For years, the National were one of a thousand little-engine-that-could indie bands, living in Brooklyn and (barely) getting by on small-room tours and local gigs.
Until 2007, when the indelible piano anthem “Fake Empire” helped make their fifth album, Boxer, a critical and popular smash. Letterman came calling, and so did the Obama campaign, which used the song as one of its musical signatures.
Now, with a new album, Trouble Will Find Me, their biggest tour yet, and a new documentary that was the toast of the Tribeca Film Festival, the National is poised to make another leap — this time to a level of fame that actually cements the name, while subverting the original intention of a band that actually chose its name because it had no real meaning. This is the year the National becomes The National.
Ask frontman Matt Berninger, and he’ll tell you that the group’s rise has been built on a foundation of failure. A literal band of brothers — the lineup includes twins Bryce and Aaron Dessner on guitar, and Bryan and Scott Devendorf on drums and bass, respectively (we’ll get to Berninger’s own brother later) — the quintet has struggled, bickered, and come thisclose to breaking up since teaming up in the late 1990s. Success hasn’t mellowed them, exactly, but there is a confidence that comes from winning on their own terms, and from knowing that when they step on the stage, they’re one of the best live bands in the business. “You’re not a real band unless you go out and play shows, for whoever, whenever,” says Berninger.
With Trouble Will Find Me out this week (they’ll play The Colbert Report tonight to celebrate), the band is already booked on the road through November. Berninger spoke to EW about the sound of the new album, being a “Brooklyn band,” and how the rock doc Mistaken For Strangers morphed into something not at all standard issue.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You were on tour for High Violet at the same time that your brother, Tom, was filming a documentary about the band, so I was a little surprised to be listening to Trouble Will Find Me so quickly, though I suppose albums kind of give birth when they’re ready. Were you expecting it so soon?
MATT BERNINGER: Bryce started sending me stuff pretty quickly after we stopped touring. But the whole idea was we weren’t going to even worry about it — it was just going to go on a shelf or into a folder for next year. But when he sent the music for the first song on the record, “I Should Live in Salt,” I think I wrote the melodies and half the lyrics in a few hours and sent it right back to him. That song was the one that was like, “Oh, we’re making a record. We’re in the middle of making a record already.” It’s kind of funny: the movie took probably a year longer than we wanted it to, but the record probably was finished a year before we expected to be. So it’s kind of lucky coincidence that they’re kind of hitting at the same time, but that was never the plan.
Trouble Will Find Me feels more ambitious than your last two albums. My ear isn’t the best, but I really liked the touches of Roy Orbison on songs like “Pink Rabbits.”
Yeah, on “Heavenfaced,” too. I had never really gone through a big Roy Orbison phase, and I was doing a lot of trying things, just stealing ideas. Orbison would actually never go back to any melody. On “In Dreams,” it just feels like every 20 seconds, that song becomes a new song. I think he’s got eight different parts in that that are never repeated. So “Heavenfaced” goes through like five different melodies. It never returns to a verse or a chorus. Also, he sang in, I think, four different octaves. It inspired me to try singing different things outside my baritone comfort zone. I bumped up an octave and suddenly the song suddenly became much more moving and emotional.
The band came together in Cincinnati, but you’re now recognized as the quintessential Brooklyn band, since that’s really where you made a name for yourselves. Does that feel like home?
We’re based in Brooklyn still, but we’re starting to realize this might be the last record that we’re sort of a “Brooklyn band” or whatever — although we never actually felt like that, you know? We also never really felt like a Cincinnati band. We’ve never identified quite with a place like that, although New York and Brooklyn have been backdrops and sort of muses for songs in many ways, and they will always be. New York is an endlessly fascinating and exotic place. Although by spending a few months in L.A. over the last year, I’ve started to be a little fascinated with L.A. in a different way too. This record, you’ll probably hear a couple more references to L.A. than even New York.
Making albums hasn’t always been this easy for the National. Aaron and Bryce have described the making of High Violet as a tense and anxious tug-of-war. Was this time around any smoother?
It was. It was very different from our other records, in that respect. We did not go to war, like we usually do. It wasn’t necessarily an easier process, meaning that we worked harder on this record and we spent more time refining and tweaking and trying different things. But for whatever reason, there was less fighting. I had so much fun writing, even the darker lyrics. Then when it came time to get together and lock horns over ideas, I think we had learned to respect each other’s ideas over the years. There was a certain amount of, “Okay, I’ll trust you on that idea, but you’ve got to trust me on this one.”
I remember a feature story in the New York Times where Bryan described the band’s dynamic this way: “Matt’s the dad. Scott’s the long-suffering wife. I’m the black-sheep uncle. Aaron and Bryce are the twin daughters who like to control their parents.” Have those roles changed or evolved since then?
