Ditmas Park was just another peaceful Brooklyn hideaway until indie rockers Matt Berninger, Aaron and Bryce Dessner, and Bryan and Scott Devendorf stormed the block. Now The National pretty much runs this town.
“For a long time, we weren’t sure what kind of band we were, or even wanted to be,” says Matt Berninger, the soup-soaked baritone of Brooklyn-based band the National. “But on this record we knew we wanted to get away from the confessional-man vibe that people have come to expect from us.” As if in disbelief, Berninger’s baby daughter Isla bursts into laughter. That confessional-man vibe has, after all, served the National well, drawing in fans, critics and their musical peers, such as Michael Stipe, St. Vincent and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon.
Still, on their fifth album, this month’s High Violet, the quintet is trying something new. Seated on a couch in the den of guitarist Aaron Dessner’s house in Ditmas Park, an idyllic neighborhood where mature trees tower over Victorian houses and drowsy streets, Berninger says, “It’s grimmer and meaner than our other records. It’s about not knowing where you really fit in.” When Dessner’s girlfriend enters the room—a hipster Julia Child wielding a platter of homemade pastries— it’s difficult to imagine that much of the darkness comes from the bandmates’ private lives.
Four of the group’s five members, including guitarist Bryce Dessner, Aaron’s twin brother, and brothers Bryan and Scott Devendorf, the band’s drummer and bassist, respectively, live in the neighborhood. (Berninger lives with Isla and his wife in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights.) The album was recorded in Aaron’s backyard, where the group built a private studio and hammered out all of their new songs while collaborating with neighbors like singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens.
Despite Brooklyn’s strong sense of community, Berninger isn’t sure if the band’s inspiration comes from the actual borough. “I don’t know how much of the music scene here has to do with Brooklyn, other than the fact that there are so many venues and places to grow and learn and perform in front of a crowd,” he says. “There’s a big difference between writing music in your garage and standing up in front of a hostile room of people who don’t give a shit about you, and doing that over and over again until someone, somewhere, finally starts to care. If we weren’t in New York, music might have turned into a dad-rock hobby, something to do on weekends. But here, there’s always new and exciting stuff you want to chase.”
Mimi’s Hummus 1108 Cortelyou Road “Our zip code is the most diverse in the world, or at least the country. There are huge populations of Pakistanis, Nepalese, Tibetans and Orthodox Jews in the area. This neighborhood was developed in the late 19th century by a group of professional lawyers and doctors. The whole Victorian house aesthetic happened because of that. You could order them from a catalog. If you look today you’ll notice that the stained glass window in this house is the same as the one in that house. Because our lifestyle is so crazy on the road and we spend a lot of time in cool bars, it’s kind of nice to come here and have this really mellow vibe.” —Bryce Dessner
The Castello Plan 1213 Cortelyou Road “[Ben Heemskerk] is a good friend of ours. Just a year ago, with another friend, he hatched this plan to open a wine bar. This place just opened last week. It’s another one designed by my brother-in-law. Even though people might expect it to be a mellow wine bar, it’s pretty happening at night. My girlfriend painted the mosaic on the ceiling.” —Bryce Dessner
“It used to be quite rough up here. I had a car service driver who was taking me home one night aft er rehearsal, and he was like, ‘I moved to America 12 years ago and lived in this neighborhood. I heard gunshots all night long.’Have you seen Th e Squid and the Whale? When Jeff Daniels leaves Park Slope, he moves to the other side of the park, which is here, and it’s scary.” —Bryan Devandorf
Sycamore 1118 Cortelyou Road “Sycamore and Vox Pop [1022 Cortelyou Road], a coffee shop that has open mic nights, are the main music venues in Ditmas Park. The public radio station WNYC is actually going to put recording equipment in here and start broadcasting from the basement of Sycamore. It’s now on the map as this weird little space for new bands, as well as functioning as a bar and flower shop. My sister is the booker here and she’s always on MySpace finding exciting acts.
Usually, they come here to play their first gigs ever, and we’re the only people in the room. We saw a band called Buke and Gass a while back, and we signed them to our label, Brassland Records, the next week. They have an album coming out this spring.” —Aaron Dessner
“Life here is much diff erent than when we’re on tour, when we stay up really late and drink a lot. We went on tour with R.E.M. last summer and Michael Stipe kind of adopted us. In almost every town, we’d get a call: ‘Meet Michael at this restaurant at 2 a.m. Th ey’re keeping it open for you.’ My brother and I are the healthy ones in the group, so even if we’re living on a bus we go running each morning. Sometimes Bryan is just going to bed when we’re heading out the door.” —Bryce Dessner
The Farm on Adderley 1108 Cortelyou Road “We come here a lot for dinner. It’s become one of the most popular restaurants in Brooklyn. Th ey use only farm-fresh produce and organic food. Th e short rib ravioli is great, and their kale-lentil soup is the best soup in the world. My ex-wife’s brother started this restaurant. My sister’s husband designed it, and we all helped build it. He designed all of the places we’re going to today.” —Aaron Dessner