It’s been more than a decade since the five members of The National called Cincinnati home. In that time Matt Berninger, brothers Scott and Bryan Devendorf, and twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner have gone from aspiring garage band to one of the biggest names in alternative rock. They’ve recorded five albums and two EPs, been signed to an influential independent label, produced a well-received benefit compilation album (2009’s Dark Was the Night), and their most recent record, High Violet, debuted at number three on the charts last year. Today, the band’s dark, layered sound is instantly recognizable—in part because their song “Fake Empire” was used in an Obama campaign video. So when they came home this May to play Music Hall as part of guitarist Bryce Dessner’s MusicNOW Festival, it was pretty close to a triumphal return, complete with an audience brimming over with friends and family. The week after the Music Hall show, Berninger and Scott Devendorf took some time before resuming their world tour to talk about the local bands they kept their eyes on in college, their creative process, and how The National’s road to success began with a sparsely attended live show at the Corinthian Restaurant.
How did it feel to do a big show in Cincinnati after being away for so long? Matt Berninger: It was really fun. We hadn’t played here in a while. I mean, we did the Fountain Square thing [in 2008], but that wasn’t a proper show. Scott Devendorf: We’ve played kind of around the Midwest, but not in Cincinnati. MB: It was a nice way to play here after so long, especially doing it with Bryce’s festival. And Music Hall is such a beautiful space. We had so many friends and family there. It was really a meaningful show for us.
The National is one of several bands from the Cincinnati area that have found a national audience in the past 20 years. Was there something about growing up here in the ’80s and ’90s that contributed to that? MB: We were in college when Afghan Whigs broke through. I think they were one of the first bands to sign at [the seminal independent record label] Sub Pop. It gave us a sense that guys from Cincinnati can make it, you know? And not long after that there was Guided by Voices and The Breeders. Brainiac was tragically short-lived, but they were huge. People in New York still talk about Brainiac and what a major influence that band was. SD: There was a lot going on in the late ’80s into the ’90s, and there were a lot of clubs. And being around that was definitely an influence growing up. Even just playing a few of our own small, pitiful shows with our local band kind of helped. MB: We [Scott and Matt’s college band, Nancy] played at the Corinthian. That was one of our only live shows. In fact, we rented it out ourselves to play there. But there was a Cincinnati underground music scene with bands like the Tigerlillies and Lizard 99 and Throneberry and Over The Rhine. There was definitely a cool, underground rock scene. If it hadn’t been for that, I don’t know if we would have had the ambition to be a rock band.
You guys have taken artists like Sharon Van Etten under your wing. Was there anyone who did the same for you, or anyone who helped you start playing music? MB: I know that Sven Johnson, who was in Lizard 99, dated Aaron and Bryce’s older sister. He didn’t teach them to play guitar, but he taught them some things. Bryan took drum lessons from Steve Earle, the original drummer in Afghan Whigs, so there’s that kind of thing. SD: By the time we [Scott and Bryan] got to middle school, we were skateboarding a lot and listening to punk rock and it was like, “We want to play music.” It was sort of a little identity we had.
Matt, you didn’t play music growing up. How did you start writing lyrics and melodies? MB: There were four of us that were best friends at UC and I was the only one who didn’t play an instrument. I think they felt bad about starting a band, and wanted to give me something to do. So I sang about half the songs on the little record we did. Denny Brown, a member of Tigerlillies, recorded us in Cincinnati and the idea that I could make a record with my friends was the most exciting thing I’d ever done.
It seems like The National is now part of this larger community of musicians. Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver…. How did that community form? SD: We just found people we liked to work with who were nice and happened to be awesome musicians. I think of the band as a natural collaborator in a way. The band itself, there’s not a single songwriter. Matt writes the lyrics and the Dessners often come up with some music, but we sort of approach the making of the records as this collaborative process and I think that bleeds into how we interact with other people as well.
At what point did you realize that this group of friends playing “small, pitiful shows” could actually make it as a rock band? SD: It started as just something fun to do. We’d say, “Let’s make a record.” And then, “Let’s put out the record on our own label.” And then, “Let’s plan a tour.” We didn’t know exactly what we were doing, so I think any small accomplishment kept us going. MB: We were not a cool band when we started [in New York]. We practiced right next door to Interpol before they signed and blew up. So all around us we were seeing bands make it. Interpol and The Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and TV on the Radio were all just cool as hell. We weren’t swimming in the same waters as they were at that time. So seeing all these other bands, I remember thinking, Well shit, why can’t we do that? SD: When [our third album] Alligator got picked up by Beggars Banquet, it was sort of a big day. It was this English label and they had these cool bands. And we’re just a band from Ohio playing these shows and people are coming and that’s exciting. We always feel a little underdog-ish because we’re not a cool band.
You guys keep saying that, but you fill pretty big venues with people who think you’re cool. Has that attitude helped to push you? SD: I think it does. We’re always trying to do it better. We just want to make the next good record. There’s always going to be someone who says we need to sell more records or be more successful, and that’s not really a concern to us. We’ll say, “We gotta do a little better next time.”
When you look back on that Nancy record or at the Cherry Tree EP, do you recognize aspects of the writing or music that have remained consistent? MB: Definitely. I do think I became a better writer, a better singer, better at melodies. But I’m not embarrassed at all by those records. Even though the record we did with Nancy had references to the Millennium Falcon and some very goofy, silly things on it, I’m still really proud of [it]. SD: I really like all the records. I especially like the first record [The National]. I recognize the writing process. It’s different than it is now, but I think we were trying to find a sound for the band. You can definitely hear the way that we played together and the way that we made records develop over time. Now we’re talking about how we’ll start working on a new record soon.
Do you know what you want the next album to sound like? SD: Next time we’re talking about trying to write and learn songs together [before recording], because that part is always kind of abstract, like a collage process. I don’t think we exploited all the aspects of having our own studio [built to record High Violet]. I think we just learned how to use it, basically, and did a lot of good work with it. So we’re talking about trying to rent a space and work together for a couple weeks to play the stuff live. But we’ll see if that happens.
Are there records you hear that make you wish you had written them or that make you wish you could write like that artist does? MB: Most records I listen to are like that. For example, this recent Kurt Vile record. It’s just so effortless, it makes me think, Why do I think so hard about stuff? The truth is I bet it caused Kurt Vile the same amount of stress, but the delivery of it sounds like it was effortless. People around us are raising the bar all over the place and it’s very motivating. Music now is in a really healthy place. There are so many people who are able to find an audience without having to conform to anything.
Has that freed you up to make music you wouldn’t otherwise make? MB: If we don’t love the song on a deeper level, we’re not going to put out a record. Trying to chase hits or some style or approach because it seems to be working for other bands never does any band any good. One of our greatest fears is not knowing what we like. I think that happens to a lot of artists—losing touch with their own sense of what makes a good song or not. That will probably happen to us at some point. And putting out a bunch of songs on a record, just rolling the dice, I don’t know if that’s good. I know we haven’t done that yet. Every song we’ve put on a record, whether people end up liking it or not, I knew I liked it. That’s the only game plan or writing plan or success strategy that we’ve ever had. And it’s worked so far.
Illustration by John Ritter
Originally published in the July 2011 issue.