The National Band: How the Indie Rock Band Became Music's Newest Kingmaker


Indie rock band The National has built its career on big sounds, and 2013 is shaping up to be the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Cincinnati brooders biggest year yet. For the better part of the past decade, the five-piece has churned out slow-burning sad sack anthems that hit for the bleachers and beg to fill stadiums. Now they’re finally getting their chance — singer Matt Beringer and co. are will headline a hometown gig at the Barclays Center this summer and have their sixth album and follow-up to 2010’s stunning High Violet slated for release in May via 4AD records. But as The National’s tide continues to rise, theirs is not the only boat rising. They’ll be bringing a few other ships with them.

A pair of The National’s younger collaborators, Local Natives and Youth Lagoon, are enjoying unprecedented (and much deserved) attention and acclaim, thanks in no small part to their moody benefactors. The dog-eat-dog underworld of indie rock has a new kingmaker, one that looks more at home behind desk dividers than in front of massive crowds.

That’s exactly what has won over so many fans in the first place — The National taps into the white-collar malaise of 21st century urban life and all the emptiness and confusion that comes with it, Beringer spilling buttoned-up confessionals over brothers Bryce and Aaron Dessner’s swirling guitars and twins Bryan and Scott Devandorf’s sprawling rhythms. High Violet set the bar high for the band, spending 21 weeks on the Billboard 200 chart, peaking at number three — their fourth album, Boxer, though a massive success on the indie circuit, managed only 168. But their crossover success hasn’t seemed to lift the band’s mood any. If the new songs they’ve been debuting on tour are any indicator, The National certainly still have a lot to brood about, and, as they say, misery loves company.

Case and point, the story of LA transplants Local Natives. On their debut Gorilla Manor, the then five piece offered a staggeringly original tangle of spritely guitars, exuberant percussion, and wooly vocal harmonies. By turns earnest, goofy, and morose, Gorilla Manor was equally suited for campfires as SoCo party pads. The band supported The National on several dates of the latter’s 2011 tour, and Aaron Dessner propositioned a collaboration.

“After meeting with all these other producers,” drummer Matt Frasier told Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen last fall, “it just seemed like we should work with somebody we really get along with and respect as a songwriter.”

The decision has paid off: Local Native released their sophomore effort Hummingbird last month to wide-spread acclaim, and Dessner’s fingerprints are all over it. Where the songs on Gorilla Manor were manic exercises in youthful abandon, Hummingbird came on the heels of personal tragedy (the passing of keyboardist Kelcey Ayers’ mother, parting ways with bassist Andy Hamm) and a desire for experimentation. Dessner, in characteristic fashion, has at once blown up and shrunk down the band’s sound: drawing on the characteristic ticks of The National — shoes-in-a-dryer drumming, cyclical guitar rounds, lyrical navel gazingHummingbird feels instantly arena-ready and intensely personal. Local Natives are reaping the benefits: they appeared on Fallon in February and are in the middle of selling out shows throughout Europe.

Trevor Powers, a Boise-based songwriter recording under the name Youth Lagoon, is also feeling The National bump. After announcing the follow-up to his lauded debut, The Year of Hibernation, last month, the 22-year-old Powers landed a fortuitous one-two punch. In less than 24-hours, listeners got the first taste of his upcoming Wondrous Bughouse, the mesmerizing and evocative single “Dropla,” and learned Youth Lagoon would get a chance to play his micro-anthems on a very macro stage, having been selected to open for, you guessed it, The National at the Barclay’s Center. The blogosphere erupted — the otherwise-little known songwriter began trending on Twitter and rocketed into the forebrain of the indie rock hive mind. Due out March 5, Wondrous Bughouse stands as one of the most highly-anticipated albums of the winter, and, when Powers takes the stage at the Barclay’s Center this summer, he’ll likely leave with thousands of new converts singing his praises.

But there’s a wild card in the mix: Bristolian folk duo and former National openers This is the Kit has signed on to the Dessner brother’s Brassland label and are hard at work with Aaron on their third album. They’re relative unknowns in the states, which ought to put their producer’s influence to the test — Local Natives and Youth Lagoon had made names for themselves on the American indie rock circuit prior to their involvement with The National. The question remains as to whether Dessner can propel the unsung Brits to success on this side of the pond.

Regardless, with three of the year’s most anticipated rock records bearing The National stamp of approval, 2013 is looking up for the downcast.