credit: Josh Goleman
In retrospect, it was the perfect moment to borrow a page from the Grateful Dead. The National had just rolled into Port Chester, N.Y.’s historic Capitol Theatre, and Matt Berninger—the band’s baritone-voiced lead singer—was in the midst of finishing up the lyrics for a piece of music that guitarist Bryce Dessner had sent to him awhile back. Bryce had already forgotten all about the song, which they eventually dubbed “Eucalyptus,” but Matt rightfully felt that he was onto something. So the band agreed to throw caution to the wind, run through the nascent number twice during soundcheck and then, like the Dead had done on the same stage just over 50 years earlier, debut a tune live in front of their unexpecting audience.
“We have all this music that could have been brilliant but ended up in folders,” Matt says six months later, while checking in from his current home in Venice, Calif. “We were like, ‘Oh, my God, finally one is walking through the trap. We have to catch it now.’”
A dark, brooding, but still inviting tune about a couple sorting through their physical—and emotional—possessions during a breakup, “Eucalyptus” is classic National, complete with vivid imagery, uber-specific lyrical callouts and a haunting guitar line. (The phrase, “What if we moved back to New York?” received some audible cheers from the crowd, especially in light of the city’s COVID-era diaspora.) Videos of “Moon Drop Light,” as fans originally dubbed the rough draft, started making the rounds tape-trader style, and The National decided to use some of what they recorded at The Cap as part of the final version, featured on their forthcoming full-length release, First Two Pages of Frankenstein.
It’s the National’s first proper LP since 2019 and first since the pandemic altered their ecosystem in numerous tangible and intangible ways. It also marks the start of The National’s next creative era—a recommitment to their family band after an unplanned hiatus.
“It feels like a transition record—we’re reforming and reconnecting, and all the parts are starting to work again,” Matt says. “It wasn’t like I got back on the road with those guys and, all of the sudden, boom, the lights came on. It was a slow process— performing, getting back onstage and being able to be comfortable in that whole zone. It took a long time for me to learn how to ride a bike again, in a weird way.”
The National’s Cap show—their debut at the storied venue, though guitarist Aaron Dessner, bassist Scott Devendorf and drummer Bryan Devendorf previously had played the theater on Bob Weir’s Campfire run—arrived near the end of quintet’s first tour since late 2019. It was the longest the Cincinnati-bred musicians, who coalesced as The National in New York in the late 1990s, had spent off the road since their formation. Scott—who also notes that he recently saw Goose at The Cap—guesstimates that the time between their final show in Europe and their return to the stage in mid-2022 might actually be twice the length of their previous break. Yet, they hit the ground running, working out new arrangements backstage, trying out developing songs onstage and even dipping into a few studios to capture all those ideas while they were still fresh along the way.
“We’ve never done that before, especially to this degree,” Scott says while at home on Long Island, N.Y., in March. “Usually, we’re creating things in the studio and reinventing them live. With ‘Eucalyptus,’ we captured a bit of the energy in the room. Sometimes we seem to refine things a bit too much—I like combining that weirdness with the pristine production of our studio stuff.”
“Once it started happening, I was writing a lot,” Matt says of their freewheeling approach, which felt worlds away from the often-belabored sessions that colored many of their past releases. “Everyone was like, ‘Let’s make it real. Let’s give birth to these songs before they disappear.’”
“There was that sense of renewal,” Bryan says, while calling from his home in Cincinnati. “The preceding few years were pretty tough for everybody on the planet so to just get back to something that was familiar, and also felt really good at the same time, felt great.”
First Two Pages of Frankenstein is more of a survey of The National’s entire arc than a return to form. The 11-track set alternatively nods to the more direct sounds of their coming-out party, 2005’s Alligator, the electronic beats of their highly produced, Grammy-winning 2017 release, Sleep Well Beast, the orchestrated lushness of their prettiest songs, and the screams and howls of their punkiest tunes. Like their previous set, 2019’s I Am Easy to Find—a collaboration with filmmaker Mike Mills that fully decentralized the band’s format, weaving in a mix of largely female voices—First Two Pages of Frankenstein enlists the services of a number of close friends and celebrity guests who happen to be close friends, like Taylor Swift, Phoebe Bridgers and Sufjan Stevens.
