Matt Berninger discusses politics in art, identity, and the soup that helped create the band’s new album
About a decade ago, The National began to creep into the American subconscious. Boxer was the record’s name. It was the band’s fourth, and had a strong, blue collar moniker that reminded listeners of blood, sweat, and overwhelming odds. Now, the band is releasing their seventh studio album, Sleep Well Beast, and they have become synonymous with the ethos of our age.
Sincere, honest, doing the best we can to stop our individual worlds from crumbling, The National are able to show the delicate place we all find ourselves in with each passing day. The Cincinnati-born, New York-bred quintet touch on those spots without being overtly emotional. There’s a certain amount of masculinity in their melancholy, and as lead singer Matt Berninger explains, “I do find The National music really funny or at least it is touching the emotional spots that are right next to funny, and sometimes misery, and those things, sadness and hilarity, are just right next to each other.”
Berninger’s place in society and the moves he has made across the country constantly sit in the basement of his brain, “I’m a 46-year-old, married, white, American guy in a rock band that started in Cincinnati, and now, whatever, I live in L.A.” I never would have thought that’s who I am and what I would do, or much less be a musician,” he explains. His sense of the American ethos is one made of fragments. They are pulled from the Midwest and both coasts, movies and books, art and inner turmoil. “All that stuff is part of the soup,” the singer says about his songwriting, “It’s more of a collaging exercise.”
Sleep Well Beast finds the band dealing with the challenges of a long marriage. Relationships have always been at the center of Berninger’s lyrics, but here things seem to be teetering more than ever. For a band whose songs have always peered inward, the tracks seem to mix well with the growing sense of instability currently felt through our nation. “I just don’t know how any artist now isn’t untangling it, isn’t working with it, isn’t trying to figure it out,” says the singer about politics as reflected in art. The rumblings inside and out can be felt across the band’s new record.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with Matt Berninger to discuss the role of the artist, find out about his dark sense of humor, and learn about the soup that helped feed Sleep Well Beast.
Christopher Friedmann: So we are talking because you are about to release your new album, Sleep Well Beast. Just to start, how is the mood in camp?
Matt Berninger: Very good. I’m assuming you mean collectively at National headquarters amongst the advisers. Administration is pretty good, pretty solid. We have been getting along. Everybody has been so busy with so many things over the past few years that I think whenever we worked on National stuff, and even now with the record coming out, it is sort of the thing we all feel is like, “Okay, that’s healthy, that’s good, now we can really focus on the other things,” so we started respecting The National in a way, a few years ago, that it’s… we take it really seriously. We don’t do the kind of things that put it in jeopardy the way we used to, just friendship-wise and basic lifestyle stuff. So we kind of crossed over I think with Trouble Will Find Me, so we’ve kind of operated in this different mental space since then. A lot of it is just having kids and different stuff like that. Obvious things that realign your priorities and the way you live life.
CF: You and your wife work closely together on your lyrics, even more so this time around. Understandably, this means you talk about yourself a lot, but Sleep Well Beast is as much about your marriage with the band as it is with your wife. How do you separate your bleak National persona from the comedic person you seem to be outside of it?
MB: [Laughs.] I thought you were about to ask me about marriage and stuff [laughs] so I was preparing for a much more difficult thing to answer. The funny thing is, I do find The National music really funny or at least it is touching the emotional spots that are right next to funny, and sometimes misery, and those things, sadness and hilarity, are just right next to each other a lot of the time. And sometimes, the solution to a major, major complicated, tangled problem might be simple and funny, or just make fun of it, and that’s the best way to kill it, or something like that. I’ll write a song about it. That’s the best way to understand it, get around, through, or on top of, just whatever.
I always think of the music – I do chew on stuff that causes me anxiety and fear and the things I want and pine for, so everything sounds sad, but I don’t think of it as sad, it’s just more looking for something, which might sound yearning or panged, but I never really think of it as sad. Obviously sometimes, it’s like, “Okay, just let those ugly, blurry feelings out in some sort of word jumble that approximates the emotion and put a beat behind it and it’s just cathartic.”
