April 24, 2010 / 4:32 PM / 7 years ago

Indie rockers the National confront hype, stardom

<p>Matt Berninger of the National performs at Virgin Mobile Free Fest, in Columbia, Maryland August 30, 2009. REUTERS/Bill Auth</p>

NEW YORK (Billboard) - For a band that’s considered to be one of the leaders of Brooklyn’s indie-rock enclave, the National has a fairly conflicted relationship with New York.

Frontman Matt Berninger laments about the “Manhattan valleys of the dead” in the song “Anyone’s Ghost” from the band’s forthcoming album “High Violet.”

And on the next track “Little Faith,” his distaste for the urbane is borne out in the wistful couplet: “You’re waiting for Radio City to sink/You find commiseration in everyone’s eyes/The storm will suck the pretty girls into the sky.”

Gloomy stuff, to be sure, but much of it has to do with the National’s birthplace, which continues to figure heavily in its music despite (or perhaps because of) its growing profile.

Berninger, brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Scott and Bryan Devendorf formed the band in Ohio in 1999, and the National’s career can be described as a slow, steady and perfectly manageable climb ever since. Its 2001 self-titled debut sold 15,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and “Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers” followed in 2003 with 27,000. “Alligator,” the band’s 2005 set, sold 77,000 and raised its profile, while critically acclaimed 2007 album “Boxer” sold 183,000 copies. The pattern is clear, and the National warily knows that with “High Violet” -- due May 11 in the United States and a day earlier in international markets -- it will most likely take another big leap forward.

“I‘m aware of this huge upsurge of interest,” says guitarist Aaron Dessner, who composes the majority of the band’s music. “It’s kind of exciting, but also confusing. All of a sudden we are one of those bands being hyped ... I‘m not sure what to think of it yet.”

It’s safe to say that a “huge” first-week sales total for “High Violet” would surprise more people than not. The National is still largely perceived as under the radar, even as it’s selling out tour dates at prestigious venues. In late January, before an album release date had even been announced, the band put up tickets for shows at New York’s Radio City Music Hall and London’s Royal Albert Hall. The group’s 4AD Records alebl said the former sold out in three hours, and the latter in 15 minutes, prompting the band to add a second U.K. show.

“We secretly told a lot of fans about it so they could get the first tickets,” Dessner says. “We were getting tons and tons of fan e-mails, people who were just really upset because they had been online at the on-sale time.”

The new challenge facing the National is how to keep that growth organic and not succumb to the hype that has caused many an indie band’s downfall.

Integrity aside, when Google asks to feature your music in its commercial, you’re pretty much required to oblige. At least, that’s what the National did when company executives approached the band in December.

The spot depicts a fan of the National looking up terms like “the national tour dates” to secure tickets to an upcoming gig.

“It was basically an ad for the National, and that was kind of weird,” Dessner says. “All of our friends back home in Ohio thought we were going be millionaires when they saw it. We had to disavow them of that notion.”

A couple of months after the ad ran, the National finally completed “High Violet,” ending a grueling and sometimes tense recording process that started in February 2009.

“When you’re finishing songs, it’s a product of all this internal wrangling, and everybody’s shaping it in their own way ... although I think somehow we’ve ended up making it sound worse than it was,” Dessner says.

The new songs were recorded in a studio that Dessner constructed out of a garage space behind his Victorian-style house in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park neighborhood. Sticking to the band’s usual creative process, Dessner composed sketches of songs and sent them to Berninger, who wrote lyrics to whichever pieces of music inspired him.

“(Matt) kind of holds back with some of it, so toward the end there were six or seven songs that were fully developed musically that we ended up throwing away because they weren’t finished lyrically,” Dessner says.

The resulting music on “High Violet” is fairly consistent with the National’s prior material, bridging the gap between Joy Division’s post-punk dissonance and Bruce Springsteen’s varnished heartland rock. The melodies are notably stronger, though, especially in the stirring paranoia-anthem “Afraid of Everyone” and the pulsing dirge “Runaway.”

The band’s official tour kicked off April 22 in Richmond, Va., the day before “High Violet” premiered on the New York Times’ website as a full album stream. From there, the National heads to London, with a quick return to the States during release week for a performance on CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman.” Summer dates will include high-profile festival stops at Bonnaroo, Sasquatch, Lollapalooza and Roskilde in Denmark, and the band will play the Austin City Limits Music Festival in the fall.

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