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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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