The Sound of Young America: Matt Berninger of The National

Episode 160

21st November 2010

Matt Berninger is the frontman of the Brooklyn rock band The National. Their latest release is High Violet.

Episode notes

Matt Berninger is the frontman of the Brooklyn rock band The National. Their latest release is High Violet. He talked with us about the bands roots, in Cincinnati, and about slowly developing the group from hobby to headliner.

JESSE THORN: It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest, Matt Berninger, is ten years or a little bit more into his rock and roll career with his band The National. They’ve gone from a tiny, independent label of which they were partly the boss to, with each passing record, a little bit more national renown. They’ve now made the transition from critic starlings to at least the indie mainstream’s darlings, and they’re continuing to grow. Their newest album is called High Violet. Let’s hear a little bit of one of the singles from the record, “Bloodbuzz Ohio.”

Matt Berninger, welcome to the Sound of Young America. It’s so great to have you on the show.

MATT BERNINGER: Thank you, thank you. I’m excited to be here.

Click Here For a Full Transcript of Our Interview

JT: So you had this – – you had a real career.

MB: Yeah.

JT: That wasn’t music.

MB: Yeah.

JT: Like a genuine professional – –

MB: Yeah, I was a creative director at a new media company in New York, which, you know, we did mostly websites and web advertising and all kinds of stuff like that. And I was there for eight years. I started out as a junior designer but by the time I left I was a creative director, and it was a good job. We did a lot of corporate stuff, we also did The Metropolitan Museum of Art website and different, sort of, that kind of artsy fun stuff too. And we were bought by a Scandinavian company out of Stockholm, so I was flying back and forth to Stockholm a lot; so yeah, I had a pretty serious job.

JT: When you moved to New York and went into graphic design, did you think that you were going to be a graphic designer who maybe played in a band, or did you think it was a way station to something else?

MB: No. Graphic design was what I thought I was going to do. In fact, I don’t play the guitar or anything, so the idea of being a musician wasn’t even something I entertained the idea of. I mean, when I was in college with Scott, that’s where I met Scott Devendorf, who plays bass in The National, we goofed around with a little band then, but it was sort of a Pavement rip off thing and I sang on some of the songs, not even – – I wasn’t even really the lead singer or anything like that.

JT: What did you do when you weren’t singing?

MB: I didn’t do anything.

JT: You were playing the claves?

MB: I can’t even play the tambourine. It didn’t matter that much because we didn’t – – we only played – – we played two gigs; one in a friend’s basement, and then another one at a Greek restaurant that we rented out. It was right before we graduated.

So when I moved to New York that was the end of – – I can’t even say it was the end of my music career, because it wasn’t even really, the idea of being a musician wasn’t even there then. But after living in New York for about five years, Scott – – I lived in a loft that was down by the Gowanus Canal, and we had all this space. And so I was working 50, 60 hour weeks, but then I would come home and I would paint, I wasn’t even a painter but we had all this — it was a giant, you know, just raw loft so. It was a place to do artsy stuff.

JT: It just seemed like you should be doing loft stuff.

MB: Right, exactly. And then Scott would come over and some friends would come over and we had a four track that was left over from somewhere, and we started goofing around writing songs, and that was in I guess late ’98 or something like that, and it was honestly mostly because we just had space to do stuff like that in, and it was just a diversion or a respite from thinking about our corporate jobs. And Scott was also very successful designer, but at some point he called his brother to come to play drums on some stuff we were goofing around with; his brother called Aaron and Bryce Dessner because his brother Brian had been in a band with them, and so suddenly sort of – – the three of them, The Dessner’s and Brian Devendorf were actually kind of very serious musicians, and that’s when it started to sound like an actual band a little bit. And I guess probably a year after that we decided to make that first self-titled record that we made.

JT: When those guys joined the band and they were, as you described them, very serious musicians, and you realized all of a sudden that you were in a band, did you feel like you belonged in it? I mean, even given that it was your best pal that was the other guy that had started the band with you.

MB: It took a while to figure out, I mean, figure out that if I could sing it all. And I did get really excited about writing lyrics. I mean, I’ve been a huge fan of people like Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen and The Smiths and Nick Cave, and so I was obsessed with sort of lyric heavy writers. Neil Young and Bob Dylan, those kinds of guys. So the idea of actually trying to do that, to write good lyrics, was something really exciting to me.

