Skip to main content

The National's anthems

By Mark Morgenstein, CNN
Click to play
Band quietly grows to packing Radio City
  • The National recently played to a packed crowd of more than 4,600 people in Atlanta
  • The instrumentation plays a key role when the National compiles its concert set lists
  • Latest album, High Violet, debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 album chart in May

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- The National's rangy front man, Matt Berninger, is lying on a couch in a dressing room high in the historic Fox Theatre, beer in hand, feet kicked up, legs splayed, and, of course, sunglasses on.

As Berninger's brother, Tom, videotapes us interviewing the singer and guitarist Aaron Dessner, we joke that Berninger's acting like Joaquin Phoenix in "I'm Still Here," but unlike David Letterman, we're in on the joke.

This room has surely seen rock-star debauchery for decades, but, as Dessner chides Berninger for drinking so early (it's about 5 p.m., post-sound check), it's clear that Berninger is goofing around, and we're not going to witness anything untoward that would cause us to stop rolling our cameras.

The National -- success for a late-blooming band

Berninger: "I'm just resting. Thank you for indulging me... I won't be laying down on stage. Well, I might at one point."

Dessner: "He's an extremely lethargic individual. That's the truth."

Berninger: "I save it all for the field."

After a brutally hot summer in Atlanta, with more than 80 days of temperatures in the 90s, autumn started right on time, with a sudden shift to crisp weather. Aaron's twin brother, Bryce, has taken advantage of that. As we enter the dressing room, Aaron asks us to excuse Bryce's running clothes, hanging from an exposed ceiling pipe, airing out after recent use.

Bryce, who plays guitar, drummer Bryan Devendorf, and Bryan's brother, bassist Scott Devendorf, are taking a well-deserved break.

This gig will be the 11th in 12 nights, and a seven-hour bus ride to Orlando, Florida, is in the offing for the next night's show. But the band couldn't be more accommodating.

They all volunteer for the interview, but as Bryce Dessner said after sound check, "Matt and Aaron will do all the talking anyway," so Bryan, Scott and Bryce get to save their voices for the concert.

During the just-completed sound check, the band members, supplemented by keyboardist/violinist Padma Newsome, Kyle Resnick on trumpet and Ben Lanz on trombone, didn't say much to each other.

They didn't have to, as anthemic songs such as "Afraid of Everyone," from the National's latest album, High Violet, are fully formed and the band is just ensuring the acoustics sound right in this particular venue.

The tightness and empathy on-stage that can only come from years of practice is also apparent off-stage, where Berninger and Aaron Dessner seamlessly converse while discussing a wide array of topics, including an unexpected career move by one of Dessner's chief songwriting influences.

Berninger: "When Dylan did the underwear ad, you know, you threw all the rules away."

Dessner: "I thought that was unfortunate, though."

Berninger: "Well, that's what Dylan would want to do, is do the thing you don't want him to do and he'll sell girls' underwear."

Their playful banter might seem surprising to some fans. On record, the National's music often can seem despondent, with songs rife with lyrics such as "It's a terrible love and I'm walking with spiders."

Their music evokes post-punk artists such as the Psychedelic Furs and Peter Murphy, in no small part because of Berninger's deep voice.

"Peter Murphy -- I actually hadn't though about that, but, yeah, 'Cuts You Up' and all that kind of stuff, I used to love that in high school and college," Berninger says when that influence is suggested.

In person, these men aren't nearly as dark.

As they perform, their ferocious wall of sound fills with the light of their enthusiasm. They appear to be really enjoying their lives and that positive energy flows into their conversations as well as their live music.

The National is a collaborative collective, which Dessner makes clear when he describes the band's songwriting process.

"What usually ends up happening is there's a core idea for the music that's on guitar or piano or something," Dessner says. "But when the band starts batting it around, we usually hit a wall pretty early on in terms of, there's only so much we can do with traditional rock instrumentation or it's just hard to be innovative or to find the curves and the kind of developments that it might need. And that's when we usually start experimenting with orchestration and arrangements."

