It’s been one of those years for Matt Berninger, front man of the Brooklyn-based The National — one that he probably never thought he would have when he was studying to become a graphic designer in Cincinnati. He’s been to Europe three times, he’s played to a sold out crowd at Radio City Music Hall and he met David Letterman all in the span of about five months.
What precipitated this whirlwind of events was a simple release by his band: an album called Boxer. “I think Boxer is the best album we’ve made,” Berninger told Listen Up Denver! from his New York City apartment on a rare break from touring. “This record has a different personality from the other ones. It took us a long time to find the atmosphere or mood that is represented on the album and I think the fact that we were patient and didn’t rush through it helped us to succeed. There wasn’t any big vision when we started, but we did a lot of different things and only used the ones that added to the song in an interesting way. Everything included on the final product has it own purpose.”
That purpose and intent is evident in the music and convinces the listener that The National is more than just a rock band. They are artists that take their craft seriously and are not going to compromise themselves for the sake of meeting a studio deadline. “We were successful on our own terms,” said Berninger. “There were a lot of moments during the making of Boxer where there was pressure to finish and we kept pushing the deadlines. We just didn’t want to put something out that we felt was compromised on any level. It cost us time and a lot of stress but I am glad that we kept pushing and made the record that we wanted to make.”
The album is a lavishly produced affair that features Berninger’s robust baritone backed by Scott and Bryan Devendorf and identical twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner. Joining these longtime friends is Australian composer and multi-instrumentalist Padma Newsome, whose horn, woodwind and string arrangements flush out the band’s dark and brooding sound beautifully.
“Padma has been sort of a sixth member for a long time. He and Bryce [Dessner] are in a chamber orchestra together called Clogs,” Berninger said. “We didn’t just add in his orchestration as an ornament or pile layers on a chorus to make it sound more epic or something like that. The horns and the woodwinds and the strings all play a really important role in the sound.”
In order to do justice to that “really important role in the sound,” Newsome will again be joining The National on the road this fall as they continue to play, and frequently sell out, bigger and bigger venues around the U.S. and internationally.
Berninger, who has had problems with stage fright in the past, doesn’t seem to be phased by the bigger crowds that his band is performing for these days. “It isn’t that different to play to the bigger crowds. I love performing, but it is never really comfortable. I guess I’ve just come to peace with being uncomfortable and I think that’s fine. Playing to big crowds of say 3,000 people is no more or less nerve wracking than if it’s 20 people. In fact, being in a room where there are only 20 people watching is sometimes worse than the big shows because you feel like you are under such a microscope,” he said.
Berninger also apparently doesn’t like to have the lyrics he writes for The National put under a microscope and largely refuses to have them included in the liner notes for the band’s albums. “Songwriting for me is a collage kind of process and I never begin to put a song together without the music that the other guys have created. The lyrics aren’t meant to stand on their own and I never think of them as being separate from the music. I don’t write poetry, I write songs; and without the music it doesn’t work at all.”
It is these songs that Berninger and his band of brothers create that have propelled The National into the spotlight. Each composition draws on the collected talents of the group and is born out of the desire to create simply beautiful, heart-wrenching music. While difficult to categorize, The National are influenced by some of the darker songsmiths of our time. “Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Morrisey, Steven Malkumus and Bob Pollard are some of the many songwriters that I have learned from,” said Berninger. “Listening to the Smiths was when I first realized that rock songs can be more than just entertainment. They can be hilarious and also despicable and depressing at the same time.”
Whether The National will ever live up the musical legacy of The Smiths or Leonard Cohen remains to be seen, but with their soaring popularity and dedication to making music that is not compromised in any way, they may very well be looking at a long string of years as busy as the past five months.
Check Out The National If You Like:
- The Smiths
- Leonard Cohen
View The New Video For The National’s “Apartment Story” Below