And I think the first song that we did was a song called “Halo Chagrin”, and I can’t remember how it really went, but I remember thinking that they were decent lyrics, you know? I’m not a writer in any other, I mean, I was terrible at writing prose and even in creative writing classes in college and high school, I was not very good at those. But song lyrics were something that I felt motivated to do and to work hard on and so that’s – – and I didn’t worry so much about being able to sing. Most of the people I like weren’t technically good singers at all, so I had an odd amount of confidence going into it, not knowing what a g-chord sounded like, much less knowing how to play one. But yeah, so I kind of lucked into it because those guys were all really good.

JT: So you’re a big handsome guy, but I wonder if – – I wonder how you felt being out in front of this band. Like, being a front-man, when even the idea of making music was something that you had only relatively recently expected would be real.

MB: The idea of being a front-man or being performing wasn’t there yet. It was not something – – the truth is, I think if I knew it was going to lead to that I probably would have stopped, because the idea of standing in front of people – – it’s most people’s worst fear. Public speaking, or giving speeches at weddings and that kind of thing, or standing up in front of class. I find that terrifying; but when we started the band and started writing these songs it was very in you bedroom by yourself with your headphones on, and that’s how we made that first record. We had never played a gig before, we made that record without every playing anywhere. Although I guess I did do that college thing, the Greek restaurant thing, but that was really terrifying and was not something I felt comfortable doing or liked doing at all, and in fact with The National it took many, many years of doing that a lot till I started to feel a little more comfortable up there on stage.

And then I got to a point where I just started realizing that you just embrace the fact that it’s uncomfortable and be uncomfortable and just let that be the thing you do. So I never worry too much – – the awkward silences or failed banter that’s not funny, and I’ve been referred to as compared to Rainman on stage which was – – I understand it because I don’t look, I look like I’m a little bit, just really awkward. But I think it’s like, after a while it’s like, that’s fine, you know? That’s an okay thing to be. You don’t have to be cool or charming or funny. I think I’m charming on stage and I’m starting to become more comfortable and funny, but yeah, the idea of performing was just the last thing I considered when this band started.

JT: What did you like about doing it enough to keep doing it, despite these sort of modest discomforts and challenges?

MB: It was the – – I mean, all of us when we started getting together, I think the thing that got us all really excited was that there would be a couple of songs that we thought – – I mean when we first started just the idea of making any songs together that sounded like halfway decent songs was a thrill in itself. But then we realized that we had written a couple of really good songs. Our first record just has a couple of things that we realize, this is – – a lot of it’s average, but some of this is a lot better than average, and I think we all just got excited by that. Just by the songs. And I think that’s what’s always been our motivation, I think.

We made that first record the same year, I think, that The Strokes made their first record, and so – – but we never really thought of ourselves as being in that – – playing the same game as them. It’s like, we never really thought we were competing in the New York rock scene with people like Yeah Yeah Yeah’s or Interpol or The Strokes or TV on the Radio. When we started we were much more of an open mic, sort of a bunch of – – I don’t know, very casual goofball sort of thing. The writing kind of really sad songs that moved us, and so it was a very slow, slow, long time before we started thinking of The National as being a band that would be an actual band; that we tour, and get on the radio and anything like that, and the records were mostly – – we put them out on our own label and it was just sort of like a thing, almost like a little zine that we would give to friends and stuff, so that’s definitely all we thought of it ever being for the first several years, really.

JT: I want to play a song form the first record. Can you give me an example of one of the songs from that album that you remember putting together and then thinking like, “Wow, that’s actually something.”

MB: I think Cold Girl Fever was a song that we thought, I think we thought that was possibly a good song on that thing; I’d have to look at the record.

JT: Well let’s take a listen to Cold Girl Fever from The Nationals first album. My guest is Matt Berninger; he’s the front-man of the band.

So I mean, I think for folks who heard the song that we played at the very beginning of this interview, which was “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, off your most recent record High Violet and then heard that song from your first album, they hear a lot of aesthetic differences. How would you describe the way that the band changed in terms of its aesthetics over the course of this, over the course of at least for a lot of the public came to be sort of like a six year gestation period.

MB: The first record I think was just us trying to figure out any kind of sound, and we were using some slide guitar and some things that were alt-country leaning much more on the first record. And it wasn’t because any of us were big alt-country fans or anything, it was – – we all had very different ideas of what kind of band we wanted to be and then we just tried a bunch of different things, and I think Aaron was just playing with a slide a lot and so that first record I think came across as – – I think we were compared to, I mean, I think only about two people wrote anything about that record, but it was like a Silver Jews or – – I remember it was basically it said if you were you might like this if you’re into Silver Jews but why not just wait for the next silver jews album, I think that might have been what Pitchfork said at that point. We were just surprised that Pitchfork even wrote about it.

