The Big Issue : Edition 546
THEBIGISSUE22SEP–5OCT2017 31 PHOTOBYGRAHAMMCINDOE a combination of played and programmed sounds. “I think the electronics are used in a soulful way,” says Dessner. “They’re specific and composed.” With every member of The National keeping busy with side projects, the new album hosts many cameos and cross-genre moments. But this influence might be a bit more unexpected: The Grateful Dead. If the shape-shifting work of that pioneering jam band seems like a far cry from The National’s brooding indie rock, Dessner points out that a lot of their own guitar heroes – from Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus to Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo – were influenced by the Dead. The National tapped those same heroes when curating last year’s 59-track tribute compilation, Day of the Dead. Other recruits included Béla Fleck, The War on Drugs, Angel Olsen, The Flaming Lips and Australia’s own Courtney Barnett, while National members also played on Blue Mountain, the 2016 solo album from the Dead’s Bob Weir. Dessner says the Dead’s influence on Sleep Well Beast came primarily in the form of allowing room for songs to drift from their structures. “There is an experimentalism and commitment to improvisation that’s really at the core of The Grateful Dead,” he explains. “They never did anything the same way twice, and I’d love it if The National could move more in that direction.” More wild guitar kicks off ‘Turtleneck’, the album’s shortest song at three minutes. It also boasts an especially harried vocal performance from Berninger, who has been expanding his range with every record. Some songs came more easily than others: the propulsive ‘Day I Die’ was abandoned at one point, only to be recovered and reworked, and ‘The System Only Dreams...’ wound up consuming about 80 per cent of the time mixing the album. Even after mixing that song, Berninger kept changing lyrics, which meant Dessner had to keep tweaking the music. But it’s just that kind of back-and- forth that yielded some of the album’s most fascinating moments, like when ‘System’ pivots from a syncopated bass line to a funkier one that sets the stage for Dessner’s solo. That The National commit to such tricky moments – what Dessner calls “a hard feel shift” in this case – is another sign of the stubborn uniqueness that’s seen them grow very gradually from under-the-radar workhorses to one of indie rock’s biggest bands. “We’re always surprised by our success,” admits Dessner, “because it was just from word-of-mouth. The band’s gotten bigger than we ever imagined possible, and sometimes it feels uncomfortable. There are times when it does your head in.” But now that bands are looking up to The National in the same way that The National looked up to Pavement and The Grateful Dead, Dessner wants to provide the same sort of positive example that nourished them in the early days. “If we can be inspiring to just a few,” he says, “that would be a great feeling.” by Doug Wallen (@wallendoug) » Sleep Well Beast is out now. The National tour Australia 21 Feb-1 March 2018. The National Party “The band’s gotten bigger than we ever imagined possible, and sometimes it feels uncomfortable. There are times when it does your head in.” THE NATIONAL, WITH AARON DESSNER AT LEFT.