ABOVE: MATT BERNINGER (CENTER) WITH HIS BANDMATES IN THE NATIONAL.
“Tell me if it’s too loud,” Matt Berninger said, when we called him on the phone.
He was talking about the background noise—it was a beautiful night in late April, and he was walking to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade—but it’s still a wonderfully appropriate thing to hear from Berninger. He, along with his four bandmates in The National—two pairs of brothers, Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Bryan and Scott Devendorf—was preparing to release Trouble Will Find Me, their sixth album. Of the band’s oeuvre so far, Trouble Will Find Me is the album perhaps most concerned with dynamics, with shifts in loudness both subtle and overt. Berninger’s famous baritone and the Dessners’ guitars are as strong and anthemic on a song like “Sea of Love” as the band has ever been; but there’s space on this album, too, and moments during songs like “Slipped” and “Don’t Swallow the Cap” are almost hushed.
Berninger turned 42 this year, and The National is 14 years old. Trouble Will Find Me reflects that: it’s a mature band now, one that displays a different kind of confidence than the posturing bravado (and merciless interrogation thereof) of previous albums—a quieter kind. When we talked to Berninger, it was a good time for a little introspection: Mistaken for Strangers, a loopy, funny documentary his brother had directed chronicling the band’s 2010 tour, had just debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival. It won raves, which would be matched a few weeks later by the reception for Trouble Will Find Me. And tonight, the band will play to a huge hometown crowd, at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: The official notes for the album say it started when you all got back from touring, and Aaron had insomnia because of his baby. He would write little sketches and send them to you, and these ideas were not as complicated or as over-thought or stressed over as what you’d normally get from him. Is that fair?
MATT BERNINGER: There was a sleeplessness mode, so he was too tired to think too hard. Also, something happened in terms of perspective—I’ve had it for maybe a little longer than he’s had it. Once you have kids, I think we realized how our rock band is actually not at all that important in the grand scheme of things. In some ways, that took some of the pressure off it a little bit. The other factor is we planned not to make a record—or even start talking about or start worrying about a record—for a year after we toured for High Violet. We all said, “Let’s walk away for a while and reboot.”
The minute we took the deadline away, the idea of starting to try to work on the next thing out of the equation, ideas started coming faster than ever. Somehow I think we tricked ourselves into making a record quicker than we’ve ever done before. I’m not saying it was easier—we ended up spending probably more hours working on this record than any other record before that—but there was much less pain and fighting and anxiety and second-thinking. I think you can hear that in the record.
SYMONDS: I’m sure all your wives were thrilled that you made all these promises about not making another album for a while and then immediately did.
BERNINGER: Not only that, now we’re about to start touring in support of it right away again. I think everybody’s a little bit, “Ugh, you said you were going to take a break for a couple years.” But my wife is very involved in helping me when it comes to songwriting. She’s a really smart editor and she’s been a big part of it, so she’s partly to blame that it came together as quickly as it did.
SYMONDS: Was it kind of a relief for you to be getting stuff from Aaron that was less overly intellectualized than before?
BERNINGER: Yes. I don’t even know if relief is the right word, but it was a surprise. The first song on the record was something he sent pretty early, and it was almost immediate—I think I sent him back the basic melody structure and everything, the vocal melody and even the chorus, the same day. I put it on my headphones, I put it in Garage Band, and I think within an hour—not all the lyrics were finished, but the basic song was done, and that happened on a lot of these songs. In the past, sometimes, it would be hard to find my footing inside a song or find my way around some of the musical moves that they were making with the music. This time, it wasn’t. It’s hard for any of us to know exactly what the alchemy was this time, but it seems to be that he and Bryce both were just doing these instinctual things and not so much trying to over-craft it before they sent it to me.
SYMONDS: I wonder if, because both of them have such extensive training and such a huge well to draw on at this point, maybe there’s some kind of mental version of muscle memory that kicked in.