The sadness of it is kind of just a release aside and it always makes me feel really good, so I think the fact that I’m a happier person than people think in general [laughs] is because I release a lot of the tension and garbage. I make a song out of it.
CF: As a writer, you seem to pull a lot from literature, Tennessee Williams on “City Middle” to the album title High Violet to John Cheever on “Carin in the Liquor Store”. Can you take us through a little bit of your writing process and tell us where your ideas stem from?
MB: I will say, I throw writers in a lot and stuff not because I’m an academic scholar of their work by any means, but I’m definitely inspired. Cheever is somebody who has inspired me just in general in his work. But other things, sometimes I just steal a little moment, or like, I haven’t read that much Tennessee Williams, but I do know enough. I know more about Paul Newman than I know about Tennessee Williams, let’s put it that way, so that line from that song just stuck with me because of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and it is probably because of Paul Newman more than it is – am I getting my movies mixed up right now? Actually it doesn’t matter. I don’t even know if I’m talking about the right movie right now, but my point is it doesn’t matter. All that stuff I let pop in. I do the same thing with songs. There’s Violent Femmes’ lyrics on Trouble Will Find Me and there are other people’s lyrics, and there are other people’s melodies sometimes [laughs]. I should be careful, my lawyer is like, “Shut the f*** up.”
My point is, sometimes maybe somebody else’s blurry ideas help me get into a song, whether melodically or just where should I even start. Occasionally I’ll just listen to random stuff from my music collection, my own favorites on random or something like that, and if it pops up I’ll have it in my head and just turn on a new sketch, and it will just be random connection. I’ll be listening to an old Tom Waits song or an old Bee Gees song, and then I’ll just pop up something I’ve been working on with my own music, and it’ll put me in a different starting place.
The same thing I’ll do with writers, I’ll just think of something, an image from a short story like Grace Paley – for some reason I use a lot of hers – or Joan Didion I often will just… like Play It As It Lays, just put yourself in the car, because those are awesome things that I just don’t… understand those works of art totally, and I’ve chewed on them. Like Great Gatsby is a book I’ve read so many times and I still get totally confused with what the hell happens and who gets hit by when by the thing in the eyes are looking at the thing and I have to, and I’m just like in Ashtown and how did the math line up? Who is dead? I just get confused even though I’ve read it so many times and everybody knows Buchanan was the guy driving the car but I always still forget and it doesn’t matter. All that stuff is part of the soup. And it’s not a literature exercise, it’s more of a collaging exercise.
CF: The National seem to always be involved with a discussion of the American ethos, which I though was prevalent in the John Cheever lyrics. You’re from Cincinnati, you made it in New York, and now you’re out in Los Angeles. How do you deal with your ever-changing sense of identity and continue to create a fluid discussion or self-narrative with all of these culture clashes?
MB: What you just said is a really good… this record, honestly, one of the things I was trying to not premeditate, but there’s a lot of Cincinnati stuff, there’s a lot of New York stuff, there is a lot of Upstate New York stuff, and then there is L.A. stuff, and there’s a whole bunch of other stuff that was written in the same mix that was more L.A.-centric, but I think because I’ve lived now in L.A. for four years, suddenly the romance of New York was starting to come back, where I had fallen out of love. I was writing more about L.A. before I lived here, L.A. Cathedral and all that kind of stuff has been a part of it.
I was definitely thinking about identity and, “I’m a 46-year-old, married, white, American guy in a rock band that started in Cincinnati, and now, whatever, I live in L.A.” I never would have thought that’s who I am and what I would do, or much less be a musician. Then just to finally get around the idea that you’re a musician, and then start to get around the idea that you are actually a famous one, or a beloved one, or someone that has got a lot of fans, that’s been a real mind f***, and it is something I’m always untangling and trying to figure out. So this record has a lot of those attempts to connect the dots, or disconnect them. There’s literally a line, where is it? Isn’t there a line on a National song about disconnecting… or is that an EL VY song? Doesn’t matter, it’s all the same soup.
