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Interview with Matt Berninger from The National

Our friend Eduardo Rabasa, author of A Zero-Sum Game (Deep Vellum, 2016), co-founder of Sexto Piso, one of the largest independent publisher companies in Latin America, and longtime collaborator with The Wild Detectives, interviewed Matt Berninger, The National’s charismatic front man, in Mexico City for the national newspaper La Razón. Here’s a transcription of that interview, in which Berninger opens up about his creative process.

Matt Berninger and Eduardo Rabasa
Matt Berninger and Eduardo Rabasa. Photo by Shadia Cure for La Razón

Our friend Eduardo Rabasa, author of A Zero-Sum Game (Deep Vellum, 2016), co-founder of Sexto Piso, one of the largest independent publisher companies in Latin America, and longtime collaborator with The Wild Detectives, interviewed Matt Berninger, The National’s charismatic front man, in Mexico City for the national newspaper La Razón. Here’s a transcription of that interview, in which Berninger opens up about his creative process.

Eduardo Rabasa: I wanted to begin by asking you about your latest record and how it came to be, as in an interview you had with Mike Mills you said, perhaps half-jokingly, that it all began with an e-mail he sent you, which is a very unique way for a record to begin, and then how the film influenced the songs, then the songs the film back, so I wonder if you could expand on this process a little bit.

Matt Berninger: We’d just put out Sleep Well Beast, and my friend Casey Reese had done all the videos for that, so we were just finishing that whole package, all the videos and everything. We were at a phase where we were about to go out on tour, to promote that record, and that’s when he wrote, and I think he was thinking about doing some sort of video or working with us for that record. I was such a huge fan of his, and I was so excited that he reached out that right away I said, if you’ve got some free time and you want to work with us, let’s work together on something for a little while. I didn’t want to lose him. I was trying to pull him in further than just one video, and right away I started talking with him about more than one video, and I sent new music, I said, well, here’s all this new music, ‘cause we were anxious to just keep moving forward. So, when he got that he started to get very excited about the possibilities of what he could do with all that.

At the same time, Alicia Vikander had reached out to him and said she wanted to work with him. And he said, I’m maybe going to start working on this weird project with The National, and she was a fan, apparently, and they started talking about this idea for this film. We had this half-baked songs, not even half-baked, they were the beginning of songs. Some of them were finished, like Rylan (we didn’t know what to do with Rylan, yet), and a few other things were further along, I can’t remember which ones, but, he then started just taking all those songs and pulling them apart, and we gave him stams, which are, the drums alone, and all the strings alone, and all the vocals alone, and he actually deconstructed the stuff we gave him and pulled it apart and was putting musical bits disconnected from all the other musical things that we had designed and put together as a song. He was using them as paints in his films in all these other ways, and that really just cracked open the opportunity for us to go into it and write new songs, and to write those songs in new ways. By bringing somebody in who’s never done anything like producing a record, but somebody who knows very well how to work with sound and work with storytelling and all that kind of stuff, he was put right in the middle of our process. We kind of put him in the driver’s seat in a lot of things and let him lead the project in a lot of ways.

ER: It’s interesting that the film is obviously about the life of a woman, but it wasn’t necessarily what you had in mind when you had written these first versions of the songs.

MB: Well, the songs that were written before we gave them to Mike, songs like Rylan, that was already about a sort of an androgynous character, but I did think of Rylan as a woman, so that kind of felt right for this project. And then, my wife has been writing with us for a long time and I write about women, a lot, a lot of it is about my wife, a lot of it is about being a father –as I have a 10 year old daughter–, so it was very easy for me and for my wife to be able to write for this character, as we were both writing from her perspective, and just from our own perspectives, we were writing about ourselves a lot, and Mike was writing about himself, but all through this character or the network of characters that you meet with her. Alicia’s character, a female embodying the person in the film, allowed us to really dig into that, lean into that. I was writing very much from the idea of my daughter, the idea of my wife, and all that kind of stuff, and my own, so it gave us a flexible costume or something for us to be able to write even more honestly. You know how in Halloween sometimes you feel more honest and more yourself and you feel freer when you’re dressed up as something else, so in a funny way Alicia was our costume, even Mike’s, in order to tell our own personal stories a little bit, too, and communicate them in a subtle way to everyone. You have to be personal for anything to connect, I think in any writing you always have to write about yourself, even though you’re going to put it through a character or through a play, or a movie or a song. That’s the packaging, but the writing is usually really personal.

