This article was published in the Guardian on April 24, 2010.
Photographs courtesy of Tim Knox. http://timknoxphotography.com/
It was past six in the morning, in the bar of Bono’s hotel in Dublin. The National and REM were seated around a table. Michael Stipe, loose with whisky, was in the mood to offer his friends in the cult Brooklyn band some advice. “Why don’t you guys just write a pop song? What are you afraid of? Don’t be embarrassed.”
The National’s new album, High Violet, is full of hooks, hidden in deceptively complex arrangements. It is bound to be their most popular record yet, a contender for the year’s best, but no-one would ever call it pop. Like its predecessor, Boxer, it requires a little dedication.
“We’ve tried,” shrugs guitarist Aaron Dessner. “We’ve never tried hard,” says frontman Matt Berninger. “We turn our noses up at simple, infectious things because they sound pedestrian. This time I was determined to write pop melodies.” There is no obvious single – no Losing My Religion and certainly no Shiny Happy People. Everybody hurts, sometimes, in the National’s songs, but they would never express it so directly.
For a happily married man, with a one-year-old daughter and a sense of humour, Berninger’s lyrics are melancholy, to say the least. As he undresses his insecurity and sorrow, track after track, it’s tempting to shout a few words of encouragement from the scaffolding: “cheer up, mate, it might never happen.” But he has not cheered up, and it has happened. Tickets for next month’s Royal Albert Hall show sold out in four minutes. The National are rock stars.
It has taken them a decade, a lot of faith and an understanding bank manager to get there. “We call ourselves a back alley whisper band, because you don’t read about us that often, or see us on TV, but we can fill these big spaces,” says Dessner. “We don’t have casual fans – it’s an obsessive, cult audience.”
On a gorgeous spring afternoon in Brooklyn, Matt, bassist Scott Devendorf and his brother Bryan, the drummer, are signing CDs round at the back of Aaron’s house. “They’re being sent to world leaders,” jokes Matt. “Obama has requested a copy.” Bryan, dressed from head to toe in free designer clothes, will keep his sunglasses on indoors. He is the only band member who knows that in England, the National is a horse race. Scott is apparently content to play ‘the quiet one’ as tradition dictates. Matt wears a leather jacket, a rosy complexion and a semi-kempt red beard. They are in rude health and high spirits.
The National are, literally, a garage band. Most of High Violet was recorded in their home studio: a shed in the garden where the previous owner parked his car. Aaron’s brother-in-law, an architect from Norway, did the conversion, lining the interior with slats of cedar to deaden the acoustic. There are musical instruments and amplifiers strewn everywhere. It looks like the aftermath of a live radio session in a sauna.
It’s here that Aaron and his twin, Bryce, obsessively re-arrange the group’s songs, working for weeks on an idea, only to discard it, hiring string players and horn sections, then cutting their contributions from the final mix, striving to make “a record that sounds home made but also epic.” Much of their breakthrough album, Alligator, was recorded in their sister’s house, down the street. A fair bit of Boxer was taped in the attic.
The National are a Brooklyn band, but all five grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Devendorfs played Led Zeppelin covers at the Dessner’s junior high school dance, in an outfit called Paleface Jimmy known for handing out hamburgers and wearing jester hats. Aaron, Bryce and Bryan were in a folk rock band called Project Nim that had its moments on the college circuit. Matt fronted a group called Nancy that aspired to be Pavement.
When they met up again in New York, in 1999, they decided to “noodle around, press record and see what happens” without ever really intending to start a band. Once they had enough songs for a debut album, they put it out on their own label and went on tour in a cargo van, taking it in turns to ride in the back with the equipment and exhaust fumes.
Their second album, Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, earned some positive reviews but otherwise did little to suggest they would ever be able to give up their day jobs in web development. On their first European trip, they played an anarchist squat party in Frankfurt and were offered five bare mattresses and a case of stolen beer in return. They slept on floors covered with dog hair a centimetre deep, drove hundreds of miles to Kentucky to perform for Matt’s mum and a bored bartender, but never seriously considered packing it in.
“I think having two sets of brothers in the band has a lot to do with it,” says Aaron. “There’s something about the family dynamic that gives us a weird will. We’re very protective of each other.”
Matt cracks open a bottle of sauvignon blanc before the interview and confesses to getting “moderately hammered” before gigs to deal with his stage fright. He thought each tour would be his last. “There was a youth hostel in Glasgow where our cots were filled with wet underwear when we arrived,” he remembers. “I was 33-years-old, in a dorm with loads of drunk kids, lying awake thinking ‘what am I doing?’ But for every moment like that there was a write-up, or Benicio Del Toro would come to a show – just some little thing that would tell us it was going somewhere.”
The biggest break was signing to the British label, Beggars Banquet, for their third album. On Mr November, Alligator’s rousing closer, Matt sings that “the English are waiting,” and promises that as “the new blue blood, the great white hope” he will not disappoint. On their first day in a proper tour bus, they celebrated like adopted Brits, with a drunken melee that left one band member with a broken nose and vomit all over the bunk beds. “Some people got so excited that certain rules of the bus were broken,” Bryan offers.
