As a general rule, I try not to run over people I admire. It’s held me in pretty good stead over the years, although my spotless record was endangered about a year ago when I almost introduced Matt Berninger to the chrome grille of a Jeep Wrangler in Venice, California. Berninger is the lead singer of the National, a band I discovered when I came across their song “About Today” in 2004. A haunting gem about the often-transient character of “permanent” relationships, it lodged in me like a held breath throughout the summer. A few years later, I caught the band when they opened for Arcade Fire. In studio recordings, the National often sounds melancholic and subdued, but live, the band, comprised of Matt Berninger, Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner, Bryan Devendorf, and Scott Devendorf, is another animal. Their shows are full-throttle affairs, the tempo and volume turned up to 11. After that concert, I downloaded all the music they’d put out to that point, and an obsession was born that continues, unabated, a decade later.
I moved to the west side of Los Angeles four years ago. I was at the house of a friend one day, and we got to talking about all the great bands that came out of Brooklyn in the early aughts: TV on the Radio, the Hold Steady, the National. My friend told me that the National may have started in New York but that Berninger had since relocated to Venice, just a couple of blocks from where we were sitting. About six months later, I was driving down Lincoln Boulevard, the main north-south corridor in Venice, when I took my eye off the road for a second, two at most. Maybe three. When I looked up, I saw several people step into a crosswalk. I stood on my brakes and managed to skid softly to a stop about six inches from them. A bearded man dressed like he’d just exited a coffee shop in Brooklyn gave me a short wave of thanks for not killing him, and he and his three friends continued on their way. Had I not known that he had moved to Venice, I would have thought to myself, “I almost ran over a guy who looks like Matt Berninger.” But in fact, the guy I almost ran over was Matt Berninger.
For the record, I’m happy I didn’t kill the lead singer of the National. The band’s songbook is an impressive one, ranging from fast and angry (“Abel”) to poignant and whimsical (“Slow Show”); from overtly political (“Afraid of Everyone”) to bracingly personal (“Slipped”). I’m not sure the National has an actual “sound”-no album plays quite like the others. It would be snobbish to suggest they’re too good for full-on mainstream acceptance, but maybe they’re just too disarming.
Leading up to the release this month of their seventh studio album, Sleep Well Beast (4AD), I sat down with Berninger in his backyard, and we conferenced in the songwriter-guitarist Aaron Dessner, who was in Wisconsin for the Eaux Claires festival, which he co-curates.
DENNIS LEHANE: I’ve been a fan since 2004. I discovered you guys through an Uncut album. Remember those compilation CDs?
MATT BERNINGER: Oh, my god. We did a terrible Dylan cover, right?
AARON DESSNER: No, we didn’t give it to them. We tried to cover “Desolation Row,” but it didn’t work out.
BERNINGER: It was a disaster.
LEHANE: Well, that’s how I discovered you guys. Your new album sounds different than all the albums that came before it. You guys keep doing that. [laughs] Is that intentional?
DESSNER: Yeah, I think we had a need and desire to not be safe about this one and to try to get out of old habits and old processes. This time we wanted to allow for more experimentation and less cleaning up and editing. It was also a four-year process, so there were a lot of different phases. There was the songwriting phase and the playing-with-the-band phase, and then Bryce [Dessner], Aaron’s brother, and I in Berlin and Paris and L.A. messing with stuff for a long time. I think that’s what ultimately allowed for a different sound. There’s a gauzy, experimental feeling to it.
LEHANE: Your albums always take five or six listens before I catch on to what they’re doing. That might be especially true of this album because it doesn’t seem like there’s a clear single.
BERNINGER: We actually do have a single that’s getting some love. But, yeah, our records do take longer. Luckily, we’ve found a place as a band where we don’t need to rely on hits. We’ve never really had viral hits. We were always in the shadows of the stuff that was getting more attention. So people learned to listen to us slowly over time. And, frankly, we learned how to listen to ourselves. It takes us a long time to write a song that we all really like, so it makes sense that it would take a while for the listener to get there, too.
LEHANE: I feel like the needle goes into the vein slower. But then it tends to stick longer. People listen to your albums over and over, and, sadly, you can’t say that about too many bands anymore.
