Matt Berninger of The National
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At a time when bands rise and fall on waves of hype that dissipate as quickly as they’re rustled up, The National’s slow, steady climb seems all the more incredible. Tagged as an alt-country outfit (and not a particularly noteworthy one) when it released its self-titled debut in 2001, the Brooklyn-based band could’ve easily found a permanent place in the dustbin of music history amid the crowded New York City indie-rock scene in the early ’00s, where singer-songwriter Matt Berninger’s gloomy vignettes about young city dwellers were drowned out by the revivalist post-punk racket of bands like The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The National took several steps forward creatively with 2003’s Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, but it wasn’t until its third record, Alligator, that the band appeared to have a shot at a lasting, meaningful career. One of the most critically acclaimed albums of 2005, Alligator almost seemed like the work of a different band. But The National was just starting to hit its stride: The follow-up to Alligator, 2007’s Boxer, was the band’s most successful to date, even as it made a conscious move away from the rock-oriented anthems of the record’s predecessor in favor of intensely introspective songs that glowered instead of growled.
Famous for making albums that require time and patience in order to be fully appreciated—another rarity in the instant-download age—The National just made its most immediately accessible album to date with the new High Violet, an intimate epic that gushes with the emotion the band kept close to the vest on Boxer. Just as the music opens up on High Violet, so does Berninger, who writes about fatherhood and uncertainty at a time of social and political extremism. The A.V. Club talked with Berninger about High Violet and why he’s really having fun when he sounds sad.
The A.V. Club: People expected a lot of The National after Alligator and Boxer. What impact did those expectations have on High Violet?
Matt Berninger: I don’t think it affected the creative process of High Violet very much. But it threatened to with Boxer. Alligator cracked open the door a little bit. When we were in the process of making Boxer we knew that we had one shot to enter the room and make a case for ourselves. That was a troublesome position; we didn’t want to paint ourselves into a corner by capitalizing on the aspect of our band that got the most attention, specifically the big, screaming songs. So there was anxiety when we released Boxer because we thought, “Well, you know, we may have blown it because we made a record that is not like Alligator.” I think there was anxiety that we may lose this gamble. The fact that that gamble paid off confirmed for us that you never get anywhere by chasing expectations. I would say that High Violet was a more liberated experience, because we could follow our instincts and chase whatever rabbits we felt like.
AVC: Making the record wasn’t easy, though.
MB: But it was all internal. We didn’t have the same kind of fears we had of disappearing that we had with Boxer. We know how easy it is to get some attention and then that attention just dissolves instantly; we see it happen to good bands all the time. With High Violet we had less of that fear. We figured, even if this record flops we’ll have a chance to make another record afterward. So, why not do what we want with this one?
AVC: You ended up building up and tearing down these songs dozens of times during the process of making High Violet. When were you finally able to turn off your brain and say, “Okay, we’re done now”?
MB: A week after we mastered it, I was able to listen to the record without thinking about things that weren’t working and wanted to change. I woke up at 3 a.m.; I was stressed out and told my wife I was going to go listen to the record. I opened a bottle of wine and listened to the record three or four times on repeat. I’ve listened to it one or two times since then, but that was the night where it was like, the baby’s born. It was a “does it have all its fingers and toes?” kind of a moment—when you realize that the baby’s healthy and born, it’s a release and you’re so happy. That one moment, where you have to say, “Okay, there’s nothing I can do now. Here’s what it is and it’s either love it or hate it”—that’s the best moment of this entire experience.
AVC: You’ve talked about how there are two camps in the band, one that likes to keep songs simple and another that pushes to add more and more layers. You fall in the simple camp, right?
MB: It depends. I’m probably alone in the simple camp. But it’s not that cut and dried. Those guys can tell when we’re overcooking something as well as I can. I will err on the side of it being emptier and more spare, and that’s not always a good thing. We all know—as much as we fight and disagree about things—that there’s a middle ground that’s probably going to be the best place to end up. It’s been described in a way where they’re musical academics and I represent the low-art end of the spectrum. It’s not that simple. I have a really good ear for the more complex stuff and they tune into gritty, natural dirty stuff as much as I do.
