We’ve Got A File On You: Matt Berninger
The National frontman on going solo, Obama, 'Game Of Thrones,' and "appearing" in an erotic podcast
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
Matt Berninger has been everywhere. After two decades fronting the National, he’s become one of the most beloved singers and lyricists to rise up in the 21st century indie sphere. But he’s also lent his distinctive baritone and wryly moving worldview to a whole lot of other endeavors: frequently guesting with other artists, appearing alongside his bandmates in animated form on Bob’s Burgers, popping up in other comedic cameos, maybe even trying to write his own TV show. Along the way, however, he has never embarked on a full-fledged solo album — until now.
Berninger’s solo debut, Serpentine Prison, was announced all the way back in October of 2019, and now it’s finally just a couple weeks away from arriving — almost a year to the day since he first revealed its existence. The album is still a collaboration, with Berninger bringing along some of his trusted indie world friends for a project produced and arranged by the veteran R&B/funk/soul musician Booker T. Jones. It’s perhaps not the first person that would’ve come to mind, but it goes all the way back to Berninger’s childhood: Originally intended as a covers album, Serpentine Prison took its inspiration from the nocturnal, lived-in quality of Willie Nelson’s Stardust, which was also produced and arranged by Jones.
Jones has helped Berninger craft a dusty, weathered, and often quite pretty solo endeavor. Of course, Berninger’s voice and melodic sensibility are instantly recognizable, but if there’s much of a precedent for Serpentine Prison it’s in the National’s earliest days. The organic, mellow, roots-tinged aesthetic of the National’s self-titled debut or portions of Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers might give some kind of hint to the patient and acoustic-driven sound of Serpentine Prison. Of course, 20 more years of experience and the influence of Jones make this a different beast entirely. Berninger was going for the feel of old-school albums, and he ends up approximating that feel with the weathered soulfulness of Serpentine Prison.
Ahead of his new album’s arrival, we caught up with Berninger about how Serpentine Prison came to be and a whole lot of other moments from across his career. Over the course of a long, often hilarious conversation, Berninger took us back through a variety of his musical activities but also an array of other career highlights — everything from meeting Obama to becoming the subject of an erotic podcast.
From “Representing Memphis” With Sharon Jones And Booker T. Jones (2011) To Serpentine Prison With Booker T. Jones Again (2020)
MATT BERNINGER: This is exciting. Do you know the FBI has a file on my dad? We found it once. It’s a picture of my dad giving them the finger in Cincinnati. It was the Vietnam War, at some protest. Anyways, go ahead, you guys have a file on me.
STEREOGUM: It’s not as official as that. But we like to start with the new record, and from there I make no promises — it might go all over.
BERNINGER: I make no promises either. Good luck. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: So the new album, Serpentine Prison, was announced almost a year ago–
BERNINGER: Yeah, there’s a funny story behind that. I was making this record with Booker and I guess I announced the solo album last year because Booker T.’s memoir Time Is Tight came out. He gave it to me, and there’s a section on us making this record towards the very end. But in the book, he called it Serpentine Fire. I didn’t want people to think it was called Serpentine Fire — which is also a great title, but I realized there’s an Earth, Wind, & Fire album called Serpentine Fire, and Booker is like best friends with Maurice [White] so I think he just got them mixed up. That’s why I made that press release so early, but I highly recommend the record Serpentine Fire as well.
STEREOGUM: You met Booker years ago.
BERNINGER: About 12 years ago.
STEREOGUM: I think when that announcement came out, it wasn’t the first pairing we would’ve imagined for a Matt solo album.
BERNINGER: Who would you have imagined?
STEREOGUM: I don’t know, not a 75-year-old soul legend, probably.
BERNINGER: Am I allowed to ask questions during this? [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: Of course, whatever makes you happy.
BERNINGER: What happened was, I got an email that Booker wanted to ask if I wanted to sing with Sharon Jones on his record The Road From Memphis. The song was called “Representing Memphis.” There was another song I sang when I was there called “Gangsta Limp.” I don’t know if it made it on the record, but I couldn’t quite sell “Gangsta Limp.”
It was such a surreal thing just to get that email. Of course the first thing was like, “Wait, the Booker T. Jones?” So I went down to the studio, and I got in a little elevator and when the elevator doors opened to the floor I was supposed to go to, Lauryn Hill was standing there. It was very much a Bill & Ted experience. Lou Reed had just left, and I think he had been in a really bad mood. Who else? Biz Markie was about to come in, and Sharon Jones, and Questlove, and all those guys. It was like one of these rock ‘n’ roll fantasy situations.