CF: Definitely, it’s got to be a lot, and to kind of go with that, The National isn’t a political band, but you are vocally liberal as an individual. How do you view the voice of the artist in today’s society?
MB: I’ve been a little confused, a little frustrated with what it is about musicians that always feel like there is some distinction, like, “Hey my politics are this, and my art is this.” Musicians are the only artists… they don’t go to novelists and go, “Hey man, stick with romance,” or whatever [laughs]. If an artist or a painter says like, “Oh, I try to keep politics out of my work,” I’m like, “Then what are you painting? Like George Bush is a more interesting painter than you are, what are you painting?” If you paint flower pots, at this point it’s still even political. It’s a choice not to. The choice not to is almost more political or something.
I feel like I never tried to separate it. I don’t even try to separate it within a song, if a song is a love song, or a breakup song, or a song about drinking, or a song about Washington, or a song about planet Earth, every single song is probably about those things one way or another, and now, I guess for me, since 9/11 is the obvious moment, but the truth is for me I think it was when George W. Bush won, is when I just stopped being… it rewired me to thinking, “Holy s***, the world could really go down the tubes, so fast.” That was when George Bush won. And then since then there has been a sequence of both wonderful but also so many traumas for all of us, both globally and locally, trauma after trauma after trauma. I know it’s probably no different collectively over time, from like World War II, the death and trauma are constant, but this feels like maybe because the amount of the feed that we are getting from everything, and we are absorbing it, but it’s such a highly… it’s in the blood stream, it’s in the water, it’s in the air, it’s in everything we see. I just don’t know how any artist now isn’t untangling it, isn’t working with it, isn’t trying to figure it out because it is like a swimmer saying, “But actually I don’t like to get wet.” I’m like, “I don’t know if you’re going to be an interesting swimmer.”
CF: Throughout your career we can imagine you’ve had a fair share of interesting experiences, but is there one moment that stands out – a grounding experience or moment of perspective that reminds you why you do all of this?
MB: Jesus [laughs]. This is a big leap, but I have this book by Sue Williams. She is a painter, and I’m not like, here again is somebody I’m just referencing and not knowing much about, but I just have a book, and it’s like here’s somebody who is dealing with being a woman, all the violence, sexual violence in the world, that’s what she’s painting, but then it is turned into a thing, I don’t know anything, but her work has gone to the thing where she has liberated the idea of a woman painting about violence to something else. So here is somebody who probably picked a choice somewhere in the line of, “I’m going to do this, I’m going to go to art school,” or, “I’m just gonna stay up late and just work.” When you pick art, I think it’s a really courageous thing to pick and we need to really, really encourage more people. The pursuit of just abstract expression of dumb ideas and silliness, and whether it is comedy or whether it’s painting buttholes, essentially, which is what, sorry to diminish Ms. Sue Williams’ work [laughs], but ultimately it just gets down to a lot of orifices and then it just dissolves into decay, and then you’re back to Jackson Pollack again. Now why am I talking about her when I’m talking about… it’s because it is so political, but it is also so freeing, what she is doing, and I’m assuming she’s somewhere, actually Jesus Christ I’ve no idea what she’s like and I don’t know anything about her, but she reached some place of freedom and happiness, you can tell, and it is inspiring to other people and makes people like themselves more, and it makes people not judge each other more, when somebody doesn’t judge themselves like that, so I’ve had moments like that where I feel like I’m getting so much out of this myself, and other people are, and I’m just lucky to be doing it. Those moments happen all the time. They happen right now. I’m sitting here talking about by rock record that is coming out. It is awesome, so they happen all the time.