The most distinctive piece of the National, an indie-rock quintet from Brooklyn, N.Y.-via-Cincinnati, is lead singer Matt Berninger's slurred baritone.
It's a smooth, low purr that, when combined with the band's circular guitars and Bryan Devendorf's expert drumming, lulls listeners into a trance. This combination has led to great success, including 2010's High Violet, a gold record that debuted No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and won Q magazine's best album of the year.
Tuesday, the National will be at Merriweather Post Pavilion. Bassist Scott Devendorf took time from the band's European festival run to talk about High Violet's success, tour-mates Wye Oak and the group's support of President Obama.
What's taken you more by surprise — the critical acclaim or a gold record?
A little of both, I guess. We never know when we finish records how they're going to be perceived. We're really happy with both things — that people have really enjoyed the record, and the critical acclaim for it has been a nice surprise, too.
How have the international festivals been treating you?
We're almost at the end of our time in Europe, which has been a lot this year. It's been crazy with all of the travel but we've definitely been covering a lot of ground. They've been going really well. It's always interesting playing festivals because they're either well-organized, curated events or they're with bands you've never heard of, so that can be entertaining. The last two festivals have been in Germany and the lineups have been eclectic. We played with bands like us, like Interpol, but also the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.
Did you guys recruit the Bosstones' dancer?
[laughs] No, but he was still out there rocking, which was cool to see.
There's no question the National is an American band — the group started in Brooklyn and many songs have a nostalgic sense of the Midwest. But then again, you're beloved in Europe and other countries.
Sometimes people think we're British, partly because the music has some influences from English bands from the past. Why it connects internationally is hard to say. I think the lyrics are very personal confessions or whatever, but the topics are universal in some ways. We are always a little surprised, especially in countries where English is not the first language but they get really into it.
For this run of U.S. dates, will all of the albums be represented or will the set list lean heavily on "Boxer" and "High Violet?"
We've been discussing that. We've been playing a lot of older songs over the course of the summer to mix things up for ourselves. We've been touring "High Violet" for over a year. We're hoping to incorporate older songs. We need to keep things interesting.
You're taking Baltimore's Wye Oak out on some of the dates. Had you all been fans of theirs?
Yeah, actually, they're great. Civilian is one of my favorite records of the past year. Our first show with them is tonight [in Scotland]. I'm really psyched. This is my first time seeing them play besides YouTube clips.
Your band was a vocal supporter of President Obama during election season, even playing at some of his rallies. Without putting you on the spot too much, how would you say he's done? And are you guys planning on doing anything for his re-election campaign?
Yes, we are planning on doing some stuff for his re-election campaign. I think he is in a tricky place. My feeling is that it's hard to get things done for a president in their first term, especially with how screwed up everything was. I feel like he could be a little stronger.
He's doing the diplomatic thing to a fault sometimes. That's just my personal opinion. I'm not the president and I'd be terrible at it. I know it's hard to get things done. I feel like he has gotten some things done I'm happy about, but I wish there was more done. But I understand that can be impossible with a divided Congress. I still think he's a very smart, intelligent, awesome guy. I'm happy he's president and not someone else but I wish he had done more.
Has there been any writing for the next record? I know you all have a meticulous reputation when it comes to new material.
We've started but our process is to do musical sketches and then Matt sits with them for a while. We haven't fully engaged in that yet because we've been traveling all the time. We're also a band that doesn't write very well on the road. We have to be home for a while to get out of the touring mentality. For us, it's not the most creative environment, especially Matt. His feeling is he doesn't want to write songs about being on the road like Bob Seger … even though Bob Seger is cool. [laughs]
Does High Violet's success put the pressure on a follow-up or put you guys at ease, like, "OK, we obviously have a loyal fan base"?
We're a very self-critical band. We're very democratic and everyone's picky about what we do. It's a semi-painful process because we're not done until everyone's happy. Obviously we're not immune to the fact that we have these other records that people like but each time we're trying to make a different record. If anything, I think the next record … we'll make something more direct and less gauzy sound-wise. The last records have dealt with a lot of orchestration and reverb. It's one of those things where you react and want to do something different. We have to try and approach it a little more simply, [such as] stuff that can be played live really simply and direct sonically.
Justin Bieber beat you guys at this year's Brit Awards for International Breakthrough Act. Now you can be honest, how much do you hate that kid?
Bieber! [laughs] I don't hate him at all actually. His music is not for me, obviously, but I do respect him for being so young and talented. He plays drums - he's like a little musical superhero. More power to him. We didn't really stand a chance against him.
If you go
The National perform Tuesday at Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia, with Yo La Tengo and Wye Oak. Doors open at 5 p.m. Tickets are $30-$40. Call 877-435-9849 or go to merriweathermusic.com.