The National - Matt Berninger interview
US band set for Edinburgh gig as part of 2011 UK tour
This article is from 2011.
The National‘s Matt Berninger has a way with a tear-jerking lyric. However, as he tells David Pollock, the release of album High Violet has ushered in good times for the Ohioan band. That, and Obama getting elected …
The National are a band who crept up on all of us. In their twelve years of existence the Cincinnati, Ohio-formed group have released five acclaimed albums, each of which has scratched them a little more hard-earned but well-deserved success in alternative circles – until last year’s High Violet, which swiftly exploded into the top five in Britain, America and around the world. Of the forty-five shows booked for this year’s Edge music festival on the Edinburgh Fringe, theirs is comfortably the biggest and most hotly-anticipated.
‘Every one of our records feels like a breakthrough to another level, and High Violet’s definitely been the biggest step so far,’ says the band’s singer and lyricist Matt Berninger from his home in Brooklyn. He talks about the band’s life being a ‘gradual process’ of ‘slow growth’, and he takes the point that they fit into the same category of slow-burners as, say, Elbow and Flaming Lips. ‘We’ve never had that breakthrough hit,’ he says. ‘We just make good records that people tell their friends about, and slowly our name gets around.
‘Plus a lot of it’s down to the fact that people can now share music online. I don’t think a band like ours would have found an audience before, but we’re the product of a new kind of dynamic in the way people find out about music. Hundreds of amazing bands in the past, because they were never able to crack radio or get mass media attention, they just fizzled out and went away, yet now those kinds of bands, the good ones, can go another way and slowly find another audience. So we were in the right place at the right time, but we’re fully aware how rare that is and we don’t take it for granted. We spend all our time trying to live up to it.’
After the whirlwind of touring activity which followed High Violet, Berninger is speaking from the middle of a month off at home with his wife and daughter. He is – other wives and girlfriends might be overawed to hear – the kind of guy who sands and repaints his wife’s bike just because he has a day spare to do it: ‘doing normal things,’ as he puts it. Having had a bit of space to reflect on the last album, he’s still convinced of its merits. ‘It’s our best, although I know any group will say that about their last record. It works on an emotional level and on a purely visceral level because we trusted our guts on it.’
Unsurprisingly, given their strict touring schedule and lengthy ascendency, the band has subjected its members to the trials any hard-working rock group might face. Berninger and guitarist Scott Devendorf have been in bands together since they met at the University of Cincinnati in 1991, with Devendorf’s brother Bryan and Aaron and Bryce Dessner, another set of siblings, joining them as The National in 1999.
‘In the early years we had nothing going for us and nothing to worry about, because there was nothing to lose. Then we encountered some awkward phases as we tried to figure out how to balance real life when [the band] kept pulling us away from home, and we weren’t immune to the trappings of the rock‘n’roll lifestyle. It’s the small things that can ruin people’s relationships and we worked through that stuff and didn’t let it ruin us. We’re five adults in a rock band and it’s just like any family, you say the worst things to the people you care about the most.’
The trappings of the rock‘n’roll lifestyle? ‘I know you want me to tell you drug stories or whatever,’ he laughs, ‘but it’s really not that kind of thing. We’re not Mötley Crüe. I’ve started to hold back on the fact I drink on tour, which is a really healthy thing for me, but it’s probably really boring and lame by rock ‘n’roll standards. This lifestyle makes your brain get soft and it led to the kind of arguments that would pull us down individually and collectively, so we’ve had to learn to bury the hatchet. I mean, there are still hatchets flying round all the time, but we’ve learned to catch ‘em and put ‘em down, I guess, because it’s a great gift to have, to be part of a rock band. It’s better than winning the lottery.’
Perhaps another little-mentioned contributing factor in The National’s popularity surge has been their championing of Barack Obama, both in the 2008 election and in the 2010 mid-terms, through benefits and the dedication of their song ‘Mr November’ (‘I’m Mr November / I won’t fuck us over’). ‘We never thought of ourselves as a political band,’ admits Berninger. ‘The closest I came to it on High Violet was the song “Afraid of Everyone”, which is more about the media and how it’s so hard to trust whatever spin a TV network is putting on the truth. But after having George W Bush as our president for so long, especially after he won the second time, we thought we couldn’t stand aloof and cool about it any more.
‘I believe that Washington is a completely dysfunctional place and that one guy isn’t going to be able to change it overnight, but living with Bush for so long made us realise that you have to fight for even the smallest victory. The most disappointing thing now is seeing how hard it is for there to be any progress in America, in terms of healthcare, education, gay rights, all these things that it feels like we should be doing much better than we are in the 21st century and I’m embarrassed we still have to fight for. But now it’s going slowly in the right direction whereas before it was going quickly in the wrong direction, and we’re honoured and proud to have been a tiny, tiny part of that.’
Much like America, The National’s future is also a work in progress. They haven’t started work on a sixth album yet, although they are thinking about it with the spirit of rediscovery, if not reinvention. ‘We want to do things we haven’t done before,’ says Berninger. Usually good ideas come at you from the side when you’re not really paying attention, so we’re all in that “collecting stuff” mode just now.’
Might it yield that elusive breakthrough hit, does he think? ‘It’s not that we don’t put the effort into every song to make it a hit,’ he says, ‘not that I think anyone knows what that really entails. We’ve learned to trust the album form, though, and to try and write records that we’re going to like in twenty years time, and which have honest, true passion. We only stick with songs that keep growing on us, that still satisfy us a month after we’ve first worked on them. That’s a measure of how hard it is to find a good song, and how you shouldn’t trust easy first impressions all the time. I think that’s served us well.’
Edinburgh Corn Exchange, Newmarket Road, 0131 477 3500, 23 Aug, 7pm, sold out. Part of The Edge Festival. Also O2 Academy, Eglinton Street, Glasgow, 24 Aug, 7pm, £22.50.