Though Berninger's own group is considered on the trendy tip, some of his favorite sentimentalists are anything but cool; he cites "Whisper to a Scream (Birds Fly)" act the Icicle Works and the Proclaimers as two early favorites.
"See, you wanted something cool!," he laughs at my reaction. "That first Proclaimers record was when I had my first serious girlfriend and was the soundtrack to my life for like a year. I don't know how many people would talk about that — for whatever reason it's much cooler to talk about the darker, tougher, and hipper things."
The singer and his fellow bandmates — twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner on guitars and brothers Scott (bass) and Bryan Devendorf (drums) — are still grinding away at the tour for the critically acclaimed High Violet (4AD), which many new fans are surprised to find is the fifth full-length by the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Cincinnati quartet. They're indie darlings now, but it's easy to forget those early years when the National weren't on the radar, when Berninger says the group "never actually got a whole lot of hype."
"Honestly, we were so underexposed for so long," he says. "We made our first record when the Strokes' first record came out, and there was Interpol, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, tons and tons of bands . . . and we were playing open-mic nights for years and years — and I'm not complaining because I'm not sure that we did deserve any more attention at that time. It's been a really slow and organic shift for us. We started getting attention around Alligator (2005), and it's just been a very gradual process."
That process began in the band's hometown and, for Berninger at least, had to do with local heroes Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices and Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs. "Greg Dulli was somebody from Cincinnati when I was in high school and college, and seeing how they became big international rock stars . . . I think the idea that a guy from the west side of Cincinnati can be a rock star definitely put the seed in my head, 'Why not give it a shot?' Even as delusional and far fetched as I knew that was."
Berninger says that one of his "greatest wishes" is for the Afghan Whigs to get back together, and it's not hard to see how the influence of the '90s soul-rock foursome has woven its way through the National material, most evident when the band lifts the chorus from the Whigs' "Milez iz Ded" for the fade out of "Slipping Husband." And a direct connection can certainly be drawn between Berninger's "Can I get a moment of not being nervous/and not thinking of my dick" ("Slow Show") and Dulli's infamous, "Ladies let me tell you about myself/I got a dick for a brain" ("Be Sweet").
"Dulli just had a way of being so dark and almost brutal in some of his observations of himself and his dark side of romance, but he was able to articulate it in unbelievably powerful ways," Berninger says. "There are people like that, who happily dig into the very uncomfortable personal exposure in a way. It's not wallowing. It's some sort of cathartic recognition of the sad and dark sides of our minds and hearts. I think it's a healthy way to deal with that stuff. 'Slipping Husband' is a pretty depressing song, but when you make something out of it like a rock song, it's a way of getting in front of that stuff and owning it and not letting it suck you in; it's like the exorcising of demons."