The National: America's Radiohead
The New York band are being compared to rock legends, says Robert Collins.
Hit the big time: The National; Aaron Dessner stands far left
This has been a fine year for The National. The Brooklyn-based band saw their fifth album, High Violet, peak at number three in the US album charts and number five in the UK. They sold out the Royal Albert Hall, were a hit at the Glastonbury Festival last month and will be playing two nights at the Brixton Academy this autumn. Not bad for a group that spent the first five years of their existence regularly playing to crowds in single figures.
"That seems like a long time ago now," smiles guitarist Aaron Dessner. "For the last five or six years we've had audiences - audiences that have been growing. We're still haunted by the days when there were more people in the band than in the audience. We'll never quite forget that.
"Our first success came in France. It was a fantasy to play in Paris, and we went in 2001. We had sold out shows there long before we had sold out shows in New York or London. That glimmer of hope kept us going."
Dessner and his fellow guitarist and twin brother Bryce make up the Jewish faction of The National. They write the music, vocalist Matt Berninger provides the lyrics and brothers Scott and Bryan Devendorf are the rhythm section. Together, the band has overcome its slow start to become critics' and fans' favourites. Vanity Fair described them as "America's Radiohead".
"Any time you get compared to one of the greatest bands ever is very flattering and humbling," said Dessner. "The great thing about Radiohead is that they don't repeat themselves, they reinvent themselves. We've tried to challenge ourselves and not repeat ourselves and make records we believe in too, but if you were to ask me which was the better band, I'd say Radiohead."
If that kind of modesty sounds distinctly un-rock'n'roll, it makes sense on hearing The National's music. Stately and serious, it is guitar rock that goes for emotional subtlety over chest-beating drama.
"My dad was a great jazz drummer," says Dessner. "His barmitzvah present was a Slingerland drum kit that's still in the basement at my house. I remember finding it when Bryce and I were seven years old. Dad started playing it and our eyes popped open."
Although his family was not overly religious, young Aaron was fascinated by the Jewish culture that surrounded him. "I studied Modern European History at Columbia University, in New York, but I took as many courses as I could that were Jewish-focused," he said.
What I'm most interested in is literature, art and film that focus on catastrophic Jewish history - the pogroms and the Holocaust and those horrible things. When I was at Yale I was working in the Holocaust Archive, which was an amazing experience.
"When we played a festival in Katowice this year I woke everybody up early, hired a van and took them to Auschwitz. I've been there more than once. It's really powerful, and it's beautiful to have that kind of emotional experience with everybody, although it did bum us out for the concert.
"We also played in Dachau, in the town, so we got to go to the camp there too. I know so much about the Holocaust, almost everywhere we go in Europe I'm haunted by knowing there's a place nearby where a lot of people died."
Dessner does not dismiss the idea that his Jewish upbringing and interests influences his band's melancholic music. "It's possible. My brother and I have always been fascinated by liturgical religious melodies in Judaism. That hasn't really found its way into our music other than I don't like major chords. There are a lot of darker hues, I guess.
"I like the meditative patterns in certain prayers, and I like music that repeats itself. The way Matt sings, he repeats lines, and the melody doesn't change."
It is easy to misunderstand a band like The National. The music is awash with sadness, but Aaron is far from a misery guts. His conversation is littered with laughter and the band still relishes life on the road. "It's fun," insists Dessner. "It's about celebrating the music and connecting with the audience."
And playing to packed houses certainly helps.
'High Violet' is out on 4AD records