The National have long been one of indie rock’s most revered bands, and like many of their past albums, the songs from their recently released ninth outing, “First Two Pages of Frankenstein,” take on a life of their own onstage. The band — frontman Matt Berninger, guitarist brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner, and bassist Scott Devendorf and drummer Bryan Devendorf, also brothers — are known for their intense live shows and are currently in the middle of a North American tour, and of course have received a wave of new fans thanks to their recent collaborations with Taylor Swift. Variety spoke with Berninger how the band’s music changes during a live show, the emotional meditation they gained from playing one song for six hours straight, and writing with Swift.
What is your process of bringing newly recorded material from the studio to the stage?
It’s a strange evolution, because the songs are all written in these very private moments, and I never think about what it’s going to be like to perform anything when writing it. But then walking on stage and doing the songs in front of people changes so much. Being on stage is not a naturally comfortable place — I’ve always found it challenging to find that right area where I’m genuinely connecting to the songs and not trying to think too much about being in front of people and performing. You want to be genuinely present for people, not just with your eyes closed in your own headspace. It’s a weird thing that you’re supposed to have one foot deep inside my head and then one foot 100% in this other space which feels really, really awkward. I’m 20% feeling humiliation at all times on stage and that self-awareness and self-consciousness is not something I can really cover up. I’ve tried to figure out how how to just be OK with it being weird and sloppy and strange, to really get into to that untethered mental space, to sustain that and do a two-hour presentation of songs.
Is there any conscious way you try to present new material to engage fans who don’t know it like they know your older stuff?
We figured out pretty late in the game that if you have the room’s attention, they’re with you for the whole ride. We don’t have any “hits”… there are songs that are the most streamed and that kind thing, but we’ve never had a radio hit or anything like that. We have songs that we do play almost every show, but the truth is back in the day the less people were paying attention, the easier it was. My favorite thing of all was opening for bands like The Walkmen or R.E.M., and I loved when I heard people at the back at the bar the whole time talking. It was motivating to think, “I’m going to win these people’s attention.” Sometimes I would literally go all the way to the back and climb on the bar to get their attention. So learning to play in front of other people’s fans was really the best thing and how we learned to build a live band: We just watched other people.
I would study Michael Stipe. How does Michael Stipe connect with that top row in the back? It’s not like there are any tricks, necessarily, but you that you really have to give it. Even if you don’t have it, you know you have to muster that energy. If you can sing from that space, you can close your eyes and cry and let the lighting guys do the work. Sometimes when you are on stage under lights and you crawl into your shell, that can be a a really captivating thing. So I let my mind and body do what it wants to do. I have so many hand gestures… I have these empty hands up there and they just start to pantomime. You just be whatever weird creature you are and let it be awkward and insecure and all those things.
It’s been ten years since the band performed in the art exhibit “A Lot of Sorrow” with artist Ragnar Kjartansson, where you played the song “Sorrow” over and over for a six hour marathon. Are there any performance elements that stick with you to this day?
Not only did the song evolve, but that wasn’t really the point. The band would do different things, but it was like saying a mantra. You eventually slide into a different space. I think the audience did too. It was a really, really strange and mostly fun experience. Towards the end of that I got really, really emotional and it was a combination of fatigue and just the strange scene. I sort of cracked a little bit and couldn’t even sing.
Oftentimes I’m on stage now and I’ll remember that weird and I crave it a bit, to be able to be in that place where you suddenly forget where you are and are not conscious at all. You’re purely physical, you’re not mental and everything, the people, the faces go away. A room packed with people and everybody becoming separated from time and space in their lives and everything outside for a short period…that’s what we do when we go to see any kind of art. You just get so connected and you get emotionally pulled along. It’s very much like church: Not necessarily holy, but sacred in this way that very rarely happens. I grew up going to church all the time — I don’t anymore, but this is my version of it now. I’ve learned to become grateful and thankful for it and respect the whole thing.
What was it like collaborating with Taylor Swift on the songs you did for “Frankenstein” track “The Alcott” and her “Evermore” song “Coney Island”?
Aaron’s been working with her for a long time [Dessner collaborated extensively with Swift on her 2020 albums “Folklore” and “Evermore”] and we’ve known Taylor for a long time. I met her ten years ago, so that crossover was a really organic thing. It made a lot of sense and working on the songs with her was easy and fun. I write really slow, but I know she writes really fast, so when she wrote for “The Alcott,” we sent her the song and she sent it back quickly with almost all of it written out, and all the melodies and countermelodies, which we didn’t know she was going to do. She’s just so incredibly gifted and good at what she does. It’s like finally getting to dance with somebody that you’ve watched dance on television forever, and then suddenly you’re on the dance floor with them. For me, singing with her and writing with her was surreal but felt natural. The connection was just really genuine and joyful.