The National have announced some truly excellent support acts for Donnybrook gigs

Lisa Hannigan, Villagers, Aldous Harding and more all added to the band's June dates in Dublin.

The National have today announced that Villagers, Aldous Harding, Rostram, Jay Som and long-time collaborating partner Lisa Hannigan will join the Cincinnati band when they make their way to Dublin in the summer.

Tickets are still available via Ticketmaster, priced at €76 for a one day ticket and €136 for a two day ticket.

The National last played in Dublin in September. Read our full interview with them here:

The National: Interview October 9

Sleep Well Beast, the seventh studio album by enduring US indie darlings The National, is a hauntingly dark, paranoid, melancholic and sometimes angry affair. Frontman MATT BERNINGER talks about working with Lisa Hannigan, writing break-up lyrics with his wife of ten years, the “stink” of Donald Trump, and why their new record like “lunch with its underpants on.”

“Oh shit! I shouldn’t have told you that! Man, please don’t print that! Just forget I said it.”

Having just accidentally revealed both the identity and place of work of his LA weed supplier, Matt Berninger, frontman of enduring American indie act The National, is slightly panicked. It’s not surprising. Said dealer – who also owns a more legitimate retail business – sounds like an excitable type who probably wouldn’t particularly welcome being exposed in an Irish rock magazine.

“I think he learnt all his English from action movies so I buy stuff from his place and he’s like (shouts excitedly) ‘THIS ONE’S FUCKING AWESOME!’ or ‘THIS IS THE BEST ONE FUCKING EVER!’ He’s crazy… but he also gives me free weed.”

We’d been discussing The National’s just released seventh album, Sleep Well Beast, and strayed onto the subject of marijuana via a question about Berninger’s lyrics (one song advises, “Keep the weed next to the bed/Light the water, check for lead”). A self-confessed and enthusiastic stoner, the 46-year-old vocalist has been using the drug for creative means for many years. Even so, he’s definitely no spaced-out slacker.

“I’m a really early riser,” he explains. “I think about ten years ago is when I started waking up at 5am no matter when I go to bed. Well, if I go to bed at 5am I’ll sleep a little later, but yeah, I’m one of those. My wife’s the opposite; she thinks better late at night, and I think better when I’m in that morning blur. So I have three hours before my wife and daughter wake up. I smoke a little weed and I just sit and I water the plants in this little room, and I read a little bit, or maybe I’ll just start working on songs.

“I’ll open up my laptop and start working on songs. It’s simple as that, and I do that every day. I’ve been doing that for ten years so it’s just a matter of what stuff gets packaged into a National record, what gets put into this record or the last record. It’s all in this blurry process – and I don’t separate it into all these folders of art projects. It’s all part of the same project.”

Berninger is talking down the line from his home in Venice, Los Angeles. A native of Cincinnati, he lived in New York for 18 years before moving to the sunnier west coast with his wife and young daughter in 2012. While The National were once entirely Brooklyn-based, his fellow bandmates – Aaron Dessner (guitar, keyboards), Bryce Dessner (guitar), Scott Devendorf (bass) and Bryan Devendorf (drums) – are now all living in different cities.

Produced by Aaron, most of Sleep Well Beast was recorded in his own Long Pond Studios in a pastoral area of upstate New York. But is it harder nowadays to get all the band together?

“No, it’s actually easier to be together and work on stuff now because you just kinda camp out in the studio for two or three weeks, and all of the other things in our lives just go on hold,” he explains. “I mean, our kids come to the studio, and also our nuclear families travel around with us, but by just camping around the studio everything else in our lives goes on hold. You can totally focus. So I think we all prefer it this way.

“When we work on a record, when The National get together, it’s a deep dive together. And then when we’re on our own we all do it, we work at our own pace and tinker with it, nobody’s cracking the whip on anybody else. So when we get in the studio, it’s like, ‘Okay here we go’, and we just have a blast. We smoke a lot of weed, we drink beer, we go swimming in the pond, we make rock songs – it’s the best life. What can I say?” For all the fun they may have had making the album, it certainly doesn’t come across in the finished result. “You found it depressing?!” he laughs. “It’s not supposed to do that!”

Actually, it’s more thought-provoking than depressing. Instantly recognisable as a National record, Sleep Well Beast is a haunting, melancholic, angry, frustrated and paranoid affair. Musically it’s slightly more adventurous than usual (drum loops, electronic crunches, samples, and there’s even some uncharacteristic guitar solos), but, much as with REM’s Michael Stipe, Berninger’s distinctively deep baritone makes just about everything he sings sound a little sad anyway.

Reflecting the troubled times we’re living in, there’s definitely some unbridled anger there, too. As wild and unrestrained a song as they’ve ever conjured up, paranoid political rocker ‘Turtleneck’ takes a subtle pop at President Donald Trump. “The poor they leave their cellphones in the bathrooms of the rich,” he screams, referring to Trump’s reported habit of tweeting while sitting on his gold-plated toilet, “And when they try to turn them off everything they switch to/Is just another man, in shitty suits, everybody’s cheering for/This must be the genius we’ve been waiting years for”.

