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A Secret Meeting In The Basement Of My Brain: An Interview With The National’s Matt Berninger

It’s been a little bit like something off of National Geographic. You know. You see the deer, or better yet, the gazelle, lapping at the water’s edge and everything looks real peaceful — real goddamn peaceful — what a tranquil scene you think, from the comfort of your armchair and then SNAP. You have to blink and shake your head a few times because what the FUCK just happened there? The Nice National Geographic people rewind the film and show you the playback in slow motion. Turns out that log floating in the water wasn’t a log at all. Turns out the log was an alligator. They have a habit of doing that, alligators. Sneaking up on you unawares. Much like The National‘s third record, which (coincidentally) just happens to be called Alligator. Now you see where I was going with this, doncha? Lead singer, Matt Berninger has said on Pitchfork and elsewhere how he and the band were surprised by the fact that many people have said the album is a grower. But it’s true. “The album,” Matt told me, “came out maybe a year ago but it’s only really been in the last three or four months that it’s gone to the next level.”

We’re sitting in the back of the tour bus and the weather outside is going crazy. Ten minutes ago it was hot enough out there to lift the tar. Now rain is making the glass shake. The National are playing a few dates as support for Editors. I ask Matt how that is, supporting, playing to people who maybe don’t know who they are. “It’s good,” he says. “This kind of thing is fun. We’re opening for a band that’s immensely popular over here [in the UK]. We’re going to play a short set and pull from all our records. Sometimes it’s a lot easier and a lot more fun than playing to a bunch of people with expectations, who want to hear particular songs or whatever.”

The National formed in Brooklyn in 1999 and now, three albums and one mini-album later, they’re starting to make a real big name for themselves. “We’ve sort of developed,” Matt says. “Our first album, The National, is very different to what we’re doing now, was what you would maybe call alt. country. Americana.” Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers and Cherry Tree preceded Alligator and helped them build up what Matt calls “a small devoted group of people’. I ask him about the process, the movement from one record to another. “We just keep trying to do different things,” he says. “We never talk about it. We don’t sit around and say, hey, let’s go in a different direction this time out. We write songs in a certain way and if any of us feel like we’re going over old ground, it’s not very interesting. We usually tear a song up a bit until we’re surprised by it or excited by it. We’re just trying — song by song — to make something exciting.”

I ask Matt how the process works, how the band write the songs. “Most of the time, Aaron or Scott or Bryce are writing guitar parts and I’m scribbling. A lot of it happens separately, people at home with their Powerbook or whatever. We’ll work up a bunch of stuff and they’ll send it to me and I’ll start singing. That tends to be how the songs start. Occasionally we’ll be goofing around in a studio and something will come together but that’s like 25 per cent of the time. Right now, for instance, we’re at a spot where we have a lot of music but I don’t have a lot of lyrics.” So the pressure’s on you, I say. Matt chuckles some and says, “Yeah. But I kinda like the music without vocals on it right now. Maybe that’ll be our new direction.” I’m laughing. Matt is an amenable guy. I say, you keep talking like that, you’ll talk yourself out of a job. “Yeah, it could go that way,” he replies. “I just feel right now like everything I’m doing is just ruining the music.” (He laughs some more.) “Sometimes with the writing — you know — sometimes it’s less about trying to write a great song than it is about avoiding writing a bad song. A song you’ve heard a million times. Or a song that just sounds false. It’s hard to not write crappy lyrics. Most of the things you write down or think sound meaningful sound so overwrought: I write down a lot of stuff that I don’t use and I cross out a lot and I only keep what I don’t hate. [Writing songs] is more avoiding [writing] bad songs than it is trying to write good songs, I think.”

I ask him if it’s a pressure, the weight of expectation that is now likely to greet the next thing they do. He says it’s affected him a little bit (the implication being that the rest of the band is sort of taking it in their collective stride). He’s overthinking things. I say that’s his job and that gets us on to the next thing. Because The National quit their jobs prior to recording Alligator. “We knew that once the record was finished we were going to have to tour a lot. Before, when we toured, we’d all take time off work, but we’d stretched that pretty thin. Some of us went part-time and some of us were there 70 per cent of the time — but then it was moving from 70 per cent of the time to 50 per cent of the time and … It wasn’t like we were making money at all but we knew we had to put in the time and chase this thing. So we quit our jobs and it was really liberating and exciting but scary to start to live off your Mastercard. We’re just now starting to pay our rents doing shows. We’re able to sustain for however long this thing lasts. So we feel good about things and we’re excited by the next record. Things are changing for us. We’re now suddenly playing in front of big rooms and everyone knows who we are and it’s a different kind of pressure.”

