Beers With...The National's Matt Berninger: 'I write sad songs as a way of staying above water'

I sat down with the revered lyricist to talk anxiety, artistic motivation, misheard lyrics, the new album and unicorn mobiles.

[Beers With… is a new feature consisting of long-form conversations with interesting people over a couple of pints]

Printable version here.

Today we are at Brewdog Camden. Matt drinks Proto Black IPA. Myself 5AM Saint.

CH: Hey Matt, how was soundcheck?

MB: Great thanks, we got it done last night.

What do you tend to do in between soundcheck and playing? I think a lot of people don't realise quite how much time you spend in a band just waiting around.

Tonight I'm actually gonna take a nap, I got up at like 5am because of jetlag. There is a lot of waiting around but it's not so much that as the fact that you're almost never alone on tour, that's the thing that can drive me crazy.

Even though you're playing a smaller venue [Electric Ballroom] tonight with EL VY [his new side project] than you might with The National, do you feel more nervous as the material is less familiar?

I mean the first few shows a little because we didn't have our footing yet, but I have the same level of anxiety whether it's a big festival or a tiny club. A small venue can be just as stressful, but I've learned to be okay with being awkward and feeling uncomfortable on stage, I know that it's kind of part of the vibe, that I'm not super slick.

[A lady interjects, telling Matt her boyfriend is upstairs and slightly wetting himself. The National might not have the biggest fanbase in the world, but certainly one of the most ardent.]

My favourite thing about the EL VY album weirdly might be your repetition of ‘green’ in the line ‘I’ll be the one in the lobby in the green-collared fuck me shirt, the green one’ ['I'mThe Man To Be', Fig. 1].

Haha yeah, you’re actually not the first person to mention that. 

I don't know what it is about that second 'green', like it doesn't serve any function in the sentence but there's something nice about it.

It’s funny that was actually a mistake when I sang it, but I picked it coz it was the most awkward.

Fig. 1

I wanted to ask you whether you feel gratified by your music and your career? I think a lot about how if my 14-year-old self could look into the future and see what I'm doing he'd probably think 'okay, that guy must be having an alright time', but often I still feel unfulfilled or not as happy as I would have imagined.

I’m lucky, I do feel really happy. I mostly feel creatively pretty healthy and satisfied and I do feel a sense of accomplishment as an artist. I think for me - if I'm not making new stuff or trying new things and staying excited creatively that's when I get really depressed. It’s weird, it's like even though The National has been relatively successful the thing that's actually been most satisfying is the writing of the songs themselves. I was always happy when working on songs even when nobody knew who we were and still that's the thing. I'm only happy when I feel like I'm adding something, making a little scratch in the universe, putting something into the world. It doesn't even have to be music, my brother's documentary [Mistaken For Strangers] was an example because I needed to do something other than the music. If I'm not trying new things that's when I get down - success doesn't actually make you happy.

I guess with the songwriting it's something to do with it being an active experience, because once it's finished and in the can and being released then you're more in stasis.

Well the weird thing is when we finish a record I listen to it for three months obsessively and enjoy it like a fan, I geek out over it.

That's interesting, because it does always strike me as bullshit when actors musicians say 'I don't watch or listen to myself', because surely it's healthy, to as an artist.

It's definitely part of the process for me. Although even though I do it for a while I don't then go back very often, like I haven't listened to Alligator or Boxer in a long time. But for the first three or four months after we finish mastering something, it's on heavy rotation and it's my favourite record.

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Do you find it difficult to listen to it with a fresh set of ears though? During the recording/mixing process you become so familiar with the songs that it may as well be Tina Turner or something by a certain point, you can't hear it how a fan would.

I do have a very different relationship to the songs when we finish a record because we've been working on them and been inside them so much. But with The National it's always taken a while for the songs to grow on people, and I'm surprised by that every time because as soon as we're done mastering I think ‘this is great’, but because I've been listening to it so long and they've taken a long time to develop... I think people who like The National go through a similar process with the songs, it often takes them a while to find the ones they really like. I'm usually patient, if people aren't crazy about certain songs at first I know that six months later those deeper cuts might start to become people's favourites.

I've always felt with music reviews, to my detriment, that some people are able to to listen to a record and then immediately be like ‘this is what's great about it’, and I can't do that. If I do it feels dishonest because often six months later there will be a track or element I was originally not that fond of that has since become really resonant.

I’m very impressed with good music journalism, especially with someone who writes a lot. I don't think I could even begin to write a record review without having listened to the thing for a period of several months. It must be hard to find the time just to listen to a record that many times, and to judge it is a whole different thing.

Yeah because listening to it 70 times in two days isn't really the same as listening to it across three months, you'll have a different approach.

