he National is finally coming home. The Brooklyn-based band of Cincinnati natives — guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner, bassist Scott Devendorf, drummer Bryan Devendorf and singer Matt Berninger — are headlining this year’s MusicNOW festival, which, like The National’s slow, steady rise to prominence, has evolved into one of the more unique and anticipated musical events in the Midwest.
Now in his sixth year of presenting adventurous artists of various styles and musical approaches (see this year’s lineup info here and here), festival curator Bryce Dessner thought it was the right time to ask his longtime bandmates to play MusicNOW.
“It feels like a homecoming in a way,” Dessner says by phone from Brooklyn. “I think we were due. We haven’t been to Cincinnati since the Obama rally at Fountain Square in ’08 and people and family had been asking when we were going to play there again. This is the sixth year of MusicNOW and the band hasn’t played. Part of it is that I never felt like we could do it in Memorial Hall. We’re too loud and the Hall doesn’t really support or work as well with Rock music. I think the loudest band we’ve had (for MusicNOW) is the Dirty Projectors, which was amazing, but I think a third of the audience had to get up and leave.”
Berninger, speaking by phone from Brooklyn in a separate interview, throws out another reason for The National not playing MusicNOW previously.
“Bryce didn’t want this to be an avenue for our Rock band,” the singer says. “He’s more comfortable with it now that MusicNOW kind of stands on its own.”
That’s an understatement. The festival’s first five years featured an impressive mix of eclectic artists, from avant-garde experimentalists to slightly more conventional Art Rock purveyors. Alumni include Amiina, Bell Orchestre, Andrew Bird, The Books, Grizzly Bear, Kronos Quartet, Joanna Newsom, St. Vincent, Colin Stetson, Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, who’ll be back again this year.
Now the festival is branching out to accommodate The National’s more straightforward Rock stylings; the band plays Sunday night at the larger and more acoustically suitable Music Hall next door. Besides the acoustics, the band’s ever-widening audience of admirers has outgrown Memorial Hall’s 600-seat capacity.
The National has put out five full-length albums in 10 years, each sonically textured, dark-hued excursion building upon and expanding the sound of the preceding release, both in terms of creative growth and ambition. The band’s slow but steady evolution has seen the fivesome go from playing tiny spaces (including locally at The Comet) supporting their Folk-leaning 2001 self-titled debut to headlining the Pitchfork Music Festival behind 2007’s Boxer, a record that catapulted them into an entirely new stratosphere. (Then-presidential candidate Barack Obama used Boxer’s “Fake Empire” as a campaign song and the album graced many year-end lists, including the top spot in Paste magazine).
The National’s latest, 2010’s High Violet, broadened the band’s sonic palate and audience even further.
“We’ve grown as a band in musical terms of how to write together and use our sort of complementary skills,” Berninger says. “That first record I think we were just trying to figure out how to be a band together with five people coming from very different musical backgrounds. Over the years, playing live in places like The Comet and playing in a lot of little clubs for many, many years, we learned a lot about songwriting and about playing together. Then when we started playing shows with Arcade Fire and R.E.M., and even when we opened for The Walkmen on a tour, which was right before we made Alligator (2005), I know that we’ve stolen a lot from people in many ways, and it’s definitely influenced our songwriting. In many cases our songs have gotten bigger and more anthemic.”
Dessner agrees that the band’s growth has been an organic evolution.
“We’ve gotten better as a live band,” he says. “The songs have been allowed to grow with our audience. I don’t think I would have done it any other way. It’s been a good, steadily building process. A lot of Rock bands get a lot of success and then sit back and bask in the glory of whatever image they might have of themselves and then their music turns to shit. I think we like to keep challenging ourselves and sort of putting ourselves in new territory and not being complacent about things.”
The National’s tight-knit internal dynamic is another reason it has continued to grow and remain vital at an age when most band’s implode or get restless with each other creatively and/or personally. Of course, it helps when there are two sets of brothers in the band.
“Those guys have a connection that I won’t have with them, but we’ve been friends for so long that it’s like we’ve all felt like a dysfunctional family of brothers for a long, long time,” Berninger says of being the only non-brother. “Them being brothers has definitely been a healthy thing for our band with respect to the fact that they fight amongst themselves — nothing like the cliché Gallaghers (from Oasis) or whatever — but there won’t be any breaking up of the band based on that. If anything, it’s the glue that’s held our band together through a lot of tricky periods.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t get plenty of shit from them as the so-called most mature member of the band (Berninger is the only one with a kid).
“Being the singer and the guy who writes the lyrics, I have plenty of power,” Berninger says in a buoyant speaking delivery that belies the deep, doom-laden singing voice that, along with his evocative lyrics, has become one of the band’s calling cards. “They joke and call me The Megalomanic or The Dark Lord. They have a lot of passive-aggressive nicknames for me because I can be stubborn and loud and aggressive. It goes both ways. They also joke about how I’m the big idiot. Nobody realizes that I’m a giant fool. Everybody thinks I’m this big literary genius when the truth is that I’m just a big nimrod.
“That’s why I think our band is really healthy,” the singer continues. “There’s a lot of truth in that — I can be a pain in the ass and kind of dictator sometimes, especially in the writing and recording process, yet at the same time I can’t play a G chord, which they constantly remind me. We all know that we would not be anything without each other. We have a tense but very complementary relationship between all of us.”
There’s another galvanizing event that has influenced the band: 9/11. The band’s first album was released a month after twin towers fell in New York, an event each of them watched unfold from their rooftops in Brooklyn.
“I remember I was in a three-month depression after that,” Dessner says, speaking just a few days after the U.S. finally tracked down Osama bin Laden. “Living here and being so close to that violence and death — you could smell it in the air. It was really, really hard and impossible to not think about. It was a real existential moment — like, ‘Whoa, what the fuck?’ The combination of living through Sept. 11 and then living in the Bush years, it’s kind of the background story of what was happening with some of the songs. We’d be lying to say it didn’t have a big impact.”
It also led the band to get more engaged with the world around them.
“When Bush won the second time it made me realize how divided our country is,” Berninger says. “I was just really surprised that that happened. In simple terms of being in a band, it made us drop our disaffected cool and put our money where our mouth is. We all happen to be Democrats and kind of lefties, but we never really wanted politics to be connected to our band — we still sort of don’t want the songs to be anything about that — but trying to do any little things we could to help get Barack Obama elected was really important to all of us. We probably wouldn’t have done that if it hadn’t been for the fact that we saw how easy it is to go down the wrong road.”
But, ultimately, The National’s unique musical perspective goes back to their Midwestern Cincinnati roots.
“It’s in the ethos of what The National is,” Dessner says. “It’s in there — that’s our family, that’s how we grew up, it’s part of our identity. We’re nice guys from Ohio. I also think the early-’90s Rock scene in Ohio went into the identity of what the band is — bands like Guided by Voices and The Breeders. Especially for Matt and Scott, who went to college together (at UC) and who were seeing bands at Sudsy’s and hanging out on the scene all those years and having a college band. We definitely come out of an Ohio Rock tradition.”
Berninger is even more specific about the Cincinnati connection.
“There is a certain amount of shorthand that we all recognize,” he says. “We constantly have turf wars over East Side versus West Side kind of things. I’m the only Westsider, so those same silly stereotypes arise when we get into it.”
THE NATIONAL plays closing night of the MusicNOW festival at Music Hall. The fest’s Friday and Saturday shows are at neighboring Memorial Hall. For ticketing and other info on the many other MusicNOW-related activities this weekend, visit www.musicnowfestival.org.