Date: December 2, 2007
Location: Rockefeller Music Hall, Oslo
Interview subject: Matt Berninger, The National
Background info: The National are a band from Cincinnati, Ohio but now based in Brooklyn, New York. They comprise Matt Berninger (vocals) and two pairs of brothers – Aaron Dessner (guitar, bass, piano) and Bryce Dessner (guitar) plus Bryan Devendorf (drums) and Scott Devendorf (bass, guitar). Their fourth album Boxer was The Pop Cop’s album of the year.
The Pop Cop went on a 1262-mile round trip to interview THE NATIONAL in Oslo. If you think that’s dedication, it’s nothing compared to the band themselves, who played 114 shows in 223 days from May to December. Their relaxed and charming frontman Matt Berninger greeted us with a warm handshake at gig No.109 to talk candidly about everything from religion and politics to superstars and supermodels.
Do you enjoy Christmas?
When I was a little kid I loved it but then I went through a phase of social anxiety around the big family stuff during adolescence when I was a grumpy, weird kid. Holidays always kinda freaked me out. Now my sister has two little daughters and it’s a much smaller, nuclear Christmas. There’s something nice about just being with your mom and dad and your brother and sister and your brother-in-law. My wife Carin will be there too and watching her kids open presents…[pauses] I’m starting to really like Christmas again.
How was the band’s European tour?
We went to Zagreb three years ago and there were 60 people at that show, which we were actually really surprised about because I think it was before Alligator came out. This time there were 1200… I don’t know if we’ve sold any records there but people certainly have it! It was loud, as was Glasgow and Ireland, none of us could hear anything. Even the slow songs like Racing Like A Pro, everybody was screaming at the top of their lungs [does hoarse mock-yell] “YOU’RE… MIND… IS…!”. I’m assuming many bands/musicians have that weird moment when something they wrote in their bedroom is being sung back to them by 1000 people they’ve never met.
What was it like meeting Michael Stipe and Mike Mills of REM after your London show?
They were really nice. Michael’s very charming and sweet. He’d seen us once before at a festival and came up afterwards and introduced himself to me. He said, “Hey, how are you doing? I’m Michael.” Obviously, he’s Michael! He’s such an icon. Not the least bit weird. I don’t know why you always expect famous people to be weird – I always do. But most of the time they aren’t. Bruce Springsteen, who I didn’t meet personally but the other guys did, was just very down to earth and easy to talk to. You can ask them stupid questions about songs and they’re happy to talk about it. I asked Mike Mills, “How do they stay friends?” because it’s hard, you live on a bus. And he said something like, “Well, just remember you were friends before the band started.”
It was Scott’s birthday that night so he got a cake backstage after the show and Michael and Mike sang Happy Birthday. It’s funny, Scott has also had Gwen Stefani sing Happy Birthday to him. Scott and his wife Liz, who is a fashion designer for Gwen’s label L.A.M.B., were in LA and Gwen and Gavin Rossdale asked them to come to their house where they had a big cake for him. He’s had all these celebrities singing Happy Birthday to him.
When that kind of stuff happens I immediately email all my friends. Helena Christensen came up to me after a show once, so [mimes typing gesture] ‘I was talking to Helena, I couldn’t hang out too long. She wanted to party but I told her I was married’.
Have you ever heard a National song on the radio?
Yeah, it’s happened a couple of times. It’s been weirder when I’ve been walking down the street and heard our song coming out of Gap. My aunt was at a highway reststop and heard Fake Empire in the restroom.
Can you play any instruments?
I’m lucky to be in a band but I never learned how to play anything. When I was a kid I took piano lessons but I was bad at it. It caused me so much anxiety that it left a bad taste. Art was the thing I did. I drew and painted and I would take art classes all the time in school. I listened to endless college rock and The Smiths. I kinda became that artsy-fartsy guy but I never learned how to play a guitar.
Mr November was partly written about John Kerry. Does American politics inspire you?
It comes into our music in small, non-political ways if that makes any sense. For instance, Fake Empire has no political message in it at all, but it has been interpreted that way. That song is just as much about trying to forget politics. It was never intended to be a critique of American apathy or whatever – maybe there’s a bit of that, but it’s more a self-critique of my own apathy and not wanting to pay attention any more.
When Bush won a second time, I think most liberal thinking…[pauses] it was so depressing. I just put my head in the sand, tried not to think about it and hoped to wake up four years later and it would be over. If there’s a theme on Boxer that’s definitely one of them – trying to escape from thinking about the things that are just too depressing and difficult to figure out. It’s getting really exciting now, though.
Does religion influence your thinking?
Probably only on the level of being frustrated with people taking the easy road with religion… not making decisions on things that are abstract. In America, the reason we have George Bush twice in a row is because, according to Religious Rights, gays are against God. That’s just a silly, absurd thing and that’s where religion just fucks the world up [looks up and shakes his head]. If it ever comes into songs it’s because I’m annoyed with it. On the other hand, I do absolutely respect and understand faith and I do have faith in something spiritual [starts picking at bit of sticky tape on table]. But organised religion bugs me a lot.
Is the band’s documentary [A Skin, A Night] finished?
It’s in its final stages of editing. It’s not a full-on documentary. Vincent Moon was with us in the studio for just a short period while we were making Boxer, then he was with us on tour for a little while. It will probably come out with a CD of live material and other unreleased things, B-sides and stuff, that’s the idea. Hopefully it will be out early next year.
What direction will the next album take?
I don’t know. Right now – and this might be a failed experiment – we’re trying to write songs that are very simple and straightforward. That’s my idea. The other guys are like, “Fuck that!”. We didn’t know what Boxer was going to be like until it was almost finished, so we have no idea what to do next.
4 The National – Lucky You