Aaron Dessner of The National talks politics and music
Aaron Dessner of The National talks politics and music
Note: It seems The National did play a Des Moines show, nearly nine years ago. I added that info to the relevant question.
This Saturday President Barack Obama will speak at Living History Farms with the rock acts The National and Chris Cornell as his opening acts. The concert is free, though free tickets are required and are available at Organizing for America offices around Iowa.
On Wednesday I’m spoke with guitarist Aaron Dessner about The National’s music and their involvement with the campaign.
Q: What’s the difference between a show like this, where you’re the opening act for the president and an any other show at a theater or a festival?
I think this kind of show we probably would have more nerves and more kind of anticipation for something like this because it’s such a great honor to be able to open for the president of the United States. He’s someone who we really admire and who takes the breath out of you a little bit.
There’s something very heavy about it. It’s not the same as when you play at night in a theater and it’s kind of your own atmosphere that you create. We’ve done it a few times now, like an event in Madison two years ago, but this I think will be a fully electrified set so it will be a little bit easier for us to make an impact.
Q: Normally for concerts on the scale you guys are doing they’re announced months in advance, but this one was only announced six days in advance. How much advance notice did the band have that this would be happening?
There was probably only 10 days advance notice, but I think that’s just the nature of how these things work. Everything is fast moving leading into the election. We had been in touch about some other things that we’ll be doing later in the fall.
We know some people in the campaign and we’ve been strong supporters and made it known we would do whatever we were asked to do.
Q: I looked through our archives, but I couldn’t find any dates of The National playing in Des Moines. Do you know if this will be your first time here? (EDIT: The staff at the Vaudeville Mews pointed out The National played there Sept. 10, 2003)
No. There aren’t that many cities that we haven’t played, but we haven’t played in Des Moines. So that’s exciting and cool for us to come for the first time.
Q: Doing a political event like this, has there been any worry amongst the band that you might be alienating a segment of your fans by putting yourselves out there for a specific candidate?
No. I think to us it’s a very clear choice between President Obama and Mitt Romney. There’s really no equivocation for us towards considerations like that, as far as alienating fans who might be Republicans or not agree with our politics. We’re not interested in telling anyone what to think and we’re not a heavy-handed political band as far as our songwriting. It’s in there, but often it’s a backdrop to other issues.
But we all feel that 2008 was a historic, positive change for the country. There’s been some political gridlock and issues that come with the recession lasting, but we really feel there’s been a lot of positive movement and change that we can be really proud of. We’re very proud to be American and to have a president like President Obama. For us it’s really a no-brainer as far as supporting campaign and we’re terrified of going backwards towards the policies of the Bush era.
(The Bush Era) had a lot to do with the formation of “Alligator” and “Boxer” and even “Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers.” All those albums were written in the Bush Era and I think our fans are quite aware of that. Most people who are fans of The National would be more Democratic, hopefully.
Q: What is it about President Obama that makes you personally, and the band as a whole, want to support him?
I think President Obama, for all of us, he was the first political figure who was inspiring on a level that was really transcendent. I remember seeing some of his early speeches before it was clear that he would run for president and it was clear there was something magnetic and believable and a level of intellect and heart in where he’s coming from that he’s the kind of person I think should be president of the United States. He’s brilliant, compassionate man who can legitimately lead the country in a way we can be proud of.
I still really believe in his goals as far as the way to solve our economic problems is not to shrink the government or give wealthy people tax cuts, which obviously doesn’t work. That it’s actually to invest in the things that are important, like education and infrastructure and giving people health insurance. I don’t see any reason why there should be so many people without health insurance in this country. On so many levels he’s someone we admire and feel strongly about.
We travel all around the world all the time and it’s amazing to feel the respect for him. You really do feel he’s someone that’s a legitimately brilliant and warm person. It’s a very passionate feeling that we have about him.
Q: Turning to music, I was wondering where you guys are in the process of a follow-up to “High Violet”?
It’s funny you ask. I’m sitting in my recording studio, which is in my garage behind my house in Brooklyn and on the computer in front of me is a song that I’m working on. I was working on it before we got on the phone and I’ll be working on it right after.
