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The National: Natural-Born Collaborators

by Mike Greenhaus on March 12, 2014

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.”

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