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The National: ‘Sex, death and losing. What else is there?’

As The National celebrate the most successful year of their career with a run of summer festivals, Andrew Trendell joins the band of brothers on the road in Spain and the UK for a few rounds of tequila and to talk about anxiety, musicals, shopping, Playmobil figures, Queen, The Strokes, family, failure, their eighth album and why they’re still obsessed with “sex, death and losing”.

The early evening sun is beating down on London’s Victoria Park as The National gather backstage. It’s the final weekend of London’s inaugural All Points East festival, where the Brooklynites are about to play their biggest UK headline show to date for 40,000 fans. The National may be known for their open-heart anthems of lost love and isolation, but backstage they cut loose with wine, tequila, and banter. Among those present is the producer of a sitcom loosely based on the life of frontman Matt Berninger. Pressed for information on it, she gives little away other than, in no uncertain terms, it will feature no pornography. Curiosity piqued, we ask Berninger what his porn star name would be.

“Curly Kirkridge,” beams Berninger. “‘The Ballad Of Curly Kirkridge’ – I just got an idea for our next album.”

A day earlier, we’re in Barcelona where The National are co-headlining Primavera Sound. The story you’ve probably heard about how they find themselves here, topping bill after bill at European festivals, is the quintessential tale of the band who played the long game and won. Formed in 1999, The National were outsiders in the days of the rock revival at the turn of the century, playing to empty rooms while contemporaries The Strokes became poster-boys. “We were the nerdy underdogs to them,” laughs Berninger. Only with 2005’s critically-acclaimed third album ‘Alligator’ could they finally quit their day jobs.

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Credit: Matias Albach

That album’s embryonic combination of intricately-laced sorrow, tenderness and brute force would develop into the beloved follow-up ‘Boxer’, before 2010’s ‘High Violet’ finally saw The National bothering the mainstream. The tour for their last album, ‘Trouble Will Find Me‘, ended in the UK with a headline gig to 20,000 weeping devotees at The O2. After three years away, they returned with a massive billing at Glastonbury 2017, sandwiched in between Katy Perry and Foo Fighters on The Pyramid Stage. The album would go straight to Number One on both sides of the Atlantic and win them their first Grammy. Now they’re firm headliners the world over and not going anywhere. It really is something to behold when the underdogs quietly come out on top.

“I didn’t even know that we had ‘underdog’ status,” says guitarist Aaron Dessner as we chat in their plush Barcelona hotel. “You have the underdogs, then you have the dorky kids at the back of the classroom! The Strokes were like the sexy varsity basketball team and we were book club.”

His twin brother and fellow guitarist Bryce laughs and chips in: “That’s true. We’re more like the dorky middle-schoolers.”

“Matt might not see it this way, but to us it’s like a worldview,” says Aaron. “Where we come from in Ohio, we knew we were never going to be Swiss boarding school kids with a fabulous Lower East Side origin story. Throughout the history of the band, especially when we were struggling, we kind of built up this thick skin. All that really mattered was the feeling between us. There wasn’t a huge amount of ego. We used to call our songs the ugly ducklings. We’d joke with Arcade Fire that we’re just the marathon runners and they’re world-class sprinters. We’re the turtle, they’re the hare.”

Drummer Bryan Devendorf applies a slightly more shrewd judgement, worthy of his hippie-ish appearance and manner.  “It’s a healthy amount of self-deprecation and Catholic guilt,” he nods, stroking his beard. “In Matt’s case, it’s bred into you. I can identify with his feelings – but is it possible to be a headliner and an underdog? I think the fans feel that way, if I can speak for them. I think the fans feel like they’ve ‘discovered’ us.”

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“We used to call our songs the ugly ducklings. We’d joke with Arcade Fire that we’re just the marathon runners and they’re world-class sprinters. We’re the turtle, they’re the hare” – Aaron Dessner. The National backstage at Primavera Sound 2018. Credit: Matias Altbach

Once that discovery is made, your average National fan tends to fall headlong into the swampy world of Berninger’s raw-nerved lyricism, surrounded by the dense tapestry of textures that his bandmates create. There’s a depth to the band that can’t really be replicated. While we await the arrival of Berninger at the hotel from his delayed flight, the unique chemistry of the band becomes apparent. Aaron and Bryce share that symbiotic knowingness that only twins can, calmly allowing one to lead while the other ponders their next move. The same tie applies to brothers in the rhythm section with Bryan and Scott Devendorf, albeit with more of a cool and casual distance between them. The harmony and tension from family life makes them more than the sum of their parts. This bond is the base of The National, with Berninger as the nucleus spinning away.