Then I met Booker and his wife and his daughter Olivia, who wrote the song I sang with Sharon. That experience was just — it was hard to explain. A tiny studio, so many people — they had wine. I think they had done some research. They had some chardonnay waiting. So Booker’s wife Nan and I just had some chardonnay just relaxing while they got set up for me and Sharon to sing. I just hit it off with Booker and his wife and daughter, and when I got in there to sing with Sharon, he wanted us to sing all live. I can’t remember if we played it all live with Questlove and the drums and everything; I was too nervous about Sharon. They put a big omnidirectional mic so we could both sing at the same time, but she’s much shorter than I am. So I had to lean over almost at a right angle and sing face to face with Sharon Jones, right? It was terrifying.
STEREOGUM: Twelve years ago, the National would not have been that prominent yet.
BERNINGER: I don’t know. I remember I was at a National function somewhere in the city — I feel like I had to leave an album release thing or something to go down and record. I don’t know when it was.
STEREOGUM: I was just thinking this would’ve been an earlier instance of interacting with all that outside music world stuff.
BERNINGER: I was surprised to get the email. I think somebody from ANTI- maybe suggested me to Booker as a singer, because he was bringing all these different singers in like Lou Reed and Lauryn Hill. I think it was probably like, “Let’s get somebody from the indie rock universe,” and I love all that cross-pollination. I’m not sure Booker knew that much about indie rock or the National but he kinda pays attention to everything, so I don’t know.
All I know is I was very lucky to be able to do it. I never recorded live like that, in a room. We did a few takes, and Sharon was just exploding with happiness and joy and energy, hopping up and down the whole time. It was equal parts terror and fun. Booker, he has so much confidence. He was like, “OK, that’s done.” I was there for three hours. You could tell he’s been in so many studios with so many chaotic people — Lou Reed had just left, you know? He doesn’t hear anything, that’s just noise to him. He’s only ever thinking about the art. I mean, he can get frustrated in the studio when there’s too much bullshit going on, but anyway, that’s what I took away from that.
So jump 10 years, and I wanted to make a covers record. Booker made Stardust with Willie Nelson, and I wanted to make a record for my dad. And so, I went to his website — I hadn’t stayed in touch — in December 2018, and clicked the management button. Next day, Olivia, his daughter, wrote back and now 10 years later she’s his manager and she said “Booker would love to help you with a covers record, what did you have in mind?” I was like… “He would? Would he want to produce and arrange it?”
That’s the first thing you see when you flip over Stardust. The top credit is “Produced And Arranged By Booker T. Jones.” That record just has an atmosphere like none other. It’s just a collection of Willie Nelson’s favorite songs of the time. I wanted to make a covers record that had its own cohesive soul and sound. When I listen to Stardust, I forget that Willie didn’t write a single word. I forget about that. So I wanted to make a record like that, but then I started sharing things — just bits and songs that were orphans from friends, old bands, new bands. All these orphan songs I started sharing with Booker — the first one was “Distant Axis,” that I wrote with Walt Martin — and he was like, “OK, let’s focus on these as well.” So we ended up making 12 originals and we did six or seven covers, all in about 14 days. They’re all coming out, kind of around the same time.
STEREOGUM: Which covers did you record?
BERNINGER: I just got the test pressing back for that. It’s got “In Spite Of Me” by Morphine. “Big Bird,” which is an Eddie Floyd song Booker wrote with him — that was Booker’s idea and it was really fun. It’s got “European Son” by Velvet Underground. “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” by Bettye Swann, that was the first one I wanted to do. I’ve wanted to cover that song for 10 years. It’s got a song called “The End,” which is actually an original by [longtime National touring member] Ben Lanz, he wrote all the melodies and lyrics — so it’s an original but I call it a cover. [My former Nancy bandmate/longtime collaborator] Mike Brewer and I wrote a song called “Let It Be,” which is an original but we’re putting it on the covers because the title is a cover, sort of the Replacements trick, just for fun. All that’s coming out one way or another.
El Vy – “I’m The Man To Be” (2015)
STEREOGUM: This was, at the time, the most solo-ish thing you had done. Obviously it was a different band and a different collaboration, and this is also a collaboration. At the time, with songs like “I’m The Man To Be,” I thought of El Vy as maybe an outlet for something different without the National. I’m curious how that era relates to this one, and what you wanted to move towards while the National spread out and did their own thing.