ER: In terms of the vocal presence of the women who are singing in the record. Did you or your wife write specifically for a female singer, as if you were writing a stage play for that character, knowing that you yourself were not going to sing that?

MB: We knew that we were going to bring in a lot of other singers, but I think when we were writing the songs, I don’t think my wife or I had any idea so specifically that a specific part was going to be sung by a female voice. The lyrics and the voices that we use in the record and in the film aren’t gender-cast in any way, necessarily. A lot of the female vocals are singing songs that I wrote from my perspective and I’m singing a lot of songs that my wife wrote, like, for example, Hey Rosey. On a number of them that I’m the lead singer, she wrote most of the lyrics. But we’ve been doing that forever. She’s written a lot of lyrics in which I’ve often been the personification of her ideas. So, I also allow myself to be the personification of other people’s ideas, and I allow my ideas to be personified by other singers, and Alicia in the film and all that kind of stuff. So, that liberates me and I think Carin as well, to write maybe more honestly, knowing that someone else is going to be doing it.

how can you be an artist and not make art about the fabric of your contemporary time?

And we’re working on a musical too, a stage play, so there’s a bunch of actors, singers and dancers, there’s a whole production, but we’re writing the songs. It’s exciting to write and have someone else deliver it and perform it and it changes it entirely in very exciting ways, so we wanted to do that, we wanted to break the mold of what our band sounded like. I sing so much that, just because my wife also writes so much, I think people thought of our band as sort of my personal diary entries, which they are, about 75%, but there’s a lot more to the band than that. I think I was maybe more anxious than anybody to get out of the spotlight, to not be the tip of the spear, or something like that.

ER: I don’t know if you agree with this, but I think that I am Easy to Find might be a less political album in a way than Sleep Well Beast, for example, but I was curious about the song Not in Kansas, specifically about the verse “I can’t go back there anymore/Since alt-right opium went viral”. Is this song, with its reference to The Wizard of Oz, is it talking about the impossibility to go back home as if it was the break-up of the American Dream?

MB: Yeah, that song was written really fast, very stream-of-consciousness, really really fast. There were another 12 stances that we didn’t even use. I’m usually just pouring everything into the song all the time, I’m usually not saying, “Oh, that’s for this song, this goes into that bucket for that song, this idea fits right for that song”. I never do that. All the songs have a lot of ideas in them. Some of the ideas maybe touch on politics, like the alt-right and the stuff in Ohio, yeah, but I think the other stuff is just as political. I think any love song, any song that is empathizing with complex emotions and with weird, hard to untangle knots, emotional, political, social, family, all that stuff is political. By just referencing issues, or politicians or something like that isn’t what makes something political. I think a good love song, where you’re honest about your own emotions and your own situation, is often much more political than the direct stuff.

Still, you can’t separate politics from art. I don’t know why anybody would. It’s like, why would you separate love or sex or humor, from your art? It’s part of the fabric of stuff that we’re all chewing on and digesting and processing. If you’re keeping it out of your art, you’re stressed. I don’t think you have to put a platform, but I don’t know how people avoid politics, just with what’s happening, especially now, but anytime. I think someone like Nina Simone, the idea of not being engaged politically in everything, made no sense to her. I mean, how can you be an artist and not make art about the fabric of your contemporary time? I don’t know of anybody who cannot think about what’s going on and not lay awake at night, anywhere, no matter where you live. I don’t know how any American can avoid thinking seriously about what’s happening right now. And any artist who avoids it in their art, I don’t know what they are making, it doesn’t seem like it would be art, to me, because an artist puts it all out there, puts everything that’s going on and I don’t know how a human mind can filter all of that out. I can’t, so, I don’t try.

