An in-depth chat with the enigmatic lead singer of The National, Matt Berninger on politics, writing, marriage and pulling things apart, by Danny Wright.
“On one hand you’ve got a cat purring in its corner, and on the other you’ve got a cat in a roller rink. And obviously the cat reacts differently,” says Matt Berninger before pausing. “I’m the cat,” he adds to clarify, as he searches for the perfect analogy of the difference between his stage character and his persona on record.
We’re sat in a soulless, bright white room in a hotel in central London. “Cosy,” Matt says as he enters. It’s the morning of the first day of four nights The National are playing at Hammersmith. A coffee and a breakfast muffin lie on the table in front of us. He talks of living like a vampire on tour which makes the disarmingly brightly lit conference room all the more ill-fitting. But he’s in a relaxed mood. He has every reason to be. The band are celebrating their first UK number one album with their seventh album, Sleep Well Beast; perhaps the best record they’ve created in a career of startlingly good ones.
Formed in New York in the late 1990s – two Dessner brothers, two Devendorf brothers and Matt – they’re a band who’ve taken the long road to reach this success, slowly and steadily establishing themselves as one of the most revered American bands. Record after record they’ve never dipped below perfectly poised, each developing the singularity of, and refining, their sound.
These albums rely on private, personal, quiet connections, at once grand but also intimate and melancholic. Yet live they are a different proposition, the calm of the studio giving way to a wild, frenetic energy. They’ve rightfully became renowned for these shows, a lot of it to do with Matt’s manic performances. But this hasn’t always been the case. They’re slow ascent meant they spent years playing to empty rooms, Matt nervous and anxious – the cat in the roller rink.
“Even back at the start when we were playing in the corners of bars to three people all just watching Jeopardy, even then I just felt trapped in a situation where I didn’t know what to do.”
“So now that it’s gone from three or four people to thousands it’s just heightened. On stage it’s weird, it’s crazy – usually you’re way up high, you’ve got all manner of fucking lights and wires.”
You take the personal stuff then you amplify and share it in a big, loud, celebratory manic way.
“When I’m writing songs I’ve got my headphones on, it’s 4 in the morning, I’m alone, I’m probably a little stoned and I’m listening to this really beautiful emotional music and I’m just letting myself free associate emotionally over it really quietly while my daughter or my wife or my band mates are sleeping nearby. It’s a really private thing.”
“Then you’re in front of thousands of people screaming and that’s entirely different but that’s also why I think the dichotomy of those two very different things works: you take the personal stuff then you amplify and share it in a big, loud, celebratory manic way. It’s cathartic and people just love that.”
Later that night watching him on stage it is all of that: a riveting, unpredictable live spectacle, both celebratory and manic. He pulls at his shirt, hits the drum kit, he marches through the crowd, he downs cups of wine which slosh about as he prowls the stage. During ‘The Day I Die’ he lies with his head in between the speakers. The band’s live shows have long felt like this: a frantic, frenzied tearing apart of the quiet, respectable, introspective sound that their records can portray.
The contrast between the two versions of himself, the introspective lyricist and the extroverted, frenzied performer, has helped the band be both of those things. That cathartic, visceral thrill of an anything can happen performance helping to set them apart.
“I remember watching Nick Cave lose his shit. I remember seeing Iggy Pop in Cincinnati when I was 18 and the first thing he did was walk on stage and pull his dick out. He looked at you with his dick in his hand and put it back in and did a show – I mean I don’t do that but I was like ‘Holy shit this is freedom. I just saw Iggy Pop’s dick in real life and I’m in Cincinnati… it’s right there’,” he laughs. “It just made me realise that ‘that shit up there, anything goes’… so let it be the ugly, awkward monster it is on stage, let that be that, and then the weird, quiet personal space when the writing happen, let that be that. They don’t cancel each other out, they feed each other.”
This idea seems to be at the heart of everything that makes the National special: contrasts bleeding together, feeding into each other. It is everything all the time: the live performer and the introverted songwriter, the loud and the quiet, the celebratory and the melancholic, the personal and the political. These threads all tangled up together.
