The two-year-old Bunbury Music Festival takes place at Cincinnati, Ohio’s Sawyer Point, nestled on the edge of the Ohio River, just a footbridge away from the Northern Kentucky border. On paper, Bunbury’s bookings feel in line with the kaleidoscope of indie- embraced music gatherings that have come to define the so-called festival generation in recent years—a carefully curated, day-glo mix of garage rock, indie pop, psychedelia and hipster acts such as fun., MGMT, Belle and Sebastian, Divine Fits, Yo La Tengo and the event’s final act, and hometown heroes, The National.

Between the festival’s six stages, Bunbury is also a celebration of all things Cincinnati, including local delicacies like Christian Moerlein craft beer and the drunk-food classic Skyline Chili (the city’s trademark mix of spicy meat and spaghetti).

While The National technically rolled into Bunbury as part of a hefty tour behind their sixth full-length studio album, Trouble Will Find Me, released this past May, the event also served as a home- coming for the increasingly popular indie rock quintet whose members all grew up in Cincinnati and still embody the city’s Midwestern charm.

“Don’t remind me. It makes me nervous,” says bearded drummer Bryan Devendorf, who looks like the band’s lone rocker but is also among the group’s most laid-back members, as he relaxes in the festival’s artist area. “I’m going to get psyched out.”

“The city exists somewhere between the post-industrial wasteland of the Midwest—places like Detroit—and bigger Midwestern cities like Minneapolis and Pittsburgh— this seedy river city with a university,” muses the always inquisitive Aaron Dessner, one of The National’s identical twin guitarists and chief songwriters, a little later in the evening. “Sometimes, I come home and think, ‘This place is so fucked up,’ and sometimes, I come home and say, ‘This place is amazing.’”

A few hours before The National are about to take the stage, Bunbury’s backstage compound feels more like a family BBQ than a typical festival-style industry hang. The idyllic summer day recalls an innocent scene from The Wonder Years rather than a sequence from more glitzy urban shows like Gossip Girl, whose developers named their production company after The National song “Fake Empire.”

“There was nothing exceptional about our upbringing,” says Aaron’s brother Bryce, who is most distinguishable from his minutes-older twin by his bangs and his impressive classical music résumé. “We come from a place where people pride themselves on being humble, but beneath that veneer of modesty, things are just as complex here as anywhere else. I think that plays out in the songs—there are layers of humanity. We appear to come from these healthy Ohio families, but it is never that simple.”

Several members of those Ohio families are hanging out behind the stage that The National will headline. In one corner, the Dessner twins’ mom gives them a pep talk before they take the stage. In another, other band relatives are engaged in a rather competitive game of cornhole. The onlookers erupt into cheers when bassist Scott Devendorf’s wife shows off some serious beanbag tossing skills.

“I grew up on the west side, and the rest of the band grew up on the east side,” baritone- voiced lead singer and primary lyricist Matt Berninger points out shortly before their set, as he sips wine out of a red plastic Solo cup. While at home, he invited the rest of the band over to film a music video in his family’s backyard involving a Slip ‘n Slide. “The west siders always thought the east side was the snobby side, and the west side was sort of the wrong side of the tracks.” He pauses to laugh. “I grew up in an amazing, normal suburb but I like to pretend I grew up on the gritty side of town.”

What’s interesting is that despite everyone hailing from The Queen City, since forming in 1999—and especially after their acclaimed 2005 album Alligator—The National have come to embody Brooklyn indie rock. And for good reason. Their sound somehow manages to encapsulate two extreme forms of New York music— highbrow, Uptown art-rock and gritty, Downtown post-punk— and their albums are filled with elegant, sometimes brooding novellas of white-collar New York struggle. Outside the band, the Dessners have rightfully earned a reputation as the indie scene’s most connected set of brothers— thanks, in part, to their all-star Dark Was the Night album and concert as well as an association with the Brooklyn Academy of Music that includes organizing the Crossing Brooklyn Ferry festival.

