Q&A: The National’s Matt Berninger On Trouble Will Find Me, That Six-Hour MoMA Performance, And Going Back On The Road
If it seems as though we’ve been talking about the National’s excellent new record Trouble Will Find Me for weeks now it’s because we have. Even though the record was just released this week, fascination with the band and a buzzing curiosity about how they might follow up 2010’s powerhouse High Violet have kept music writers (and our own comments sections) very busy over the past month or so. Initial reactions to the album have been largely positive, with our own Tom Breihan claiming that Trouble’s “soft, majestic intensity is a reassuring and comfortable thing.” It’s a sentiment that seems to be at the core of what so many people love about the National — a band continues to age gracefully, not through a series of radical reinventions or extreme left-turns, but by playing to their own particular strengths as songwriters … which seem to have grown more formidable with each consecutive record.
STEREOGUM: So, I’m assuming you are you in the middle of a press whirlwind before your tour starts?
BERNINGER: Yeah, last week was more of a whirlwind; this week is more of a continuing rain. But it’s great; we’ve never done this amount of press for anything. And it’s … I understand the value of doing interviews, so I’m not somebody who hates to do it, I actually like to do it. We worked on the record a long time and when people ask us about it I’m happy to tell them.
STEREOGUM: That’s a good attitude to have I guess. I understand how weird it can be for people — having the exact same conversation 20 times in one day. Little known fact — years ago I worked on the “street team” for Alligator. I took the job from a PR company so I could get free concert tickets … and then they sent me a huge crate of Alligator stickers — like, a gargantuan amount of stickers. I still have some of them in my basement somewhere.
BERNINGER: And you just kept them in a box!
STEREOGUM: I put some of them up in Brooklyn, but they literally sent me thousands of them. I was overwhelmed.
BERNINGER: Well no wonder that record had no legs! Go put those stickers up!
STEREOGUM: As soon as we’re done talking, I’ll hit the streets. Did you guys take much time off after touring High Violet? Was it important to have a little time away from each other before jumping back into the writing process?
BERNINGER: We did plan to do that. The plan was to take a year off before even starting to work on our record and in some respects that’s how it did start, after we did all the High Violet touring. At that point I had 2-year-old, and Aaron had a new baby at home, and Brian had a baby at home. So we were definitely like, “let’s take a year off and start working on the next record sometime next year.” And maybe put it out in … we knew for us making records takes a couple years, so we knew that meant there wouldn’t be another record out for maybe four years…and we were okay with that. So that was how things stood at the beginning of last year, I guess. But, what happened … I think it was because we kind of said that and it took the pressure off … I think we kind of tricked ourselves. Aaron and Bryce were sending me ideas and they were like, “this is for next year when we start working on the record,” and I would put them in GarageBand and just start singing and coming up with melodies and coming up with ideas, and even in my head it was like, “This is for next year, when we start writing this record and this will just be stuff in the folder.” But after a few months of that, I’d say after a good four or five months of having that sort of idea in our head that this is all just for fun and we’re not even thinking or worrying about it, we found ourselves with 20 or 30 things. I think that was when Aaron sent the sketch idea of “I Should Live In Salt” which a little different for us. It has sort of a strummed acoustic guitar thing happening … which, for whatever reason, we haven’t done a whole lot of in our songs. When he sent that to me, I sent back almost a fully arranged vocal melody and half the lyrics probably within an hour. I think that was when we all knew. There was just something about that song, it just felt … it had some kind of immediate quality to it and I think that’s when we realized we were in the middle of making a record. And to be perfectly honest I still have a little bit of … I kind wish it had taken longer in some respects. I wish we’d had more of a break, but by not thinking about making a record the process was much more enjoyable for me than any of our other records. We weren’t fighting the way we always do. We didn’t have any meetings and talks and arguments about what kind of record to make next. The record just kind of made itself.
STEREOGUM: That’s great. I gather that this was definitely not the case in the past, particularly with High Violet…
BERNINGER: No it hasn’t been the case, our other records … I mean it’s not like we would sit down and say “okay, let’s map out what kind of record we want to make!” We learned a long time ago that that never works, but if there was always a certain level of anxiety and pressure and tension between us on the record, it’s just because — I can’t put it any other way — it’s hard to make a record. It’s really, really hard to make even a halfway decent record, and to make a good record it’s sometimes — it can be a really tortured process. We’re not Bob Dylan, we don’t just wake up with brilliant ideas, we wake up with a lot of really bad ideas and a few good ones … but it takes a long time to sort of filter and figure out which are the good ones. And often we don’t agree on which are the good ones, so our record making process was always fraught with a whole lot of tension and anxiety and fighting, and none of us were really looking forward to diving into that again. Somehow this record got made without diving into it again; it just sort of slipped out.