In conversation Matt is the same, talking quickly on a wide variety of subjects, each colliding with the other. He pivots continuously between his private life, the life of the band and how that is mirrored in what is happening in the world and in America. He spends the first part of the interview railing against selfish politics and systematic racism before stopping to remind himself: “Oh yeah I’m in a rock band, I forgot.”
Sleep Well Beast – a phrase which represents the future and the truth – sees all of this coalescing and weaving together. They are ‘political love songs’. For the band it’s a continuation but also a change – the electronic textures which broaden their palette, a feeling of experimentation as well as the harnessing of that wild, kinetic energy of their live show on the record.
You can talk about one thing in a million ways and you’ll still never figure it out totally, whether it’s relationships or friendships or fear.
It’s an extraordinary record, one which opens up their sound, a band invigorated by trying new things but also channelling what made them so special in the first place. “There was a time when we all thought ‘this could be the last record’ and that’s kind of good. Like, it’s a good record to drop the mic on.”
After creating a sound that was becoming more and more refined, perfected and sculpted was there a feeling within the band that this record needed to be different in some way? “Yeah… but I’ve never felt in a corner. We never have, apart from perhaps during Boxer. But I haven’t felt in a rut. I also don’t worry about repeating myself and I still don’t because I think you can talk about one thing in a million ways and you’ll still never figure it out totally, whether it’s relationships or friendships or fear. I always feel there’s a way more to go. And, this is a huge pivot, – but for example racism in America today – ta da! huge pivot – you don’t realise how much there is to discover about yourself until you discover more about yourself and then you open up a whole thing and you’re like ‘My god, this is what’s wrong with me’. And I think America’s going through that.”
“A few years ago when Obama won a lot of people thought America was in a certain place but then the crazy racist obstruction throughout his entire presidency showed a long time ago, not just since November, that really the Republicans just didn’t like his blackness. Then the next candidate that takes over, the one who obliterates every other candidate, is the most white, says the most anti-black stuff, is the ‘birther’ guy.”
Trump became president, and that the political landscape perceptibly darkened as the band were recording the album, changed the complexion and tone of what they were doing. Again one fed into the other. “I started reassessing what America is. We were recording when Obama left and Trump started to win the candidacy and just the scariness of seeing that coming, seeing that white supremacy coming from so far away and then realising it’s been coming for so long, affected the record.”
To Berninger politics is personal. He doesn’t see why people separate love and politics in their art because you don’t in real life, you don’t in literature, so why would you in music?
On ‘Walk It Back’, perhaps the record’s most overtly political moment, there’s a spoken word interlude featuring a quote attributed to a “senior advisor to Bush” long thought to be Karl Rove about the ‘reality-based community’. With its mocking of those who make judgements based on facts, it’s seems just as relevant to Trump’s obsession with ‘fake news’ and a landscape where facts and reality are obscured every day.
Newsweek even reached out to Rove for his thoughts on the song. How did that make Matt feel? “I feel good about it. He heard his own words sung back to him, words that he denies he ever said. Newsweek got him to listen to it at least just once and I bet he’s listened to it again and keeps listening to it. I’m going to troll the shit out of him with that thing. Cos he did – he said that thing and all that stuff goes way back. Fake news and manipulating what people believe and you got them.”
“It just shows, everybody’s saying Donald Trump is the worst person in America but it’s been happening for a long time but he’s just too stupid to keep the hood over his face. Trump just came walking down the escalator screaming racism and then the Republican party realised that that was what a significant part of their base believed – they want to make America greater for white people.”
There are a lot of men in shitty suits out there that everyone’s cheering for.
