The cover of The National's new Boxer pictures the Brooklyn band playing a wedding—an appropriately unpretentious, small-timer image that stands in contrast to the group's expanding fame. While The National is selling out shows in larger venues and building on the attention it won with its third full-length, 2005's Alligator, it still sounds more cautious than cocky. But its growing audiences usually keep quiet for its most subdued, elegant songs, as it tours behind Boxer, an album without a single scream or hyper tempo. Singer/lyricist Matt Berninger recently spoke with The A.V. Club about how the band's sound keeps evolving, and why he'd prefer a little more crowd noise.
The A.V. Club: How'd that wedding photo come about?
Matt Berninger: In that picture, we're at Peter Katis' wedding—he produced Boxer, and we worked with him on several records before. That picture was just taken randomly. It wasn't set up or anything.
AVC: It's kind of self-deprecating.
MB: Yeah, there was some of that to it, but mostly I think the reason we liked it was that it has this kind of surreal-looking, archival-footage feeling to it. It looked like it was from the '50s. I think Boxer has this kind of disconnected-from-reality vibe going on.
AVC: It's a very restrained album. Did you plan it that way?
MB: It wasn't until we were very close to finishing that we started to get a perspective on it and see what it was turning into. We did know that we didn't want to make another version of Alligator, but that's as much as we had thought it out. There was a point that we realized that there weren't any songs where I screamed my head off, and just for a brief moment, we thought, "Is that gonna be a problem?" We didn't worry too much about that. To force that on a song, just because we've done that in the past, was just never gonna work for us.
AVC: After hearing Boxer, it's really jarring to go back to earlier albums like Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, where you do some real, full-throated screaming.
MB: Yeah. It's something that we do a lot, but when it comes to a song, we never sit and say, "Let's write a screamy song." If it goes there, it'll happen.
AVC: There's a lot of instrument-switching live. How did that evolve?
MB: I think it's a little bit by necessity. When we made the record, there were a lot of people who ended up playing a lot of different things. We weren't so much trying to reproduce the record version—[the songs] mutate quite a bit because there's only six of us playing live. We'll just figure out what's the easiest, best way to get the core of the song across, without all the horns and stuff. It's not a thing where we're like, "Let's switch around because it's fun to do that." [Bassist-guitarist] Aaron [Dessner] plays piano on some songs because he's the only one who knows how to play that part because he wrote that part. [Guitarist] Scott [Devendorf] and Aaron switch bass and guitar a lot to play the parts they wrote.
AVC: The songs get a bit louder live, but when you have six guys onstage, is it ever tempting to make more of a racket?
MB: I don't know if it's because of how many people we have onstage, but there's often just the energy and the anxiety and the tension—some songs end up being much more reckless and noisy than they are on the record, but I think that's just natural, due to being in a room full of people, and that energy. We let the songs mutate to fit the vibe, however we're feeling it.
AVC: You've been selling out more shows and getting responsive crowds. Have you noticed much difference in who shows up or how they react?
MB: We toured a lot for years and often played for bartenders, or played for the other band that played that night. It's been a huge change that all of a sudden there's a lot of people at our shows. As far as the type of people at our shows, we've got this very broad collection of 16-year-old kids to 50-year-old married couples who bring their kids. It's kind of nice to see the range of people that are paying attention to us and really excited by us. I don't know exactly what that means, but it's nice to have both types of fans.
AVC: "Slow Show" from Boxer brings back a part of "29 Years" from your first, self-titled album. Do you have much of an urge to revise your songs?
MB: Yeah. Often, we'll be writing a song and there'll be an older fragment of something that we kind of look at again. It's a fun thing to do, to connect songs that way. We see all of our songs as being works in progress. The album version is a snapshot of a song at a certain time. Sometimes we'll pull a piece from an old song and work it into a new one. We definitely don't have any respect for the sanctity of the original version of things. We use them however we want to. In a case like that, I'm often pulling together lyrics and little things from TV shows and movies. So ripping something off from one of our earlier records, that kind of just goes with the way I write stuff and pull stuff together. I never worry about where I steal stuff from.
AVC: You've said you rarely write an entire song at once. Why?
