The National: Don’t Stress the Static

Ryan Reed on August 13, 2019
The National: Don’t Stress the Static

photo by Graham MacIndoe

The National test the strengths of their fragile democracy with the help of a new filmmaker friend and a few key female voices.

“The National is a democratic band in the way America is a democratic country,” says the group’s frontman, Matt Berninger, with a laugh. “It’s still filled with considerable conflict.”

Fans familiar with Vincent Moon’s 2008 movie A Skin, A Night will understand that creative tension. In the film—which documents the making of the quintet’s acclaimed fourth LP, Boxer—a simmering anxiety lurks around every corner of Connecticut’s Tarquin Studios, the Victorian mansion where The National spent seemingly endless hours dissecting, analyzing and reconstructing their ornate indie-rock songs. In one memorable scene, the singer attempts to delicately voice his displeasure with a piano part. “It’s OK—there could be something better than that,” he observes. “It gets on my nerves pretty quickly—the sound of it. I don’t love it. I don’t hate it.”

That protracted process—the passive-aggressive banter, the endless tinkering—has trailed The National since they formed two decades ago, after the Cincinnati-bred musicians reconnected in the Big Apple. And as the band’s profile has expanded—and its members spread across Ohio, New York, California and Europe—the mess of those in-the-room summits has partly shifted to the internet, with the musicians swapping demos through file services and email. That shaky democracy has reigned for seven albums. But with the ambitious, difficult-to-categorize I Am Easy to Find, they stumbled into a new collaborative system—a blurred-edge hybrid of music and visuals spearheaded in part by filmmaker Mike Mills. The director, best known for helming dramedies like 2005’s Thumbsucker and 2016’s Oscar-nominated 20th Century Women, raided the band’s stash of unfinished files and assembled those puzzle pieces into the score of a new short film—and the group, in turn, recruited Mills to produce their accompanying record of the same name. It was a meeting of kindred spirits in the messiest fashion imaginable, and it reinvigorated The National’s sense of musical danger.

“Sometimes it’s hard to see where to go when you’re all in the middle of the same dark pocket,” Berninger says. “Mike showed up with a flashlight and was like, ‘Hey, guys, you can also go this way.’ We’re like, ‘We can?’ We started following him down a path we didn’t totally [understand] yet.”

The partnership began in September 2017 after Mills sent an innocent email to Berninger, suggesting they link up for a potential project. What form might that take? Neither party had any clue.

But that blind freedom and curiosity urged them to roll the dice. “There wasn’t any plan to do another National album anytime soon,” Berninger says. “We were exhausted. We had a lot of material, but we were like, ‘Let’s just take a little break and slowly think about it.’ So I told Mike, ‘Here’s all the half-baked [ideas] we haven’t released but we all love.’ I thought maybe he’d listen to these and be like, ‘I like this one; let’s do a video.’ Anything he wanted to do, I was up for.”

Mills, a veteran video director for bands like Air and Blonde Redhead, entered their first phone call with a similar mindset: He figured they’d collaborate on a clip, gain some mutual inspiration and go their separate ways. But both parties were intrigued by the blank canvas they seemed to share, by the lack of parameters they’d set forth—clearly, they were flirting with something a bit grander, if slightly amorphous.

“Matt is a very interesting, sweet trickster figure,” Mills says. “He was like, ‘What else could we do? What if we do something really big? What if it was just sort of the unknown?’ I found him completely charming, but I’m also feeling responsible, like, ‘What is it? What are you talking about?’ He just wouldn’t answer. It was like, ‘Who knows what it is? Who needs to know what it is? Who cares what the end result is? Who cares how we’re gonna put it out? We’re gonna pay for it. It’s an experiment.’”

“The five of us are always the five of us, but we welcome a lot of other ideas,” Berninger says of The National’s new approach. (photo by Stephen Bloch)

For Mills, that meeting of minds arrived at a pivotal moment. After a grueling year of promoting 20th Century Women, he felt “totally lost” and mentally drained. His rejuvenation showed up via Dropbox, where he accessed a stockpile of The National’s sonic sketches from over the years—unfinished tracks, leftovers, homeless riffs and melodies.

Meanwhile, a story idea started to germinate, and Mills eventually wound up with a finished script. In March 2018, he filmed what became the impressionistic I Am Easy to Find, a 26-minute piece that follows an ordinary woman (played by Alicia Vikander) through all stages of her life—from birth to death—colored by moments of startling intimacy magnified by Mills’ detached captions (“She wants to live somewhere else,” “Arguing with her mother about getting married”) and his own mutations of several unfinished National tracks.

