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Although several of the group's earlier releases were fully or partially recorded at DIY spaces or Aaron's garage studio in Brooklyn, Sleep Well Beast is the first of their albums to be cut at the guitarist's recently completed Long Pond Studio, a sustainable, clean-lined, barn-like structure next to, yes, a shimmering pond on the musician's Columbia County property (the group debuted material from the forthcoming album last month during a two-night stand at Basilica Hudson). He and his wife became besotted with the region during visits while the group was recording in 2013. "[The band] worked on Trouble Will Find Me at [studios] the Clubhouse, in Rhinebeck, and Dreamland, in Woodstock, and we just loved it here," says Aaron, who with his Danish wife and their two young children (now two and six), found a restored farmhouse not far from Hudson soon after the Trouble sessions (Bryce has a house across the Hudson in Olivebridge; the other members live outside the Hudson Valley). "The studio was designed and built by Erland Neuman, a local architect. My daughter Ingrid goes to Hawthorne Valley School, and, coincidentally, everyone who worked on the construction was associated with the school in some way." Perhaps returning the favor, the National played a Hawthorne Valley benefit concert at Mass MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, last year.
Assisting charitable and progressive causes has long been a staple activity for the National. Among other projects, the Dessner brothers curated the 2009 compilation Dark Was the Night, a benefit album for AIDS awareness group the Red Hot Organization, and 2016's Day of the Dead, a six-hour, 59-track Grateful Dead tribute album featuring over 60 artists that has raised over $3 million for the same group (as part of the latter project they even got to perform with the Dead's Bob Weir); currently, $1 from every ticket sold at their concerts goes to the Plus One Foundation, which helps people affected by neurological disorders, and global medical relief organization Partners in Health. And in addition to performing at Democratic rallies and fundraising events during Barrack Obama's 2008 election and 2012 reelection, the band enthusiastically lent their music to both campaigns.
"To us, it's impossible to separate our art from what's going on the world," says Aaron, who also maintains an active career as a producer, directing recording sessions not only by his own band but also by such acts as Frightened Rabbit, Sharon Von Etten, the Lone Bellow, and Lisa Hannigan. "We do get hate mail, people saying, you know, 'Just shut up and play your music!' Someone on Breitbart called me a 'pro-abortion snowflake,' or something like that, because we did a 7-inch for this Planned Parenthood benefit series. If someone doesn't want to like our music because they don't like it when we do things like that, well, that's up to them. It's too important for us to keep doing these things, especially now, when people suddenly think it's okay to act like a douchebag and persecute minorities and women. The way we see it, we're lucky to be in a band that's in a position to be able to do things that help people. Like Matt Berninger said, 'If we're just gonna be another group doing boy-misses-girl or girl-misses-boy pop songs, we may as well be making French fries.'"