ACL Interview: The National

Not-so-moody frontman on touring, recording, and family

Matt Berninger at Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, 6.16.13
Matt Berninger at Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, 6.16.13 (by Gary Miller)

National frontman Matt Berninger opens up about the Brooklyn quintet’s melancholic sound, subverting expectations on sixth LP Trouble Will Find Me, and his brother’s documentary, Mistaken for Strangers.

Austin Chronicle: I wanted to start by asking you about your 2010 Austin City Limits taping. I think what struck me most about the show was just how much fun you guys were having.

Matt Berninger: Didn’t I fall off a chair at that show? That’s mostly what I remember. But I do remember enjoying that. I have fun on stage every time. It doesn’t always really look like I’m having fun, because I go into a weird head-space, drink a lot of wine, and get inside the songs. Usually it looks like I’m a violent psychotic guerilla, but it’s all happiness deep inside.

AC: You all seem to have a very keen self-awareness of the perception that your songs are moody, and play with that on the new album.

MB: There’s no doubt about it: When we’re writing songs, both musically and lyrically, there’s a tendency towards minor chords and singing songs about rather complicated emotional situations, whether they’re romantic or whatever. You kind of dig into the awkward, dark side of that. There’s no doubt about it that, compared to other bands, we’re probably on the darker side when it comes to our music. But we’re all pretty happy people most of the time.

There’s also, when we do live shows, clearly a misery loves company type of vibe in the room, where there’s so many people singing along enjoying these melodramatic, often gloomy songs together – songs about anxiety and despair and fear, loneliness. People love to sing about being alone together.

AC: The new album strikes me as having that same kind of self-awareness and playing with the sensibility of the songs.

MB: Yeah, I’m relatively self-aware of my tendencies, both personally and as a writer, so I sometimes make fun of myself and some of the melodrama – while embracing it. This record has several songs that, in different ways, touch on the idea of death or mortality, and some deeper than others. I think it’s just my way of having fun with some of these murky subjects. But I’ve always done that, whether it’s with anxiety or romance or all these other things. There’s so many different dimensions to every one of those emotions and themes that I like to poke into all the sides of it, the silly side and the serious side.

AC: How has your perspective or songwriting changed, especially with the increasing success, and maybe even some of the time off that you guys tried to take after High Violet?

MB: The truth is we didn’t actually get away from it like we had planned to do. We had planned to take a longer break after the High Violet tour, and what happened was that by telling ourselves that we were going to put the band on the shelf for a year or so, by taking off any time pressures, we kind of tricked ourselves and started writing right away.

There wasn’t much of a break, and when we all realized that the record was coming together faster than expected, we set a schedule. There’s always a two-year process of traveling and touring. It’s not that we’re not grateful that we have the opportunity to do it, but I don’t think we were ready. It came a little too quickly for us, to be honest. Maybe after this tour we’ll actually take a break.

AC: How has being back out on the road been treating y’all?

MB: It’s been great, and the shows have all been fantastic. We’re having fun, but we’re also trying to figure out a way to do it without the wheels coming off, just in terms of our personal lives and health. We’ve done a lot of touring over the years and it’s really easy to kind of fall apart. So we’re doing a pretty good job of keeping ourselves glued together. Hopefully that will last.

AC: You all have families now. How has that affected your songwriting?

MB: I’m sure it has, and assume it does. I’m kind of too close to it to listen to how our songs, and specifically my songwriting, have evolved as I’ve kind of grown up. The band started when I was almost 30 anyway, so I was a relatively fully-formed adult, albeit a relatively immature one. I don’t know how much I’ve changed over the past 14 years, but I’m sure you can probably hear it in the music and the lyrics a lot.

I do think I’ve become a better writer over the years, and a much better singer by just trying different things, but I’m certain that my daughter has changed the chemistry of my brain and my outlook on everything and perspective. That clearly came into the last record in a lot of ways, all the reflections on afterlife and everything in the songs are definitely an extension of being a father and coming to terms with my personal understanding of afterlife. It’s the people that you’ve touched and that live beyond you.

I’m not one to believe in any type of heaven or hell. I believe we’re creating that day-to-day in our lives and in how we leave the earth and leave our friends and people we’ve touched in our lives. That’s our afterlife. I’m sure that having a daughter, and seeing myself in her in many obvious ways, that’s had a huge effect on how I think of myself and my place in the universe.

That’s one example for sure, but all the other stuff, I’m an old-ass adolescent. I don’t feel like I’m that wise.

AC: Speaking of family, I wanted to get your impression of your brother’s documentary, Mistaken for Strangers. How has that relationship impacted both of you the past couple of years, and on this album in particular?

MB: No one in the band, including me, expected there to be such a good movie out of this whole process. Without giving away what happens, the movies starts out being about him coming on tour with us, and then things happen and it gets ugly, and ultimately he gets fired and has to move in with my wife and me. And it turns into this real struggle of family, of trying to find your own footing in the world. It’s really funny, and it’s really sad in parts, and what he was able to pull together after a couple of years and 200 hours of crazy footage was far beyond what anyone expected. It’s a beautiful movie, and I’m so proud of him for what he did, and the band’s really proud of it, too.

It’s not really a profile of a band on tour at all. It’s a story about people and brothers and family, and how tricky that can be, but how essential our ties to each other are. And yeah, I’ve changed a lot, and understand my brother much more as an adult than as a little kid, because I’m nine years older than he is. I went to college when he was still a kid, and then moved to New York, and we weren’t exactly estranged, but up until this tour, whenever we were together we kind of reverted to our old roles, and that manifested itself in extreme degrees on tour, and often in unflattering ways for both of us.

It’s all in the movie, and I think we came out on the other side of the movie with a way of understanding each other better as people, and very different kinds of people. I’m grateful for it, and my brother and I are closer than ever because of it.

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