ER: In that sense, you know that your music has been referred to as depressive, or dark, or reflecting an ambience of the times. I don’t know if you like The Simpsons, but there is an episode in which Homer is touring with Sonic Youth and The Smashing Pumpkins and others, and when he meets Billy Corgan he tells him: “Thanks to your gloomy music, my kids have stopped dreaming of a future I can’t possibly provide”. (Matt laughs). To which Billy Corgan replies: “Thanks. We try to make a difference”. I’m not saying that you’re happy making people depressed, but I think people do connect with the feeling in your music because it’s something that’s out there.

MB: None of us think of our band as a depressing band. We know that term is used, but the reaction to our music is the opposite. I feel myself relieved of sorrow and depression and anxiety while I write about stuff. I don’t think much of our stuff is that depressing. Yeah, it’s about relationships and they look at the edge, it looks deep into the pit, it pulls the onion apart all the way as much as you can, and, why not dig into the center of the soft spot, and why not grab the live wire, why not go out in the middle of the lake with the thin ice, when you’re making art, because you can’t die, no one gets hurt. You have a responsibility, and there are consequences to irresponsible art, but I think you have to throw it all in there, you have to be irresponsible and reckless and fearless with all that stuff.

So, the depressing stuff, maybe I throw more of it into songs, but I don’t feel I’m more depressed than those people, I think I’m pretty happy, and I think it’s because I make something out of all of that stuff, and I think that’s what people love about it. People come in flocks and people are lining up to sing these really sad things out loud together. And sometimes people come to our shows alone, and most of these songs are written alone, and to see all these thousands of people all together singing them with such pleasure and joy and getting drunk, you know, there is something very very very very very healthy about making art out of all of our biggest fears and our biggest self-loathings, the things we hate the most about ourselves and the things that the world tells us we should be ashamed of. Even though we maybe should, you still make art about these things because you get to know yourself better. I feel like I know myself better for having thought about all this stuff and trying to make something out of it all.

Matt Berninger
Matt Berninger. Photo by Shadia Cure.

ER: Music and songs can mean many things to people, and I was thinking about this in terms of one of your songs that I like the most, Mr. November. I always thought you were singing about a parody of this character who sees himself as “the new blue blood” and “the great white hope,” but then I read it had to do with people like John Kerry, politicians running for president, and that Obama used it on the campaign trail.

MB: Mr. November is about someone who… I remember thinking, “What kind of mind would want to be president of the United States?” It takes a bit of delusional… You gotta be kind of a crazy person to think, “Yeah, I can do that”. And I think at the time I was just imagining: how do you pump yourself up in the mirror, to go out and say, “I’m going to be the president of the United States of America”? It draws the finest and the worst, those who want to stand up and say that. So Mr. November was pre-Obama, he was a senator at the time, so even though he was already on the radar, that song wasn’t about Obama. It’s not a cheerleading song for “I’m going to be president”. It’s much more of a Travis- Bickle-in-the-mirror sort of pumping yourself up, putting up your suit and thinking “I have what it takes to take on that”. Which is crazy. So I think the song is about the absurdity of ego.

ER: But it’s funny that Obama did use it…

MB: Yeah, that’s great. With Obama, he became a really inspiring president, a very inspiring voice, in what had been far from inspiring my whole life. I had never been inspired by that many politicians. Fake Empire was written in a different way, in a sense of trying to turn it all off and avoiding all, and ironically that became probably our most political song. It’s been used in the most political sort of contexts, and I like that, as long as it’s used by the people I like.

ER: And The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness –which, by the way, I have to show you this (and I show him a tatoo of the title of the song in my arm, to which he replies “Oh, nice”), – is it a song about the United States of Donald Trump?