BERNINGER: Some of that is true, but El Vy wasn’t something I wanted to do… it wasn’t like I wanted to express something else. When I’m writing, I’m never thinking, “This is for this, and this is for that,” except for [our adaptation of] Cyrano de Bergerac or I Am Easy To Find. Or I have been asked to write — the National got commissioned to write a song for Hunger Games. There was also a song we got asked to write for Crown Royal. We wrote a really good song. But I was still writing about myself and I remember they didn’t use it. I thought I very subtly snuck in a bunch of masturbation references, you know? I thought people using innuendo and sex to sell liquor — or look at this Cialis ad, who’s got two bathtubs out in their yard, what the fuck is that about? Anyway, they didn’t use it because [the masturbation references] were clearly too obvious.
My point is, there are times I’m writing for a job or a specific thing, a film or a booze commercial. But mostly, even in those things, I’m still just writing about myself. All the Cyrano and all the I Am Easy songs that Carin and I wrote — we know we’re channeling these things through other characters, but the content would have to ring true, or feel important to us at least, for us to even do that. Cyrano’s been tough because you’re trying to move the narrative along and songs and scenes get moved and suddenly lyrics have to change because what you said in the old demo now happens three pages earlier and this character doesn’t know that so they can’t say this beautiful line. So, shit, but it also has to stay poetry. That’s been the hardest thing.
El Vy sounds like El Vy because when you dance with somebody who went to a very different kind of dance school and you guys get out on the dancefloor together, it’s gonna have its own chemistry. Two people have a kid together, the children are gonna have a certain look and feel. But El Vy is very much 50/50 DNA Brent and I, and that’s why it sounds like that. I was still doing what I do. The tricky part with this solo record is I wanted all these orphans from all these different partners — I’ve taken this metaphor too far — but to take music from all these songwriting partners and make them feel like they have the same DNA, and that’s what Booker did.
“Walking On A String” With Phoebe Bridgers For The Between Two Ferns Movie (2019)
STEREOGUM: You’ve teamed up with a lot of musicians outside the National for one-offs, but I wanted to bring this one up specifically. How did this collaboration come about? I’m also curious how you gravitate to the specific younger artists you might wind up working with or otherwise interacting with.
BERNINGER: Almost everybody I collaborate with, I met through the National. Including Brent — we toured with Menomena — and Walt, since we opened for the Walkmen. When the National started headlining, all the people we’ve met are people who have opened for us. That’s how I met Phoebe Bridgers. That’s how I met Hannah Georgas and Lauren Mayberry of CHVRCHES. So I met Phoebe when she was opening for us.
Scott Aukerman and Zach Galifianakis wrote because they wanted an original song for Between Two Ferns: The Movie. I had a few sketches laying around, a couple with Mike Brewer and Walt Martin. They liked this one called “Walking On A String,” and so I reached out to Tony Berg because I’d done some TV recording in his backyard. He was no longer at that studio, he said he was over at Sound City making Phoebe’s record. And then I was like, “Well, if we’re going to be over there and I’m going to jump in on Phoebe’s time, would she want to sing on it, get a duet?” I ran that past Aukerman. That’s how it happened. Carin and I wrote the lyrics to it. I can’t believe I’m saying this but I can’t remember whose sketch it was. Somebody, either Mike or Walt, is going to be really pissed.
[Scott and Zach] wanted a song, and a scene, a bar band in the Midwest. That was the original request. So they put us in the movie. I’ve been friends with Aukerman and a lot of those guys, all the Bob’s Burgers people … everybody kinda secretly works on each other’s stuff. Like, Bill Hader is one of the secret weapons behind all the South Park stuff. There’s just this network of musicians and comedy people.
Phoebe’s definitely one of those writers that’s writing close to the bone, right? She feels like shit if she’s serving falseness, it makes her feel worse. Her favorite artists — like Elliott Smith, Nick Cave — it’s all for the same reason, I think. You’re not doing it for anyone else. You’re doing it to help yourself. And to help yourself, you have to give yourself some really — whatever, forgive yourself in a song, be hard on yourself in a song. You have do something real for yourself in a song or else you’re going to hate it. Especially if people like it and they think you’re talking about yourself when you’re not. That’s the worst. People are going to ask, no matter what kind of artist you are, about what it means. You might as well just write about yourself honestly so that when people ask you what it means, you can just answer honestly and not give some stupid script.