“I picked like seven of those songs, and then they gave me the stems when I really started editing the film,” Mills says. “That was super brave of them, especially [multi-instrumentalists] Aaron and Bryce [Dessner], because they didn’t really know me that well. They were like, ‘We’re not precious. Do whatever you want. Let’s fuck things up. Let’s interrupt our way of working.’ It was like, ‘Man, if I don’t really try some stuff here, it’ll be a disappointment.’ So I went for it.”

Mills, a massive National fan, spent hours digging through their treasure trove of sounds, often swapping instruments or vocals from one track into another. One breakthrough was taking the subdued strings from what became the album version of “Quiet Light”—a somber, electronic-tinged anthem—and pushing them to the forefront for the film.

An atmosphere of “polite stealing” emerged, with the two factions borrowing ideas from each other—and those ideas spawning other ideas. “We started doing a lot of stuff with the Brooklyn Youth Choir,” Mills continues, citing one example. “Bryce did it all, and he used my subtitles from the film for the text they were singing. I got that song in the Dropbox one day.”

That spirit bled over into the album sessions, though it’s difficult to pinpoint where one process ended and the other began. After giving Mills unprecedented access to their musical vault, The National recruited the director to produce their LP and bring a cinematic approach to their songs.

“We talked about how the film is like an abstract capturing of a woman’s life, and the record is like the afterlife,” Berninger says. “In producing the record, Mike started directing the afterlife too. Mike said, ‘I’ve never produced a record,’ and we were like, ‘We don’t usually use a producer outside of the band.’ It wasn’t necessary that Mike knew how to engineer or master or mix. It was a creative thing—we wanted him to direct the record, and he did.” (“He was a kid in a candy shop,” Berninger adds. Mills uses a different analogy: a “pig in shit.”)

Though everyone found the experience revelatory, bassist Scott Devendorf admits that it was awkward at times watching Mills take an axe to their material, chopping away layers from their labors of love.

“When he was in the studio, he’d be like, ‘Let’s take everything out,’” he recalls. “We’d be like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa! That’s all the guitar!’ And then we’d realize, ‘Oh, it sounds really cool and gives us a different take on what we’d normally do.’ He came at it from a non-musical/directorial place, which interests us because we’re super musical all the time. We were happy to get out of that, like, ‘OK, it doesn’t matter if it’s this chord or this sequence. What sounds good? What’s happening here?’ He was a good disrupter to the whole thing.”

The band worked on the LP—which sprawled into 16 tracks over 63 minutes—at studios in Cincinnati, Austin, Paris, Berlin, Dublin, Brooklyn and other locales. But they established their primary headquarters at Aaron’s Long Pond, a converted-barn studio in New York’s Hudson Valley. With the songs taking shape, The National took another bold step: Inspired by the journey of the film’s protagonist, they recruited cameos from some of their favorite frontwomen friends (including Sharon Van Etten, Lisa Hannigan and David Bowie collaborator Gail Ann Dorsey) to give the album a broader palette of perspectives.

“That came from the film,” Mills says. “We had a female character, but the songs that had lyrics were all Matt’s voice. There were these interesting things happening—who is he when he’s singing in that context? Is he her? Is he somehow a man explaining her thoughts? What’s going on? We liked the ambiguity and multiplicity of that. I remember a rush of emails: ‘Should we have women sing? And who would it be? Is it a star person? Is it not a star? Is it people of all ages? Is it one person or many?’ Bryce quickly put together this experiment with [the singers]. Sometimes they sang together, sometimes they did these beautiful harmonies. It wasn’t a lark. It was more, ‘Let’s see if this works.’ They did it in around two days. It was intended to be a demo, and we thought, ‘This is really cool, and it makes you listen to Matt’s lyrics.’ I think there are different gender point of views in all National songs and for sure on this record because Carin [Besser] did so much writing. ‘You Had Your Soul With You’—that’s Carin’s perspective, writing about Matt, and Matt is singing about himself. The idea of it not being one person but many—that fit for a lot of reasons. Musically, they liked having the bigger bouquet. And as part of the film, [the character represents] many people or developmental stages or moods. Matt’s really great at thinking like that. He’s the one who taught me that line: ‘She’s not one person—she’s many contradictory simultaneous selves.’”

