Integrity aside, when one of the world's largest and arguably coolest companies asks to feature your music in its commercial, you're pretty much required to oblige. At least, that's what the National did when executives from the Creative Lab-Google's in-house creative marketing agency-approached the band in December. As it turns out, several people at the agency were fans of the band and wanted to integrate its music into an online-only ad for the Google search engine.
"It was something that they created internally and came to us with, like, 'How do you feel about this?' " Barger recalls. "And we all thought it was pretty cool."
The resulting spot is much like Google's "Parisian Love" ad that aired during the 2010 Super Bowl, in which a man searches for several topics ("long distance relationship advice," "how to assemble a crib") connected to the theme of a couple's evolving relationship. In this case, a fan of the National is looking up terms like "the national tour dates" to secure tickets to an upcoming gig. "It was from the perspective of a fan wanting to see the band play, and this is how they get there," Barger says. "It really showed the band in a great light."
"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 disavail 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," where Berninger sings, "What makes you think I'm enjoying being led to the flood?/We got another thing coming undone . . . but I won't be no runaway, because I won't run."
"It's so beautiful and, I think, more orchestrated than 'Boxer' in its own way," Dessner says of "High Violet." "But it's kind of built around these fuzzy guitar textures that make it a little bit rougher or uglier in places."
When it came time to announce the album, the National took a subtle approach by placing cryptic banner ads on key sites like Pitchfork.com that simply read "High Violet" and "May 11." The band later announced that it was responsible for the banners, and on March 10 it unveiled the album's opening track, "Terrible Love," on NBC's "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," giving the campaign a concrete kickoff point.
"The boys had been there before, and they really enjoyed it and wanted to go back," Barger says. "It played into the whole idea of just putting stuff out there and letting our fans discover it instead of jamming it down their throats." The National followed its televised gig with two shows at Brooklyn's Bell House March 11-12, where it played several new tracks live for the first time to a crowd of its core fans.
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 week of release 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.
"We drove ourselves around in a van for years and slept on floors and just had to learn how to convert those five people in a bar," Dessner says. "We have a lot more creature comforts as a band now, buses and that sort of thing . . . but we've seen the other side of it, too."
The National's force as a live act has been pivotal to its growth through the years, especially since it opened for R.E.M. in 2008. "Michael [Stipe] was very vocal onstage supporting us, and I think it helped," Dessner says. Barger adds, "Most people who are big fans of the National have a personal relationship with the music, and they find Matt's lyrics very relevant to their own lives. So whereas with a lot of other bands it's as much about going out for a nice show, people have a personal connection with the National and want to see their albums played live."
Dessner agrees. "We don't have casual fans. They are pretty intense, and a lot of them like that because it doesn't seem like we benefitted from any trends."