Interview with Bryce Dessner of Clogs, The National

A Clogs fan is someone whose Saturday afternoon plans might include reading Proust and playing "Guitar Hero." While the link between "Swann's Way" and "Slow Ride" may seem tenuous to some, Clogs' blend of classic strings with contemporary indie composition is catnip to listeners more attuned to the differences between Coke and Pepsi than between high and low culture.

The group's fifth and latest album (due March 2), "The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton," is one of the year's most novel, well-crafted releases. Its buzz stems in part from the indie cred of its contributors, including Matt Berninger, lead singer of the National; Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, and eccentric folk darling Sufjan Stevens.

The band itself is composed of Australian composer Padma Newsome and Americans Rachael Elliott, Thomas Kozumplik and the National's Bryce Dessner, all friends since studying music together at Yale. They play two concerts this week at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis.

Clogs' sound mixes classical music with tight structures and glittering, folk-inspired moods to create something striking but inscrutable. Their theatric vocals, complex arrangements and mathematically precise method of musical storytelling is worth getting to know.

The opener, "Cocodrillo," uses the Italian word for crocodile in a wall of vocal sound that breaks down the phonetic components of the word amid Cathedral-like harmonies. "Last Song" features vocals by Berninger, who sadly repeats, "This was our last song" over horns and delicately plucked guitars.

Dessner, 33, has curated Cincinnati's experimental music festival MusicNOW, collaborated with Philip Glass and joined his brother, Aaron, in producing the AIDS-benefit album "Dark Was the Night." In a recent phone interview, he discussed Clogs' latest record as well as the much-anticipated May release by the National.
Q The new Clogs record and the National's "Boxer," from 2007, are so different. If each of those CDs were books, what would they be?

A I would say the Clogs record would be like a [Gabriel GarcĂ­a] Marquez, almost like surrealist. It's pretty playful and colorful and stylistic. I think the National's "Boxer" would be something more like an American novel, like Cormac McCarthy or Steinbeck, or like [Kent Haruf's] "Plainsong" ... something that talks about everyday lives. They're apples and oranges.

Q The lyrics are minimal on the new album, but often repeated, which places a lot of emphasis on the word choice. How do you guys choose what to say in those important moments?

A The lyrics are all written by Padma. In the past, we've been primarily an instrumental ensemble. Padma's been writing songs forever. He works the way a poet would work where he's writing separately from the music. As for the repetition of certain phrases, certainly in a song like "Cocodrillo," the first piece, it's more this game. It sounds like a children's game, where they're just listing Italian words for different animals. So in that case, that piece is more of a choral piece, and the vocals themselves are in a wild place, almost like separate instruments.

Q You are known as an improvising quartet. How true is that?

A I think at the beginning it was really true. The four musicians all went to music school together. At that point in time, 10 years ago, I was playing a lot of rock. Everyone else's immediate surroundings were mostly classical. Improv wasn't part of what we were doing in school. On that level, it was a break from that tradition of classical ensemble. We wanted to develop collaboration and use that live. When we play there's still a fair amount of improv going on, but not in the way a jazz ensemble improvises. This new album is mostly composed, so there's very little that's actually improvised.

Q Which indie bands are you excited about right now?

A There was tons of awesome music this past year. In New York, Dirty Projectors were a band I've known for a long time and I was excited to see them do really well.
Q What else are you working on?

A We're finishing a new record for the National. We don't have a title. It's almost done but usually the title comes the last couple days.

Q Is there a theme to the track names?

A My brother, when he writes demos for our singer, often will have a running series of themes to different song titles. On the last, they were all named after months. This time, it's all Civil War battlefields. There's a song called "Fredericksburg," and "Truth Mountain." There's a song called "Blood Buzz," a song called "Runaway" and "L.A. Cathedral."