Tell us about the four-year gap between your last album and this one. What have you been up to?
Sometimes the gap between albums seems a lot longer to people who are outside of the process. And by that I mean, by the time that we’d finished the Small Reveal album we ended up touring for about two years, and we almost went right into making Each Other. It just took a lot longer to record. So, in some respects, I don’t know if I could have made it any more quickly.
Is it true you nearly canned Each Other completely?
Yeah. I think I don’t deal with the moments of not playing music as well as the moments of playing music, if that makes sense? I really thrive in the studio, or working on a musical idea at home, and then when it’s time to listen back I find that the most terrifying. And so, while I definitely enjoy aspects of [making music], there are many things that bring up the anxiety and self-doubt, which I’m sure happens to many, many other musicians. Or maybe not: I can’t imagine Prince listening to his music and thinking it’s anything less than the best thing in the world. (Laughs)
A lot of musicians admit to not being able to listen back to their own music, because they only look for mistakes.
Yeah, it’s embarrassing. And if you really want to turn up the embarrassment, just play that unfinished music for your parents or for your significant other. (Laughs) That really ratchets it up to a whole other level of anxiety. I don’t think it matters whether you’re releasing one song to one other person or whether you’re releasing a whole album to thousands of people – there’s just something about it, and I’m not sure what it is.
A fear of criticism, perhaps? But the reviews for Each Other have been very positive.
That’s a really nice feeling. It would be very disappointing if I’d gone through all this worry and self-doubt and anxiety – the stuff that made me want to scrap the whole thing – and it wasn’t worth it. I’m really glad that listeners and critics are saying nice things about it and I feel very good about the music, but there’s still a part of me that doesn’t want to listen to my own music. That’s the sad thing: to be excited about music in the very beginning, and to have that feeling go away. I mean, I can listen to it and I have a certain level of enjoyment, but I’m not really able to have perspective on it anymore.
So when did you start writing Each Other?
We started writing earlier in 2014. I think we really wanted to make the effort to try and really write something collaborative. When I was talking about Small Reveal, I was spinning a story, almost, of it being the first band recording that we ever made. But I got a sense from the other players that they didn’t really have as much input as I had thought. So I wanted to make sure that everyone had a lot more input into this recording, letting people really shine and do the things that they’re really interested in and good at. There was a little bit of nervousness about that as well. As someone who started this project as a way to do everything myself, I’m still learning how to feel like everything is not going to crumble if I give up a little bit of control. (Laughs)
Aside from working more collaboratively, were there any other goals you had for this record, sonically?
With the last record, I had this idea of making this classical Americana record – even though we’re Canadian – including everything from baroque arrangements to pedal steel. We’d always worked with collaborative producers, where both of us would be shaping the sound of each instrument and how they went together, whereas this time I really wanted to let someone else steer how the recording should go.
So to work with a producer like Marcus Paquin – who has already worked on several great records – I thought it would be counterproductive to have me try to dictate where I thought everything should go. It’s funny, I don’t think Each Other sounds anything like a classic album – like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours or David Bowie’s Heroes – but I had this idea in my mind that it would be really great to work with a producer in a very old-fashioned way, where that’s what they did and we just came in and played the music. So it was really more about the roles than the sounds for me. (Laughs)
Yeah. Myself and my wife moved to Berlin earlier this year, and I’ve had a real fascination with that period in Bowie and Brian Eno’s musical journey. I also found that album fascinating from a technical perspective. I think one of the most incredible things about music is that if you’re willing to go along with a really great artist’s journey, it can be emotional and technical at the same time. What Eno and Bowie were trying to do in the Hansa studio on a technical level is very interesting to me, but on an emotional level it’s incredible.
One thing that I’m trying to achieve is a suspension of disbelief; a level of sonic trickery where something can start very close and then can expand in terms of sound and stereo and depth and reverb, and can play with space and time. So thinking about sonic innovators like Eno and Bowie found its way into the recording process.
So what attracted you to work with Marcus?
