Tipped for their first UK number one album with ‘Sleep Well Beast’, The National are about to turn from rock’s biggest cult band into would-be Glastonbury-headliners. Andrew Trendell talks to the band about anxiety, evolution, Neo-Nazis, and “getting a bear-hug from Dave Grohl”
For 18 years, The National have been playing the long game. They 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. Only with 2005’s critically-acclaimed third album ‘Alligator’ could they finally quit their day jobs.
‘Alligator”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.
“Dave Grohl, who’s really friendly, we know him, was coming by in his Land Rover and was like, ‘You guys are on stage in 10 minutes – what are you doing?” recalls National guitarist Bryce Dessner. Then, he says, ‘the nicest man in rock’ gave them a bear-hug and sent them on their way. “I think he was trying to psych us out.”
It didn’t work. Thinking back to the toilet tours of 2001, they admit that Glasto was ‘surreal’ to say the least.
“We came armed to win,” says frontman Matt Berninger. “When you’re an artist, you’re saying ‘I’m a magician, I don’t have a job, I make songs’. If you’re going to do it, you have to prove it.”
But there was much more to prove than just their ability to keep Foo Fighters fans entertained. Earlier this year, Glasto boss Emily Eavis told NME that if 2018 wasn’t a fallow year for the festival, then The National could have headlined. It was a moment where most bands would have brought out an arsenal of ‘hits’ and crowd pleasers. Instead, they played a set of mostly unreleased new material; but the mood and the spectacle made it glorious all the same.
Guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner are twins, while the rhythm section of Bryan and Scott Devendorf are also brothers. The natural chemistry and the way they connect on stage is a wonder to behold, but it’s Berninger’s presence that you can’t escape. Either lost in the melody or feral and demonic, his performance style has often been likened to that of Nick Cave. As you watch, you’re certain that in that moment he’s living every ounce of feeling in the song.
Drummer Bryan Devendorf tells us that “Matt has gained confidence over time and it can be infectious”, while Berninger himself admits he’s often full of “self-loathing and fear”, but is now able to “untangle his anxiety by smoking a bit of weed, and drinking a little wine”.
“Ultimately, it’s healing,” says Berninger, looking at his onstage persona as an out-of-body experience. “It’s really cathartic. It’s a huge release. Then, you have to figure out how to tap into it again or you feel like an animatronic display if you’re not truly feeling it. It’s terrible knowing that people are crying to the songs but you’re just thinking about something that someone said two weeks ago. Fuck that.”
It’s such raw intensity and spiritual transparency that inspires the religious fervour you find in a typical National fan. Berninger puts it down to being “addicted” to laying down his emotional response to the sketches sent to him by Aaron and Bryce. “With Aaron, we’ll go months of not talking because I’m so pissed at him but we’ll work on the songs because there’s the emotion there,” he admits. “That’s his way of saying ‘I love you dude, let’s have the songs put aside whatever the fuck we were mad about’.”
Tempestuous relationships and heart-wrenching honesty aside, The National are also a band who, much like Morrissey, like to pack a lot of sideways humour and knowing winks into their music. Seeing them live, you might be surprised by the constant back and forth of banter. Maybe they aren’t the arthouse miserablists you had them pegged for?
“I think for years Matt was self-conscious about the band being taken so seriously because he’s actually really fun and light-hearted,” reveals Bryce. “There’s a lot of dark humour in the songs – [‘Conversation 16’s lyric] ‘I was afraid I’d eat your brains’ – that kind of thing. “
Matt nods. “It’s true. We are moody, I do own a turtleneck, I’m a desperate, sad pseudo-intellectual – but we also like to goof around.”
Either way, you’ll be relieved to hear that new record ‘Sleep Well Beast’ will do nothing to challenge the indie vampire preconception. After ‘Trouble Will Find Me’, Berninger launched the surprisingly bright and breezy El Vy with Ramona Falls’ Brent Knopf, Bryce worked on the score for Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscar-winning The Revenant, Aaron produced Frightened Rabbit, the twins invited the likes of The Flaming Lips, Sonic Youth, The War On Drugs and tons more to take part in a sprawling Grateful Dead tribute album – and that’s just scratching the surface of the band’s extra-curricular activities.
Returning from their side-projects, the band took a more liberal and experimental approach to their sound. As Aaron puts it, the results were “more reckless, less tidy and manicured, but somehow had more clarity”. While Berninger used his lyrics to question their place in the world and what it was all worth, sonically the album plays to the Nth degree of The National’s sonic extremes – from the fuzzy, twisted pop of ‘The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness’ to the aching but gorgeous dirge of ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’ via the ferocious punk wig-out of ‘Turtleneck’.
“We play to our strengths but you also have to go out on young sapling branches,” says Berninger. “The people on the edge of the pond are not the ones that people watch – you need to be out on thin ice. You might die, but artists need to do that.”
The essential catalyst fuelling The National’s innate sense of competition is brotherhood. Twins Bryce and Aaron admit that they’re either second-guessing the next one’s move in composition or challenging each other, while Scott and Bryan agree that you can’t ask for a more effective rhythm section than two brothers. It’s the ‘bloodbuzz’ that drives them.