Matt gets compared to a whole host of different people. Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Mark Eitzel, Jarvis Cocker, Tom Waits. I ask him what he makes of all of that kind of thing. He says, “Most of the comparisons are incredibly flattering. Nick Cave and Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen are definitely people I admire. A lot of it comes from the way I sing, my vocal range or whatever.” And maybe the subjects of your songs, I say. “Yeah,” Matt nods, “I guess. The cloudy dark side of romance.” You can hear him italicise the words. “I think they’re all obsessed with similar things. But musically, we’ve all grown up listening to different things. Bryce is a classically-trained guitar player and Scott and I are more indie rock fans — Pavement and Guided by Voices — plus there’s a lot of Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel. So we get compared to a range of things. We’ve had Dave Matthews and The Pixies in the same review. The NY Times described us as Dave Matthews-esque which … wasn’t what we were going for.”

Some of the songs are pretty dark, I say. I ask Matt what the line is, whether the songs are autobiographical or whether he’s telling stories and making shit up. “It’s a combination,” he tells me. “I think a lot of it is romanticised, exaggerated things that maybe link back to real moments. So. The songs are personal even if they may not be exactly true events or real characters but they’re personal. For one reason or another I get obsessed about something and so in that way it’s kind of true.” Because I’m impolite, I ask him if he’s ever had anything thrown back in his face (something like: and that song you wrote about me SUCKED ASS) but he says no. “There aren’t many songs that are negative or vicious. They’re more pathetic than anything else. Even when they are angry it’s showing the silly side, the melodrama of your own obsessions. The songs about women are too watered down for people to be able to recognise anything.”

Mark Eitzel has said that all of the songs he’s written about women have been inspired by Kathleen, his friend who passed away a couple of years back. All of the songs are all about Kathleen, Mark has said. So, I ask Matt, does he have a kind of Kathleen? A muse. “Yeah,” he says. “My girlfriend Corinne — I changed her name on the record to Karen. That’s as far as my imagination …” (Matt laughs and shakes his head.) “We’ve been together three years and she’s all over Alligator. I met her before we were writing Alligator so she’s certainly been the muse for a while. She’s a writer and a poet and an editor so she’s involved a lot. I’ll write lyrics and they’ll be about us and she’ll — you know — correct me. So she’s definitely become a thread in what we’re doing. More than a thread.”

I mention Richmond Fontaine‘s frontman Willy Vlautin at this point because he’s just had published an excellent little novel called The Motel Life. I want to know if Matt has similar ambitions. He looks at his hands. “Writing for me is not easy.” Matt says NOT EASY as if each of the words weighs about a hundred pounds. “It takes me forever to come up with one phrase that I can live with so writing prose is …” He pauses. “There’s nothing about that that appeals to me. Writing song lyrics is so different — it’s not even like writing poetry. Comparing poetry to songwriting is like comparing dancing to fishing. So no books. No books.”

Later that night, I watch The National for the first time and — it blows me away. They’re incendiary. Matt switches from jilted crooner on a song like the aforementioned “Karen” to spastic crazy man on a tune like “Abel”. It’s an incredible performance.

I remember something Matt mentioned toward the end of the interview as I’m watching them.

He said, “We enjoy playing a lot. The travelling around and the being gone and the being on the highways isn’t something that we all enjoy very much but when we get there and we get on the stage that makes it all worth it.” It’s something that shines out when you watch them. These guys are the real deal.

(Pictures by Sonya Kolowrat.)

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER:
Peter Wild is the co-founder of Bookmunch. He is the editor of a forthcoming series of books for Serpent’s Tail, the first two of which — Perverted by Language: Fiction inspired by The Fall and The Empty Page: Fiction inspired by Sonic Youth — will be published in 2007. His writing and fiction have appeared in Scarecrow, NOO Journal, Word Riot, Laura Hird, SN Review, The Big Issue, Nude Magazine, Alt Sounds, City Life and Eyeballkid.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, June 13th, 2006.