The National: Songs about love and death

The National's latest album saw the Brooklyn outfit facing up to questions of existence. James McNair meets the band on tour

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The Independent Culture

“It's important for us that the show's great every night,” says The National's Matt Berninger. “I have crutches to get me into it – I drink a lot of wine and break from reality a little bit. It's a strange thing to repeat night after night and probably not the healthiest, but if I don't do it I feel like I'm phoning it in.”

It's a balmy summer's evening in Zagreb. The National are touring in support of their widely acclaimed UK and US No 3 album, Trouble Will Find Me, and tonight they're playing an open-air arena near the slopes of the Medvednica mountain. Buoyed by Croat warmth and at least two bottles of local white, Berninger will later invite the entire crowd to join him and his bandmates in the pool.

On the face of it, life seems sweet for this Brooklyn-based act. Keyboardist Aaron Dessner says Trouble Will Find Me is the “heartfelt and direct” National album that he and his guitarist brother Bryce always yearned to make; the group's shows at Ally Pally this winter have already sold out; and critics can't get enough of The National's eloquent melancholy, as best exemplified by their magnificent piano-ballad, “Pink Rabbits”. Four of the group's five members have young kids, however, and 20 or so dates into a mammoth tour that stretches through to November, The National are learning there's some truth in that hoary old chestnut “fame costs”.

“My second child is still really young,” says drummer Bryan Devendorf. “FaceTime and wi-fi isn't always reliable. I only saw him and his brother who's just a little older twice during the US tour. The older one came up and went: 'No way José!' I thought, 'okay, that's new…'”

“I haven't seen my daughter in weeks, but even a couple of days is too long,” adds Berninger. “It isn't the right way to raise a child, so you're weighing that against the financial success of the band, and how that will benefit your family in the future. It's not ideal.”

Family ties run through The National. With Scott Devendorf on bass, the band is home to two sets of brothers. For Matt Berninger's brother Tom, not being in The National has perhaps been slightly discomfiting, but Mistaken for Strangers, the Tribeca-premiered documentary Tom made with the band, has brought him into the inner circle.

“The film is primarily about his and Matt's relationship” says Aaron Dessner. “You never hear a whole song by The National in it. When we were making [2007 breakthrough album] Boxer someone made a very arty, miserable film that didn't capture what we're like, but Tom brought out our humour and a unique perspective on what it's like to be in a touring band, partly because he wasn't actually documenting that.”

“Yeah, Tom's movie is about himself, really,” adds Berninger. “It's a beautiful film about struggling to get out of other people's shadows – my shadow in his case. Tom was living with my wife and I while he was editing the film – he still is, actually. It was a really good living situation, but also a little contentious at times. Our song 'I Should Live in Salt' is about that a bit. Tom didn't get it, though. He thought it was just something about salt.” He laughs.

The wife that Berninger mentions is Carin Besser, former fiction editor at The New Yorker. She seems a nice fit for the frontman of a well-educated band whose lyrics are highly literate, if somewhat opaque. “Carin's a published poet with an amazing brain and a great ear for sense of tone and imagery,” says the singer. “We met while the band was writing [2005 album] Alligator and I don't think it's any coincidence that my writing started getting better around then.”

On Trouble Will Find Me the singer's lyrics attempt to make peace with various anxieties, whether they be romantic, social or existential. Berninger has said that songs such as “Heavenfaced” and “Humiliation” explore mortality in a playful way, flirting with a taboo subject. But what has he learned about death?

“I'm a secular humanist,” he says. “I believe that when our light goes off we're dust. I think our heaven and hell will come from how we leave the world and how we treat others – that was something that came into stark reality for me when I had a kid.

“Maybe if I at least try to make my little girl happy, I'll get to leave some heaven around and that will be my afterlife. I don't find that depressing – I actually find it very soothing and motivating.”

One of the oddest chapters in The National's lives came back in May. It was the Icelander Ragnar Kjartansson who got MoMA in New York to commission A Lot of Sorrow, a performance piece which required the band to play “Sorrow”, the artist's favourite song from 2010's High Violet, for six hours.

“Our performance was weird,” says Berninger. “We played 'Sorrow' 108 times and around the 98th or 99th time I choked up a little bit... It wasn't a painful process – I think we found it a bonding thing; one of the best experiences we've had together as a band. We won't do it again, though.”

The single 'Sea of Love' is out on 29 July on 4AD