“I think there’s a certain Midwestern quality to the band,” says Scott, the group’s most soft-spoken and reserved member, who happens to be wearing a T-shirt that he tie- dyed himself. “The band started in New York and then, everything we did formed around being in New York— being ambitious—but not in a way that was necessarily always productive. The work ethic of the band is very Midwestern.”

In many ways the origins of The National date to the late ‘80s when Bryan Devendorf befriended the Dessner twins through a Cincinnati middle-school basketball team. “We’ve had our tough patches personally in this band but the deep friendships, history and musical connections go way back,” Aaron says. “Our dispositions are very similar.”

In other ways, The National’s roots stretch even further. “Bryce and I shared the same room until we were 18 when we went to college,” he adds. “We’ve played music from when we were little boys. If this band ended, we’d still be doing something musical together. We are born collaborators and have always collaborated with each other and other people.”


Shortly after the Dessners started playing with Bryan, Berninger met the drummer’s older brother, Scott, at the University of Cincinnati. They moved to New York after college and started a music project as a distraction from their graphic design jobs. The band quickly grew to include Bryan and the Dessners, all of who found themselves transplanted in the Northeast after attending different universities.

However, despite their relatively close geographic proximity, the Dessners’ decision to attend separate schools broadened The National’s sound. “Bryce went to the Yale School of Music and got into very serious classical composition and classical guitar,” says Aaron, who studied Modern European History at Columbia University with an interest in Jewish History. “At the same time, I went to New York and all the music that was happening then was super edgy, early indie rock, and I got influenced by all of that. When we came back together, that combination of influences helped us evolve toward The National.”

Aaron looks over at his brother, who finishes his thought. “In some ways, we almost share a mind,” Bryce explains. “There are certain areas of avant-garde that only I know about but Aaron has access to them quickly. And vice versa. He has spent a lot more time writing loud rock songs and I can quickly inhabit that space with him.”

For many years, The National lived in the shadow of more manic indie stars who busted out of the gates much quicker. “We practiced right next to Interpol, and they sounded amazing through the wall, and it made us try harder to be a good band,” Berninger admits. “It took us longer to be a good band.”

“We used to deny that we were part of a music scene,” Aaron adds. “When the band formed, the first new wave of New York rock was happening with The Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and we felt very much on the outside. Then, something happened in 2004 or 2005 where a different kind of community came up.”

With each successive album—2005’s Alligator, 2007’s Boxer and a string of EPs and extracurricular activities—The National gained more ground and, finally, broke past the club and small theater barrier with 2010’s High Violet.

Aaron Dessner started sketching out ideas for Trouble Will Find Me before The National even wrapped up touring behind High Violet. While anchored at home following the birth of his first child, he started laying out instrumental ideas and sharing them with Berninger. The singer immediately gravitated to Aaron’s latest batch of songs and started working on them by the time The National resumed touring.

“There was no pressure to make a record and that opened things up in a way,” Aaron says. “We were writing a lot more sprawling, adventurous music with weird time signatures and Matt was embracing it. With High Violet, he wanted to keep things textual—with this record, there was all this stuff we hadn’t done as a band. It was exciting making this record—it was fun—though I always lose my mind in the details toward the end and I did this time, too.”

Bryce also contributed some song ideas and, a few months later, The National reconvened in Upstate New York to start working on Trouble Will Find Me. “It was a little less claustrophobic-sounding as far as the overall feeling of the record,” Scott adds. “We did a bunch of basic tracking Upstate and then, we did a lot of the nitty-gritty production at a studio in Brooklyn. That allowed us a little more freedom of movement—an open-ended, open feeling.”

“On the past records, [the Dessners] wouldn’t send me something unless they thought it was really, really interesting from an academic perspective. None of that ever mattered to me—I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference,” says Berninger, who does not play an instrument in the band. “This time, Aaron was sending me stuff that might have been a little less over-thought because he had just had a baby and was stealing hours away just to go back in the studio. We relaxed a little bit about what kind of band we were—what kind of image the band had. We didn’t really care as much about being ‘cool’ or ‘weird.’ There was a time when Aaron, and especially Bryce, cared about things like, ‘What would the Dirty Projectors think of this.’”

