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The National: A New York Institution

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“The city for me has always been this Oz, this weird, slightly out-of-reach world,” Matt Berninger, 42, says from the backseat of a Town Car. His gaze shifts to the rain-speckled rear window as the driver merges onto the FDR. It’s half past noon. “When I first moved here, Scott [Devendorf] and I and like three other people from our school shared a studio apartment where we all slept in sleeping bags on the floor on East 60th, right underneath the Queensboro Bridge. I was just walking around the first week and I looked down the street, and I saw that bench and that lamppost from Woody Allen’s Manhattan. All of a sudden there was that movie poster.”

Behind his trendy new crystal frames are a pair of eyes that yearn for a pillow — if only his schedule permitted. It’s press time for The National frontman, who’s out supporting the band’s sixth studio album, Trouble Will Find Me. Thirty-five minutes ago, he and his bandmates finished their first AMA on Reddit upstairs at Aaron Dessner’s Brooklyn home. Thirteen hours prior to that, they closed a promotional 20-song set at the industrial Park Avenue Armory. Two days before, they performed High Violet’s “Sorrow” for six hours straight as part of Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s installment, A Lot of Sorrow, at the MoMA PS1. Now, he’s taking a breather backseat, ruffled and drenched from the outside storm, as we’re racing uptown for a spot on Q-CBC Radio. In the distance, the Manhattan Bridge looms in the fog.

“New York was almost always that way,” Berninger continues. “Even when I look at it now, I’m in a Scorcese movie. I don’t feel natural here. I feel a suspension of reality. I think that’s what’s so amazing about this city; it’s a muse, and it’s a fantasy place. It’s just such a romantic, strange city that’s always a part of the songs.”

A brush through The National’s discography walks you down endless streets that wind through Chelsea, Bowery, Flatbush, Sutton Place, Bayside. Berninger’s written a number of his melancholy anthems around the five boroughs, whether it’s the regretful pains within “Daughters of the Soho Riots”,  or “waiting for Radio City to sink” on “Little Faith”, or feeling the haunting paternal struggles of “Val Jester”, or losing identity “So Far Around the Bend”. These are New York songs.

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Berninger has lived in Brooklyn for 17 years. In 1996, he left his hometown of Cincinnati, OH, alongside bassist Scott Devendorf, who he met while attending the University of Cincinnati, and the two pursued similar careers in graphic design to much success.

“None of us came here to be in a band necessarily,” Berninger admits. “We’re just drawn to New York the way people are. I think we’re very representative of so many people of this city because so many weren’t born and raised here.” The father of a four-year-old daughter, Isla, and husband to former fiction editor for The New Yorker, Carin Besser, Berninger has created a life for himself in the Empire City, yet he doesn’t consider it home.

“I can’t say that I feel like I’m at home in any city. I don’t think of a place as being home. It’s basically wherever my wife and daughter are. So, if they’re on the tour bus, then I kind of feel like I’m at home.”

Aaron Dessner, 37, is on the phone ordering carryout and insists I taste the chicken fiesta wrap. He’s just finished his interview with Q-CBC Radio, and both he and Matt are itching for food. It’s a little after two, the Upper East Side echoes with sirens, the sidewalks are stained with rain, and the heat is rising from the streets. Aaron needs to find a cab, Matt needs to find a cab, and we all need to retreat to Brooklyn.

“I moved [from Cincinnati] to New York in 1994 because I went to Columbia,” Dessner tells me once we’ve found a proper backseat. The heat’s slightly distracting, leaving us to fumble with the passenger windows. The way the sun reflects on the guitarist’s hair makes him look like a young, pre-Corvette Summer Mark Hamill.

“In 1999, The National formed and we made a record over the next two years, but it wasn’t an ambitious beginning.”

If anyone knows “ambitious,” it’s Dessner. Both he and his twin brother, Bryce Dessner, who also plays guitar, have kept their resumes prolific with an assortment of outfits, collaborations, projects, and benefits. They’re co-founders of Brassland Records, curators of the annual Crossing Brooklyn Ferry festival, and have performed alongside several world renowned orchestras, including the Copenhagen Philharmonic, the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, and the American Composers Orchestra.

