The National: ‘The Irish are such great singers and musicians – it’s almost daunting in a way’

The music almost deserted the Cincinnati band when they began to write their latest album

Deep into the recording of their latest album, it occurred to the members of indie mega-group The National that they might have run out of road.

“The whole period of the pandemic created a real pause. A sort of ‘end of an era’ feeling. There was a period when we didn’t know if we would play again or if we would finish these songs,” says guitarist Bryce Dessner, one of the quintet of Cincinnati friends who came together 20 or so years ago to pour their every-dude angst into songs of gripping sophistication and mystery.

“People say we always say that [the National are over] but this time it felt quite real. It was a tricky time.”

They persevered and on April 28th release their effervescently melancholic ninth album, First Two Pages of Frankenstein. But, as Dessner says, the journey was not straightforward: at moments all involved felt The National had reached its natural end point.


These fracture lines orbited vocalist Matt Berninger, who was struck down with one of the biggest crises of confidence in his life. Nine records in, he felt that he had exhausted his favourite themes of midlife alienation and mild-mannered ennui. To paraphrase Westlife, did he have it in him to say it all over again?

“He was having a very intense writer’s block, slash something closer to depression. I think,” says Bryce, speaking over Zoom from upstate New York. “He was really, really struggling to write and to finish.”

“It was a tough time for everybody,” agrees bassist Scott Devendorf, who first started writing songs with Berninger when they were at school together in Cincinnati (Devendorf’s brother Bryan is The National’s drummer). “Being away from each other and isolated – it can get to your head.”

The task of keeping it all together fell to Bryce and his twin, Aaron, who together comprise the engine room of The National. Across the band’s career, from their origins as a lo-fi Americana act to their breakthrough records Boxer and High Violet, the siblings have functioned as a heads-down counterpoint to more performatively angsty Berninger.

But that dynamic had to switch up a gear through 2021 and 2022. Berninger was adrift. It fell to the Dessners to tell their bandmate that The National still had a reason to exist. Day by day, lyric by lyric, they worked their way through the despair – a trek that the new LP chronicles.

“The fog of it all made for some very impressionistic [material]. But you couldn’t have an album of just that. You can feel it on the record,” says Bryce. “The way it goes in and out. Songs that are more about alienation or disillusionment. Or feeling disembodied. And then there are songs that are really right there. That journey is in the record. It’s not the full story but it’s in there somewhere.”

“At certain points I had conversations with [Matt Berninger] that I’ve never had in 20 plus years of knowing him. Really direct conversation

—  Bryce Dessner

Berninger had poured heart and soul into The National for more than two decades and counting, and then, as the pandemic took hold, jumped straight into a solo record, Serpentine Prison. He felt hollowed out.

“At certain points I had conversations with him that I’ve never had in 20 plus years of knowing him. Really direct conversation,” says Bryce.

“We were communicating at a really basic level, trying to support one another. It was similar with my brother: we would get together in the studio and nothing would happen. Drop Down Like an Alien – that chorus happened out of the blue. There was that, ‘you’re still there’ [to Berninger]. We’re his biggest fans: we couldn’t do this any more, if we weren’t. Our message was, ‘Even if you’re writing about the same thing, or something you felt like you said before, it’s still important’.”

The National are unlikely superstars and remain quietly gobsmacked by their success. There have been huge indie bands before – REM and Radiohead are obvious antecedents. Just like them, The National have inverted the traditional laws of pop by growing in popularity even as their music becomes more complex and challenging. What other stadium group, for instance, would have a guitarist such as Bryce Dessner, whose collaborators include minimalist composer Steve Reich, and actor Cillian Murphy, with whom he and Aaron performed a spoken word piece at the Everyman Palace in Cork in 2017?

In other ways, though, The National are unique. They’ve never had a hit single – no Creep or Losing My Religion. Berninger, the face of the ensemble, is still essentially anonymous. And yet they fill arenas and command levels of devotion of which more famous musicians can only dream.

“We’re always adjacent,” says Dessner. “We’re still adjacent. We never had the fame that REM had. We were never a fashionable band or a trend band. Or the band you wanted to be cool at to find a new girlfriend or boyfriend. What was there was the music. That’s still what is there. We’re seeing the audiences getting bigger, which is surprising after all these years. The demand for the tour is far beyond what was expected, so that the venues will all be full. And that’s a really nice thing to have 20 years in.”