I think that’s still kind of accurate. Although I would say if I am the dad of the thing, I think I’m more like the Chevy Chase type of dad. I have two different sides: I’m a lighthearted goofball, but I also have a very very dark side. But I understand how bands break up. It’s just hard to have five people working on the same stuff together and living together and trying to make these collective decisions over this thing that’s so important to all of them in different ways. We’ve almost broken up a bunch of times. Any band that sticks together for more than four or five years, I’m impressed with.
Michael Stipe said something about that: You’ll survive if you remember you guys were friends first before you were a band. And also, you’ll survive if you constantly remind yourself how lucky you are that people care about the rock songs you’re making in your bedrooms. It’s easy to forget how rare and special that is. It’s an amazing lifestyle, to be in a band; it’s also very twisted existence, especially when you’re trying to raise a family and have a healthy marriage. We’re figuring it out, and we’re lucky that we kind of got through some ugly periods and stuff.
NEXT: Berninger talks respecting failure and opening the Tribeca Film Festival
Some bands win the lottery and become famous overnight, but others, like the National, build slowly until they reach a point that almost feels like inevitability. Looking back, did everything happen the way it had to happen, or do you think you were ready for this eight or 10 years ago?
In those early years, there wasn’t an ounce of, “Hey this is a good way to do this!” But in reflection, I think we actually do see the value in the fact that we learned how to be a good live band, learned how to work together, and figure out our chemistry in the shadows. We’ve seen so many really brilliant bands — close friends and people we’ve toured with — explode overnight, and sometimes you can stumble after that.
I think most acts lament the breakdown of the music industry after everything went digital, but the new system has opened back doors, too. Do you think the National could’ve reached this level of success under the old system?
We wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the way that the music business changed. Bands like the National — and you could count 1,000 bands right now that are making a living off their rock songs that never would’ve been able to do that 15 years ago. The fact that there’s all these little fragmented pockets, and the digital democratization of people finding music, and good music sort of bubbling to the surface after awhile is why we exist, for sure. So that’s just another case of maybe being lucky to be our type of band at this phase in the music industry. We also don’t take for granted how lucky we are to have people buying tickets to come see us at rock venues. Because we did so many shows where there would be nobody there.
In your brother’s documentary, there’s actually a crucial scene about just that. That you sort of found your voice after a disastrous show at the Mercury Lounge, and things didn’t turn around until you made the decision to channel the anxiety, fear, and humiliation that you felt. Was that a difficult leap to make, since vulnerability isn’t the self-image most rock bands are aiming for?
It wasn’t simply like a light bulb went off and said, “Hey let’s write songs about being awkward or insecure or write songs about failure.” I’m not sure it was specifically changing what we do, but through the early years of the band, we sort of learned how to respect our own failure. I think Bryce says it really well in the movie, you know, 90 percent of what you do is either bad or overlooked. Life is mostly failure; it’s just what you turn that failure into it, I guess. You create your own luck, and I was happy that that was actually the point of the movie.
Mistaken for Strangers is unusual for a rock doc, primarily because its star isn’t really the band, but your younger brother, Tom, who tags along as a roadie. What did the other guys in the band say to you when you suggested Tom come along — with his camera?
They love Tom, and they also knew that maybe I needed somebody on tour to absorb some of my, you know, just crap, my stress. They knew that I had a baby at home — I was the only one at that point that had a kid at home — and I was very reluctant to do the amount of touring that we were going to do for High Violet. So they knew that maybe bringing Tom would be a way to make me tour more. And it worked. They were right. I loved having Tom around. He was somebody for me to lean on and vent to.
The movie quickly evolves into being more about your relationship with Tom and his struggle with himself to create something special.
He’s more of an easygoing guy than I am, and that’s great. In some ways, I wish I were more like him. He’s not as ambitious and driven as I am, but I think he sometimes would rather take the easy path just to avoid failure. He was always his own worst enemy. To be perfectly honest, [my family] was all a little worried about Tom, for a long time. You know, “What’s Tom going to do?” But coming on tour with us, he saw actually how hard stuff is and how much failure there is involved in every little moment of creative pursuits. None of the guys actually expected Tom to be making a real movie — and neither did I. They kept saying, “Where’s the movie? Just put it up on the website.” I kept trying to explain, “No, I think they’re actually going for something bigger than [just] a National movie. They were honestly shocked when they saw the final movie. It’s not just a fluff piece profile about the band or about the tour. It’s much more interesting that that.
And it opened the Tribeca Film Festival!
None of us were prepared for the Tribeca opening, honestly. It was the fanciest affair that I’ve ever been involved in. That movie premiere was a surreal and amazing experience. There’s my lovable f–kup brother, and he’s suddenly having lunch with Robert De Niro. Tony Gilroy and Kenneth Lonergan, heroes of ours, told Tom how much they loved the film. It’s hard to describe, but it was a moment of euphoria. I think Tom’s still a little shell-shocked.