The National’s Matt Berninger approaches his writing process with two staples: headphones and wine
BY MARK GUARINO | THE CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
Matt Berninger may be the deepest thinker of modern rock. He certainly dresses the part. The lead vocalist of The National, Berninger is an unusual frontman: Clad in a dark suit and singing in a deep baritone, he maintains the brooding intensity of Leonard Cohen or Nick Cave, but then there’s the breakaway: A requisite stepping into the crowd during a show’s cathartic moment, a move he’s made for years as a way to break through the artificial wall at the footlights.
While their latest album “Trouble Will Find Me” is their sixth, The National are just now emerging as one of the most acclaimed bands on the planet right now. Four shows are sold-out at the Chicago Theatre, which means a wider audience is discovering what others had before: The band’s needle-sharp guitar lines, tricky rhythms, stadium-worthy choruses, and the dark romance and wry humor of Berninger’s lyrics.
We talked last month via phone. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Your breakthrough record was 2010’s “High Violet,” after nearly 10 years of being an underground band. Did the impact that album create pressure when it was time to make the follow-up?
I think, for the first time in our existence, we actually felt a different kind of confidence. With the record before, we had come out of the shadows. Things had been slowly been getting better and better and better for us. It was a slow progression and “High Violet” was a huge step out of the shadows. Strangely, for us and not like for a lot of bands, we never had to try to follow up a first hit record. That can create crippling pressure for a lot of bands. But for whatever reason, for us, it happened very slowly and very organically. Then when we made “Trouble Will Find Me,” we were in a weird place of peace. We weren’t worried about following up or striking when the iron was hot or doubling down on any kind of formula. By then, any kind of norm had come and gone. With this record, all we cared about was enjoying the process and writing songs.
Why was that?
I had a child, so did [guitarist] Aaron [Dessner] and so did [drummer] Bryan [Devendorf]. There was perspective on the whole thing: “Why do we fight so much, why do we get stressed out, why does it have to be a painstaking and anxiety-filled process, why don’t we enjoy it a little more?” This record isn’t about parenthood, or being fathers, but it came into play. We’re so lucky to have this record and band but there are things so more important than this record and band, so we decided to just enjoy it.
You are solely responsible for the lyrics of The National. When you don’t know what the music is going to sound like, how do you get into a headspace to write?
I’m very untrained. When I write lyrics, and also when I’m performing onstage, I drink a lot of wine. I’ll use it as a crutch. It helps loosen my grip on the insecurities of just being a human being in the world. It allows me a little courage in a weird way to do it, and to write about unflattering, weird, little corners of my brain. Also, I never write filling notebooks with lyrics. I only write when listening to the music those guys are sending me. It’s so much fun. I put headphones on and start drinking wine and have GarageBand on to mumble along and free associate and let thing happen. I don’t edit too much. I start to craft and work on lyrics and really edit and refine them later. For the first six months of writing the record, I’m just sipping wine and laying back and singing along. That’s where the best stuff comes from — when I’m not thinking too much.
Tom Berninger, your younger brother, just released “Mistaken For Strangers,” a documentary film on the band, but it’s really much more about the difficulty of having a famous sibling. You appear encouraging of him, but there’s many cringe-inducing moments too.
I invited him to come on tour as a roadie because he was in a kind of rut. He went to film school, finished, and was back in Cincinnati living with my parents. I told him, “why don’t you come up on tour and be the assistant tour manager and bring a camera along and make a tour diary for yourself and maybe make a live video for us.” I didn’t really know and he didn’t really know … [Tom] was living in a bus with us, living in a hotel with me. We never thought there would be anything from it. We knew that whatever he did have, we knew we could delete what we wanted to. Later, when he got fired, I felt bad about putting him in that situation. I set him up to fail in a weird way. Then I told him, “just try to make something out of the footage you have.” Then it started to evolve into this other thing. When the band heard my brother was making a feature documentary, everyone got really nervous … we really didn’t want a feature documentary and we didn’t need one.
Because much of what he shot could be seen as unflattering. He carried his camera into the bathroom with you.