Not that the group haven’t had moments of conflict. On stage, there are times Berninger seems to be trying to actively wind up the Dessners. In the studio, Bryce is referred to as “Switzerland” – he’s the neutral party standing between the more combative Berninger and his twin. He mentions the track Guilty Party from 2017′s LP Sleep Well Beast, where Berninger felt the drum pattern too elaborate. Bryce stayed up all night essentially rewriting the entire edifice from scratch.

“We benefit from having strong personalities,” he says. “And having different leaders in different ways. Maybe some side of that famously contentious recording process was five egos in the room, each with their own subtle agenda. Even if the common cause is the songs and the music – sometimes to a fault, where the human relationships are secondary to the end result. I think sometimes what a situation needs is not ego.

With the recording of First Two Pages of Frankenstein, which they assembled at Aaron Dessner’s Long Pond Studio in New York’s Upper Hudson Valley, there was a conscious effort to strip away their pride and self-regard.

“We came to this process with a new humbleness – a bit of a reality check. Less entitlements. We’re not the Rolling Stones, we’re Oasis, we’re not even The Strokes. We’re not divas. We’re Midwestern guys,” says Bryce. “Over the years, just by nature of the things we’ve gotten to do, a sense some kind of rock star entitlement may have settled in a little bit. The pandemic levelled that: all of a sudden, there were no concerts, no projected possibility of anything. And so we were coming back to a place where it’s nice to make music with people you know.”

People love to see someone right on the edge of total humiliation. People love to watch Mick Jagger not because he’s so poised but because he’s so absurd

—  Matt Berninger

First Two Pages of Frankenstein refers to the light bulb moment Berninger realised that he might have another record in him after all. Desperate for inspiration, he turned to Mary Shelley’s proto-science fiction classic about the folly of overweening ambition. Presto – a switch flicked, lighting flowed – and The National were off to the races.

It has ever been thus with Berninger. In The National’s early years, he had a high-flying job as an advertising creative director in New York and was unsure whether he even wanted to get into music full-time. On stage, he has always presented a contrast – basking in the limelight while simultaneously appearing to shrivel from it. It was a new rock’n’roll archetype: the bashful exhibitionist who both preened and wanted the floor to open and swallow him whole.

“I have been aware constantly of the inherent ridiculousness of it from the start,” Berninger told me in 2015, unpacking his unusual dynamic as a frontman.

“Way too aware, in fact. Eventually, I started to understand that is why it’s so great – why it’s fun to look at someone who looks like they’re crawling out of their skin, who wants to creep under the floorboards but who can’t because they have to stand there and sing. That’s cool to look at. I’m more comfortable with that now. People love to see someone right on the edge of total humiliation. People love to watch Mick Jagger not because he’s so poised but because he’s so absurd. That’s why they love hair metal and heavy metal – these ludicrous characters peacocking around.”

Occasionally people think that these things don’t belong together. Taylor Swift is a really great songwriter. And what the National has always have always tried to do is write songs

—  Bryce Dessner on working with Swift

Nobody would accuse Berninger of peacocking on First Two Pages of Frankenstein. But he does threaten to crawl out of his skin more than once. On the new single Eucalyptus, for instance, he reflects on the friendships that have sustained The National – and whether, after all this time and the isolation of the past two years, they have frayed beyond repair. “Throughout the record, there’s a lot of looking into the abyss and wondering if a relationship has run its course,” he says.

These are the moments when a band might decide it’s no longer fun and that they should call it a day – as REM did in 2011. For The National, the fact they are all schoolfriends from Cincinnati helped sustain the project.

“That is the reason that we’ve made it as long as we have,” says Scott. “Aside from whatever success we have had along the way, I think that the family/friendship bond is the most important thing. We’re all concerned about how everyone’s feeling. We feel very family oriented – the way you would feel about your friends, your family. It’s important to us.”

Amid the “sad dad” angst, there’s some glamour sprinkled through First Two Pages of Frankenstein. Sufjan Stevens and Phoebe Bridgers have cameos. As does Taylor Swift, who follows up her collaborations with the Dessners on her Folklore and Evermore albums to duet with crestfallen crooner Berninger on The Alcott.

