Capturing the Dark Beauty of The National

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


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As producers, do you and your brother Bryce have different specialties or areas of emphasis?

Dessner: “We’re very good collaborators because we grew up collaborating on everything and playing instruments together. We finish each other’s ideas. We’re both decent engineers. I’d say I’m more of a songwriter—I write more of the music and I guess I have maybe a bit more will to push the boulder up the mountain, and Bryce is much more specific with arrangement ideas, because he’s a classical musician. He’ll spend a lot of his time in Sibelius experimenting with different ways to orchestrate something. So a lot of his production work is actually orchestration, whereas mine is working on the whole—how things are coming together, and developing the basic ideas. Then we help each other along, whether its his or mine. It’s very organic and there’s a lot of back and forth. Another way we help each other is when we’re actually tracking guitars or bass or keyboards or whatever, if he’s playing, I’m usually engineering and vice-versa, so we sort of edit each other on the fly. Because of the way we grew up, we can do that and there aren’t any hurt feelings, which means we can move pretty quickly to what we want. We joke that we’re like a two-headed monster when we’re producing.”

The song ‘This is the Last Time’ is a good example of the cool layering you guys do, with all those little parts and the strings and all.

Dessner: “We’re always trying to figure out, how do you make something dynamic? On that one I had these two basslines that existed from the beginning and then everything else was played to that. You want a song to go somewhere and have an arc and have elbows and left turns. That song was fun to make because we tried a lot of things.

“That was probably the most-produced of all the songs, with so many different elements. It was recorded in the garage—even the orchestration was done there and we tripled each [strings] element. Then the guitars in the coda were recorded in Berlin actually when [Bryce and I] were back there last December, staying in a hotel called the Michelberger. We had been in Copenhagen playing with the Copenhagen Philharmonic, because Bryce had written a guitar concerto that he was performing there—we were the soloists. So we went from Copenhagen to Berlin to record, and we did the guitars for ‘Sea of Love’ and ‘This is the Last Time’ there in this big cement room that gave it a nice sound.

“We do a lot of versions of songs and do a lot of parts, and then we throw a lot of it away; carve it away and eventually it’s all about finding the right tone and the right balances, complexity and directness.”

I know you guys like analog a lot. Did you ever record drums to analog tape, as some producers and engineers like to do?

Paquin: “We did do a couple of tracks where we would record the drums on tape, one of which was ‘Hard to Find.’ It’s such a beautiful song and we really spent quite a bit of time on that one getting a drum sound that was unique and which played into the emotional depth of the song. Eventually, after a lot switching out drums and playing with tunings and switching up the miking of the kit, we settled on bouncing the whole tune as it was to tape—without drums—speeding it up and then having Bryan play to the sped-up track. Then we slowed it back down so the drums were much lower, and it really changed the attack of the drums—it softened the attack and rounded out the edges of the drums on that one. It gave the drums and unobtrusive quality that still propelled the song forward once they came in.”

A lot of songs seem to feature a contrast between crisp drums and the more ambient, drone-y stuff.

Paquin: “That’s right. The characteristic traits of their music are the driving force of Bryan’s drumming, along with the sonic beauty and the lyrics Matt is singing, and then this whole orchestration of different instruments and textures . It’s a beautiful thing and it keeps the ear coming back. That was something we were very conscious of—to keep it interesting and beautiful.

“The guys are real masters of finding an idea they know is good and really hunting down that magic combination of elements that gives the listener a visceral experience they want to pull apart and get deeper into. So there was a lot of ‘Let’s try this with a guitar, let’s try this with this kind of keyboard, let’s use piano here,’ before we settled on the final versions of any songs.”

I like all the different piano textures. Some of them sound like upright, some are obviously grand piano. Some are kind of distant-sounding, some more close-up.

Paquin: “We used piano at all of the studios we worked at. The really distant stuff was the piano at Dreamland, with distant miking. Some was the grand piano at Clubhouse, and then we actually used Aaron’s upright Yamaha that he does a lot of his songwriting on and a lot of the demoing on. We ended up shipping that out to Clubhouse.”

What are some of the other keyboards? I hear a lot of organ drone on there.

Paquin: “There’s a lot of Hammond B-3. Also, Aaron had just bought a Korg MS-20 [mini analog synth]. One of my side projects was to really get to know the MS-20, so after the sessions at night I’d disappear and go on YouTube and do tutorials and learn new patches. I’d come in the next day and say ‘Aaron, check this out,’ and he’d ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ it.”

Dessner: “On the song ‘I Should Live in Salt,’ the demo was the acoustic guitar and those somewhat composed, somewhat random MS-20 Korg lines you hear in there—sort of blooming synths—and then everything else was recorded at Clubhouse.”

Were the decisions about the different reverbs used on Matt’s vocals made during the tracking of during Craig Silvey’s mix? Is that an EMT 140 plate I’m hearing?

Dessner: “Actually, Craig doesn’t use any plates at all. He uses spring [reverb] and he also uses this Roland Chorus Echo and some weird Ibanez effects thing he uses. He has his own weird cocktail that he does; and also will use natural overdrive and distortion.”

Paquin: “Craig Silvey’s got an amazing approach to vocals and how he creates a space around them.”

What did you hand over to Craig when it came time to mix?

Paquin: “We made sure the mixes were sitting well as the process went on, so when we handed them over to Craig, everybody had a pretty good idea of where we wanted the balances to be, and Craig was really good at working within the mixes and sort of improving things and adding depth.”

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