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Although the Dessner brothers often share their gear, Aaron’s main
guitar is 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 ’s opening 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.