“You know that if you’re in a fight with your family, it’s going to last forever!” says the softly-spoken bassist Scott. “Everything we do together is more permanent. Now, we feel a responsibility to do it to make our mark.”

Bryce agrees: “We feel that the music is a constant in our lives. That represents our relationships, which has family inside there and runs even deeper. Music is a river that we can step back into when we want. The thing that I’m very conscious of is how ephemeral that is.

“We might take it for granted that The National exists. It might cease to exist. Look at friends disappearing or even the state of the world right now. Things we took for granted are now completely up-ended. Every day is another piece of insane news. The music itself is a place of comfort and refuge. It’s a haven that we can just go back to and say ‘let’s keep this thing alive’. It’s a space for us to be together, be with each other, and it means something to people.”

The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner on stage at Primavera Sound 2018. Credit: Matias Altbach

A couple of hours pass and their flustered but friendly frontman arrives in the lobby carrying bags from the neighbouring Barcelona high street. In his shopping bags are brand new versions of his gig essentials: a dark formal suit, and an orange shirt in honour of the anti-gun violence movement marching in America that weekend. Exhausted as he may be, the singer is ever gracious and generous with his time. While you may assume that the barking and vampyric menace that stalks the stage and the solemn man that haunts The National’s records may be aloof and standoffish, in reality very little is out of bounds.

“Making records is one of those things that we love, but that’s not the part I’m ever worried about,” he admits, as we find a quiet corridor for a glass of white wine. “The part I’m worried about is the touring lifestyle and how that might undermine the whole project.

“I used to try and think ‘I’m becoming a rock star, there must be something else other than hotels and airports’. I used to think that I was going to find that by chasing it around the city, partying and drinking. That was great, but it didn’t lead anywhere.”

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“Our thing is a healthy amount of self-deprecation and Catholic guilt. In Matt’s case, it’s bred into you. I can identify with his feelings – but is it possible to be a headliner and an underdog?” – Bryan Devendorf. The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner on stage at Primavera Sound 2018. Credit: Matias Altbach

No wonder that two decades on the road have proven so gruelling for The National, especially when you consider the Jekyll and Hyde transformation that Berninger goes through to become his on stage persona. When you have songs that touch the extremes of each emotion and are rooted so personally, getting to and from that mindset can really give you the bends. He tells us that one of his most recent moments of profound serenity came  after he ‘snapped’ in panic at considering his schedule when his father just softly and simply said to him “Matt, slow down”.

“It used to be a real battle,” says Berninger, thinking back to early gigs. “It was hard to not just pull the fire alarm and get the hell out of there. I used to count the minutes. I couldn’t wait until it was over. It wasn’t that it was torture, it just wasn’t comfortable water.”

I ask how he feels when he sees footage of the nervy man he once was on their way to the top.

“It’s funny. I see photos and old footage and my body language is pretty transparent,” he replies. “I’m clinging to the microphone stand like a praying mantis, my shoulders are slumped, my knuckles are white and my face looks like I’m being stabbed. I always look like I’m being tortured. I always had a cigarette and a glass of wine in one hand like a baby clinging to a blanket. Now I can open up and let it in a little bit more. I don’t let the crowd in or the bigness of it all – just the songs and the wind.”

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“I usually come home after shows with the combination of anxiety, adrenaline, dopamine and the drop. I tried to smooth out the drop with wine or a couple of extra Martinis, but they pile up. They’re depressants and it comes out in strange ways. The experience is less emotionally wrought for me now” – Matt Berninger. The National on stage at Primavera Sound 2018. Credit: Matias Altbach

And what about travelling the void between daily life and the music?

