The National – interview
Waiting outside the ABC for my arranged meeting with one of the most lauded bands of the year, The National, I look up at the huge sign with the band’s name in lights and curse myself for not having managed to see them at any one of the smaller gigs they have played in Glasgow before tonight. A gradual rise up the venue ladder saw them go from Sleazys to Barfly to King Tuts over a 3 year period and tonight thanks to the overwhelming success of Boxer, their second album proper, they headline a sold out show at what is, arguably, Scotland’s best venue of its size.
So as I sit down in their dressing room with singer Matt Berninger on a plush leather sofa it does seem a far cry from Nice ‘n’ Sleazy’s (even though it is just across the road).
“I remember Sleazy’s (in 2003), it was a good gig but we stayed in a youth hostel and arrived back there late after being out; it was just a typical dorm room with bunks and the lights were all out so we couldn’t find our beds. It was a bit traumatic, Aaron woke up the next morning with someone’s underwear drying at his face and I lay there thinking, I’m 32! What the hell am I doing?! We had a lot of years like that.”
Things have changed for the better though and on the subject of recent shows he says that the crowds have become louder as a result of their success
“It’s different depending on what city you are in, the rowdy factor has turned up a little in the UK with people singing along at the top of their voices. I sometimes find it difficult to hear myself but it’s really exciting at the same time.
“It’s also great to play a venue like this tonight,and to have a backstage with nice couches is very rare, it’s very cushy for us and it also has the largest discoball that I’ve ever seen. Brandon our soundman is really loving the sound system as well.”
To think that their first ever gig was at an open mic night at The Living Room in New York and now they are playing packed venues all over the world – however, the change is not something that Matt feels entirely comfortable with.
“The first gig under lights and playing to strangers was not easy – I’ve never really felt comfortable on stage although I do enjoy it. We have done so many tiny little shows over the years, playing to very small audiences, that we have kind of got used to tough situations… so now we are playing to packed rooms of over 1000 people it’s a very different experience… it’s not that much easier but it’s very satisfying.”
The new album Boxer if you haven’t heard it yet, is easily one of the best of the year so far and is produced by the enigmatic Peter Katis whose name is already on two superb Scottish bands’ albums – The Twilight Sad’s Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters and the forthcoming Frightened Rabbit sophomore LP Midnight Organ Fight.
Unsurprisingly the band are very happy with their finished article but pleasantly surprised at how it’s been received.
“We are really proud of it, it took us longer than we anticipated as we didn’t really know what sort of record we were going to make. It wasn’t till a couple of days after we mastered it and I sat down and listened to it that I realized how happy I was with it. We really didn’t know how people would react to it because it doesn’t really have some of the things that first got people’s attention on our band, songs like ‘Mr November’ – you know the louder songs where I scream my head – off but thankfully it seems to have connected with people.”
Peter Katis is clearly someone they enjoy working with having produced their debut ‘Alligator’ as well, I asked Matt about his input.
“He sort of joins the band as another equal voice, he has learned how to work with us as we fight a lot and he has kind of accepted that.” (laughing) “He’s very flexible about the bands he works with and he’ll dive into anything, even if it’s not necessarily his type of music he wants to make something great and put everything into it.”
It seems with The National that they have garnered attention based on word of mouth and gained a fanbase gradually rather than many bands nowadays who seem to instantly hit big and bypass the so-called toilet circuit. I ask Matt how he feels about their steady ascent.
“I don’t know if ten years ago a band like ours would have been able to find an audience because you had to have certain connections with radio, record stores and distribution, etc. If it weren’t for the likes of MP3 players and people burning CDs, I don’t know if we would have gotten the audience we now have, I think we’re very fortunate that there is this culture happening now. People talk about the music industry dying; I think it’s the corporate industry side of things that is dying, whereas for musicians and music lovers it’s better than ever. You can be in band and not sell 100,000 records but you can still pay your bills and find an audience.”
They most certainly have an audience and when I suggest (nay, plead) a return from them next year for the festival season, and after extolling the virtues of Connect and Indian Summer, Matt is well up for the idea.
“Yeah, tell them we’re into it – I prefer smaller festivals, the bigger ones are overwhelming and you kind of get lost amongst the six stages or however many they have.”
I also ask him if he could put on his own festival who he’d have on the bill (dead or alive) and I suppose also to find out who his favourite artists are…
“The Smiths… Pixies, Nick Cave, Neil Young, Simon and Garfunkel….I don’t know; if I was running a festival I’d probably lose money on it!”
So what are the plans for the rest of the year?
“We are done with this tour in the middle of December, we finish up in Moscow and then we’ll go home to Cincinnati for a few weeks over Xmas. I’m looking forward to getting home for a while, I need to put some weight back on! And then we go to Australia and New Zealand in January for some shows which will be the first time The National have played over there so we are all looking forward to that.”
So as the net is cast ever further round the globe, it makes it even more of a privilege to have spoken to the band on their short stop in Glasgow. The show that night was absolutely astounding and seeing the band for the first time in a venue as beautiful as the ABC will certainly stay with me forever…but I still wish I’d seen them in Sleazys!!
The National’s Album ‘Boxer’ is available now on Beggars Banquet
(Thanks to Brandon Reid and Anna at Beggars Banquet)John Paul Mason