BERNINGER: We all like those kinds of musicians, though, like Leonard Cohen or Bowie or Dylan or the Breeders or R.E.M. or the Smiths or Grateful Dead-bands with blurry, honest, strange content mixed up in some fun rock ‘n’ roll. Those are always the albums we love the most. When we write a song, we never really ask, “Is this as good as a Bowie song?” We wouldn’t even try that kind of question. But we do ask, “Are we full of shit?” If we put it on a record, we have to think it has some shelf life.
LEHANE: Was that the plan from day one?
BERNINGER: From the beginning, we knew we weren’t going to shoot for the top. We came up at the same time as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Strokes, Interpol, TV on the Radio, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and the Walkmen. We’ve seen so many bands where it does happen overnight, and we’ve also seen the dangers of that. We made sure to keep going in the other direction. We’ve always just focused on making great songs, not worrying at all about the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.
LEHANE: You all have kids, right?
BERNINGER: We do now, yeah, but I think we’ve always had a different perspective on what it was to be a rock band. I mean, sure, we wanted to get famous and laid and all that, but it didn’t have to happen at a high level right away. We weren’t the Strokes.
LEHANE: The new album speaks to that patience. To me, it feels almost conceptual.
DESSNER: We weren’t afraid to let things become sonically abstract. Matt, do you feel like it’s more lyrically conceptual?
BERNINGER: I never think about an overall arc, like, “This record is going to be about this kind of stuff.” I’m always writing a bunch of songs at the same time. I’m jumping around. It’s not like, “This track is the love song and then it leads to this next song.” There are arcs I can hear in this record, but then you put it on shuffle and there are totally different arcs with totally different stories. I stopped trying to map any of that out a long time ago because it didn’t help the creation process. I even got rid of my notebooks. I just write on a Word document while I’m recording, and if it doesn’t work, I don’t save it.
LEHANE: There’s a similar assumption with my books that I consciously know what I’m doing when I start, when the truth is I often don’t figure it out until the third or fifth draft. But even if you don’t feel there are any hard-and-fast arcs, there is a lot going on in this album about trust and the tension of trusting someone-whether it be a wife or a bandmate or a sibling.
BERNINGER: Most of the songs were written before the election. It’s not like we suddenly wrote a bunch of political songs after it, but the ones we had written began to take on new meaning. Everybody making any kind of art in the past 15 or 20 years has had to recalibrate their gears on what the world means-from 9/11 to Trump. The idea of what America is has changed. When the whole background turns a different color, you’re going to have to react. But I’d say the words I write are usually about fear and love, bravery and kindness. But the record is also a lot of fun. There are also songs about being romantic and getting drunk and all that shit.
LEHANE: Fear is a recurrent theme in your work. How much of that is personal?
BERNINGER: As a kid, I played outside every night way past dark and rode my bike three miles by myself to a pizza joint. Kids don’t do that now. I think until a certain age it’s illegal to let your kid be out and about. Before I was 25, I just wanted to meet girls. After I met girls, I realized that they weren’t going to solve all my problems. I’m always thinking about God and about death. Every day, a little bit, here and there. I mean, you almost hit me crossing the street-
LEHANE: Aaron, I almost ran Matt over about a year ago. He’ll tell you about it later.
BERNINGER: I’ve been hit by many cars. I walk into traffic a lot. But my point is that-well, I’ve got a daughter now. And when you have a kid, you start to think, “Oh shit, I’m not going to be here forever.” Then you start to understand heaven or the afterlife. Now, it’s about what I want my daughter to be. I want my daughter to be a nice person who can stand up straight and has courage and is not afraid of the world. Confident and joyous-that’s all I want. And I want to be that way myself. That’s basically what everybody wants. I grew up Catholic, and it’s hard to wrap my head around just how messed up the church is. Growing up, I was an altar boy, so I was constantly learning about a man in his underwear who was nailed to a board and tortured. And then we had to drink his blood.
LEHANE: We were also responsible for his death. That’s a key thing.
