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Is this any way to achieve arena-rock status? Um, yes, say The National.
Illustration by Sean McCabe
Bryan Devendorf moved back to Cincinnati in February, though he doesn’t have much time to enjoy the easy living of Hyde Park. That’s because Devendorf’s band, The National, is in the midst of an epic touring schedule: headlining appearances at Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, and this month’s Bunbury Music Festival, along with humongous international fests like Denmark’s Roskilde and Australia’s Splendour in the Grass.
Odd though it is to imagine, The National—a quintet of Cincinnati natives who spent the aughts grinding through stops at The Comet in Northside, Southgate House in Newport, and hundreds of other clubs on the indie circuit—have become an arena-rock band. “Just by circumstance, I guess,” Devendorf says, shrugging off the notion. “We don’t play arena rock.”
As the rooms have gotten bigger, The National in some ways has remained the same. They have not drastically revised their sound. Band members explain they’ve become one of the biggest bands in America by sticking to a schedule of relentless touring while honing a sound across a progression of reassuringly similar albums, each one better than the last. “We did the van tour, and then we did the tour with the trailer, and then the next step,” Devendorf says. “I guess incremental growth has made it seem natural, in a way.”
Maybe it feels natural, but it is definitely odds-defying. With an approach few big rock bands have tried before, The National builds credibility and shapes its identity through extracurricular one-off projects. Guitarists and twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner are most active in the public eye. Bryce, a master’s grad from the Yale music program, collaborates with the likes of Kronos Quartet, Sufjan Stevens, and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, musicians operating in a field that could be called high-art indie. These ambitious outside activities deftly rub off on the group’s cred, distinguishing them from other acts.
Trouble Will Find Me, The National’s sixth album, continues the each-better-than-the-last pattern. Matt Berninger’s crooning baritone breaks into higher notes more often now, and like a Morrissey 2.0, he has not run out of clever ways to frame a song with words that toggle between sad-sack and cheeky. There are more rock anthems built upon subtle textural layers of guitar, percussion, and electronic elements, and more odd time signatures.
“I guess it’s a weird mixture where we appreciate the sort of depth and complexity that comes with being able to score things out, but we also really love visceral, raw rock and roll,” Aaron Dessner says. “But we don’t sit around and talk about it.” Nothing, Dessner says, has been by careful design, including the band’s formation in New York over a decade ago, when the five transplanted Cincinnatians got together.
“We’re not ambitious in a calculated way, like the White Stripes, where there was a brand that Jack White was very careful about creating and perpetuating commercially,” he says. “We’re sort of a ragtag crew. There’s no master plan. We’re not the type of band that thinks of ourselves as rock stars. If anything we’re very normal.”
Dessner comes off a down-to-earth dude over the telephone, but how many other rock bands make a statement by playing the same song 105 times in a row six hours straight at the Museum of Modern Art like these guys did in May?
Maybe the most “normal” thing about the band—from a Midwest point of view—is that the drummer lives in Cincinnati. Devendorf, his wife, and two kids traded a 900-square-foot Brooklyn apartment for a house with a yard; now he can play his drums in his basement whenever he wants. He’s in the process of creating an album of white noise for babies. Last year he and Berninger recorded with Trey Anastasio. It’s part of the constant activity inside of the band and out. Aaron Dessner recently produced Sharon Van Etten and Local Natives in a studio behind his Brooklyn Victorian. Bryce was in Cincinnati in April for MusicNow, the festival he has curated since 2006. “We definitely see the benefit of all of the things that we’ve done,” Dessner says.
The most striking National project of all may be Mistaken for Strangers, an on-the-road documentary that scrutinizes the relationship between Berninger and his schlubby younger brother Tom, the filmmaker. The movie runs an emotional gamut from a shot of a nude Bryan Devendorf to Tom’s awkward Q&As with his parents, where they bluntly spell out how Tom is definitely not like his rock-star brother. It’s uncomfortable and moving, like a Matt Berninger song. Tom’s own preference in music leans to metal, but he grew to appreciate The National while making the film.
“They get accused of being too depressing or too dark,” Tom says. “They have fun songs that make you happy, but they also play songs that are kind of in a gray area. That’s why I like them. They connect with all sorts of people—from sports fans, family men, to indie-rock kids, to stay-at-home moms. They’ve got a strange following, and I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon.”
That’s not a bold prediction. With Trouble Will Find Me selling 75,000 copies in its first week, the only mystery concerns their ambiguous ambition. How big will it grow, and do they have the museum crowd or the sports fans and stay-at-home moms in mind?
The National, Inc.
The National headline the Bunbury Music Festival on July 14; other acts include fun., MGMT, Yo La Tengo, and dozens more. July 12–14, Sawyer Point, bunburyfestival.com
Big Box of Miserable
The band harbors hopes of releasing a vinyl box set of their six-hour marathon repetition of “Sorrow” that they played at the Museum of Modern Art in May. Proceeds will go to charity.
Spare Time Projects
This year, a film about Jack Kerouac called Big Sur premiered at Sundance with music by the Dessner brothers. And this fall, a piece by Bryce commissioned by Carnegie Hall will get its world premiere when he and So Percussion play it in New York City.
Originally published in the July 2013 issue.