The National has always struggled with its sound being pegged as “dad rock,” a somewhat derisive term used to describe mellow-ish music that is driven by acoustic guitars and literate songwriting (see also: Wilco, Fleet Foxes).
Then there's the fact that, for the majority of their career, none of the members were actually dads. All that changed when baritone-voiced frontman Matt Berninger’s daughter was born, just as the band was getting ready to record what would become their massively successful breakthrough album, High Violet, in 2010. After five albums over the course of 10 years, mainstream success had finally hit, but the idea of becoming an actual dad shook the foundations of these "dad rockers."
“I was the first to have a kid, so I probably felt it first, but going into High Violet we definitely started to feel the pressure of, 'What was going to happen once we started to have kids?'” says Berninger, 42, over the phone from New York. “The band wasn’t going to be able to exist the way it had before, and we all knew that. There was anxiety and question marks and tension.”
Following an extensive world tour and more children, the Brooklyn-via-Cincinnati band, which also consists of two sets of brothers, Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Bryan and Scott Devendorf, decided to take time off to focus on family, which led, almost by accident, to a new album. Trouble Will Find Me, their sixth album, was released in May to widespread acclaim, and the five-piece play Montreal June 13 and Toronto June 14, at the beginning of yet another extensive world tour.
“We intended to take a long break — I have a four-year-old, Aaron has a baby, Brian has two — and what happened was because we took all the pressure off and all the deadlines away, we tricked ourselves and songs started being born organically,” says Berninger, adding that becoming parents did indeed change the band, but in a way none of them expected. Priorities shifted, and they were forced to find a balance between family and what had once been an all-consuming rock band.
“I realized our rock band is not the most important thing in the world, and that was a very liberating thing for me,” he says. “Having kids has made me less, I don’t know, just not so self-conscious about the stuff I’m writing, so it’s OK to pour things into it and not worry about how it will be perceived. Whatever kind of brand the National was trying to maintain, we just let go of that.”
It’s not that they embraced dad rock; they just stopped fighting it. The result is an album that is more open and honest — both lyrically and musically — than what National fans are used to hearing. On “I Need My Girl,” for instance, the often cryptic Berninger opts for straightforward lyrics about missing his daughter and wife while on tour, and sings it over a stripped-down, finger-picked acoustic melody.
“I don’t think in the past we would have put such an emotionally direct song on a record,” he says.
Realizing the irony in recording a song about missing your family while on tour — just as you are about to go on another tour — Berninger knew some changes had to be made this time around.
“When the planning for the touring started, I definitely had a moment of, 'Ah, what have we done?,'” he says, adding that there will be fewer dates, plus his family will come along for at least the first few weeks, including a Father’s Day performance at the Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee.
“It will be nice to have my daughter along for Father's Day, although living on a bus with 12 bunks is never healthy; not because of a Motley Crue style, it’s just a very strange daily lifestyle,” he says. “We’re still trying to figure out how to do that in a healthy way.”
As for the challenges of having children and still managing a creative output, Berninger, who on 2003’s “Slipping Husband” sang “you coulda been a legend, but you became a father,” found the fatigue oddly inspiring.
“In a weird way, the time a child takes up — and they take up a lot of time, you don’t sleep for many hours — but the time you do carve away to do your thing, it becomes even more focused,” he says. “There is a different chemistry to creativity when you’re sleep deprived. The most exciting ideas come when you’re in a blurry mental state.”
Follow Jesse Kinos-Goodin on Twitter: @JesseKG.