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For its first album in four years, the National moved upstate, experimented with electronics and completed its long climb to the top of indie rock
Story by Matthew Fritch
Photo by Gene Smirnov
“I don’t make it back to the house much anymore.”
If you believe him, Matt Berninger has been living outdoors for the last four days on a farmland property called Long Pond in New York’s Hudson Valley. A few hundred feet behind the farmhouse there is an actual pond, a skinny strip of still water surrounded by reeds, and a small, square wooden dock. The curiously pale Berninger is sitting on the dock barefooted and wearing shorts and a T-shirt with a floppy straw hat and sunglasses; he looks like old Huckleberry Finn or, less romantically, like a beach-vacation dad. A bullfrog croaks from the sedges along the edge of the water.
“I named him Drake after ‘Signs’ came out,” says Berninger. “Because he just sits there and does nothing.”
A sick, and au courant, burn from the brambles of the modern world. Berninger is periodically resupplied with scrawny joints and cans of La Croix, and he pees in the bushes. After an hourlong conversation with MAGNET, he strips off his shirt, dives into the murky pond water and is not seen again until the next day.
Not all of these outdoorsy details are accurate—let’s say there are a couple dozen truths and one lie—but a few things should be made clear and real: Berninger is the singer for the National, and he is a full-time, punch-the-clock rock star. Over the past 15 years, his world-weary baritone and lyrics have given voice to America’s 21st-century decline (“Fake Empire”), embodied our collective sense of paranoia (“Afraid Of Everyone”) and ordered a woman named Karen to “put me in a chair, fuck me and make me a drink.” Somewhat reductively, he is indie rock’s Don Draper: a late bloomer, a Midwesterner who came to New York City to make his name, a mercurial talent with some manageable self-destructive tendencies. So far, however, he hasn’t revealed a secret past or an adulterous nature—although he may sing about them.
In this return to nature, Berninger is temporarily joined on the dock by the Devendorf brothers, Bryan and Scott—the National’s drummer and bassist, respectively. Bryan is the tall, impossibly skinny, bearded one with oversized sunglasses and a trucker hat; he is dryly funny and easy to engage in a conversation about the Bee Gees or Al Capone. Scott, the older of the Devendorf brothers, is almost entirely silent. When asked if he’d like to say a bit more for the record, Scott will shrug and sheepishly reply, “Not talking is good.”
Together with Berninger, the Devendorfs come across as the outdoor cats to the National’s other set of brothers, identical twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner. Aaron owns the Long Pond property and oversaw the building of the studio; he lives in the farmhouse and produced the band’s seventh album, Sleep Well Beast (4AD).
The National are having a moment, however unassumingly, at the top of whatever is left of serious rock music. The National’s career in 2017 is, in various ways, an echo of Wilco circa Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002), Radiohead circa Kid A (2000) and R.E.M. at various points a decade before them. Sleep Well Beast arrives four years after its predecessor and is notably shaded by electronic beats and squiggles but is unmistakably the five members of the National at work: an elegant, melancholy cathedral built for guitar-driven rock, with Berninger as its louche, low-voiced cantor. If you were to pile up the accolades, it would be apparent that it may not be possible for the band to get more critically acclaimed. In this time of deep American division, we may never agree again on anything the way we agree on the National.
In the face of such grand proclamations and great expectations, Bryan Devendorf utters the most practical, Midwestern, National-esque thing, and it hangs in the air like a mild scolding.
“I feel like we should be practicing more,” he says.
One advantage of having your own studio out in the country is the low crime rate. When the National rented a rehearsal space on Ninth Street in Brooklyn, a kid on the street outside randomly punched Bryan Devendorf in the face. It’s just one of a long list of indignities the band endured in its early days. What puts the National’s slow start into sharper relief is the fact that, before inhabiting the Ninth Street room—the face-punching one—the band occupied a practice space in Williamsburg in the early 2000s where its neighbors were Interpol and TV On The Radio, both of which were immediately and massively successful. Keeping up with the Joneses, never mind the Strokes, was never so demoralizing.
“We weren’t that great,” says Berninger. “We weren’t good enough to be listened to widely.”
Over the course of the late ’90s and early ’00s, the band members trickled into New York City from various colleges and employment outposts, but all five grew up in the middle-class suburbs of Cincinnati. Berninger and Scott Devendorf played in a college garage band called Nancy, while Bryan and the Dessners played middle-school basketball and, later, some of their own music.
Far from being a Middle American teenage wasteland, Ohio at the time was home to a fertile indie-rock scene that included local talent such as Brainiac, the Breeders, Guided By Voices and the Afghan Whigs. Bryan—whose musical tastes also veered toward the Grateful Dead—took drum lessons from Afghan Whigs drummer Steve Earle.
“We had a big thing that if (Afghan Whigs singer) Greg Dulli could be a rock star, then anyone could,” says Berninger. “And he was. I remember reading somewhere about him drinking tequila out of a high-heel shoe. And then a school teacher from Dayton (GBV’s Robert Pollard) put out Bee Thousand and changed the chemistry of rock ’n’ roll music. In the ’90s, Southern Ohio was way cooler than New York or Brooklyn.”