Well, of course, he’d done some engineering work on that great Arcade Fire record, The Suburbs. I don’t know The National’s music as well as a lot of my friends do, but I’ve been starting to listen to it more after knowing that Marcus worked on the last album. And he’d also worked with Local Natives, and with Stars on Set Yourself On Fire, which I always really liked as a 17 or 18 year old.
Other than that handing over some of the control to Marcus, how different was it to working with your previous producer, John Anderson?
It was very, very different. The way that Marcus wanted to work and the way that I thought we were going to work, was totally different. At the start [of the recording process], we had been working on the song ‘Funeral Singers’ and we had spent two days recording over and over, as a band set up in a room. I was like, “Why are we taking so long to get the microphones adjusted here? How can it take two days for us to be setting up for this recording session?” And then eventually, getting a read on me, Marcus came over and said, “Are you having a bad time here?” And I said, “I’m not sure what we’re doing here.”
To rewind, he came out to our rehearsal space on our little island on the western side of Canada, and I think he freaked out, and not in a good way. He freaked out in a, “I don’t know if you guys are ready to go into the studio” way. (Laughs) The way that I have always recorded is to go in with songs that aren’t totally finished, and finish them in the studio so that we’re really working on really new, fresh ideas that haven’t had the life beaten out of them by rehearsals, and they still feel really raw and less edited.
But for him to come out to our rehearsal space and hear half-finished songs was for him to hear us develop the songs. And [in the studio] it was about hearing us put together the songs and figure them out in a live environment, which I just wasn’t prepared for. It was really funny because once he said, “No, I want you guys to go in the room and just work out the song and play it together,” I think we did maybe four takes of the song and we had it. And while we certainly had a few more ups and downs trying to work out how the songs were going to go, from there everything became a lot more enjoyable and a lot more musical.
It was really interesting, because I never thought I was going to make this more-or-less live off the floor recording where pretty much everything you hear on the record is the five of us all playing together in a room. I feel quite proud, but also a little embarrassed that I didn’t know that that was what we were going to do. I feel like you should probably prepare for a live recording by showing up with songs that are finished. (Laughs)
But at least that retains a sense of spontaneity, right?
When I’m gone from this world, people will say, “He was a spontaneous guy.” That’s the thing I’m going to be known for, I think. (Laughs)
We’ve seen your lyrical approach described as “diaristic”. Is that fair?
I mean, I think my lyrical style could be called diaristic, but only in an abstract sense. Here’s the thing, I don’t know what to say about lyrics because, first of all, I don’t think of myself primarily as a lyricist: I think of myself more as an instrumentalist and an arranger. And I think about lyrics as having the same powerful qualities that music has, but I just think about them as really another instrument. It’s hard to put into words what words in music mean to me.
Some of my favourite lyricists are so pointed with their lyrics but I have no idea what they’re about: I just know how make me feel and how they make me think about the world. One of my favourite records at high school was Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco. Up until that point I’d really liked The Clash and David Bowie, then heavier stuff like Rage Against The Machine, and then eventually more obscure American hardcore that I tried to force myself into liking. (Laughs) I was more into heavy aggressive music and then I heard [Yankee Hotel Foxtrot] and it was heavy in a different way.
I couldn’t tell you at all what Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics on that record are about. They’re probably about him being strung out on painkillers at the time. But there’s something to the imagery, and how abstract and personal it was, that really made an impression on me. I was listening to that and Broken Social Scene, Townes Van Zandt and Bob Dylan – lots of different kinds of lyricists. A lot of my early songs were really trying to bite the style of Jeff Tweedy and Bob Dylan. I don’t even know what I do now. I feel like I’ve spent so much time listening to lyrics and trying to figure out what they mean to me, I’ve gone past the level of understanding into a level that I don’t know what words are anymore. (Laughs)
It’s like, I don’t want to be on the record saying I write evocative lyrics that make people feel things, but in some ways that’s really what great lyricists do. Language is just a barrier they’re trying to overcome to get to the most direct thing to you. They’re really trying to use pitch and timbre to convey a feeling, just as much as they are finding the right word that interacts with that pitch and sound. And I think when all those things come together you have a great thing like ‘I am trying to break your heart’ or ‘Lay, Lady, Lay’.