“Well, there’s one section, there’s one line, about him, yeah,” admits Berninger. “But I didn’t want to talk about Trump in this record. He’s, like, in the water, his stink is in the air – and I don’t want to add more. So ‘Turtleneck’ is just a cathartic, emotional expression. It’s as much about sex and about hypocrisy, and as much about courage, as it is about Donald Trump. And it’s just about anger, it’s a pissed-off song. It’s fun, it’s visceral, it’s just a relief. And that song was written really quickly.”

Does the singer labour over his lyrics, generally?

“Oh no, I mean I don’t struggle like I used to at all, because my process now is I don’t worry about it. I don’t even have notebooks anymore. I have a Word document and it’s gibberish and I’m just mumbling a bunch of stuff that doesn’t mean anything for a while. Mostly I work on melody, and sing along to the music, and then words come to be a part of that melody, or it sounds like words. And then the words start to make me think of other words, and it starts connecting. The image is the opposite of dissolving – it comes into shape slowly.

“The songs sorta sometimes come into focus all around the same time, and that’s when you know you’re on the finish of a record. But then other ones like ‘Turtleneck’ and [first single] ‘The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness’, the lyrics to those were written, like, overnight. But then other ones I was tinkering with for four years. It all still feels the same chemical process – sometimes it’s fast, sometimes it’s slow.”

Berninger’s wife, Carin Besser, is a former fiction editor for The New Yorker. In addition to occasionally singing backing vocals, she also helps him with the lyrics. Sleep Well Beast features a couple of break-up songs, most notably the sombre ‘Guilty Party’. It can’t have been an easy song to work on with his own spouse…

“Yeah, it was a sensitive time,” says Berninger, before pausing. “You know, we’ve been married for ten years and throughout that time… I suppose we started out as creative collaborators and lovers, and then we became husband and wife, and then a mother and a father. In all those things, there’s a real shifting and evolution between two people with ideas of what they want to do with their lives.

“You know, you make this union with someone, this commitment, and you say, ‘We’re going to make a life together’. You make all these choices together, and you bring another person into the world together. It’s a crazy evolution you have to go through together in your brain and your heart. Everything about it, you have to compromise a lot.”

So is the song based on his own marriage?

“I don’t know that the record is about all that, trying to unpack it, and I think every healthy marriage goes through really, really rough periods because it has to evolve. It has to go through certain hibernations to come out the other side something new. So my wife and I, we’ve gone through many evolutions in our marriage, and so has our band, and our friendships have gone through that. Even my relationship with my mom and dad has gone through 20 different versions of that father-son relationship.

“So in breaking up, it’s not necessarily about the end of something. You just take it apart and look at the best way to put it back together, I think. The record is as much about putting it back together as it is about destroying it.”

The songs ‘Walk It Back’ and ‘Dark Side Of The Gym’ feature vocal contributions from Ireland’s own Lisa Hannigan, whose most recent album, At Swim, was produced by Aaron.

“Yeah, we’ve known her for a long time,” explains Matt. “I can’t remember when we first met Lisa – Aaron got to know her very well when he produced her record – so she was in the studio with us in upstate New York. That was a really fun couple of days, where we just played around with stuff. We have a very open-door policy. If you happen to be good at anything – this is not an invitation! – and you’re around the studio, Aaron’s going to put you in the booth and see what he can get out of you.

“We have very generous friends, who are willing to be put in front of a live mic and pushed off the cliff a little. And Lisa’s just that type of person, too. We love fearless people, and she added a lot to this record.”

Musically speaking, Berninger admits that The National were a lot more comfortable with the idea of really rocking out on Sleep Well Beast than ever before.

“What’s kinda funny about that,” he notes, “is Aaron and Bryce have been ripping guitar solos constantly since the day we started practicing together, because they’re always trying to outdo each other (laughs). But they never really ended up on records. It’s the same thing we would apply to the electronic stuff. It would always kinda be in the mix, but we would just edit it all out or put it way down. For some reason I think there was an idea that guitar solos were too bluesy, and we didn’t want to be an American blues band or an American alt-country band – or any kind of band!

“Guitar solos felt like they might peg you as a type of thing, just as I didn’t scream after Boxer or Alligator for a while, because we didn’t want to be stuck in that corner. That’s all that happened – we realised, ‘Hey, we’re not in that corner, we don’t have to be embarrassed by guitar solos.’”

How would Berninger sum up Sleep Well Beast?

“Oh boy!” he sighs. “I mean, it’s a very tangled-up record – it’s tangled up with a bunch of stuff. I mean love songs, fear songs, political songs; it’s all a big jumble. It’s a big flurry, but it’s kinda like, I don’t know, it’s all on the table. I feel like everything that’s going on right now, it’s really gross, but at least it’s all on the table, at least we can see it. At least we can see what’s really happening, we can see how bad it is.”

So it’s your Naked Lunch album?

“How do you mean?” he asks, puzzled.

William Burroughs took the title of his most notorious novel from a Jack Kerouac quote: “Naked lunch: a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.”

Matt Berninger takes this in for a moment and then chuckles. “I will say this: it’s more like lunch with its underpants on. It’s not entirely naked yet.”

Sleep Well Beast is out now on 4AD.

 

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