The National — for Young Star
Sit back and enjoy the slow show
MANILA, Philippines — Looking at Matt Berninger and Aaron Dessner from across a table is largely different from watching them lose their shit in song in front of a sea of their fans.
Feb. 20, 2014: The National held a show here in Pasig — something I thought would never happen — and with other journalists, I got to share a few minutes with Matt (vocalist) and Aaron (guitarist) — something that was even further away from my realm of possibility.
The National, which includes Aaron’s twin brother Bryce Dessner (guitarist), and the Devendorf brothers Bryan (drummer) and Scott (bassist), have been around since 1999, only recently breaking through the mainstream, like a well-kept secret that could not be contained any longer. Marked by Berninger’s distinct caramel baritone, elegant songwriting and lyricism, their music has resonated with a variety of people, not just sad bastards, evident in their involvement with a lot of high-profile projects lately.
Most notable are “Lean,” a track they wrote for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and “Rains of Castamere,” a song they were chosen to do for HBO’s Game of Thrones. Matt jokes, “I associate with the Lannisters, and I’m not sure why. That’s awful. Maybe it’s because I’m blonde.” He says that these projects outside of their own records help them emerge from their own shells a little bit. “It was fun to be something other than what we are.”
One of the most buzzed-about projects they did recently was a six-hour set they played at the MoMA PS1 early last year. Initiated by artist Ragnar Kjartansson, the project involved The National playing a total of 108 renditions of “Sorrow,” a song off 2010’s High Violet. (Ironically, this song was missing from their Manila set.) “When (Ragnar Kjartansson) pitched us his idea, he knew that the song, “Sorrow,” is both dramatic and sad, but there’s also something sweet and warm and uplifting about it. He wanted to see what would happen if the song was put on repeat,” Matt shares. “We went through all these different emotions while we did that for six hours.”
These shifts in emotions are unsurprising, as “Sorrow” was written with a set of chords that music historian Alex Ross says signify sadness in modern musical history. Composer Phillip Glass has mentioned that Sorrow is his favorite song by The National, because of its “circular chord progression” that suggests sadness to listeners.
Aaron says that it is one of the band’s favorite collective experiences. “The fact that we agreed to do it, and the fact that we got through it and that it was beautiful and transcendent, it means a lot to us,” he says. “It feels like it’s the day that we realized that these songs that we write have something more than we can understand.”
“I think our music, both the music and the lyrics that we do, put together are sometimes melodramatic and sometimes very earnest, and sometimes sad and dark, but I think we’re comfortable with that because we know there’s a funny side to that,” Matt says. “There’s something really funny about our music, because it’s often so heart-on-your-sleeve, a little bit. We know how that can be embarrassing. We’re just not worried about embarrassing ourselves anymore.”
Berninger is married to Carin Besser, a poet and former fiction editor of The New Yorker, who is credited as a co-writer on some of their songs. The rest of the band “probably read more than I do,” he admits, “but I think it’s important to absorb and steal stuff from other things in the world.” He mentions Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays as a book he always returns to. “The weirdness and the strangeness of the narrative, she pulls it off in this crazy, crazy beautiful way,” he shares. “Not so specifically what happens in that book, but the crazy, courageous style that she wrote it in… It just made me realize, just try things.”
The first question from earlier in the night was telling: “When did you realize you could sing?” Matt claims there was no specific point of realization, as he first sang in a band when he was in college. “It’s mostly about delivery and what you are saying with your voice,” he says, mentioning Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Guided By Voices, Nick Cave, and Pavement, artists and bands with questionably “good” voices. “I never worried that much about it. I do think I’ve gotten better at it, but I never cared.”
Through the band’s seemingly serious exterior, some silliness manages to always peek through in their lyrics, videos, shows, and interviews. “We come from Ohio, in the Midwest,” shares Aaron. “A lot of (our humor) is self-effacing. Laughing at yourself, basically. We’ll never be a band that thinks we’re the greatest band.”
On breaking into the music industry, he says: “I think we’ve charted our own course. I would advise all musicians to do the same thing.” Matt says that they snuck in and came through the side door when nobody was paying attention. “We were lucky never to get courted by the music industry or major labels,” he says. “They never wanted us… and then the music industry changed around us and then they started coming to us on our own terms.”
I got into The National pretty late, in 2007. My brother told me about them, and I declared that I didn’t get it. I thought that would be that, but somewhere along the way, my friend wrote about her favorite song (Slow Show) in the most beautiful way, and I decided to listen to them again and then I quickly fell in love, too.
I saw them play on their High Violet tour in Singapore in 2011, and the energy in Manila was much different from what it had been then. This time, they are on tour for their latest release, 2013’s Grammy-nominated Trouble Will Find Me, and it was in some ways, more aggressive and almost angry. “You can lose yourself in song, for whatever reason,” Aaron says. “We do it every night. We close our eyes, we play the songs.”
Matt moves across the stage, steeped once again in long-buried feelings, he sing-speaks and loses himself in a charge of high emotions, stringing the crowd along with him. “I’m a heavy drinker… I don’t think I’m an alcoholic,” he said prior to the show. Aaron adds, “I think we all have our ways of getting through performing in front of people, because it’s not natural to any of us. We’re all slightly awkward or slightly shy about it, so I think alcohol has been a big part of our band since the beginning.
“We’re relatively square, though, in terms of substance abuse,” he adds. “Some things are more powerful than we are. I know I’m not that strong, and those kinds of things would probably, could probably take me over, so I don’t even go near it.” Both were holding glasses of wine, comfortably perched in their hands, and later onstage Matt throws a bottle into a bucket of ice, taking swigs between songs, and eventually pouring all the wine all over the stage as the show came to a close.
“There are just things you should stay away from,” Matt says. “For me, alcohol is not one of those. That one I can roll with.”