The National have always seemed cut from the same cloth as Bruce Springsteen. The arc of critical acclaim (and modest sales) through their first three albums contiguous with the blue-collar determination of touring are kindred, to say the least. With the release of 2007’s ‘Boxer,’ The National landed in the ears of everyone on the planet with an album that Pitchfork named “Best New Music” when that christening could make or break an artist. ‘Boxer’ along with 2010’s ‘High Violet‘ and 2013’s ‘Trouble Will Find Me‘ should be atop everyone’s indie rock primer alongside Radiohead, Arcade Fire, and Interpol. Fast forward ten years and The National are preparing to release their 7th full-length ‘Sleep Well Beast‘ on September 8 and judging by the first songs teased from the album “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” and “Guilty Party“… The National have no plans to disappoint.
For this week’s Essential Wax, The National’s Matt Berninger dives into the city of their birth, Cincinnati. I’m not a fan of injecting personal stories into these pieces, but I was born in Cincinnati, and I’d seen The National in rooms where I knew every single person in attendance. Matt’s theme of Cincinnati Nights is a perfect look into Cincinnati when The Breeders and Afghan Whigs ruled the World.
Both Blue and White vinyl editions of The National’s ‘Sleep Well Beast’ are up for presale via The National‘s and 4AD‘s online stores. In the meantime, get into The National’s exceptional back-catalog.
Matt Berninger of The National shares his five albums from his Cincinnati Nights.
Ohio in the early nineties had a very intense and intimidating rock scene. I was in my twenties and going to every rock show in Cincinnati and Dayton that I could. Around this time is when I met Scott and we started the band Nancy with Casey Reas and Mike Brewer. Members of Brainiac came to see us play once in Casey’s basement and left after two songs. Meanwhile, Bryan and the Dessners had a different band balled Project Nim that was this academic hippy thing. These are some of the bands we would see around town and then suddenly in magazines and on MTV. We realized that Seattle was dying and everything cool was coming out of our neighborhood now. But we weren’t really in the scene, just fans and students of it all. Bryan literally took lessons from the Afghan Whigs’ first drummer. Another completely different kind of scene happened around us later in New York.
It’s hard to separate listening to this record from seeing them live at Bogart’s on Short Vine. They were terrifying and sexy and fucked up and they were from our town. The cover with the naked black woman holding the white baby was pretty intense in Cincinnati. These guys were complicated and serious. At one show Greg Dulli spit his cigarette at the crowd as he launched into the opening riff of ‘I’m Her Slave’ and it hit this girl next to me in the face. To me, these guys made the grunge scene in Seattle seem kinda like a bunch of dumb stoners.
Seeing this band perform was something that would re-wire your idea of a rock band. They were doing things both musically and performance-wise that seemed entirely free and unburdened by self-consciousness and insecurity. And it was organic and honest and fearless and unhinged. They were channeling something very healing and potent. They were way out on a strange limb all by themselves.
There was a black and white photo of Kim Deal in a flannel shirt buttoned all the way up that I was in love with. The Pixies were the coolest band on the planet and she lived 45 minutes away. And here’s this other band she has with her twin sister, and the cover is a naked Vaughn Oliver wearing a huge eel as a dick. The Breeders are badass and brilliant and singular.
A school teacher with a shitty attitude and a drinking problem makes records for years in his garage with his pals, and they’re brilliant. This was the record when everyone noticed.
Although they’re not from Cincinnati, I saw them at a laundromat bar there called Sudsey Malone’s when this record came out. Not many people were there, and after the show, Mark Sandman was selling the record out of a box from the stage and he seemed pissed. A dude in front of me bought the record for five dollars and when I got up there I gave him a twenty and waited for my change. He looked right at me and said “What?! For you it’s twenty.” That actually made sense to me and it was worth it.