From Cincinnati to New York to a stereo near you, The National are the latest in the line of life-changing American bands.
There are some important facts you should know about The National.
Although all five members are originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, they didn’t form the band until they all lived in New York City.
Most people thought that 2005’s album, Alligator, was their debut. It wasn’t. They’d actually released two albums before that.
Despite being about to receive a shit-storm of critical adulation, they’re no flash in the indie rock pan. This is a band that’s put in their time at the coalface. That’s the most important fact of all.
“We debate whether if we had to do it again, would we do it?” smiles tall blond singer Matt Berninger as he leans back on a sofa in a plush central London hotel. “There are moments that I’d never want to repeat. Like sleeping in a wet bed in a youth hostel in Glasgow after playing a gig to five people.”
“That wasn’t the worst of it,” points out curly-haired, softly spoken guitar and bass player Aaron Dessner. “How about that night on the floor in Manchester with the aggressive dog and the drunk owner throwing up?”
The hotel that Matt and Aaron are staying in on the final leg of their promotional jaunt around Europe is a long way from the vomit-strewn floors of Manchester. Back home their colleagues, guitarist Bryce Dessner, guitarist Scott Devendorf and his drummer brother Bryan are preparing themselves for the release of their forthcoming album, Boxer, a record already being discussed in hushed tones. Things have suddenly become very exciting for The National, but that doesn’t mean they’ve forgotten what they’ve been through.
“It gave us some thicker skin, I guess,” sighs Matt. “Through all that we kept trying to write the songs that we liked, and people slowly kept finding us that was very validating. We knew eventually people would start paying attention. If it was five people at the show we’d joke we were chipping away five people at a time. A lot of bands give up because it is heartbreaking and stressful. The anxiety of playing and driving and staying on people’s floors and being stuck in a van, on top of the anxiety of playing your music in front of strangers anyway, who aren’t paying attention or are watching TV. We played in Montreal once where people were watching Jeopardy through the entire show. There were about five or six people at the bar and we were playing in a corner with water leaking on us from the plumbing above. At one point everyone cheered and clapped at the end of a song. I said, ‘Thanks! It’s great to be here!’ It turned out they were clapping because the contestant had won the daily double.”
“We had little glimmers of hope,” recalls Aaron. “Whether it was one person who said he was obsessed with our album or one show that just happened to be packed. We still enjoyed that we could make songs together that we loved. We were always obsessed with our albums. We would love them. And our friends would love them. It was frustrating to tour to nobody but it seemed that there was some purpose to it. We haven’t really changed what we do, but all of a sudden people are listening.”
“There would be shows that were great,” sighs Matt. “But there’d be ten shows in a row that you felt like if you’re going to drive nine hours and sleep on a floor, it would be nice to play to more than ten people.”
“We had to learn how to convert people with one performance,” explains Aaron. “If there were ten people there, we had to make five of them loyal fans. And we did that for years.”
“Those are the people that were constantly telling their friends about the band,” agrees Matt. “So it did pay off. It was borderline soul crushing for a long time, physically and mentally, but we’re glad we didn’t give up.”
The toil was definitely worthwhile. Nine years after the band’s formation there’s finally a buzz surrounding a National release. They’re still going to struggle for daytime radio play -- Matt’s brooding baritone pretty much puts a blanket ban on that – but the shows are getting bigger and the mainstream media is starting to bang on their hotel room doors.
“It’s the first time that we’ve done a record that people have a sense of anticipation for,” notes Matt. “We’ve never been in this spot where people are waiting for a record. We have the comfort of knowing that at least people will hear this one. When we released Alligator we didn’t know how many people would hear it at all. There were good reviews but no buzz. Alligator had been out for months and months before any buzz started. Through word of mouth and the few that did buy it, some of them really started falling in love with it and started telling their friends about it. A good nine months after it was released we could tell that people were paying attention to it.”
There’s a temptation to label The National as the latest members of the exciting new club of American bands that have risen from the underground to worldwide prominence. Despite none of them sounding much like each other (especially The National, who don’t really sound like anyone) there’s obviously something exciting happening over there right now.
“There are a lot of indie bands in the US who take this really gradual road up,” agrees Aaron. “Spoon, Cat Power, The Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens. Artists that sell modestly and gradually become more popular. Modest Mouse, The Shins, Arcade Fire, Bright Eyes. They’ve all been Top Five on the Billboard charts and they all started as tiny indie artists. There is something that seems to be happening with a group of artists that have become successful to an extent that wasn’t considered possible for bands on independent labels. That is exciting. It seems independent music is selling more as major label music is shrinking. The distributor for Beggars Banquet in the US is always saying that despite all the dire talk about the American music industry, his business is growing every year.”
A certain part of that business growth would be down to The National, a band whose music virtually defies description. Even for those on the inside, pinning down influences isn’t as simple a matter as discussing favourite bands.
“There are elements that we’ve picked up from different places,” reckons Matt, “but the combination of things is different. There’s an odd alchemy of the confluence of styles from the way I meander around melody to Bryan’s drum parts. He writes them out and works on them.”
“With the guitars it’s more about the rhythm of things,” notes Aaron. “Some songs are based on hypnotic or almost meditative patterns. And that’s not typical for rock music. Alligator was in some way more conventional, as far as rock songs go. We didn’t want to repeat ourselves. Personally, I had got married and had become separated. I wouldn’t say I was depressed, but I was in a strange place. And making soothing, meditative music that I could record and put on about the house was really satisfying. It wasn’t like, ‘let’s make a subtle, meditative record’. We’re not aware of our stylistic preferences. It’s accidental in a weird way. The whole meditative thing, you could almost call it elevator music. If it doesn’t make sense, it’s not supposed to make sense.”
“It sounds like we think about it,” smiles Matt. “But a lot of it is just tearing stuff apart until it starts to sound exciting.”
“A lot of the time Matt doesn’t choose the obvious path,” announces Aaron, diplomatically.
“That’s a nice way of saying I have some not-so-catchy melodies,” grins Matt.
“Because his sense of melody is very instinctive,” continues Aaron, “he’s responding to music that has a lot going on. Sometimes he’s singing completely out of the scale. Atonally, essentially. We say it’s like medieval music. Pre-tonal.”
“Special skills, right here,” nods Matt.
“But we love that,” Aaron smiles back.
It’s music unconcerned with chasing the elusive ‘hit’. Even when they were sleeping in damp hostel beds and damper floors, going for catchy, unit-shifting indie pop was never on the agenda.
“It may sound serious and brooding and dark but those are just the colours we use,” promises Aaron.
“It’s always been an inside joke,” smiles Matt. “We make fun of our own music more than anyone else does, it being inaccessible, oddball, dad-rock. Someone called it yacht-rock. I love that.
“We’ve tried, and succeeded, in writing poppy, catchy songs. When we’re about to finish a record there are always three or four catchy songs there, but they never seem to last for us. Usually there’s something familiar about them. That’s why they sound catchy. We get bored of them. The ones that we’re still in love with after twenty listens go on the record. The catchy ones don’t have that longevity. We’ve done catchy ones, but are more embarrassed by them then some of the weird Neanderthal stuff we’re talking about.”
A lot of bands chase success. Others have success thrust upon them. The National have been taking risks since the beginning. Only now is the rest of the world catching up with them.
“We don’t think of them as risks,” smiles Matt with a barely perceptible shrug. “This is what we do.”