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In 2009, the two spearheaded the Dark Was the Night benefit compilation, which has since raised millions of dollars toward AIDS charities. They’ve also supported artists onstage such as David Byrne, Arcade Fire, Feist, Grizzly Bear, Justin Vernon, and My Brightest Diamond. More recently, however, Aaron has become a popular producer, manning critically acclaimed albums for Sharon Van Etten (2012’s Tramp) and Local Natives (this year’s Hummingbird).

“It was casual,” Dessner continues without batting an eye, “It was basically an excuse to drink beer with Matt, Scott, and Bryan [Devendorf] after work. We had a friend who had an 8-track, and I would just pick up a guitar and play a few chords. Matt would record and just sing over it. And then Bryan would drum to it, and we would make that a song.” He pauses, then adds: “It wasn’t like we got to New York and said here’s the master plan. It’s happened over a long period of time.”

This was The National’s humble beginning: just a spark. Throughout my discussions, each member notes that their first two records — 2001’s The National and 2003’s Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers — were more or less an experimental phase for the outfit.

As Devendorf, 40, tells me on the phone weeks beforehand: “We just spent a lot of time working, recording, and touring just because it was something that was fun to do. Touring actually became a gentlemen’s vacation club — let’s go somewhere and get paid — where we booked everything out to some degree of successes and failures.” He insists that once The National were invited overseas, specifically in France, it changed everyone’s outlooks on what this band could be.

They still had miles to go. Long before “Mr. November” stormed concert halls and festivals, critics slotted 2007’s Boxer on their year-end lists, and President Obama adopted “Fake Empire” for his 2008 Vote for a Change campaign, The National played their anthems to no one, hardly living up to their moniker.

“One time we got paid not to play in Orange County — literally no one came,” Berninger says earlier in our ride together. “There was not a single person there, drinking or doing anything. The bartender said, ‘I’ll still pay you, and we can all go home early.'” He shakes his head, smiling, lost in thought before adding: “We did a show in Akron where the only person there was Patrick Carney from The Black Keys; we were both very unknown bands at the time. He stood about three feet in front of me the whole show.”

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It was a different age: a time when the digital tastemakers hadn’t yet found the spotlight, as they would in the mid-to-late aughts. “We were never a band that basically ‘arrived’ as many do today,” says Devendorf. “Some bands come seemingly out of nowhere with a ‘hot single’ on the Internet, which is something that we didn’t do, nor did we have the technology to do so.”

A decade later, Berninger now considers these times the growing pains of being in a rock band, a job he considers “more humiliating in some ways than it’s glorifying,” concluding: “I’ve always felt performing to be cathartic, like swimming in freezing ice water can make you feel alive, but it’s also a large dose of feeling uncomfortable and feeling like a fool and feeling silly.”

As the afternoon ages, the sun wrenches through the clouds, and with it more heat. It’s still bumpy on the FDR, and Dessner’s head bobbles as the abandoned Domino Sugar Factory can be seen across the East River. We don’t talk much about the earlier records, but Dessner points to their 2004 Cherry Tree EP as the moment where “the alchemy of The National really started to appear.” He adds, “We made a rule around then that we wouldn’t write a song to something that we weren’t really confident about musically.”

This is why they’re still around.

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There’s a heightened sense of confidence surrounding their latest work, Trouble Will Find Me, and it’s something each member exhibits in all of our interviews. Self-produced with mixing by longtime collaborator Peter Katis, the album was recorded across three separate studios: Paul Antonell’s analog Clubhouse in Rhinebeck, NY; Jerry Marotta’s legendary Dreamland Studios in the Upper Hudson River Valley; and the comfortable confines of Aaron’s now very popular garage.

