My interview with The National for The Skinny
Cool, calm and collected: The National cut refined figures amongst the indie fraternity. The Brooklyn quintet's principal songwriters Matt Berninger and Aaron Dessner talk humble beginnings and reveal how accurate a depiction that really is
It’s almost two months before The National unleash their fifth album, High Violet. Matt Berninger and Aaron Dessner have been fielding questions in their homeland for over a week, but as they touch down in London to confront the UK press, you could never tell. The pair are gracious, enthusiastic and unerringly polite. “We worked on the record for a year and a half so we’re happy to talk about it now,” explains front man Berninger, his trademark baritone registering only slightly north of 8Hz. But The National didn’t get to where they are today through any lack of patience. Their formative years were spent moving from town to town, playing to handfuls of punters, living in squalor.
“I remember staying in a really nasty hostel in Glasgow in 2001,” says multi-instrumentalist Dessner. “We came back from our show to find all these drunken backpackers and one of them had put all their wet underwear on Matt’s pillow. We didn’t sleep much that night. I don’t know that we would do that again, but we earned our success one fan at a time. It taught us to convert whoever was in the room, even though there were often more people in the band than in the crowd.”
Berninger laughs when he’s reminded of those times. “It was a means to an end,” he says. And from humble beginnings great things come: these days, The National are the hottest ticket in town. High Violet is the must-hear indie release of the year, and it doesn’t disappoint. The band have produced another stonewall classic – on their terms – and both Berninger and Dessner are confident that it’s the most accomplished record in their canon.
“I think it’s completely unlike anything we’ve ever done,” Berninger assures, “which is what we want to do. It’s definitely our most ornate, layered and complicated piece; the weaving of the horn and string in and out of the ugly fuzzy guitar tones gives a delicate friction and balance and it was our intention to try to marry these to see what kind of alchemy it would create. I think we were more confident to try things we’ve never done before. Anyone’s Ghost is our first real pop song and a lot of the songs have more of a pop feel than what we’ve done previously. In the past, anything that sounded like a pop song, we just threw it away. This time we followed our impulses and weren’t so worried about being cool. I definitely think it’s our best record.”
The confidence the band are imbued with is fully justified. Having announced themselves on the scene with the underrated Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers in 2003, the Cincinnati via Brooklyn five-piece made a huge splash with 2005’s Alligator, an acclaimed album high on emotion and rich in melody. Commercial success followed, too, with 2007’s Boxer, a more restrained, but no less enjoyable record. High Violet, bound to be deemed the most accessible of their releases to date, is unlikely to result in superstardom, but firmly establishes The National as one of the most upwardly consistent bands of their time.
“You can see that what we’re doing in terms of trajectory is not completely random,” says Berninger when asked whether he sees a pattern in their discography. “It weaves one way and then back the other way, all the while moving generally forward; forward to the right, forward to the left. Boxer is very different from Alligator and in some ways we went the opposite direction. Boxer was circumspect and Alligator had lots of screaming. That was intentional; we didn’t want to back ourselves into a corner of being the band with the guy screaming over the top of everything. We cautiously tried to undo our identity at least on that level. This time – I think by doing that – we broke the mould of what people’s idea of what we were was. We diluted it enough so that we could do whatever we wanted. It gave us the freedom to do things like a pop song and have some ugly, jerky sounds and not have everything so pristine and stately as it was on Boxer.”
Their success is all the more remarkable when you consider that Berninger, whose voice – along with the idiosyncratic drumming of Bryan Devendorf – is the most distinctive asset in the band’s armoury, didn’t even realise he could sing until he was in his late twenties. But as any fan of the band will tell you, they broke the mould when they made The National. They tend not to conform to any Rock God stereotype, either musically or personally.
Much of the new album is built upon complex arrangements, layers of keys and guitars augmented with lush, yet unpretentious orchestration. Dessner puts it best when he admits: “We don’t start out thinking ‘This is going to be a sophisticated rock record’ – it’s just the way it goes.” There’s a perceived effortlessness to The National’s sound which places them head and shoulders above many of their peers, seeing them straightforwardly depicted as elder statesmen: wise, unruffled and judicious. Lyrically, too, their songs stand apart from indie rock standards. Berninger’s inkwell is habitually filled with paradoxes: abstract, yet vitriolic; remote, but evocative.
“I don’t write songs line by line,” he explains. “I just write about whatever feels important or the things I’m obsessing over. Sometimes I’m delving into the same dark corners that I have in the past. I don’t say, ‘I want a song about restaurants in the Mid West’. I don’t think that way. I don’t say, ‘I want a song that talks about the rain in England’. I never try to make a clear narrative, it’s more a very blurry train of thought and they can be very hard to connect. Sometimes I wonder if it’s better not to connect them.”
In conversation, too, both Dessner and Berninger have an air of seemliness that many in their profession can’t begin to emanate. Their responses are well-considered and conclusive; they are passionate about what they do and give the impression that they’d happily talk all day about it. But they casually dismiss any notions we have that they are overly refined. “I’m good at the drinking but don’t have a significant palate. I just have a powerful thirst,” says Matt, when it’s suggested he recommend The Skinny a good Merlot. “When I go to a restaurant I pretend to know what I’m doing but I usually order the least expensive. There’s the classic thing that everyone does in ordering the second least expensive bottle on the menu, but that’s where they put the wine they’re trying to get rid of, so I go for the least expensive. It’s mostly better than the other one. People are embarrassed by ordering the cheapest, but it’s usually better than you think.”
The National have come a long way since taking fetid digs in Glasgow, a sentiment highlighted by a recent show at the Royal Albert Hall. But their progress, their excellence and their increasing popularity are tempered with a modesty that’s begotten from a gradual ascent. “Our lives are a lot more comfortable and we’re lucky to be able to survive completely off what we want to do,” says Dessner. “But I could never forget those early days and how tough it was, probably not even if I tried.”