In May, The National released a stellar new album — hardly news to fans of the literary Brooklyn-via-Ohio indie rockers and their expansive aesthetic. Trouble Will Find Me brims with frontman Matt Berninger's merlot-stained baritone meditations on weariness and longing, sounding like the pink-streaked sunrise at the end of someone's long, dark night of the soul, and navigating the tightrope between artistic integrity and commercial viability with nary a waver. However, 12 years and six albums into their career, the group is well aware that record sales are no longer a reliable source of income. Accordingly, they've done an impressive job of finding revenue streams that are as artistically rewarding as the albums themselves.
"You may be surprised how little you actually earn selling records, so licensing music to film and television is a necessity," multi-instrumentalist Aaron Dessner tells the Scene. "But I think we're also proud of it. There's just some really amazing television out there."
Licensing their music has been a significant part of The National's growth as far back as 2007's Boxer, and contributing exclusive music to soundtracks has become a solid sideline for the band. Recent high-profile gigs include a 2012 project in which Berninger and Dessner recorded a version of "The Rains of Castamere" from George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones novels for an episode of the critically acclaimed HBO series.
After months of pressurized sessions, the success of 2010's High Violet seemed a little like reaching the top of Mt. Everest, making Trouble a more relaxed affair — still challenging, according to Dessner, but focused above all else on producing an album The National loved. Having a studio in the garage behind Dessner's Brooklyn home was an important part of the process, not only for offering the group a place to work without watching the clock, but also for the insights gained from producing outside projects. Dessner worked on both Sharon Van Etten's Tramp and Local Natives' Hummingbird in the garage.
"When you work with people not in your band," explains Dessner, "you learn that you have to be very constructive and positive, and learn ways to solve problems, where within a band — you know, we're all brothers, and we sometimes rough each other up a little bit. But you can't really do that with someone you're producing, and that may have also helped the dynamic with this latest National record."
If their performance at Bonnaroo is anything to go on, The National is excited to get back on the road as well, and Dessner says they're particularly excited to visit the Ryman once again.
"The first place we ever played 'Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks' as an acoustic encore was at the Ryman, because we felt that it was not right to go into that space and just play loud, wall-of-sound music," says Dessner. "Even Matt, who usually wouldn't want to do something like that, 'cause he'd be nervous about not having a microphone — we all felt the same way. 'Let's try it,' and it was totally magical. Definitely some magic ghosts in that place. It makes you glad to be playing music."
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Well, they said they wanted it stuffed and mounted.