The National's Matt Berninger goes on the record

The lyricist on writing, influences and playing live

Did you study any sort of literature, poetry or writing that has influenced the way you write your lyrics?

No, not at all. I mean, I read, but I'm not a bookworm by any means. The truth is, as far as writing, it's listening to the bands that I love the most. As far as learning from stuff, I definitely learned from people like The Smiths and Nick Cave and Bob Pollard and Dylan and Neil Young. If there's anything you'd say I ever studied, it's that stuff. We're often referred to as a very literary band, and it sounds cool, and I find it flattering, but I'm not your most well-read guy.

You don't write a song all at once, so do you even have a unifying theme for an album?

Brainy: Berninger (right) shows off his lyrical prowess live when The National hits Dallas Friday.
Nicholas Burnham
Brainy: Berninger (right) shows off his lyrical prowess live when The National hits Dallas Friday.

I guess the times I've tried to sit down and write a whole song and all the lyrics to one song at one point, they just never quite work that well. It's one of those things where you collect a lot of different things and not try to push anything in a direction. I write tons of stuff, but only 5 percent of it ever gets used anywhere.

That little, really?

Yeah, I have books and books of lines and lines and lines, and I'll go through 10 pages before I find, 'Oh, that ended up going somewhere.' But for me it's like to try to sit and write a song, it puts too much pressure on the whole thing. That's where it starts to feel like you're forcing something.

It'd be like filming a date.

Yeah, there's something about it. It's the little things that aren't premeditated that actually work the best. That's always kind of a bummer, when it sounds like one of those lines where it's like, 'Oh, wow, that must have taken a long time, and they must have put a big star next to that when they wrote that line.' I get really worried about [lyrics] that sound like awesome song lyrics. Because when you put music behind it and strings behind it and you put it in a song, it's just too much. It's like honey on top of chocolate, and you can tell, and it's like, 'Ooh, I bet they were high-fiving themselves when they wrote that line.'

I think honey on top of chocolate is how someone once described your voice. Do you laugh at that, every time you see some weird food reference, like whiskey or chocolate or velvet? Well, velvet's not a food, but...

It's funny because you can tell they've read a lot of other ones, and they're still trying to come up with a new one. No, it's not, 'whiskey-soaked,' 'smoke-infused,' 'peppered sausage.' Yeah, it's funny. They're usually all semi-flattering, I guess.

You reference a song off your debut album, "29 Years," within the lyrics of "Slow Show" on Boxer. It seems natural to play with something you've written already, reinvent it a bit. Do you do that a lot?

I think just because of the way I write, nothing's written just like, 'Here's this one,' and then, 'Here's another one.' It's just tons of collections of little bits and pieces, and I keep going back and forth to all these books. So it makes sense that reimagined or reinterpreted versions of some of the same ideas come up again, and sometimes the songs are referring to other songs. They're just a bunch of things that I'm writing about, and sometimes it makes total sense. Sometimes it's referring to the song, sometimes its just the same sentiment in a different context with a very different kind of meaning to it. And that's fun. It's interesting. There was some criticism I remember that I read, something about like, 'He reuses his own lyrics. Doesn't he have any more ideas?' I thought that was funny, as if I had run out of lyrics, so I had to go back to an old record to find some ideas. But yeah, I steal bits and pieces from TV, movies and everything, sometimes from some of our older records and some of the books that are laying around. I'm never worried about that. I'm never worried about, 'Oh, somebody else said that.' You use things that you need to use for whatever purpose, to get where you're trying to go to. I don't think there's anything that's truly original. Everything's just a different combination of something you've heard or learned. It's just how you piece things together, the different ideas, that make new, exciting moments or whatever.

Do you have a show or a book or a movie that you would pair with the album, or even just The National's music?

I remember when we were working on the lyrics for [Boxer], one book I kept going back to was a collection of short stories by Grace Paley, who actually just passed away a couple of weeks ago. But it's called Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, and it's a collection of her stories. And that was something that I just kept reading and flipping back and forth and reading pages of it, and reading full stories and just jumping around in that. So I don't know how much it connects literally to this record, but I remember that was always in front of me, and I just kept using it to kick start to get my brain working. She's brilliant. In just two paragraphs, she'll be able to create an entire character with the details, and she's unbelievable about the specifics and just conversational nuances. So she's definitely somebody that I would read and learn you can do so much with very little. You don't have to describe something that much. You just kind of put in a phrase in there that sounds like somebody just speaking, and it says more than describing the scene anyway. So, yeah, I would say that book.

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