Biography: Four years have passed since the release of Trouble Will Find Me, and to the outside world it might have seemed like the members of the National spent that long interim working on everything but new National songs. But in September 2014, two months before the band headlined the 20,000-seat O2 Arena in London, Aaron passed along the first set of musical sketches to Matt. “We really didn’t take much of a break,” says Matt. “We started working on this record the minute we finished touring the last one. The only break we took was from the constant pressure we put on each other.”
“We didn’t feel like rushing it,” says Aaron, who produced Sleep Well Beast. “People thought the National went away, but we were just working on ideas.” With members now living in five different cities, the band made an extra effort to get together in the same room – sometimes in studios in upstate New York, or out in Los Angeles. “We’ve always worked on demos together,” explains Bryce. “But this time we were actually in the same physical space doing it.”
“When we all lived in Brooklyn we rarely did these kinds of week-long sessions” says Scott. “This time we got together for long stretches, just to mess around and experiment without deadlines or distractions.”
In February 2015, Aaron and Bryce convened for a series of writing sessions in an old church in Hudson, New York. Then, in the spring of 2016, Aaron completed work on his own residential studio, Long Pond,in upstate New York, where most of the album was recorded. “It’s the first time we have had a space of our own where we can keep all our instruments and work on songs any time, day or night,” says Bryce. Aaron adds, “The space was designed specifically for the band to make this album, with an open plan and no control room so that everyone could be wired up and playing all the time. The idea was to loosen the reigns and formality of our past recording process and allow for experimentation from beginning to end.”
Bryan describes it, “Getting drum sounds in a previously untested room was a seriously fun exercise in trial-and-error learning, in a group setting. Time disappeared, the sun set, and then the massive frog population in Aaron’s pond started singing.”
While the studio served as the home base, the band also sought outside collaboration. As part of a weekend residency at Funkhaus in Berlin, Bryce and Aaron invited guests to plug in and play along with instrumental tracks from the National’s work-in-progress. Bryce says, “We spent a week in East Berlin in this beautiful 1950’s communist-era recording studio with tons of musicians from very different backgrounds, just letting them listen and react to the music we’d been cooking for so many months within the band.” “It was a very interesting way to collect new sounds and process existing ones,” says Aaron. Late in the process the band convened an orchestra in Paris to record Bryce’s orchestrations for the songs before returning to Long Pond to mix the album.
There are songs on Sleep Well Beast that are instantly recognizable as the National, but others are much harder to classify. The lyrics are about “trying to come clean about the things you’d rather not,” says Matt. “Some of it’s about marriage, some of it’s about my relationship with Aaron and the band, some of it’s about train tracks and dancing.” Guitar solos appear like never before, yet on some songs guitars account for only a tiny fraction of the music. “It was important that we genuinely explore new territory and risk falling on our faces, or not make a record at all,” explains Aaron. “This album feels complete to me.”