The National break past indie’s borders

by Shaun Curran

Formed in Brooklyn, New York, via Cincinnati, Ohio, The National have taken an equally oblique route to success. Twelve years into a career where every strand of recognition has been painstakingly hard-earned, The National’s exquisite melancholy has resonated long enough to transform any cult-status concerns into credible chart contentions.

Bassist Scott Devendorf acknowledges as much. Pleasant and softly spoken, he speaks with the air of a man still trying to comprehend his band’s ever-growing “upward trajectory.” As if to emphasize the changing status, The National will make their first ever trip to Japan this month.

“I’ve never been,” Devendorf says with surprise. “We’ve never played a single show. We’re very excited. We have one show in Tokyo, and we can’t wait. We hear that it is such a cultural place, one of the most unique places on earth. I hope it lives up to my expectations”

If The National find Japan to be a unique experience, then it will take just one night for the natives to reciprocate the feeling. For a band whose music oozes a profound disconsolation and foreboding, abetted by singer Matt Berninger’s candid tales of love and loss crooned in his chocolate-rich baritone, their shows are intensely uplifting. Berninger’s anxious charisma — which seems accidental in light of his stage fright — unites everyone, even if Devendorf still harbors misgivings.

“Playing live can be unnerving. It can be very quiet when we think it shouldn’t be. Listening to the songs is great, but sometimes we’d like a bit of noise, a bit more energy.” I tell him Japanese audiences are among the most attentive in the world. “There’s nothing wrong with being attentive, people are attentive because attention is what the songs demand. It’s just strange having people look at you not making a sound. The opposite reaction — people crying — can be unnerving too. But it’s fine. We don’t want it to turn into Bon Jovi.”

Fifth album “High Violet” has proved to be The National’s commercial breakthrough. Unanimously praised upon release last May, it reached the top five on both the U.K. and U.S. album charts, selling more than 400,000 copies in the process, despite not being the record full of “pop songs” that R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe implored them to write during The National’s support slot with the American alternative-rock icons in 2008. Devendorf admits the plan to make something “happier and more upbeat” fizzled.

“It didn’t quite happen,” he exclaims in jest. “Early on, when we discussed the concept of the record, we thought it may be like that. . . but in a weird way. We thought we might show people we’re not as miserable as they think. But it didn’t quite work out. We weren’t going to intentionally make something upbeat if it wasn’t feeling right. The dominant theme of the record is a dark one. The pop experiment failed.”

Instead, as Devendorf puts it, The National’s propensity toward “very dense songs with depths most mainstream music doesn’t have” continued, with a “lyrical density” that “draws people back to the songs.”

Indeed, Berninger’s lyrics are, for a 41-year-old family man, somewhat disconcerting, expressing paranoia, insecurities and documenting personal and emotional failings in a starkly blunt fashion. Devendorf seems reluctant to discuss this in detail, as if he might eradicate his mystique, though he slightly rejects the perception of heart-on-sleeve candor.

“That’s partly true, though the songs aren’t as autobiographical as people might think. They are stories, abstractions about events and experiences. They are partly works of fiction.” They seem very sincere. “Well, possibly. But they aren’t truly autobiographical. That kind of thing can be trying. But the truthful element works in the live setting. It gives extra energy to the songs.”

Consisting of two sets of siblings — Devendorf’s brother, Bryan, plays drums alongside twin guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner — The National relocated to New York in 1999, leaving various other musical projects behind.

Their first two self-released records — or “five years experimenting how to be a band” — their eponymous debut and its followup “Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers” garnered some positive reviews but little in the way of commercial attention. Working Internet design jobs to bankroll themselves, it wasn’t until 2005′s “Alligator” (“a lot of people think it is our first album”) that, with the assistance of British label Beggars Banquet, headway was made.

Its followup, 2007′s “Boxer,” was the true turning point. Losing the more anthemic nature of “Alligator” in favor of lugubrious introspection, it was exceptionally conceived. “Fake Empire,” the opening track, was chosen to soundtrack Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, a significant and fitting leverage for a band that were already moving toward an R.E.M.-style crossover.

“It was. . . interesting,” Devendorf says, choosing his words carefully. “The first thing to say is that it was probably a kid who worked on the campaign, I don’t think the president himself is sat in the White House listening to us. It ended up a big thing we didn’t expect. We’ve never tried to be a political band, but we thought it was so worthwhile we had to do it.”

The National played to more than 25,000 people at a Democratic midterm election rally in Madison, Wisconsin, last September. It was one “big step along the way” that sees The National primed for arena-selling success.

“I have mixed feelings about that,” Devendorf admits. “I’m happy where we are now. Arena shows can be strange things.

“But it’s better to have that problem than have no one listening to you. And we should know.”

In light of the recent Tohoku earthquake, The National show at Duo Music Exchange in Shibuya, Tokyo, on March 17 has been canceled. For more info, visit www.americanmary.com.