STEREOGUM: And with increased popularity things can become unwieldy very quickly. The band becomes a bigger operation and suddenly the shows are bigger, you have to employ a bigger crew, the expectations are heightened. Even under the best circumstances, trying to navigate things among five different personalities is never easy.
BERNINGER: I mean, if you get twelve people to live on a bus with each other for a while — and they could be kindergarten teachers, the most patient people on earth — and eventually they’ll just start hating each other. Not that kindergarten teachers don’t hate each other on the same level that everyone else does, but you know what I mean. It tests you. Still, you will not find me complaining about the success of our band. We are so grateful and so lucky. But it can be a very toxic lifestyle and not just a toxic lifestyle between the band members and between your friends … but it tests your physical health, your marriages, and it’s hard to be a good dad when you’re a traveling rock musician. It’s just hard to be there as much. Some people bring their kids on the bus and we’re figuring out how to do that, if that’s a good idea. But yeah, we … all those things … we’re smart enough not to be drawn to some of the darkest sides of what happens, but let me put it this way … I understand why bands do tons of drugs, and I think it’s usually more because they’re just trying to fight loneliness and boredom and fatigue and it’s not because, “It’s a blast!” Usually they feel miserable after a month or two or three or four or twenty-two months of living in a bus. But we got through all of that kind of stuff and stayed together and remain friends so I think there is a certain amount of … well, we’re at peace with what kind of band we are and who we are and we respect each other and we respect the band and that people care about the band. So we’ve kind of come through to the other side, while managing to turn into pretty decent dads and good husbands and all that kind of stuff … oh, this is boring rock talk.
STEREOGUM: One thing that I don’t think people realize about this band is that you’ve been doing this for a long time … and you were doing it for a long time before things really, really blew up. Had that success happened to you guys in, say, 2002 it could have been a much different thing. It might have actually been a much harder thing to navigate when you’re younger and maybe a little crazier.
BERNINGER: We’ll never know … if I could go back and have us blow up in 2002 I would do it in a heart beat, because I would never want to repeat those first six years of struggle. But I do … there’s something to the fact that we learned to be a band in the shadows a little bit. We learned to have to trust each other and respect each other. In fact, only in the past few years are we really figuring that out. Anyway, so I think upon reflection maybe we were lucky to have been ignored for so long, it thickened our skin and tempered our resolve or something like that. When we started to get a little bit of attention we desperately fought to deserve it, to earn it. So you figure out how to be a good live band — not that we always are, sometimes we’re awful, occasionally, but we never phone it in. We can still put on terrible shows, but it’s not because we’re not trying for sure. In hindsight we’re lucky to have grown up in the shadows of the scene I guess.
STEREOGUM: In our Premature Evaluation of the new record on Stereogum, the writer — Tom Breihan — said something about you guys that I thought seemed really accurate…
BERNINGER: I’m pretending like I haven’t read this. [laughs]
STEREOGUM: I’m paraphrasing, but basically he was saying that one of your strengths as a band is that you don’t seem too concerned with trying to reinvent yourselves from record to record, that in a lot of ways become more and more yourselves — like a better and more astute version of yourselves — which I think is a great thing.
BERNINGER: Well I think we do see value in when a song is just a good song and we don’t over analyze things by being like, “Well that sounds too much like…” We do recognize the moments when the five of us can pull our collective talents together and when a song has chemistry, with this record more than any other. But I will say in the past, Boxer after Alligator was us trying to do something completely different, and High Violet after Boxer was us trying to do something totally different, but I think we also recognize that we are not gonna try and do an electronic hip hop thing. We’re not gonna do that kind of thing. But I do think bands have to try and reinvent themselves a little bit, otherwise — I think we’re in the middle of that, we do try, but also don’t worry so much about what type of song it is. If the song is moving you and making you feel something on some sort of mental, or emotional, or visceral level then it’s a good song. Who cares if it’s forward thinking, or contemporary or whatever. We have just figured out how to just follow the songs.
STEREOGUM: I know that’s so much easier said than done, but when you can get to a place of comfort that allows you to follow your most natural instincts when it comes to making whatever kind of art that you make, the best things usually happen.
