When local rock bands begin selling out the usual venues — Galapagos, Southpaw, The Music Hall of Williamsburg — they tend to move on to the super-sized concert halls of Manhattan and stadiums across the country.
The National, however, is taking a step sideways. Instead of playing for a room of wild, crowd-surfing fans — like they’ll do on tour with Modest Mouse and R.E.M. this summer — on Feb. 22 and 23, everyone who goes to see the band will be seated, and a mosh pit will definitely be discouraged.
On those evenings, the band will be taking the stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s opera house to play two sold-out shows as part of BAM’s “Brooklyn Next” series. But for a group that’s used to playing at rock clubs, BAM’s gilded halls can be a bit daunting.
“We were really flattered when they asked, so it’s something we’re nervous about, because we’re used to loud clubs where people are drinking a lot,” said Matt Berninger, the band’s singer and a Prospect Heights resident. “We never expected to do that kind of a show. It seems a little highfalutin for us.”
Formed in Cincinnati, Ohio, the band relocated to Brooklyn in the late ’90s and has become a part of the local fabric. Berninger praised Boat on Smith Street as his favorite bar, and Bryce Dessner, The National’s guitarist, pals around with Ditmas Park crooner and indie music mascot Sufjan Stevens. Still, Berninger said that there wasn’t a strong musical community — making the borough fertile ground for up-and-coming bands.
“I don’t have a sense of there being a Brooklyn scene now. It’s just a huge place where a lot of people live and make music,” he said. “There’s not this tight-knit community of musical cross-pollination. Everybody sees shows, but it’s not that kind of scene.”
And while Brooklyn might not have a small-town indie rock infrastructure, the National isn’t exactly small time. “Boxer,” the band’s fifth record, was released in May and has become a staple on top 10 lists and the iPods of clued-in music fans. With Berninger’s deep voice and remarkable lyrics and the tight talent of the rest of the band (Dessner and his brother Aaron as well as Bryan and Scott Devendorf, also brothers), The National has gained national attention and a rabid local fan base.
“We’re starting to worry that we’re playing New York too much,” said Berninger. “We’ve played 25 venues in the city, and we’ve done them all once or twice.” Still, the Feb. 22 date at BAM sold out and the second show, which is also completely full, was added to meet still-strong demand.
Fans might be surprised to learn that despite the songs of love and loss that fill “Boxer” and the band’s other records, Berninger isn’t writing autobiographical lyrics.
“I look for lyrical inspiration [everywhere],” he said. “I don’t have a process, and it actually takes me quite a long time to write lyrics that aren’t bad. I will steal from wherever I can find it, conversations or eavesdropping on people at a bar. That’s where the most interesting stuff comes from, the awkward little details of normal people talking about something.”
Berninger cited influences like Nick Cave and Tom Waits — “people who have no fear of sounding like an a—hole” — and said that his band is too often pegged as precious and sad by critics.
“We’ve been described as a dark, morose band, but I’ve always thought that while there are moments like that in our songs, it was never accurate,” he said. “I don’t think of ‘Boxer’ as being a depressing record at all. We might be darker than some bands, but I never thought of us as mopey.”
And with a sold-out crowd packing the seats in BAM’s opera house, it’s unlikely that the audience will be mopey either.
“I don’t know what the atmosphere will be like,” said Berninger, “but we’re looking forward to it.”
The National will play at 8 pm on Feb. 22 and Feb. 23 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House (30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene). Both shows are sold out. For information, call (718) 636-4100 or visit www.bam.org.