“I’m not sure if we’d even be a band still if it didn’t have that family dynamic,” says Aaron. “It binds us together. We’ve fallen into these different roles and we’re a semi-functional family and a semi-functional democracy.”
Matt is the only one not to have a brother in the band, but did invite his younger sibling Tom on the road with them for his mercifully short-lived career as a roadie [which was documented in 2013’s poignant movie Mistaken For Strangers. Since then, Tom has worked closely with the band and all of their relationships have opened up. “We’re a family,” says Matt. “Make art out of your life, your pain and your desire – and do it with your friends.”
Then, Matt pauses before continuing cautiously. “Making art with your friends and your family is a dangerous and emotional crucible. It is a hot-powdered keg. We all say the most hateful, hurtful and damaging things to the people we’re closest to. When you mix it all, you can hurt each other in different ways.”
I mention another volatile creative relationship between a pair of famous musical brothers…
“With Noel and Liam Gallagher, they’ve probably got wounds that won’t heal,” ponders Matt. “They acknowledge that and it’s sad, but you can see where it comes from. They didn’t get loved enough from their dad. It all boils down to shit like that. Hug your kids more…Then again, they’ve made some of the best songs ever written out of that pain…”
Sibling rivalry and inner turmoil aside, what do The National have left to prove – and who to?
“I’m still competing with The Strokes!” reveals Berninger. “I love our first record, but when it comes out next to ‘Is This It’ you’re like, ‘ouch’. I saw them live and everything about that band was fucking perfect. Arcade Fire have been our friend and inspiration – same with Justin Vernon [Bon Iver], Annie Clark [St Vincent] and Sufjan [Stevens]. We’ve got a big group of people that are incredible and we’re always trying to impress them. We believe in the collective thing that makes everybody better.”
He sighs, his tone taking an angry turn. “Now with a fucking Nazi sympathiser for a President, we’re all on the same team. That’s the opposite of bravery and kindness. Those Nazis are terrified, twisted boys – Donald Trump too is a twisted, mangled child.”
While they admit that ‘Sleep Well Beast’ is more personal than political, The National also state that the two are also impossible to separate – especially in the current climate. “Trump was elected as we entered the process of making this record,” reveals drummer Bryan Devendorf. “It fed into everything, but maybe we needed some harsh escapism.”
In the 2008 and 2012 US Presidential Elections, not only did the band sell a t-shirt of Obama’s face emblazoned with their song title ‘Mr November’ and lend their track ‘Fake Empire’ to an anti-Bush ad, they were also vocal supporters and performed at a number of Obama rallies. The very mention of Donald Trump’s name invites a wave of rage from each member of The National.
“We were just a small part of a huge wave of support for Obama,” replies Aaron. “He wasn’t perfect at all, but it’s like night and day to now, when we’re in darkness. You couldn’t write this nightmare. If Trump was elected on a wave of backlash or white-lash against Obama, then the last months have been a wake up call for a lot of people.”
Matt, truly riled up now, is on one. “The conservative base has been working on this for 20 or 30 years,” he spits. “The corporate right has been using racism, sexism, hatred and religious intolerance for a long time. Donald Trump is just the monster they made.
“The Nazis marching in the streets were taught to be this way. Not just by their parents, but by a certain underground sympathy that they’ve been receiving from the Republican Party for 20 or 30 years. Let’s not pretend that Donald Trump is an outlier. He is their creation and they own him – well, we all do. Our politicians are showing a lack of backbone, character, bravery and soul. Anybody who is not fighting this is supporting them, and by extension supporting white supremacy. It is what it is – and I’m pissed.”
He paraphrases a lyric from their own song ‘Baby, We’ll Be Fine’. “I’m going on blind faith that kindness, bravery and love will prevail.”
Kicking off with a run of UK shows including a residency at London’s Hammersmith Apollo, a heavy few years of touring await The National. That’s two more years of the band embodying the darkness they’ve created against the backdrop of tyranny that awaits them back home. Aaron reveals that they already have an album’s worth of material leftover from the ‘Sleep Well Beast’ sessions and assure us that it won’t be another four year wait for new music. But there’s a restlessness in their DNA which means they may challenge themselves and scrap it all. There are plenty more rounds of the long game left to play.
‘Sleep Well Beast’ by The National is out now.
Their upcoming UK and Ireland tour dates are below. Tickets are available here.
September 16 – Cork Opera House, Cork
September 17 – Vicar Street, Dublin
September 18 – Vicar Street, Dublin
September 20 – Usher Hall, Edinburgh
September 21 – Usher Hall, Edinburgh
September 22 – O2 Apollo, Manchester
September 23 – O2 Apollo, Manchester
September 25 – Eventim Hammersmith Apollo, London
September 26 – Eventim Hammersmith Apollo, London
September 27 – Eventim Hammersmith Apollo, London
September 28 – Eventim Hammersmith Apollo, London