Fresh from the close of their hugely successful 2011 High Violet tour, the National are embarking on projects of such great variety and multitude that they look set to be occupied for the course of this year; new ventures into collaboration, charity, curation and side projects are just some of the events planned for 2012. Equally, ventures into politics have not been uncommon; they famously gave their support for Barack Obama’s election campaign in 2008, and played the support act to Obama at a campaign rally in 2010.
In April, the Barbican hosted a 4-tour-date (new Paris date just added) collaboration between Bryce Dessner, Sufjan Stevens and composer Nicol Mulhy, who brought to the stage their performance of a Holst-inspired song cycle entitled ‘Planetarium’, written for seven trombones and a string quartet.
Classically trained Bryce Dessner, along with his twin Aaron, is more usually found flanking vocalist Matt Berninger at National shows; the identical twins giving the threesome a weird resemblance to a clichéd 1990s girl group. Their stage arrangement at times looks as if it comes straight from a pop manager’s handbook; tall blonde in the middle; smaller brunettes to each side.
The brothers are the vital cogs of the band; having practised together since childhood they read each other at a glance; Bryce with his Yale masters in classical guitar and Aaron the multi-instrumentalist. It is therefore no surprise that the two are perhaps the most enterprising of the group. It was in 2001 that the brothers co-created Brassland Records. They have also both ventured into production (working on the compilation album, Dark Was the Night and Sharon van Etten’s Tramp among others) and are between them curating three festivals this year, including musicNOW and the Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, as well as working on further collaborations, such as with Brassland’s This is the Kit. Even by their own prolific standards, 2012 looks set to be busy.
The band’s other siblings, the more easily differentiated Scott and Bryan Devendorf, (and luckily so, else the National could have been one very peculiar looking band) have also been working hard this year. The two recently brought their rhythmic underbelly (drums and bass respectively) to a benefit in aid of HeadCount, ‘the bands favourite voter registration’ organisation, where they performed alongside their fellow Brookyln musicians, raising funds and generating awareness for the organisation.
In addition to each of the members’ individual projects this year, the band are also coming together for the curation of 2012’s All Tomorrows Parties at Butlins, which will see them joining the ranks of previous curating alumni such as Animal Collective, Explosions in the Sky, Mogwai and Matt Groening. So far the line-up consists of many of the National’s former tour mates including the Antlers, Dark Dark Dark, Lower Dens, Sharon van Etten and Wye Oak.
Both their penchant for collaboration (with Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, St Vincent, Sharon van Etten) and the obvious camaraderie with former tour mates are revealing of the National’s genial manner. Unassuming, amusing (just listen to some of the lyrics) and engaging; the band are seemingly one of the most likeable bands around. As former tour mates Broken Records attested to at their recent gig in Camden Town, ‘they’re a pretty fun bunch to hang out with’. Cause or effect, these attributes can all be linked to their ability to embark upon such varied projects this year.
It is no doubt that the year’s new-found creative freedom and opportunity comes also from their recent rise in popularity. If 2010-11 was anything to go by, which saw the National complete their High Violet tour having achieved a Gold certification in the UK for the album (signifying 100,000 records sold), a headlining slot at Latitude Festival, a performance at the Royal Albert Hall, a succession of five sold out performances in New York’s Beacon Theatre as well as numerous advertising, film and television hook-ups, the band are in no doubt on the brink of something really rather big. Furthermore, the band themselves have shown a desire for more mainstream success. As Berninger has stated in a few interviews, as the band gets older and begin to start their families, the appeal of financial security is becoming more desirous than before.
Their new song, the poppy ‘I Need My Girl’ is perhaps most indicative of this. This all being said, one sincerely hopes their trademark angst is not all but lost to populism. Whilst one cannot expect another ‘Available’, Cardinal Song’ or ‘Slipping Husband’ (each of those songs harking back to a time when Berninger was ‘pretty miserable’), High Violet did nevertheless manage to keep at the stringent desperation, even though the themes themselves changed from loneliness and resentment to that of fatherhood and responsibility. In any case, their apparent change in direction will not be seen until the advent of a new album.
A less industrious band may have viewed a tour’s end as an opportunity to rest up for a while until the beginning of the next album-and-tour cycle, but the National show no signs of stopping. Anyone familiar with their live shows and the energetic antics of singer Matt Berninger might be of the opinion that a rest would have been worthwhile, as any new tour will in no doubt contain many more haphazard acrobatics from the singer and band alike; as it is, the National are clearly too much in love with their craft to take a break.