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The National

Local boys, not a local band


The National has been written up in magazines ranging from Entertainment Weekly to Rolling Stone, and nearly every instance of press has been quick to point out that it's a Cincinnati band. A nice head-nod for our little town, to be sure, but there's just one problem:

The National has never been a Cincinnati band.

"We all grew up there," says vocalist Matt Berninger, "but the band didn't start in Cincinnati. I was in a band with Scott (Devendorf) called Nancy, and the other guys were in several smaller bands that didn't bring much in on the Cincinnati scene."

 The truth is, the band members - Berninger and two sets of brothers, Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Scott and Bryan Devendorf - were all established New Yorkers long before The National. "After about five years of being in New York and working, Scott and I got together to try to write some songs, and Scott called his brother, and his brother called Aaron and Bryce to come over and we just started having fun."

The fun soon led to three self-released albums and a deal with Beggar's Banquet, who put out the band's latest album, Alligator, an accomplished piece of baroque pop filled with songs that seem to hover in that place between sleep and wakefulness. Berninger delivers lines such as "I had a secret meeting in the basement of my mind" and "We're out looking for astronauts" in a relaxed baritone reminiscent of Nick Cave and fellow Cincinnati ex-pat Greg Dulli. The music is simple and elegant, with pianos, drums and guitars mixing and swirling like balanced parts of a whole.

Though The National's songs are mostly tales of living in New York, the band's Cincinnati roots play an integral part in the way they talk about New York City.

"I've been living in New York for about 10 years, but I still feel like an outsider, and I still have this naïve romantic fascination with New York," says Berninger. "Growing up in the Midwest, New York was always this land of Oz from Woody Allen movies or whatever, and I still have a lot of that. That comes out in the lyrics - kind of like you were watching a party through a window - you're right there, but you're not really invited."

Berninger's songs are love letters to New York, and the lyrics often venture into the arena of intangible imagery and impressionistic narratives that mark every great love letter. "I try to set up little cinematic moments," he says. "There are a lot of details that are mundane, boring little phrases or bits of conversation."

The National is often referred to as "under the radar." At a time when every band of kids coming out of New York is seized upon by record executives and desperate A&R folks, The National's slow burn does suggest the term, though Berninger prefers to view things differently.

"We've always been operating in the shadows of the young, hyped, glossy-magazine-cover bands for a while now, and we've gotten pretty used to it. I can't say I really like it, but we've had this slow, steady, word-of-mouth kind of fan base that's not based on fashion-magazine type of press," he says.

The bandmates aren't kids anymore - Berninger is in his mid-30s - and they're able to view their industry with a bit more wisdom and discernment than many of the "it" bands of the moment.

"Every couple of months, there's this band coming out of New York and an incredible amount of attention is focused on them, and oftentimes that's short-lived," he says. "We've played a lot of shows and done a lot of stuff with bands that were very hyped and didn't have the stuff to back it up - they kind of had an attitude and were pretty big for their britches, and we don't really tolerate that."

The members of The National have realized their dreams, leaving their Midwestern roots and finding success in the big city, but Berninger retains a wistful melancholy about what he left behind.

"I miss driving around," he says. "I don't own a car, can't afford a car, and I just miss driving around. It's hard to disappear in New York, but in Cincinnati you can just go for a long drive and clear your head. That's hard to do here."

Wednesday, September 14, 2005 | CiN Weekly