It’s often true what is said about creativity, that artists create because it’d be impossible for them not to. That the work barrels out no matter the circumstances, and when one project is completed another one begins. But it seems especially true for the National. A constant blur of activity, the band’s LPs, singles, music videos, and tours seem to be on an infinite cycle, yet each member somehow retains a robust personal life that involves many other creative projects, each one informing another—both a testament and a proving ground for the National’s ever-evolving sound.
These projects—from side bands to record producing, classical composing to film scoring—showcase a versatility that takes the National’s musicians far out of the context of indie rock but also right back into the middle of it, with music that explores new sonic and lyrical landscapes—which makes the National the perfect pick to headline Rock the Garden 2019 at the Walker Art Center. Whatever the National looks like from the outside, they’re much more: a truly interdisciplinary group that meshes high art with a genuine rock-and-roll ethos.
Matt Berninger, the deep-voiced front man of the National, also fronts the group EL VY, his duo with longtime friend Brent Knopf (of Ramona Falls and Menomena fame). The two met more than a decade ago when their respective bands played a show together and remained in contact for quite some time, sharing song ideas and fragments back and forth in a process that eventually culminated in Knopf sending Berninger a folder filled with 450 song ideas—more than 11 hours of music. “There are times it went onto the back burner and stayed there for a long time because of all the other stuff we were both doing,” he told Rolling Stone in 2015. “We had this window, and we dove in with both feet and finished it.”
The record, an intense deviation from what you may know from the National’s music, is inspired by personal recollections as well as mature reflections. There’s also within the music a strong pop-culture influence, as Berninger cites Grease and the Minutemen as concurrent obsessions during the writing and recording process for EL VY’s debut (and, so far, only) album, Return to the Moon. The result is pleasantly surprising: an elusive and danceable album that brings a new lyrical depth to Berninger’s work as well as fresh, complex textures to both members’ music.
“I think they’re good for the artist, but as a fan, I admit—I’m kind of bummed sometimes when members of a band go and do other stuff,” said Berninger about side projects. There’s something so attractive about the pristine, intangible togetherness of a band that eats, sleeps, lives, and dies together—a feeling put forth in the popular music canon by things like the very public breakup of the Beatles and their subsequent squabbles and varying careers. For some fans, nothing after ever matched up to having all of them together, even as a couple of them would go on to work together in the future. Others, though, see their greatest work being the work wherein the single artist has the highest level of control and a freedom from the battleground of egos that is writing and performing with a band. Despite the feelings of fans, says Berninger, artists have to do what they are drawn to. There’s no real reason for an artist to shut out their creative impulses to please fans—at least that’s what the National might say.
Berninger is the only member of the National who isn’t partnered up with family (though their 2013 documentary intimately traces the Berninger brothers’ relationship). Two sets of brothers, the Dessners and the Devendorfs, constitute the rest of the band. Both sets of siblings work on side endeavors with and without the other brother because, as mentioned earlier, these guys are seriously restless.
The Devendorf brothers, Bryan (drums) and Scott (bass), also perform together in a group with Ben Lanz called LNZNDRF, a vowel-void portmanteau of their last names. The group’s self-titled album, released in 2016, is completely improvised. Even without knowing that, their music discovers and displays an urgency that feels hyper-natural and synthetic all at once. The other group that Bryan performs in, Pfarmers, takes a more lyrical and conceptual approach to music, creating something that more closely represents pop music. “There were no expectations of this. No one was asking for us to do this project, other than ourselves,” said Scott Devendorf of LNZNDRF in an interview with Clash.