“The whole process of making this record was actually very fun for me,” Berninger explains. “We spent more time on this than any of our records so far, but it was never a stressful struggle.” This comes as a surprise; their last record, 2010’s High Violet, stemmed from a series of conflictive recording sessions that came down to the very end of the wire, as outlined in full color by The New York Times’ Nicholas Dawidoff in his 2010 expose, The National Agenda.

When I remind him of those sessions, Berninger explains the difference: “I think part of it was that we didn’t have any deadline. We didn’t even have any concrete plan of making a record. I was just singing away without worrying about lyrics, without worrying about how much time I have to finish this song. Does this song need to be done in two weeks or two years? It didn’t matter. So for me, it was a really pleasurable vibe.”

That wasn’t exactly the case for Dessner.

“The genesis of some of the songs was easier, but I would say that actually recording the record and making something that felt finished and felt like it had found the right tone and the right place was as hard as ever,” he digresses. “I definitely lost my mind for a lot of it, especially the last month.” His work on Trouble dates back to September and October of 2011, when the band’s touring behind High Violet started to wind down. With plenty of time on his hands, he began tracking material for himself, not really thinking of Berninger or The National.

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However, before they returned home, Dessner shared a playlist with Berninger in November 2011 during their Asian tour. “There was something about that early stuff that just really struck a chord with him. [It was] kind of like the beginning of the band, or sort of like Alligator, where it was a spontaneous combustion, where some of those songs, at least the melodies, came to him.” After much deliberation, and I can tell he’s working it out in his head, Dessner agrees that “the general feeling was a little easier this time around and more fun.”

Still, invisible weights tug at Dessner’s eyes when he revisits the process in his head. He explains that the band started out with over 60 ideas that were slowly sharpened down to 24, which Berninger then wrote lyrics around. Of these 24, Dessner insists that “all of them will eventually be on some album.”

Berninger feels his focus on melody has awarded him a wealth of lyricism.

“I wasn’t hyper-focused on the lyrics,” he says. “I was just singing along, sometimes singing other people’s lyrics, but just looking for melody. For example, the last line on the record is ‘they can all just kiss off into the air,’ and that’s a Violent Femmes lyric that I was just singing in the song before I was even writing it, and in the context of such a different kind of song, it felt really great. In some places, I would just keep it, but then later I would start to actually do crafting and thinking and weaving and collaging.” He looks right at me to add: “It’s stuff that floats in and out. I don’t think of it in any way as poetry at all.”

Dessner’s craftwork isn’t too far off, albeit more analytical. He considers music a “tactile thing,” and most of his discoveries derive from repetition. “I’ll stumble on a kernel of something that feels like it deserves to exist, and then I’ll use my brain to develop it. It usually starts from an emotional place, and then [I] develop.” A composer at heart, he insists that with Trouble, “there are a lot of new things musically going on.”

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“We didn’t care if this was going to be a sad song or if that was going to be a rock song,” Berninger continues. “We weren’t worried about that. We were embracing high art and low art without thinking about it too much, and I think you hear that on the record.” Rather excited, he tells me about one of his favorite tracks on the album, “Pink Rabbits”. On first listen, he was pleased and surprised to hear the song’s skeletal barroom piano melody, which he thought wasn’t “academic enough” for the Dessners. He clarifies, “In the past, I bet you Aaron wouldn’t have sent me that, because he would have known I would’ve liked it.”

“It’s weird because Matt, in some ways, feels this is our most direct, least academic, more visceral record,” Dessner relays to me. “But actually, musically, it’s much more involved.” How so? “For the first time, there are songs in odd time signatures. The first is like nine and seven and five and a lot of mixed meter.” Despite these quirks, which he acknowledges only he might recognize, he attests that Trouble “feels very natural,” concluding, “There was more trust between all of us.”

A light breeze dances through the heat outside Dessner’s home near Prospect Park. His quiet street has all the trappings of a Midwestern neighborhood, where dozens of rustic houses line up one after another, their porches friendly and decorated. The three o’clock sun ignites Dessner’s kempt lawn that’s currently being sniffed by a small terrier dressed as a fireman. It’s a tad out of the ordinary, but hey, it’s Brooklyn. This is where any child deserves to grow up.