“They’re fun, straightforward rockand-roll songs, but underneath the hood, there are all these elaborate arrangements and cool textures—the core material is very accessible for a drummer to get into,” Bryan says. “I went on a whole health kick over the past couple years and got in shape, and I’ve been practicing a lot so it’s just an opportunity to actually show off what I’ve been practicing for.”
He pauses and then adds, “It is a result of the same people doing similar things and retaining those core elements but also evolving them over time. It’s just this continuation of something that started 20 years ago. But then everything you’ve prepared goes out the window when you are playing live, without a net, so to speak.”
“We weren’t trying to make any grand statements or turn left or right,” Matt admits. “We said, ‘We’ll have grand discussions about what direction we want to go as a band another time. Right now, let’s just hatch some eggs.’ That felt like a healthy, organic process. And then, when it came down to picking which ones to include, the only real debate or discussion
we had was that we didn’t want a record that was too long. We wanted a record that you could just keep in your pocket.”
Like most touring bands, the members of The National unexpectedly found themselves with a whole lot of downtime in early 2020. When the pandemic hit, the group was about to head to New Zealand and Australia and had a number of individual and group projects in the works. And while The National has weathered the inevitable stresses that any career band deals with—especially one comprised of two sets of brothers and another lifelong friend—Matt says things were looking up when the live-music world shut down. “The last performance I did was a solo set with Phoebe at the Tibet House Benefit,” he says. “Before that, things were generally feeling pretty good.”
During the next two years, the members of The National figured out numerous ways to stay busy. Matt released his first solo album, Serpentine Prison—an already-in-the-works LP produced by Booker T. Jones that nodded to The National’s early years. The Devendorfs dropped an EP and an LP with their proggy side-project LNZNDRF; Bryan issued a solo album under the name Royal Green, and Scott contributed to Matt’s LP and continued to hone his Grateful Dead DJ sets. Bryce dug into his parallel career in the classical and new-music worlds, unveiling a mix of soundtracks, scores and other cerebral new compositions. (This year, he returned to his alma matter, Yale, to serve as the Schwarzman Center’s first artist-in-residence.)
And Aaron entered a whole new stratosphere as a producer and songwriter, thanks to his work with Taylor Swift on her lush, emotive 2020 releases, folklore and evermore—which often sounded like the “Welcome To New York” singer fronting The National. Critical and commercial triumphs, the albums catapulted Aaron from a well-respected indie-rock studio wiz and soft-spoken, consummate collaborator to the type of mega producer who has his own custom emoji and sits front row at the Grammys. He’s continued to aide Swift with most of her projects and recently produced Ed Sheeran’s highly personal record, Subtract (-).
“Usually, Aaron creates these sketches and sends them to Matt. He cuts them apart and starts to intone over them, and then everyone adds their parts,” Scott says. “That’s the process, eternally, it seems. But that’s hard to do when you can’t actually get together.”
Bryce and Bryan contributed to folklore remotely and the entire band lent their services to evermore, appearing as a featured act on “Coney Island,” but the five musicians, who live in three different times zones, still remained apart for the first part of the pandemic.
“I recorded a lot of stuff at home and put it in Dropbox or sent it to Aaron in an email,” Bryan says. “Sometimes, he would have them in a folder and then pull them out for a certain project. And, other times, he was looking for specific things. It was cool but nothing beats playing live together in a room.”
However, when they finally regrouped at Aaron’s Hudson, N.Y.-area studio Long Pond in April 2021 to begin work on their next chapter, they encountered yet another wrinkle: Matt was suffering from writer’s block.
“I had the hardest time coming up with anything,” he says. “I didn’t want to unpack my own suitcase. I usually write pretty directly and unpack these real issues and emotional things, and I was just too much of a mess. I didn’t want to dig in. It’s like when a room is just such a mess that you can’t even go near it, and you just give up. I was in that place with my own thoughts. So a lot of the record ended up being about making sense of the mess.”
