BY CHERYL CHENG
New York’s The National is a band not entirely opposed to taking their time. Having been around for several years, it was not until their third album, Alligator, that The National garnered attention in the blogosphere as well as the mainstream press. In fact, many mistakenly thought Alligator was the band’s debut. And after touring throughout the country in small clubs to a handful of people, this current tour has the band performing in larger venues to sold-out crowds. For the band’s fourth album, Boxer, they also took their time, spending two years to craft what singer/songwriter Matt Berninger describes as their “best record.”
SS: Congratulations on your fourth album, Boxer. I saw that it was described on the band’s MySpace profile as “better” than the other albums, which I thought was an interesting description. Do you view Boxer as a progression? How is it different in sound?
Matt: It’s a different record. We think it’s our best record so far. The bio says it’s better—we didn’t write that bio—but we would all agree it’s our most realized whole album. We got something out of it that we didn’t expect. It took a long time to make and when we were finished, we were all really, really happy. We think it’s our best record.
SS: Did the band approach Boxer differently in writing the songs and recording it?
Matt: We didn’t start out doing anything different than we usually do. We don’t have much of a vision or a plan really. We just slowly start to form songs together and see what happens. In some ways, things happened differently. Things actually happened slower than usual. Things like the orchestration and the types of songs, we did it differently in that the orchestration was more than just ornamental, more than just having stuff to make things sound bigger. Every little piece of the orchestration, even the drums, have their own sort of space and voice. And we wanted everything to be heard and be clear, like the horns and the woodwinds, and to have its own character and push the song in a direction, not just layering. It took a long time to figure out how to make that all work, but I think we did a good job of it.
SS: Are you the primary songwriter?
Matt: Just the lyrics. I write the lyrics and sing but I don’t play guitar or anything, so we don’t have a primary songwriter because of that. Aaron [Dessner, bass/guitar] and Bryce [Dessner, guitar] and the other guys give me little music sketches and I sit and write lyrics to those. We don’t have a captain, which is a good thing for us I think because nobody gets precious about the song one way or another. We can keep tearing it apart and going back to it without anybody feeling like their baby is being changed. Everybody in the band is always pushing the songs in different directions, and I think that’s why it takes us so long, because not everybody has the same idea of what the song should be and that forces us to sometimes put two different directions into the same song and see what happens. And I think that’s where the more interesting, exciting moments happen. It’s the surprises of the collaboration and mixture of ideas that for us changes the songs a lot and makes them better, so in a weird way, we’re lucky that no one’s in charge.
SS: Right. There can be egos, and it can get a little messy.
Matt: We all know that we depend on each other. We all have egos but they cancel each other out.
SS: I also saw that Sufjan Stevens collaborated on it. How did that come about?
Matt: He plays on two songs. He plays at the end of “Racing Like a Pro” and then on “Ada.” Bryce has played a lot with [Sufjan’s] touring band, so Bryce knows him really well. And [Sufjan] lives in the same neighborhood that Bryce and Aaron live in. They just called him and he came over for a day. It was a one-day collaboration. Him, Bryce and Aaron hang out a lot and make little songs together, so it was really a kind of casual type of collaboration.
SS: And Peter Katis came back to produce Boxer.
Matt: We worked with Peter for awhile, so we recorded a lot of it at home… Probably half and half of home recording and recording with Peter in the studio. We always kind of work that way, going in and out of studios and then back home. We have little home setups. He has been a big part of the band for awhile, at least in the recording of the records. He kind of jumps in as a seventh member.
SS: The band has been touring nonstop recently, and I saw that all the shows for this tour have sold out.
Matt: Almost all of the shows have sold out. The ones closer to home, like Cleveland and Louisville, right in the Midwest, haven’t sold out. But they’ve been really big, big shows. I mean, the last time we played in Louisville, [Ky.], it was for like 30 people, and this time, there’s about 400 people there. So it has been a big shift for us, and we’re enjoying it.
SS: Last year, The National played at the Troubadour in L.A. and now it’s the El Rey, which is a slightly bigger venue. Is it an adjustment to play these larger venues? Do you approach these shows differently?