Right. I like reading record reviews because it's just fascinating to hear what other people are hearing, I kind of like losing perspective a little bit and going down the rabbit hole and getting lost inside my own idea of what I'm doing. I'll put it in this example, it’s like falling in love with someone, it doesn't matter if the other person is falling in love with you, at least for a while, it's your joy. So, later, that's almost the most satisfying thing about it, you put out a record and then it gets reviewed three months after you've finished - it's almost like being in love with somebody and then three months later they tell you whether or not it's a real relationship. It's exciting, so I read the reviews, and if they're good I'll read them over and over, and if one's bad I will read it once and then try to forget about it.That's part of the excitement of the whole endeavour. It’s like playing a show, it's wracked with so much anxiety over failure and most of the time nobody shows up, most of the time the gig isn't that good and you'll get bad reviews, but when a show is great and people respond to what they're hearing that's the thrill.

Gigs are quite an insular experience for you aren’t they. I know you like to drink on stage.

Yeah I kind of go into a zone and I do drink on stage - it’s part of my way of shaking off how extreme it is. It’s a crutch for sure, but I don't necessarily think of it as a bad thing, I mean obviously drinking too much isn’t good, but for me as a performer it's a part of it.

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That’s understandable, it's fundamentally awkward being up there.

It's a humiliating thing, but that's also why people pack into clubs to watch a handful of people on stage singing love songs, because it's exciting to see people trying to make art. Nine times out of 10 it might not come off, but seeing the failure and seeing the people that keep going on to the next song that's the thing you cheer for. People love music because they want to see other human creatures overcoming anxiety and somehow shedding all the insecurities of the day-to-day, the constant small indignities of life. They want to see someone endeavouring to something more than monotony. I love it, even our bad shows that's part of it too - I bet they're as entertaining to watch as when we're tight and nail it. With a sloppy show, I hate it, I hate it when they're not going well, but also in the middle of a terrible one I do have the ability to be like ‘well I bet it's fun to look at at least’.

I think bands are always perfectionists too, you don't realise that the crowd probably aren't picking up on the fact that someone missed that one note.

I think the moments when an artist kind of loses it a little bit - I do it all the time - I respect it. It's not fun to be inside a panic attack or an insecurity loop or whatever you get into in your head sometimes, but sticking with it... sometimes I’m on stage and I wish I could crawl under the floorboards and disappear, but the fact that then another song comes up and I don't crawl under the floorboards and I stay under the lights and I finish the show, that's the challenge for me. If it was easy, if I enjoyed it all the time honestly I don't know if I would do it, that wouldn't be as interesting.

But in spite of these insecurities, you do feel happy day-to-day?

Yeah.

That's good, that's great!

It is! I mean the biggest thing is being a dad and a husband, those are the things I work hardest on and all that stuff has made me enjoy the music stuff so much more, because it puts it all in perspective.

Speaking of perspective, there's so much noise and constant information around these days that sometimes I find myself fantasising about a simpler life, and it actually made me think of the National documentary and when they go to your parents’ house - your mum's in dungarees covered in paint and surrounded by easels and your dad's down in the garage working with wood - there's something very appealing about how they're living that I can imagine at some point wanting myself.

Yeah, they've actually only been living like that recently, my dad was a lawyer and a really good one but I don't think he massively liked it. He was able to put three kids through college and we’ve been fortunate enough to have been able to go and do whatever we wanted to do, but only now that he's retired I think he's actually doing what he really wants to do which is like, sculpting and making stuff. There's a creek that goes through our yard down in front of the house and it was getting too close to a tree he liked - the creek is as wide as this room - and he redirected it even though it took him like three years. That's what he loves to do.

Fig. 2

That’s wonderful. Do you ever, in your downtime when you're not touring or writing, do you get pleasure from stuff like that?

I like to occupy myself with physical stuff around the house and I like to paint, but then I love writing songs so most days I can't wait to put my headphones on and write, either on tracks or something with my brother or my wife, that’s I think kind of why dad became a lawyer so that I could enjoy that stuff.

I have this theory that it goes in cycles, so a generation will just want to make a load of money for their kids and then the next will have the luxury of being able to fight against that and just want to do creatively satisfying stuff and then the next generation it switches back.

Haha yeah, who knows maybe my daughter will want to be a lawyer.

It annoys me when people talk about The National being ‘depressing’ and I hope that never plays on your mind because for me it's never been that way. Sure there are times when I feel really down and it feels quite cathartic listening to your music but then there will be times when I'm feeling great and I still love to listen to it. 