Exactly — People were nervous. Then once everyone saw that it was more about Tom’s struggle, and the tour was a setting for a completely different story about family and being your own worst enemy, and how the small demons we all carry around inside us can debilitate us, and that it was more about Tom and his life — that’s when people said, “okay, that sounds interesting.” Nobody in the band, especially me, wanted to tell Tom, “the thing you made is great, but we can’t let anybody see it.” And we thought there was a very good chance of that happening.
What do you want people to take away from the band?
I don’t know. Our songs, our band, they don’t have a message necessarily. As individuals, we are progressive, liberal, white guys from Cincinnati. And we do things in our personal lives and we get behind things, whether it’s Obama or gay marriage. But we don’t write songs with an agenda to tell people something about something. It’s mostly expressions of ourselves. For me, with the lyrics, it’s abstract paintings of feelings. Or just states of mind, or expressions of anxieties. The music I always connected with the most was just somebody expressing what it’s like to be a human being in the world and that it is complicated and hard. Whether it’s Guided By Voices or Cat Power or Leonard Cohen or R.E.M. or the Smiths. When somebody was being raw and honest. Even Iggy Pop and posturing — the right kind of posturing, with a certain amount of humiliation, is great. For [GBV’s] Robert Pollard, posturing is a lot of what he does, but he also has expressions of complete frailty and tenderness and then cruelty — All those things that makes a human brain and human heart. I don’t want a message.
I’ve seen you perform live and you’re an intense performer, especially when you get inside the crowd; Does getting yourself to that place become more difficult when you have to do it night after night?
I drink a lot of wine. I lose my grip on the reality of the thing. Then I literally get inside the crowd. And when I did it the first time, it was strange and all the sudden shattered some of the humiliating artifice of being a performer under lights on a stage. It felt so good. To me, getting into a crowd is not about crowd surfing. In fact, when anyone tries to lift me up, I try not to. It’s literally the opposite of what it’s supposed to feel like. I don’t want to get passed over a crowd like some sort of hero. That is not at all what we do in the band. It’s more about standing in the corner and hearing people screaming along and sharing this weird, cathartic joy and ecstasy and misery of life and darkness and sadness and hilarity of being a human being in the world. When I go into the crowd, it’s mostly to break that wall between The National, this rock band onstage, and me, a rock singer on the stage. So I go into the crowd, not to be lifted up, but to get down in the mud of real life. Now it’s weird if I don’t do it and if I don’t do it, people get pissed off. So you’re right, there is a strange irony because it’s become part of the entertainment to escape the humiliation of being onstage. I’m more comfortable standing next to a garbage can next to the bar. I’d much rather be in the dark.
So that’s got to be why you always wear the dark suit. It’s part of a uniform.
I used to think about what I should I wear. “What kind of band are we? Should we be this kind of image or that kind of image? Should we be like the Strokes — tight jeans and leather jackets or it is Interpol? Who knows?” There was the phase when we would do photo shoots and we would have to ask — “what should we look like?” We’re just terrible at that. It got to the point where I didn’t want to think about it, so I started to wear black suits all the time … the suit lets me forget that about how awkward it is. It helps me get into this kind of zone. It’s almost like when you dress up and go to church. I understand that because you have to take seriously and respect it. I don’t go to church anymore but I understand putting on the garb that shows respect for the thing. Over the years, we’ve realized how lucky we are to have thousands of people pay fifty bucks to travel to a room to listen to us sing songs that we made up in our bedrooms. You have to show respect.
We talked about Chicago’s Lounge Ax before, and you referred to it as one of those places where you were inspired to try music.
I used to drive up from Cincinnati. My best friend moved to Chicago and I would travel to Chicago and that’s when we would go to Lounge Ax and see whomever — Pavement or Built to Spill. That was one of those places where you found your identity: “This is who I am in the world, I’m a guy who sees this band.” There are other places like that. Cincinnati had a place, Sudsy Malone’s. New York, Mercury Lounge … those places like Lounge Ax were where a lot of people who love music have life changing moments. Those are places that made me want to give that a shot. Even if we were failing for the first two years. It was in these sort of hallowed, stinky, gross, smelling-like-a-thousand-years-of-old-beer places — those were the churches where you learned how to be a band.