If we can measure a band's success in terms of bigwig festival slots and NPR features -- and let's face it, we can -- The National just may be the "It" alternative band of the year.
They'll play South Side Ballroom this Saturday -- their biggest headlining show to date in Dallas. It's interesting timing, because The National have never cared less about the spotlight.
It's been 12 years since The National released their self-titled debut album. With six albums now under their belts, including this year's Trouble Will Find Me, the Ohio-bred New Yorkers have expedited their slow but steady progress on their climb toward the top, and with this new view comes a new perspective.
"Nobody had heard of us until recently," frontman Matt Berninger says. "At least that's what it seemed like."
As so often happens, people began caring more about The National as the band began caring less about what people thought of them.
Thanks to Berninger's distinctively brooding baritone voice, The National are sometimes pegged with some annoyingly absolute labels. For years, the band has tried like hell to shed these all-encompassing categorizations by vowing to keep each record sounding uniquely fresh.
"With all our other records," Berninger explains, "our main conscious goal has been not painting ourselves into corners."
Trouble Will Find Me is a significant album for the band, in terms of both its members' personal growth and their collective creative freedom. But it has taken years for the band to make headway on this front.
"While writing [2007 album] Boxer," Berninger says, "we were under a lot of pressure to write Alligator 2, and have a bunch of songs where I scream my head off, like I did on 'Mr. November.'
"We made a conscious effort not to repeat that on Boxer, however, because I felt like if we did, then we'd be known as 'the band with the guy who screams his head off,'" he says, laughing. "I didn't want to paint us into that corner."
That hasn't stopped plenty of people from painting the band into some pretty specific corners - doing so, however, overlooks The National's hard-earned complexity and nuance.
"We made a conscious choice to try to maintain some longevity and keep the doors open," he says. "It was a gamble that paid off."
Berninger credits the atmosphere the band has achieved on its latest album to a loosened approach to production.
"Trouble definitely feels like a big shift," he says. "The difference is, its production was a less contentious creative process than it's been in the past. We actually weren't trying to avoid anything while making it, because we no longer cared about what label was stuck to our band," he says. "Whether it was 'Americana,' or 'Sad-Sack Romantic Melodrama,' or whatever, we just didn't care anymore."
Berninger's lyrics are smart, candid and romantic. They often read like poetic confessionals. He's known to write honest expressions of innermost fears and dutifully encompassing love, as well as comically witty views of habitual life.
"For whatever reason," he says, "I've never been afraid of being romantically melodramatic or earnest. I've always found the people who are willing to write the sentimental, weird love songs to be my favorites -- artists like Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Nick Cave and Cat Power -- people who dive into the emotional, broken, romantic twists and turns and ugly underbellies of romance. I'm definitely walking in their shadows."
Trouble explores new lyrical territories for Berninger, one of which is parenthood. His 4-year-old daughter, Isla, has shifted his perspective.
"On High Violet, I avoided writing about fatherhood," he says, "because I didn't want that to define the record. This time, I felt that less so. Trouble is the first record which having a child has influenced its writing. 'I Need My Girl,' for example, is about missing my daughter and wife."
Berninger's bandmates, guitarist Aaron Dessner and drummer Bryan Devendorf, now each have kids of their own, too. For Berninger, starting his family put things into perspective, quickly and clearly.
"The band is not as important to me as my daughter, obviously," he says. "In a weird way, having a kid has taken some pressure off music, and has made me enjoy the band in a whole different way."
His lyrics may be influenced by fatherhood, but thankfully, we haven't lost Berninger to full-on dad-rock.
"When I listen to rock 'n' roll," he says, "I don't want to hear people singing about their kids. In fact, even when I hang out with other adults with kids my daughter's age, I don't care about hearing their parenting tales, and I don't expect them to care about mine. I won't be putting any songs about preschool on our next record."
In a stark contrast to worrying over being pegged as "the guy who screams his head off," Berninger now finds himself in the classic struggle of balancing work and family.
"We're trying to figure out how to chase this thing we've been chasing for 10-plus years," he says of the band's journey, "without giving up on it in the last minute. Not that we're giving up, but it's like, 'How can we do this and still be good dads and good husbands?' "I think we're figuring it out. But the truth is, we're not home as much as we should be." He's clearly put some honest thought into what raising his family hands-on could mean for the band's future -- and he's totally fine with the potential trade-off.
"The attention you get as a rock band can fizzle so fast, and it will probably happen to us at some point," he says. "Having a kid has made me not so worried about that. It's made me realize that if I had to go back to a desk job to pay my daughter's tuition, I'd do it -- and it wouldn't be that bad. It's given me some healthy perspective, and has made me enjoy the band even more."
For now, Trouble's tour is Berninger's "desk job." And while the band may be selling out huge venues worldwide, he maintains modest - perhaps it's his humble Midwestern roots.
"I've never quite felt like a New Yorker. New York was like Oz to me," says the Cincinnati native. "The city has always been a major muse for me, because it's so strange and romantic, and weird, and crazy, and vile. It's always a step ahead of you."
By now, National fans are used to New York shout-outs in the band's songs; Trouble includes a surprising Dallas reference, too, in the song "Slipped."
"Dallas is a mysterious city to me," Berninger explains, when asked of the city's significance. "I mentioned Los Angeles in songs off our last album, though I've hardly spent any time there, but L.A. is this similarly mysterious, strange, rich, big city. "There's also that Silver Jews song 'Dallas,'" he says, recalling its lyrics: "'Oh, Dallas, you shine with an evil light.'"
Yet for all its scope and reach, Trouble may be The National's most intimate record yet. It is the sound of a band that has finally managed to stop caring about labels and expectations.
The album's last song, "Hard to Find," seems to mirror the band's journey. As Berninger methodically croons (not screams) the album's final words, its Violent Femmes nod makes perfect sense -- "They can all," he sings, "just kiss off into the air."
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