After 20 years of soundtracking human heartbreak, the legendary US rockers talk about depression, infighting and playing live while Paris burns
Ten minutes before the National are due on stage at Caf de la Danse in Paris, the news breaks: Notre Dame is on fire. The inner thoughts of the Grammy-award-winning American alternative rock band are ticker-tape flashes of catastrophe. They were a fledgling band in Brooklyn when 9/11 happened; they are in Paris tonight, four years on from the Bataclan theatre massacre, and two years on from the UKs Manchester Arena bombing. The bands frontman Matt Berninger feels certain it is a hate crime and visualises detonating planes and mass shootings. Multi-instrumentalist Bryce Dessner moved to Paris in 2015 and is having Bataclan flashbacks. Are we really gonna play? he wonders.
Film director Mike Mills, the Nationals creative director for this year, is watching the dramatic news images, recalling churches on fire in the second world war and feeling it is the 1930s all over again, illiberal rhetoric everywhere, dismayed that Europe has taken another hit. Bassist Scott Devendorf, meanwhile, had a text before news reached him, from a friend in the United States, saying Notre Dame on fire. He thought it was about the Notre Dame baseball team in New Jersey pulverising their opponents.
Half an hour later, the National are playing a new song on stage, Hairpin Turns, a haunting, piano-led lament. What are we going through? You and me, implores Berninger, in his mournful baritone. Every other house on the streets burning / Days of brutalism and hairpin turns
It seems weve become a Generation Catastrophe, with everyone over the age of 10 collectively fine-tuned to threat, anxiety, paranoia and impending apocalypse. On the streets of Paris today, Extinction Rebellion protesters hoist flags depicting their egg-timer logo. Since 1999, the National have been the sound of human heartbreak, excavators of emotional ennui (or, the USs Radiohead via REM, Nick Cave and Joy Division). In the year of their 20th anniversary, as humanitys existential sadness seems to deepen every day, the National are the perfect band for these times, arent they? The sound of the apocalypse! hoots Devendorf. There is something to that. Were therapists, in these times. Maybe not, were not qualified!
Twenty-four hours earlier, in Pariss Pin-Up Studios, Mills is directing the video for Hairpin Turns, band members performing solo in minimalist white space. They shouldnt even be here, due lengthy time off after touring worldwide for 2017s quietly enormous, global No 1 album Sleep Well Beast had left them exhausted, batteries drained, according to Berninger. Instead, they took up a late-2017 email offer of visual collaboration from Mills, the 53-year-old Oscar-nominated director of 2016s 20th Century Women (and a lifelong National scholar). The result, I Am Easy to Find, is a 24-minute film (one womans life in pivotal moments, elegantly played by Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander) and a Mills-edited, orchestrally hypnotic album featuring six female vocalists (inspired by Vikanders character).
Two will join them on stage for two shows in Paris the former Bowie bassist Gail Ann Dorsey and the This Is the Kit frontperson Kate Staples, alongside Bryces wife, the French songwriter Pauline De Lassus (and a seven-piece male/female string section). For the five-man troupe from Ohio, who have famously struggled with infighting, and now live across the US and Europe, the result, thrills Berninger, is both creative reboot and more universal prism for his male neuroses.
In Pin-Up, meanwhile, Berninger, 48, has a new best friend, seven-year-old Hopper, Millss long-haired son, who is standing at a monitor yelling, er, encouragement to his new-found bearded buddy. Matt! he yelps. You look really good cos I cant see your face!
Hey, look at this responds a cackling Berninger (himself dad to 10-year-old Isla), letting his microphone stand fold double with a comedy duck-whistle sound effect. It is relaxed, upbeat behaviour you dont expect from the American Bard of Despair, an adolescent Morrissey/Smiths obsessive who abandoned his well-paid graphics career at 28 for the chaos of musical life.
Meanwhile, multi-instrumentalist /songwriter/producer Aaron Dessner, 43, is explaining he and twin brother Bryces intriguing ancestry, a lineage of Scots, Jews and Native Americans. The twins are the Nationals musical heart, virtuoso musicians versed in intricate melancholy. Ask Aaron if their propensity for sadness might be in their memory DNA, from persecuted peoples, and Bryce interjects, smiling broadly. I think, in 2019, as middle-aged white men, wed have a hard time calling ourselves persecuted in any way. So no!
The morning after the Notre Dame fire, the Dessners are seated at breakfast in a fashionable hotel, a shy, eloquent pair. Aaron lives between Copenhagen and upstate New York (home to his timber-framed Long Pond studio), and will soon move to Paris with his wife and three young children to join his twin brother. In the US, on the school run, he has taken to switching off radio news because I dont want them hearing about kids in cages and mass shootings. Bryce, who lives two blocks from Notre Dame, saw symbolism in last nights dramatic events. A melting cathedral, he laments. When so many institutions are crumbling, basic concepts of liberalism, its like everything you think is permanent can be erased.
Millss influence on the Nationals permanently melancholy sound, muses Aaron, in no way erased it, more expanded it, with choral, baroque arrangements, he says. And he took a lot of tension out of the band suddenly there was this higher authority. Today, Aaron says his connection to musical sadness may be innate after all. I suffered from depression in high school, he explains. Its clinical. I was a lucky kid, nice family, nobody did anything wrong to me. But from the earliest, writing music with Bryce was therapy. Thats why a lot of our music is meditative, the layers, rhythms, patterns.