By Jeremy D. Larson
Jeremy D. Larson/

Bryce Dessner and Matt Berninger of The National (Jeremy D. Larson/

Although of course you end up becoming a Deadhead.

That’s the running theory, at least. And with The National curating a Grateful Dead tribute album to support the non-profit Red Hot Organization with a cadre of bands you’d never expect, the theory grows stronger. Vampire Weekend, Bon Iver, Kurt Vile and the War on Drugs all signed up to take part in the tribute album, which is expected to be released sometime in 2014. It turns out that if you run a tie-dyed flag up the pole, several unusual suspects will salute it.

The tireless Brooklyn band, who released their sixth studio album Trouble Will Find Me earlier this year and recently played their their song “Sorrow” for six hours straight at MoMA, will press on into the fall keeping busy, as usual. Their summer tour is in full swing, and as soon as they finish, guitarist Bryce Dessner will be working with the famous Kronos Quartet, while singer Matt Berninger’s brother will continue to shop his documentary about the band Mistaken For Strangers to potential buyers.

Dessner and Berninger recently sat down with to talk about their myriad projects, out some closeted Deadheads, and explain their entirely fabricated beef with Jay Z. So who’s the Deadhead in the band?

Matt Berninger: Everybody in the band. I’m the least, but probably Scott [Devendorf, bassist] and Bryan [Devendorf, drums] are the biggest Deadheads.

Bryce Dessner: Scott is our resident DJ and he has really diverse music taste, but for some reason now it is 110% Dead only. That’s what we listen to on the bus and back stage. Which is awesome, but sometimes you’re like, ‘Come on Scott, give us some New Order or something.’

Do you feel like that’s a natural transition? Do you think you will eventually get into The Dead?

Berninger: It actually does happen. Growing up in college I was like a, whatever, ‘alternative rock snob,’ for me it was the Smiths and R.E.M. and all that other stuff. I defined myself by being into College rock bands. But now, eventually you start to lose your snobbery and I’ve learned to love The Dead, which I didn’t think I would back then.

What were some of the stigmas about it that you didn’t like that you had to overcome.

Berninger: I went to a liberal arts college —  Miami University of Ohio — I went there for two years. I loved the school but there was the whole sort of frat culture of basically young rich kids trying to pretend they’re poor and stinky, reliving the ’60s and romanticizing that whole thing. I remember I found that annoying. So I think that’s why. It ruined reggae for me, too, cause like all the frat houses were crankin’ reggae constantly and it felt like bulls**t. So I think that’s what turned me off to a lot of jam bands back then. I’ve since let go of those, whatever, ‘feelings’ I had and learned to appreciate it.

Bryce you’ve worked a lot with American minimalism, do you think there’s a correlation between that and jam band music?

Dessner: I definitely think that the long-form kind of jam thing that The Dead explored so deeply — and also the way that people got into that, there’s a complexity in their music, especially say with the way Jerry Garcia plays guitar — that absolutely it has some correlation with more composed concert music. The repetition of the minimalists — I think there’s a certain kind of modal behavior in the way they use scales and things that would maybe would have some relation.

One thing that we’re looking at with this idea of doing a Dead tribute is just sort of examining who are unlikely fans of The Dead, and one person I would say is a composer name David Lang is a really important kind of post-minimalist composer — he won the Pultizer prize a couple of years ago — he’s like a massive Dead fan.

So you called a bunch of people for this — did you sort of know they were Dead fans?

Dessner: When we mentioned we were doing it, people actually started coming to us. We know close friends of ours like Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, someone we’ve jammed Dead tunes with so that was obvious. The band F**cked Up wrote to me, so that was surprising. Lee Renaldo from Sonic Youth is a big Dead fan that was kind of surprising.

When is this project supposed to come out?

Dessner: I think it’ll be next year. We’re taking our time with it, that’s part of the fun. We’re trying to enjoy the process.

I’m sure you heard about what Jay Z did at Pace Gallery with his coincidentally six-hour performance piece.

Berninger: I don’t think he knew that we had done [“Sorrow” for six hours]. I don’t think he cares. I don’t think Jay Z follows us. But it was funny, ‘Whoa, we just did that.’  It wasn’t our idea it was this guy Ragnar Kjartansson who was this really amazing Icelandic artist whose also really good friends with Marina Abramvoich. It was a fun thing for us when we did “Sorrow” for six hours. But when Jay Z decided to do it to, I was like ‘You can’t do that, you can’t steal that.’ But I used to date Beyoncé so he was a little passive aggressive about that.

Dessner: They have a personal rivalry that just keeps going.

Berninger: He’s threatened by me. Yeah but it’s cool. We’re cool.

You’re well into the Trouble Will Find Me tour, what songs are sticking out to you as new favorites, and what songs are you thinking about putting in the back of the rotation?

Berninger: It takes a long time to get tired of a song. Occasionally a song just for whatever reason has a hard time working live but none of the songs on this record have had that problem, I don’t think. I song we have from a several records ago called “Karen” — people love that song, and they request it, but every time we play it — we can’t do it right. Sometimes things are just meant to be the recordings. But everything

Dessner: We haven’t played “Hard To Find” yet because “Hard To Find” is hard to play.

Berninger: Oh you’re right that would fit the category

Dessner: But it’s a good one, hopefully someday.

Is that something that comes on the road, rehearsing a new song?

Berninger: Yeah we do — but sometimes a song just doesn’t want to be played live. Sometimes you just have to respect that about the song.

Matt, how is your brother Tom?

Berninger: He’s doing great! He’s in Travers City he just met Michael Moore yesterday with the movie. My brother — who made Mistaken For Strangers is a documentary ostensibly about us, mostly about him and our relationship and the band is sort of an environment within which a bunch of crap goes down and my brother captured it all and he was able to make a really beautiful brilliant movie out of it. It’s a movie about family, really.

So he’s doing film festivals and having a very surreal time. He’s met Michael Moore, he’s had lunch with Robert De Niro — I don’t know if Robert De Niro remembers that but Tom will never forget it. My brother, he’s kind of an overnight star and he deserves to be. He’s brilliant and guileless and hilarious and I’m so happy for him and proud of him and the movie.

I think it’s great to have this documentary as part of your canon, this hilarious thing in contrast to your music.

Berninger: Now we’re trying to figure out how the movie industry works, and how to release this movie. It’s funny because the film industry is exactly where the record industry was about ten years ago. It’s completely at a crossroads, you know, this move is about determining ‘Should this movie have a theatrical release?’ It’s been actually exciting learning about a whole new industry as it goes through this complete rebirth.


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