Trouble Will Find Me is The National’s most confident and outwardly straightforward record. Though the album contains some adventurous, left-field arrangements and nods to Bryce’s chamber music influence, the rough edges are encased in the band’s most power-pop-approved set of songs to date. They utilize guests like St. Vincent and Sufjan Stevens more for emphasis than star power. The album gently nods to the band’s fascination with New Wave and melodic indie rock, but never gets too brainy. “Don’t Swallow the Cap” could pass for a U2 arena-rocker, while

“I Need My Girl” is both one of the band’s most fragile and fluid numbers. “It was a combination of the success of High Violet and also having been a band for a long time now and really developing a live audience,” Bryce says of the group’s approach, “and also personal reasons of everyone being in a slightly better place and having more perspective on their lives. It was as hard as usual, we were just more patient with it.”

“I wasn’t worried about the lyrics being overly sentimental or if there were too many sad songs,” Berninger confides, taking a few sips of his wine and glancing over at his brother Tom, who is goofing around a few feet away. “That’s been our label for so long: ‘A sad, miserable, depressing guy.’ I understand why we get the dark, mopey, depressing thing. But our songs are funny a lot of times and there is a catharsis in digging into that dark stuff.”


The change also has to do with Berninger’s somewhat new lyrical approach. For many years, Berninger would jot down song ideas in a journal and assign them to the band’s music, but after 2007’s Boxer, he committed himself to a more album-oriented outlook. “I stopped writing lyrics without listening to the music,” he admits. “Once I stopped caring—not that I don’t work on the lyrics—but once I waited until much later in the process to start crafting the lyrics, I started having a lot more fun.”

“There is a healthy amount of cynicism and self-awareness,” Aaron says of their musical approach. “There are divas in the band, but it is 10 percent ridiculous that we are in a successful rock group. We didn’t form a rock band to be rock star —we did it because we like playing music. The bands we grew up idolizing weren’t the fashion-driven, super-cool bands. It was more of the bands anyone can be in— Pavement or the Grateful Dead.”

You wouldn't immediately guess it judging by their formal dress code and angular records, but both the Dessners and the Devendorfs have deep roots in the jamband world, especially the Grateful Dead scene. (Berninger describes himself as more of a brooding Smiths fan.) In fact, the Grateful Dead are actually a key part of The National’s genesis. “We got together at Bryan’s house and played [the Dead’s] ‘Eyes of the World’ for eight hours,” Aaron recalls of their first musical collaboration during their middle-school days. “Our first exposure to more ambitious music and more extended forms comes from the Dead,” his brother adds. “I remember realizing Jerry Garcia played guitar like a fiddle and thinking, ‘How do we play like that?’ That’s one of the reasons we got into learning how to play music.”

Though they kept their love of Phish and the Dead close to the vest for many years, as The National have become more certified indie-rock royalty, they’ve embraced their heady roots. In late 2011, Trey Anastasio sat in with the band during their residency at New York’s Beacon Theatre, and Berninger, Bryan and members of The National’s support band appear on the Phish guitarist’s 2012 album, Traveler. (The connection comes through longtime National studio associate Peter Katis, who produced Traveler.) “Trey sounded great, didn’t he?” Bryce says when Anastasio’s Beacon sit-in comes up. “It was surreal.”

He volleys the conversation to his twin who adds, “He played super quiet onstage but his tone was so him—you can instantly recognize it.”

Around the same time, Aaron and the Devendorf brothers led an indie-rock jam session with Bob Weir at his TRI Studios as part of a HeadCount benefit. They practiced intently for days and even convinced Weir to dust off a long-shelved Dead song, “My Brother Esau.”

“John Barlow thanked us for that, so that was a pleasure,” says a still-awestruck Scott, perhaps the band’s most knowledgeable Dead scholar, who regularly DJs Dead tunes on the The National’s tour bus.

