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o now they're heavyweights," I thought, as the National took the stage during the first show of their five-night Bowery Ballroom residency in late May. With the recent release of Boxer, the most understated and rewarding album of the moment (in any genre), the veteran Cincinnati-bred sextet has propelled itself to new heights of indie-rock stardom.
The National makes intimate, raucously passionate bedroom music, with baritone-voiced songwriter Matt Berninger attuned to everyday expressions of memory, love, ego and urban malaise. The band's appeal and depth grow immeasurably with repeated listens, and its Next-Big-Thing status is likely to have staying power.
After receiving near-unanimous rave reviews, playing sold-out shows in Paris and London and a short stint opening for the Arcade Fire, Berninger and guitarist Bryce Dessner sat down with me backstage at the Bowery Ballroom to discuss the bewildering but welcome transition from talented underdogs to contenders. — Akiva Gottlieb
When you Google "the national," the band is listed at the top of the page. So you guys have gotten bigger recently. Is it time to quit your day jobs?
Dessner: I actually got fired from a couple jobs because of the National. Because we were too busy traveling. Actually, nobody in the National has had full-time jobs for at least a year or two. Scott and Matt trained as graphic designers, so they can freelance when they're not touring.
But in terms of career, do you think you guys have more of a successful business background than most bands in New York ?
Berninger: It's hard to say. Scott and I have had decent positions at good design firms. We had proper, grown-up corporate jobs. But it was written about in a bio early on, so it seemed to be something that stuck to our image or brand: playing music and having white-collar jobs. It's not totally untrue, but it's not like we were at a law firm or something.
Dessner: As for me and our touring member Padma, all we've ever done is music-related stuff. My job earlier on was actually teaching guitar to kids. I wasn't white-collar, and I was making very little money.
So is the office imagery in your lyrics mostly invented?
Berninger: No, it comes from all that. But I think I get obsessions with. . . a fear of that kind of thing. Even when I was in high school — my mom brought it up recently — I did something called "The Blue Suit." It was a sculpture where I painted all these stuffed animals blue. You know, high-school art. She remembered that as something related to my anxiety about becoming a professional. Anxiety about being responsible. It's not a hatred of work at all. It's just the awkward interactions and everyday moments that come in and out of the songs. The world of an office slave. . . you spend more time in the office than anywhere else.
So now you're doing five nights at Bowery Ballroom. What are the mechanics of playing five nights in the same venue, and adapting to things you might not have foreseen? Like last night, it was fascinating how silent the crowd was in between the first few songs. Whether it was reverence or. . .
Berninger: . . . Boredom.
"The themes are very personal, but the details aren't. My girlfriend never pissed in a sink."
Boredom, right. How does all that inform your sets?
Dessner: It's important for ourselves to change it up a bit each night, and also to make the fans feel like they're not getting the same act two nights in a row. The interesting thing about last night is that we came from Europe, where we had played one massive show in London — two-thousand-plus people — and then some really intimate shows in Paris and Berlin. In Berlin especially, where people are still smoking in the venue. . . and in addition to that, health-hazard heat in the packed venue. . . literally dripping with sweat but it was an amazing show. So going from that to a much quieter audience, with no smoke or sweat. . . it felt like a mellower, less-intense atmosphere.
What was it like playing Radio City Music Hall, opening for the Arcade Fire?
Berninger: I found that surprisingly easy. Somehow, that room made me feel comfortable. The pressure was really off us, since those were the Arcade Fire's shows. We knew we were playing to a bunch of people who probably hadn't heard of us before. So in a way, it was all upside. We had the potential to reach new fans. So when we started the sets, people were finding their seats, but by the time we finished, it was usually pretty packed. It felt like we had knocked on some doors.
Did they give you any advice about transitioning into bigger venues?
Berninger: They do a different kind of show than we do. Even before they exploded, they put on this huge, incredibly theatrical show. They're one of the few bands who can make those bigger rooms feel exciting and intimate. Ours is a little bit different. Perhaps because for five years we've been playing tiny little clubs.