Covering Big Thief’s “Not” (2019)
BERNINGER: Maybe the best single in, I think, five years. “Not,” the first time I heard that — I remember the first time hearing “Skinny Love.” I think we got a demo, Scott [Devendorf] and I were driving around. “Not” is one of those: “OK, that’s a perfect song.” It’s like “Sabotage.” The first time you hear “Sabotage” it’s “holy shit.”
STEREOGUM: You and Hamilton Leithauser both covered it; I guess it had that effect on people. I knew you guys liked Big Thief, I know they’ve played with you. This is kind of tied to the Phoebe question, I suppose: I see your Instagram stories with your playlists, and you’re shouting out bands like IDLES and Fontaines DC. Obviously you’re still very in tune with the newest stuff, but I wonder what you gravitate towards as you’re looking for younger acts. Like, Phoebe and Big Thief kind of exist in your world but Fontaines and IDLES are something a bit different.
BERNINGER: I mean, I don’t actually actively search for anything. I put together playlists and Spotify — I think Spotify is my therapist. Spotify knows me better than anyone else. I hate to say that. I feel like I’ve become a piece of the Borg, you know? I’ve been absorbed. But now, with Spotify, there’s a playlist I have called where anytime I have a song where I’m like, “Oh where’s that from?” I’ll go find it on Spotify. That’s my uber playlist, it’s about 600 songs. Then there’s like 10 sub-playlists. I just made a 100-song playlist for Double J in Australia. I’ve always made playlists. I’ve always made mixtapes.
I found out about IDLES from my friend John. I went to art school with him, he went to school with everyone in my first band Nancy. He’s still one of my dearest friends. He’s the guy who introduced me to Fugazi, he’s the guy who introduced me to Public Enemy, and he’s the guy who introduced me to IDLES just a few years ago. He was like, “You gotta check out this album Brutalism,” and I did and I fell in love.
Nancy – “Breathing Test” (1996)
STEREOGUM: The way the National’s story has been told is like you guys had these other jobs, these other lives, and music happened later — but you were doing it in college as well.
BERNINGER: I was just talking about this with someone else, and the only Nancy song I could remember was “Florida Girls,” and I know that’s not the one I wanted anybody to hear, but I think “Breathing Test” is a good one.
STEREOGUM: I think it’s a good one.
BERNINGER: What are the lyrics?
STEREOGUM: I’m not sure, it’s kind of a scream-y chorus. I think you’re saying something like “Time to go outside.”
BERNINGER: That sounds like me. Yeah, so, that band — I met Scott and Mike Brewer and Casey Reas maybe the first day [of school]… I transferred from Miami University Of Ohio. It’s a classic liberal arts school in the middle of a cornfield. Just wonderful. The most idyllic most ridiculously bubbled — they shot a John Hughes movies at this campus and Playboy rated it the campus with the hottest girls the year I went. So that was two years — I’m telling you the whole origin story — I started as pre-med but I had done nothing but art before that. I don’t know why I took a diversion into medical school. It’s also where I met my first girlfriend. I was kinda square, but really into music. After that I switched to sculpture and I was getting sick of that kind of college experience, that whole Joe College bullshit. It was very, very, very Greek at that campus, like 75 percent.
But my mom was like, “University Of Cincinnati has a good art program.” I transferred in, which was really hard to do, and there was only one other person — and the other guy was Mike Brewer. That’s where I met him and Scott and Casey, we were just friends at art school until the very end, and we started making songs together because we were all obsessed with Silver Jews and Pavement and Guided By Voices. We just partied together, we spent all our time together in the studio listening to music.
Nancy started, we made one record fast, Mike wrote half the lyrics (and all the good ones). We made it with Denny Brown, who was in the Tiger Lillies, in his basement. We played two gigs. One was in Casey’s basement, where Brainiac came and then left because my dad shooshed them. Then another one at a Greek restaurant after graduation, which was basically just our friends from the program. At the time, we had this philosophy: Robert Pollard said, “You’re not really a band until you do both. You have to play live and actually release music.” If you just release music but don’t go play, you’re not really a band. But then we all went off and Mike stayed in Cincinnati because he had a kid. Casey ended up doing all the videos for Sleep Well Beast. All these bands stay connected.