BERNINGER: Maybe. Maybe we we’re just kind of getting better at writing songs. I’d like to think that’s the case, but I think there was something else going on. I wish we could bottle it for the next time. You never know how the dynamic is going to work. Sometimes, what seems to be a song that’s going to work really well takes us forever. Like the song “Lemonworld,” on our last record, was a total, total black hole, trying to figure how to make that work. There really weren’t any of those situations.
SYMONDS: I remember reading about that. I don’t have an extensive music theory education, but the songs don’t sound any simpler to me. Was it just the case that they were built up more in the writing process than they’d have been otherwise?
BERNINGER: It’s true. I don’t have a music theory academic background whatsoever, either, but I think Aaron and Bryce would actually say in fact this record has musically more adventurous or complicated things going on. There are several songs, including the first song, that have a different, kind of tricky, time signature; and the song “Demons” has a tricky time signature, and the last song, “Hard to Find,” is also weird. They are more high-art, from an academic, musical standpoint, than any of our other records, but for whatever reason, it doesn’t feel that way. The songs don’t feel, to me, they don’t feel tricky or complicated.
SYMONDS: I think there are a lot of reconciled opposites on the album, that being one of them. I also wanted to talk a little bit about tense in your lyrics. I love the way the past and future play off of each other on songs like “This is the Last Time,” and when I think of some of your older records, especially Boxer and Alligator, I tend to think of their lyrics as mostly operating in this kind of declarative present tense. On this one, it seems like you’re looking longer-term into both the past and the future. Do you think that that scope has changed as you’ve gotten older?
BERNINGER: I know some of our early records, in my perspective, was from me and born out of personal frustrations. There was definitely a lot more of that direct, “This is how I feel about this thing right now, and it makes me angry or makes me mournful or makes me horny or makes me drunk,” or whatever. They were these first-person stories in the direct, present tense. I do think, and it’s not calculated or conscious, but there’s a reflection on things, mistakes that I’ve made and also, this record also has a lot of rumination on what’s next, meaning, what’s the future.
I think having a kid made me really start to think more about the future than I ever probably did. There’s a lot of songs that dig in the idea of existence and death—the eventual nonexistence—and what that means. Not in a grim way, I don’t think. Actually, having a kid and seeing my daughter grow up and so clearly be an extension of my existence, the idea of suddenly dying and ceasing to exist—I’m filled with more anxiety about it, because I know she needs me around. In the past, before I had a kid, if I got hit by a car… I never feared death, and I still don’t fear it, but I realize how much she needs me around, so I take my existence more seriously than maybe I did in the past.
But on the flipside of it, there’s also a peace in understanding that I’m not worried about what happens to me after I die. When my light goes out, I don’t think there’s any afterlife, and that’s okay. In many ways, it’s soothing and a relief that our afterlives are the people around us and our kids and our friends and the people we touch, even people we pass on the street. I’m getting kind of heavy here, but yeah. I think there’s some of that in this record, for sure.
SYMONDS: There’s that old thing that you die twice, when you actually die and then the last person that you in some way affected dies.
BERNINGER: I don’t know if that ever changes, because every person that you touch continues to touch people—I think it’s a whole thing. Over the past 10 years, technically I think I’d be referred to as a secular humanist on the religion spectrum.
SYMONDS: [laughs] Thanks for clearing that up.
BERNINGER: I’ve always thought the idea that it’s just us is actually really empowering. It’s just us, here and now, and it’s how we treat each other while we’re together on this earth; and the people that live past us are going to inherit our choices and inherit the good things we do and inherit the bad things, and that’s afterlife. That’s why, this past election, I was probably even more motivated and worked up about it than I had been before, because I realized the rules for my daughter were being written—the rules about what she can and can’t do with her own choices as far as health care or who she wants to marry. I’m a liberal—and I’m far more liberal than Obama and most Democrats are—but just the idea that the other side was trying to turn that around and write some rules that my daughter was going to have to inherit and live by made me furious, you know?