The instrumentation plays a key role when the National compiles its concert set lists.

"A lot of it has to do with the types of drum parts or the types of guitar parts and sometimes things, one song flows better into another than others and you figure that out over time," Dessner says.

Recent set lists have included no more than a handful of songs predating the band's two latest, and most popular, albums: 2007's Boxer and 2010's High Violet, which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 album chart in May.

Berninger says that's because when the band tries to compile the "best 90 minutes" of its music, those two albums "have some of the best songs."

"We try to rotate in and out some older stuff, but it's one of those things where we know we're entertainers, and we're not just going to play old songs," he continues. "We're not going to do whatever we feel like all the time. We know that we've got to deliver an awesome show every night."

While the National's newer fans are sure to hear many of their favorites in concert, hipsters who followed the band long before its breakthrough will find National gigs circa fall 2010 aren't what they remember.

"Sometimes, old, old die-hard fans want to hear five songs from the first record. ... Those just aren't our best songs," Berninger says.

But Dessner says the National still acknowledges the fans who helped the band make its leap to headliner status.

"I think we try to play as many old songs as we can and switch them up so that our hardcore audience who we really respect -- they've been with us a long time, so they get things that they're interested in," Dessner says.

That hardcore audience used to see the National in small clubs, and Berninger gets nostalgic for those times.

"I also love the really packed basement, sweaty shows. We don't do as many of those any more, and I miss those a little bit. We're getting bigger, and we're trying to do that while staying ourselves, you know. And it's not that easy. But, I think we're doing OK so far."

The last time the National was in Atlanta, they played the 2,600-capacity Tabernacle. The Fox, with its star-spangled ceiling, holds almost twice as many people at 4,678. Like many of the stops on this trek, the Fox is nationally renowned, historic and captures the band's sound perfectly.

"Some of the places we've been playing recently, like the Ryman [in Nashville], was really beautiful and really special and the acoustics there were so unbelievable that we did a completely unplugged, no microphones or amps or anything version of a song and that was the first time," Berninger says.

"I don't think I would have ever have had the guts to try to do something like that. It's just I'm too timid to do something like that. But in that venue, we were kind of able to do that, so there's these beautiful places with these unbelievable acoustics that we can do stuff that we had never thought of doing before."

Though the band emerged from an indie-rock culture that, in the past, has notoriously disowned bands perceived to sell out or become too popular, Berninger says "because people know that bands don't make the kind of money selling records that they used to," in 2010, it makes sense to pursue previously taboo revenue streams.

"We definitely dance with the devil a little bit here and there," he says. "We've had stuff in probably 20 TV shows and stuff -- and not shows that we watch or care about. But it's helped us get through things with the band. I've got a family and kids and ... we want to make money, and we won't apologize for that at all."

"We've been sort of untouchable, in an odd way, from that perspective of integrity. We don't deserve it (laughs). Like any band, I think, you know, if somebody needs to sell their songs to a car commercial or something to pay their rent, I totally support that," Berninger says.

For example, the National let Saturn use the song "Secret Meeting," off 2005's Alligator, in an automobile commercial.

Dessner: "It was for a hybrid car."

Berninger: "No, it wasn't. They told us it was going to be for a hybrid car."

Dessner: "It wasn't?"

Berninger: "I don't think it was. Anyways ... I think we got $10,000 or $15,000 or something. I can't remember. But it allowed us to make our next record."

The bottom line for the National: Expanding the fan base by any means necessary.

"We want people to pay for our music if they have the money," Berninger says. "But if they can't afford it, then steal it, you know, I guess, because we want you to hear it. That's what's more important."

Whether they're buying, borrowing or stealing, even casual music fans are hearing more of the National than ever.

"When this record came out, there were some articles that mentioned, 'How can a band that no one's ever heard of sell out Radio City Music Hall?' " Berninger points out.

"A lot of people in the mainstream media ... who paid attention to who's on the cover of magazines had never heard of us. But people that love music and all these web music forums and websites and stuff had known about us for a long time."