John Darnielle from the Mountain Goats used to say that all his songs were short stories about made-up people. The National's songs feature a lot of names — Karen, Ada, Claire, Mary, Rachael. How blurry is the line between intimate personal events and the descriptions in the songs?
Berninger: It's a blurry line. Karen, for example, is about my girlfriend Corinne. I changed just a few letters, so that line isn't as blurry as some of the others. But a lot of it is made up of fantasies of how to work out little issues and little questions about sometimes very simple things. So the themes are very personal, but the details aren't. Corinne never pissed in a sink.
Do you see your songs as primarily love songs?
Berninger: They're not all about romantic love. There's the song "Green Gloves," which is about love and friends. . . A big part of it is the music that Aaron and Bryce give me to listen to, to write to. If it were a different kind of music, maybe the themes would be somewhat different. But I'm sitting there drinking wine and writing lyrics to these guitar sketches. . . what better thing to obsess over and write about?
Do you think Alligator and Boxer have been informed by the relocation to New York, and being under stronger scrutiny than you would have gotten in Cincinnati?
Berninger: The National, in my mind, has always been a New York thing. As far as New York being a place where there's more pressure, I think the opposite is true. The city is incredibly nurturing to bands. We counted one time, and we've played in at least twenty or thirty different venues in New York. In Cincinnati, there's like two places for a small indie-rock band to get out there.
On Boxer you also collaborate with a number of special guests.
Dessner: Yeah. Thomas Bartlett (a.k.a. Doveman) is opening tonight's show. He's somebody in our community whose music we really like. The horn players who play on the record are two of the best in New York City, young Juilliard grads who live in my neighborhood. I literally just called them and recorded them myself. Sufjan Stevens is my neighbor as well, and he's on the album.
Your press release hints at a number of literary influences on Boxer, including writers as varied as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jonathan Ames. Does what you're reading affect what goes into the lyrics?
Berninger: Yeah. I will write down little bits of stuff out of books and movies and TV. I don't think of the lyrics as specifically literary. . . there's stuff from a Steven Spielberg movie on the new record.
Berninger: I'm not gonna say. It's not E.T.
Dessner: It's not Jaws.
Berninger: Little things, little nuggets, wherever they come from, I'll write them down. I have to remember to put a little initial to differentiate between stuff I've stolen and stuff that's actually my own. I steal a lot from my girlfriend, because she's a writer. I'll just use whatever I need. This record even has stuff stolen from earlier records of our own. Somebody said something today that upset me: they thought it "lacked originality." It was funny, implying that I couldn't think of any more words so I had to go steal something off of an earlier record. That may have been the case. But you'll learn that there's nothing really original. Everything you do, in some way, is a combination of things you've learned.
You often explore issues of masculinity in your lyrics.
Berninger: It's the perspective I know. It's not on purpose. I'm not trying to send any messages like: "Bring back man-rock!"
Dessner: There's a fair share of ambiguous sexual lyrics that people could interpret the wrong way.
Berninger: I guess I just happen to be a man, so that's the angle that I know.
There's a confessional feeling to a lot of your songs. Many of the lyrics describe very intimate details — which, of course, may not be based in fact. Does it ever make you uncomfortable to share this intimacy with a crowd?
Berninger: There's definitely a weird irony in the fact a lot of the Boxer songs are so private — one critic called them "agoraphobic." So you take something that's very private and shut-in and then you perform it in front of a thousand strangers. And it's actually oddly comfortable. Last night, for example — and we do this a lot — we realize that we're in front of all these people, and it's exhilarating and terrifying, and we turn in on each other, and try to pretend that we're not performing in front of a crowd. Because it rattles me. I do most of the show with my eyes closed. Not because I want to look sincere or something, or pained. It's because if I open my eyes and see a bunch of faces, it's odd. Like the dream of showing up to school without any clothes.
For the record, who's your favorite boxer?
Berninger: Sylvester Stallone is my favorite professional boxer. n°
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© 2007 Akiva Gottlieb & Nerve.com