Goofball Earnestness

Alt-rock buzz band The National supports good causes and fights limited perspectives

Riding high on its critically acclaimed fifth album, High Violet, The National is one of the buzziest alternative-rock acts of 2010.

The band has been the subject of fashion shoots, a documentary, a live film and countless articles in mainstream publications and glossy magazines. The National also has appeared on national TV and opened concert tours for R.E.M. and Arcade Fire, and even watched its tune "Fake Empire" become the unofficial theme song of Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign.

But there are two things the members of this Brooklyn-based band are not: wet behind the ears and overnight sensations.

The National came together 11 years ago, when vocalist and songwriter Matt Berninger began collaborating with two sets of brothers: Scott (who plays bass and guitar) and Bryan Devendorf (drums), and Aaron (guitar, bass and piano) and Bryce Dessner (guitar).

The five members, who were raised in Ohio, have been around the block a few times; they're all now in their 30s. Allow Berninger to tell a bit of the story.

"We all grew up in Cincinnati, but we all ended up in New York for either school or work," he says during a recent telephone interview. "I came after finishing college, with Scott. We were looking for work. We were here five years before getting together to play music."

Berninger worked for 10 years as a graphic designer, about half of that after The National came together.

"In the beginning, music was a way to unwind and a hobby away from reality and our other lives. We all were still freelancing, or working full-time, until just a year or two ago.

"Once we started touring a lot more, we left those jobs, but it wasn't that long ago that Aaron was calling in sick from his job while we were on a tour in Europe. You know, he'd say he wasn't coming in, taking a long weekend or taking a week off."

The band's debut album was released in 2001, and since then, The National has honed its combination of post-punk, Britpop, chamber rock and tinges of Americana, all wrapped around Berninger's resonant baritone, which falls somewhere among the deep intonations of Swans' Michael Gira, Tindersticks' Stuart Staples and Joy Division's Ian Curtis.

Balancing dark themes and sly humor, The National makes late-night mood music that sounds good when the sun is out, too; the sound is warm and inviting.

Berninger acknowledges that the band's music has been pegged as a downer, but he finds that such criticism emanates from a "limited perspective."

"We've been called a melancholy or an introspective band, and usually, that's been meant as a compliment. ... But that's missing a whole other element of the music that is lighthearted and silly. There are a lot of very earnest moments, but also a lot of goofball, self-deprecating moments."

All are well in evidence in one of the most personal songs on High Violet: The ruminative "Afraid of Everyone," in which Berninger admits his role as a father in an increasingly tumultuous world—full of "venom radio and venom television" and "young blue bodies with the old red bodies"—inspires a paternal wariness.

But he injects wry humor into the chorus: "I don't have the drugs to sort it out."

"In general, when they hear my voice, many people automatically think most of the songs have dark themes. I just naturally sing that way; I never thought too much about how to sing. For me, searching for something that sounds halfway decent as a melody is what matters."

Berninger figures his vocal style owes a good amount to the singers to whom he always has enjoyed listening: Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Morrissey and Michael Stipe.

"Maybe I'm channeling them sometimes. What I like about all of those singers is that everything for them is about delivery, the right delivery for the right lyric, the timing and phrasing and weight and intent. It's like delivering a good joke. It's about the personality they put into the song."

In between the release of its last album, Boxer, in 2007, and High Violet, The National stayed in the public eye with its contributions to two multi-artist albums, both released in 2009.

Dark Was the Night is a benefit record for the Red Hot Organization, which has been the beneficiary of several fundraising album collections since the 1980s. The group raises funds and awareness to combat HIV and AIDS. Dark Was the Night was produced by Aaron and Bryce Dessner.

On Ciao My Shining Star, the artists covered the songs of former Miracle Legion frontman Mark Mulcahy in a tribute to the memory of Mulcahy's late wife, Melissa, who died suddenly in September 2008; proceeds went to help Mulcahy continue his music career and raise his 3-year-old twin daughters.

Berninger says he appreciates and respects the trend of artists coming together for good causes.

"Right now, there is really a sort of healthy collaborative spirit shared by many musical artists. Kids and young people in rock bands are trying to make something good out of life. They often have a passionate desire to work together on these things for good causes. It's a good-hearted spirit that's also kind of infectious."

Although High Violet was just released in May, 4AD Records is already planning a deluxe re-release. The expanded edition is expected in stores Nov. 22, and it will include two previously unreleased tracks, B-sides, live tracks and an alternate version of the album's lead-off cut, "Terrible Love."

The National's modest rise to a position of some comfort has allowed its members to remain realistic about their success, Berninger says.

"We've seen so many of our friends suddenly get thrust into that spotlight, and it was all going so fast for them, I think we learned what to avoid. Also, we're not putting all of our chips on the table. We're a rock band, nothing more, and we're lucky to have this attention, and we're going to enjoy it while we have it. If we someday had to go back to our day jobs, it wouldn't be that devastating."


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