The National Try to Reinvent Themselves On Stage and In the Studio

'We're at a point where we need to just take some really big risks,' frontman Matt Berninger tells 'Rolling Stone'

The National perform at Bowery Ballroom, New York City, February 9, 2011. Credit: Photograph by Mina K.

The National haven’t started working on any new material for a follow-up to last year's High Violet, but it’s on their mind. “We’ve already started arguing in high-level abstract,” frontman Matt Berninger told Rolling Stone last month as he took a break from the Sundance Film Festival, where the band had premiered a new song, "Win Win," in Tom McCarthy's film of the same name. “We all know we’re at a point where we need to sort of try something, reinvent ourselves – just take some really big risks. We keep talking about throwing out the playbook and then we argue about what that means.”

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Berninger's risk-taking was on display last night at New York's 300-capacity Studio at Webster Hall. At the end of the show, Berninger leapt off the stage, clad in a three-piece suit, and prowled to the back of the venue, screaming the bone-chilling chorus to "Terrible Love" as the crowd lifted him up.

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The small club also highlighted the band's ability to create calculated chaos around Berninger’s baritone. “Runaway” was a mellow opener, the bearded frontman slouched over, clutching his mike stand with his eyes closed. But “Squalor Victoria” started with a hand-clapping dance beat and ended with Berninger standing on a monitor, slamming his fist into a lighting rig, shouting the song’s final line: “This isn’t working, you, my middlebrow fuck-up!”

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The club was outfitted with lights, camera and smoke for an MTV “Live in NYC” webcast (to air February 21st), and the band was full of MTV-related banter. “This song was inspired by Jersey Shore,” Berninger joked early on, “Actually, most of our songs are.” When a fan shouted for deep cut “All the Wine,” off 2005’s Alligator, Berninger said, “That one wasn’t approved by MTV. This next one’s about cannibalism. [MTV] is like ‘Yeah, that’s cool – just no wine.'” They then kicked into an eerie, pulsating version of “Conversation 16.”

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Indeed, as The National gears up for a European tour, they seem like a band in transition. As Berninger put it last month, “We argue, ‘Lets not do anything we’ve done before,’ then we argue about what we’ve done before. We always find a way – even when everyone is saying the exact same thing – to make it an argument.”