MB: You know what’s so interesting is that right before we finished that song, the chorus of that song was “Aaron takes his acid trip through Copenhaguen”. (You’ll notice it has the same number of syllables, I think). We loved the song, but there was something not working about it, and my wife, right before, it was literally the day we were supposed to finish and master it, it was all done, she said “You know, I think the lyrics for that one aren’t right”, so she went back and found some mumbled stuff –because I just mumble lots of stuff over tracks, and go back and see if I can find ideas in there–, so she went back to see if she could find one thing that had me try another lyric, we were looking for the chorus, and she found something that she said sounded like I said The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness. So, nobody knows what I was mumbling, but she heard that bit and we thought “Here we go”, and so, you could have had tattooed in your arm “Aaron takes his acid trip through Copenhaguen”.

So that’s an example of how sometimes you think you know that a song is finished and you’re done, and then at the last minute you think it isn’t as good as it should be, that it could be a better song, and sometimes it’s the lyrics. So that was a good example, when she said “You haven’t done your job yet, everyone else did a good job”, and so she pulled a lot of that song together and she ended writing up a lot of that song, and many others. She’s been an editor and a writer since the day I met her, and that is a perfect example of what a good editor and a good writer can do. She’s a member of the band. I would think of our band as 20 or 25 people now, and she’s been in it for almost 15 years.

But, what does the song mean? I think the reason we liked it is that sometimes things have to fall completely apart for you to figure out how to put them back together. I’m of the opinion that there is significant damage being done globally by the strongmen, but I think also a lot of people are waking up to how corrupt the entire network is, and how connected the entire network is, globally, the whole game, the whole system: the oil, and the power and the corporations and Wall Street and big tech and the media, it’s a massive, interconnected, rigged system, and I think people are realizing how corrupt and rigged it is, and mostly for men, for white men, mostly. The catholic church is a rigged system for white men, and all these things. That is, for a younger generation, people under 50, under 40, a significant number, enough, are realizing that small changes, incremental changes, got us nowhere. Obama did manage to bring a certain level of health care to the US, but we have to make much more significantly large changes and I think that’s about to happen.

I’m excited about what the next generation of politicians and artists are going to start doing.

So, I think we’re in the darkness, though I think it’s actually lighter than it was a little while ago. I think the darkness is starting to crack, the light is starting to crack through. I think that song is an acknowledgement of the fact that this pendulum swing, this minor pendulum swing, has not been enough to move the world forward, and Trump is this massive swing that is making us realize that we need to break the pendulum, smash it, throw it on the floor and start all over again. And I’m excited about what the next generation of politicians and artists are going to start doing. They’re already doing it, with the language that people are talking with. It’s changing fast and it’s like the tide going way out, it’s way out, it’s nasty, we’re in dead low, and it feels, I feel it, like a big thing is about to shift. I feel more enlightened, more educated, I feel like I know the world a little better, how it works and what my role in it is, than I did a couple of years ago. I think Trump, and what’s happening in America, and what’s happening in Britain and what’s happening all over the place is enlightening. It’s been enlightening to me, and ultimately I feel healthier of mind and with a better plan for what I’m going to do. I think I would have been more in the dark had Trump not won, and it’s terrible, because genuine real damage and genuine real suffering, undoable, unfixable stuff is happening. But also, an awareness that we have to change it drastically from the center out. It’s daunting to think that everything points to the fact that it’s impossible, but I don’t think it is. Massive change has happened in these phases, the civil rights at least in America in the 60s and 70s, that was just a pre-tremor for what’s about to happen.

ER: So you think something good might come out of this…

MB: I think a lot. Well, a lot of terrible things are coming out. People are losing their lives and people are suffering, but I do believe that so many more people know that even tweaking that entirely corrupt system, it’s still just an entirely corrupt system, that tweaks aren’t going to do it, so, I’d rather lose to Trump again from a progressive, much more visionary and healthier place, than to win from an unhealthy center, that’s already corrupt. It doesn’t work at all.

Trump got elected after Obama. How it’ll work, I don’t know, but it feels like it’s going to, it feels like it must. So, I feel optimistic.

ER: I wanted to ask you about projects like your brother’s documentary Mistaken for Strangers, in which through a metanarrative of a film on the impossibility of making a film, you expose the –I don’t know how you say this in English¬– insides of the band

MB: You pull the curtain back and allow to see.

