With an exceptional sixth album and two headline shows at London’s Alexandra Palace, The National are a band who can do no wrong.
Relaxing in a members’ club in central London on a bright spring day, the sun is falling through the bay window. In his soft Cincinnati twang, The National’s bassist Scott Devendorf is describing the challenge of translating the subtleties of the band’s songs into an arena show. “We were joking, ‘Imagine playing in this big place and we’re playing this fragile ballad’.” A quirk of fate means there’s an antique piano sitting in the corner of the room and, as he’s speaking, bandmate Aaron Dessner wanders over to it and starts almost absentmindedly playing ‘Slipped’, the centrepiece of their startlingly brilliant new album, ‘Trouble Will Find Me’.
Hearing the notes float through the room is a reminder that, even in the biggest arena, The National’s music sounds intimate. There’s a warmth and comfort in frontman Matt Berninger’s baritone voice that says however messed up things are, everything will be ok. As Aaron says, “I don’t write the lyrics but I see myself in the things Matt says, and I think the audience does too.”
Speaking to Matt an hour later, he suggests it’s this universality that gives the band’s name - something that was chosen specifically because it didn’t mean anything - a unique significance. “If it had a meaning at the start the meaning we thought it had was ‘the citizen’, or something like that. I love the band name The Smiths because it was such a generic name.”
“I still think we should have come up with something more memorable and maybe that’s why it took us fifteen years to find a fanbase,” he muses, half joking. “If we’d been called Vampire Weekend we would have been popular a lot faster.”
Bryce Dessner, sitting next to him, laughs. “We’d still be 26, too.”
It may have taken them longer than some to get here, but The National have finally achieved the acclaim they deserve. On 2005’s breakthrough album ‘Alligator’, Matt sung sardonically about music ‘that only lasts the season / And only heard by bedroom kids who buy for that reason,’ but 2010’s ‘High Violet’ saw the band establish themselves as truly important.
With ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ they are set to raise the bar even higher. It’s an album that ebbs and flows beautifully. Different from ‘High Violet’, richer and more intricate, it reveals a band comfortable in the knowledge they have earned their right to sit at music’s top table. 'This Is The First Record Where We Had No Rules.' “I think there was a self-confidence that dawned on us after ‘High Violet’. We started to trust the chemistry in the band,” Aaron, who with his twin brother Bryce writes the band’s music, explains.
Not that they intended to create a new album after touring ‘High Violet’. It seems it’s precisely this lack of a plan that has given them the freedom to make a record that is liberated from the shackles of expectation and over-thinking that has weighed down on them on previously. “We decided to not make a record for possibly four years. Aaron and Bryan had babies and I had a two-year-old. We had some perspective which made it feel like the band wasn’t the most important thing in our lives,” Matt says. “Somehow the pressure of being in the band and what sort of album we should follow up ‘High Violet’ with; none of those thoughts were in the process at all. Songs just started to bloom in their own organic way.”
For Bryce this meant the band could push their ideas as far as they liked. “In the past we’ve had to make compromises by being late or stressed but in this case we went as far as we could with everything so there are no feelings of regret.” It also meant they were able to deal with the actual process of making an album more easily. “There’s a certain neuroses in our process. It’s always intense, it’s always manic,” he explains. “There’s always certain arguments but this time we knew they were coming and we weathered them.” ‘Insecurities’ and ‘neuroses’ are words which keep cropping up, but Aaron says for this album that changed. “I can honestly say this is the first record where we had no rules, no insecurities or anxieties driving it.”
It was the birth of Aaron’s daughter which ignited the spate of songwriting that would form this album, and it was something which forced Bryce to raise his game, too. “Aaron had a child and was spending sleepless nights awake so he generated tons of material and I thought I better write some of mine. I think a year and a half ago there were thirty or forty sketches. Then we sent them to Matt and he started to generate all these melodies.” These ‘sketches’ were eventually whittled down to thirteen tracks, and all the band were unanimous in their agreement that these were the strongest songs for the album.
Lyrically this record seemed to come together a lot more easily than on previous occasions, too. “From ‘High Violet’ all I cared about was melody,” Matt explains, “I would just sing along for the whole track and then I’d mute it and do another one completely different, and there’d be twenty of these. Me just free-associating. Then later I would piece the melodies I liked together and words would fall into them. I was listening to a ton of Roy Orbison stuff and I got really excited about how he would go from one octave and then go up four octaves and the song would change completely. Working this way led me to write better lyrics because they were following melody and they loosened up some of the neuroses.”
Yet the lyrical themes remain similar. Matt’s preoccupation with re-imagining romance and existential insecurity in vivid ways are just as resonant as always. “Romance and insecurity and social anxiety are in all of our records. This one has plenty of those, and a new thing is a recognition of mortality - but it’s either funny stories about dying or questions of what it means to exist.”
