After 20 years of soundtracking human heartbreak, the legendary US rockers talk about depression, infighting – and playing live while Paris burns
Ten minutes before the National are due on stage at Café de la Danse in Paris, the news breaks: Notre Dame is on fire. The inner thoughts of the Grammy-award-winning American alternative rock band are ticker-tape flashes of catastrophe. They were a fledgling band in Brooklyn when 9/11 happened; they are in Paris tonight, four years on from the Bataclan theatre massacre, and two years on from the UK’s Manchester Arena bombing. The band’s frontman Matt Berninger feels certain it is a hate crime and visualises detonating planes and mass shootings. Multi-instrumentalist Bryce Dessner moved to Paris in 2015 and is having Bataclan flashbacks. “Are we really gonna play?” he wonders.
Film director Mike Mills, the National’s creative director for this year, is watching the dramatic news images, recalling churches on fire in the second world war and feeling it is the 1930s all over again, illiberal rhetoric everywhere, dismayed that Europe has taken another hit. Bassist Scott Devendorf, meanwhile, had a text before news reached him, from a friend in the United States, saying “Notre Dame on fire”. He thought it was about the Notre Dame baseball team in New Jersey pulverising their opponents.
Half an hour later, the National are playing a new song on stage, Hairpin Turns, a haunting, piano-led lament. “What are we going through? You and me,” implores Berninger, in his mournful baritone. “Every other house on the street’s burning / Days of brutalism and hairpin turns …”