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The National’s Anthem

An afternoon with indie rock's most indie-rock band

I‘m sitting in a cab that is inching purposefully down a Manhattan street choked with traffic and rain. It feels like I’m living inside a song by the National,1 but I’m only talking about songs by the National with the band’s lead singer, Matt Berninger. His probing, nasally baritone casts a noir mystique over this mundane Wednesday afternoon. The overcast sky seems a little darker, and the stale taxi air palpably sensitive yet brawny; after a while our dialogue starts to resemble a fatally long-winded B side. We’re discussing alienation, insecurity bordering on anxiety, and the darkness that lurks in the hearts of mild-mannered family men who never permit themselves to act on that darkness. I predict that when I replay my recording of the interview later on I will appreciate it more than I do now. Only then will I pick up on the subtle grace notes and surprisingly goofy non sequiturs embedded subliminally in Berninger’s words. “Grower” records are the National’s franchise; maybe that same slow-burning intensity also applies to their taxicab confessions.

Berninger and guitarist Aaron Dessner (who’s traveling in a different cab with a different writer at the moment) are making the rounds for the National’s latest, Trouble Will Find Me. It is 13 days before the release, and the band’s most loquacious members are working a double shift on the interview circuit. This morning I sat in the living room of Dessner’s exceedingly homey three-story Victorian house in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park neighborhood as Berninger, Dessner, and Dessner’s identical twin brother, Bryce, conducted an AMA chat on Reddit in an adjacent room. (Sample question: “Matt, you stepped on my shoulder the last night of the Beacon run. This is a great chance for you to apologize.”) Then I shared a cab with Aaron as we ventured downtown for a taping of CBC Radio’s “Q With Jian Ghomeshi.”2 Now I’m riding with Berninger back to Dessner’s house, where he and Dessner will get 45 minutes of rest before a dinner and interview appointment (or “dinner-view,” as Berninger calls it) with a major music magazine. There aren’t many spare minutes in the band’s schedule today; when Berninger slipped away for a bathroom break at the CBC studio, I assumed it was for a quick press conference at the urinal.

Despite this gauntlet, Trouble is not the best record the National has ever made. (That distinction belongs to 2005’s Alligator, though 2007’s Boxer and 2010’s High Violet have their partisans.) But it is their most confident work — it represents a kind of culmination. Everything the National has ever done well comes conveniently packaged in these 13 songs. There are subdued rockers that build to rousing crescendos (“Graceless,” “Humiliation”); heartsick torch ballads imbued with indefatigable longing (“Fireproof,” “I Need My Girl”); and plenty of songs (most notably “Sea of Love” and “This Is the Last Time”) about sad sacks majestically wallowing in their own sad-sackiness. But it’s not just the music that sets Trouble apart — it’s how the record was made, and where the National finds itself on the eve of its release. The National is the greatest contemporary example of a dying archetype: the self-contained, interdependent, integrity-obsessed, artistically consistent, smart but not pretentious, likably humble, and reliably durable rock band. The group’s run of albums in the mid- and late-’00s showed it could push creative boundaries while growing its audience. With Trouble, the National has pulled off a feat that’s equally crucial and arguably more difficult: synthesizing its past into an instantly recognizable musical identity. For a group that historically has been wracked with self-doubt, Trouble is a turning point. After 14 years and six albums, the National is finally comfortable being indie rock’s most indie-rock band.

The National has come a long way since toiling in obscurity as an unfashionable band in the most fashionable music scene on the planet. Before Alligator, the band’s third record, caught on (slowly) with critics and (even more slowly) with the public, the music press ignored the National. Or worse, saddled them (incorrectly) with the “alt-country” tag, which in the early-’00s New York City rock scene was akin to being put on a sex-offenders registry.3 Formed in 1999 by Berninger and two sets of brothers — Aaron and Bryce, who both play guitar, and Scott and Bryan Devendorf, who make up the rhythm section — the National released their self-titled debut one month after the Strokes put out their first record. An unfocused mélange of classic-rock hero worship (particularly Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen) and ’90s indie touchstones (like a twangier Pavement, or a less dynamic version of “twangy Pavement”–era Wilco), The National is the weakest entry in the band’s discography; unlike the Strokes after Is This It, the National had nowhere to go but up.

