If the first half of The National’s career was a championship bout, by the time they recorded 2007’s Boxer, their fourth album, they were down on the scorecards and up against the ropes. The Brooklyn by way of Cincinnati five-piece needed a knockout to win, and they delivered the perfect punch combination moments before the final bell.
While The National had enjoyed some critical praise and landed a record deal, they still had yet to prove themselves on the loaded New York indie rock scene. Boxer, which spawned the singles “Mistaken for Strangers,” “Apartment Story,” and “Fake Empire,” achieved that feat. A critical and commercial success, this is the album where the band truly grew into their sound, setting the stage for four more acclaimed studio albums.
In the new 33 1/3 book, writer Ryan Pinkard tells the fascinating story behind the making of this classic LP. Drawing on original interviews with all the band members, the producer, and more, Pinkard presents the album’s saga as an illuminating oral history. 360°Sound recently spoke with Pinkard about the book (out now on Bloomsbury Academic).
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
360°Sound: Why did you choose to write a book on this particular album?
Ryan Pinkard: This record was the first The National album I ever fell in love with. I first saw The National on the Boxer tour when they were opening for R.E.M. and Modest Mouse. From the moment I heard them, I was just blown away. I bought the Boxer album right away.
I love all their albums. With each of their records, they seem to get like 10 percent better in a way. But this one always felt the most personal to me. As I talked to the band it became clear that this album had the most interesting story. It feels like the most important to their story and their career, and I hope I’ve made a decent case for that in the book.
What were the pros and cons of the band living at producer Peter Katis’s residential studio and recording there?
I think even at the time it was kind of a really old-school approach in some ways for them. They had worked with Peter at his [Tarquin Studios] on their previous two records – three if you count [2004 EP] Cherry Tree – mostly for mixing. When The National is making albums, mixing also includes a lot of recording, as [singer] Matt [Berninger] says in the book. Once they get into the mixing phase there’s still just as much recording and bringing the songs together.
They wanted to make a full-on studio record that sounded amazing. I think they had no idea what they were in for. I think that intense kind of approach took quite a toll on the band, and I think they also realized that trying to cram an album into three months isn’t necessarily the most efficient or even productive way to record. They certainly wouldn’t do it again.
[Bassist] Scott [Devendorf] told me that after that as soon as they finally made some money back from touring Boxer, they put it all into building a studio in his garage because working in somebody else’s studio is just too cost-prohibitive for a band like The National. They overwork and rework their material till they explore every single possibility. It was a big learning experience for them.
The National drew comparisons to Brooklyn band Interpol, who hit it big before them. There were a lot of acclaimed New York indie rock bands and album releases around that time. Did you find that The National were making a conscious effort not to sound like other bands?
Big time, yeah. I think it was [guitarists] Aaron and Bryce [Dessner] who were outspoken about not sounding like someone else. They were hyper-aware of that. They would find a reason to shoot down any song they started writing. ‘Oh, this is too much like Arcade Fire’ or ‘This sounds too much like Radiohead.’ I don’t think they ever compared themselves to Interpol like others did. They have pretty sharp ears, and I think it was Bryce that described them as finding their sound by way of avoiding sounding like anyone else, which is interesting.
If you’re a fan of The National, you can certainly say they found their sound that sounds only like them. It was a success but a reductive process to find that, and I think it took them more time than most bands because they’re so exhaustive and so critical.
Matt’s then-girlfriend, now wife Carin Besser played an important role. What did she bring to Matt’s songwriting?
I don’t think you could overestimate Carin’s impact on the band and specifically Matt’s songwriting. And I just love their love story. It’s so interlaced with this album. Every great writer needs an editor. And if you look at the previous albums, you can see Matt’s obvious talents as a writer. But Carin’s presence as an editor and co-writer just really levels up what he was able to do.
It’s been like that ever since for them. He’s still the primary songwriter but she’s contributed some of their most famous lines. You know she’s there in the background with her red pen making him be better with everything he does.
Aaron Dessner said in the book: “I think part of Boxer’s charm is the hi-fi drums and the less than hi-fi stuff going on around them.” Talk about how they struck that balance and their grappling with Katis about not wanting it to sound “too studio.”
Talking to the band and having them decrypt their sound and approach, I don’t think my ears were sharp enough to really understand everything that was going on in a The National song. It does make sense now when you listen. It is so luscious and full, they have so many delicate classically inspired elements going on.
At the same time, it can be a bit abrasive and scuffed up. In the previous albums, they found themselves trying to take these pretty rough recordings and polishing them up to a certain standard. They recorded all of Boxer at Tarquin Studios and decided it sounded too clean. They said, ‘We sounded like U2.’ And that was not a good thing [laughs]. They ended up re-recording a lot of the parts on shittier equipment and purposely scuffing it up to get the right aesthetic. That means a lot. Despite U2 and The National really not being as different as you might think, those little details make a big difference on the end result.
A lot of people have said this album is a grower. Do you agree? If so, why do you think that is?
I definitely agree, and it’s amazing to me that after 15 years of listening to this album, and also listening to it hundreds of times while writing this book, somehow it continues to sound good and continues to add meaning. I think, for one, the music just holds up musically. It’s really good, and it’s complex enough so that it doesn’t get dull. It continues to be rewarding.
I think when it comes to Matt’s songwriting, he’s extremely descriptive, using a lot of colors and symbolic visuals and he’s intentionally not specific. What happens when you experience that is you kind of create your own meaning and you create your own visuals. I think he described it as giving you the keys to the door and you walk in the room and you wander around. You walk around in these songs. I think that’s what helps give it so much repeated resonance.
While the songs on Boxer are not explicitly topical or political, what was going in the world at the time with Bush’s second term and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had an impact. How would you say the social and political climate of the time is reflected in these songs?
I think 9/11 cast a long shadow. By the time of Boxer, they just felt exhausted. I think people could relate to that these days. There was just this sense of political dread in their worldview. Lyrically, a lot of these songs are about finding escapism or just reflecting on that feeling of imminent danger outside your window.
I think there’s an interesting bookend relationship with “Fake Empire” that opens the album and “Gospel” that closes it. “Fake Empire” is more filled with dread and weariness, and by the time you get to the end of the journey with “Gospel,” it’s more like, ‘Hey, let’s just camp out in the backyard and put up Christmas lights and be in love together in our little cocoon we’ve made.’ It’ll hopefully be OK [laughs].
The music is certainly not happy. It’s beautiful and sweet at moments, but some people call it pretty sad. I wouldn’t paint it with a single color, but the music certainly has emotions captured into it which don’t just have to do with politics, they also have to do with Aaron’s depressed state at the time. I think the band just has a tendency to venture into those emotions on all their albums because that’s part of being human.
Do you have a favorite track?
“Fake Empire” is the band’s signature song, so I don’t think you can choose a more important or better track. I’ve found myself falling in love with different songs at different times. When I first fell in love with this record, my least favorite song by a lot was their lead single “Mistaken for Strangers.” It just stuck out like a sore thumb to me. I think that shifted over time. It’s a pretty killer, rockin’ track.
While I was writing this book, I just became obsessed with “Apartment Story.” I just love Brian’s drumming and the sentiment to the lyrics. I’m basically saying I like them all, but even the kind of oddball tracks can be so rewarding in their own ways. I would say, at the moment, “Apartment Story.”