Although the Dessner
brothers often share their
gear, Aaron’s main
a 1979 Epiphone Sheraton.
Photo by Keith Klenowski
A typical National song has a rudimentary framework—four or so
chords, mostly triadic and diatonic, and a melody with few notes.
Despite this simplicity—or maybe because of it—the band’s compositional
process is not an easy one. “It’s almost like the way a
sculptor works—where there’s a big stone and we’re slowly chipping
away and uncovering the song,” says Bryce.
The process is highly collaborative and fraught with an extensive
series of negotiations. A single song’s gestational period can last as
long as several months. As the music’s primary creators, Aaron and
Bryce typically germinate new song ideas on guitar or piano, record
them in Pro Tools, and give the files to Berninger, who listens
with obsessive repetition to the music on his earphones, mumbling
along with lyric and melodic ideas—an activity that’s earned
him the nicknames “Mr. Sony Headphones” and “Mumbleberry
Pie.” Because of his propensity to reject outright or completely
reconfigure the Dessners’ embryonic sketches, Berninger is also
sometimes known as “the Dark Lord” or “the Naysayer.”
“Yesterday, my brother and I recorded a new National song with
a part I arranged for string orchestra,” says Bryce. “It was expensive
[to hire the musicians] and elaborate, and it took four days for me
to write everything out, but it’s very possible Matt will come in and
say, ‘No, leave the strings out.’ Then I have to think about it: ‘Well,
maybe he has a point. Maybe it works without the strings, even though
I think otherwise.’
” As it happened, Berninger accepted the string
section in the song, which will be part of the soundtrack to the
upcoming film Win Win
, which stars Paul Giamatti.
Berninger, who doesn’t play an instrument or read notation,
often gives the twins musical direction in the form of metaphor.
This can be frustrating, according to the Dessners, but ultimately
it forces them to seek out new techniques and sonorities—not
unlike learning a piece by Steve Reich. When High Violet
number, “Terrible Love,” was being written, Berninger requested
accompaniment that sounded like “loose wool.” Aaron holed up in
his studio and recorded himself playing loudly through a bunch of
different amp and pedal configurations before he found a sound he
felt matched that description.
“In the end, I tuned my fifth string down to G to get a more resonant
sound, and turned a Penn amp up really loud, to the point of
overdriving it,” Aaron recalls. “I also had a Boss tremolo pedal and
was looping myself on a Line 6 Delay Modeler. I played for eight
or nine minutes straight with this thick and warm sound, getting
crazier as I went along and coming unhinged toward the end, which
you can hear on the record.”
For his part, Bryce played complementary arpeggios in a higher
register—the sort of thing that wouldn’t have been out of place in,
say, an early electric Dylan song. With these sounds, the brothers
turned the most basic of progressions—I–IV or G–C/G—into something
altogether new: a huge and blurry soundscape whose jitteriness
evokes the neurotic sort of romance that “Terrible Love” is all about.
Yet, even shorn of its wool—as in an alternate studio version and an
acoustic performance on Q TV—the song maintains its integrity.