MB: When I have, they just usually haven't been any good. When it comes to lyrics, I just write down a lot of things, and only a very tiny fraction of it, I think, is any good. When I have just sat down and tried to write the lyrics of a song, usually about half of it sounds like bullshit. I just have to go away from something and come back to it again later. I do a lot of editing and switching around and putting little pieces together to get the right mood and personality, and it takes me forever to get a song finished. That's the way I'm comfortable writing. I never sit and think, "Okay, I need a first verse, okay, I've got a couple verses, now I need a chorus." It's too limiting. It would probably take me longer to write a song that way than the way I do it.
AVC: It's strange, but people can feel familiarity and affection for a song even if they don't follow most of the lyrics. Do you think any of your newer fans feel the same way?
MB: Lyrics need to be good, but they don't need to be obvious right away. The Smiths and R.E.M. and Guided By Voices are bands that, when you first hear a song, the lyrics don't always make much sense at all, and often they never do, even much later. The lyrics are what I work on the hardest, but I'm not trying to make a perfectly clear message or anything like that. In fact, I'm usually trying to avoid saying something too directly, because usually that rings false anyway. It's important, I think, that the lyrics are a little bit blurry. I'm not exactly sure what some of the songs are really about. People keep asking, "What's the song about?" It's usually a mixture of different things, and that's why the songs last for me. I can listen to them over and over again and find something and connect it in a different way. The songs that are direct and really specific never last that long for me—other people's songs and ours. Sometimes things don't have really specific meanings. It just creates a space or a mood or a personality that you do understand, but it doesn't mean it has a specific message or a meaning.
AVC: You do have a sense of humor, but is it harder to get that across when you're setting a pretty solemn mood on so many songs?
MB: I don't know if it's a challenge, but there's a lot of very melodramatic and earnest moments—it's the energy between the real earnest stuff and the ridiculous, silly stuff right next to each other, whether it's musically or in the lyrics. Being two things at once, both sad and ridiculous, or saying something very stupid but saying it over beautiful music, is kind of where the magic of all that stuff works. If there's a very earnest lyric but there's goofy, pounding drums behind it, it's sometimes much better than if you have an earnest lyric over swelling cellos. That can just kill it.
AVC: When an odd detail pops out of a song, like "Citibank lights" on "Mistaken For Strangers," it's like you're trying to tone down your own mystique.
MB: That's a very good example of something that's so specific and common and not poetic at all, and then you put it next to something that's more of an emotional line, or more of a headspace thing, random insecurity and all that kind of stuff. You put it in a specific place with such detail, that's where the energy makes the whole thing work. If it were all just details of walking down the street, it wouldn't work at all. Same thing if it were just all about your anxieties about losing touch with your friends. That'd be really annoying, I think. It's kind of mixing the weird, emotional stuff with the commonplace, specific details of normal life. That balance kind of makes a song work sometimes. It sounds like I have some sort of process or science to it. The truth is, it takes me forever to get a song to work, and I never know exactly what I'm doing most of the time. I just keep pulling stuff out and trying different things until it does feel like it's got the right balance.
AVC: Writers come up with some crazy phrases to describe you—one referred to the "dark chocolate richness" of your voice.
MB: There do seem to be people trying to find out how many different ways they can say "anthemically sad," just so many different combinations of adjectives. It is funny. It's so hard to write about music. I can understand the desire. I don't know what my favorite would be, but my voice has been [compared] to every different type of whiskey.
AVC: Are you surprised that larger crowds are patient with the more subdued songs?
MB: It's been a cool thing that we've played shows in front of 2,000 people packed in a room, and we'll play a song like "Racing Like A Pro," and you just can't hear a word—occasionally in the back of the bar, you'll hear the ice machine or something, but nobody's talking. It's actually really unnerving. Sometimes we'd almost prefer there be some sort of ambient talking in the back of the room so we don't feel so under the microscope. I think it's one of those things that happen at shows. If 80 percent of the people are quiet, the other 20 percent, who might not have any idea who you are, probably will shut up too. But then we've also played shows where it probably gets to be 60/40, and you can tell there's battles going on between people in the back of the room trying to get everybody to shut up. I've never been one to say, "Can you please be quiet?" Because the truth is, I'd much rather have the room half paying attention.