A NIGHT WITH
THE NATIONAL

Exploration

10/20/2017
FINDING BALANCE BETWEEN BEAST AND BEAUTY

I started listening to The National about eight years ago when my older brother introduced me to the band. (Since age 14, when he introduced me to Bright Eyes, telling me Conor Oberst was better than Chris Carabba, I have always respected his musical taste.)

I would listen to their albums as I drove down the Pennsylvania highway on my way home from the late shift at my first post-collegiate job at a daily newspaper in a small town named Altoona.

Since then I have listened to The National or one of its members’ side projects pretty much every single day.

One reason is I discovered the band at a time in my life when I really started to try to establish my writing voice and was more than heavily influenced by the kind of writers who were able to say things that when I heard them, I would think, “I know exactly what he’s talking about, and I feel the very same way, but he just said it in a way I have never been able to articulate even internally.”

The National’s Matt Berninger did that pretty consistently, and he continues to do so with the band’s latest release, Sleep Well Beast.

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Image credit – Core Entertainment

Another reason The National finds a spot on every playlist I make is that the band does an amazing job of striking the kind of balance I think is important. Their music is often melancholy, addressing issues like heartbreak, loss, general sadness and the confounding political climate. (They have played at several events in support of President Obama, and at the end of this month they’ll play at the inaugural summit for the Obama Foundation in Chicago.) They’re not always the easiest band to listen to, and they don’t aim to be, but they’re a great source to soundtrack your sadness.

The bands members are quick to point out, however, that they are not super-sad people. They use their music as a creative outlet to get those feelings out, and they somehow manage to have fun doing it. In a profile about the making of their latest album, they talk about the effort they put into striking a balance between the hard work that goes into perfecting their songs, and enjoying life and each other’s company. In between recording sessions at a studio in upstate New York—they’d convened there for a few months, since each of the five band members now live in a different city—they would do things like go for swims in a frog-filled pond they’d loaded with ridiculous pool floats shaped like pizza slices, ice cream cones and dog bones. They also ate and drank a lot together while they talked about their families and life in general.

They said making sure they set time aside to do these things was beneficial to their creativity, and not something they’d done while making their previous albums.

“There was a certain level of perspective this time, not only on our own band but our lives, where we’ve been. And even stuff like Trump, as bad of a vibe as that put everything in, it put other things in perspective,” Berninger says. “Our anxieties, how mean we were to each other, it just seemed really uncool. There’s enough meanness, pettiness and smallness. Let’s be nice to each other.”

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Image credit – Reddit user apocdreams

When I went to see The National earlier this month at Forest Hills Stadium, that balance was on display. They played many of their saddest songs, but with a palpable enthusiasm and optimistic energy. Even when the content was sad, it was uplifting. They were even humorous the single time they brought up Donald Trump, during their first encore. Berninger told a story he’d heard about how once, a younger Trump had swooped in on a woman Ramone had been dating, said “This one is for Joey, not for that dick” and then launched into a cover of The Ramones “The KKK Took My Baby Away.”

I wanted to kick off ThoughtMatter’s “Get Out Fridays” with a talk about The National not because I can and will talk about my favorite bands for hours, but because I do see something we as a studio have in common with The National: We find balance.

We’re always working hard on projects we’re passionate about, and while by itself is a lot of fun and very fulfilling, we always make sure there are ways to decompress—one of them being weekly gatherings like “Get Out Fridays” and the erstwhile “Maker Studio Fridays.” I genuinely had fun presenting some information about The National and my experience seeing them in Queens. But what was even more fun was how, afterwards, we stayed in the conference room, drinking wine, watching music videos and generally enjoying each other’s company. One by one we finished our glasses and headed off to enjoy our weekends.

I believe that taking time to decompress and have fun—with an activity that still has a positive purpose—is really a necessary component of our studio’s culture. I believe that it leads to better creative output.

And that’s what matters.

This fall at ThoughtMatter, we’re ending every week with a “Get Out Fridays” discussion. During each session, a different studio member will tell us about a recent event they went to that has inspired them, and can in turn inspire each of us here at ThoughtMatter. It can be any event—as long as it involves getting out of the office and thinking in a different space.

Top image credit – Toby Tenenbaum

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