And the group’s next studio project is actually a Dead tribute album that will benefit the AIDS charity Red Hot, an organization that Aaron has a long association with. The Devendorf brothers, who are quick to appoint themselves as the band’s biggest Deadheads, will “ghost curate” the project with the Dessners. They plan to work with members of Vampire Weekend, Bon Iver, Kurt Vile & the Violators, The Walkmen, The War on Drugs and others on an album that will feature a mix of all-star ensembles and featured guests.

“The way that we learned to play music and our fascination with complex song structures comes from obsessing over the Grateful Dead,” Aaron gushes. “We come back to it a lot—the ideas of experimentation and getting lost in sound and seeing what you can find.”

After the release of 2010's Billboard Top 10-charting High Violet, the members of The National drifted from their New York nucleus. Berninger moved to Venice, Calif., to be near his wife’s family; Scott recently pushed a bit further out of the city to suburban Long Island; Brooklyn-based Bryce spends a good portion of his time in a dark, wooded area of the Catskills; and Bryan moved home to Cincinnati earlier this year to “have a backyard.” Aaron still lives in the Ditmas Park neighborhood of Brooklyn where he runs a recording studio on his property.

They congregated back in New York numerous times this past spring for a series of pre-album release events that mirror The National’s extremes. In less than a month, they filmed a television special with strings at the ornate Park Avenue Armory, performed their song “Sorrow” 108 times in a row as part of an art exhibition staged at MoMA’s PS1 and, in a separate-but-equal world, barnstormed through three tiny club-size spaces tied to their early days.

Berninger’s also been busy promoting Mistaken For Strangers, his metal-head brother Tom’s documentary about
The National that came out this spring. The film, which finds first-time roadie Tom butting heads with The National and their crew on the road during their High Violet tour, is both a comedic stab at indie rock pretension and an insider look at
The National’s carefully structured image. (The film opened this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which afforded the band members the experience of walking the red carpet with Robert DeNiro, who introduced the film.)

“Even though it was unflattering to me in some ways, it was very unflattering to him,” Matt says of his brother’s film. “He was willing to show himself in such ugly and weak moments that I was fine with him showing me being an asshole occasionally. It became like, ‘Well, this is the stuff that is always in our songs’—the awkward under- belly of everybody’s psyches—and he started to pull back the layers.

“So many scenes, I remember saying, ‘Make sure you don’t put that in the movie,’ and that ended up being all the stuff that was in the movie,” Matt elaborates. “Like, when he is asking Bryan about drugs. Tom put it in the movie and Bryan loves it now.”

In many ways, Mistaken For Strangers centers around the relationship between siblings and, music aside, perhaps the key to The National’s success is the fact that the band is comprised of two sets of brothers and another longtime friend. At times, they bicker more than the average indie group—at one point, the Devendorfs joke that Berninger’s vehicle has arrived when a helicopter hovers above the festival—but the band also maintains a natural fraternal bond.

“Being family removes any of the falsehood of being in a collaborative rock band,” Bryce explains. “In our band, because we are family, we don’t hold back any opinions. We are able to be direct and honest with each other. It’s not that we are the most talented, but we have a real honesty. With bands, on some level, there is always this race against time: How long does the chemistry of a collaborative rock band remain interesting and relevant? So, for us, the fact that the chemistry still feels fresh and new is an exciting thing. We are embracing and enjoying it.”

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The National: Natural-Born Collaborators

by Mike Greenhaus on March 12, 2014

Shortly after the Dessners started playing with Bryan, Berninger met the drummer’s older brother, Scott, at the University of Cincinnati. They moved to New York after college and started a music project as a distraction from their graphic design jobs. The band quickly grew to include Bryan and the Dessners, all of who found themselves transplanted in the Northeast after attending different universities.

However, despite their relatively close geographic proximity, the Dessners’ decision to attend separate schools broadened The National’s sound. “Bryce went to the Yale School of Music and got into very serious classical composition and classical guitar,” says Aaron, who studied Modern European History at Columbia University with an interest in Jewish History. “At the same time, I went to New York and all the music that was happening then was super edgy, early indie rock, and I got influenced by all of that. When we came back together, that combination of influences helped us evolve toward The National.”