We have been writing songs for probably eight months now and we start recording very soon. In a couple weeks. Who knows, it could go fast this time or it could be a long, long process, which it sometimes is. We’ve been getting together and playing a lot. Everything is in a good place and already there are a lot of songs we’re excited about. It’s happening.
Q: Are you guys performing any new songs in shows?
We haven’t played any shows, actually, since December I think, when we finished touring for “High Violet.” I don’t know if we’ll play a new song in Des Moines. Maybe, but I think possibly not. We haven’t finished any song entirely. You never know.
Q: Could you run through the genesis of a The National song? You do most of the music and Matt Berninger does the lyrics. How do the two of you bring your own individual elements together to form the song?
It starts as a sort of sketch. I write songs that have a form and a chord sequence and usually some melodies worked into them on instruments. Sometimes I’m just playing randomly, and then my ear will gravitate towards little kernels, one little chord change or melody and then I’ll focus on that and out of that will grow these sketches that are basically songs with no vocals. The form of them is something created in the abstract and not based on any specific lyrical vision.
I send these to Matt and my brother (Bryce Dessner) does as well. He listens to all of it and whittles down what he’s enjoying. So if we send 100 he’ll probably find 30 that are resonating with him. He’ll sit and listen to those for months and months on headphones late and night and sort of fill books with words and also record himself half singing, half mumbling.
It’s a slow, slow process of gradually starting to figure out where to go with certain songs. When we get together as a band everyone else helps to shape and change them and Bryan (Devendorf), our drummer, he’s the only drummer I know who writes his drum parts out and composes them with musical notations, so it takes him a long time to do that as well.
Oftentimes we change the form and drop beats or we add parts. From the first sketch to the final thing in rare cases it will be the same thing, but usually it’s a dramatic evolution. At the very end Matt will finish the lyrics usually. There’s hardly any songs where he has the lyrics up front or even halfway through the process. Some songs on “High Violets” he sang on the last day before they were mastered. By the end you’re kind of losing your mind.
Q: Coming back to politics, in 1980 Ronald Reagan asked “Are You better off than you were four years ago?” which is a question that can be used for or against a candidate depending on the state of the country. You’re in a situation that’s not typical of most Americans; I was wondering if you might be able to reflect on yourself in 2008 versus now and the general state of the country in those periods?
I guess we would count ourselves among the very fortunate. In the last few years, just because the band’s popularity and success worldwide has grown dramatically.
We’re from Ohio and our family is still there. I feel like the issues with the economy, the sluggish recovery and a lot of people don’t have jobs and job creation is a huge issue because the kind jobs we can create not enough people have the skills sets to do those jobs… I feel we’re in a better place than we were in four years ago, coming off the worst economic recession since the Great Depression. I think President Obama has handled what he inherited as well as anyone could. There have been many bright lights that have occurred, like the recovery of the auto industry and some of those positive changes like the insurance mandate.
It’s the kind of thing where it’s hard to have faith in a continuing recovery, and if you don’t have a job it might be hard to see that the direction we’re headed in is going to create those jobs. I’ve tried to read a lot in the last two years about economic factors in recessions and what could lead to a recovery and I really, really believe the idea of investing in education and in infrastructure and whether it’s more stimulus like the Recovery Act, is what we need. Not this kind of attitude that we’ll never raise taxes or never have any more stimulus and that somehow by shrinking the government that will somehow stimulate the economy and that deregulation… the fact that it lead us over this cliff in the first place by having zero control over Wall Street that somehow keeping that in place will lead to the creation of jobs is to me counterintuitive and ridiculous.
There’s huge amounts of money it seems pouring into these Super PACs like Americans for Prosperity from the Koch brothers that are supporting corporate tax breaks and in cahoots with all these big business interests while the people who really need help are the middle class and lower segments of our society.
I think things are picking up. There have been four or five million since President Obama took office. If you look at the stock market, for example, it has really done well in recent times and continues to go up. To me there are a lot of positive times, but again, I’m in a little bit different position than a lot of people because we have had a lot of success and work in an industry that isn’t so exposed to the recession.