Capturing the Dark Beauty of The National

Jun 1, 2013 9:00 AM, Mix, By Blair Jackson


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The National

For a lot of people, it takes awhile for our records to really sink in,” says Aaron Dessner of the moody Brooklyn rock band The National. “We try to make our records interesting in terms of how the songs unfold and develop—the dynamics—and, of course, Matt’s lyrics usually aren’t that obvious, even when they’re fairly direct.”

That would be Matt Berninger, possessor of the haunting, resonant baritone at the center of The National’s sound, and author—with his wife, Carin Besser—of the at-times opaque lyrics on the band’s latest album, Trouble Will Find Me (on the 4AD label). The music that surrounds that voice is often a hypnotic weave of intricately layered guitars, keyboards, bass and drums, with strings and horns thrown in occasionally for textural effect. The National are masters of the slow build—their nuanced songs often simmer and grow organically, elegantly flowering with a dark, mysterious beauty and propelled by subtle drones. Besides Berninger and guitarist/keyboardist/producer/engineer Dessner, the group consists of Aaron’s multi-instrumentalist twin brother Bryce Dessner (also co-producer/engineer), and another set of brothers, bassist Scott Devendorf and the group’s not-so-secret weapon—the phenomenal drummer Bryan Devendorf.

Since their second album (they’ve made six), the band has worked with producer/engineer/mixer Peter Katis and either recorded or mixed parts of their albums at his Tarquin Studios in Bridgeport, Conn. In 2008, however, Aaron Dessner built a studio in the two-car garage behind his Brooklyn home, and starting with the 2010 album, High Violet, the Dessners have taken a greater role in the recording process. On Trouble Will Find Me, Katis mixed just one tune, with Aaron and Bryce working on the demos and early recording and premixing in the garage studio, then bringing in Montreal-based engineer Marcus Paquin (Arcade Fire, Stars, Local Natives) to be the principal tracking engineer for sessions at Clubhouse, a Neve 8058-equipped room in Rhinebeck, N.Y. (up the Hudson River from Manhattan). Overdubs were at the garage, and except for two songs, it was mixed by Craig Silvey (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Arcade Fire, Arctic Monkeys) on the Neve 8078 in Studio A at Electric Lady in NYC.

Aaron says they decided to record upstate because “we wanted to isolate ourselves and also try to capture more spontaneity and more interactivity in the underlying performances. We have families, and it’s easier to focus if you distance yourself from your normal life. The living arrangements were really nice, and the land around the studio is so beautiful. We stayed up there for six weeks. It was something we’d never done before, and it ended up being a really special experience for the band.” The band also cut one song and recorded string overdubs at nearby Dreamland Studios in West Hurley, N.Y.

The group’s songs start as wordless demos created in the garage. “We’ll write music that usually has some form and sense of melody and send them to Matt,” Dessner says. “And we’ll send a lot of them—well over 50, for sure—as templates for him to experiment over. Over time he’ll zero in on the ones that are inspiring him, and then we focus on those. As a band we’ll try to arrange the song, work on beats and come up with ideas for textures. But the music develops somewhat separately from the vocals, and then at some point, we’ll start recording vocals.”

“In this case,” adds engineer Paquin, “by the time we were talking about where to record, there were already some scratch vocals, and several songs had been developed.” And though the band’s long stint at Clubhouse found the entire band (plus keyboardist Nick Lloyd) laying down solid basics and other parts, they didn’t hesitate to carry through parts from the Brooklyn demos if they felt they were right for a song—indeed, nearly half of the songs on the album kept the demo as a base.

“We were open to using whatever created the most interesting colors and which played into the emotions of the songs as they intended it,” Paquin comments. “There were a number of songs where we really liked the demo, we re-recorded it to get a better performance or a sonic improvement—and then we came back later and realized the original had a better feeling to it, or sonically there was an interesting quality we preferred.”

Clubhouse turned out to be a great room for Bryan Devendorf’s drums. Besides miking the kit pieces individually, Paquin used a pair of RCA 44 ribbons on the room and a U 47 in front of the drums, through a compressor, “going for a round fatness that, when you blended them with the drums, gave them a center.” The Dessners brought “cases and cases of guitars, and we cycled through many guitars and amps to find the right sonics for each song,” Paquin notes. His main guitar mics were a Beyer 201 and a Royer R-121. Berninger’s lead vocals at Clubhouse were recorded using a Shure SM7B through a Neve 1073 preamp and a bit of 1176 compression, with more captured using a Telefunken U47 tube at a private studio called Kickstand, near the singer’s L.A. home. For harmonies and doubling, Paquin used a Neumann U 87.

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