More than a decade since its inception, The National seems dead set on keeping things interesting. For Trouble Will Find Me, the band’s latest — and arguably “biggest” — album to date, twin guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner, brothers Scott (bass) and Bryan (drums) Devendorf, and frontman Matt Berninger coalesced in a rented cabin in upstate New York and started writing. The excursion proved fruitful early on, producing a number of songs that quickly became album contenders. More importantly, though, it found the band members working more collaboratively — and feeling more excited by the process — than they had in years.
“It was kind of like a three-week band camp,” laughed Scott, phoning in from outside The Chicago Theatre, where the band was halfway through a three-night run of sold-out concerts. “We really wanted to play together and see what came out of it — and a lot of great stuff did,” he continued. “But so much of that process was just about working together and getting back into that groove.”
Since forming in 1999, The National has written a kind of nuanced, finely wrought rock music that burns slow and shimmers with anxiety. The Dessner brothers, both classically trained, do the majority of the band’s compositional heavy lifting, and the music they pen is filled with subtle symphonic layers and hocketed guitar lines. As The National’s lone lyricist, Berninger tends toward the abstract, though the images he conjures are almost immediately relatable. And delivered in his forceful baritone, the words hit hard, no matter how you care to interpret them. “Tell yourself that someone knows / You should know me better than that,” he intones on “I Should Live in Salt,” the lead track on Trouble Will Find Me.
“Matt writes a lot — all of the time — but then he discards or doesn’t use a lot of what he writes,” said Scott of Berninger’s process. “Sometimes I don’t want to know what the songs are about. I have a sense just from knowing Matt personally for a long time, but I don’t ask any questions.”
For all of these reasons, along with the band’s commitment to democratic decision making and intense scrutinizing, The National’s albums usually arrive as fully focused visions: 2005’s Alligator tended toward songs about fleeting youth; 2007’s Boxer was a simmering and almost anthemic examination of settling into adulthood; 2010’s High Violet, a masterpiece about the darkness and paranoia that comes with raising a family. It’s said that much of the early writing for Trouble Will Find Me was based, at least in part, on the birth of Aaron’s first child.
“With the creative process, you don’t always know what you’re chasing, which I think is good,” said Scott of the band’s notoriously rigorous writing practice. “There’s always this questioning of ‘Is this terrible? Is this good?’ Our songs start with these basic sketches, which are all appealing on a certain level, and then it turns into a big mess, and we clean it up in the end. Things just kind of reveal themselves over time, and we learn more with each record. But we also don’t ever want to make the same record over again.”
Onstage, The National’s mode is far less exacting. The songs are restructured to be played live, and the guitars, pianos, and horns swirl around and under the vocals with a gentle insistency. At the kit, Bryan pounds out lush, propulsive drum fills colored with fluttering cymbals that are placed purposefully high in the mix. Meanwhile, Berninger swigs from a bottle of wine, climbs on top of stuff, and, more often than not, delivers a chunk of the set from the venue floor. The whole thing is a cathartic spectacle in the way only great rock concerts can be. And, like the band’s records, no two are alike.
“We’re not the kind of band that smacks you in the face with an awesome pop song,” laughed Scott. “There’s a certain element of emotional uncertainty in the music, and it doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone. That’s the great thing about rock music, though; if there’s an enigmatic quality and you find your own meaning in the lyrics that makes it listenable, it draws you back to it.”
For Trouble Will Find Me, the band took that mutual love of rock music and applied it with renewed gusto. Bouncing between their cabin and the nearby Dreamland Studios, they worked together unlike they ever had before, often writing songs collectively and recording tracks live as a full band. “Everyone lives in different places now, so getting together is kind of a logistical nightmare,” said Scott. “I think just being up there with all of us was something that we really enjoyed as a group.”
Part of that renewed energy, the band believes, has a lot to do with keeping busy. In between albums and tours, the Dessner twins have taken on a number of production projects (Local Natives, Sharon Van Etten), which they said helped instill a newfound respect for positive criticism. Meanwhile, Berninger has been throwing himself behind his brother Tom’s documentary, Mistaken for Strangers. Originally piloted as a roc doc about the band, Tom’s poignant new film ultimately focuses on family and the at-times strained relationship between him and his rock-star brother.
So now, with nearly a year of touring a new record behind them, The National is staying resolute in its desire to mix things up. And the results are promising, to say the least. “We spend so much time fussing with the songs when we’re recording, so now that we’re touring, they’re morphing constantly,” said Scott. “And I think they’re getting better. Or at least I hope to think that’s the case.”
The National plays the Santa Barbara Bowl (1122 N. Milpas St.) with Portugal. The Man on Friday, April 25, at 7 p.m. Call (805) 962-7411 or visit sbbowl.com for tickets and info.