And they do, at least at the Dessners. Inside his house, various toys litter the floor — a beach ball, a couple stuffed animals, and a very distraught Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head — juxtaposed against antique furniture and carpets. Tall bookshelves line his living room, with Chekhov, Marx, and Hemingway sharing the shelf space with Mouse Count, Snappy Little Bugs, and Alberte. His two-year-old daughter, Ingrid, plays here; perhaps one day she’ll graduate to Three Sisters or A Farewell to Arms. Today, however, she’s more intrigued by puttering around the house and entertaining her grandparents with a silly dance or a smile.

Outside, Dessner and I relax on the steps leading to his house, where we continue to discuss the band’s newfound level of trust. He’s soft spoken, but speaks volumes. He suggests that “The National is just a game between brothers” and that this familial construction has been one of the band’s strongest facets — unlike, say, The Kinks or Oasis or even The Beach Boys.

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“There’s a lot of love between the brothers, and it grounds us,” he says. “We’re a tough band. We have a thick skin because there are bonds in our band that go much deeper than just the tour or the album. We cherish every moment that we’re together and doing these things. It’s not like we actively discuss, ‘Oh, I love you brother. I love you brother,’ but it’s nice.” He’s quick to discuss this area of his life, and draws up an anecdote without hesitation: “Sometimes you look up and you’re having this crazy experience, playing in front of thousands of people in Croatia and people are singing along, and you’re with the same person that you’ve shared a room with your whole childhood. So that, to me, is one of the main reasons we still do this.”

Devendorf, whose brother, Bryan, plays drums in the band, feels the same way, except he adds a spin: “We relate to the songs because we’ve spent so much time together and see ourselves in them.” It’s that organic chemistry that separates The National from any other indie outfit, but what’s also kept them from fading away, falling apart, or running out of gas.

As Dessner puts it, “We finish things because if you don’t, the other will. It’s a good recipe.”

What’s unique this time around is that Berninger has a blood relative for a crutch, too. His younger brother by nine years, Tom, traveled with the band for their last tour behind 2010’s High Violet, working as a roadie and, much to the chagrin of the talent and crew, the unofficial tour documentarian. For over a year, the young, long-haired Berninger shadowed just about everyone with a handheld camera, capturing moments that were hilarious, tenuous, erratic, and downright depressing. With help from his older brother, who he now lives with in Brooklyn Heights, he compiled the months’ worth of footage into a new documentary titled, Mistaken for Strangers, which made its proper debut at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival this past April.

Although it’s centered around The National and the battle wounds of touring, the film’s latter half takes a rather meta turn that focuses on its struggles toward completion. There are a series of video diaries that involve Tom doubting the film, his role to the band, and his relationship to his brother — it’s almost too confessional.

“My brother, like most people at times, has been his own worst enemy, and often for him, he was self-defeating,” Matt tells me, expressing disappointment over Tom’s accusations that he had it easier. “I told him you make your own luck. When little opportunities start floating by, you have to get out of bed early and jump at it. You have to dive through those little windows because they open and shut really quickly. And I think many times he would rather not try than fail.”

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It’s been a struggle with his younger brother, to say the least, but Berninger regrets nothing. He points to his bandmates, who for years have had their kin right there beside them — on the road, in the studio, or behind the scenes. He digresses: “There’s so much tension between us just traveling together and in the history of the band. It’s all good. It’s all really good. But those guys would have each other in hotel rooms to spill their guts to and bitch about me or whatever. So, when Tom was around, I was much happier, and they saw that I was much happier, so they loved having Tom around.” He meanders on the topic before confirming, “I really love my brother, and I think being with him has made me happier, and vice versa. We supported each other.”

