Right about now, Matt Berninger must be wondering what the hell he’s gotten himself into. By the time the Straight catches him in Vienna, where he’s getting ready for a sound check at Arena Wien, the National’s frontman already has about four-dozen shows behind him in support of the band’s latest album, High Violet. Nor are things about to slow down: the National is booked fairly solidly right through to January, when it’s slated for a string of festival gigs in Australia.
“Yeah, it goes on and on,” Berninger says. “Next year is also being scheduled out right now, and it looks like we’re gonna be touring on and off probably through to September of next year, so there’s still a whole ’nother year to go.”
If the singer comes across as a little less than wholeheartedly enthused about the prospect of being on the road for such a long stretch, well, that’s because he is. “To be perfectly honest, for me touring has always been kind of a difficult thing,” he admits. “I’m not a good traveller. I just get homesick really quickly, and there’s something about living on a bus, and shows after shows after shows—I go into sort of a weird place.”
These days, Berninger has an even more compelling reason for wishing he could stay home. He now has a daughter, 20-month-old Isla, who recently posed with him, albeit reluctantly, for the cover of Under the Radar magazine. Because of her, he says, the National is trying to restrict its road trips to no longer than three weeks in duration.
Berninger is abundantly aware, however, that the current tour is a crucial one for his band, which has been honing its artful brand of indie rock for over a decade. High Violet debuted on the Billboard 200 in the number-three spot, a crystal-clear indication that the group’s popular appeal was finally catching up with its critical acclaim.
“We are realists,” the baritone singer says. “We’ve been in a band that’s been trying to get to this point for years. And we know that when you have some attention, it can go away so fast. It’s music. It’s rock ’n’ roll. Bands are hot and then, you know, people lose interest. So we know that we have to dive in and deliver and make our mark while we can.”
If that was also the modus operandi behind the making of High Violet, then the National has accomplished its mission. It is by turns the band’s most direct batch of songs to date (witness the churning propulsion of “Bloodbuzz Ohio”) and its most nuanced, swelling with atmospheric string parts that never threaten to swallow up the otherwise spare arrangements. Accompanied by two sets of siblings—multi-instrumentalist Aaron Dessner and his guitar-playing brother Bryce, and Scott and Bryan Devendorf, who play bass and drums, respectively—Berninger proves his mettle as one of the most gifted lyricists in contemporary rock. These are songs that look outward at our profoundly messed-up world as much as they shed light on the interior life of a man still trying to find his place in it.
The National recorded most of High Violet at its own studio in Brooklyn, which gave it the luxury of much-needed time. This is not, after all, a group of guys who can bang out an album’s worth of material in a weekend.
“We go into what we call ”˜circling the vortex’, where we’ll find ourselves lost over and over again,” Berninger says. “With almost every song we’re working on, we get it to a point where we lose sight of what we’re trying to do with the song or the whole record. That happens to us all the time. With our band, there’s nobody who’s totally in charge, so everybody can sometimes step out of the myopic quagmire at different times and see where we are and get some sort of perspective on it and pull everybody out of it. So there’s a strange balance of activity in our band. Half the guys might be thinking that we’re just getting nowhere, and then somebody’ll put it into perspective and say, ”˜This song and this song and this song are amazing. It’s almost finished.’ And we all go in and out of that role, I think.”
The biggest struggle this time around, Berninger says, was “Lemonworld”. He notes that the band attempted and rejected something in the neighbourhood of 80 different variations on the song before something finally clicked.
“It just kept getting worse and worse,” the singer says. “We did so many versions and ultimately we went back to a really early, rough version that just had the closest thing to the charm that that song needed to work. It’s a mystery why certain songs are really fragile—and especially a song like that, where, from a musical perspective, it’s not exactly high art. It’s one of the simpler songs. But maybe that’s exactly why the delivery of it had to be just right. Otherwise, it was going to feel heavy-handed or simplistic.”
Once again, mission accomplished. As it appears on the album, “Lemonworld” strikes the right balance between visceral and heady. And here’s hoping Berninger is still pleased with the song. After all, he’s going to be hearing a whole lot of it over the next year or so.
The National plays Malkin Bowl on Thursday and Friday (September 9 and 10).