The National is made up of vocalist Matt Berninger and two sets of siblings: the Dessners (Aaron and Bryce, who are twins) and the Devendorfs (Bryan and Scott, who are not). The Dessners and the Devendorfs were childhood friends who played on the same high-school sports teams, while Berninger met Scott Devendorf at the University of Cincinnati.
Bryce Dessner has a masters in classical guitar from Yale and his brother, Aaron, achieved a modern European history and cultural anthropology degree from Columbia.
The band took shape in Brooklyn in 1999. At first, they continued to work day jobs, Berninger and Scott Devendorf in graphic design and Bryan Devendorf as a copy editor. Meanwhile, Aaron Dessner earned what he could as personal assistant, sound guy etc.
Bryce Dessner who had been assisting the group, became a permanent member a couple of years later in 2001.
As The National began to gain some recognition, they all threw in their day time jobs. However, this meant some sacrifices for the likes of Matt Berninger. He recalled in a 2010 interview.
"I was well into my 30s and I was creative director at a new-media company, dating a Swedish girl and flying to Stockholm on weekends. I was doing well. I was doing well. But, once I entertained the thought that maybe I wouldn't ever have to go and sit in conference rooms with Mastercard to discuss web ads again, I couldn't shake it. I think we were all prepared to fail, but, if we hadn't chased it then, we would have regretted it for the rest of our lives."
Soon after, Berninger was "35 and playing to ten people and sleeping in youth hostels."
The National had all their equipment stolen after their first ever UK show at the Buffalo Bar in London. Guitarist Bryce Dessner recalled to NME: "We saw it happening, phoned the police and they said, 'Sorry there's nothing we can do.'"
Berninger is married to Carin Besser, one-time fiction editor of the New Yorker
and occasional contributor to the National's songs. She has turned up in several of the band's lyrics in particular the Alligator
Much of Matt Berniger's lyrical content can be quite moody and personal. Coup de Main asked the vocalist if he'd ever had a concerned friend or family member ask him about his songs. He replied:
"My wife, a few times. My parents know that I have always been sort of a dark melodramatic kid, so they were never concerned. Early on when my wife and I were dating, she asked some questions. But like I said, she knows writers, she knows to separate the two. I'm not saying I'm not a moody guy sometimes, but I think I have a pretty normal balance."
The essence of Matt Berninger's lyrical themes has essentially remained the same since The National's early days. "Sometimes, I want to remind myself of ideas I've written, so I write them again in a different way," he told American Songwriter. "Usually that idea is one of three things: I'm freaked out about the world, I want to be a good husband and dad and I'm trying but sometimes I'm a bit of an asshole, and I'm sorry. So it's either: I'm scared, I'm sorry, or I love you. It's one of those three things, almost always."