Around the same time, Bryan [Devendorf] was in a band called Project Nim with Aaron and Bryce [Dessner], and a woman named Janna. They had a big following actually, they were actually making a lot of money as a band. They had that going on and I think that band split up and Aaron and Bryce went to college. After Scott and I wound up in New York and we all had design jobs, after a couple years of not doing anything musically besides seeing all these bands, we got the four track and Scott called Bryan, Bryan brought Aaron over, and the National started cooking. Just little ideas in my converted loft right by the Gowanus Canal.
I think we started because we had the space. Just landing someplace in Brooklyn so you have enough space for your clothes sometimes takes years. My buddy Jeff and I actually tried to get a space in a loft in Williamsburg that the drummer from Dinosaur Jr. was the kingpin of, and we interviewed with him but we didn’t get that space. So we found this unconverted loft down in Gowanus, and it was totally unsanctioned, super dangerous, no heat, riddled with rats. We lived there for years and threw all these parties and started the band there. We could set up a drumset and make noise without bothering anyone, except for the guy we paid rent to who would come into our rehearsals just livid at the noise we were making. But we had a studio. We had a space to collect. That was where the National was born.
The National – “Patterns Of Fairytales” (2003)
STEREOGUM: Out of Nancy, I wanted to move to the National’s early days. I think there was a period of time when you guys were reviving a lot of old songs, maybe late in the Trouble Will Find Me era. I was trying to think of what song from the first couple albums had not been excavated; obviously stuff like “Available” and “Lucky You” are old favorites. Anyway, I settled on “Patterns Of Fairytales,” just thinking about some deep cuts I like from that pre-Cherry Tree era.
BERNINGER: Is that on Sad Songs?
STEREOGUM: Yeah, actually a record I listened to quite a bit during college when there were only five National albums. I used to listen to this one a lot when I’d be taking bus rides between New York and western Massachusetts. It always reminds me of autumn in the northeast.
BERNINGER: I really like that record. Both those first records are us trying to discover what kind of band to be, what kind of band not to be. “Patterns Of Fairytales,” I do think that’s a good song.
STEREOGUM: The debut turns 20 next year, which is mind-blowing to me.
BERNINGER: I turn 50 next year.
STEREOGUM: Right, that line from the self-titled, “29 years…”
BERNINGER: On our first record, and on our fourth.
STEREOGUM: Some of that was still rather new when I was a teenager first discovering the National, and even having grown up alongside it, it just feels like such a different band and story now. Around Sad Songs, there’s still this searching, then Cherry Tree and Alligator start to cohere.
BERNINGER: Cherry Tree I think was like, “OK, we’re really close.” The Cherry Tree EP was getting close to something good.
STEREOGUM: Sometimes I think of “About Today,” even though it evolved quite a bit beyond the Cherry Tree version, being a kind of genesis point for the National.
“Fake Empire” Appearing In An Obama Campaign Ad (2008)
STEREOGUM: We’re talking generally about a transition moment there, and I want to jump ahead to a more major transitional moment, when “Fake Empire” was in an Obama campaign video in 2008. Obviously you have been a politically engaged band through the years, but I was wondering if you have reflected on this moment specifically during our more recent, more tumultuous times.
BERNINGER: I have reflected on it quite publicly, I spoke to Shirley Manson about that song. My friend Hope Hall, who was just a friend of my wife’s, she’s a documentary filmmaker. She got involved with the Obama campaign when he was a senator, before he got the nomination. She became a big part of their team. When he got the nomination, I guess a lot of people on Obama’s team were National fans.
We wrote the song “Fake Empire” mostly about trying to turn everything off, this fantasy, just getting loaded and going out into some fairytale Cinderella version of reality when actual reality was so gnarly. Bush was president. Iraq War, Afghanistan, it was just fucking awful. The song’s about avoiding politics, but Hope was like, “I think it would work great for this ‘Signs Of Hope & Change,’ this ad.” And it did. She’s actually in it. She’s holding up one of the signs that says “hope,” and her name is Hope, it’s hilarious. She’s also how we met Obama. He was a very big fan of Hope, and I think that’s how he learned about our band, and that’s how we got connected with this administration. That was a pivotal thing in millions of ways.
