Read This: The National’s Boxer
(Ed. Note: On this expanded edition of Read This, we have the pleasure to feature excerpts from an interview with the author and our own Jason M. Shoutout to Molly Broad at Bloomsbury for facilitating.)
A Grammy award, multiple acclaimed albums, and a plethora of festival headlining appearances; considering their current place in the hearts of many music fans, it’s hard to remember a time when The National were not one of the most beloved bands around. Going into their fourth LP, however, 2007’s Boxer, the Brooklyn-via-Ohio quintet were still scrappy underdogs with something to prove. On the 15th anniversary of that seminal record’s release, author Ryan Pinkard’s new book goes behind the scenes of a last-ditch album that would go on to become iconic. We spoke to Pinkard about his new work, The National’s Boxer, the 162nd entry in the venerable making-of-an-album book series, Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3.
Pinkard spent a year writing the book, interviewing not only members of The National, but producers, engineers, photographers, journalists, and others who were there, vividly painting a portrait of not only the moment when Boxer was made, but the band’s entire history up to that point. That history is something Pinkard felt was important for setting the scene of what would go into Boxer. “Something I discovered fairly early on, as I was beginning to talk to the guys in the band, and these other people,” notes Pinkard, “is that a lot of Boxer’s significance is how it felt like this culmination of a record that’s kind of this success after years of struggling, as well as this while realization of their sound, which took them a long time to arrive at.”
The creation of Boxer (the album) came at a pivotal time in The National’s career. They’d had eight years and three albums under their belt, and although the band had some acclaim in both the European and American press, they’d remained in the shadows of some of their then-hipper Brooklyn contemporaries. Bands they knew, played with, and literally shared rehearsal space with were exploding, yet, had Boxer not done well, it’s doubtful The National could have even continued as a band. “They never fit in with those cool New York bands,” says Pinkard. The band’s early years had been a run of ups and downs, some of which would make less determined bands quit.
The National’s Boxer (the book) details the record’s creative sessions, and is filled with wonderful stories and tidbits. Thanks to Pinkard’s exhaustive research, fans of The National will gain new insights – lead singer Matt Berninger earned a nickname you will not believe! – but even folks who may not know the band will come to admire and root for them. Pinkard’s tale of the album shines a light on the members of The National, and humanizes them. “It’s interesting to see the kind of personalities and dynamics that are required for a band to really work,” says Pinkard. “Particularly a band as democratic as The National, where everyone has a say. These guys come up with their greatest works together, but it requires a whole lot of creative combat. It’s respectful, loving combat. Especially the dynamic between [guitarist] Aaron[Dessner] and Matt, there’s some headbutting. They both seem to somehow thrive on that, but they don’t take it personally.”
Pinkard doesn’t shy away from documenting some of the recording process’s darker moments, but in doing so, allows the reader to appreciate how much work went into the album. “I don’t know of any other band that’s quite so extreme in how they labor over these songs. It’s pretty profound. Peter Katis [who, along with the band, co-produced Boxer] showed me different versions of songs that they’d worked on. “Brainy” had 98 different versions that they worked on. They’re just constantly, constantly tweaking, and playing, and trying to make everyone happy with every detail. I think that’s a secret to The National’s sound, and how their songs are so perfect, in a way: every detail’s been stewed over and argued over. I think that’s what makes their songs so iron-clad.”
The band put everything they had at the time into Boxer, creating so much material that paring it to its final form became its own struggle, something Pinkard identifies with. “I think that’s inevitable of any project of a certain scale. In this case, I was kind of drowning in so much information, and so many quotes from different people. I took like 30 hours of interviews, I had to put together this whole oral history. The big challenge was going through all this audio and transcripts, and trying to carve out my own puzzle pieces to get it to fit together in a way that actually flowed in a linear narrative.” In this regard, Pinkard succeeds, putting the reader in the room with the band, and crafting a narrative that’s sure to be a page-turner for any music fan.
The story isn’t all tension, though. The National are, after all, a band of literal brothers, and both the Dessner (guitarists Aaron and Bryce) and Devendorf (bassist Scott and drummer Bryan) siblings are quoted throughout. The book also contains the story of Berninger meeting his now-wife, Carin Besser, and how their partnership came to be not only romantic, but creative, as well. “I love their love story, and I feel it was really a part of this album’s story,” notes Pinkard.
Boxer was the time so many things came together for The National, both musically and externally. The National’s Boxer is a wonderful, inspiring tale of how when those pieces come together, and the work is put in, the underdog can come out on top. Much like The National, Ryan Pinkard also put in the work, and came out with a book that is worthy of diving through an ocean of research. This was Pinkard’s first book, but we’re hoping it won’t be his last.
The National’s Boxer is available now from Bloomsbury Publishing, or your local independent bookstore.