After they covered Mansion On The Hill at a Springsteen tribute show in New York, the Boss gave them a pep talk. “First you’ve got to create the wave, then you’ve got to ride the wave,” he told them.
Michael Stipe brought Mike Mills to a gig, to vet them over a few drinks, before asking them to tour America with R.E.M. “The National are real,” Mills says. ”I first saw them in London a few years ago, and they reminded me of R.E.M. in our earlier days. We all felt that they would be a good matchup for us on tour, and we were right.”
The band have, on record at least, left their fist-pumping days behind. Their fourth album, Boxer, was anthem-free, with none of the cathartic screaming that had become Matt’s signature as a performer. His songs had always concerned the “unmagnificent lives of adults” but on Boxer he gave his introspective tendencies free rein, writing about drifting apart from friends, digging at the fault lines in relationships and wondering what happened to the “glowing young ruffian” he used to be.
The opening track, Fake Empire, was picked up for an Obama campaign video. “We were a little bewildered, because the song is not patriotic by any means,” says Matt. By discarding the vocals, the producers transformed his commentary on a generation lost to disillusion and self-medicated apathy into an advert for a multi-cultural, optimistic country, full of smiling people holding “hope” and “change” signs. In the clip, the piano refrain swells expectantly as Bryan pummels his drums hard enough to break down the White House door.
Because Matt sounds like a polite Nick Cave and suffers like a literate Chris Martin, the National’s music is often described as elegiac, when in truth, it’s more uplifting than that. The rhythms are much too urgent to be called stately. The juxtaposition between the singer’s mournful baritone and the joyous guitar lines and vocal harmonies is a defining characteristic of their sound.
“You have to trust a voice like that,” says friend and neighbour Sufjan Stevens. “He sings like an older brother with a dark side. He’ll protect you on the playground, but he’s not afraid to tell it like it is, and he’ll kick you in the face if he has to.”
Performing the new songs live for the first time, at the Bell House, in Brooklyn, they pull off the trick of having ten men on stage without the music sounding cluttered. Occasional member and arranger Padma Newsome, on violin, viola and keyboards, plays a vital role. Horns are used sparingly. The band thumps when it needs to and drops down in an instant, with neat dynamic control. Stipe is in the crowd somewhere, no doubt wearing a hat.
Writing the songs is a slow process, fraught with compromises and intra-band politics. Usually, the twins come up with an idea, Bryan and Scott compose a rhythm part, beat by beat, before handing it over to Matt, who spends long hours in his bedroom, listening on headphones and scribbling in a notebook. The main reason High Violet took two years is the sheer amount of sweat that was left on the sauna floor – whole instrumentals, painstakingly worked out and recorded, only to be ditched because Matt didn’t find them inspiring.
“He can just decide not to sing over something, which will kill it automatically,” Aaron says. “No-one else has that kind of power. We fight over almost everything. It’s so hard for us to create songs that we all feel are compelling. Although we’re confident and we love what we do, sometimes when you finish an album you wonder if you can do it again.” Matt agrees: “We’ll have heated debates over a flute line, a tambourine hit or a lyric. We’ll go to war.”
In their spare time, the Dessners have become guiding spirits of a scene, loosely based in Brooklyn but not confined to it. Dark Was The Night, the double album they produced last year for the AIDS charity Red Hot, was a snapshot of contemporary North American indie, featuring the Arcade Fire, Dirty Projectors, Conor Oberst, the Decemberists, Grizzly Bear, Feist, Yeasayer, the New Pornographers and Cat Power.
In the kitchen, over the doorframe, there’s a game show sized publicity cheque, from Beggars Banquet to Red Hot for £432, 212 – the first six months net profit. The album has now raised more than a million dollars for the charity.
Justin Vernon contributed a track as Bon Iver and wrote a duet with Aaron. “There was such a friendliness to them, a spirit that was way above any ego or mitigating vibe,” he says. “There is a precision about their music that reaches places that only The National can scratch. High Violet is just making their arms longer.” He sings backing vocals on the beatific last track, Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks. Sufjan handles harmonies on Afraid Of Everyone.
These two songs are High Violet’s emotional poles. Settling down has apparently not calmed Matt’s fears. If anything, his narrators are more neurotic than ever, living in “a city sorrow built” and forever worrying that “we’ve got another thing coming undone.” Fans who responded to his nascent mid-life crisis on Alligator and Boxer will be relieved to find that having a child and approaching forty has only intensified his feelings of alienation.
“Anxiety and worry are common mental states,” he says. “I don’t know many people who wake up in the morning filled with confidence and glee. But it’s not a mid-life crisis because it never goes away. People have acne when they’re adolescents but crisis goes throughout your whole life.” Sitting with his bandmates on the sofa, a glass of wine in his hand, it looks like he doesn’t have a care in the world.