Having a child has also affected his outlook. Discussing album track ‘Heavenfaced’, he explains that he’s “not a believer in heaven or hell, but that we continue to live on through the ripple effect of people you’ve connected with. And having a kid is the most direct ripple effect. 'The Band Wasn't The Most Important Thing In Our Lives.' There are a lot of songs about death on here but in a very cathartic, almost euphoric, soothing exploration of that. I don’t think about this record as being a dark or sad record at all.”
It does feel like a looser and more inventive album, both lighter and heavier at the same time, more complex but also poppier. The focus may still be on death and anxiety but, as Matt says, this is fun. Just take the lyrics to ‘Humiliation’: ‘As the freefall advances, I’m the moron who dances.’ There are moments of stunning intimacy, while the heavier ‘Sea Of Love’, as Bryce notes, “captures an energy in a way that I haven’t felt since ‘Mr November’.”
For Aaron, ‘Slipped’ is the one he’s most proud of. “I’ve always wanted to write a classic song that had a timeless pull to it and I’ve learned from studying other writers’ songs. In this case it was Dylan’s ‘Not Dark Yet’. ‘Slipped’ is more of a pop song but there’s something about the swampy lilt to it that is similar, though it also has a lot of half bars and quick turnarounds. A lot of the songs have these sneaky complexities on there. Matt doesn’t think musically, he just kind of responds but I think that was what was working with this album - if the ideas had an emotional tug he didn’t worry about whether they were complex, he just latched on to them.”
The record was also augmented by an amazing array of regular collaborators, including Sharon Van Etten and Sufjan Stevens, who are The National’s extended family. “These people add a quality to the band,” Scott says, “Sometimes we get stuck in our ways and someone like Sufjan came in and did a bunch of awesome stuff and we used a few things from it. We’re lucky that we know these guys and they’re friends.” For Aaron these collaborations are one of the most exciting and fun parts of making a record. “I love the idea of the 60s / 70s with the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia playing on all these people’s records, and I feel like there’s a version of that happening today.”
Aaron shares a story of when another friend of the band, Win Butler from Arcade Fire, came into the studio to listen to the record. “It was funny cos he was talking about ‘I Should Live In Salt’. If a festival audience is clapping along to the quarter note, they will get it wrong. So he did it and said [adopts goofy voice] ‘This is awesome’ and went off the note.”
Hanging out with Arcade Fire and playing in huge arenas must feel different from their early days when they were playing to empty rooms and self-releasing their albums. Do they still feel like the same people? The band say resolutely yes. “Our music has evolved considerably but as people we haven’t changed dramatically,” explains Aaron. “No one has any rock star delusions.”
Yet the position they find themselves in is in stark contrast to when they released their first two records - the eponymous debut and ‘Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers’. These albums are sometimes unfairly dismissed but they’re part of the intricate make-up of the band. 'There Have Been Some Attempts To Take My Pants Off'
As Aaron says, “We made those records ourselves, started a record label, put them out and booked shows and fell on our face for a couple of years. It taught us a lot.” It seems that 2004’s ‘Cherry Tree’ EP was the pivotal recording in the band realising what they could achieve. “We were all hanging out in Matt’s loft drinking beer and we weren’t serious about it - we all had jobs and it was just for fun,” Aaron says. “With ‘Cherry Tree’ I remember there being a tangible sense of, the foundations of these things has to be figured out. And that started the process that has continued through each record, that each song was this journey. But without those first two records we would never have got to ‘Alligator’.” Now they’re headlining festivals and playing huge shows, including two dates at Alexandra Palace in November. Yet despite their burgeoning confidence there remains a lingering feeling that they always need to prove themselves, especially live. “We’ve toured so much and we’ve always had to prove ourselves at every stage so it’s probably the same again,” Aaron says. “It’s like jumping into cold water - we might fall on our face or we might succeed. And I think watching Matt lose his mind a little and watching us struggle, and hopefully get to a great point in the show, is part of the reason why people like to see the band.” Matt agrees. “We were never fish in water when onstage, it’s definitely flopping around, but we’ve learnt how to flop around gracefully up there.” Yet whatever anxieties the band feel playing these bigger venues, to Bryce what’s at the core of the band is the bond between them and the connection that their fifteen year history has created. “We spent so many years playing to so few people that we developed a survival instinct and that’s where the core of the band was formed. We’re very lucky - some bands find it difficult translating to that setting but we can enjoy it. It’s not like we’re a different band when we’re playing Glastonbury or playing our own small club show.” There is one change that has been enforced by the growing size of the venues though - Matt’s infamous charge through the crowd during ‘Mr November’. “There’s less of that now,” he admits. “I was doing that in some pretty big places and the crowds would crush around me. And especially in the UK, there have been some attempts to take my pants off. It’s hard to sing a song when you’re desperately trying to keep from having your belt undone by some drunk dudes.”The National’s new album ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ is out now via 4AD.Taken from the June 2013 issue of DIY, available now. For more details click here.