The National: Heads Of State
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."
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."
As five fans turn into thousands and beyond, it's getting hard to pinpoint exactly what the National's audience looks like. "It's a little older," Barger says. "It's different than, say, MGMT's audience or Passion Pit's audience-but it's definitely not like an old people band." Nor is it limited to the United States-in fact, the National has nearly as strong a following in the United Kingdom and Australia as it does stateside, 4AD's Ayers says. "They've toured Europe quite a bit, and our label has people on the ground everywhere, so that's helped a ton."
"When I'm looking at touring and balancing the band's schedule for the year, I try to make sure that we're not neglecting those territories and that we're balancing worldwide need with U.S. needs," Barger says. "If you don't take the time to go to those markets, you're not going to be successful there."
Another sector that the National is being mindful of is independent retail. Although the band wasn't available to perform as a group on Record Store Day (April 17), member Scott Devendorf spun a DJ set at New York's Other Music. During the week of the new album's release, the band will annex the space next to Other Music and host a "High Violet Annex" pop-up store for a full week of performances by acts curated by the National. Additionally, a deluxe CD or LP of "High Violet" will be made available exclusively to indie record stores on day of release, with most of the U.S. store locations receiving one CD or LP with a copy of a "High Violet" ticket. The purchaser who finds the ticket will receive a $50 credit at that store.
"The idea is just to do things right and not to do it for money necessarily," Barger says. "We want to make sure we're playing in beautiful rooms and keep ticket prices relatively low. For merchandise, we want to make sure we're making stuff that's really high quality, and if that means we make less, that's OK."
While the National is open to licensing the music from "High Violet," and Barger sees synch deals as more valuable than traditional radio promotion, the band has decided to wait before greenlighting any synchs in the immediate future. The reason, Barger says, is "just to make sure that the songs have a moment to live as songs before they're tied to other imagery."
This falls right in line with the National's strategy up until now-its albums are generally considered "growers" that reap rewards over time, and the band would prefer to keep it that way.
"There is something about the records' slowly revealing themselves that is a good thing for us," Dessner says. "Our records seem to stay with people."