But yeah, I think that we were just trying to discover what the five of us would sound like when we made music together, and that first one was definitely a little bit more alt-country, and the second record was the one where I think we – – a lot of failed experiments, but we were just trying everything, just doing all kinds of, you know, half baked ideas and some of them were cool. And but I would say it wasn’t until the EP came out called Cherry Tree where we started to find ourselves or grow up a little bit as musicians and as a band and sort of you know become a real band around then, I think.

JT: What was it, do you think, that you found when you started finding something?

MB: I think with the EP we were doing some ambitious things. I think Bryce was starting to try to pull in some more of his classical training, and I know with me I was working much harder on the lyrics and taking my time. I started to find myself becoming a really good writer around then, I think. I mean, I was always trying really hard to write, but I thought for some reason I just started finding my voice a little bit in a literary sense, not necessarily in a vocal sense.

But, there’s a song on that EP called “All Dolled up in Straps”, which is I still think to this day possibly one of our best songs, in our top ten songs, and I think we also embraced some of the darkness and the gloom that is in a lot of our records, and embraced it in a way where we started to celebrate it a little bit. And so I think that was a turning point.

JT: Let’s hear a little bit of The National with “All Dolled up in Straps.” My guest is the bands front-man, Matt Berninger.

So one thing that I wondered as I heard – – it was your album Boxer from 2007 that was the first record of yours that I had heard, and one thing that I wondered as I listened to this is – – it’s a very beautiful album – – was what are the parts of making this that are really fun. Because it’s an album that is, as you said, embraces darkness and sadness; but I can’t imagine – – there was something about it that made me think like, Well, they don’t just seem like sad guys.

MB: Right, yeah. Why I’m so drawn to writing about emotionally wrecked things, I don’t know. But I do find that really fun to wallow in that stuff a little bit. And I also don’t think it’s so much, I don’t think it’s, I don’t ever think of the songs as, I think they’re kind of well rounded, I think there’s darkness, there’s some gloomy stuff, there’s a lot of awkward sad moments, but I think there’s a lot of humor in the songs, and I feel that most of the songs, not all of them, but I would say most of our songs are optimistic or hopeful in some way, but they dig into anxiety, they dig into just sort of trying to figure out what it feels like to want somebody or to miss somebody or, I think most music is dealing with just either love or sex or friendships or fear or just celebrating being irresponsible or something, and I don’t think our music is really any different than most. It’s just maybe the way we package it or the way we deliver it and stuff that is sort of swelling in some sort of emotional way.
When people say we are a dark sad band I don’t mind that. I mean Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave and those guys are – – I don’t think we’re nearly as dark as, say, Nirvana, you know, or like there’s a lot of or the Afghan Wigs or stuff, and I think we just sort of celebrate sort of awkward sadness in a different way that gets a lot of attention, I guess.

JT: I actually want to play a song form the new record, High Violet, that is called “Sorrow”, and it feels like it’s a song that’s sort of about that.

MB: Yeah, that’s, — “Sorrow” is someone’s relationship with their own sadness. And it was, you know, it’s something I guess a little bit about celebrating, and it’s almost like a love song to sadness, they don’t want to lose it. And I think some of it was also inspired by Brian. I think he was going through some hard times and he just described himself as an unhappy person. He says, I’m just a sad person, that’s what I’m like, that’s what I am, and I don’t know what to do about it. I mean, he’s one of the funniest people I know too, and I remember thinking – – I think that was part of the motivation for writing this song, that is there’s a certain – – if you’re comfortable with sadness I think it can be a really nice thing in a weird way. It’s something that feels very good sometimes.

JT: Here’s “Sorrow” form The National’s most recent album High Violet.

You alluded that one of your band mates, Bryce, has this sort of classical – – contemporary classical background, and there’s this beautiful song that opens your album Boxer from 2007 called “Fake Empire”, and it moves very much like, in a way that – – when I first heard it I thought, It’s sort of has a swirling immersive quality of a U2 song or something, but then I was like, No, no, it actually has the swirling immersive quality of a Steve Reich piece. I wanna play a little bit of this song, and this is towards the end as some kind of I guess maybe like bassoons or something join the fray.

MB: Yeah.

