By Michael Christopher
Criss cross continents for as long as the National has and weird shit is bound to happen. Take, for instance, an incident last summer in Honolulu when the band's frontman, Matt Berninger, was taken into federal custody under suspicion that he had smuggled a bomb from Tokyo into his checked luggage. This caused an emergency evacuation of the airport, but it turns out it was simply an alarm clock that looked like an explosive device.
“Yeah, a lot has been made of that incident but it was actually a really embarrassing thing to be held by security and to be responsible for evacuating an airport,” Berninger says with a laugh. “I was so stupid; it was a [clock] designed to look exactly like a bomb. I was jetlagged and I wasn't thinking. I'm very conscious of what I pack now.”
Berninger and the rest of his Brooklyn quintet — which features twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner and brothers Scott and Bryan Devendorf — have been touring virtually nonstop since their third full length, Alligator, came out in the spring of 2005. Two albums followed, the critically acclaimed Boxer and last May's High Violet, and there now is finally light at the end of the tunnel. Sunday night at the Hollywood Bowl marks their last show in the States for the foreseeable future. And then, aside from a quick jump to Singapore and Tokyo to Australia, that's it.
“With respect to the traveling and being away and just the physical toll — and the mental toll — we're definitely at the end of our rope,” Berninger says. “But the shows are just going so well, and it keeps getting better and better, so it's a double-sided thing. We're running on fumes in many ways and the wheels are coming off a little bit, but the shows are amazing.”
Much of their recent live material is culled from High Violet, a record Berninger calls, “an example of us embracing [both] low brow and high brow.”
“Aaron does the set list every night. He always tries to pull out old ones that longtime fans would want to hear, but that's probably only about 10 percent of the show,” he says. “We're trying to figure out what we're playing the best and what feels the best on stage. We've learned that trying too hard to predict what people want and expect has never really led us anywhere. We try to do what moves us the most; and often that's what people want from us anyway.”
This enthusiasm clearly doesn't stem from road-weary delirium. Before getting the indie-darling treatment, the National were just another bunch of dudes playing to empty rooms and wondering if continuing on even made sense.
“It was a relatively humiliating thing for us, playing for just the bartenders who said they would pay us if we didn't play,” Berninger says. “It felt like we were building karma. There were many times that we decided it was still worth it because we liked the songs we were making. Now that it's going so well, we're not taking it for granted, we're not gonna phone it in at all.”