I've never thought of it as depressing; I do relish melodrama and emotion, I'm a romantic and I love writing about heartbreak and anxiety because it makes me feel better about all those things. I don't have any problems with The National being categorised as dark or sad or depressing. Besides, compared to someone like Nick Cave The National is sunny.

When it comes to songwriting and generally being creative I've always felt that in terms of the headspace that you're in, with a really dark place sometimes you're too caught up in the emotion to be able to write properly or at the other end of the spectrum if you're feeling great then you don't necessarily feel creatively inspired. Is there maybe a middle ground  that you need to be in, or have you been writing for so long now that you can just get stuck into a song regardless of your mood?

Kind of, songwriting generally puts me in a good mood.

So when you write the line ‘God loves everybody, don't remind me' [Graceless’, Fig. 2] - that's such a wonderfully dark line - but you don't have to be in that kind of mindset to write it?

Not really, I think there are a few songs where I’ve dived fully into sadness like ‘About Today’ [Fig. 3], but with most of the songs one verse is funny, the next is really depressing and the next is just abstract. I like it when there's four or five different things going on in the song, even the song ‘Sorrow’ [Fig. 4] actually has a lot of funny shit in, girls coming out of cakes etc. You can mash it all up, so I don't think a song should just be one thing it should be a collage and filled with a lot of different stuff.

Fig. 3

Fig. 4

I've been thinking a lot about what motivates people to create, and intention, and getting kind of caught up about it. You know, so do you make music to make money? In indie probably not because it's fucking hard work. Do you do it because it feels like an outlet for your emotions? Do you do it because you feel like it's something people can relate to?

I think personally I just wanted to make songs that I would listen to. Music is my favourite thing; I like it more than movies, I like it more than novels, I like it more than paintings. When you work on a song it's like you can smell it, you can taste it if there's a good song here, sometimes you end up never finding it but that process is so exciting to me.

Having ruminated on love and anxiety for such a long time do you feel like you've drawn any conclusions?

It’s not that I've figured out answers but being able to put into some form of expression the confusion and the anxiety and the fear and the loneliness and the heartbreak and the desire... you don't solve those things but just by writing them down it helps you sort of own them. The songs I write are sad but they're a way of staying above water. I think if I wasn't writing about this stuff then I might sink into an actual depression.

So you feel an element of catharsis?

Yeah it's a cathartic thing, it's like talking to a really good friend about a problem and saying ‘Here's the shit that I’ve got in my head that's fucked up’, and that's why people love the songs I think, because it makes them feel less alone in the world. Sadness, insecurity, self-loathing, libido...they’re all problems but they’re slightly less of a problem if I can turn them into a song.

I find that very reassuring.

Yeah it helps you move on from it all. When I do get depressed I'm like ‘Alright well let's see what I can make out if it this confusing mess'. The stuff that I connect to and feel that becomes literature to me is the stuff that that really talks about genuinely complicated tangles of internal desires and fears. There’s two types of music to me - When I first heard Morrissey I felt that there was something truthful happening that I wasn't hearing in the other kind, stuff like AC/DC. Not that it isn't there, but...

It's a different experience.

It's a different type of thing. I felt like I was this boy with the thorn in his side who’d never been outside of Ohio, and to see this strange peacock of a man from Manchester who put it better than I'd ever heard anybody put it made me feel connected with the world and makes you respect yourself when you see someone else respecting their own issues.

Art is something that makes you want to create art, isn't it?

Yeah.

Like I hear you write something beautiful about your experience of the world and it makes me want to write something that explains how I feel about mine.

And it’s such a weird thing because it's unnecessary, right? Art serves no actual, tangible purpose. It doesn't feed anyone, it doesn't give them any physical nutrients, it really doesn't change politics I don't think - I'm very sceptical about whether music has had much of an effect - if it did then the United States wouldn't be 30 years behind where it should be, it wouldn't have taken this long for gay marriage and for the fucking Confederate flag to come down - but it does make people feel connected to one another and less alone in the world. You know, why do people sing along to another person's song? It’s because they're singing about something that's bothering them and bothering everybody in the room.

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A couple of simple of questions. What is your favourite room in your house?

I think my daughter's room. Actually it's funny, I'm on tour a lot so she sleeps in the bed with my wife and gets used to that, so when I come home half the time I sleep in her room which is full of like, princess stuff. I kind of love it, there's a projected rainbow every night on the ceiling and a little music box. I actually wrote a lot of the EL VY record there, in a room with unicorns floating around on a mobile.

Ha, the song ‘Sleeping Light’ makes more sense now.

A dear friend sent me a voice note late at night recently after he'd been listening to a National record and he was like, ‘I can't get this one line out of my head’. I can't remember which song it's in off hand but the line was 'Learn to appreciate the void' ['IShould Live in Salt', Fig. 5] and he really wanted to know what that spoke to or where that came from.