Most of these musical extracurriculars don’t stray too far from the alternative rock spectrum, diverse and exploratory as they are. Bryce Dessner’s music outside of the National couldn’t be further away from it. A wildly accomplished composer, he recently released his latest “solo” effort, though he’s not the only performer on the record. The album will include recordings of three larger compositions and features the Labèque sisters on piano and himself on some guitar and other studio instruments. Recently Bryce has been busy in Europe performing these pieces with Minimalist Dream House, a group that involves Thom Yorke (showcasing his first classical composition) along with the Labèques. This effort sits at the top of a tall mountain, one built from a long list of commissioned orchestral pieces, chamber pieces, ballet scores, and Oscar-nominated film scores.
Kronos Quartet was the first group to put Bryce’s music on record with the transcendent “Aheym.” It’s the first piece he’d composed for Kronos, and it struck enough of a chord the quartet invited him back for a few more compositions, most of which appear on the record. From there, Dessner began working and performing with some of the masters of contemporary classical, including Philip Glass and Steve Reich, who is a big fan of Dessner’s and sees his compositional voice as a refreshing and important one for our time.
Dessner has found good company with some of indie rock’s other classical music enthusiasts, including Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and Wilco’s Glenn Kotche. All three of these artists have discovered modes of composition outside of their primary working bands which they’ve then interpolated back into them with an ease and confidence that is entirely unique to them. Within Dessner’s many collaborations alongside artists young and old one finds an overarching sensibility of reverence for music’s history and trajectory as well as an insatiable need to make it new. He’s at his best when he puts tradition under a microscope to discover the hidden blueprint for a completely new formal structure, often drawing influence from the masters of minimalism who share an admiration for Bryce’s work. (“I can’t believe one person can be such a good composer, a great guitarist, a wonderful curator—and a nice guy,” said Steve Reich of Dessner.) String arrangements aren’t as prevalent in the National’s music as one might think, with Dessner being a composer and all, but those same compositional tendencies can be heard in the melodic repetitions and rhythmic experiments he makes while writing the National’s music.
Dessner’s connections with the likes of Kronos Quartet, Glenn Kotche, and Steve Reich, mirror the interest of the Walker’s Performing Arts department—which has presented all three—in contemporary classical as well as experimental musics. In fact, in 2015, the Walker, in collaboration with Dessner, curated a selection of his works to be presented over two nights. Performed by an array of friends, collaborators, and Twin Cities musicians, the two nights called upon vastly different selections of music, with the second night including a solo performance by Ben Lanz of the National.
Working creatively with another artist can become difficult when ideas and egos clash, and becomes further complicated if they involve familial ties. But for the Dessners, as well as the Devendorfs, it seems to be a smoother ride. Bryce and Aaron Dessner have worked together on a few projects outside of the National, and one can imagine that if the creative flair wasn’t there it wouldn’t keep happening. Along with visual artist Matthew Ritchie, the brothers composed a multidisciplinary piece that involved an orchestra and a handful of vocalists in a loose reincarnation of the Popol Vuh, a mythological creation story of the K’iche’ people. Another collaboration between the brothers, Forever Love, a similarly cross-genre work created with performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson and Gyða and Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir, was commissioned by Justin Vernon’s Eaux Claires festival.
The Eaux Claires festival is also a jumping-off point for Big Red Machine, a collaborative band and record from Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon (who played Rock the Garden with Bon Iver in 2008 and 2018), as well as their enormous set of compilation albums, Day of the Dead and Dark Was the Night. Both records were created to raise money for Red Hot Organization (following the National’s long history of benefit concerts and political action) and were produced by Aaron Dessner, whose impressive producing resume also includes Local Natives’s sophomore album Hummingbird and Sharon Van Etten’s hugely successful Tramp. The brothers have scored films, curated music festivals, and written the catalogue for one of today’s most vital and popular rock bands.
Together, the members of the National are tireless in their shared quest for the new and the next. Whether the results of that quest will come through in these side passion projects or on the upcoming National record (and accompanying film), I Am Easy To Find—due out on 4AD on May 17, a month before Rock the Garden—isn’t a question. We just hope those creative impulses are never stilled. Now we get to see them in our city, with all of the parts collated on stage into the epic rock band we know so well.