Swift plays a millennial Dolly Parton to Berninger’s despondent Kenny Rogers on a track that unfolds like a sort of baroque Islands in the Stream. The lyrics are from the perspective of a couple quietly desperate to recapture the early zing of their relationship. It’s beautiful – but its heart is broken down the middle.

“Taylor came to see us play in Brooklyn,” says Bryce. “We talked about [Aaron producing Folklore]. Pretty early in that I was helping on those songs. What I was saying before about always being tangential ... and then all of a sudden, literally the world’s iconic, most popular artist who is a real force and a really important voice and a strong advocate for artists and doing things her own way ... For her to shine a light on us and my brother. And for him to do such a great job. It was exciting.”

Having Swift in your corner, means having the Swifties, as her fans are known, at your back too. “The dimensions are so surreal. It’s so much bigger, the audiences,” says Bryce. “Who would have thought 20 years in, that a 15-year-old [could be] discovering what The National is? Who would have thought that? But we’re there for it. And she’s been quite generous about it. I got to co-write that song, Coney Island, on Evermore. I’ve arranged a tonne of her songs.

It’s always been a very strong place for us. People there are such great singers and musicians – it’s almost daunting in a way

—  Scott Devendorf

Aaron Dessner had responded spikily when I put it to him that for an alternative band to collaborate with a pop star such as Taylor Swift would once have been seen as the worst sort of selling out. Imagine REM’s Peter Buck writing with Shania Twain? The Feelies making a record with Janet Jackson? People’s brains would have melted. “The boundaries between genres have been melting for a long time,” Aaron said in 2021. “Indie music or alternative music is kind of a myth now.”

Bryce’s perspective is similar. He characterises The National’s ongoing creative relationship with Swift as a meeting of minds. “It’s a trip. It’s total fun. Occasionally people think that these things don’t belong together. Taylor Swift is a really great songwriter. And what the National has always have always tried to do is write songs. It makes sense those who things found each other.”

“Times have changed in that regard. Music is music,” says Scott. “It’s cool when [collaborations with pop stars] work out. I mean, obviously, it can feel very contrived. But having her work with us was cool. I knew she was a fan of our band.”

The National have always been fiercely beloved in Ireland. They still talk fondly about how selling out Whelan’s in Dublin early in their career was the moment that they realised they could be more than an obscure band from Cincinnati (they all hail from the American Midwest, though the group started when they were working in New York).

“I remember taking 5am ferries to play Dublin in the early 2000s,” says Scott. “It’s always been a very strong place for us. People there are such great singers and musicians – it’s almost daunting in a way.”

Still, there have been bumps in the road – such as that notorious time they reportedly played to two men and a dog headlining the second stage at Oxegen 2011. They were up against Beyoncé on the main stage, who attracted the bulk of the audience.

“If I was given the choice I’d have rather gone to watch Beyoncé,” Aaron Dessner told me in 2014. “I guess we were booked because they thought ‘Oh, The National can pull it off – they can ‘close’ a stage at the same time as Beyoncé'. We knew it was going to be tough – like closing against Prince or Michael Jackson, these classic entertainers who are also huge celebrities.”

He said this not with any frustration but with an easy humour. “We sometimes refer to ourselves as the ‘bad news players’ – we always seem to have these weird setbacks. No matter how high you rise, somehow you end up humiliated. In a way it’s healthy – a reminder success is relative. There’s something absurd about this entire business anyway, so you probably shouldn’t take it too seriously. It’s good to be brought down to earth – we tend to benefit from those extreme humiliations.”

Going on for a decade later, Beyoncé might be flattered to be spoken of in the same breath as The National. True, First Two Pages of Frankenstein won’t go down as absolutely their best album – that title still resides with Boxer or High Violet. But it is an intriguing gear change from musicians who have negotiated a creative midlife crisis and come triumphantly out the other side.

“Maybe this new era was a bit of an acknowledgment of ‘let’s take care of this group’,” says Bryce, who feels that now The National will attend more closely to the band rather than to other musical projects in their life. “We don’t always have to be run ragged chasing a million dreams, or whatever. There is something nice about holding guitars and playing with the five people you’ve known since you were 15.”

First Two Pages of Frankenstein is released on April 28th. The National play at the 3Arena, Dublin, September 21st