AVC: In the New York Times Magazine story, you were described as having the dad role in the band.
MB: If I’m the dad in the band, then I’m the Chevy Chase version. I’m a stubborn guy that loses his temper, sometimes driving the station wagon in the wrong direction for hours and hours and never admitting that he’s gone the wrong way. I do have maybe an unbalanced amount of power in the band because if I don’t like something I won’t sing to it. That means that only the songs I like are going to be on the record. That’s unfair, but that’s the way it is.
AVC: There’s been a lot of talk about this album possibly taking the band to another level of popularity. How comfortable are you with The National becoming a bigger band?
MB: The obvious shift is that the venues are bigger. We do work really, really well in the smaller clubs. With our live show it’s harder to have that intimate sort of intense connection with an audience when there’s 10,000 people. I’ve seen Radiohead do it. I watched R.E.M. connect with the back row of a 50,000-seat venue. If we’re so lucky to get anywhere remotely as popular as playing to 10,000 or 15,000 people I think we’re going to go for it. That whole thing of being the cool, legitimate underdog—we had that thing for a while—I think all of us are ready to drop the “underappreciated” sort of thing. We’ve been doing this for 10 years. We’re ready to come out of the shadows. People have been thinking that we’re about to break since Alligator and we never do. It’s never been that kind of a huge thing. We slowly crack; it’s never been a big explosion. We’re still moving forward in that way, and try not to think about it too much.
AVC: High Violet certainly seems made for larger venues. There’s a sweep to these songs that sets them apart from your other albums.
MB: I worked on melody far more than I ever have in the past. I didn’t work on the lyrics at all for the first six months of working on this record. I just wanted melodies that were good. We wanted these songs to feel overwhelming and powerful. We wanted to undo what we did with Boxer. There are swelling moments on Boxer, but Boxer is restrained. It has a lot of building tension that never quite releases. We wanted a cathartic, sonic explosion with this record. Musically is where that tension release happens on this record; it doesn’t do it with me screaming. It was a reaction to Boxer; in another way—we had a lot of confidence. We wanted to make a really fun record. I understand when people say “well it’s not fun, or happy.” And I know it’s not happy, but I do think it’s fun. It’s kind of this loud, ugly blast in a lot of ways. That was all intentional. We were all definitely swinging for the cheap seats on this one.
AVC: You say the album is fun, but lyrically High Violet is very dark. There’s a lot of apocalyptic imagery in songs like “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” “Conversation 16,” and “Runaway,” which talk about bee swarms, zombies, and floods, respectively. Are you worried about the end of the world?
MB: I can’t say it’s accidental, but there wasn’t an idea to go that way. I remember early on thinking about the creepiness of nature. There were just abstract things of wanting to capture this sort of odd weirdness of both urban environments and these wide open, beautiful spaces and how that kind of beauty can be ugly. I think that’s where the floods and all the “sucking girls into the sky” is coming from. As far as a reflection on my state of mind, it’s hard to say. After Obama there was a lot of optimism, but then you just kind of realized how crazy we are. People are just going off into these ideological cults. It’s scary. So there’s definitely a feeling of dread. But even the big, dark apocalyptic stuff, there’s something viscerally fun about catastrophe movies or horror movies. They’re fun. They’re exciting. “Lemonworld” has some twisted, ugly moments, but also a lot of really sexy, silly moments. So when I say I think it’s a fun record I’m including all that dark, grim stuff. Even the song “Sorrow,” it’s fun to just wallow in those things.
AVC: Speaking of “Sorrow,” it’s one of three romantically desperate songs that open High Violet, along with “Terrible Love,” and “Anyone’s Ghost.” But from what you’re saying, they’re not quite as dire as they seem.
