National Motorways

All Tomorrow’s Parties, curated by The National

I’ve often wondered whether one day we’ll get to the point where we don’t need roadworks anymore – all the nation’s motorways beautifully surfaced, all the bridges and overpasses structurally sound, every bend and junction and lane everywhere finally finished – and we’ll no longer require maintenance crews, lane closures, flashing orange traffic cones, average speed checks or temporary central reservation barriers.

Of course, this is a crazy pondering: the very act of driving on roads causes them stress and strain and wear and tear – they’ll never be finished. They’re not a thing that can be finished. Few things are; almost everything is a process; moving, changing, not static. That goes for people as much as tarmac.

We went to All Tomorrow’s Parties, curated by The National, over the weekend. I saw (at least some of) 19 different acts perform live over the three days. On Monday we drove back home from Camber Sands in the morning, dozed for an hour, and then drove to Bristol to see Patrick Wolf play the penultimate date of his acoustic tour at St George’s hall. Then last night I had a work Christmas do. I can’t remember the last time I did five nights out on the trot. I feel like I’m coming down with a cold now.

I’m not a massive fan of The National – we bought tickets almost as soon as they were announced primarily because we’d enjoyed last year’s ATP so much, and we love Wild Beasts, Antlers, and Owen Pallett, who were announced early on. Em likes them much more than I do; she’s listened to High Violet a lot and loves it, but I think my ambivalence towards them probably prevented her getting really into them. I feel guilty about this; just because I don’t like something all that much doesn’t mean anybody else shouldn’t, especially my wife. My opinions are loud and not always right.

I bought Alligator when it came out in 2005, and quite liked it. I was sent a promo of Boxer a couple of years later, and thought it was alright too. But they never clicked with me, for whatever reason – in 2007 I was busy with Caribou and Patrick Wolf and Battles and Spoon and so on, and didn’t have room, aesthetically or emotionally, perhaps to invest in someone else. Looking back now, I’m baffled that I didn’t go ga-ga for Fake Empire’s strange build and horns. At the time I wrote something on ILM about how The National were “a no-concept band” with “decent lyrics, decent tunes, decent arrangements”; I think I was struggling to find a USP as a way-in to a straight-up ‘rock’ band. Sometimes I struggle with straight-up ‘rock’ music. I think their occasional fondness for Adam-Clayton-esque basslines probably causes me hesitancy too. I tend not to trust people who use overtly Adam-Clayton-aping basslines. In 2007 I was on my anti-dynamic-range-compression campaign, too, and Boxer could have been more lightly touched, I suppose. I probably dismissed many otherwise perfectly fine records out of principal back then – I probably still do. I had (still have) a point to prove.

But I’ve come away from ATP a massive convert to The National. Partly thanks to their brass section; partly thanks to a beautiful, acoustic sing-along version of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” as a set-and-festival-closer; partly due to a beautiful, drifting song they played live with Nico Muhly (which may have been brand-new); partly thanks to their evidently massive heart and enthusiasm; but largely due to the nature of the weekend itself.

I’m not talking about the fact that I loved the weekend so now I love the headliners (not quite; though that’s almost certainly part of it): I mean the way the weekend worked, the enthusiasm and care that the band obviously put into curating. The National seemed to have produced or played with almost everyone else on the bill; and those they hadn’t worked with directly were revealed as inspirations. There was a member of The National, usually a Dessner twin, at just about every set by every act.

Seeing these carefully chosen acts, be they influences or musical familial links, exploded the context of The National’s music for me; seeing Michael Rother play the music of Neu! and Harmonia made Bryan Devendorf’s hectic, repetitive drumming make perfect sense; seeing the flamenco guitar and cello of Pedro Soler and Gaspar Claus caused me to hear ripples through Bryce Dessner’s guitar; seeing Hauschka’s minimalist prepared piano (with delirious, highlight-of-the-weekend diversions into full-on jazz-house electronic territory) snapped Mat Berninger’s melodies and song structures into focus. Every act we saw seemed to lead the way towards The National’s climactic, rapturous set, and the band evolved in my mind from an interesting and commendable halfway house between Tindersticks and early Interpol into something incredibly worthwhile and characterful in their own right. That USP that I was looking for five years ago? It’s that they’re really good. Really, really good. That’s enough.

