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The National: Natural-Born Collaborators

by Mike Greenhaus on March 12, 2014

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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