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The National: Wrestling with the Boxer

For many, The National is something of an acquired taste. I’ve heard complaints that the Brooklyn-based band’s songs are too moody, that the quintet’s live show is too stiff and that lead singer Matt Berninger’s lyrics are too verbose. In fact, when I first heard the National shortly before the release of 2005’s Alligator, I’ll admit that I agreed with at least the first two of those three points, but something about Berninger’s words kept creeping in my subconscious and never looked back. I scored the group’s sparse, early recordings, the lo-fi The National and the equally artsy n experimental Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, and began to dig deeper.

Born and raised in Cincinnati, the members of The National began playing together in high school in 1990s. In its earliest incarnation the group focused on popular covers, with particular emphasis placed on bands like The Cure and jam-favorites such as the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers. Over time each band member migrated to New York, some like guitarist Aaron Dessner to attend college at Columbia, others like Berninger, to work a variety of odd jobs in and out of the corporate sphere. By 1999 The National
settled on the lineup of Berninger, Dessner and his brother Bryce, and another pair of siblings, Bryan and Scott Devendorf and began refining their dark, moody and fiercely intelligent indie-rock sound.

At first The National was a part time hobby, but by the time the group began working on Alligator, Berninger has started to focus more on his band’s words than his office’s water cooler. 2007’s Boxer easily stands as one of the years most intelligent releases, thanks to choice lyrics like “Falling out of touch with all my/friends are somewhere getting wasted, hope they’re staying glued together/I have arms for them” and “They’re gonna send us to prison for jerks/ for having vague ideas of the way to turn each other on again.” The group followed its studio success by fleshing out its live show, adding a keyboardist and the occasional horns, and hitting festivals Bonnaroo, Langerado and several of Europe’s most prominent gatherings. And, slowly but surely, The National began winning over fans and eventually surpassed onetime peers like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah as the definitive New York indie-rock band—-a title recent tours with Arcade Fire, R.E.M. and Modest Mouse have only helped cement.

While Boxer’s baritone vocals and melancholy soundscapes are a far cry from the tie-dye ethos that informed most of The National in high school, the quintet has managed to slowly build a strong, grassroots following with little help from mainstream, MTV media. At Langerado last month, Benjy and I sat down with Berninger to discuss his latest set of lyrics, touring with his icons and how he ended up at a Phish festival.

Let’s start by talking about your upcoming arena tour with R.E.M. and Modest Mouse. Was R.E.M. an important band in your own musical development?

Yeah, in a couple months, we’ll start out on the road with them so that’ll be fun. But we missed em yesterday [at Langerado] cause we just got in, but yeah. They were, for me, one of those defining bands, like The Smiths and The Pixies and that stuff. It’s like, you know, in high school there were the kids that listened to Rush and Slayer and then there were the kids that were the artsy kids whatever that went for The Smiths. For some reason, I think I identified more with that sort of artsy, nerdy kid. Music seemed to be much more of a way to pick sides or something, or to find identity, then than it does now. I don’t thinkI don’t know if it does so much now, but I remember back then, you were a metal dude, a punk kid, a skater kid or one of the art nerds, who were The Smith fans and stuff like that. Maybe it is still that wayI haven’t been to high school in a while (laughter).

It’s been almost a year since The National released its last album, Boxer. Is the Boxer material still relevant to you or have you already starting thinking about your next album?

We’re writing new things but we’re not in the mindset of thinking about a new album. For us it takes a long time. It’s a really slow gestating process, so I still really feel a part of Boxer. We did finish the record over a year ago and, you know, it’s literally been on the shelves for almost a year now but I still feel like I’m inside that record. And we’re just starting to look at other new things. Part of it is we were really, really happy with that record. So it’s been nice to go out and just play and continue playing this thing and slowly find more and more people coming to it.

Your lyrics have always been an important part of the National’s sound. Do you feel there are certain lyrical themes that tie the Boxer together? One line in specific that stood out to me was “You know I dreamed about you/for 29 years before I saw you/You know I dreamed about you/I missed you for/for twenty-nine years,” which is a theme you addressed in the song “29 Years” on your first album?

I think there are, if we’re talking mostly about the lyrics. I think it’sI don’t avoid, but if I go back to something it’s not usually cause I’m like thinking “you know what, that’d be fun to go back to a lyric from an older record.” It’s usually because I have all these books and notebooks of ideas and I’ll end up linking into something, not because it’s a lyric on a record but because it’s part of an idea that obsesses me or whatever.

So the “29 years line,” you know, those kinds of thingsthe same line works very differently in the two songs it exists in, but I used it again. And there’s been little elements of that kind of thing. I don’t have any rules when it comes to writing lyrics. I just try to make the song connect and work well. But, you know, I think our albums do kind of connect and link in to each other but it’s not a big, it’s not a grand scheme. It’s not by design and we don’t have some big philosophy about it.

