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World Cafe: The National's Matt Berninger Reflects On Creating 'Sleep Well Beast'

Graham MacIndoe
Courtesy of the artist

The National is about to release its seventh studio album, Sleep Well Beast, on September 8. But days before it comes out, on September 5, the band is going to play that record in its entirety live for NPR.

The new songs revolve around the fears and struggles within relationships, particularly that of singer and lyricist Matt Berninger and his wife, the writer Carin Besser, who co-wrote some of the lyrics on this album. Sleep Well Beast is characteristically dark and sonically rich — and some of the best music this band has made.

Today we're sharing a conversation between Matt, myself (All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen) and Talia Schlanger, host of World Cafe.

We discussed how the band works these days, spread as it is across five different cities; collaborating via email, file sharing, word documents and occasional exploratory, face-to-face recording sessions.

Those free-form sessions, held in studios across California, New York and Germany, yielded much of the guitar-based material — including a rare guitar solo — heard on Sleep Well Beast, which also sweeps in electronics, orchestrations and more.

We spoke with Matt about the nature of families — The National itself is a family of sorts, after all, made up of two pairs of brothers: Aaron and Bryce Dessner, and Scott and Bryan Devendorf. In addition to those familial and artistic relationships, Matt Berninger spoke to us about how he and his bandmates challenge themselves to steer clear of cliches, and how overcoming his anxiety on stage with the crutch of a teleprompter has made them a stronger, nimbler live band. — Bob Boilen

You can hear The National, performing Sleep Well Beast from Union Transfer in Philadelphia here.

Copyright 2017 XPN

Talia Schlanger hosts World Cafe, which is distributed by NPR and produced by WXPN, the public radio service of the University of Pennsylvania. She got her start in broadcasting at the CBC, Canada's national public broadcaster. She hosted CBC Radio 2 Weekend Mornings on radio and was the on-camera host for two seasons of the television series CBC Music: Backstage, as well as several prime-time music TV specials for CBC, including the Quietest Concert Ever: On Fundy's Ocean Floor. Schlanger also guest hosted various flagship shows on CBC Radio One, including As It Happens, Day 6 and Because News. Schlanger also won a Canadian Screen Award as a producer for CBC Music Presents: The Beetle Roadtrip Sessions, a cross-country rock 'n' roll road trip.
In 1988, a determined Bob Boilen started showing up on NPR's doorstep every day, looking for a way to contribute his skills in music and broadcasting to the network. His persistence paid off, and within a few weeks he was hired, on a temporary basis, to work for All Things Considered. Less than a year later, Boilen was directing the show and continued to do so for the next 18 years.