The National’s ascension into giants of the festival scene was encapsulated by a video which made a fleeting appearance on the band’s official YouTube channel soon after their barnstorming set at this year’s Coachella. The scene depicted a circle of friends relishing in uninhibited bliss, dancing arm in arm to High Violet standout Bloodbuzz Ohio. The ‘twist’ comes at around the three quarter mark, with a grinning Eric Wareheim [of Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!] revealing himself to be the videographer. “Well we loved that particular moment,” Matt states. “You know, it’s just watching a bunch of dudes our age, out of their minds. And I don’t know if those guys were [substance-affected], if Eric was – I mean, we’ve known Eric for a little while and he’s been a fan – obviously a brilliant guy – and he and his buddies were there just having a blast. Actually he sent us that video and we thought it was so hilarious that we posted it right away, without even asking him. And then we kind of tiptoed back – and by that time it had gotten huge and was out of our hands and couldn’t really pull it back –cause you know, I don’t know if those guys want their bosses to see that,” he laughs. “But they just look like they are having an absolutely bonkers great time. It was good for us too, because a lot of people watch our shows and can be stoic and reverent and emotional, but that guy was just gushing, just spilling over with happiness. It was a fun thing to see. And it’s good to see such a mixture of reactions to our music because we’ve got a lot of cathartic songs that let loose and then a lot of them are introspective. I mean, some of them aren’t exactly party songs, but you feel successful when you see people singing along to a song like Sorrow – raising their beers in the air and celebrating somebody’s sad song is so much fun in a way. It’s so much fun to do those songs and to watch people screaming the lyrics at the top of their lungs. I’ve always thought of sad songs as being some of the most enjoyable songs to get drunk to and party to – there’s nothing better than kind of wallowing in this sentiment. And I think it’s a good feeling and that it’s also really healthy. So, I think it kind of happens on a mass level during our shows and it’s a really fun thing to be a part of.”
As for The National’s stellar studio output, there’s seemingly a shift of scope which runs antithetical to the band’s ever-increasing live environment – particularly in regards to Matt’s aforementioned baritone, which tends to shy away from those cathartic yells which appear on earlier albums. But as Matt explains, that hasn’t led to a difficult transposition into these grand arenas. “I would say that High Violet was the first record that when we started playing the songs live almost all of them worked well right away. With most of the other records, some of the songs worked, some of them just weren’t translating very well. But, for whatever reason, almost all of High Violet was clicking on stage. I mean, our studio we have here in Brooklyn is the size of a bedroom, which was where most of High Violet was recorded. It is a weird thing to take those songs, and then be on stage in front of, you know, thousands of people at some of these shows. But I don’t know if we do a whole lot to consciously try and change those songs – we’ve sort of let the small songs stay small and the big ones do whatever they want. Things naturally evolve, and our live shows are sort of much more reckless and bombastic in some ways. But that’s not us trying to do that, I think it’s just the adrenaline and the nerves, the anxiety and the alcohol sort of kicking in all at once. So, you know, to say that the songs are evolving, well they might be devolving, the do mutate on stage but it’s not something we practice or prepare for. It just happens,” he ponders.
Though still riding high after the release of High Violet, the band did find the time this year to head back into the studio to pen a song for a soundtrack. But where most bands would do so to produce Oscar-bait, the hauntingly melancholic track Exile Vilify was produced not for the film realm, but rather for videogame Portal 2. “Well that came about because the creators of Portal wrote us this long, passionate letter about how they want us in their new game. And they wanted it to be a National song, they didn’t want us to write a videogame song. I didn’t actually know much about Portal, but it was my younger brother Tom, who’s a big gamer, who said he couldn’t believe it. You know, the guys who created Portal are superstars to him. So he said, “You’ve basically got to do whatever they ask you to do.” And what they asked us to do was pretty much to do what we normally do, because they wanted a song that was emotional,” Matt recalls. “It wasn’t like you were going to be running around shooting zombies with this song. And they showed us Portal and explained why that game was so special. So I guess it didn’t take that much convincing at all. We talked with the creators about the story and the atmosphere that that whole game exists in, and it’s such a weird and lonely place. It was really fun to write that song, and the song came from the feeling of being in exile, and in a shell, and the characters there are these exiled, post-apocalyptic… I don’t even know,” he laughs. “To describe that sort of world would take hours. But it was a creepy and sad place, so we wanted to write a song that captured that a little bit but also inject a sense of loss, and love and emotion into such a cold and lonely world. And they way they used it was so great – left on in someone’s room, or played on a radio. It was played by someone who once existed but is now gone. It was really fun, it was like nothing we’d ever done and we had a blast doing it and we’re really proud of that,” he beams.
The five-album-deep back catalogue of The National not only stands as definitive examples of indie rock, but also as some of the foremost works of contemporary American songwriting. As Matt explains, this sense of Americana may simply be from the perspective of an outsider. “When I think of American music, I think of country music, and the old blues. But you know, Rolling Stones are playing American music and The Beatles were playing American music – I don’t know if there is such a thing anymore,” he queries. “I know we’ve been influenced a lot, if not more, by British bands than American bands, but it’s a pretty big mixture. I guess being an American makes it harder for me to pinpoint the Americanisms that I’m doing, or that we’re doing even musically, so we don’t really think about it that much. And when you say American music I think of country music. I mean I’m certain there are particular things that sound very American about what we do, we just don’t even recognise them,” Matt raises.
With the impending visit to Australia potentially marking the closure of the High Violet touring cycle, it looks like the band might be taking a brief respite before starting work on their much-anticipated follow-up. “Yeah, we’ll definitely be heading into the studio relatively soonish. We always need some time to disappear, to reconnect with normal life. So there’s usually a time where we go to our corners and disappear for several months and we haven’t quite done that yet, but I expect that probably sometime late spring we’ll really focus on writing another record. I mean Aaron [Dessner, guitarist/songwriter] has already sent me six or seven new songs or ideas, kind of musical sketches. I mean, he just had a baby two weeks ago and he’s been in this state where he hasn’t been sleeping at night – all he does is walk in circles with his baby and then sit down at the piano and press record. So yeah, it’s starting right now. Another thing is, my brother is working on a film – he toured with us for over a year and has sort of been trailing with us – so something he’s been working in, which we’re all a little bit nervous about, because he got little bit intimate,” he laughs. “But that should see the light of day next year. I doubt another record will come out in 2012. It usually takes us about a year to make a record.”