Interview with The National
by Jeanne Fury
It was a cold, gray, rainy day when Matt Berninger called for his interview. I told him the weather was apropos, given that his band, the National, perform music that's a perfect soundtrack for such weather. Since 1999, the Ohio-to-Brooklyn quintet have been accruing accolades for their four albums; people compared the songs to those of Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen saucy, charismatic sons of bitches whose ominous baritones are at the forefront of their songs. The National's fifth full-length, Boxer, evokes scenes of chivalrous, chin-stroking gents gallivanting behind velvet ropes, peering into highball glasses and trying to come to grips with the existential ache in their guts. Yet Berninger keeps returning to the fact that Boxer is less musically confrontational than their previous release, Alligator, though the characters in his songs aren't exactly graduates of any self-help programs. There is uncertainty, frustration, and deliciously enjoyable grandiose posturing that makes one hell of an aural opiate. This Boxer is no lightweight.
VM: The National's music is known for having a dour, serious kind of vibe.
MB: Yeah I'm not sure why that is... (laughs)
VM: When your debut and then Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers came out, the reviews latched onto those descriptions, the Nick Cave, deep, brooding kind of thing. Off-stage are you guys similarly serious and heavy-thinking? You don't exactly come across as a lighthearted crew.
MB: (laughs) It's funny because I guess we do more songs that have a darker mood more than most bands. But I've never thought of us... I always thought that was pretty limiting or a limited description of the kind of music that we make. But I can understand it. But the truth is, we're all relatively happy, lighthearted average joes. I think obviously we get most of that because of the [songs'] themes and lyrics are about some kind of complicated issue that people are going through, periods of being lost or trying to figure something out. It's probably just because when I'm sitting down to write lyrics, I'm usually obsessing over the things that that I don't quite have answers for. It makes sense that some of the songs would lean that way. As a band, we're certainly not overly serious or dour by any means. I hope not.
VM: It's 2 a.m. the morning after a National show. What's each band member doing?
MB: I'm usually sleeping in the back of a van or waiting to load the van. Scott [Devendorf] is probably packing up gear while the other three [Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner, and Bryan Devendorf] are at the bar drinking. That's about right.
VM: Where was the band's headspace while working on Boxer?
MB: We were all in slightly different places. I know a significant part of the way Boxer ended up was due to the way Aaron [Dessner] was writing. He wrote the bulk of the early sketches on guitar that turned into the songs. He was definitely, he was sort of in a mood of trying to relax and take his mind off of things. We were all pretty exhausted after touring around Alligator so when we got back from that it was just a natural thing to just take it easy and gather ourselves. A lot of the things Aaron was writing were meditative and kind of calming. We would exchange stuff, and I was probably in a somewhat similar mood myself. Boxer definitely has a vibe to it that is not quite as spiking and reckless, maybe, as Alligator. It wasn't by design and it wasn't premeditated. We didn't write up blueprints for the record being that way. It was a natural space that we were in. And then, the truth is, Bryan was doing very different sorts of things with the drumming that he brings to the songs. He takes them in a very different direction rather than if he just played along with the mood of what was there from just the guitar and vocal stuff. He took them in the opposite direction sometimes so the songs have these split personalities in a lot of ways.
VM: There are still the fanciful elements that are still at work. "Fake Empire" dives into that really beautiful but simple dream-like state.
MB: Yeah a lot of the songs, their basic foundation is simple just musically so we didn't want to ruin that but in the mixture of elements that we were using in the songs and the different of mixtures of piano and playing against the drums and the horns and elements that we never had on other records. We had horns before but we had woodwinds and different things like that more prominent on this record. Those all came in to serve the songs in interesting ways while still trying to keep the songs feeling just not overcooked.
VM: The sound retains what you've done in the past, but it's more romantic. Lots of the songs deal with relationships whether it's between lovers or friends. Do you approach new relationships with abandon or do you approach with caution?
MB: I've been in the same [romantic relationship] for several years and certainly the songs aren't autobiographical. They're influenced by either my life or friends' lives. I don't know. To go back to what you started out saying, it's definitely a warmer-sounding record, but the characters are still on shaky ground. They certainly haven't gotten anything quite figured out. In contrast to Alligator, I think the characters are a little more, I don't know, I don't know if I want to say stable. They're less reckless but they're still lost in a lot of ways. It's got a somewhat of a calmer vibe.
VM: A lot of the characters are under the spell of women. What do you pull from the whole male-female relationship thing?
MB: I think just being a man, in lyrics about stuff, and I'm a romantic and writing about relationships and I happen to be heterosexual so I happen to be writing about women a lot. Very often it's stuff about my actual relationships. Three of the songs were written with Carin Besser and she had a lot of input and perspective on some of these songs. She actually wrote "Ada" which is the most obvious song about a woman on this record. We wrote that together and it wasn't really specifically a song about romance as it was about a character who people are just waiting for. It's kind of an abstract song. It's kind of a romantic abstract image of this woman or girl named Ada. It's a love song, but it's not exactly about Carin so I don't know. I don't know if I answered your question.
VM: It's a good way to put these songs: not exactly love songs. "Slow Show" is very charming, you lean against the wall and the wall leans away. You want to make her laugh but you don't want to overdo it. The music is so constant like the music's like your wingman. You can hear it in that song especially.
MB: It's weird. We do the songs a lot of different ways. It takes us a long time to find the right mood and personality for a song. A lot of them have. As far as a collection of personalities, the record works really well, all 12 songs together. It's not as jarring, which isn't necessarily a good or bad thing but it's different in that way. Alligator and some of the songs on earlier records are romantic in some ways but also distraught and sort of unhinged and there's a little less of that in this one. But most of the characters are still in some state of not quite being in control of stuff and trying to get their footing.
VM: One of my favorite lines is in "Mistaken for Strangers" when you sing about "another uninnocent and elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults." How does someone avoid falling into unmagnificent adulthood?
MB: Yeah I don't know. I don't think it's hard to have. It's hard to have a magnificent life even as you grow up. I think that song is about missing an abstract notion of what it was like to be young and without responsibility. There's a few songs that talk about reckless youth and a desire for it when the truth is, they also mention that in hindsight that stuff seems so great but teenage years and adolescence are the most heartbreaking and difficult times for 90 percent of all people. Adulthood might be less traumatic and in some cases, often just the responsibility of family and stuff adds more stability and evenness. I don't know. I'm actually enjoying [adulthood], not that I have children or anything.
VM: Good for you. You also mention a "middlebrow f--k-up" in white shirts, and pink, young, middle-class cake-bakers who used to be ruffians. Are you at that stage of your life where you see lots of friends or acquaintances drifting off and working for The Man?
MB: Well yeah, we all do. I'm in a band but I still do a lot of things. I don't know how different it is, when we're touring on the road, it's fun but you're still just you have to do a lot of work and you lose yourself and your freedom sometimes. As people grow up you start to find routines that are hard to get out of sometimes. You don't see friends as much. It's normal and the record talks about that a lot. There are romantic love songs and there are love songs about missing friends. "Green Gloves" is about wanting to reconnect with friends. The truth is, I don't have any advice about any of those things. (laughs) The songs are about them, but without any answers really.
VM: At least you're honest. How do you and the band stay young, how do you shake it up and not get into a routine? If you're on the road, how do you break tension and stay loose?
MB: I don't know if we do that well. (laughs) I wish I could say that we had ways of doing that. In some degree, I think the band has aged me more, just from the anxiety and stress of performing and traveling... I don't know if we do stay young, and I'm not sure if I want to, either.