JT: Tell me about how a piece like this – – and I feel like it has qualities that would make me call it a song and qualities that would make me call it a piece – – how does it come to you? Like, where do you get involved in the process of this sort of multi-layered – –

MB: Well, we are a really collaborative band. I would say that most of the sketches start with something Aaron writes, either piano or a guitar little thing. And actually in the case of “Fake Empire”, the beginning, I can’t remember if that was from Aaron or Bryce; I don’t remember which one of those guys sent that. But then there would be the idea of sort of this polyrhythmic, this shift in the – – the time signature shifts in it, and I think that was probably a lot of Bryce pushing it that way. And then the end, we knew at some point that we needed – – it was sort of a simple song until we threw in that time signature shifting, and then we knew at the end it needed to do something really surprising and exciting, and I think it was Aaron or Bryce who had the idea for a fanfare, a brass fanfare, and so we asked Padma Newsome, who we’ve worked with for a long, long time, and has worked on all of our – – I think he’s worked on everything, even a little bit on Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. But anyway we sent it to him and he was in Australia and sent back just the music for that fanfare that happens at the end and then recorded that. So the song kind of goes through these three mutations and then at the end turns into this whole different thing with the fanfare.

That’s an example of us having a simple song and just throwing ideas of how do we torque it, or reinvent it halfway through and surprise – – I think that was one that , that was really when we were like, We have to surprise people, we have to surprise ourselves to keep us excited, and so and we would just try all kinds of things until something clicks. We have so many failed experiments, that was one where it was like, when we heard that we all realized that suddenly a mediocre song became a great song.

JT: Something struck me about that that actually is really interesting to me about a lot of your records, which is there’s this really interesting tension between the sort of driving propulsiveness of rock music. Rock music is this sort of charging ahead kind of music, and that thing that you hear in a minimalist composer, that kind of almost like recursiveness.

MB: It’s, yeah. I think we – –

JT: There’s sort of a tension there.

MB: Yeah, I think that we, without ever talking about it for some reason, we were always drawn to those suspsense building moments that hold on something for a while and it builds and swells with tension, and it’s fun. It’s drama. And I think we do that a lot without even ever realizing it. It’s just something, it’s just how we write. Recently we’ve been trying to, not very well, but we’ve been trying to write just fun pop – – whatever a pop song is, but we’ve been attempting to write something that we would think of as a pop song, and we’re trying to avoid some of our old, some of the comfort zones. And a song like “Anyone’s Ghost” was I think the only semi-successful version of a pop song that we’ve written. And, I don’t know, it’s like we – – there’s just things that, the new record High Violet, we talked about making a really fun record after Boxer, you know, Boxer is dark and stately and so we wanted to make a very different kind of record.

Somehow, I think it’s a lot more fun, I think this record is dark fun, you know? It’s more black fun, whatever you would call it, because the themes are some of the darkest stuff lyrically I think that we’ve written, and musically. Anyways, that wasn’t the question you asked, but somehow I started answering it.

JT: It’s a great opportunity to listen to “Anyone’s Ghost” from my guest Matt Berninger and his band The National. It’s from their new record High Violet.

It does feel different on the new album. It feels like you’re more willing to let that tension build into something and explode which traditionally in rock and roll music you do that every 40 seconds.
MB: Yeah. This record was – – it was a big tug of war between, not just between the five of us, you know it was a five way tug of war of trying to figure out what kind of record to make. I was really, I had ideas of wanting to make a less ornate, a less stately record, I wanted to go – –

JT: Less bassoons.

MB: Less bassoons, less strings, I just wanted it to sound uglier and more immediate and visceral, and those were all – -ugly and visceral and immediate those are all words that the other guys were like, well those aren’t musical terms. They know what I meant, but how do you do that? We can’t just not use horns or not use a certain instrument just for some sort of abstract, philosophical reason or something. So it was a tug of war of getting – – there’s another factor, sometimes those guys, even though it’s music they send me, they think it’s stupid music. They think it’s just, I mean, because it’s – -and I understand. Its somebody who – somebody who is trained musically will hear something and it sounds simplistic to them, whereas somebody who – – I did not study music at all, it just might sound great to me.
So there was a little bit of that and I think we found the happy median in a lot of places, I think “Anyone’s Ghost” is one of those examples.
The song “Afraid of Everyone” was almost never pursued because I think Aaron, who sent me the music originally, thought that it was kind of meat head music. But I had faith that we could turn it into something good with the right melody. And then Sufjan Stevens came in and played the harmonium in the beginning and started singing some of the backup things, and it just gave it a whole ‘nother dimension and color. And so I think it’s possible to start with a very simplistic, possibly stupid, music and make something great out of it. I think they all, we all sort of met in the middle on there, and they would agree to.

JT: Let’s listen to some of “Afraid of Everyone” from my guest Matt Berninger, his band The National and their new album High Violet.

So, a lot of your songs are, and your lyrics are, sort of one level abstract. Sometimes they’re sort of pasticious of feelings and snippets and sort of moments and turns of phrase. And this is actually something that is sort of relatively directly about something personal for you.

