The National: Frontman Matt Berninger talks about their acclaimed new album and documentary, and why failure was good for the band

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Image Credit: Taylor Hill/Getty Images

For years, the National were one of a thousand little-engine-that-could indie bands, living in Brooklyn and (barely) getting by on small-room tours and local gigs.

Until 2007, when the indelible piano anthem “Fake Empire” helped make their fifth album, Boxer, a critical and popular smash. Letterman came calling, and so did the Obama campaign, which used the song as one of its musical signatures.

Now, with a new album, Trouble Will Find Me, their biggest tour yet, and a new documentary that was the toast of the Tribeca Film Festival, the National is poised to make another leap — this time to a level of fame that actually cements the name, while subverting the original intention of a band that actually chose its name because it had no real meaning. This is the year the National becomes The National.

Ask frontman Matt Berninger, and he’ll tell you that the group’s rise has been built on a foundation of failure. A literal band of brothers — the lineup includes twins Bryce and Aaron Dessner on guitar, and Bryan and Scott Devendorf on drums and bass, respectively (we’ll get to Berninger’s own brother later) — the quintet has struggled, bickered, and come thisclose to breaking up since teaming up in the late 1990s. Success hasn’t mellowed them, exactly, but there is a confidence that comes from winning on their own terms, and from knowing that when they step on the stage, they’re one of the best live bands in the business. “You’re not a real band unless you go out and play shows, for whoever, whenever,” says Berninger.

With Trouble Will Find Me out this week (they’ll play The Colbert Report tonight to celebrate), the band is already booked on the road through November. Berninger spoke to EW about the sound of the new album, being a “Brooklyn band,” and how the rock doc Mistaken For Strangers morphed into something not at all standard issue.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You were on tour for High Violet at the same time that your brother, Tom, was filming a documentary about the band, so I was a little surprised to be listening to Trouble Will Find Me so quickly, though I suppose albums kind of give birth when they’re ready. Were you expecting it so soon?
MATT BERNINGER: Bryce started sending me stuff pretty quickly after we stopped touring. But the whole idea was we weren’t going to even worry about it — it was just going to go on a shelf or into a folder for next year. But when he sent the music for the first song on the record, “I Should Live in Salt,” I think I wrote the melodies and half the lyrics in a few hours and sent it right back to him. That song was the one that was like, “Oh, we’re making a record. We’re in the middle of making a record already.” It’s kind of funny: the movie took probably a year longer than we wanted it to, but the record probably was finished a year before we expected to be. So it’s kind of lucky coincidence that they’re kind of hitting at the same time, but that was never the plan.

Trouble Will Find Me feels more ambitious than your last two albums. My ear isn’t the best, but I really liked the touches of Roy Orbison on songs like “Pink Rabbits.”
Yeah, on “Heavenfaced,” too. I had never really gone through a big Roy Orbison phase, and I was doing a lot of trying things, just stealing ideas. Orbison would actually never go back to any melody. On “In Dreams,” it just feels like every 20 seconds, that song becomes a new song. I think he’s got eight different parts in that that are never repeated. So “Heavenfaced” goes through like five different melodies. It never returns to a verse or a chorus. Also, he sang in, I think, four different octaves. It inspired me to try singing different things outside my baritone comfort zone. I bumped up an octave and suddenly the song suddenly became much more moving and emotional.

The band came together in Cincinnati, but you’re now recognized as the quintessential Brooklyn band, since that’s really where you made a name for yourselves. Does that feel like home?
We’re based in Brooklyn still, but we’re starting to realize this might be the last record that we’re sort of a “Brooklyn band” or whatever — although we never actually felt like that, you know? We also never really felt like a Cincinnati band. We’ve never identified quite with a place like that, although New York and Brooklyn have been backdrops and sort of muses for songs in many ways, and they will always be. New York is an endlessly fascinating and exotic place. Although by spending a few months in L.A. over the last year, I’ve started to be a little fascinated with L.A. in a different way too. This record, you’ll probably hear a couple more references to L.A. than even New York.

Making albums hasn’t always been this easy for the National. Aaron and Bryce have described the making of High Violet as a tense and anxious tug-of-war. Was this time around any smoother?
It was. It was very different from our other records, in that respect. We did not go to war, like we usually do. It wasn’t necessarily an easier process, meaning that we worked harder on this record and we spent more time refining and tweaking and trying different things. But for whatever reason, there was less fighting. I had so much fun writing, even the darker lyrics. Then when it came time to get together and lock horns over ideas, I think we had learned to respect each other’s ideas over the years. There was a certain amount of, “Okay, I’ll trust you on that idea, but you’ve got to trust me on this one.”

I remember a feature story in the New York Times where Bryan described the band’s dynamic this way: “Matt’s the dad. Scott’s the long-suffering wife. I’m the black-sheep uncle. Aaron and Bryce are the twin daughters who like to control their parents.” Have those roles changed or evolved since then?
I think that’s still kind of accurate. Although I would say if I am the dad of the thing, I think I’m more like the Chevy Chase type of dad. I have two different sides: I’m a lighthearted goofball, but I also have a very very dark side. But I understand how bands break up. It’s just hard to have five people working on the same stuff together and living together and trying to make these collective decisions over this thing that’s so important to all of them in different ways. We’ve almost broken up a bunch of times. Any band that sticks together for more than four or five years, I’m impressed with.

Michael Stipe said something about that: You’ll survive if you remember you guys were friends first before you were a band. And also, you’ll survive if you constantly remind yourself how lucky you are that people care about the rock songs you’re making in your bedrooms. It’s easy to forget how rare and special that is. It’s an amazing lifestyle, to be in a band; it’s also very twisted existence, especially when you’re trying to raise a family and have a healthy marriage. We’re figuring it out, and we’re lucky that we kind of got through some ugly periods and stuff.

NEXT: Berninger talks respecting failure and opening the Tribeca Film Festival

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