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.
"Go out at night with your headphones on, again/Walk through the Manhattan valleys of the dead," frontman Matt Berninger laments on "Anyone's Ghost," a new song from forthcoming album "High Violet." On "Little Faith," the next track, his distaste for the urbane reads like poetry: "Stuck in New York and the rain's coming down, I don't feel like we're going anywhere," he sings in his trademark baritone drone, over skittish drums and dense orchestration. "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" did the same to even greater effect, selling 183,000 copies.
The National perform "Terrible Love" on "Late Night with "Jimmy Fallon"
The pattern is clear, and the National knows that with "High Violet"-due May 11 on 4AD in the United States and a day earlier in international markets-it will most likely take another big leap forward and face all the perks and potential pitfalls that come with that. "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."
The National's label, naturally, is leaning more toward excitement.
"We want a way bigger number out of the gate this time," 4AD label manager Nabil Ayers says. "We want incremental growth, too. We want everything. There's not a lot of bands like this right now. They've put out four records and done it right, and now for the first time we're able to have a huge moment."
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. According to Ayers, the former sold out in three hours, while the latter went clean 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."
"It seemed to surprise a lot of people in the industry," says Dawn Barger, the National's manager since 2003, before it signed a deal with Beggars Banquet. (The band's last album was released on Beggars Banquet, which has since been folded into 4AD under Beggars Group.) "Even some of their fans didn't believe that the tickets sold quite that quickly.
"It feels like it's real growth as opposed to that fake growth where people aren't with the band for the long haul," Barger adds.
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.
"They're at a critical moment where they're going to have opportunities come up that may not feel quite right, and we're very conscious of that," Barger says. "More than anything, that's the guiding principle behind the release. Would everyone be excited to sell a million records? Yes, but they won't compromise their artistic integrity to get there."