He notes that there were several factors contributing to the dry period. “I’m sure the pandemic was part of it,” he says. “Though I was happy being home and being off the road for a lot of that, the isolation and disconnection just caught up with me. I went into a funk, a depression. Everything just shutting down, and how long that lasted, caught up with me. I started to ask myself: ‘Have I created this personality that I’m not so crazy about anymore?’ I didn’t want to add more chapters to that guy.’
“Also, my wife, brother and I had been working on a TV show for a long time, and we finally walked away from that. I was burned out on a bunch of stuff,” he continues. “So I put down all the writing I was doing for everything all at once. It was like all the plates sort of just crashed. I barely listened to music. I couldn’t watch TV. It was one of those really long, dark phases.”
Complicating things even more, Matt’s wife Carin, a veteran magazine editor, has long been his closest lyrical collaborator and she found herself unable to move the ball forward on her own.
“When we write together, it’s a little bit like playing ping pong,” he says. “And if somebody’s not playing, you can’t do it alone. So she was just as stuck as I was. I went to her and said, ‘It pains me to try to make a song out of this stuff right now,’ and she was like, ‘Then don’t do it. Whatever’s gonna make you feel better; that’s what you should be doing.’ But, ultimately, not working and not being able to do anything became the snake-eatingits-tail thing. You have this fear: ‘What if I never want to do this again? What if this never comes back?’”
“The pandemic really drained everybody, creatively,” Scott adds, echoing his bandmate. “In April 2021, we hit a wall. And then we split up for a bit to regroup and work on all this stuff individually.”
In the past, Matt says that he’s been able to get his creative juices flowing by picking up a magazine or book and flipping through a few pages. So, eventually, he turned to a copy of author Mary Shelley’s classic, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.
“I grabbed Frankenstein off a shelf and started skimming through the first few pages, just to get words in my head,” he says. “I can’t grab words off of a screen to jog my mind—I have to go get something physical. ‘Your Mind Is Not Your Friend’ came immediately out of that. It wasn’t necessarily the song that cracked open my long writer’s-block phase, but it was the song that allowed me to write about it more directly.”
Yet, ultimately, Matt admits that it wasn’t until the band reconvened for some pre-tour sessions at Long Pond in the spring of 2022 that things really started to click.
“That forced me to get back in the water,” he says. “We put it off and everybody had been so patient with me. It was like, ‘If we don’t get this record started, then we are going to need to have a more serious conversation.’”
Luckily, once the creative floodgates opened, Matt and his bandmates were able to finish what became Frankenstein at breakneck speed. They also circled back to a few ideas that they had already started on before Matt sank into his dark period. “After I put out Serpentine Prison, I did do a deep dive, writing for The National, so there was a bunch of stuff that I dove into right after that,” Matt says. “Everyone was kind to hone in on the music I was connecting to.”
While learning how to be a band on the road again, The National recorded tracks for Frankenstein in places that ranged from Hamburg, Germany to Bridgeport, Conn., where they had tracked parts of Alligator and their commercial crossover, 2007’s Boxer. (In Connecticut, they worked on “Eucalyptus” with old-friend Peter Katis before a set at the Sound on Sound festival in October). Then, they decamped to Long Pond to finish Frankenstein.
“We started touring in May 2022 and, during the rehearsals leading up to that, we started to learn a bunch of the stuff that we had worked on between April 2021 and that point,” Scott says. “After that, we were recording and working on stuff in hotel rooms and studios wherever we went.”
In March 2023, The National announced an extremely intimate show at The Bearsville Theatre outside Woodstock, N.Y. The outfit has a history of coming up with unique underplays to kick off an album-release cycle and, this time, they performed Frankenstein in its entirety, with the notable exception of Swift’s contribution to the set, “The Alcott.”
The group filmed the performance and hope to roll out clips as their new record comes to life. Then, they will hit the road in earnest in May, beginning with a run of shows in Chicago. In advance, the Devendorfs plan to rehearse as a rhythm section, before the entire group reconvenes to prep for the tour. Scott, for one, is pushing for more dynamic setlists, especially during multi-night runs, now that they have their sea legs back.