“I save all my energy, I save all my emotion and I save all my drinking for the stage. I smoke a little bit of weed, well a lotta bit of weed… doing that instead of tequila to get ready for a show has helped me get into a different headspace. The weed just helps me chill out. I used to get really paranoid with it, but now it’s the opposite. Getting a little bit stoned and having a little bit of wine helps me to connect with the songs. It allows me not to think too much about the eyes on me and how long I’ve been there, where I have to be tomorrow and how long it’s been since I’ve seen my kid. I’m able to stay in the swim of it all and actually enjoy it.”

“I usually come home after shows with the combination of anxiety, adrenaline, dopamine and the drop – [in the past] I would have to sob for five or ten minutes. I tried to smooth out the drop with wine or a couple of extra Martinis, but they pile up. They’re depressants and it comes out in strange ways. The experience is less emotionally wrought for me now.”

Backstage at Primavera Sound before stage time, Berninger breezes between band and crew, joking around, while the rest sip on tequila. They group together for The National’s tradition of shooting a tongue-in-cheek ‘Pre-Show Defensive Crouch’ for Instagram – this time a slow motion martial arts action shot. This band goofs around – a lot. Stage time arrives, there’s a friendly rendez-vous with Father John Misty on the stairs then after a quick huddle, the transformation into harbingers of emotional doom begins.

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The National backstage at Primavera Sound 2018, with Father John Misty. Credit: Matias Altbach

Watching from side of stage the interplay between the brothers is undeniable, as Berninger drifts between a daydream lament and violent shadowboxing, giving everything to everyone, while somehow seeming unaware of anyone else’s presence. A feral and firecracker performance of ‘Mr November’ sees Berninger invade the crowd, before one of their greatest breakthrough moments, ‘Terrible Love’, and the tender closer of ‘About Today’, dedicated to the late, great Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchison – a heartbreaking full stop. A full emotional orbit was travelled, and all present feel exorcised.

We arise early and jet to London. The line-up at their All Points East Presents show is curated by the band themselves, inviting the likes of The War On Drugs, Future Islands, Cat Power, Broken Social Scene, Spoon and many more to perform with them. For alt-rock nerds, this is nirvana. Backstage, Bryce skips by after meeting one of his heroes at catering (“just hanging out with Chrissie Hynde, no big deal!” he smirks). Bryan then pauses for a brief but bizarre chat about whether Playmobil toys are racist. There’s a pre-show defensive crouch request from a hardcore Brazilian fan who’s snuck his way in, before Matt directs him to sit on his lap. There’s jubilant mood in the air. They’re in their element. Today belongs to The National. This is their victory lap.

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The National’s Matt Berninger on stage at Primavera Sound 2018. Credit: Matias Altbach

“It’s crazy. I was just shown a picture of the first time we were in London playing to like eight people in 2002,” recalls Scott of their capital debut, at the now defunct Buffalo Bar. “I think there’s a sustainability to bands, we’re not out there to just keep expanding. Our music is a little more intimate. It may have stadium qualities at some point, but we’re not Queen. Everybody loves Queen. I don’t know if we need to do that.”

They certainly don’t. Few bands could pull off an emotional onslaught of a set like this. ‘Day I Die’ marvels at the morbid and turns it into something glorious, ‘Graceless’ turns self-deprecation into the unlikeliest of arena rock sing-alongs, and ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’ is the manifestation of that aching intimacy Scott refers to, ending a set to a 40,000-strong crowd acoustic and unplugged with the audience leading the chorus a capella. Tens of thousands become one as they unite to sing, “all the very best of us, string ourselves up for love”. ‘Radio Gaga’ it is not.

Another highlight of the evening comes with the airing of new track ‘Light Years’, showcasing the band at their most sombre and esoteric. Musically, they tell us that progress on their next album is well beyond the halfway point of completion, and is just awaiting rewrites and tweaking from Berninger. Partly made up of material from the ‘Sleep Well Beast’ sessions and partly something entirely different, album number eight is currently driven by a certain ‘looseness’ and ‘an energy that’s evaded us in the past’, says Bryce. “‘Sleep Well Beast’ still feels like it’s going somewhere – it hasn’t yet arrived completely to me,” admits Aaron.