“The publishing and writing and characters all got mixed up,” Berninger adds. “The songs that Carin wrote are often presented like they are coming from a male perspective: the husband’s perspective, the dad’s perspective. But she’s writing about me. ‘Hey Rosey’ is her writing about me a little bit. So all of that—the genders, the pronouns—got blurred and became meaningless in some ways. We knew that this record has a cohesive embodiment of this woman as this unnamed person [in the movie]. Not all our songs are really about us or Carin or me, but most of them are. And even on this record, most of them are. But it allowed us, in a weird way, to be more naked, knowing it was going to be presented in this way. That [presentation] gave me a veil to step behind a little bit, which was a relief.”

“There are a myriad of lessons to be learned from the Grateful Dead,” Scott Devendorf says of his time working with Bob Weir and on Day of the Dead.” (photo by Stephen Bloch)

While The National didn’t bring on these female guests as some statement of gender equality, Devendorf says that move did make sense given the overall “state of the world.”

“When the film started to take shape and the themes [emerged], we thought, ‘It really makes sense to have a bunch of female vocals on this,’” he says. “Matt was pretty excited—for philosophical reasons, practical reasons—to have someone else be part of a song’s identity. It’s almost like a play with voices coming in like characters in the story. It made it more buoyant.”

“Hearing the songs with other people made me realize they’d added a whole other side of the pyramid,” Berninger continues. “Something that was 2-D suddenly became 3-D—it was like in The Wizard of Oz when it turns into color. We knew the film would have different versions, but would I be removed from some of these songs on the record? We all thought, ‘That’s great.’ I bet in reality there are more lyrics coming out of my mouth on this record than any previous National record. That’s why it’s so long—there’s not less me, there’s just a lot more colors of other people. Even if I was being removed from a song, even if there was a little part of my ego that stung a tiny bit, the fact that it was a new idea was more exciting. I like that I don’t have to be the presenter of these emotional cliff dives all the time. I like that somebody else has to do it.

“The doors on The National have been open for a while with the fluidity of collaborators coming in,” Berninger adds. “The five of us are always the five of us, but we welcome a lot of other ideas, whether it’s Sufjan Stevens or Justin Vernon or Richard Reed Parry, Thomas Bartlett, our horn players Kyle Resnick and Ben Lanz. The DNA of The National is a real mutt.”

Another lauded musician who has grown into a member of The National’s extended family is Bob Weir, and the majority of the band collaborated with the guitarist on his most recent solo LP, 2016’s Blue Mountain. Around the same time, the Dessners also produced and curated Day of the Dead, an expansive tribute compilation celebrating the Grateful Dead—which Berninger calls one of their longtime “spirit bands.”

“The biggest takeaway [from working with Weir] was two things: Take care of your health and just chill out,” says Berninger, the only member of The National who doesn’t have roots in the Dead world. “Bob always said, ‘Don’t stress the static.’ I think a lot of us for a long time now, not just on this record, have been trying to embody that—even though we do stress the static all the time.”

“The spirit of doing those songs informed our new way of working,” Devendorf says of Day of the Dead and touring with Weir. “It was like, ‘It shouldn’t have to be painful. It should be hard but not emotionally taxing.’ That was something we learned from all that stuff that’s eternally stuck with us now in a great way. It’s a touchstone for us—‘Oh, yeah, remember how [enjoyable] that was?’ There are a myriad of lessons to be learned from the Grateful Dead.”

For Berninger, I Am Easy to Find is the end result of applying those lessons, both musical and interpersonal.

“There’s a free-for-all nature to it,” he says. “Let it be long, let it be hairy, let the songs meander, let there be long intros and outros, let there be things that maybe don’t fit—we’re not trying to make this pop record. We’ve loosened our grip on everything slowly over the years. In the early years, every decision was a massive, massive crisis. We’ve all let each other do their thing and sit with things before we have an immediate reaction. The Dead figured out how to have a peaceful collaboration for a long, long time. We all value and have faith in the preciousness of the five-guy-band thing, but we’re not dogmatic about it.”

The National of yore would’ve been too precious to endure the boundary-shattering experiment of I Am Easy to Find. They needed outsiders to give them perspective—and, over a decade later, they’ve opened an artistic door they didn’t even know was shut.

“If I ever have another sort of collaborative meeting of the spirits half as good as this, I’ll be lucky,” Berninger says. “Mike changed the way we all think about our own identities as artists. He really knows how to make other artists feel good about their messy art, and that’s a gift. Maybe we all needed somebody to be so kind to us—but also to say, ‘I hear something else. I hear you guys evolving.’”

This article originally appears in the July/August 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.