Aaron looks over at his brother, who finishes his thought. “In some ways, we almost share a mind,” Bryce explains. “There are certain areas of avant-garde that only I know about but Aaron has access to them quickly. And vice versa. He has spent a lot more time writing loud rock songs and I can quickly inhabit that space with him.”

For many years, The National lived in the shadow of more manic indie stars who busted out of the gates much quicker. “We practiced right next to Interpol, and they sounded amazing through the wall, and it made us try harder to be a good band,” Berninger admits. “It took us longer to be a good band.”

“We used to deny that we were part of a music scene,” Aaron adds. “When the band formed, the first new wave of New York rock was happening with The Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and we felt very much on the outside. Then, something happened in 2004 or 2005 where a different kind of community came up.”

With each successive album—2005’s Alligator, 2007’s Boxer and a string of EPs and extracurricular activities—The National gained more ground and, finally, broke past the club and small theater barrier with 2010’s High Violet.

Aaron Dessner started sketching out ideas for Trouble Will Find Me before The National even wrapped up touring behind High Violet. While anchored at home following the birth of his first child, he started laying out instrumental ideas and sharing them with Berninger. The singer immediately gravitated to Aaron’s latest batch of songs and started working on them by the time The National resumed touring.

“There was no pressure to make a record and that opened things up in a way,” Aaron says. “We were writing a lot more sprawling, adventurous music with weird time signatures and Matt was embracing it. With High Violet, he wanted to keep things textual—with this record, there was all this stuff we hadn’t done as a band. It was exciting making this record—it was fun—though I always lose my mind in the details toward the end and I did this time, too.”

Bryce also contributed some song ideas and, a few months later, The National reconvened in Upstate New York to start working on Trouble Will Find Me. “It was a little less claustrophobic-sounding as far as the overall feeling of the record,” Scott adds. “We did a bunch of basic tracking Upstate and then, we did a lot of the nitty-gritty production at a studio in Brooklyn. That allowed us a little more freedom of movement—an open-ended, open feeling.”

“On the past records, [the Dessners] wouldn’t send me something unless they thought it was really, really interesting from an academic perspective. None of that ever mattered to me—I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference,” says Berninger, who does not play an instrument in the band. “This time, Aaron was sending me stuff that might have been a little less over-thought because he had just had a baby and was stealing hours away just to go back in the studio. We relaxed a little bit about what kind of band we were—what kind of image the band had. We didn’t really care as much about being ‘cool’ or ‘weird.’ There was a time when Aaron, and especially Bryce, cared about things like, ‘What would the Dirty Projectors think of this.’”

Trouble Will Find Me is The National’s most confident and outwardly straightforward record. Though the album contains some adventurous, left-field arrangements and nods to Bryce’s chamber music influence, the rough edges are encased in the band’s most power-pop-approved set of songs to date. They utilize guests like St. Vincent and Sufjan Stevens more for emphasis than star power. The album gently nods to the band’s fascination with New Wave and melodic indie rock, but never gets too brainy. “Don’t Swallow the Cap” could pass for a U2 arena-rocker, while

“I Need My Girl” is both one of the band’s most fragile and fluid numbers. “It was a combination of the success of High Violet and also having been a band for a long time now and really developing a live audience,” Bryce says of the group’s approach, “and also personal reasons of everyone being in a slightly better place and having more perspective on their lives. It was as hard as usual, we were just more patient with it.”

“I wasn’t worried about the lyrics being overly sentimental or if there were too many sad songs,” Berninger confides, taking a few sips of his wine and glancing over at his brother Tom, who is goofing around a few feet away. “That’s been our label for so long: ‘A sad, miserable, depressing guy.’ I understand why we get the dark, mopey, depressing thing. But our songs are funny a lot of times and there is a catharsis in digging into that dark stuff.”

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