Capturing the Dark Beauty of The National

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


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The National Trouble Will Find Me album cover

After the Clubhouse sessions, action shifted back to the garage and the long process of overdubbing and layering. “It was all about finding the right textures and color shifts and determining what the aesthetic would be,” Dessner says. “We never really talk about it. We just inch closer and closer toward some place that feels like a place we can live with.”


More of The National’s Aaron Dessner and engineer Marcus Paquin on the recording of Trouble Will Find Me

On the decision to record at the Clubhouse.

Dessner: “My brother bought a farmhouse about 15 minutes from there. There were a few studios we looked at up there—the main other one was Dreamland, and we did do some recording there, also. The song ‘Fireproof’ was recorded at Dreamland, and all the orchestrations were done there, pretty much. The rest of the recordings were done in my garage again, including a lot of premixing and messing around with sounds. And we chose to mix it in a different way, for variety and a slightly different approach—not because we don’t like working with Peter [Katis]; we love working with Peter, but sometimes you get set in your ways, and it’s good to shake things up a little bit. So we chose to work with Craig Silvey, after some spec mixes with various people, and Craig had a great chemistry with us, and he had a very analog approach I found interesting.”

Paquin: “The reason we went to Dreamland originally is on Day Three of recording at Clubhouse, there were storm warnings, and we were outside having a short break. The trees around us started shaking, and the air turned white, and before we knew it a tornado was heading toward us! We all ran into the studio simultaneously, and about 30 seconds later we watched a tree get split in half and ripped out of the ground. Shortly after that, the power went out and we lost power for about three days. So we spent about two and a half or three days with no power or water, waiting it out. It was still a productive time—acoustic guitars got taken out, parts of songs were fine-tuned and lyrical ideas were tried out. But after a point we wanted to do some recording, so we worked out some studio time at Dreamland and spent a day there before Clubhouse was back up.” (The sting and horn overdubs at Dreamland happened later.)

On using some of the demo recordings on the finished album.

Dessner: “I’d say at least half of this record is the demos—the original music I recorded in my studio. One of Bryce’s demos is on there. Songs like ‘Slipped,’ ‘This Is the Last Time,’ ‘Hard to Find,’ ‘Humiliation,’ ‘Pink Rabbits,’ ‘I Should Live in Salt’—those are all the original recordings. When you’re first developing an idea for a song, there’s a certain spontaneity and casual energy in the performance that can get lost when you actually go to record it. Sometimes they lose their charm. I record things as well as I can in the garage—we have great mics and a lot of great preamps, compressors, amps, guitars and keyboards—but I tend to not worry that much about the sound.”

Where did you get your recording chops?

Dessner: “Mainly trial and error. I peaked over the shoulder of many great engineers, Peter Katis being the most obvious one we worked with for more than a decade, so I know some of his tricks. In a very rudimentary way I can imitate some of them. And I learned a lot from him in terms of mic placement and basic techniques and avoiding overcompressing things. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Sufjan Stevens is a close friend. He self-records everything, and he’s taught me a few unusual things—like, if you want a tambourine to sound reverb-y, put the mic in another room or across the room. There are also some guys down in Philadelphia at a studio called Miner Street that I really like—Brian McTear and Jon Low. Jon worked on this record also. I like his approach to re-amping, and he has a lot of interesting ways of treating things. We like to record things [straight] and then treat them with re-amps and other effects.”

Paquin: “Sufjan Stevens came in for a bunch of days to work on a few songs, especially the ‘Demons.’ He added a few special twists. He brought in a Prophet 8 and played some keyboards, and he also brought in a drum machine. They spent a number of days working through songs and seeing what he could add.”

Are there producers besides Peter Katis who have influenced your recording aesthetic?

Dessner: “The obvious one is Daniel Lanois; definitely some of the hazy elements we use. And John Cale for the drones. A lot of our songs either start with drones or end with drones, or the songs are written so there are one-chord drones that exist through the whole thing. On a song like ‘Fireproof,’ I was definitely thinking of Paul Simon—a contained fingerpicking song that can be played on one instrument that could carry the song. And on ‘Slipped’ I was thinking of ‘Not Dark Yet’ off of [Dylan’s] Time Out of Mind. I like that Lanois-Dylan magical chemistry.”

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