By 1999, everyone in the National but Bryce, who was studying classical music at Yale, was living in New York City, and they began to coalesce around making eight-track recordings in Berninger’s Brooklyn loft. On paper, Berninger was a dot-com millionaire. He parlayed his design degree from the University of Cincinnati into a job making websites for pharmaceutical companies and moved up to the position of creative director at an ad agency. (The Don Draper parallels don’t go away easily.) In 2001, the National’s forgettable self-titled debut was released on Brassland, a record label founded by the Dessners and college friend Alec Bemis.
“I didn’t even realize we were making a band back then,” says Aaron. “It was fun, we were drinking some beer. There wasn’t much thought put into the first record.”
When asked about the world’s reaction at the time to The National, Bemis is blunt: “Nothing. There was nothing. People were intrigued, but the band wasn’t touring. They had day jobs. (NYC record store) Other Music took a couple of the records on consignment.”
It’s difficult to know what, exactly, kept the National together in its low-key pursuit of a music career, but one theory is that life started to knock the guys around a little bit. The tech economy imploded, and Berninger had to lay off the staff he’d hired. There was heartbreak (“I dated a girl for three weeks that I was crushed by,” recalls Berninger) and, of course, the traumatic aftershocks of September 11.
“I think in that post-9/11 period, there was a lot of flailing around, throwing care to the wind,” says Bryan. “Heavy drinking every night.”
“I was a loner drinker,” says Berninger. “Two packs of cigarettes and some pizza and a 12-pack. I’d listen to Nick Cave and be depressed and write lyrics.”
Somehow, the band coalesced around Berninger’s bleak lyrics. Bryce had arrived from Yale to join the band officially, and the formerly sleepy New York City music scene began to stir. When the National issued Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers in 2003, this group of 30-ish-year-olds was competing for attention with a largely younger and more beautiful set of local contemporaries: the Strokes, Interpol and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, among others. The National, meanwhile, had an image crisis—or a lack of one—that plagues the band to this day.
“Our style was Pavement,” says Berninger. “Pavement looked like they just didn’t care. They would wear parkas and shorts onstage. We were also desperate. There were a couple photo shoots where scarves were involved. Drawstring pants and espadrilles are starting to creep into our style now. None of us could ever get on the same page. I mean, look at [Bryan]. I wear suits and Bryan wears cutoff sweatpants. Whenever we try to create a sort of playbook, it’s never worked.”
Berninger is dismissive of Sad Songs. “It was like looking in different windows and often finding nothing much to look at,” he says. But it was a distinctive, dark voice—Berninger’s craggy baritone ranges from a croak to a howl—among all the brighter lights at the time.
“That’s when we started to get hungry again, with Sad Songs and going to see all these other bands,” says Berninger. “The Strokes’ record had come out. We knew at least not to try to be any of those bands. Sad Songs is us desperately trying to avoid being one of the 50 bands that copied the Strokes and Interpol.”
Says Bryan, “We were often just avoiding things.”
The Dessners, in particular, began to realize that a rising tide in the New York music scene could lift all boats, and they redoubled their efforts to both network with other bands and focus on the permanence of their own recordings. A recurring dynamic in the National is that the Dessner twins—not to make them sound un-fun—are relentlessly, yet quietly, driven.
“I remember Bryce and I having specific conversations around the time of Sad Songs and just afterward that, ‘If we’re going to make a song we have to feel really confident about the music, otherwise we’re going to get stuck with it,’” says Aaron. “It was kind of like, ‘Let’s not give Matt anything unless we’re confident we can do something with it.’ And that’s when we got more thoughtful.”
2004’s Cherry Tree EP was partially recorded at Bryan Devendorf’s house by his wife, and it is the rare case when you can hear a band snap into focus over the course of five new songs. It begins with the sound of sleigh bells, shaking open “Wasp Nest,” and Berninger sleepily sings, “You’re cussing a storm in a cocktail dress.” All of a sudden, the National has miles of style—and it’s persistent, continuing to the audacious “All The Wine” and the best, most provocative metaphor of 2004: “I’m a birthday candle in a circle of black girls.”
“With Cherry Tree, the gene strain started to mutate,” says Berninger.
The momentum carried over to 2005’s Alligator (which wisely reprised “All The Wine”), widely considered to be the National’s breakout album. Just as the hype from the Strokes and Interpol died down, this smoldering underdog made permanent marks. The band scored with anxious rock anthems (“Abel,” “Mr. November”) and surreal, orchestral laments (“The Geese Of Beverly Road”). A sophisticated and nervously energetic album that evoked watershed moments from the Pixies, Smiths and R.E.M., Alligator made almost everything else at the time seem like children’s music.
After Alligator, there is a long middle section to the National’s career. It arcs upward, slowly but steadily, carefully burnishing the band’s sound into deeper shades of perfection. Maybe too perfect—the band’s last two albums, High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me, almost resemble museum pieces: artful, chiseled, but somehow distant. Could the inscrutable National exhaust us with its greatness? A 2013 Slate article (“Why I Hate The National”) finally fired a shot across the bow: “The National makes me feel that rock music, like much of American literature and visual art before it, has died and gone to graduate school.” It should be noted that, near the end of the piece, the author acknowledged that he may need psychological therapy.
“We haven’t been shit on enough,” says Berninger. “That’s the funny thing—it always does happen, eventually. Dylan has made some of the worst records anyone’s ever made. He has. But he’s also made five or 10 of the best ones ever made.”