The National Contributing “Lean” To The Soundtrack For The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
STEREOGUM: You guys did that song “Lean” for Hunger Games. That was the Trouble Will Find Me era, I saw you guys headline Barclays Center. For years everyone was saying, “They’re gonna be big on this next record,” etc. and then finally it was like — slowburn, but all the sudden you were the biggest indie band. Having a song on the Hunger Games soundtrack seemed so symbolic of that moment in your career, the final and complete crossing over. Do you remember, at that time, feeling like this was a new era?
BERNINGER: [Laughs] It definitely wasn’t The Hunger Games. No, no, that’s a good question. There’s never been a moment … I think the first time, I just remember coming home from playing Mercury Lounge and collapsing and just weeping. I couldn’t believe I did it. I was onstage at the Mercury Lounge. I had seen all these bands here. The best bands are on this stage. And I just got my band on that motherfucking stage, and we got up there and we were fucking good. I don’t remember which night that was, but I remember it being a night where my chemistry changed.
Then I remember getting a little slot at Other Music, maybe the first record. They put it on that little Other Music shelf with that tiny handwritten thing. That was a big deal. I’ll tell you the other one. Brandon Stosuy, from The Creative Independent [and Stereogum once upon a time — ed.], reviewed our first record. It was the first time any journalist had taken us at all seriously. I think he was maybe overly kind. He referred to the record as a Bildungsroman. I had to look that up and I still don’t know if I’m pronouncing it right and I’m still trying to figure out what the hell that is and I’d really like to pull one of those off someday. I remember that review. We got a good review for our first record and it was on the shelf at Other Music and we played a gig at Mercury Lounge. Those three things. I don’t remember when they all happened but that’s when I said, “I’m not going back to anything else.”
You get bitten by different vampires over time that change who you are. Making a record with Nancy was a vampire. What I talked about right there was the Lower East Side, that whole Meet Me In The Bathroom scene. We were very much in the shadow, but we were there — another phase of being bitten by the vampire. Then all this other stuff — “What, we’re meeting the president? We’re on the Hunger Games soundtrack?” Now it’s something else. We’re making records with my favorite filmmakers. Then I got bitten by the vampire of making TV shows, and now that’s in my bloodstream — trying to make it in Hollywood. It’s so fun. Now I want to start a record label. I’m a big fan of like, Nick Cave and Andy Warhol, people just making everything.
Becoming The Subject Of A Sexual Fantasy On The Dirty Diana Podcast (2020)
STEREOGUM: So, this was sort of surprising to me. I came across this podcast Dirty Diana, in which Demi Moore plays this woman who records other women’s sexual fantasies. And there’s one where Gwendoline Christie plays a character who has a rockstar hookup scenario that features… you as the crush. She calls you “aloof and broken,” talks about your “bottomless voice,” quotes “Light Years,” and then there it is, a sex scene with Matt Berninger. Do you know about this podcast?
BERNINGER: Oh, all I know all about it. I wish no one else did. My mom — really, do we have to talk about it? [Laughs] Now more people are going to know about it. That’s actually my sister-in-law and her best friend Shana Feste. If you hear the woman’s voice, Jenn Besser, in between the super dirty stuff — that’s my sister-in-law. So think about that. My mom… I don’t want to talk about the conversations I’ve had with my mom about it. Can I tell you the truth? When it was written, it was Bryan Ferry as the fantasy. But they knew they would never be able to get Bryan Ferry and be able to use the music, so Jenn was like, “Let me just talk to my brother-in-law Matt.” So that’s how that happened. That’s all based on Bryan Ferry’s sex life, not mine.
STEREOGUM: I listened to it this morning as part of my research.
BERNINGER: Oh God. Let’s move on, let’s move on. I don’t wanna know about you listening to that. Gwendoline Christie sounds so beautiful on “Light Years” at the end. No, I love that podcast. It’s so dirty, it’s so real, it’s so honest, and so moving. I think it’s beautiful and wonderful.
STEREOGUM: It did seem like a cool project, it just blew my mind that you of all people snuck in there as the character.
BERNINGER: Yeah, it’s definitely for, uh, adult humans.
The National On Bob’s Burgers (2012-2018)
STEREOGUM: You were talking about your Hollywood bug. The National have a very long — some might say fruitful — relationship with Bob’s Burgers. You’ve done a bunch of songs, and you can almost hear your own records through these songs. In 2013, “Sailors In Your Mouth” sounds like Trouble Will Find Me, and in 2016, before Sleep Well Beast came out, you got a hint of that weird Sleep Well Beast synth sound on “Bad Things Happen In The Bathroom.” Which also has an illustration of you singing on the toilet. I imagine that was one of those career milestones.
