The National's Matt Berninger goes on the record

The lyricist on writing, influences and playing live

I read in an interview on a blog that you had read a Joan Didion book and that you liked The Office, and I thought, 'Well, that's really appropriate,' because you often give attention to day-to-day stuff, and you like to pair a certain sadness with humor, and I think both she and that show--both British and American--like to kick you in the stomach when you've really got a good gut-laugh going.

Well, the thing that I think is so powerful about the BBC version--I mean, the U.S. version of The Office is good, but it's just more of a sitcom, but the BBC version is...there's an exposure of human weakness in a way that they do it so brutally, but with a certain amount of empathy and almost respect for humans and their insecurities and their problems. I think the British Office is one of the most tender shows because it has respect for the characters, even though it's showing them in the most embarrassing...and the whole things wraps up and makes you really care about these people.

Yeah. It makes no apologies for Gareth, and yet you find that you still...well, even though he's one of the most irritating people ever, you still give a shit about him.

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.

It's a weird kind of respect. They show people's ugly sides, but show it with love. And Joan Didion is able to do that. There are some really ugly moments and cruel, sad things and people at their worst. It's not like she apologizes for it, but she shows an honest look at things. That's the kind of stuff that is so exciting. It makes you feel like you're not just watching entertainment. Good writing makes you feel like you're actually getting something out of how people are with each other. You learn something, and it makes you want to think more, when you jump to conclusions about people.

Have you read her The Year of Magical Thinking?

It's on my shelf at home. When I finished Play It As It Lays, I just felt like...it's just such an intense experience. I was gonna wait until I cracked her open again. I think maybe I'm ready.

How do you deal with not having horns and strings live?

Well, Padma [Newsome]'s with us on this tour, so he plays a lot of piano and strings, and then Bryce and Aaron [Dessner] switch off and play some piano. We don't have any horns, but we make up for it.

What's your favorite song to do live this time around? Or do you know yet?

"Fake Empire" is really fun to play live. "Squalor Victoria" has turned into a different kind of song. That's a fun moment. During the show, you need to have different moments.

Are people adapting well to the varying dynamics between the albums? The "Racing Like a Pro"s versus the "Slipping Husband"s or the "Abel"s—the "shoutier" songs.

Yeah, I think so. It does kind of seem like we have two different types of people at our shows now—people that have just learned about us because of Boxer, and then there's the people that have been paying attention to us for a long time. Sometimes I get the vibe that the people that have known us for a long time are kind of challenging the other people, always yelling out the most obscure old songs from our first record, just to stick it in the face of the people that just found out about us. But at the live shows, I think people have come to expect that it's gonna have a lot of different moments in it. There's gonna be a lot of quiet songs. It's not like they're coming to see wall-to-wall rock. If they've got any of our records, they realize that.

Do you ever get stage fright?

Yeah. All the time. Less than I used to, but it's very unsettling. Sometimes shows just go terribly—we can't connect with each other or something, and that's when you feel like you're dying onstage in front of a thousand people. So every night we know there's a chance that things could just go south. But we've been through those moments so many times that we know that even if it is falling apart, we can usually figure out how to pull it back together. But it is borderline terrifying all the time.

Then I must ask, how was it performing on [Late Show with David] Letterman? Was it crazy and nerve-wracking?

We expected it to be kind of scary and weird, which it was, but it was cool. We were there all day and did these rehearsals, and [David Letterman]'s not around, but Paul Shaffer and the band were there rehearsing while we were rehearsing, and they were really into it. And they came over and were watching what we were doing. The song we did, "Fake Empire," it's not just a simple guitar-bass-drums indie rock song or whatever. It's got these poly-rhythms and stuff going on. So Paul Shaffer's got his little glasses on, and he's standing right in front of us, just like, "Wow! You guys are amazing!" He was really sweet. He was really funny and charming. So, we had a really fun time. And then when we got up there to do it [for the show], that was the strangest moment, when you get ready and go onstage, and look over, and there's Dave holding up your record.

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