I think it's maybe about accepting loss. That song is about coming to a certain level of peace with a loss or a distance or a broken relationship. It’s a little mysterious though. I would say a lot of the lyrics I'm not sure quite what they mean but it approximates a sense of a feeling and sometimes I think just giving a blurry approximation of an idea is as close as you can actually get.

That's kind of the beauty of it I guess. There's actually been a few of your lyrics that I've misheard for the longest time but they work for me that way, for example I always heard ‘I defend my family with my orange umbrella’ as ‘I defend my family with my arms umbrella’ ['I'm Afraid of Everyone', Fig. 6] and ‘Ada I can hear the sound of your laugh through the wall’ as ‘Ada I can hear the sound of your life through the wall’ ['Ada', Fig. 7].

Yeah, and they’re probably better! I usually avoid putting lyrics in most of our records because I think it might be better not to know, the blurry ones are the ones that keep you sort of connected. I do also like the lines that are really sincere and specific though, you've gotta have a little of both and also just some really stupid stuff.

You do, you have to temper it with something that's wilfully dumb.

A friend of mine said a song has to be 20% stupid otherwise it's just irritating. Music is such a subjective, strange, amoebic, uncontrollable thing and that's why it's so appealing. Also I like how there’s no visual element - I’ve always thought music videos tend to diminish music.

Fig. 5

I agree, and album covers have always felt dissonant to me too. At least with music videos they're set to the music so feel in some way cohesive, but artwork just seems so abstract and I wonder how you guys feel about that decision process - when it comes to releasing an album and you're like 'Okay fuck, we've gotta find a visual that somehow encapsulates this record.’

I actually quite like that part about it but it's more shooting a music video I find strange. I get that they serve a purpose and they're fun but... my brother's been making most of ours and for me spending a lot of money on a music video is just a terrible idea. 

I like that with the one for 'Graceless' [Fig. 2] it was just you guys drinking beers and throwing yourselves down a slip ‘n slide.

I just want to have fun with making videos and not let them be a stress or a burden.

Doing this work on EL VY, has it made you feel refreshed going back to The National? What kind of effect has it had on you?

I think The National need to do other things to keep us excited about The National.

I was at a screening of The Revenant the other day and noticed in the credits Bryce [Dessner, guitarist] did some work on the score.

Yeah, Bryce has a whole other career and so does Aaron as a producer, so the side projects have helped us stay together and I think it motivates us 'coz we're all quite ambitious and competitive. Like I know this EL VY thing has made those guys wanna get back and do new stuff - it's all good, it's a healthy thing.

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Fig. 7

I know you guys were in New York recently and did a lot of writing together on the next album holed up in an apartment, Do you tend to write when all in the same location, or is there a lot of riffs sent around in emails too?

We do a lot of both. Aaron and Bryce always send me stuff and I put on my laptop and my headphones and just sing along and explore stuff and then we get together, jam it out and tear it all apart. We're trying to get in a room together more often for the next record and that's been really fun, not tinkering over things obsessively on our own. We’ve been getting a lot of loose ideas together and just fucking around and having a blast for like a week. We also want to play a lot of songs live before we record them this time as it can help us better figure them out.

And it needs to be organic as well doesn't it, it rings false when people are like 'So what's the sound gonna be?’ There's not a ‘sound’ as such, you don't approach it like ‘I'm gonna make this kind of album’, you just have to let it find its own identity.

Yeah definitely. I mean sometimes we've had ideas of what kind of sound to go for but usually what we start out going for changes into something else along the way. Most of the time we don't like to have too much of a plan and just see what comes out of it organically, because everyone's got different ideas of what they want to do the next time round and it's good if everybody is pulling in different directions.

To completely contradict myself, the stuff that you've been writing...

Haha, what does it sound like? 

Yeah, or what's been playing on your mind when you've been writing this album.

Some of the songs feel quite different. There were ones being kicked around that felt like the best version of that kind of song we've ever done, but we've done it before - even if it's the best National song I'm not sure if we need another 'great National song’ - I'd rather try to do some other stuff and fall on our face than make another record that is interchangeable, you know. Not that I think that of the other records but I know we need to change, we need to evolve.

That’s never bothered me as a listener actually. Obviously you want to progress but more of the same is also good to me!

Yeah I don’t mean it like we're in trouble if we don't change, it's just we all want to. We have all these itches we want to scratch...but then again sometimes there's a song and we're like ‘Yeah okay that could have been on any of those other records but it's so good we really wanna keep it.’ So I don't know, I don't over-strategise it too much.

Thanks Matt, enjoy your nap and I hope the show goes well.

Thanks man.

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