The National Stop Fighting the 'Dad Rock' Label: 'This Time, We Didn't Care'
"When we took the pressure off, making the songs became really fun," admits frontman Matt Berninger of the group's fifth LP, "Trouble Will Find Me"
The National's frontman Matt Berninger will be taking a nap after this interview.
"I was up at 6 o'clock this morning with my daughter," he says, "so I'm going to need to crash."
This is typical domestic behavior for the singer of a band whose critically acclaimed, baritone-based indie group has earned a legion of fans as well as inspired good-natured ribbing about its subdued qualities -- the announcement of its sixth full-length, "Trouble Will Find Me," inspired a Twitter meme of suburban alternate titles, including "Birdwatching With Franzen" and "Hummus."
With the National's new set due tomorrow (May 21), casually announced on Twitter in February ("Oh and also, thought you might like to know…") and streaming now for all to hear on iTunes, it's clear that Berninger and his bandmates -- two pairs of brothers, Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Bryan and Scott Devendorf -- have gotten over it.
"For the 12 years we've been making records, we've always been trying to prove something, and avoid being labeled as dad rock, or depressing," Berninger says. "We figured out how to fight so much over the years… This time around, we didn't care."
He says that since the band's last (and most successful) record, 2010's "High Violet," the press for which often centered on the birth of his daughter Isla, the band's parenthood has multiplied-Aaron Dessner and Bryan Devendorf both have kids now, too-and has thus taken a larger role in the group's creative process.
"We realized that our rock band is not actually that important in the grand scheme of our lives," he says. "When we took the pressure off, making the songs became really fun. I don't know whether people will hear the lack of tension, or whether people will connect with it, but… I love the record."
Still, "Trouble Will Find Me" has some pretty high external standards to meet. Its immediate predecessors, High Violet and 2007's Boxer, have sold 293,000 and 270,000 copies, respectively, according to Nielsen SoundScan. High Violet debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 with 51,000 first-week copies, and Trouble Will Find Me will compete with a highly anticipated new Daft Punk record for a debut spot. While label 4AD shares the National's relaxed confidence, it's still approaching the release with a bit more urgency.
"It's our job to convince people of how big the National actually is," U.S. label manager Nabil Ayers says, citing the band's ability to sell out New York's Radio City Music Hall in 2010, and predicting the same success with its June 5 date at Brooklyn's Barclays Center. "They're in the range, fans and saleswise, of bands that might be perceived as being much bigger than them."
Still, they're taking few chances: The label has lined up aggressive radio and advertising campaigns that Ayers calls the band's biggest push yet. SiriusXM U premiered the band's second single, "Don't Swallow the Cap" on April 11; five minutes later, five triple A and alternative radio stations followed suit. (First single "Demons" arrived online on April 8.) SiriusXM U will also live-stream the Barclays show, and plans call for the album to stream a week ahead of release on iTunes. Bus shelter ads, snipe banners and billboards are all in the works.
While the National has somewhat aggressively licensed its music for film, TV and advertising in the past (in addition to contributing new music for shows like "Game of Thrones" and "Bob's Burgers"), the label team says they're letting the project breathe before diving into anything that might detract from an intimate introduction.
"The band would prefer not to have the first place their fans hear their music be on a commercial or a TV show," Ayers says. "They'll let people hear the record, and then if a song ends up somewhere later, great."
When High Violet arrived, band and label jam-packed release week with New York events. This time around, they have a more elaborate rollout, one that benefits from Berninger's younger brother Tom's documentary about the band, "Mistaken for Strangers," which kicked off the Tribeca Film Festival last month.
"It's not always flattering," Berninger says of the film, which puts his and the band's relationship with the filmmaker/protagonist under an often-uncomfortable microscope. "But it's good, because you'll learn more about us through Tom's story than you would by somebody just asking us questions."
While the team won't share more details about the new album's release week, Ayers advises fans to keep their eyes on the band's Twitter account. "This time we're one-upping ourselves," he says. "It's always the idea, to sell more National records than we ever have."