SYMONDS: You mentioned before having your daughter has made you realize that being in a rock band isn’t the most important thing you can do, but I think you guys have found ways to make being in a rock band important, specifically with your support for Obama and for liberal causes. Are you ever kind of reluctant—I guess not, you just brought it up in this interview…
BERNINGER: No, no, I am, I know your point. Yes, definitely, I’m reluctant to be attached to any political affiliation because you never know… I’m not reluctant on some of the other things that we’ve done, Haiti stuff and Dark Was the Night. But we don’t want to be a political band, and in many ways the songs are an escape from thinking about that stuff. The song “Fake Empire”, which is the song that got us connected to Obama, is about trying not to think about politics. Of course, you can read it politically—it was a reaction to George W. Bush’s presidency—but for it to become a political anthem or whatever is ironic.
SYMONDS: Especially considering you have a song called “Mr. November.” [laughs]
BERNINGER: Right, right, right. Well, that was another political song, which is about John Kerry originally, though, what it must be like for a guy… he’s putting on his best clothes, he’s going to make all these promises, he didn’t win—how much anxiety that must be for a person to promise, “I’m not gonna fuck you over.” Anyways, most of our political songs are kind of a reaction. I hate Washington. I think Washington, especially now, is a crippled and twisted system and we’re 20 years behind where we should be. But when we were asked to be involved, it was so clear that there was a right side and a wrong side. And I’ll debate that with my own family members in Cincinnati, about certain things. But I felt very deeply that there’s a fight within the front yard and you can’t stand there and kind of look from the window and kind of stay cool. You’ve got to jump in there when the things that you care about are being threatened—you’ve got to dive in and your rock band doesn’t matter. And all five of us are liberals, to different degrees, but we all agreed that it might hurt our rock band, because we had a lot of Republican fans. But our rock band was less important than the things that were at stake.
SYMONDS: I’m curious about what you can tell about your fan base. Do you fans seem to be maturing with you, or do you feel like you’re getting older and your fans are staying the same age?
BERNINGER: It seems like our fan base is growing in both directions. We’re actually starting to see a lot of really young kids in the front—16-year-olds and younger. So we have some fans that we’ve had for 15 years—not that many; we had 20 people into us back then, most of whom were friends and family members. [But] it’s been interesting to see how our music is kind of reaching and connecting on a multi-generational level. There’s been a bunch of shows where fathers and sons, or parents and their kids who are independently fans, [come]. That’s been really weird.
SYMONDS: A lot of the critical discourse around The National focuses on your being an “American band” writing about the “American experience.” I think that’s partly because you mention America by name in your songs sometimes—but I also wonder whether it’s partly because of the trajectory from the Midwest to Brooklyn, and the fact that you account for both of those perspectives. Having lived about half of your life in each place now, do you feel like the influence of those two places is pretty much balanced at this point? Or do you still feel more allegiance towards one or the other?
BERNINGER: I don’t feel allegiance towards either, and the truth is, I don’t actually feel quite at home in either place. I love New York, and New York is a place I find to be so exciting and fascinating; but it’s sometimes an uncomfortable and difficult city to live in. Whereas Cincinnati is maybe less difficult but less exciting; but neither one has the perfect balance, so maybe that’s why. But in terms of it being an American band—it’s probably a very common American perspective, but we’ve definitely found that in other places, people will say, “You seem like a Belgian band.” For whatever reason, we’re huge in Belgium. We’re bigger in places like Belgium and Denmark and Ireland and in Portugal—we’re much more popular in those places then we are in the United States. Even in France, probably, to some degree, too. Wherever we go, people try to claim us as being secretly Irish, or secretly Portuguese. The details of our music are often very American; but it’s funny, it seems to connect to people in a lot of other places.
SYMONDS: I had no idea about that.
BERNINGER: Maybe that’s why Downton Abbey is also so popular or something here, even though no one lives like that here.
TROUBLE WILL FIND ME IS OUT NOW. THE NATIONAL WILL PLAY BARCLAYS CENTER IN BROOKLYN TONIGHT, JUNE 5, WITH SUPPORT FROM YOUTH LAGOON. MISTAKEN FOR STRANGERS WILL SCREEN IN SILVER SPRINGS, MARYLAND, AND WASHINGTON, DC, LATER THIS MONTH. FOR MORE ON THE NATIONAL, PLEASE VISIT THE BAND’S WEBSITE.