ER: Yeah, exactly. And also about this piece you did with an artist in which you played Sorrow non-stop for about 6 hours…

MB: Oh, yeah, Ragnar Kjartansson.

ER: Yeah. So those are for me two examples in which the The National project goes beyond the music, to become more wholesome artistically, maybe like bands such as Pink Floyd have done before. So, I wanted to ask you about your views on this and how you conceive your art as an expression that incorporates other elements, besides obviously the music.

MB: When you start a rock band, you name your rock band and you name your first album and it seems like the whole world, it seems like your whole world. All of our identity has become “Matt, from the National”, and “Bryan, the drummer of the National”, everybody is this person from this thing, and it’s great, that’s what you want, for your band to be famous so that your band is known before your own first name, and it’s amazing. But I think all of us think, after so long, that this idea of what a band is was disingenuous to the reality, meaning what it is to keep five friends and their families and everything else that comes together and how you travel and things evolve. And it’s not The Beatles, which weren’t The Beatles for very long, and everybody has this romantic idea of a rock band, and some bands like U2 or The Rolling Stones can keep that idea of that band together forever, but it becomes a brand, it becomes a logo at a certain point, and we didn’t want to be out there as The National playing The National’s hits. We wanted to keep evolving, as artists, in everything we’re doing –everybody had different bands before this band and everybody is working with different people, and everybody has ambitions beyond just making rock records and touring– and so, when other artists from other fields are saying “Hey, come and be your band but I want to do something different from the idea of a band”, like Ragnar had us playing one song over and over…

ER: How many hours was it?

MB: We played it like 104, 105 times, it was six hours…

ER: And did you sing it…

MB: Consecutively, yes. I think I took one bathroom break, but everyone took their break and then came right back on. Ragnar even brought us chicken wings and coffee. But his idea was: what is a band?, what is a song?, what happens to a song when you play it so many times? He was obsessed with that song, he would listen to it on repeat, and then the song began evolving for him and he wanted to see if that would happen to us. So, all that kind of idea, breaking apart the idea of what is a song, what is a performance, what is a band, what is a video, what is a record. These are really flexible ideas: a record can be a lot of different things, it doesn’t have to be 45 minutes broken into 12 different ideas, the whole thing could be one idea. Maybe there’s no record, maybe there is just a film. There was a time where we thought: “Maybe we won’t put the record out, we just put the film out”. All that stuff is interesting because it opens up all these windows and doors for us to try things.

Our band puts all of our kids through college, and it’s the luckiest thing in the world that a group of friends started an art business and people are buying the art, and you do it with a bunch of friends, together. There is something so crazy about that. But it also gets weird, because if you make a movie with your five best friends and then you made another movie with your five best friends and for twenty years you tried to make another movie with the same exact team… that sometimes can feel like it’s really hard to make the kind of movies you want to make. And all of us, we started making movies that people thought The National should make. We didn’t do much of that, but at times it felt like we were servicing a fan base, or trying to give them what they expected, and that’s right where we hit creative walls and start fighting and not getting along, because for everybody, the internal motivations weren’t there. The internal motivations sometimes are to quit this band and to work with other people. Once we let those motivations be healthy and be welcome in the band, we just bring other people, so the band has become a network of friends that try to respect each other and get together as much as possible and make songs. So that’s what our band is.

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Eduardo Rabasa

Eduardo Rabasa (b. 1978) is the founding editorial director of Sexto Piso, Mexico’s most prominent independent publishing house and winner of the 2004 International Young Publisher of the Year Award. He studied political science at Mexico’s National University (UNAM), where he graduated with a thesis on the concept of power in the works of George Orwell. He writes a weekly column for the national newspaper Milenio, and has translated books by authors including Morris Berman, George Orwell, and Somerset Maugham. He's the author of A Zero-Sum Game (Deep Vellum, 2016), El destino es un conejo que te da ordenes (Pepitas 2019) and Cinta negra (Pepitas 2017).