BERNINGER: It’s pretty photo-realistic, yes.
STEREOGUM: It’s funny this has turned into this National subplot, always on Bob’s Burgers.
BERNINGER: Yeah well Brent and I in El Vy did a whole live thing with those guys. And Brent writes a lot of the songs in Central Park, the Josh Gad show, from Loren Bouchard. Brent writes about half the songs in that show, with comedy writers and everything. The ones that the National did [for Bob’s Burgers], I think all the songs, the chords and all the lyrics, are from them. They give us some weird thing they do in the studio with Jon Benjamin or any of those guys. We’d get these weird little things with kazoos and stuff and we kind of cover it really fast. That’s all we do. Sometimes there’s a little bit of a sketch, we’ll take their words and put it to a sketch that’s laying around. It’s not always using their music, but sometimes we are just covering them. The lyrics are all written by their comedy writers or improv’d by their actors. I don’t write any of those lyrics. I wish I did.
Mistaken For Strangers Film (2013) And TV Adaptation (The Future?)
STEREOGUM: Another bit of the Hollywood bug: At one point you were talking about adapting Mistaken For Strangers as a TV show. Is that still in play?
BERNINGER: I’m trying to get back to focusing on that. After Mistaken For Strangers came out, all the sudden all these doors flew open, people wanting to talk about turning it into a sitcom. We were super into that and we even went to the Sundance Episodic TV Lab to develop a version of Mistaken For Strangers as a TV show. I met Robert Redford and talked to him about the TV show for half an hour — or, for about five minutes, it felt like a half an hour because I played it over in my mind so many times. And then we went and pitched it to every network, and it didn’t work, and we pitched again in a different version. We kept trying to package it to be something… it was just one of those things, it just kept turning into a TV sitcom, and it just wasn’t working right.
So now it’s alive and well again — well, it’s alive again. And [my brother] Tom is also doing the sequel to the documentary Mistaken For Strangers. So there’s going to be another Mistaken For Strangers documentary and maybe a TV show. I don’t know! But it’s been a fun adventure, just all the people we’ve worked with. I went to Las Vegas and filmed myself singing with the Game Of Thrones orchestra. We had a cast and shot these fake scenes in Las Vegas, of me walking drunk through the streets. It’s awesome, it’s beautiful. We made a 20-minute episode of it, sort of like a teaser, a sizzle reel. We’ve always been using the DNA of all the real textures, the real shit I’m doing. [We were there] because I got invited to sing some songs with the Game Of Thrones orchestra by Ramin Djawadi. I have a bunch of Game Of Thrones crossover…
Covering “The Rains Of Castamere” For Game Of Thrones (2012), “Turn On Me” On For The Throne (2019), But Not Getting To Cameo On Game Of Thrones
BERNINGER: It’s the funniest thing. Alec Bemis, who was Bryce’s friend in school, is also really close friends with Dan Weiss, who was one of the creators of Game Of Thrones, and Dan Weiss has been a huge fan of the National, I think, from literally the first record. He was good friends with Alec, who put our record out. The National’s been to the top of the Wall.
STEREOGUM: Wait, wait, you mean the set? On the show?
BERNINGER: Oh, yeah. We were in Belfast. We’ve been to Castle Black. We couldn’t post anything but there’s all these great pictures of us at the top of the Wall, at Castle Black.
STEREOGUM: Well and you guys did two songs for the show right?
BERNINGER: Well, we covered “Rains Of Castamere,” that was the big thing. You know Jónsi from Sigur Rós was in it?
STEREOGUM: Yeah, well I was going to say — he’s in it, Ed Sheeran’s in it, Coldplay’s in it, Mastodon’s in it, and you guys were there and you weren’t in it.
BERNINGER: You’re right. I’m pissed. I’m fucking pissed! I’m pissed I never got to be in it. I mean, we were literally there and we all have beards and shit.
They were doing a big scene. It was on the other side of the Wall, at the entrance to the cave, where all the giants and everybody are collecting. It was mostly Jon Snow — he was there kind of by himself standing there, and they were going to CG in some giants or something. Basically we spent all day in the freezing cold watching Kit Harington stand in front of that gate for a while. Which is a different location than Castle Black, and then we went to Castle Black.