MB: I actually don’t think of them as that bleak or that bad, you know? “Terrible Love” the first song is about when you have an extreme emotion. Sometimes that’s the best, when you first just fall into infatuation with someone. It’s terrible, but it’s also intoxicating. “Sorrow” is about a person’s love affair with his own sadness. Sorrow is something they don’t want to lose. Maybe they’re told they should get over this—you know, take the pill and be happy. Sadness is not always the worst feeling. Sometimes it’s a really pleasurable thing to be overwhelmed with sadness. When I’m writing lyrics I’m listening to the music that those guys are sending me and usually drinking wine and just sort of falling into it, sort of losing myself and just writing down thoughts. As much as I try to not be so heavy, it’s just so much fun to think about these things and write songs about that stuff. “Sorrow” is almost a pop song to me. It’s a catchy ditty about sorrow.
AVC: One of the most memorable songs on High Violet is “Afraid Of Everyone,” which you wrote about being a new father. Did you have any trepidation about writing about such a potentially trite subject?
MB: I had a lot of trepidation. Once you do have a child you want to talk about every detail of it. And it is really boring to all your friends and it should be. I was really worried about even going there at all. One of my favorite bands, who I won’t mention, named a record after the singer’s first-born child, named the single after them, and the kid was on the cover. It was just such a drag. So yeah, I was kind of worried. It was just such a big part of my life in the past two years. My daughter is almost 16 months old now. It was a major part of what was going on in my head, so it was going to get itself in there somewhere as much as I tried not to. But I think I was able to do it without being too annoying.
AVC: You’ve gone from writing from the perspective of a young, white-collar urbanite to an older and wiser family man. Much of your audience has followed a similar path in recent years. Do you feel like you’re growing up with your audience, and vice versa?
MB: It’s never been the goal of the band. Alligator has the attitude that it has because I was like that then. I was desperate and sort of angry. So that one has a lot of bitterness and desperation in it. On Boxer, I was older. It was also the time of Bush, and just feeling resigned and beaten down and wanting to disconnect and turn everything off. Boxer feels the way it does because of that. This record has a different perspective. It wasn’t a plan but when I hear it now it’s got a much broader perspective. There’s a lot more “us,” and talk about “we.” The songs aren’t about me anymore. It’s not my world anymore; it’s my daughter’s world and it’s my family. It’s more communal. There are more people here. It’s just a natural shift, I think.
AVC: Has being a dad changed your perspective on being a singer in a rock band? Do you ever think, “Maybe I shouldn’t drink on stage anymore” or anything like that?
MB: It hasn’t affected it much other than that I’m going to try and tour a little less. It’s hard to be away but it always was. When I was single, I had a hard time being away from home and just floating from place to place with so much time on highways or people’s floors. That’s the same. I’ll try and bring my wife and daughter on as much touring as possible. My wife, she knows I would not be as good a father or a husband if I were miserable and not able to chase this and stuff. So she’s been unbelieavably supportive and involved for years now. I’m going to keep drinking on stage. I have a pretty healthy relationship with alcohol. I know how far to go and when to stop.
AVC: Do you play a lot of music for your daughter? Any bands you’re trying to expose her to early on?
MB: She seems to like anything that has a beat to it: Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, that’s the stuff that she seems to love, which is nice because I love hearing that around the house. I’m going to let her discover as she goes. When you grow up listening to music, the stuff your parents love, it always becomes the stuff you try and go in the opposite direction from. I didn’t get into music until I was almost out of high school. My parents never really had a whole lot of music going on in the house. It was mostly Judy Collins and Waylon Jennings and Barry Manilow. The first time I fell in love with music, it was the soundtrack to Grease. I didn’t grow up with a sophisticated ear by any means.
AVC: Many National fans discovered the band via Alligator, and might not even know about your first two records. Where do those albums fit into the narrative of the band?
MB: They’re a really important part of who we are. The first record I don’t think sounds anything like what we sound like now. It’s kind of like Tom Waits’ records, his early-year records. He was a very different kind of musician then. I do think we’ve gotten better with each record. I think each record is better than the one before. Saying that means our worst record is our first one. But it’s still something that we all have a really soft spot for and are still very proud of. The fact that a lot of people think that it’s Alligator, Boxer, and now this one as really being our records—that’s cool too. I understand that. Those are the ones that got a wide release. They’re the first ones where we started to form a real tangible identity. I encourage people, if they’re into us at all, to check the old stuff out. It’s different. No regrets.