Pillow Talk with The National

Aaron and Bryce Dressner
Bryce and Aaron Dressner performing the Long Count.

The National guitarists and twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dressner amassed quite an impressive baseball card collection in their youth.

A Roger Maris card from 1961— the same year he set the single-season home run record. Hank Aaron’s rookie card. A 1956 Ted Williams card.

Around age 12, the twins traded in their collection at a local pawn shop in exchange for new instruments. Bryce took home a Les Paul Special while Aaron nabbed a Fender Precision Bass.

While those cards would probably fetch a considerably higher price had they hung onto them, Bryce said in a recent phone call with Fender News that the exchange was definitely worth it.

“I mean, it’s what we do,” he explained.

And what they do very well.

In addition to enjoying a 14-year-long run with the National, the twins have also made time to co-found Brassland Records with New York writer/manager Alec Hanley Bemis and to collaborate on projects such as multimedia orchestral-rock song cycle “The Long Count” and the music for the film Big Sur.

Bryce also serves as curator for the Music Now Festival, is a founding member of instrumental group Clogs and has collaborated as a sideman and composer with some of the most prominent names in modern music, including Sufjan Stevens, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Philip Glass, Erik Friedlander and Nico Muhly.

Aaron Dressner
Aaron Dressner

Aaron, who writes most of the music for the National, has also found success as a producer, working with artists like Local Natives and Sharon Van Etten.

But first, back to the beginning.

The boys returned from the pawnshop and retreated to the basement in their Cincinnati home, where they made quick work of figuring out how to play their new instruments.

“Even from the very beginning when we barely knew what we were doing, we could make up songs and play things together,” recalled Aaron. “It was sort of just natural for us. We were always super-competitive, and so it was like another type of game that we would play, and we would play all the time. My parents would always say they never had to try to entertain us because we always entertained each other, and I think that’s part of how we learned to play music also.”

Within six months, they played a party down the street.

“It was all originals — sort of riff-y simple songs,” said Bryce. “All instrumental; no lyrics. We used to play a lot of teenage partie; just bring our stuff, set up and jam.”

Many of those jam sessions included drummer Bryan Devendorf, whose brother Scott attended school at the University of Cincinnati with singer Matt Berninger — thus putting the wheels in motion for what would eventually come together as the National.

Aaron soon switched over to the guitar, but he was more obsessed with songwriting while Bryce honed in on classical guitar.

“I had gotten really involved in playing fingerstyle guitar, probably in response to listening to John Fahey or Duane Allman’s guitar solos, and thinking ‘How does he make a guitar sound like a fiddle?’” recalled Bryce. “I couldn’t figure how I would ever play like that without studying it.”

The twins both attended the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, where Aaron studied upright bass and Bryce studied classical guitar, going on to the Yale School of Music to get his master’s degree in classical performance and classical guitar.

The separation, once Bryce headed to Yale in New Haven, Conn., and Aaron left for New York to study history at Columbia, was initially rather traumatic for the twins, whose lives had previously been virtually intertwined.

“Being twins, we had basically done everything together up to that point,” said Bryce. “It was really hard at first but then I think it was really healthy for us to spend some time apart and develop separately. Plus, Yale was isolated in a way, whereas New York is obviously the center of so many things. I would come down and we had a band that we had started the summer before school, so we would play in New York. I actually ended up spending more time down there with him then I did at school.”

Although Aaron likes to point out that they are not actually identical twins (Bryce’s version is that they have never been tested and don’t actually know if they are identical or fraternal), there is no denying their “twin-ness.” Their bandmates refer to their secret dialect and constant “in sync-ness” as “pillow talk.”

“People ask us if we are telepathic, and I would say no in terms of verbally or intellectual ideas, but musically, yes,” said Aaron. “I think having grown up looking at each other playing all the time, we’re sort of mirrors of each other. I’ve never had to teach him anything and he’s never had to teach me anything, even when they are complex ideas. As a composer he’ll write pieces for the guitar that only I can play with him because it requires being able to play a sixteenth note off of each other, or he’ll play the reverse of what I’m playing, or we’ll play these mirror images where we are re-harmonizing everything all the time.

