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The National: Emotional Transit

By Lauren Harris; photos by Marc Lemoine on December 27, 2013


The National: Emotional Transit

There is a scene late in the film Mistaken for Strangers that holds an early blueprint to The National. The scene is a transmission from the past, performance footage from the band’s nascence a decade and a half ago. In it, a shaggy-haired Matt Berninger clings equally to his mic stand and his cigarette, flanked by identical twin guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner. Behind him, an unrecognizably kempt Bryan Devendorf pummels away while just a few feet from him, his brother Scott plays bass. The band is on stage at the Mercury Lounge, a dank cave of a venue on New York’s Lower East Side with a capacity of 250. “There was nobody there,” says Berninger, snapped back to the despair he seems so insulated from when buoyed up by thousands of fans in the latter-day footage that comprises the rest of the film. He went straight home, closed the door and cried.

He is addressing Tom, the film’s maker and Berninger’s metalhead brother, nine years his junior and seemingly stalled in life prior to embarking on Mistaken for Strangers. Matt attempts to rouse his brother out of the paralytic amber he is trapped in by sharing his own struggle. “We put all that anxiety and fear and humiliation into our music, and it made us closer to each other,” says Berninger.

That those words were echoing throughout the cavern of the screening room of the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival on its opening night did nothing to dim the emotion behind them. That the band members had traveled through 15 years, up sales charts and the length of the red carpet, a glowing tangle of extended family trailing them, made the place Berninger was referring to no farther away. It is not despite these difficult emotions that The National has ascended to stadiums full of success. It is because of it.


It is impossible to talk about The National without discussing the band’s relations. Comprised of the Dessner brothers and the Devendorf brothers, Berninger stands at the center, his singularity highlighted by the fraternity he exists amidst. So much has been made of the band’s relations that until now, you might not have known that Berninger also had a brother. (Berninger’s mother would highlight this fact by sending out articles about the band to Tom remarking on his brother’s perceived orphanhood.) “There’s a symbiotic thing that happens with Aaron and Bryce,” says Berninger. “They lock into each other. And Bryan and Scott stick together—they practice the most of anyone. I’m in the middle, making a mess.”

Since the band garnered critical attention in 2005 with its third album Alligator, they have borne the weight of countless “band of brothers” headlines. “I don’t get tired of the question,” says Bryce diplomatically, when asked about whether he needs to ever talk about what being a band of brothers is like. “It’s what we are.”

The story goes that the outfit orbited one another growing up in Cincinnati, with the Dessner brothers and drummer Bryan playing in bands together since they were 13. Later, Bryan’s older brother Scott would meet Matt at the University of Cincinnati, eventually traveling east on an Amtrak for design internships and a cramped apartment under the Queensboro Bridge. A few years later, Aaron would attend college in New York, and for the first time separate from the twin he’d shared everything with. In retrospect, Aaron recognizes he experienced a type of bereavement period in finding himself alone, absent the context of his twin. He coped by immersing himself in the live music scene. After graduation, Aaron remained in the city, Bryce moved down and within a year, The National was starting to play out. “The first show we played was probably an outdoor picnic for a company Matt worked for,” says Bryce. “The DNA of our band is that we spent all these years playing music in small spaces and small clubs, and sometimes just for our friends or just for each other.” Shortly after, the band started playing shows at small clubs, then touring, “before there was any real demand for us to be heard,” says Bryce.

The lack of “any real demand” led to episodes that are now recalled affectionately, but at the time were exercises in humiliation. There was the sparsely attended show in Atlanta, after which they crashed in an apartment with an infirm canine staring down at them as they slept covered in white dog hair. There is the teenage boy band they opened for in Mobile. (“They were literally 15,” says Bryce.) There is the road trip to Lexington, Kentucky, to play a show that only Matt’s mother attended. These tribulations of starting out have simulated a familial connection in the instances in which one is missing.

Because family members are band members, band members are often treated as family, even those who join the band on tour or in the studio. Sharon Van Etten got to know the band after she saw the Dessners cover her song “Love More.” She reached out to ask whether they might like to be involved in recording her music, which evolved into Aaron producing her album Tramp. Van Etten, who appears on several songs on The National’s new album, joined the band for a string of European dates that happened to coincide with her 30th birthday. “We were in Berlin. They got me in to see PJ Harvey, whom they know I love,” says Van Etten. “Then my parents came to surprise me—it was also my mother’s birthday—and at the end of the show they had birthday cupcakes with candles and they all sang us ‘Happy Birthday’ after the show. A very family-centric group.”

Mistaken for Strangers is not about The National. “It turns out to not be about us, which is a relief. Who wants to watch a movie about that? We’re a setting for the film,” clarifies Aaron on the night of the premiere. The subject is clearly Tom and his struggle to find his footing under the weight of his brother’s successful identity. At its inception, the movie was conceived as a tour documentary, something Berninger thought only superfans would watch on the band’s website. “I was goofing around and mugging for the camera,” says Berninger, “but that became tiring to do, and not even that interesting.”

