through that. So The National had to write a song for that. And then we’ve also been working on a lot of music, and I think Matt is starting to think about ideas and write things. We’re also actually building a studio in my garage.

Paste: If I’m not mistaken, you guys do a lot of writing on your own and then bring songs to the table and collaborate. Do you think you’re in that stage where you’re all scraping up some songs to work on?
Dessner: Yeah, I think definitely it starts a slow process where you start out with ideas and sketches of things and start passing them around. My brother and I do a lot of that musically, and then bring them to Matt and see what he finds interesting. We’re touring a lot starting in early May through the end of August, all the European festivals and the R.E.M. tour. But I think after that we’ll stop touring and be at home for quite a while and work on music. I don’t know how long that’ll take. It could take months. It could take two years or five years if you ask Matt.