By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Two shows into The National's tour supporting their fourth full-length release, this year's acclaimed Boxer, Matt Berninger is energetic and excited despite a burgeoning cold. In preparation for the upcoming Granada and Austin City Limits performances, the master lyricist gives insight into his writing process, influences and playing live. And, well, rather than attempting to summarize or rewrite Berninger's natural eloquence...
How are you doing today?
Matt Berninger: I'm pretty good, I'm fighting off a cold, but I'm all right.
Where are you guys right now?
We're in D.C. We have two shows here. We played here last night, so one more tonight, and then we head off to North Carolina tomorrow.
Is it getting easier as you get into a tour, or does it get harder being away from home?
We're actually just two days into this tour, so we're still just kinda getting our legs--our tour legs. It goes in waves; like you go for 10 days, and after 10 shows, you get pretty wiped out. Then you get a second wind. So we still have bundles of energy right now.
Do you travel by bus?
Yeah, it's the first time we've had a bus in the states, so our lifestyle has significantly improved this time. It's much nicer than vans and stuff. You get a lot more sleep.
In actual horizontal positions, instead of craned up against something else.
Are you the only one who does the interviews?
I do a significant amount of them, but the other guys do some too. Aaron [Dessner] does a lot of interviews. But yeah, I seem to do most of them, just because I write the lyrics, so I'm the voice or something.
In your lyrics, you're able to tell stories, and they go wherever the listener needs them to. Is that a goal?
Yeah, I mean, I don't think about it specifically in those terms when I'm writing lyrics, but it takes me a long time to finish lyrics of a song, and usually it's because sometimes when you get too specific, it rings kind of forced or false. So a lot of times it's just trying to get the thing that's just left of specific; just blurry enough that it 's malleable, and it can change.
And that makes it whatever anyone needs it to be.
Yeah, it leaves windows open. It's the ones that you don't know why a lyric seems right—it might not make sense, but it just seems right.
Are your lyrics largely autobiographical?
They're personal in the fact that most of the themes and the subjects of the songs are things that I dwell on or obsess over. So they are personal on that level. A lot of times it's just sitting, listening to music and daydreaming or nightdreaming about little moments, and putting little scenes together the way you do, like when you have those fake conversations with yourself or with somebody you wish you would have said something to. So a lot of it is made up or fantasy, but it's very personal fantasy.
Do you have a muse, be it a person or a thing?
There are a lot of songs about my girlfriend—just the normal things in relationships that you're trying to wrestle with, and they're not always the most romantic situations. They're sometimes awkward and clumsy. It's easy to be in love with somebody and to sing about how much you're in love with someone, but it's trying to write about when you're full of insecurities, and there are moments when you're sick of somebody, and about the real responsibilities that go with relationships, whether they're romantic relationships, or relationships between friends or even relationships with your job. Nothing's ever really that straightforward or rosy. I definitely like to shine the flashlight in the corners of things that are kind of the awkward parts of romance or whatever.
I think "Slow Show" is one of those. It's not the fantastic, romantic teen movie love song.
I've never been able to really connect with a love song that's like, "I love you, la la la la..." And there's only a few moments in your life that you're that in love with somebody that one of those songs actually makes sense to you. That lasts for a few days, and you're usually drunk or something if you actually can connect to one of those kind of songs. And those are great for those moments, but...like Dylan has awesome love songs. He's got a line in "Idiot Wind," where it's like, 'I can't even touch the books you've read.' It's those little weird details where you know exactly what he means. It's such a powerful little feeling. It's like in four words you can sum up the desire and the pain and the animosity and the bitterness. There's so much intense love in that line, but it's filled with all these ugly little details.
I've always thought that about Nick Cave's The Boatman's Call.
Yeah, Nick Cave is definitely one of my heroes, as far as how he can sound at one moment just cruel and ridiculous, and he can also sound absurdly self-mocking and hilarious, but then also absolutely tender and heartbreakingly earnest, all within three lines. He can just step in every area, and it's really, really powerful. He's definitely one of the geniuses out there, as far as lyricists that I've been in awe of for a long time.