Google the words American Mary and the first few results you’ll get will be about the locally made horror film of that title. Scroll down a bit, however, and you’ll find a link to the official website of the National.
The Brooklyn-based band’s Aaron Dessner says there’s no connection between the two, and he confesses that he had never heard of Jen and Sylvia Soska’s Screamfest-award-winning feature before the Georgia Straight brought it up during a telephone interview. Reached at a tour stop in Louisville, Kentucky, the multi-instrumentalist says of “American Mary”: “That’s a song off our first record [2001’s The National], and then we called our website that, and actually our film-production company is called American Mary Productions, because of that documentary that was made, so that’s kind of funny.”
The doc Dessner is referring to is Mistaken for Strangers, Tom Berninger’s movie about the time he spent working as a roadie for the National while the band toured in support of its 2010 album, High Violet. The filmmaker had ready-made “insider” status, since his brother, Matt Berninger, is the group’s singer. (This adds one more layer to the fraternal nature of the National, which also includes Dessner’s twin, Bryce, on guitar, and siblings Bryan and Scott Devendorf on drums and bass, respectively.)
Mistaken for Strangers has already screened at various festivals and is slated for a wider release next spring. Dessner admits that it’s a surreal experience to see a year in your life condensed into 75 minutes and played back to you on the big screen. “It is pretty strange, I think, for all of us,” he says. “Maybe not for Matt, because it is kind of his family’s story, and they were pretty deeply involved in making it. But for the rest of us, it is slightly odd to watch it, but it’s also really funny and moving. It’s cool. We had no expectations, and the kind of film it turned out to be is something we’re all really proud of. I think it does shed some light on the band dynamic, and what it’s like to be a touring band, in ways that a traditional documentary really wouldn’t, because he had such access to us. There’s no band image or anything we’re trying to project in this movie. It’s a very human, honest sort of depiction. It’s mainly anecdotal, because we’re not really the focus of the movie, but then you end up learning a lot about the band in the process.”
Here’s hoping cameras were rolling while the National was making its latest album, this year’s Trouble Will Find Me, because it sounds like it would make a hell of a movie. Not long after the band started recording at a converted barn in Rhinebeck, New York, a tornado knocked the power out. A later session was interrupted thanks to Hurricane Sandy, when, concerned for his family, Dessner drove back to the city and ended up stuck there for four days.
He notes that natural disasters seem to follow the National around, and says that the band has jokingly compared itself to the Bad News Bears for its tendency to triumph over adversity. “We’ve often had to drive through crazy blizzards, and hurricanes and tornadoes et cetera,” Dessner says. “It kind of gives you this bunker mentality that I think ends up being an interesting thing creatively. When we were actually recording this record there was this real sense of being hunkered down. It was almost like camp or something. We just sort of isolated ourselves in upstate New York. Even when the power went out for a week we didn’t leave. We just stayed there and played acoustic guitars in the dark. And that was actually really good. We hadn’t done that, maybe ever; we’re not really that kind of band. The musicians are, but Matt won’t sit there and sing along to us playing acoustic guitars. But in that case he kind of had to. It helped us figure the songs out a little bit better.”
The end product is arguably the National’s most subtly realized effort to date, with the success of songs such as “Fireproof” and “Slipped” owing as much to their rich yet spacious arrangements as to Berninger’s searching and occasionally impenetrable lyrics. Even when the group kicks the tempo up a notch, as on “Don’t Swallow the Cap” and “Graceless”, the results are less obviously visceral than previous National rockers like “Mistaken for Strangers” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio”.
According to Dessner, it’s all part of the National’s dedication to keep evolving. “Even if it means making something that’s less immediate, I think that’s worth it,” he says, noting that fans’ approval is evident from the impressive sales that Trouble Will Find Me has racked up since its release in May. “This record is already well on its way to surpassing High Violet. I think we’re lucky. We seem to be able to change and evolve without alienating our audience.”
The new album, incidentally, also contains a song called “Demons”. Great title for a horror movie. Just saying.