I remember my favorite part: You know that scene when all the horse heads and parts are in some kind of ring on the ground? So all those horse parts were laying around, yeeugh. We went through the prop house. Oh my God. The props in that thing are so funny. When you get up close to that stuff… there’s a funny thing about all the heads. Remember they got in trouble because they were using heads from other films when they had to have heads on stakes? They used one from a former president, and I don’t think they knew. They got in big trouble. But yeah all that shit was laying around.
Adapting Cyrano de Bergerac Onstage And Onscreen (2019-Present)
STEREOGUM: You mentioned the opera earlier, and now you’re in the studio recording for the movie version? Is opera the right term? Musical?
BERNINGER: Uhh, yeah, it’s a musical — I mean, it’s a big period musical, but the period is sort of blurry. We’re trying to make a contemporary thing about love but still have all the juiciness of locations. I can’t tell you what’s going on. Exotic locations with — it’s cool how it’s coming together. It’s a big movie musical and it’s a big labor of love. And Aaron and Bryce and Carin and I have written some of the best songs we’ve written together for it. The reason they need the music right away is they need all the stunt coordinators to know how the song is being arranged, because it’s all these soldiers and townspeople and the song has to work in a fight. So imagine the movie Fight Club and you have to write a song for that scene. [Laughs] It’s a big, big, big beautiful thing and I can’t wait for it to come out.
STEREOGUM: It seems like it turned into a whole other thing beyond the original project.
BERNINGER: I’ll tell you exactly how it started out. It was Erica Schmidt, who wrote the screenplay and is a genius. I think we were in the basement of Colbert. I knew Peter [Dinklage] a little bit from Game Of Thrones, we knew everybody. So Erica asked, “Would you want to write a few songs? I want to do an adaptation of Cyrano.” It went from five songs to 25… I think maybe 15 will end up in the movie.
The National – “Bloodbuzz Ohio” (2010)
STEREOGUM: Do you have time for one more?
BERNINGER: Let me take a guess, a wild guess…
STEREOGUM: What do you think it’s going to be.
BERNINGER: No, go ahead, you ask. I don’t have any guesses. I’m not a music journalist!
STEREOGUM: I do usually end these on a greatest hit moment, to bring it all back home. So I want to talk about “Bloodbuzz Ohio.” It’s an important song to me, similarly being torn between suburbia and New York in my own life. It was one of our songs of the decade. And High Violet just turned 10. I spent all these years driving around Pennsylvania with the early records, and then I spent all these years in New York with subsequent albums. To me, “Bloodbuzz Ohio” is kind of the quintessential National song. It sits in the middle of the band’s narrative, the middle of its identity. I guess I want to know how you feel about it now, or whether you don’t think about that record much anymore.
BERNINGER: I don’t think about records. When I go back and listen to it, I think about the stuff I was talking about. Obviously there’s songs — like “Fake Empire” — that did something for our career, but that’s a different way of thinking about the song for me. Lately more than ever, I think I’ve started digging way backwards and trying to write about not just where I am now and how I feel about tonight or this week or the current situation, but thinking about how we got here. I think “Bloodbuzz Ohio” is one of those first things: “Here I am, this is the way I am now, but why? How did this happen?” “How did I get so lucky?” Or, “Why am I such a dick?” [Laughs] Which I’m not! Sometimes.
But yeah, “Bloodbuzz”… I was in New York, and I did not feel connected to Ohio anymore, and at the time I didn’t really feel connected to New York yet. It was kind of an identity crisis. We all go through that, because everything around us changes. As kids, you have to follow your parents’ job around and new high schools — your environment just totally changes your DNA. I think that’s really good, I think it’s important to live in different places for long periods of time. You’ll never really feel home anywhere. I don’t really ever feel home except when I’m around people. People are home, and cities and neighborhoods aren’t home. They’re like gardens that you go in and see if you can cultivate yourself there.
I loved Ohio, I loved Cincinnati, I loved college, I loved high school, I loved the farm where I grew up. I write about this farm all the time. I write about my parents. We shot “Graceless” at my parents’ old house. Family homes and family farms have been a big part of my life, but it’s never been associated with a town or a city or a state. After college, I went to New York with an internship, and New York was Oz. And once you’ve been to Oz, it’s hard to go back to Kansas. Then, after 18 years in New York, New York and Brooklyn kind of became Kansas. Then my wife and I spent six months in Venice out in California and all the sudden it was Oz again. Home is not a place, you know what I’m saying?
Serpentine Prison is out 10/16 on Book Records.