“It had been a bit traumatic, the whole time off,” he says. “It was like, ‘Let’s remember how to play first, and then be comfortable doing it, and then be comfortable doing it in front of people.’ We said, ‘Let’s learn all the new songs, even these songs that we didn’t actually end up playing.’ Having new songs, there’s this trepidation/excitement about being able to do it. It was a lot at once. There was almost some sort of PTSD aspect to it. But at the same time, it was super fun and everyone was super excited to do it and super excited that we could even be doing it. It was a trial-by-fire, renewal process.”
Lead single “Tropic Morning News,” a term that Matt and his wife use for doomscrolling right after the alarm goes off, is as uplifting and dancey as The National get while still having moments of elegant restraint. Second single “New Order T-Shirt” feels like a wistful Wayback Machine visit to a series of old MySpace posts from the 2000s. And “Grease in Your Hair” is raw and vulnerable, a reminder that the quintet were part of New York’s rock revival at the dawn of the 21st century.
“We always have these sketches that exist as songs in different phases, but this one was unusual in that four songs came together at the very end,” Bryan adds. ‘“The Alcott,’ ‘Eucalyptus,’ ‘New Order T-Shirt’ and ‘Your Mind Is Not Your Friend’ all came at the end. They were a result of good luck, being on the road together and everybody kind of feeling it.”
“That was one of the songs where I kind of started talking about how your mind can turn against you a little bit,” Matt says of the latter number. “And that was a phrase that my wife kept saying to me.”
“There’s always an aspect where we, either inadvertently or on purpose, bring our outside experiences back to what we do as The National,” Scott says. “Everyone had such varied experiences [during the break] and that bled into what we were doing and our thoughts on what the album should sound like.”
Breaking from tradition, they issued “Weird Goodbyes,” a glitchy collaboration with Justin Vernon, as a standalone single. The group quickly recorded it and ushered it into the world while it was still fresh.
“There was a conscious effort to do something different than [our last album],” Scott says. “We wanted to do something without too many layers. Even with the orchestral stuff, it is still elemental at its core. There’s not so much of a layer cake of sound, like on some of the older songs.”
The inclusion of their big-name guests was just as natural; they blend so well into the band’s framework that the new recordings never feel like an “and friends” all-star hootenanny. In fact, Swift and Vernon ended up being used for moral support, as much as anything else.
“Aaron was working with Taylor so much so she was hearing all this stuff we were working on,” Matt says. “I was in that phase of not liking anything or writing anything, and he kept telling me how much Taylor and Justin were in love with this or that song. They were trying to give me some confidence.”
“We were delighted to have Sufjan on the album, especially, because he was instrumental in the early days,” Bryan says. “Bryce and [touring members Kyle Resnick and Ben Lanz] played in his band. Boxer was a very important record for us, and he came in and saved it, almost single handedly. He’s collaborated on other records under pseudonyms—he programmed a very important drum machine on a song on [2013’s] Trouble Will Find Me. We have always used our friends in the studio, from the very beginning. At our very first session, we had our friend Jeff Salem there playing guitar and our friend Mike Brewer was running the dial. There’s always been people in there with us because we can’t do it on our own.”
The National’s U.S. summer tour will culminate with their first headlining show at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Patti Smith and Her Band will open, adding to the Midtown show’s celebratory Downtown feel.
“We played MSG once before,” Bryan says. “It was us and then Modest Mouse and then R.E.M., and it was just awesome. It is such a special venue.”
He also points out the lingering effect that their collaborations with Weir continue to have on their live show.
“In terms of his spirit, we have absorbed so much wisdom from Bob,” the drummer adds. “His late-career burst has been astonishing. He would remind you to just breathe and play and focus on the room that you’re playing in and the sound coming back at you. He always told us, ‘Play to the room.’ And that’s something I’m super conscious of—the shape of the room. Plus, Aaron will still always bust out some ‘Help on the Way’ licks during soundcheck.’”
“There was definitely this renewed energy and focus about being able to perform, and that created a new feeling of excitement,” Scott says of their most recent run. “I guess it is true that absence makes the heart grow fonder.”