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'

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