Mistaken for Strangers is a love letter: Matt enacts this throughout the film, the definition of a sporting older brother, while Tom documents dutifully, cataloging his own fuck-ups as he is hired and subsequently fired from his job as an assistant tour manager. From there, Tom spirals and scraps to finish a film that will ultimately turn into something else entirely. It is sharply poignant and at times difficult to watch head-on, an intimate exercise in family: how to love someone you don’t always like.

“It’s much more than anything we ever thought or planned for a movie about the band. In a funny way, it’s not about the band but you learn more about the band than you ever would in any kind of tour documentary,” says Berninger. While your eye is trained on the dynamics between Matt and Tom, echoes of struggles reverberate in individual interviews with Aaron and Bryce. At one point, Tom corners Bryce, eager for an ally in complaining about his older brother.

Inadvertently, Tom is also able to get at the affliction most every band deals with to varying degrees—lead singer syndrome. “Matt has it easy. He’s got thousands of people reminding him how brilliant he is every night,” Bryce offers in the film. Tom continues, enacting the very dynamic he is bemoaning. In his attempts to demystify the position his brother occupies, he is further enforcing it. “I’m a little perplexed because you said you wanted to get me into the movie,” says Bryce. “This seems like you’re just talking about Matt. And that’s normal. A lot of people ask questions about Matt.”

What saves the film from caricature is the charm of each of the Berninger brothers, which only turns incandescent when (happily) near one another. “You see me lose my mind at him, you see him fucking up,” says Berninger. “All of it was real. There was a worry—do I come across as too much of an asshole? Does he come off as too much of a fuck-up?”

While Tom’s feelings about Matt are plain throughout the film—a complex alchemy of pride and envy—keys to Matt’s feelings about his brother lie slightly more obscured, though on display in the new National album’s lead track, “I Should Live In Salt.” The song is a litany of shoulds, all supposing a degree of intimate knowledge of one another that perhaps Berninger and his brother no longer share. “We’ve been close our whole lives, but I did sort of disappear from his life in direct, tangible ways. When he was a little kid and I was a teenager, it was great. He was my little pal. And then he became an adult, and I became a different kind of adult, and that was lost.”

Our band doesn’t actually matter that much,” says Berninger, sounding mostly pleased, and perhaps a little surprised at what he has just said. Sunlight slips through the window of a Brooklyn bar where Berninger is seated with Aaron, weeks prior to the film’s opening. The lead singer and guitarist are submitting themselves to questions about the band’s sixth album, Trouble Will Find Me, trying to find a way to talk at a remove about something that has consumed them for nearly two years.

Berninger’s statement speaks to the place the band has ascended to: while they care deeply about what they have created, they are less attached to the outcome of its reception. “All this is a recipe for the end of us, a terrible record and a band’s downfall,” he says.

Most met The National with 2007’s Boxer, a pugilistic meditation on falling in love, and coming to terms with those aspects of one’s identity that are subject to change. Its predecessor, the critically beloved Alligator, was a messier affair, a post-adolescent foray into coupling populated by agitated narrators. With Boxer, Berninger’s voice would become a type of calling card for the band, a cool balm to the anxiety-inducing entrance into adulthood. 2010's High Violet waded into murkier emotional waters, glancing both backward and forward, shrugging off the youthful temporality that defined the previous albums. There has always been an “other” in National songs, the “you” at times outshining Berninger himself. With Trouble, the constellation of “you”s encircling the narrator has expanded, becoming more vivid and fully fleshed out.  

Berninger’s fears of intraband collapse are unfounded, of course. With Trouble Will Find Me, the band charts new sonic territory, building on the hallmarks of everyone’s favorite National songs—a gilded baritone, tense guitars driving at an emotional center that a droll narrator might lyrically obscure—and expands gorgeously upon them. “On this album there are some of the most simple things we’ve ever written, and some of the most complex and musically tricky,” explains Aaron.

This sonic expansion is directly connected to the context in which this album was created. Historically, National songs experience an arduous entrance into the world, but that was never truer than with High Violet. The culmination of the making of that album and its subsequent tour coincided with some of the band’s most difficult times. Interestingly, the band’s success was having a compound effect on their issues, rather than ameliorating them. “Boxer and High Violet were struggles,” says Aaron. “Each time we felt we were in the shadow of what we’ve done before.”

This inability to get out from under the songs they’d toured the world having sung back to them contributed to what Aaron refers to as “the worst days of the band.” With tensions erupting between band members and personal struggles siphoning off creative energy, The National was struggling. “Some of us were not doing very well,” says Aaron, speaking in a haltingly tactful way. “Going back to write music was a real pleasure.”

