The National: High Anxiety
It’s the day after The National plays New York City’s Radio City Music Hall and the group’s lead singer, Matt Berninger, is sitting inside Jimmy’s Corner, a boxing bar located a few blocks south from the venue. The walls feature images of famous fights and portraits of boxers with their gloves up. The small tables in the back are adorned with faded images of the bar’s patrons on their tops. It’s mid-afternoon.
“I’m glad that it’s behind us,” he says of the Radio City gig. “The anxiety of a show like that kind of floats over it for a while. We have a lot of shows to do, but that was a big deal.”
Anxiety is a key part of the singer’s creativity, both onstage and off. “We’ve begun to learn how to embrace it and even allow the anxiety to become part of the show,” he says.
Typically a quintet of musicians plays surrounding Berninger onstage—identical twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner (guitars), brothers Bryan and Scott Devendorf (drums and bass, respectively) and a touring keyboardist—while he sings earnestly with his eyes closed, a rhythmic, husky tenor of a voice billowing out over the audience. In between verses, he’ll often zigzag around the stage in fits and starts, hands clutching his upper arms as he paces between imaginary walls like a mental patient in a padded cell.
The physicality of his performances plays to the songs’ inherent worries. “The songs are about things that are filled with unresolved tensions that need to have some sort of solution, whether it’s a sonic explosion, scream or swelling string moment,” he offers. “That’s what these songs need—it’s their nature.”
Five albums in—the most recent, High Violet was released in May and charted at No. 3 on The Billboard 200 chart—The National have learned to trust their instincts despite their rather laborious nature. But it took two records, an EP and a change in attitude to get there.*****
The five members of The National hail from Cincinnati. The Dessners met Bryan Devendorf in middle school while playing basketball. Bryan had already taken up drumming and the brothers were both playing guitar. “I started drum lessons at the local music shop and my first teacher was Steve Earle who was in the band Afghan Whigs but left after the album Gentlemen,” says Bryan. “I’d never heard of the Afghan Whigs and I went to see him play. I realized you can go from the practice room to the bandstand—it’s a real endeavor.”
Scott and Bryan played the Dessner’s junior high dance in a band called Pale Faced Jimmy. By high school, Bryan was making music with the twins in a band called Equinox, which played a lot of Allman Brothers Band and Grateful Dead covers and featured the singing and saxophone playing of Kevin Seal who is now the executive producer at Internet radio site Pandora. (Earlier this year, Seal told The Indiana Musical Archive, “Equinox sounded a bit like Traffic. Sorta jammy and the product of listening to a lot of Phish and classic rock radio.”)
The twins and Bryan continued making music in college in a band called Project Nimh with three musicians from New Orleans. “It was a formative experience,” says the drummer of the band. “It was a way to keep the dream alive and kept the torch burning.” It dissolved around 1998.
Meanwhile, Scott and Berninger met and formed a band called Nancy while studying art at the University of Cincinnati. After graduation, they moved to New York City for graphic design jobs. Bryan had moved to the city too, pursuing work as an editor at the publisher Soho Press. Bryce was teaching guitar in the city as well while Aaron was nearby at Yale University working at the Holocaust Archive. Scott and Matt wanted to make more music but needed a drummer, so Scott called his brother. Bryan then called Bryce who called Aaron. And The National was born in 1999.
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