Aspen Times Weekly: Taking the country by storm … slowly

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Rock band the National makes its Aspen debut with a two-night stand, Thursday and Friday, Jan. 2-3, at Belly Up.
Deirdre O’Callaghan |

The National, with Tennis opening

Thursday and Friday, Jan. 2-3, at 9

Belly Up

In the late ’90 s , a pair of young musicians relocated from Cincinnati to New York City. The two, singer-songwriter Matt Berninger and bassist Scott Devendorf, persuaded a few more old friends from Cincinnati — Devendorf’s brother, Bryan, and the twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner — to join them in New York. The fivesome gave themselves a big, expansive name: The National.

Grand plans to conquer the New York indie scene? Hardly. Scott Devendorf and Berninger had relocated to New York City to pursue graphic design, which they had studied as classmates at the University of Cincinnati. There was no grand plan; there was barely a plan at all.

“It was a hobby, a thing to do when we were done with our work,” the 41-year-old Scott Devendorf said from his Long Island home. “We weren’t super ambitious. We were just having fun, being creative together. What kept us going was having these little successes — booking a show, having people show up.”

But it was a good time to be a creative-minded indie band in New York. The Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol were turning New York into the East Coast’s indie-rock capital. The National saw the attention those bands were receiving, and started thinking a little bigger.

“That spurred things a bit: Maybe we could do it,” Devendorf said. “It kept us going — unrealistically, maybe. We were nothing at that point. It took us many years to figure it all out.”

Some 15 years later, the National has gotten a grip on a whole lot of facets of the music world. They specialize in a moody, downbeat brand of rock: Their second album was called “Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers,” and their latest album, released in May, is “Trouble Will Find Me,” both of which seem fitting titles, and they have been compared to other mope-rockers including Joy Division and Leonard Cohen. Despite the downbeat tone, they have become a headliner at major festivals; this past summer they were near the top of the bill at Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and, in Denmark, the Roskilde Festival. This week, they get another coveted gig — a two-night stand, Thursday and Friday, Jan. 2-3, in the Belly Up’s high-profile holiday lineup, the band’s local debut.

The National’s musical reach extends far: The band Berninger and Devendorf had in college, named Nancy, wanted nothing other than to sound just like the arty, lo-fi band Pavement. Since forming the National, in 1999, they have collaborated with the inventive classical composer Nico Muhly, the edgy folk group Bon Iver, and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead. A few years ago, members of the band produced the two-disc set “Dark Was the Night,” a benefit project that gathered recordings by acts from all over the avant-garde spectrum: Sufjan Stevens, the Dirty Projectors, Andrew Bird, and the string combo Kronos Quartet. Another benefit project currently in the works is a Grateful Dead tribute album.

The National have embraced video as a medium. In 2008 the band released the DVD “A Skin, a Night,” an arty documentary by filmmaker Vincent Moon that captured the life of the band around the time of making the acclaimed album “Boxer.” More recently came the release of “Mistaken for Strangers,” a quasi-unsanctioned behind-the-scenes portrait filmed by Berninger’s brother.

The National has contributed their music to TV shows, movies and video games. As a group, they have also been known to be socially and politically active, supporting the get-out-the-vote group Head Count and Barack Obama’s campaigns.

The breadth of influences and interests came in part from the slow start to their career. “We were all in a lot of bands growing up, then spent time out of bands. We were friends for a long time before we started doing it at all, and we were coming at it from many different angles,” Devendorf said. “The fact we had spent all this time developing a band with no specific focus helped. We weren’t 20 years old, looking at instant success. We loved music, wanted to keep doing it if we could.

“We had time — not the luxury of time, but it wasn’t how we paid the bills. We’d take a vacation from our jobs and go tour for a month. Not till 2005 did we make the band the main thing. And it still wasn’t gangbusters. Slowly we gathered a fan base.”

The deliberate pace allowed the National to take account of their sound without getting pigeonholed. Their debut album, from 2001, had a countryish edge to it; that component pretty much disappeared.

“We started to coalesce around the band’s strengths — the interplay between the guitar players, Matt’s emergence as a singer and writer,” Devendorf said.

In Devendorf’s view, the National has benefited from another apparent disadvantage — a lack of training. Only guitarist Bryce Dessner has formal music training, with a master’s degree from Yale.

“And Matt can’t play any instrument at all. He can’t play a chord,” he said. “But that’s also his strength. He can be outside the technical constraints of music. There’s mess and noise, all these things that exist outside being super-trained and precise.”

One of the things that united the band members early on was a fondness for the Grateful Dead. Apart from the occasional jam with Bob Weir, and the tribute album-in-progress, it is an influence that is buried beyond recognition in the National.

“The Grateful Dead thing — we’re fans, probably my brother and myself and Aaron mostly,” Devendorf said. “But as far as an influence on the band, that’s sort of more in the structure and ethos of the band. They were one of the first bands that did their own touring, did things their own way. I love their music, but we’re not a jam band in any way. We’re structured.”

While the Dead might not be heard in the sound, the National has seemingly embraced other artists who date back to the ‘60s. Devendorf says that Berninger’s songwriting approach on “Trouble Will Find Me” reminds him a lot of Bob Dylan — “the rambling lyrics, which is kind of new to this record. We’d hear Matt’s songs and go, Oh wow, this song’s got 500 lyrics instead of 50,” he said.

Devendorf hears some other things on the latest record that were new for the National.

“Neil Young, a lot of classic rock stuff. A lot of English music, post-punk,” he said. “And a lot of rhythmic stuff — Matt embraced some things that we wouldn’t have expected. Songs with odd time signatures, melodies and hooks and rhythms. It’s even fun, even is the sound is dire and the cover is black-and-white.”

Fourteen years in, the National has forged its identity. “This is our sixth record and we have a sound and Matt has a way of singing — deep-voiced, somewhat melancholic,” Devendorf said. “We’re always aware of what the band is, what we do well.”

But he added that the band remains flexible and open-minded. “We embraced anything that came up,” he said.

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