BERNINGER: “Oh, also, don’t look at dirty magazines.” [laughs] That’s a lot for a kid to deal with. Several times a week going to look at a guy nailed to a board in his underwear. Dead. And it’s your fault because you looked at that Playboy. That’s the kind of shit that fucks you up. And I’m probably still dealing with it. But maybe we got off track. A lot of the album is about drinking. [laughs]
LEHANE: I was going to mention that. There’s a lot of girls and wine and magic pills and pissing in the sink. Aaron, is the album about all that for you, too?
DESSNER: A lot of the time we sort of write music with Matt in our minds and hearts. In a way, we’re creating a soundtrack for him to respond to. And once he responds to it with the lyrics and finds what’s clicking, we start to marry those two things. I think more than ever, this time I was really responding to the lyrics-anxiety and tension on one hand, and on the other the joy and release of a great rock song. Some of the subversive stuff in the background is meant to convey that chaos and anxiety beneath the surface of an otherwise healthy person. My wife’s mother was diagnosed with cancer right in the middle of making this album. She went through a rapid decline and passed away, and some of the music I played on the piano at her funeral. I played it for her in hospice. So those songs take on another dimension where they become weirdly therapeutic.
BERNINGER: The songs always start from Aaron and Bryce sending me music. And it’s already loaded with ideas and emotion. And I start singing to it. I can’t play the piano, so there’s never going to be a scenario where I sit down and write a song. I can only write songs when somebody gives me some water to swim in. Otherwise, I’m a fish on the beach.
LEHANE: Do other bands do it that way too?
DESSNER: I think U2 and R.E.M. do it similarly.
BERNINGER: But I think Michael Stipe and Bono can both play the guitar.
LEHANE: [laughs] You’ve been in a band for more than 15 years and you’ve never taken a lesson?
BERNINGER: I’ve been busy!
LEHANE: There seems to be a huge energy difference between the albums and live performances. Are you conscious of that?
BERNINGER: When you get on stage, you’re in front of all these people, and it gets louder and more reckless because you’re terrified, and it’s crazy and you’re exhausted because you’ve been traveling and maybe you’ve been drinking. You’re on the edge of a platform looking down 15 feet, and there are thousands of faces staring at you, and there are smoke machines and lights, and it’s loud as fuck, and there’s a Ferris wheel in the background of these festivals. It’s madness. And so you get up there, and the only way to properly deal with it and do it right is to go a bit mad. You just have to be in that madness and then get the fuck out as fast as possible and go to your hotel room and call your wife in order to come back to earth. I think we’ve learned to survive because we don’t go wackadoo crazy.
DESSNER: There have definitely been phases of the National, many years ago, where we did party, and various people, in their own way, fell off the wagon. But I think we’ve gotten to a place where we can be healthy about it, although it’s always a struggle. Every time we get together there’s the potential for disaster.
BERNINGER: By the way, for the record, nobody’s on the wagon. We flirt with the wagon, but we all jump off occasionally … like, all the time.
DESSNER: But I’d say recording and playing on stage are two completely different things. Being up there in front of all those people is like jumping off a cliff into icy water. The recording process is a totally different energy.
LEHANE: Do you ever feel like you can write something that can change people’s minds, or do more than bring people together for a moment and make them feel less alone?
BERNINGER: When a great record like Lemonade comes out, and then the country votes Trump, it’s depressing in terms of art’s ability to address anything. And yet, I can’t not address stuff in art. I don’t understand any artist who says, “Well, I like to keep my politics out of my art.” Then how do you make art?
LEHANE: I’ve listened to every one of your songs a thousand times, and I feel a social conscience in your work, and empathy. But I’m not sure I feel a polemic, which is what I like about it.
BERNINGER: There has never been an attempt to have a specific opinion of mine heard. We do that in other ways. We’re doing stuff for Planned Parenthood and for refugees and for AIDS. Those are personal missions. But they don’t necessarily come into the lyrics of the songs. I just want to express the id, the sadness, the lust, the fear, the love, and the euphoria of moments. To relish them and chew on them and turn them into words and music that make you feel.
DENNIS LEHANE IS THE AUTHOR OF THE NOVELS SHUTTER ISLAND AND MYSTIC RIVER. HIS MOST RECENT NOVEL, SINCE WE FELL, WAS PUBLISHED IN MAY.