That notion of support parallels Aaron’s feelings about his brother, Bryce, to a degree. Together, the two share a steel bond, something they’ve hardly kept a secret. Even earlier in the day, when I first knocked on Aaron’s door, it was Aaron who answered with Bryce not too far behind him. When I mention this close relationship to Aaron, he leaves little to mystery, saying: “Everything that we did until we went to college at 18 was together. We played on all the same sports teams; we picked up instruments at the same time. We had each other so we didn’t have to find friends to form a band. We could just do stuff together.” He tells me their first collaboration was building a trail near their childhood home in Cincinnati, which is still there to this day. I can’t help but laugh. As an older brother, I can relate.

He continues: “We can play these mirrors of each other. I can look at his hands and just do exactly what he’s doing or some version of it and vice versa. A lot of The National’s music is the sound of that weave.”

Up on the second floor, Dessner has laid out plates and silverware and has invited everyone to eat around the coffee table. It’s an open room with glossy wooden floors and windows that reflect the brand of sunlight that hints of a day’s end. For a few minutes, we’re too busy eating our wraps, until someone remarks about the house, and all of a sudden Dessner’s back to life, discussing his personal work refurbishing the floors, the walls, the doors, you name it. He chats about the neighborhood, his visitors, and the community he’s a part of — his life in New York City.

In a little over a decade, the city’s post-9/11 days have moved the metropolis beyond the imagery established by Woody Allen, Martin Scorcese, and even former Mayor Rudy Giuliani. It’s more self-aware, so much so that there’s hardly a neighborhood that isn’t qualified for a ‘Best of’ panel in New York Magazine. Its once sought after mystery has been capitalized by Disney, re-examined by Louis C.K., inked over by Marvel Comics, parodied by Tina Fey, and the list goes on. This is a good thing: It’s a new sophistication for a city that’s always had it, led by a generation of cosmopolitans and au courant institutions that pay credence to the old.

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“We used to say, no, we’re not part of a community in Brooklyn,” Dessner starts, “but very clearly over the last seven years there’s been this amazing [change]. It’s diverse. It’s kind of a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship between a lot of artists here.

“We’re just astonished to find that there’s just so many good, honest, and sincere people. It’s a nice feeling. We don’t have a lot of big complaints. I feel like, fortunately, we’re in a corner of it that’s more art driven than crass commercialism. We’re lucky in that sense. We’re insulated from some of the more negative things that go on.”

That insulation might explain Berninger’s current disposition. “I still feel a little bit like an outsider or a visitor,” he says. “I think that’s what makes us a very New York band.”

It’s a rather intuitive statement, but The National’s in a reflective state at the moment. They’re a family with families, and their life isn’t tied down to the music anymore, which ironically offers a peaceful outlook to embrace. “I think we all realize that if the band does disappear overnight, we’d be okay,” Berninger notes, insisting that their “lives were put into perspective when we had kids.”

NationalQuotes_Three Rules copyRegardless, he’s quick to embrace his band’s future, citing advice from his friend and mentor Michael Stipe of R.E.M., who The National opened for during their Accelerate Tour in 2008.

“He told us some things that stuck with us,” Berninger says. “He said, ‘First of all, don’t take anything for granted. Two, remember that you guys were friends before you were in a band together. And finally, don’t be afraid to write a pop song, too.”

We discuss R.E.M.’s swift breakup in 2011, sharing our disappointment and disbelief. Though, Berninger argues it was the right move: “They decided to stop when they were back to being happy and close friends. I respect it. Bands don’t do that when they’re all happy. Bands end when they drive each other crazy.” And there lies a conundrum for the singer: The National aren’t just friends.

When it’s time to head out, Dessner extends his thank yous, insists that he’ll take care of the dishes, and smiles the way a close relative might after a short trip. Matt’s not there, but I head out anyway and start walking down the street. A block down, the bearded frontman pops out from behind his car door, locks it, waves good-bye to me, and races back to Aaron’s. He’s a grown man, just past 40, but you’d swear he was a kid itching to rejoin his pals, maybe even his family.

New York should be so lucky.

Artwork by Drew Litowitz, Steven Fiche, and Cap Blackard.

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