Back then, Berninger and his bandmates were as out of step with the zeitgeist as those guys were locked in. Now, 12 years later, the National is more popular than the Strokes and nearly every other rock band in the city. This can be quantified in ways that don’t really matter (Trouble is expected to debut in Billboard‘s Top 5), in ways that sort of matter (the National will headline the 18,000-seat Barclays Center, which is just up the road from Aaron’s house, in June), in ways that probably matter to the band members (Trouble will almost certainly be well reviewed by critics), and in the only way that truly matters for a band of its ilk (there are several thousand people in many of the world’s major cities who will pay to see the National live, no matter what they think of the new record, simply because the band has a beloved back catalogue). But Berninger is still hung up on the Strokes as a symbol of unattainable NYC rock-star cool. During our 75-minute conversation, he mentions the Strokes six times.

“We never were trying to be the Strokes,” he says as traffic finally starts to break and we pick up speed. “We had a healthy amount of awareness of what type of a band we were. But I think we always had a chip on our shoulder trying to prove that we’re cool, or something. And I think with this record, we stopped caring about that. Partly because we realized that thinking in those ways never helped us write good songs — trying to be cool, or trying to be contemporary, or trying to be not-contemporary. Chasing those things never led us anywhere. It just led us into corners. This is the first record — for me, for sure — where I definitely did not worry about what I was writing about. I didn’t worry about how it would be perceived or received.”

In contrast to the morose fashion-plate persona he presents onstage, Berninger is an effusive and engaging conversationalist. He appears to regard his position in the National like most other 42-year-old married fathers think of their fantasy sports leagues: as a vehicle for channeling all of the aggressive and obsessive behavior he no longer can indulge in other areas of his life. Away from the band, Berninger is serious about the band but not that serious. If the National broke up tomorrow, he claims he wouldn’t be devastated. He credits this attitude to being a parent to a 4-year-old girl — Aaron and Bryan became dads recently, too — but it’s also related to the National’s career arc. For a significant part of the band’s existence, members had to work 9-to-5 jobs in order to support themselves. (Before going full-time rock star around the release of Alligator, Berninger was creative director at a graphic design firm.) Even now, with the National on the verge of launching its highest-profile tour in support of what could be its biggest record, Berninger is not ruling out returning to that life.

“We can see how easy it is for bands to dissolve. [With this album], I think there was a little bit of, ‘Well, if that happens, that’s OK.’ Having kids, we realized if we had to go back to some other job, as long as we’re providing for our families, it didn’t matter. In some respect, we realized that the band wasn’t the most important thing in our life anymore.”

When I suggest to Berninger that Trouble ushers in the “brand loyalty” period of the National’s career — and that this gives the National some security as a touring act for at least the next couple of years — it takes him exactly 1.6 seconds to disagree. “No, if you phone in a record, people can tell,” he says. “Our biggest worry is not that we’ll ever phone it in. It’s that we’ll lose our ability to tell if something’s good or not. The truth is, I think even the greatest artists go through periods where they think what they’re doing is great and it’s just not. I mean, Dylan’s gone through some really awful periods. So has Neil Young and some of our other heroes. I don’t think that happened with this record — I’m pretty confident that this is a good record — but we are conscious of it. We’re very lucky to have people caring about our songs and our band and coming to the shows. But it’s fleeting.”

What Berninger is describing is every artist’s greatest fear: Not only can your audience abandon you at any time, it can usually tell whether you’ve started to suck before you do. But Berninger doesn’t seem worried about this possibility — it’s not that he thinks it can’t happen to him, but rather that the implications of the National going south don’t seem particularly worrisome.

The National
As the National has transitioned from lovable underdog to venerable indie-rock institution, a narrative coalesced around the band that has calcified into a caricature. Music writers — even music writers who like the National — tend to draw from the same well of bland yuppie signifiers to describe the band. For instance, when Pitchfork gave High Violet a stellar 8.7 rating, it classified the National as “men’s magazine rock”; whatever that means, it doesn’t sound complimentary. In case you’re wondering, yes, the members of the National are aware that some people find their music to be boring miserablism for dad-rockin’ Caucausians. Trouble Will Find Me will not disabuse people of that notion; to the contrary, it is the most National-like National album yet, almost defiantly so.

