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Interview: The National's Bryce Dessner on 'Trouble Will Find Me'.

Interview: The National's Bryce Dessner on 'Trouble Will Find Me'.

Backstage at Splendour In The Grass 2013, The National guitarist Bryce Dessner - identical twin of Aaron Dessner - kindly granted Coup De Main some of his time to discuss how the band's songwriting process has evolved throughout their fourteen-year career, Tom Berninger's 'Mistaken For Strangers' film and what makes a good guitarist...

"’s the emotional feeling that you get in a good rock song or folk song, there’s just nothing that rivals that. It speaks straight to the heart and it has a kind of visceral quality..."

COUP DE MAIN: Obvious first question... when are The National returning to New Zealand?
THE NATIONAL - BRYCE DESSNER: We’re not sure! We think hopefully in 2014. There’ll be something announced soonish.

[ The National will play Auckland's Vector Arena on February 4th, 2014 - click here to read the full tour announcement. ]

CDM: If you were to hold one of your MusicNOW Festivals in New Zealand, who would you choose to play?
BRYCE: If I were to do that in New Zealand... well, we would get a bunch of friends over. I always ask people like Bon Iver and my friends from Arcade Fire. There’s some Australians that I love - Julia Stone is really great, we've become friends with her. I don’t actually know that I know any New Zealand musicians, but I’d find some for sure.

CDM: 'Mistaken For Strangers' is playing at the New Zealand International Film Festival now, what ran through your mind while watching Tom Berninger's film for the first time?
BRYCE: I was really proud of him. We were there for him filming that the whole time, he was able to shape it into something more than a band-film. It’s not just a story about the band, it’s really this other story that we play a role in. We were mostly just proud that he pulled it off.

CDM: Do you feel like it's an accurate portrayal of the The National?
BRYCE: It’s a portrayal of a side of the band, yeah. We come off okay in it, but as I said it’s not really about us - there’s things about it that are accurate and others that are less so, but it’s definitely an interesting movie.

CDM: In a good way, the humour of it reminded me of 'Spinal Tap'.
BRYCE: Yeah, it’s like a post 'Spinal Tap' music rockumentary.

CDM: Has the band's songwriting process changed from your first self-titled album, to 'Trouble Will Find Me'?
BRYCE: Yes, I think we’ve gotten better! <laughs> And we’ve evolved. The first demos are all made on 4-tracks, then 'Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers' and 'Alligator' were on digital 8-track. And then we kind of graduated, we’ve built our own studio in Brooklyn so we got much more involved in the recording process and have really been more experimental with sounds and orchestration, Matt’s become more adventurous with his voice and has a bigger range than he ever has. We’ve grown with every record, I think.

CDM: Do you think it's easier or harder, self-producing your own albums?
BRYCE: To be honest, we’ve always pretty much self-produced in the past. Peter Katis had production credit and was a very creative mixer, but all along it’s been kind of like the band was producing our own records. We’re a very collaborative band and we all have really strong opinions about stuff, so it makes sense to do it that way. I don’t know if we could do it any other way, to really have... say a musical producer come in and direct us is something we haven’t tried, I think that would be hard.

CDM: Is there any song in particular on 'Trouble Will Find Me' that you feel best represents the band at this stage of your career?
BRYCE: 'This Is The Last Time' or a song like 'Humiliation', those are formally really ambitious songs that really stretch what we do in a good way. I think those two songs are probably just ambitious in a way musically and lyrically, that I think is a good reflection of where we are.

CDM: Do you have any favourite lyrics of Matt's on 'Trouble Will Find Me'?
BRYCE: I think the track 'Sea Of Love' - "If I stay here trouble will find me..." - that’s pretty interesting and a brilliant turn of phrase. I have a lot... or "I stay down, with my demons..." in 'Demons', that’s also a favourite.


CDM: After having performed your song 'Sorrow' 105 times in a row live for six hours straight at New York's MoMA PS1, did how you feel about the song change at all?
BRYCE: The surprising thing about that experience was we didn’t expect to have a captive audience - we thought it would be more like an art installation and people would come and go, when actually there were about six hundred people pretty much there the whole time. By the end they were singing louder than we were, so it became this kind of joyous, cathartic and kind of almost mantra-like... like people who do the yoga-singing thing, it had that feeling about it. It was really transportative, and surprisingly a pretty amazing experience for us. And the song, we like it more now than ever - playing it that many times over and over again, you’re like: "Okay, this is not a bad song!" <laughs>

CDM: What makes a good guitarist?
BRYCE: I’m definitely more of the kind of punk or post-punk school of guitar playing, where the guitar is more of an object in the room that's to be treated like a colour that can enter or leave. So I usually enjoy guitarists who are somehow embracing the physicality of the instrument and are not so worried about notes. That’s why we do a lot of things with texture and when the guitar element sometimes sounds like a string instrument, or we use controlled feedback and things like that to create colour, and it’s less about fast guitar playing - guitar solos don’t interest me so much. My friend Richard Parry from Arcade Fire is a really great guitar player; he’s really musical, the way he thinks on the guitar is very un-guitar-like actually. The melodies he plays are almost like you want him to sing them, I think he’s a really good guitar player.

CDM: Do you think being self-taught or classically trained, has any influence over how good a guitarist you can be?
BRYCE: For sure. Most of my favourite guitarists are self-taught, because in a way there’s less of a reverence for the instrument itself, so you end up finding and inventing however you want to play it. There are famous examples of people who just had really strange ways - [Jimi] Hendrix being the biggest example of that. Or someone like Keith Richards, he just has a really idiosyncratic style. I obviously am very trained playing classical guitar - but it's been interesting because my brother and I do all the guitar playing in the band and he’s either taught by me or self-taught, so we have a interesting dynamic with that.

CDM: The National's music is massively lyrically based and centred around Matt's very distinctive voice, and then you also compose instrumental music. Do you think that music without lyrics can be just as powerful as songs that do have lyrics?
BRYCE: It’s a different kind of powerful, for sure. Yes, I think so, and obviously there are pieces of classical music that are some of the most beautiful music ever written, for me anyway is a lot of classical or contemporary music, so it’s a different kind of space that you enter when you’re listening to it. In a way it’s the emotional feeling that you get in a good rock song or folk song, there’s just nothing that rivals that. It speaks straight to the heart and it has a kind of visceral quality that I think most instrumental music doesn’t, but they’re both really valid forms for me.

CDM: As a band you've been big supporters of Barack Obama, what are your thoughts on politicians asking musicians to endorse them?
BRYCE: We’ve never been asked to endorse a politician, we just got involved in the 2008 election because it was really important to us and we had a strong opinion about it. We’ve tried to avoid politics for the most part, or up until then we had. Obviously with the Bush years in America and everything that happened because of that, it’s a pretty high stakes thing. American politics are important because it affects the entire world in often negative ways, so we think it’s important. Especially the fact that at that point we had an audience that would care to listen to what we had to say, we felt like we needed to say something.
CDM: What do you feel is the difference between a good song and a great song?
BRYCE: A good song is a nice set of chords and some good lyrics; a great song is a song that reinvents itself over time. That you can always find something interesting in the more you listen to it - it keeps revealing something to you. And I think that’s true about all art; a great painting is something that you can come back to again and again.


The National's new album 'Trouble Will Find Me' is out now - featuring 'Demons', 'Don't Swallow The Cap' and 'Graceless'.

Click HERE to read CDM Issue #9.

Watch the 'Graceless' music video below...

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