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The National: Playing With Metaphors

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The National: Playing With Metaphors

The National (left to right): Guitarist Bryce Dessner, bassist Scott Devendorf, vocalist Matt
Berninger, drummer Bryan Devendorf, and guitarist Aaron Dessner. Photo by Keith Klenowski

Aaron and Bryce Dessner, identical-twin instrumentalists in the National, are not guitar heroes in the conventional sense. On High Violet, the band’s fifth full-length album—which was on many music reviewers’ best-of-the-year lists for 2010—you won’t find any pyrotechnical fretwork. What you will hear woven throughout the 11 songs’ complex instrumentation—which includes acoustic and electric guitars, bass, drums, strings (violins, viola, and cello) and horns (trombone, trumpet, and saxophone), accordion, piano, and ethereal background vocals—is a subtler kind of virtuosity. The Dessners’ brand of virtuosity revolves around subversive polyrhythms, mastery of tonal colors and texture, and their ability to make even the most shopworn of musical structures sound compellingly new.

At the moment, the National—whose admirers include Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe—is one of rock’s most lionized bands. But when the Dessners, bassist Scott Devendorf, drummer Bryan Devendorf (Scott’s brother), and singer Matt Berninger formed the band in Ohio in the late ’90s and then converged on New York, they toiled for years in semi-obscurity. It wasn’t until the Brooklyn-based band released its third album, 2005’s Alligator, that a buzz began to develop.

As one might imagine, the brothers Dessner have been collaborating musically since long before the National—indeed, for most of their lives. They grew up just outside of Cincinnati, where their father, a jazz drummer, turned them on to his extensive collection of records by jazz greats from all eras, as well as classic singer-songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan.

“I think our creativity has a lot to do with being stranded out in the woods in this rural suburb of a provincial city, just the two of us down in the basement for 18 years, listening to our dad’s records,” Aaron explains. “At some point, we introduced instruments into that equation and it was very easy for us to just ignore everything else and play. As twins we were very productive together, because we never had to teach each other things. Almost immediately, when we started playing guitar, we were writing songs and bouncing things off each other, and we rapidly became agile on the instrument.”


Aaron Dessner uses a vintage Fender Precision bass to add lead-bass textures
to the National’s highly orchestrated mix. Photo by Keith Klenowski

Blending Bluegrass, Classical, and Punk
Outside of their basement, the twins were exposed to regional music. Being near the Ohio River, to say nothing of summer camp in the North Carolina mountains, they absorbed plenty of country strains that would later manifest themselves in early National records. “We became influenced by bluegrass,” Aaron admits. “We had a banjo around the house, and I also played a mandolin and a tenor mandola.” Aaron also played the upright bass—and he’s played it on every National record except High Violet. But those influences were counterbalanced by several others, including those Bryce picked up while earning a master’s degree in classical guitar performance from Yale University, and the ideas Aaron absorbed while studying modern European history and cultural anthropology at Columbia University.
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