For a group widely considered to be among a small handful of contemporary indie-rock figureheads, the National find themselves once again on the outside looking in when it comes to what’s trendy. The National have long been groomed to be a certain kind of rock band — for lack of a better term, they consciously present themselves as a serious proposition. They have sought counsel from card-carrying Serious Rockers like Springsteen4 and R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe,5 and their records sound like extensions of the most critically respected rock music of the last 30 or so years, without venturing into pastiche or homage. If you were to envision how a theoretical “important” indie-rock band is supposed to sound, look, and feel, it would sound, look, and feel a lot like the National — except that in the last few years, this no longer seems true. The rock lineage has been marginalized in indie; these days, indie musicians are drawing as much from chart pop and the glossiest forms of R&B as Springsteen or R.E.M. Signs of this shift are everywhere, from R. Kelly’s slot at the upcoming Pitchfork Music Festival to indie music blogs tripping over themselves last week to post the latest Mariah Carey single. In 1987, Top 40 radio was as into playing R.E.M. as college radio was; in 2013, the underground has aligned with pop.

“If we seem outside of whatever’s trendy right now, I would just say that’s par for the course,” Aaron Dessner tells me during our cab ride to Manhattan a few hours earlier. “Because we’ve never benefited from particularly big hype or buzz or any kind of mainstream support. It’s just this underground, amoebic, sneak-up-on-you thing. We’re like the turtle. We joke with Arcade Fire, because they’re sprinters in a way. They’re sprinters and we think of ourselves as marathon runners.”

I decide that now is a good time to share with Dessner my grand theory on Who The National Really Are And What This Means To Me Personally. Even though the National formed in Brooklyn, and all of the members (with one exception)6 have lived in New York for nearly two decades, I’d argue that this is an inherently Midwestern rock band. This is partly due to all the members originally hailing from Cincinnati, of course; but it has even more to do with how the National carries itself, and why the songs work the way they do. Berninger and Dessner remind me of people I grew up with in Wisconsin who moved to New York in their 20s — you get the New York haircut, the New York wardrobe, and all the other New York affectations, but you can never shake the inferiority complex that’s bred into you as a native of flyover country. Granted, this theory might just be a projection of my personal experiences and biases. But: The National is a hardworking, unassuming collective of ex–office drones who make music that appears superficially staid only because its modes of expression are internalized. This isn’t a band that tells you everything that matters about itself all at once; Ohioans aren’t allowed to be so ostentatious. In rock-and-roll terms, the National is practically puritanical. Success is about hard work. Pleasure should be cumulative and earned, not immediate and dispensed willy-nilly. The big picture always takes precedence over short-term gratification.

After patiently waiting for me to finish rambling, Dessner tells me I’m right — sort of. “One thing I would say about coming from where we come from, there’s a kind of self-effacing humor where none of us are delusional, thinking we’re rock stars, or want that kind of glamour,” Dessner says. “I think we’d all prefer to stay anonymous. And the fact that we’re not natural performers, we figured out over time that people find it compelling that we’re awkward. Matt is an unlikely front man, in that you can tell he’s slightly uncomfortable up there, and that that’s what’s weirdly thrilling about it, to watch this guy try to get through it.”

It would be a stretch to say it was easy for the National to make Trouble Will Find Me. But compared with the by-all-accounts torturous birth of the grandiose High Violet — which was riddled with second-guessing and interpersonal bickering — Trouble‘s origin story is relatively breezy. Much of the album was recorded live, a clear departure from the more sculpted Violet, and the songs came together under less contentious circumstances.

National songs usually begin with the Dessner twins. They create musical fragments inside the recording studio located behind Aaron’s house; at some point, they’ll share these demos with Berninger, who will pick what he likes and begin writing lyrics and vocal melodies. Typically, he discards almost everything Aaron and Bryce send him. For Trouble, Aaron began writing songs in the fall of 2011, when the National was still touring for High Violet, though he wasn’t sure at first that they were National songs. “I randomly shared a playlist with Matt and he kind of got obsessed with all of it,” he says. “He was the one pushing, like, ‘Wow, do more.’ So Bryce and I started to do more. Stuff was clicking in a way that hadn’t happened in a long time, at least since Alligator. ‘I Should Live in Salt’ was definitely quick. I sent him that and a day later he sent it back with all of the melody and a lot of the lyrics already there, which is how the band used to work in the very beginning — he was just quick and rough and ready. All of a sudden, a lightbulb went off, like, ‘Oh, OK, I guess we are making a record.'”

“I Should Live in Salt” opens Trouble, and its folky strum is enough to reignite those old alt-country comparisons. (“Salt” is not the only callback to the National’s early records — buried deep in the churning “Sea of Love” is a wheezing harmonica. “You would’ve had to put a gun to our head to have a harmonica on another record,” Berninger says.) Re-embracing old musical guises excited Berninger as work began in earnest on Trouble. “Aaron and Bryce always avoid strumming their guitars for whatever reason,” Berninger says. “The idea of a strum for them, it seemed easy and pedestrian. But this time, I was like, ‘Just strum your guitar — you don’t have to fingerpick everything.’ He actually managed to do something really advanced with a 9/8 time signature or whatever it is. But there was something about that that instantly, viscerally, I connected to. A lot of the execution came from an organic, subconscious place.”

