The National's Matt Berninger goes on the record
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Do you have a pre-show ritual?
We kind of all just do our own little thing and try to chill out and not get too freaked out about it. We don't do anything weird.
Well, are you ready for Texas? 'Cause it's humid right now.
I am. I'm looking forward to that, actually.
Why the title of Boxer for the album?
Actually Carin, my girlfriend, suggested that as a title in the last couple weeks before we had to finish the record, and it was one of those things that just seemed perfect at the last minute. We'd tried to think of a lot of other titles for it. The record has some moments of people in these struggles—not specific boxing references, but... There's the "Green Gloves" song, which is definitely not about boxing, but...it just seemed fitting. There're people on the ropes, or a prizefighter past their prime. A lot of the record is people trying to hold on to friendships, hold on to their youth, even holding on to a sense of dillusional fantasy. There's something about a desire to kind of stay punch drunk or a little out of it. "Fake Empire" was like that where it's an attempt to keep your brain in a "rosy-minded fuzz" is the line on the record. Being just a little bit delirious. So those are reasons why the title worked, and it was also just a simple word that sounded good. That was probably as much of the reason as anything else—it's just punchy.
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