The National

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The National


Since releasing their fifth album, High Violet, in May, the star has risen rapidly for crooning indie heroes The National.

Since releasing their fifth album, High Violet, in May, the star has risen rapidly for crooning indie heroes The National. The success has afforded the Brooklyn-based band headline slots at some of Australia’s biggest festivals this summer – and this October, it even won them a Q Magazine award for Best Album. “We’ve gotten on year end lists from time to time, but this is the first time we’ve actually ever been given an award that’s made out of metal,” bassist Scott Devendorf begins. “It was a surprise for sure. Q’s a sort of big English music mag obviously, and they had a big music magazine event to go with the award ceremony, which was interesting. It was midday, but it was set up to feel like it was night – and Bernard Sumner handed us the award, which was awesome.”

Meeting the New Order and Joy Division guitarist wasn’t the only honour of the year –they also got to do a ‘Fleetwood Mac circa-1993,’ and hung out with the leader of the free world. In 2008, The National were staunch supporters of Barrack Obama’s presidential campaign, selling T-shirts featuring Obama’s image and the words ‘Mr November,’ even playing at a rally in their hometown of Cincinnati to encourage voting.

And this year, during the midterm elections, they did the same.

“We were on tour in the ‘States and we were going to be in Madison, Wisconsin, which is in the northern Midwest – it’s a big college town,” Berninger explains, setting the scene. “It turned out that about a week before we were going to be there, we got a call from his team – his organisers – and basically they were doing a pitch about voting for students. It was before the midterm elections, which kind of went badly in retrospect, but the president was going to be there and we were going to be there and they asked us, and we said ‘sure!’

“We went to the rally and we played a few songs acoustic – we amplified them, but it was just a couple of guitars and some speakers, not the whole band thing. Ben Harper was there as well and he did a couple of songs, there were a few speakers from local politics as well – and then Obama spoke.”

Afterwards the band got to meet President Obama for a couple of minutes, which Berninger says was both awesome and bizarre. So what did the bassist say to the president? “Probably something really dumb,” he laughs. “We were kind of lined up in a hallway in a very secure area and he came up, and he was very cordial – he had that thing about him, you know about presidents having a magical quality? He was very charismatic and he was super nice. He shook each of our hands and said thanks for performing, and we tried make to some jokes. He was super funny and we probably weren’t, but it was an interesting experience for sure.”

Berninger concedes that he never thought theirs would be the type of band that met world leaders when they started out 11 years ago. “No way,” he says, incredulous. “In fact, even when we were asked to play the rally we were thinking that it wouldn’t happen. It was a bit of a surprise in the end, because obviously presidents have things to do that are a hundred times more important than talking to some band.”

To top off the career year for The National, they’ve just reissued High Violet with an extra disc of unreleased material. “We had B-sides that were released here and there that we kinda wanted to compile for people, and also we had a couple of tracks that didn’t make the record,” Berninger explains.

“We just put them together as a sort of end of year round up. I think the record company wanted to put something together to let the record get more notice, but also we didn’t want people to buy it all over again. So you can buy the tracks individually – if people are still paying for tracks or whatever. We’re an album band, and we did that with Alligator a few years ago as well.”

The band have also played some of the biggest shows of their career recently, leaving them on a hot streak as they head to Australia. At London’s O2 Academy Brixton late last month, fellow indie rock royalty Sufjan Stevens joined them on stage. “He’s a good friend, and we’ve known him for a few years now because he lives in the same neighbourhood,” Berninger explains.

“We’ve shared studio space from time to time; he used our studio to record his record The Age Of Adz. We share equipment and while we were recording our record, he popped by the studio a few times and helped us out on a couple of songs – doing vocals, harmonium and things like that. So yeah, it’s been an organic relationship in that way. He’s a great guy and he’s been busy because obviously he’s got a new record and he’s been touring – but he happened to have some time off at the end of tour, so he came over for a few days to hang out in London and played a show with us.”

Stevens will be arriving in Australia a couple of weeks too late to make it on stage with The National in January – but if past gigs are anything to go by, these shows should not be missed.

THE NATIONAL are one of the headliners for the FALLS FESTIVAL in Lorne over December 28-January 1. They also play two sideshows at The Palais on Sunday January 9 (sold out) and Monday January 10 (tickets from and 136 100). High Violet is out now through 4AD/Remote Control.

Matthew Hogan