Indie rockers the National confront hype, stardom

Sat Apr 24, 2010 12:26pm EDT
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By Monica Herrera

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."   Continued...

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