They’re also consummate curators, judging both by this festival and the Dark Was The Night compilation (masterminded by the Dessners) a few years ago. Collaborators, too; as well as the huge list of people they’ve produced records by recently, there’s also a huge swathe of people they’ve worked with – Sufjan Stevens and St. Vincent and Nico Muhly and Richard Reed Parry and Owen Pallett and the Kronos Quartet and David Byrne and Sharon Van Etten and on and on and on.

This type of constant, flexible collaboration and hunger to make music in many directions at once, with many people, for solo albums and side projects and one-offs, is almost alien to someone who came of musical age during Britpop, when it was a spirit of competition and antagonism that drove success; “Oasis v Blur” not “Oasis with Blur”. There’s definitely, over the last decade or so, something going on with American and Canadian “alternative” music. Em always used to say that she liked hip-hop culture because of the way artists guested on and produced each others’ records, the sense of community that there was (although, obviously, that sense of community has had its problems, and major problems at that, with antagonism); that seems to be very much the case with this school of musicians. Whether it’s in part encouraged, or just documented, by the likes of Pitchfork and other web music communication tools, I don’t know. But it’s certainly fascinating, and rewarding, if a little difficult to keep up with the sprawling, interconnected spider-diagram which links The National to Sufjan Stevens to St. Vincent to Grizzly Bear to Owen Pallett to Caribou to Four Tet to Radiohead (so there is UK representation and participation, although it’s telling that Wild Beasts were the only British act on the bill, as far as I could tell) to whoever and etcetera and so on and so forth.

Anyway, this is everyone I saw over the weekend (Em saw them all too, except Michael Rother and Deerhoof)…

Bear in Heaven
(5 minutes of) Tim Hecker

So Percussion
Kronos Quartet
Lower Dens
Michael Rother
Sharon Van Etten
Wild Beasts

Pedro Soler and Gaspar Claus
My Brightest Diamond
The Philistines Jr
(5 minutes of) Perfume Genius
Owen Pallett
(30 seconds of) Deerhoof
Local Natives
The National

Monday (not at ATP, obviously)
Abi Wade
Patrick Wolf

Other than The National, and the tangible spirit that ran through the whole weekend itself, highlights included Wild Beasts playing all of Smother in order, and then a big chunk of Two Dancers to boot: Owen Pallett charming, beguiling, and mystifying the audience with his generous nature and wonderful, creative music (I’ve seen a lot of ways to play violin and cello lately, many of them baffling): Antlers, threatening to spiral down the Jeff-Buckley-fronts-very-early-Verve rabbit hole of beatific psychedelic meandering despite technical difficulties: Michael Rother bringing to life some of my favourite music ever: Hauschka producing the closest thing to dance music of the weekend (the lack of electronic influence would be about my only complaint: that, and no bowling alley): standing next to a little guy with a moustache at seemingly every set, only for him to appear onstage as the singer of Local Natives (who I knew pretty much nothing about but now own an album by) on Sunday night: the Buddha Bowl van serving delicious vegan “scraps” outside the pub: meeting people I’ve previously only spoken to online and discovering them to be real live human beings, which is always nice: So Percussion’s syncopating finale: Gaspar and Pedro’s genial, gentle introduction to Sunday: Sharon Van Etten being as good as people said. There were others too, but these will be the things I remember.

So what have motorways got to do with all of this? Like wondering if the motorways will ever be finished, I sometimes used to think I was looking for some kind of perfect band who fitted some platonic ideal, who would make a perfect album, and I’d never need to listen to anything else again. This is, of course, a ridiculous idea, like assuming that humankind is evolving and improving towards some end-point nirvana. Seven years ago, when I first encountered them, I think I wanted The National to be that band, realised quickly that they weren’t, and dismissed them. Unfairly. They don’t need to be that band. No one does. It’s a crazy idea.


4 responses to “National Motorways

  1. Excellent review. Your comments about perfect bands are similar to the way I approach musical acts occasionally (USPs/perfection, and so on, although not with The National).

    On the British thing, Wild Beasts were one of two, the other British entry was This is the Kit. And Aaron played with them too… Not 2 hours went by on site when I didn’t see a Dessner (or both) on stage or walking around the site, guitar in hand.

    The culmination of this collaboration seemed to be Richard Reed Parry’s Heart and Breath set, which included the Dessners, Owen Pallett, Gaspar Claus, Nico Muhly, among others.

    Having never attended ATP before, but being aware of the folklore surrounding it, I can honestly say it is a festival I would happily attend again, although it would be line-up dependent.

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