There are other political moments on the record – take the Trump-referencing ‘Turtleneck’ – but for Matt they also have a whole deeper layer of meanings within them. “‘The man in shitty suits that everyone’s cheering for’ in Turtleneck is obviously Trump but I’m not just talking about Trump I’m talking about Washington or certain entertainers. There are a lot of men in shitty suits out there that everyone’s cheering for. So when I see Trump I see a lot of people, and actually many people that I like, that I’ve known my whole life. But I’m also in a shitty suit and people are cheering for me too.
“So when I’m thinking about Donald Trump I’m thinking a lot about myself too because I’m thinking about my own worst tendencies and it’s so easy to choose those. It’s so easy to choose fear and anger over bravery and kindness and selflessness.”
“It’s the difference between choosing to give someone the muffin or making sure that I get all the muffin.” Getting into his point, he takes the breakfast muffin from the table, muffin crumbs fall onto us. “Sorry I got muffin on you. Then you see an example of a person – Trump and his team and his base – choosing anger and fear and that’s the thing, because it’s easier.”
“Let’s counter anger. I do believe in the butterfly effect of those little gestures, they’re not as contagious but they do spread in the way that hate and anger do. It’s so easy to say ‘Yes, it wasn’t my fault’. That’s the easy answer and Trump knows that. He just wants to be liked. Everybody hates him and he’s just in a losing game of leaning towards fear and anger. And everybody loses there.”
“America is in a self-discovery mode and a-looking-in-the-mirror mode and realising we’re nowhere near where we thought we were. But I think, even though we have a thousand miles to walk, we know where we are now a little bit.”
“And in a funny way it all ties in with the National the stuff. Because all that stuff is all the same to me: my relationship with the band, and my relationship with my wife and my relationship with my daughter… I’m constantly re-evaluating what the reality of that is and if I’m doing it the right way so this record was a lot about that. I didn’t want to think too much about global things, I wanted to think about myself and my micro-world and see If I could unpack that and realign some of the wires in a better way and put some Band-Aids on the problems there, even at the smallest level. So that was the starting point.”
For the band, the gloomy political landscape and the unrelenting nastiness of what was happening, meant they were nicer to each other too, as well as inspiring a desire to just try new ideas and push themselves into new spaces. “We all had a certain amount of fearlessness on this record, in terms of emotional fearlessness, creative fearlessness, interpersonal… kindness. There was just so much ugliness everywhere outside that in the studio any time a fight would break out we were like ‘What is our problem?? What are we doing? I can’t believe we’re being mean to each other.’”
I just think suppression and repression are the things that cause everyone to hate each other.
“My relationship with the band is healthier than most bands because we all write about our relationships with each other, even the ugly stuff and it feels better to have it out there rather than suppressed. I think all that stuff; suppression of your fears, suppression of your desires and your needs, even suppression of your anger is to a certain level unhealthy. I just think suppression and repression are the things that cause everyone to hate each other.”
That the relationship with the band is like a marriage is clear, but what of his own marriage? Carin, his wife, has two nicknames within the band. One ever since they met has been Yoko, and the other is The Oracle. She’s Matt’s muse and also his creative partner, helping to write the lyrics. “She’s been a sixth member of the band, she’s been my main collaborator and she was instrumental in the documentary my brother made. So Carin has been a big part of my creative world for 15 years.”
“Boxer is where that started. I met her in a bar when we were working on Alligator. She was there while I was screaming Abel and she didn’t know why I was so angry cos she’d only just met me and thought I was a sweet guy.”
“The way it works is I write a ton of stuff and she’ll listen to all these rough demos and she can hear they’re about us and she has no problem with that – she just dives right into that. I always say that I right 90% of the lyrics but she writes 50% of the really good ones.”
Those lyrics possess an unerring ability to create composed freeze frames of the minutiae of life, often cryptic, dustily gorgeous snapshots that speak to broader middle class anxieties like jobs, divorces, and, of course, relationships. His whisky soaked, fell-out-of-bed rumble ruminating on all of this. He has a gift for capturing a mood and for finding unexpected rhythmic hooks to hang his words on. Does this acute analysis keep the relationship healthy, the fact that he’s discussing it with his wife?
