The National: Stand Up And Salute

Videos by American Songwriter

Matt Berninger pours himself a glass of white wine. This he surely has done before; however, what happens next may be a little more unique.

Standing on stage at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee, Berninger waits a few songs before throwing the plastic glass and its contents into the screaming crowd of thousands. A sea of hands reach up to try to catch it and one lucky pair succeeds, proudly holding their trophy aloft.

As they should. It’s not unreasonable to think that the plastic glass might be a collector’s item one day. Indie darlings no more, The National’s latest album, High Violet, debuted at #3 on the Billboard Top 200, selling 51,000 copies in its first week. “We were all really happy about the album going to #3, but I don’t know what that necessarily really means. Having an album that charts is almost a different industry,” says Berninger, his speaking voice not quite as deep as his trademark baritone. “I have no idea if any of my favorite records ever charted.”

The Cincinnati natives have a unique instrumental sound, thanks to the swirling guitars of identical twins, Aaron and Bryce Dessner, and a pounding rhythm section consisting of another pair of brothers, drummer Bryan and bassist Scott Devendorf. The group’s ability to express what Berninger calls “the anxiety of being a middle-class American white guy” was key in the success of the band’s previous album, Boxer, which was considered one of the best of the past decade.

Despite the accolades, The National were more relaxed making High Violet than they had been with its predecessor. “We felt more pressure making Boxer because we had just gotten our foot in the door with our previous release and now had to figure out a way to stay in the room,” says Berninger. “It’s so easy to have one record that people care about and that’s it. You’ve seen that happen with so many bands.”

If Boxer kept the band in the room, then High Violet bought them the whole house. “With High Violet, we knew if we made the five of us really happy, that was all we could really do. To try and forecast what people’s expectations will be is impossible,” says Berninger. “We learned from Boxer that we needed just to try to make something we love.”

While Berninger may not contribute instrumentally, he is the sole lyricist. “I’ve always thought that conviction can make up for a lack of range. I think this goes for all art – be it painting or movies – you have to believe the sincerity of it. You have to believe the content of what you’re singing.”

Watching the band play live, it’s clear Berninger takes this task seriously. He grasps the microphone with two hands and stomps his foot to the beat, occasionally exploding into spastic dancing or jumping down into the crowd. “I think the anthemic quality of our songs comes more from the music,” he says. “A lot of times, I’m just singing along. When the music swells, the vocal melodies and range and the gusto with which I’m singing will swell as well.”

Such swells, when paired with Berninger’s jarring lyrics, can be particularly haunting. “Every song I’ve written starts with one little phrase that goes with the music,” says Berninger. There are several examples of this on High Violet, from the opening lyric of the album, “It’s a terrible love/And I’m walking with spiders,” to the lament from the moving “England,” in which Berninger pleads over and over, “Someone send a runner/ Through the weather that I’m under/ For the feeling that I lost today.”

“Most these songs aren’t these big dramatic things,” says Berninger. “They’re often these small little ugly intimate things put to giant music.”

On stage at Bonnaroo, the band plays through High Violet’s first single, “Bloodbuzz Ohio.” The song, propelled forward by Bryan Davenport’s drum beat, reaches its conclusion and a chorus of voices from the crowd join Berninger to sing the tongue-twisting lyric, “I owe money/ To the money/ To the money I owe/ I never thought about love/ When I thought about home.”

Whether the crowd understands what they’re singing doesn’t seem to matter to anyone. Their mouths will move and their fists will pump and the white wine will flow into a plastic glass that could soon be yours. Let the reign of The National begin.


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Writer Of The Week: Kim Richey