Matt: No, I don’t think we do. Even when we were playing in front of a handful of people, for years, we would just try to make a great, huge, beautiful show even then. I don’t think we really do anything that differently. Our live shows are different from the record. The energy, the adrenaline. It’s a different environment from recording at home. But our live shows are a different beast and the songs evolve and are a little bit different live. As far as the crowds being bigger, we don’t do anything different because of that. It’s just more exciting when there’s a packed room.
SS: And to hear everyone know the lyrics and sing along.
Matt: Yeah, that’s been sometimes unsettling but very cool.
SS: Speaking of your lyrics, they have been described as dark, melancholy and difficult to interpret. Would you agree with those descriptions?
Matt: If you put our records against the average indie rock or pop record, maybe they’re on the darker side of the spectrum, but I’ve never really thought of them on their own as being really depressing or dark or morbid. I think maybe we’re a little left of center on that and have a little more of that than most bands. But on their own, with respect to themselves, I think they’re pretty balanced with humor and optimism. I can understand that we sometimes get that description, but I think it’s just one part of what we’re doing. And I wouldn’t put it in that category myself as being dark really.
SS: The band’s success blew up after Alligator and the amount of press it got. And the album received a lot of attention on blogs and music Web sites. Do you see those Internet Web sites as more important now than so-called professional journalism?
Matt: Yeah, I think it’s definitely for us, sharing MP3s and there’s so many music discussions, blogs, that I think without that, we probably wouldn’t have gotten any of the glossy press that can launch a band. Especially the type of music, I think the indie rock world, that’s where people go to find out about stuff, they go to certain Web sites or certain blogs that they trust. And there’s just so much communication and sharing and talking about stuff that never existed before. We’ve definitely benefited from that because when Alligator came out, it got great reviews, but it didn’t get a lot of high-end press. But it was definitely the underground Internet discussion groups that started talking about Alligator, and that’s how it started getting all the attention. We’re grateful for the way people share music now. I think smaller bands, the underground bands in the shadows can be found.
SS: There are so many examples of that now, too. Arctic Monkeys...
Matt: Clap Your Hands [Say Yeah]. Before their record was even available, so many people were talking about it. And they were sending it around. And they became a huge overnight success without any kind of media budget.
SS: And they weren’t even signed.
Matt: I think it’s a really great thing. If there’s good music out there, it will be found because people will hear it and start talking about it. It no longer needs to be served on a silver platter for anybody to hear about it. It can find an audience just on its own without any kind of advertising or whatever.
SS: It’s much more accessible. Although I think The National’s official site is a little tricky to find.
Matt: [Laughs] When we first started the band, The National ... we couldn’t get that URL for obvious reasons. It’s such a common thing. There’s actually a big news station in Canada called The National. So “American Mary” was a song off our very first record and we needed a URL then, so we just picked it. Yeah, it’s very hard to find us. Although now, we’ve been kind of shocked, but if you Google The National, now we come up first. We’re ahead of the Canadian news station. Nice to see that’s working now. We probably should have come up with a more unique sounding band name that would have been easier a long time ago for people to find us, but maybe that’s the reason it took so long.
SS: Why did the band decide on the band name The National?
Matt: When anyone’s coming up with a band name, it was one of those things. We were trying to find a name that didn’t mean anything. That was sort of devoid of any kind of interpretation and wasn’t overly clever. It’s just very simple. And that was the simplest thing we could think of just because it is so... You can’t walk down the street without seeing the word “The National” something or other somewhere. So it was benign and meaningless; that’s kind of why we picked it. Although that backfired a little bit because we went to Europe—we probably should have thought of this ahead of time—but nationalism has a very right-wing connotation, especially in Germany, France and ... the Nationalists and the National Front and all that kind of stuff. So in Germany, we actually had some shows boycotted because they thought we were in someway affiliated with the right-wing conservative neo-Nazi party, which we had to do some press to make sure people realized that we were not associated with the Nazis. The band name, it’s kind of funny, when we started out, we would probably name it something else, but we’re stuck with it, and I’m happy with it.
SS: Do you head back to Europe after these U.S. dates?