“It’s not that we avoid it,” Dessner counters on the “to strum or not to strum?” question, “but we’re more interested in textures and different colors and a lot of the guitar playing we do is playing off each other and playing inversions or mirrors of each other, just harmonizing things. It’s funny, when we learned to play the guitar — when we first started, Bryce was playing guitar and I was playing bass — we loved to jam and could play really fast. We were almost like a jam band, essentially. We would just play the same song for hours and hours. But at some point we unlearned that. I think when we started to listen to, you know, good music, essentially, we unlearned playing scales fast, and riffs and solos.”7

The dichotomy between Berninger and the Dessners is the most remarked-upon aspect of the National’s creative constitution. Berninger is perceived as “the instinctual one,” while the Dessners are depicted as high-minded intellectuals. Both sides regard this narrative as an overgeneralization.8 And yet when I asked about the writing and recording of Trouble, Berninger and Dessner swiftly conformed to their respective roles — Dessner lapsed into muso-speak about asymmetrical time signatures, and Berninger talked dismissively about the Dessners’s “high-art filter.”

“That whole idea — what’s advanced, or smart music, I never cared so much about,” Berninger says. “But those guys do. It’s important for them, and I get it. I appreciate it, too, and I respect it. But this time, both Aaron and Bryce were like, ‘Yeah, there’s also easy. There’s the guilty pleasures.'”9

Berninger and I are back at Aaron Dessner’s house, standing on the front lawn and enjoying the day’s first rays of sunshine as sullen teens pass by on their way home from middle school. We’re two slightly graying dads born in the ’70s, so our idle chitchat inevitably turns toward slightly graying–dad stuff like the new Kurt Vile album (we both love it) and our favorite TV shows. (Like most people our age, Berninger would rather spend his time watching television than listening to music when he’s not working.) I assume he’s a Game of Thrones fan, since the National contributed the song “The Rains of Castamere” to an episode from the HBO series’ second season, but Berninger’s viewing habits actually veer away from hour-long prestige dramas. “Bob’s Burgers is actually one of my favorite shows,” he says. “Game of Thrones and even Mad Men, I almost want something easier. I really like The Mindy Project.”

Next month, Berninger will have to get up from the couch and join the National for an international tour currently booked through November. The prospect of leaving home on a series of extended business trips doesn’t exactly seem enticing. “I don’t like to travel. To me, a vacation is renting 10 seasons of M*A*S*H and staying home with my wife. That’s vacation. I don’t want to go to Paris for vacation. So I’m not a good traveler. I feel anxious.”

I ask Berninger about the path that brought the National to Trouble Will Find Me. In the new tour documentary Mistaken for Strangers, which was directed by his brother, Tom, and produced by his wife, Carin Besser, there’s a quietly moving scene in which Berninger talks about the myriad disappointments of the band’s early days, when the National would tour seedy, empty bars in nowhere towns. Given the retrospective glow of the band’s eventual success, did he now look back on those days with a measure of romanticism?

“It was good for our band that we didn’t get popular right away, in some ways, because I think it would’ve been hard to develop,” Berninger says. “We’ve developed in the shadows; we learned how to be good songwriters and a good live band while people weren’t really paying attention, which was healthy for us. I look on it fondly [that way], not like, ‘Oh, those were the good old days.’ They were awful, and if someone were to honestly say I had to go back, start over, but it was gonna still lead to this thing — if somebody had told us then that you were going to spend this many nights in youth hostels or playing this many shows when nobody’s there, and you’re gonna sleep in this van this many nights, and you’re not going to make any money at all until eight or nine years in, I don’t think I would’ve done it.”

I wonder if that’s Berninger’s cautious Midwesterner side speaking on behalf of the ambitious Brooklyn musician side. Because these are the salad days for the National. The band is about to release one of its best albums and play that music for tens of thousands of people all over the world. Machinery is in place to keep this momentum going into the foreseeable future. In spite of his hardwired pragmatism, Berninger won’t be looking for another graphic-design job anytime soon. The National has made its mark.

“OK,” Berninger says, smiling, as the sun shines brighter than it has all day. “If somebody told me that, yeah, I probably would’ve done it.”

Filed Under: Music, The National

photo

Steven Hyden is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden

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