Reaching the Peak

The National claim one of indie rock’s most revered origin stories. Five dudes from Cincinnati move to New York around the turn of the last century, ride the last rumblings of the dot-com wave, then turn to music-rootsy, revved-up, literate rock-to deal with anxieties of post-9/11 life in a rapidly changing city. Frontman Matt Berninger writes and delivers lyrics with a gruff, gloomy passion. Multi-instrumentalists, songwriters and twin brothers Bryce and Aaron Dessner translate their audio acumen into lucrative careers as in-demand producers. The rhythm section of Scott and Bryan Devendorf (another sibling set) keeps it all grounded with rumbling, ramshackle authority and technicality.

Every year (almost 20 now) and every album (nine full-lengths and two EPs) slowly built The National’s profile-until last year’s blew the doors off and rocketed the band to even bigger success. Rave reviews poured in for Berninger’s brutally honest take on marriage and middle age. The album hit No. 1 in Canada, Ireland and the UK, and “The System Only Dreams in Darkness” was the band’s first single to top the Billboard charts. It all culminated in a Grammy award for Best Alternative Music Album. Folio Weekly spoke with Bryan Devendorf-often considered The National’s secret rhythmic weapon-to learn more.

Folio Weekly: You just wrapped up Homecoming, a two-day festival in your hometown of Cincinnati. How do you feel after that undertaking?
Bryan Devendorf:
Super-stoked. I actually live here in Cincinnati, and nobody else in the band does, so it was exciting to have everyone come. I got to say, “Welcome to my home!” The challenges were more psychological than anything. We teamed up with MusicNOW, which has existed for more than a decade. It was a great opportunity to welcome visitors and show off all the shiny new stuff downtown.

And now you’re out on a weeklong East Coast tour with only one Florida date. Has The National played here often?
Only twice. We played Harvest of Hope Festival inland from St. Augustine in 2008. That was really beautiful-a flat, quiet, forested area. Almost like being on a movie set of rural Florida. That’s actually where we met my drum tech, Kyle Lewis. He’s really like my co-pilot. We work well together. So that’s a positive association with Florida. Then we played the House of Blues in Orlando many years ago. That was a fun show with a theme park vibe-we bought remote-control cars at some place across the street. I played the Suwannee Festival with Bob Weir a couple of years ago. As a kid, I of course went to Disney World and the beach in Ft. Myers. And one of our touring members, trumpet player and multi-instrumentalist Kyle Resnick, grew up in Miami. So, yeah-we totally love Florida.

A lot of recent interviews have talked about how much more polished and powerful The National is on stage. What’s so different now?
We’re playing better than we ever have, which maybe isn’t saying much. [Laughs.] By touring so often and by getting older, we’ve been able to put things into perspective and not have so much anxiety. I would overthink live shows and get so worried. But it really doesn’t matter how you feel. It’s about enjoying it and having fun. Our amount of time left is limited-not just as a band, but on Earth. That’s in the back of our minds. You have to forget about everything and just focus on the sound that’s happening around you. Matt and I bond together onstage; he comes to me if he’s feeling like things aren’t just right. He’s the tightrope walker and I’m the net. [Laughs.]

Obviously Matt pens all the lyrics, but how democratic is the rest of the writing process?
It depends. If there’s no clear direction yet, it’s fairly democratic. All options are on the table-anything goes. But when it comes time to focus, we chisel it out together. The [Dessner] twins will send Matt sketches of basic chord progressions, then my brother and I get involved. The lyrics might not be done, but we determine a direction. But we give each other a lot of room. We understand what didn’t work in the past-that attitude of, “Just do whatever and we’ll pick up the pieces later.”

Did the success of Sleep Well Beast help with that focus? Did it give you the ability to put on large-scale events like the Homecoming in Cincinnati or the forthcoming There’s No Leaving New York [fest] in September?
That’s definitely one piece of it. We’re striking while the iron’s hot to make use of what time we do have. But day-to-day life is no different for us. Yes, in a press release we can now say “Grammy winner.” Matt has become more visible-he’s the frontman, and he lives in Los Angeles. The festival bookings, though, are just a product of our management, led by Brandon Reid, trying to think of interesting ways to put on shows that haven’t been done before. We’ve been doing this for 20 years; people have seen The National come and play a show at a venue countless times. But these micro gatherings present more variety, or maybe a fun collaboration. We’re just hoping they’ll break even and gain traction. At the end of the day, everything just raises the profile of the band. The main characteristic of The National has always been slow, incremental growth. Right now, I think we’re peaking.