BERNINGER: I think that’s part of it, but I do think you have to try different stuff though and risk falling on your face a little bit and to be perfectly honest, the way I sing, I’m singing differently and doing stuff with melody a lot different than I would have in the past because I was listening to Roy Orbison and listening to people that were doing all these things I didn’t think I could do, but I wanted to try. So there is something to saying embrace what you’re good at, but I think you have to — no matter what you’re doing as an artist, or painter, or making movies, you kind of have to jump into unknown cold water along the way too … otherwise you’re going to bore yourself. It’s not so much about defying other people’s expectations or following a trend or trying to capitalize on perceived popular trend. For example, one thing in can’t understand is how so many people over the years have used auto-tune. That baffles me, just for the record. And amazingly talented people use a lot of auto tune. Anyways … that’s one trend I wish would just die, they all sound like the same person to me. It’s silly that they all sound like a computer singing. But my point is that you need to try weird stuff to keep yourself excited.
STEREOGUM: You guys have a long string of tour dates stretching out in front of you. Are you excited by that?
BERNINGER: It’s very equal levels of excitement, ambition, and dread. And the dread isn’t because … I don’t … once we get our show legs back and we’ve got the songs down, when we are feeling good about the songs, the shows are amazing. It’s an amazing experience. There’s a ton of anxiety and tension getting on stage under the lights, but it’s an unbelievably satisfying and cathartic experience, so I’m excited about the big shows and I’m excited about the tour. But I’m going to hate being away from my wife and my daughter. I’m gonna hate being away from my backyard. I don’t do a lot of after-party stuff. I don’t socialize like that too much. I like to drink wine in my backyard with my wife … and I’m not gonna be able to do that much. But on the other side it’s like, we’ve been chasing this for so long and we’re kind of here now. And yeah, we’re gonna do it. It’s gonna be a crazy year and a half I guess. So yeah it’s a mixture of excitement and just trying to do it in a balanced healthy way, so we’ll see … cross my fingers. [laughs]
STEREOGUM: There was so much written about your recent six-hour performance at MoMA. How was that experience for you? Was it hard to play the same song for six hours?
BERNINGER: It was not that physically hard. I mean, it was much more mentally challenging. When we were asked to do it, MoMA pitched the idea because Ragnar Kjartansson had pitched them the idea. I didn’t know that much about him so I did a little research on his other work and one thing that kept coming up about the stuff he does was that it’s not about endurance and it’s not about the suffering of the long performance — it’s about reaching a different sort of euphoric, mantra-like state. The physical repetition of something can be meditative. He’s done bigger performances — like, 12-hour things — and for him it’s about finding the humor and joy of the repetition and the lightness and the humor of our own sort of sadness. So that’s why he was obsessed with “Sorrow” and why he he specifically picked that song. It’s a song about sadness, and he just wanted to see what happened if you kept doing it over and over again. Would it still be sad halfway through? And it went through all these different phases. At some point it became a really good experience physically and mentally. I think there was a little of that runners high that can happen. Towards the end I kind of lost my nerve a little bit and I was looking around the room because I hadn’t seen my wife yet and we were on, like, hour five. She’d been there for hours and I just hadn’t seen her. I just got a little freaked out, and I was thinking about my daughter too, like where were they? And I think that song — we ended up doing it 108 times — but around number 95 or 96 or something like that, I broke down a little bit. It wasn’t like I fell to pieces, but I choked up and it was kind of hard to do. Number 96 or 97 was hard to get through, but then I pulled it together. By the end of the thing, honestly it was one of the most moving and enjoyable and strangely cathartic things I’ve ever done. I don’t know if I want to do it again, but it was … he was right. We trusted him, and had met with him and talked about it and he kind of prepared us for what might happen. He was also like, “if you freak out and have to leave … it’s okay.” And he was there for the whole thing, and there were maybe 40 or 50 people that came and rushed into the space the second we started on the first one and didn’t leave the entire time so there was an amazing sort of communion with some of the fans that didn’t … that weren’t going to leave us, that weren’t going to pop in and out. They were gonna be there for the whole thing, so it was really moving — for me it was a really moving and good thing, I feel lucky that he asked us to do that, I feel lucky to have been a part of that thing.
STEREOGUM: I find it fascinating. When I was a kid I worked on a farm and would often have to drive a tractor, which involved going around and around endlessly for hours. It became this crazy repetition that actually became soothing and meditative after a while.
BERNINGER: Oh totally! I worked on a farm too. I trimmed Christmas trees for several months every summer and you’re pruning tree after tree and yeah, you get into a crazy mode. I mean, your body gets this aerobic thing happening, and it’s mentally aerobic too. I don’t exercise, I don’t run, I don’t do any marathons, but this is the closest I’ve ever been to like people who meditate or are physically active. I should probably do more of it … with less wine involved. [laughs]
The National’s Trouble Will Find Me is out now on 4AD.