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Indie-rockers the National argue against reputation for sad music

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TORONTO - The National's frontman Matt Berninger has heard so many times in so many ways that his band's songs are sad that it eventually became a bit of a bummer.

Even in resoundingly upbeat reviews the indie-rockers have amassed over the years, rock scribes have dug deep for new and creative ways to describe the band's admittedly moody tunes. Rolling Stone recently referred to the Cincinnati-reared, Brooklyn-based rockers as "indie-rock sadsters" and "first-rate gloom-raiders" while Berninger himself has been singled out by the L.A. Times for finding "100 shades of morose" and by Entertainment Weekly as sounding "badly in need of Paxil." In some cases, those statements were meant as compliments.

And Berninger, the soaring singer with the expressive baritone as deep as the ocean floor, has learned to stop being irritated by the feedback.

"For a long time, we tried to fight against the idea that we're a sad, depressing band — and I've never thought of us that way — but it became clear that there's no way we were ever going to prove otherwise," he said.

And yet, he quickly glides into a familiar argument against the band's apparently suffocating somberness.

"I think it has the opposite effect for most people who pay attention," said the thoughtful frontman. "Because singing about melodrama and sadness and depression and romance and social anxieties and whatever they are, have been my ways of embracing them and kind of making something fun out of them and helping me deal.

"The songs about that stuff, I find them to be very soothing and leave me feeling the opposite way, leave me feeling relieved. I think most people who pay attention to our band and have followed us don't think of us as depressing and think of us as the opposite too. But on a cursory level, yes, our songs are not light pop songs.

"I like songs about people's dark sides and sadnesses and I like when people put their hearts on their sleeves, I find that very generous from other artists. I find solace in their company. (But) I don't think of myself as a dark person. I'm moody and I have a short temper, but I don't think that's really anything different than other people."

And, in a strange coincidence, just as the band stopped caring about their reputation for wearing morose-coloured glasses, they let a little light in.

"Trouble Will Find Me," hitting stores Tuesday, is in Berninger's words "less tightly wound" than past efforts, reflecting a recording period that was uncommonly relaxed for the band.

The record opens with the airy, gently swaying "I Should Live in Salt" — which Berninger says explores his feelings of guilt for leaving his much younger brother at home while he went to university in New York — and follows with the rolling, synth-rimmed "Demons." The pace of the record gradually slows, but a breeze nevertheless flows throughout the set.

Which isn't to say there wasn't a lot on Berninger's mind. Several members of the band now have young children (drummer Bryan Devendorf has two young sons and guitarist Aaron Dessner's also raising a baby), and it was Berninger's daughter who had the biggest influence on his perspective this time out.

The singer was essentially pondering death, and for the first time, feeling some anxiety about it given that he now has someone relying upon him.

"It sounds kind of heady, but seeing my daughter and seeing myself in her so much, it's so obvious — that's what our afterlives are," he said. "When our light gets turned off for whatever reason, I don't think we continue to exist in any direct way ourselves — in Heaven or Hell or anything like that — but we live on through how we've affected other people," he said.

"So in a strange way, on this record I was ruminating about life and death in a lot of different ways.... When I've said it's a fun record about death, I'm not joking. It's a soothing, fun, enjoyable record about thinking about existence and death."

This line of investigation led Berninger to some typically appealing turns of phrase — "God loves everybody, don't remind me" on "Graceless," or "I have faith but I don't believe it" on "Don't Swallow the Cap" — while also leading him to a deeper intimacy than perhaps he's allowed in the past.

"I Need My Girl," for instance, is about missing his wife and daughter while on tour. "There's no tricky metaphor in that one," he points out. And that's new. At one point, Berninger says, he would have worried that his songs were too melodramatic, too sad, too sentimental, but this time out he tried to let such anxiety go.

"I do think this record is unguarded in some ways," he said. "Even though I've never had that much problem exposing my darker, less flattering mental tendencies or whatever one would think of them as. But on this one, moreso than ever, the guard is down."

That added sense of security could be attributed to the band's commercial breakthrough, which arrived with 2010's "High Violet." That album, the band's fifth, reached the Top 3 on the charts in Canada, the U.S. and much of Europe.

Sometimes sudden commercial success can choke creativity rather than inspire it, but Berninger — who drolly states, "I was old when this band started" — was ready, in a way. He'd already worked much of that anxiety out of his system, whether he was worrying after 2005's "Alligator" that he would become pigeonholed as "the guy who screams his head off" because of the widely liked single "Mr. November," or fretting that 2007's subtly grand "Boxer" would squander the heat the band had carefully cultivated.

"I think many of our other records, there was a sense of: 'We got a shot! Our foot's in the door, we gotta stay here and fight for our right to plant our flag. And people are paying attention to us finally, we can't (mess) it up now,'" he recalls.

"There was always this slightly anxious and desperate (feeling). And I think that was a healthy sort of desperation we had for a long time. And this time there wasn't that. It wasn't so much that we were so confident — not at all. (But) there was a sense of perspective. Our rock band is not the most important thing in the world. So it took the pressure off in a lot of ways."

It helps that the band's growth to this point has been ever-so-gradual, perhaps frustratingly so at times, but it's allowed the National to achieve a rare level of consistency — in both tone and quality. Their unblemished critical record is one testament to this, though Berninger is characteristically suspicious that that will continue.

"We're ripe for the backlash," he says with a laugh. "We've been very lucky that we've been an underdog for a really long time.... 'You guys are the underground band that's never quite made it!' We're like, yes, keep playing that angle. That has worked for us for 10 years, 'cause it was true for eight of those years."

In his mind, it still sort of is.

The band is definitely bigger now, but Berninger struggles to come up with any tangible way in which that's changed anything. Even as they scale up to some arena-sized venues on their upcoming tour, the National — and Berninger himself — stay, thrillingly, the same.

"I feel pretty much the same way onstage now in arenas (as in clubs), which is a combination of total fear and euphoric excitement and slightly drunk," he said with a smile.

"It's usually the same mixture. We just have more lights now."

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