Matt: When we’re done with this U.S. tour, we’re going to do some European stuff, and then we’ll be back and do some more in the States and then back to Europe. I think from here to the end of the year and probably a lot of the next year we’re going to be touring a lot. That’s our immediate future. A lot of van time and a lot of hotels. And a lot of venues. But we’re having a blast.
SS: What are the best and worst aspects of touring?
Matt: We love playing the shows. We’ve been touring a lot for a long time. And playing in front of very small crowds, mostly for years. The downside is just the amount of time you spend crammed together with seven guys in a van, sleeping on floors in hotel rooms; that’s fun for a few days but after two months of it, you start to lose your mind a little bit. But to be able to go to France and Portugal, and we went to Croatia to play our rock songs, that’s a dream come true ... To be invited to play in Paris a bunch of rock songs that you made up in your bedroom. It’s a thrill, and we enjoy the shows. We just wish we could transport ourselves everyday.
SS: What does the band listen to on tour?
Matt: Whatever’s in the van. It’s usually the driver’s choice. It’s usually just a collection of whatever people’s got on their iPods. It’s usually Neil Young and Bob Dylan [who] get the most airtime. Recently, Grizzly Bear we’ve been playing a lot. Andrew Bird. Feist’s new record. It’s hard to say what gets played the most. It’s usually iPod on random.
SS: Who are some of your early inspirations?
Matt: The bands that I first really started falling in love with were The Smiths, Violent Femmes, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, but then, [for] the other guys, it’s a big motley selection of Simon & Garfunkel, Grateful Dead. It’s hard to say what the band’s roots are because it’s so different. Because of that, we’ve been put into many categories. Everything from Goth to Americana. It’s a little bit of everything I guess. We have a hard time tracing our own influences.
SS: I’ve come across quite a few Ian Curtis [of Joy Division] comparisons to your singing style.
Matt: I think a lot of that is the range that I sing in is similar to Ian Curtis. And I get a lot of Nick Cave. I think it’s mostly because of the vocal range that we get that. Definitely Joy Division, I know Bryan our drummer, from a drumming perspective, that’s been a big influence on him. I think most of the comparisons we’ve gotten are all over the board, but I think every single one of them is probably fair to one degree or another.
SS: Could you tell me a little bit about Vincent Moon and his video for Boxer?
Matt: I’ve known him for probably four or five years. We met him in France, and he took a lot of the photos that were on the cover of Alligator, so he’s a photographer and filmmaker that we’ve just become friends with. So he followed us around, and he was in the studio with us a lot during the time we were making Boxer and on the road with us. So he’s shot a lot of things that he’s put together into little videos. He’s got these things called the take-away shows, which he’s done a lot for us, and he’s started to take off. He’s done [work] for Arcade Fire and Michael Stipe just called him and wants him to do some films for him. It’s really great for him. Things are kind of taking off, and we’ve been lucky to be friends with him for a long time. None of us have seen it, but he did a film, about an hour long, about Boxer. That’s going to be coming out in a few months. We really don’t know what it’s going to be like. He’s got an eye and a style that he shoots stuff behind the scenes and puts bands in little environments that you wouldn’t normally see a band in. He’s got a way of capturing the behind-the-curtain version of a band, which is always pretty interesting.
SS: Has the band done any videos themselves? Music videos?
Matt: My brother is a filmmaker and he shot the video for “Mistaken for Strangers,” which is sort of an anti-video. That was kind of our idea. Not to film us trying to make a video, because the most narrative videos are kind of distracting, and [when] we decided to shoot a video, it was just shot in my apartment. It’s very low-budget, without any narrative. No applied story to it. We’re really happy with it. That kind of stuff, when it comes to videos, we’d much rather be cinema verité and just shooting the band as the band. Not the band on a desert or on a spaceship. That’s usually more interesting I think.
SS: Definitely. Well, thanks so much for your time. And I guess if fans missed the show at the El Rey, they can see you guys on the next leg of the tour?
Matt: We already scheduled some shows in L.A. for later in the year. I can’t remember where it is. It’s at a different place. It starts with a “W”?
SS: Maybe the Wiltern?
SS: Wow. The Wiltern is pretty big.
Matt: Yeah, we’ve been doing this so long, well, not that long, about seven years, [but] this shows that finally people are starting to pay attention.