MB: I would say all the songs are personal on a level of being emotionally meaningful to me. They’re not personal with regard to being specifically true stories or autobiographical, but they’re things I think about and obsess over. The lyrics are usually very collage-y. I’m usually writing all the lyrics to all the songs at the same time and kind of filling up books and notebooks and pages with it, and I will start to fit things together. So a lot of times the songs will, in some ways, hook into each other and refer to each other and have bits and pieces that are sort of cross – – or, you know, whatever. The record works as a whole because they’re all sort of being written at the same time. It’s not like, here’s one song about this, and that one’s done, now we get a, you know, write a song about something else, and here’s that one. They’re all just, you know, they all come together on the same way from the same pile of ideas, I guess.

JT: In this case it’s a song about sort of straight forward huge change in your life, which is having a kid.

MB: “Afraid of Everyone”?

JT: Yeah.

MB: Yeah, it is. I mean, there’s a line about having a kid on my shoulders and it’s – – I don’t know if I would have written that without having a kid, but – –

JT: Do you worry when you write about something like having a kid that you’re just another guy writing about having a kid? That you’re like sitting on an airplane showing someone pictures of your kid?

MB: I did actually, and there was a band, I won’t say the name of the band or anything, that I used to love, that the lead singer had a kid, they named the record after the kid, the kid’s picture was on the cover, and the lead single was about the kid. I loved the band, but you know what though, I don’t care that much about you and your family, really. So I actually did have a big fear of writing whatever dad rock, I don’t know what you would call it, but that part of that song was just like – – yeah, threw that in there, and it’s just more of an image of somebody, you know, some paranoid person fighting desperately to defend their family from these abstract foes, you know? From both sides, from the left and the right and the confusion of what it’s like to be an American right now, I think, with all the political atmosphere in the media, you just don’t and know who’s telling you the truth at all. Even, I’m a lefty, but even MSNBC and the stuff I – – I can’t really watch it anymore.

I just – – when Comedy Central has the best sort of political, honest perspective, that’s a very strange – – that’s unfortunate that our media is so bent right now. So the song was just being so frustrated and not knowing – – not really feeling you trust any of the information you’re getting from any side of the spectrum, and the idea of having a kid now made me even more frustrated with it because it used to be easy to just turn it off and just be in some ways apathetic about politics, it’s like politics as usual and who cares, but when you have a kid I realize that it’s all – – every little move and decision that’s being made is going to effect her life so much more than mine, and it suddenly makes you really more angry about how backwards and how dysfunctional our government is. So that song is a mixture of all that stuff. And it’s just a funny image, somebody with an umbrella trying to fight off these un-fightable foes.

JT: I wonder if these – – there’s so many themes in your songs about sort of finding ways to engage the world when you’re – – when the world is crazy and scary or when you’re not sure if you can do it or all these different challenges. And I wonder if this sort of new found willingness to build to things in your songs and have releases in your songs is reflective of being in a place in your lives and sort of being veteran adults, so to speak, where you know better where you can engage the world and how you can engage the world.
MB: I do feel like this record is, to use the word engagement, is less turning away from the world – – I mean “Fake Empire”, which was on Boxer; is that right?

JT: Yes, it is. I promise.

MB: Thank you. That was definitely a song about just turning off and pretending, turning off the world and not engaging and, you know, because that was during the Bush time and stuff. But High Violet is much more, I think, much more proactive, and not all the songs, but it is I think trying to – – a desperate attempt to feel connected and change things and get your hands on it instead of just turning your brain off and getting drunk and going off into la-la land, which was kind of what “Fake Empire” was about. So yeah, I think it comes with sort of a musical level, lyrical level, we’ve got a lot of confidence. We’re not afraid of looking foolish; we’re not afraid of coming across as too earnest, really. I mean, it is a fine line between sappy and sincere, so you’re kind of balancing that. I think we have a lot of confidence not to worry about looking cool or sounding cool.
Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen and, you know, Leonard Cohen has got a song about having a hard on. With rock and roll you shouldn’t be afraid to sing about anything, so singing about my kid on my shoulders or all the other stuff, and like “Lemon World” was about all kinds of weird abstract sexual fantasy stuff, you know? Which is indulgent, so that’s an escapist sort of song, but I’ve lost my fear of sounding like a fool, really. Which I think is making me a better writer. Hopefully.

JT: Matt, thank you so much for taking this time and being on the Sound of Young America, it was great to have you.

MB: It’s been my pleasure.

JT: Matt Berninger is the singer and lyricist of the band The National. Their most recent album is called High Violet. Here’s one more song from High Violet, it’s “Terrible Love.”

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