That being said, I assume you settled on the title Boxer to highlight the album’s central themes of “struggle and survival?”

Yeah, calling it Boxer was actually my wife’s idea. She was sort of, you knowa lot of the characters I’ve described as being on the ropes in some way or another, or challenged in some way, and they’re desperately trying to either hold on to something and do something brave, do something powerful. Sometimes they do, sometimes they fail on the record, you know? It just seemed fitting. Same thing for when we the last album Alligator. I felt there was a darkness to it, and there was fear and insecurity and danger or something and anxieties that were in that were different. And Alligator, there is a reference to alligator on that record. It’s just a word that sort of becomes a symbol for something. It’s not supposed to be a riddle you know. It’s just a, like an iconic name, a symbol that means nothing quite literally but it fits.

The National are a relatively new addition to the festival circuit. Did you attend festivals when you were younger?

I never did, I didn’t. I didn’t ever go to any festivals, really. I was taken by [The National’s] Scott [Devendorf] and Bryan [Devendorf] to a Phish festival. I wasn’t exactly young at this time but that’s really the only time I remember being at a festival. It was this big place they used to have these giant festivals. I don’t even remember what the heck the name of it was. That was really the only time I’d ever as a, sort of, customer went to festivals and stuff. But I’ve started to spend a lot more time with them recently, yeah.

I think many of our readers might be surprised to hear that Scott and Bryan were Phish fans. Are they the only Phish-heads in The National.

Actually, all the guys but me were pretty into that band. But I was never bitten by that bug [laughter].

In addition to Langerado, The National has played Bonnaroo, Coachella and many of Europe’s most prominent festivals. How have you felt the band has adjusted to this new setting?

I think in some ways it’s easyno easy isn’t the word, but relaxing. I think a lot of it, even though there might be 20 times the number of people there, or 100 times the number of people there watching you, there’s something you know, you don’t feel like you’re being scrutinized under a microscope, that’s sometimes you are in your own club shows when you’re the headliner and all that kind of thing, and those are more nerve wracking for me. These are more fun. You realize that most of the people probably don’t know who you are, at least who we are for sure. So you can only win, you know you can only win over new people and it’s a challenge but it’s kind of fun to do that. You can tell the sound of when a crowd of 30 or 40,000 people are just partying and then they start listening. You can tell the sound of it changes, focusing in on the lyrics and whatnot and just start to like get drawn in a little bit. We not always able to do that, but we have been in the past and it’s been a fun. We feel that shift when all of the sudden. You know, tens of thousands of people stop talking and start paying attention.

In light of what you said earlier, do you feel your fans have a certain identity?

That’s a good question. We didn’t like blow up because of any certain thing. It seems like we slowly started building an audience over years and years, and I think we slowly started building all kinds of audiences. So, at our shows you’ll see a lot of high school kids, but you’ll see a lot of guys who bring their kids who are in high school. We’ve met families. And so we do seem to have a really broad spectrum of people that have found out about us from all different sources. You know, sometimes it’s like MTV that the people find out about us, other times it’s people that read you know, the different sort of more obscure music magazines and stuff that catere to all different audiences. You know Spin and that kind of thing is catered to a much younger audience and then there’s Uncut Magazine or Relix, you know. Very different people have subscriptions to those and so we seem to have, like, gotten a lot of all of them. It’s kind of nice, you know? I guess it’s a thing: if one demographic turns on us we’ve still got others to back up (laughter).

What is the process like of constructing your live show?

I think the other guys would like it if we changed the setlist every night, but we don’t. We have about ten or fifteen songs or of those songs there are ten songs that we always want to play and then there’s another five to ten that we swap in and out. I’m kinda of the one who likes to do mostly the same set and switch it around a little bit. Sometimes it feels like you can do a song so many different ways, and it takes us a few shows for me to feel like we’re starting to do the songs right, you know, nail em. But the other guys disagree. They want to change things around a lot.

The Phish-heads in the band!

Part of it is, it’s like, I feel that if we don’t rehearse a song, which we’ve done you know or somebody yells for an old song that we haven’t played in a year, we won’t play it very well and that always bums me out. I’ll forget lyrics. The truth is I think that’s all an insecurity thing on my part, inside the band. I think from the outside perspective people don’t mind that, they don’t care if a song sounds like a rough version or that it’s full of flaws. I think that’s actually good in music, flaws, but I think when you’re up there doing it, you wanna do it right, you know? Especially when you’ve got a chance to play for 30,000 people or 60,000 or whatever. You wanna give em, give em something awesome. So I prefer not to just say “Let’s just throw in something from our first album.” If we haven’t rehearsed that song, we don’t play it well, so we’re not going to play it right now.

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