“I think so! We think it does – we’re still married, we think it’s a healthy marriage. It’s tumultuous… Our biggest fights are always about art – we fight like crazy about art and the rest of it is about parenting and scheduling and what TV not to watch. But I actually feel like our relationship is better than it’s ever been even. But it’s hard to be married – if you put a cat and cobra in a box, you put mother Theresa and Gandhi and make them live together for a few months and they’re going to start ripping each other’s heads off. Because people evolve and you have to respect each other’s growth and changes and needs. So my marriage is really healthy and that’s cos we think about it.”
This is the first time he’s used Carin’s real name in a song (on ‘Carin at the Liquor Store’) but since Boxer she’s always been a focus of his lyrics. National fans will recognise that Jenny is a recurring name. “Women’s names are… they’re either a fantasy of somebody, or a version of my wife or an idea of a romantic thing, but my sister is Jenny, my best friend’s wife is Jenny, Jenny is just one of those names. Sometimes I just switch it cos one word fits better rhythmically than Carin. Then half the women in my songs are me. I do a lot of gender reversal when I’m writing and so does my wife because it makes you understand yourself better so Jenny in half the songs is me.”
Val Jester also reappears after featuring in Alligator. “Val Jester is me too but it’s also my real uncle – he was a bachelor and he lived with my grandma Emily and he liked to watch TV and played dominos and drank beer but if he drank too much beer he got feisty. I only knew him as a super sweet little old man but then I saw him at a family reunion and he just got really violent cos he just hated the whole social situation and I remember that was a different side to Uncle Val. He’s always been a bit of a weird spirit animal.”
We talk of his novelistic lyrics and writers he admires (Joan Didion, Grace Paley, F Scott Fitzgerald, John Cheever). Does he see each National record as a novel, or perhaps that each album is a chapter? “I’ve stopped thinking of a record as a new story. Novelists can do that but as a songwriter it’s harder – but I do think all this is part of the same fabric, the same tapestry and the same connective threads do go all the way back to the very first record. And I can hear those connective threads in all the records I like.”
“I was just listening to Tom Waits Early Years collection and there’s a million things in that where I think ‘Oh I stole that line, I stole that line’… almost everything he says on that record I’ve repurposed in one way or another and I think I’ve done that with a lot of records. So all of that stuff – other records, other projects El Vy, Grateful Dead – feel part of the same spider web.”
I used to hate it… it used to be really hard. Now I’ve stopped being afraid of everything.
On stage they sound like a band with a story to spin. Live he channels that spirit of singers like Nick Cave, Tom Waits; there’s a line that runs through all of this. During the show later that night he certainly seems to have grown into his role as a frontman, learnt how to channel his nerves, but there are also brief reminders that Matt has suffered from panic attacks and extreme stage fright. His in-ears don’t work and he gets angry, smashing the mic down a minute into Empire Line, leaving the band to end the song prematurely.
“I love it now, I used to hate it… it used to be really hard. Now I’ve stopped being afraid of everything. I’ve stopped being afraid of forgetting lyrics, I’ve got a lyric monitor. I’ve stopped being afraid of looking dorky because I’ve looked dorky for 20 years and it’s been OK, it hasn’t ruined my career. I don’t worry about what I do with my hands. It used to be on my mind – what the fuck do I do with my hands? What’s the next lyric? Now I smoke some weed, drink some wine and shut out the crowd.”
“And I don’t go out into the crowd as much as I used to because that became a bit of a shtick, like it was part of the show and that wasn’t what it was supposed to be. It was something that happened organically, it still sometimes happens but I try not to think too much about it. I’m in a different place with the performance and I’m not afraid of anything, especially Karl Rove.”
That night during Mr November he launches himself into the crowd. It does feel organic, unafraid and fearless. There’s also a communal feeling of celebration, a sense that as the National have slowly grown their fans feel part of the success. It reminds me of Matt talking about the butterfly effect of those little gestures.
Matt maybe realises this too as he leaves the room and hands me the uneaten muffin.