“That comes into the National because the way we write is almost always, if you listen, there will be one part that is closely harmonized or inverted by another part. Even some of our most classic National songs, like ‘Mr. November,’ you’ll hear more than one guitar playing off each other in an intricate way. It’s always been very natural for us to do that.”

For instance, 2005’s Alligator and 2007’s Boxer heavily featured fingerstyle guitar, a result of another natural instinct found in most siblings—the need to both copy and mock one another.

Matt Berninger
Matt Berninger

“My brother got really into playing fingerstyle because he was a classical guitarist, and then I would hear him playing Vivaldi or something and I would actually learn it by ear, and then imitate him and then make fun of him,” confessed Aaron. “That is how it started. I would play off of him in that way, but later that matured into some of the sound of the National.”

Melancholic. Euphoric. Brooding. Plaintive. Beautiful. Seductive Expansive. Those are the just some of the sounds of the National, the last perhaps the most sought after by the Brooklyn-based quintet.  With each of its six albums, the group has tried to expand on its sonic palette and to never make the same record twice.

“We’re not a band that completely reinvents,” said Bryce. “We basically work within the confounds of a rock band and the colors that we have. It is very much focused around Matt’s voice, but every time we write a record we try to really grow as musicians. Alligator was a rocking record—it had this unhinged quality. Boxer was very stately and elegant and we started writing songs on the piano and doing different arrangements. High Violet was a step away from that and was a darker album that had some of our most accessible songs. Trouble Will Find Me is the most musically ambitious by far. We are always trying to subtly expand both as individuals and with what the band does. The minute that stops happening, we’ll stop being a band. It will cease to be interesting for us, I think.”

Given some of the notorious and creative epic battles over songwriting, it’s hard to imagine there ever being a dull moment with this bunch.  During the making of the criticallyacclaimed High Violet, for example, they racked up 116 versions of “Lemonworld,” clashing bitterly over the track. Various members attacked various versions for being “too bombastic, really boring, really cheesy, too destabilized, really meatball, really saccharine, too sludgefest.1

“I think that is pretty fundamental to how we work,” remarked Bryce. “The beauty of our music is in the details, I think, and so those fights usually occur over what might seem minutia to other people, but to us, it’s the finishing touch of what makes the song interesting. We like to write songs that reveal themselves over time. So we listen to them hundreds of times as we are making them, and we hope that the fans who fall in love with our stuff also listen to them over and over again. A song can be good for a minute, but then it has to do something. It has to reinvent itself through the course of the whole picture. Those little creative battles that we fight for are crucial.”

Bryce and bassist Scott Devendorf often joke that they are like Norway and Switzerland, brought in to broker the deals between the band’s most stubborn member, singer Matt Berninger, and the most argumentative member — Aaron.

“I would say that’s my brother,” laughed Bryce. “He really won’t let it go if he really feels something. I tend to be more open-minded about other people’s opinions. Often though, I’m just a pawn in my brother’s game.”

And rest assured, Aaron’s competitive nature is relentless, as evidenced when he talked about his recent purchase of a vintage Fender Jazzmaster and his brother’s vintage Jaguar, which was used almost exclusively on High Violet.

“I’ve been playing my Jazzmaster live and have started to do a bunch of recording with it. The neck just feels perfect,” said Aaron. “It’s really beautiful. It has a late ’50s oxidized copper pickguard on it, so we were confused about how old it was. We took off the neck, and we saw it was March 1963. Then we took off Bryce’s Jaguar neck because we are always competing, and his is from late fall in 1963, so mine is technically older. So I won the battle.”

A few hours later we asked Bryce about this vintage guitar battle.

“Hmmm … did he say that?” replied a surprised-sounding Bryce. “I didn’t know that was the case, but well, there he goes I guess. He’s got me there.”

Fortunately, 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me came together with a similar willingness to give and far less of the creative clashes that marked some of their earlier efforts.

Having toured heavily in support of High Violet, the National came off the road in late 2011 expecting to take some time off and really disconnect from the band.