Bryan meanwhile, describes their next effort as a “departure record” – and then some. “It’s going to be more than just a record,” he continues. “The other material that’s accompanying it is basically inspiring the record. It’s a collaborative project. I’ve said too much already…

“It’s not a big deal, it’s just different to everything else we’ve done. There’s a new element to it. That’s why Matt is rewriting everything.”

While Matt is keen to depart from his usual writing habits for The National’s next great adventure, he admits that “the songs are usually all about the same things. What else are people thinking about other than sex, death and losing?” Still, he’ll be adopting a different mindset this time around. As well as writing music for the TV show he has in the works, he’s also penning lyrics for a musical based on Edmond Rostand’s play ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’, as well as working The National’s next album.

“A lot of what I’ve been doing recently is a combination of writing really personal songs, alongside songs that are supposed to serve a purpose other than being just a National song or personal confession or an observation of self or the moment,” he tells NME. “I’ve been writing more from the perspective of other people, and the one big one is Cyrano de Bergerac. To get inside those characters has been a fun way to look at things from a different side and turn the binoculars backwards.”

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The National on stage at Primavera Sound 2018. Credit: Matias Altbach

In looking elsewhere for inspiration, has he found much of himself in these characters?

“Cyrano? He’s a bitter, misanthropic, self-defeating guy with a big nose who didn’t think he could get the best-looking girl in town, so started writing love songs to get the woman. Art and writing are how I found all the things I need, including my beautiful wife.”

Berninger’s wife is the former fiction editor for The New Yorker, Carin Besser. Not only is she his muse, but has assisted in the songwriting of a number of National tracks and even in the creation of the documentary Mistaken For Strangers, about the band and Matt’s brother Tom.

“She didn’t know I was in a band when I met her, but I think we fell in love over words, writing, poetry and songs,” Matt continues. “She’s much more of a written-word person, and I’m more of a musical artsy visual kinda guy. Morrissey was the first person in the world where I was like, ‘Oh, I’m like that guy’.”

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The National’s Matt Berninger on stage at Primavera Sound 2018. Credit: Matias Altbach

Not current day Morrissey, surely?

“Well, no – that’s true,” he replies. “I’d say early day Morrissey. That’s what unlocked something in me. All of my greatest relationships have come from working through abstract, pointless projects that the world doesn’t need.”

World-weary but wiser, The National have outperformed their peers and scaled heights where most nerdy underdogs would fear to tread. With their sense of compulsion in constant renewal and a never-ending fountain of ideas to lead them, there’s a lot to do while they’re still on the winning streak. ‘The Ballad Of Curly Kirkridge’ will have to wait, sadly.

‘Boxer (Live In Brussels)’ by The National is out now.

TROUBLE WILL FIND US

Matt Berninger talks us through his favourite collaborators

Tom Berninger [brother] and Carin Besser [wife]:

“My brother, my wife and I are slowly baking this thing that will eventually become some kind of episodic TV thing. Whether or not there will be a TV show or whether or not I’m going to be in it is still really blurry. I don’t wanna be that kind of writer and I don’t want to be an actor either so I need to figure out how I want that to manifest itself. There is a bunch of music I’ve written for it, so maybe there will just be a soundtrack.”

Chvrches [Scottish electro-pop trio]:

“The vibe of the three of them in person is amazing. When we were working on this soundtrack for Planned Parenthood after Trump won the election, Lauren [Mayberry, singer] was the first person to write back going, ‘Yes, here’s a song you can use’. They gave us a brilliant song for that, we started communicating that way then we recorded ‘My Enemy’ [For Chvrches 2018 album ‘Love Is Dead’]. Chemistry-wise, I feel totally comfortable in a room with Ian, Lauren and Martin. They’re just good people. Their vibe is in the right place, they’re after the right things. They have the passion and they care about each other.”

Brent Knopf [EL VY bandmate]:

“The stuff I do with Brent in EL VY, to me doesn’t sound anything like The National. I wasn’t avoiding anything, but it was just our chemistry that created a different personality. No matter what, it always becomes a different child that looks different to all the others you’ve had with various wives and lovers. It’s really exciting to see what comes out of different combinations of collaborations. The thing that it creates on the other side is always surprising, and that’s the point. You’re trying to thrill yourself and feel like you weren’t lying.”

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