The National returned to vastly different lives than they had left at the outset of the High Violet tour. Babies had been born, children were growing and priorities were re-aligned. Despite their intention of taking time off following that tour, the band quickly started working on what would become Trouble Will Find Me. “It felt more natural, more fluid,” says Aaron of the place from which they were operating. “It wasn’t because we were running after something,” says Berninger. “The songs Aaron and Bryce were sending me were just so good.”

It would seem contradictory that fatherhood would precipitate an album rather than impede it, but Berninger and Aaron are quick to correct this idea. “You think when you become a father you’re going to have no time to be creative, but actually it’s the most inspiring thing,” says Berninger. Aaron, who returned from the 22-month High Violet tour to his two-month-old daughter, labored under a heady task: “I was thinking about how this is the first music this person has heard, and what that would sound like.” Intensifying the experience was sleep deprivation. For Berninger, fatherhood found its way into the music as well, but in a different way. While there is nothing quite as overt as High Violet’s “With my kid on my shoulders I try not to hurt anybody I like,” Berninger is acutely aware of how the way he moves through the world will impact his daughter.

As is the case with most, fatherhood has deeply affected Berninger, though musically his experiment with life has led him to a more thoughtful death. Instances of an afterlife, and more specifically an end to consciousness, are woven throughout Trouble Will Find Me. Narrators arrive in heaven alive, know what dying means, die poolside and reside under a bright white heaven. While Berninger never sets out with a specific goal in mind for a song, he admits to a certain thematic preoccupation on this album. “It comes from being somebody with people who really depend on me. Before I had a kid, the idea of getting hit by a car or struck by lightning—I’d think, ‘OK. Your number is up.’ I’m not a young, wild, indestructible 30something. I used to smoke like crazy, I used to drink like crazy—I still drink like crazy. I did quit smoking. I don’t want to go anywhere for a long fucking time, and that’s mostly because someone needs me around.”

In addition to parenthood, The National still traffics in its stock-in-trade on Trouble Will Find Me: narrators embarrass themselves at dinner parties, weep at the playing of their favorite albums, lash out at loved ones. “Lyrically, our songs have all kinds of awkward moments and humiliating things in them, and wrestling with your demons. Having spent years struggling to be a band, it’s made us more human and success even sweeter that we’ve managed to pull through as a band and still have a sense of those beginnings,” says Bryce.

Chances are your favorite National song was burnished by discord, used as a bargaining chip in the detente that inevitably erupts when songs are selected for a National album. By their own description, Berninger and Aaron are the most stubborn of the group, digging in their heels and devising elaborate strategies to advance their own musical agendas. “We have a fragile democracy that works,” says Aaron. “I’m like the king, and he’s like the prime minister,” adds Berninger wryly.

“Usually there are some pretty elaborate chess matches going on. This time, we recognized when that was happening—somebody taking a stand on one thing because they knew they could give it up later,” says Aaron, alluding to the challenges that stalled Boxer and High Violet. “We’ve done that to each other for a long time, and we could see each other hiding cards from early on.” When the band had gathered up roughly 20 new songs, Berninger and Aaron realized that for the first time in a long time, they were excited by what they had created, more so than ever before. To protect against manipulation and strategy, Dessner and Berninger decided to approach the process in a novel way. “We slid each other our lists of the top ten songs, and nine of the ten were the same.”

“I don’t know if it will last for the next record,” says Berninger, hedging.

As is a sort of Tribeca custom, The National takes the stage at the after party for the festival’s opening night, managing to look bespoke and worn simultaneously. Earlier in the day, Bryce had recalled a show they’d played in that same venue years before, the band’s performance heralding some product launch or company merger. “I don’t think we even had a sound guy then.” He does not recall the show fondly.

This evening’s performance could not be further from that previous experience. Hundreds pack the space, an audience as well-dressed as the band for once. They open by dedicating “O Holy Night” to Tom, a wink to a squirm-inducing scene in Mistaken for Strangers where Tom sits alone and wasted, metal OG Rob Halford’s Christmas album blasting on headphones as a salve to his solitude. It is two songs into the set before Berninger remembers to utter the name of the band, then continues running through a taut nine-song set that features tested anthems like “Mr. November” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio” alongside Trouble Will Find Me single “Demons.”

Berninger clings equally to his mic stand and a stocky tumbler of white wine, the Dessners and Devendorfs behind him, placed on stage just as they are in the early footage from all those years ago, the blueprint altered in some ways and yet static. As Berninger introduces “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” he cannot resist.

“It was recently reviewed on our own message board as ‘Don’t Swallow the Crap,’” he says, reaching out with his bandmates and taking hold of some of that anxiety, fear and humiliation, and channeling it into something beautiful.  F

This article is from FILTER Issue 52