Instead, Aaron, fueled by the excitement of the birth of his daughter, Ingrid, hit a creative vein.

“I was in this heightened state of mind, but there’s not much you can do at first with a newborn because they basically sleep and feed,” said Aaron. “There’s not really a lot of interaction, but I was inspired and full of energy so I was often in the house playing music for her. So songs like ‘Pink Rabbit’ or ‘I Need My Girl,’ if you listen to the music on its own, they are beautiful songs. High Violet was more trying to write this textured rock album that was full of feedback and changing prose— that doesn’t work as well on its own without lyrics. This record has a lot of beautiful music. I think it’s because at first they were just these things I was playing for my young daughter.”

Bryce Dressner
Bryce Dressner

Aaron initially sent a playlist to Berninger, thinking he might want to use some of the music for the documentary Berninger’s brother was working on. Two days later, the baritone singer sent back the lyrics to “I Should Live in Salt,” which would eventually become the opening track of Trouble Will Find Me.

“That song has a 9/8 – a strange extra beat added to every other bar and it’s definitely a departure for us,” explained Aaron. “That song just came out of nowhere and it came kind of easily, and reminded me of when the band started when it was casual and we were just doing it for fun.  So I think once that song existed, we had this weird feeling that we might be making a record, but Matt didn’t feel any pressure and I didn’t feel any pressure. After a long career of working really hard, all of the sudden songs started to come easily again and that was really exciting. Things just came a little easier this time, and it was less stressful, less pressurized. Whether that happens again in the future, it’s hard to say, but hopefully.“

And for now, they are enjoying a well-deserved string of success.

Last week, they were announced as the openers for the Foo Fighters two December shows in Mexico, and they also released “Lean,” a somber yet soaring single featured on the soundtrack of an upcoming film sure to be a blockbluster hit, Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

This week, they are enjoying the comforts of a warm tour bus and playing a string of sold-out shows in Europe.

Bryce laughingly remembers a previous European tour when the band faced a much different scenario.

“One winter, we played in Torino, Italy, and then we were supposed to go to Grenoble, France,” he said. “We were really naive, and had this van where the windows were not even insulated. It was like the cheapest possible solution for touring. They said the drive would be about 12 hours, but we looked at the map and it was basically a straight line and about 100 miles. What we didn’t realize was that the straight line was essentially over the High Alps. So we drove this van up a switchback in snow and ice. It was incredibly scary. That experience was definitely one of our ridiculously naive early touring stories.”

Despite now headlining summer festivals and numerous television appearances, including a recent spot on hit Fox comedy The Mindy Project, the success has been slow to build. As Bryce noted, the National is definitely an outfit that has paid its dues over the past 14 years.

“I think if you look at our other bands at our level, we would probably be the one that developed an audience the slowest,” said Bryce, recalling one sobering night during their early years of hard van touring when they crashed at a friend’s in Atlanta.

“Our friend had this really old German shepherd that was just shedding everywhere, and so Matt and I slept on the floor, literally just surrounded by clumps of hair. We would wake up and the dog would just be sitting there staring at us,” recalled Bryce. “I remember that being a particularly bleak night, and we would reference it later as something we never wanted to repeat. But, my brother certainly thinks it’s character-building that we went through that. There’s a certain humility about who and what we are because we did spend so many years developing an audience.”

Maybe that humility is a big reason why they’ve been able to keep their indie cred even though they’ve officially reached superstar status.

Although it’s been several years since the guys have had to repeat a night like the date with the German shepherd, the lyrics for one of their latest singles, “Demons,” reveal that they remain perpetually grounded.

Can I stay here? I can sleep on the floor
Paint the blood and hang the palms, on the door
Do not think I’m going places anymore
Wanna see the sun come up above New York
Oh, every day I start so great
Then the sunlight dims
Less I’ve learned, the more I see the pythons and the limbs
Do not know what’s wrong with me, sours in the cup
When I walk into a room, I do not light it up
So I stay down, with my demons


1The National Agenda by New York Times  


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