“I don’t believe in ghosts,” The National’s Matt Berninger tells NME, assessing his fittingly macabre surroundings, “but I believe in the power of the belief in ghosts. It’s the same thing with God. I don’t really believe in it, but I believe in its power.”
We’d expect no less of a pragmatic but emotionally-in tune response from the frontman, having dragged him down deep into the very bowels of London’s Alexandra Palace. The crumbling basement once used as an internment camp during World War One is now a spooky network of corridors and cells strewn with rubble, old furniture, workmen’s tools and signs of its past. Before our interview, we hear Berninger’s signature baritone rumbling the walls from soundcheck upstairs.
We listen intently for what songs they’re running through. They’ve just played the first of two sold out nights at Ally Pally and promised that they won’t be repeating any tracks tonight – a challenge that Berninger is ready to face down with recent shows having “really revitalised everyone in the band.”
“We’ve been playing a lot of really old stuff and some stuff that we haven’t played at all yet, so every night is a disaster in one fun way or another!” he laughs.
It turns out to be a total triumph – however this is a tour that may never have happened from a band that ceased to exist. Back in April, the band dropped their ninth album ‘First Two Pages Of Frankenstein’, documenting the singer’s searchlight for himself after battling depression and writer’s block over lockdown – and the band reconnecting after facing a near terminal existential crisis. The joy of the ensuing shows fed the surprise follow-up companion album ‘Laugh Track’, released earlier this month.
While in his element, Berninger is taking each day and each show as it comes – whiling his days away in his “odd five-star dystopian world” of hotels to focus on the task at hand.
“I’ve been learning how to play show after show and do the travel and the stuff that everyone else complains about,” he tells us. “I shut down completely in between shows and do as little as possible. I pull the curtains closed and only really come out of that a little bit before showtime. That’s the only way I can do it.
“If I’m trying to live some kind of lifestyle on the road or take in the world, then I can’t do this. This is why I’m here.”
We sat down with the frontman to talk about the “paralysis” of his depression, fighting fit today, the wonder of working with Phoebe Bridgers and Taylor Swift, and plans for a long-awaited sitcom in the works.
NME: Hello Matt. There was a free and easy sense of joy on stage on stage last night. Are you approaching this tour differently to ones in the past?
Berninger: “It feels like all the natural energy that we’ve always had live. We’re a different live band than we are a studio band, but I do think that there were so many years when no one was touring, we weren’t touring, and we were writing from a non-touring place. I was coming out of a long period where I’d just dried up and was in a depression. I just couldn’t write and that triggered a panic of never being able to go back and do this thing. It’s the thing I love to do and I’m better at it than anything else. When I couldn’t do that, it was pretty terrifying.
“Us slowly climbing back into the studio together, that was really hard for me. Crafting some of those songs became the first half of this double album. The first one was just about plugging things in and turning on the switches a little bit, and then we started touring and that energy of my brain, heart and soul heating up, and the whole band warming up, that affected the next record a lot.”
The downtime must have been difficult. Back in 2019 you told us that you felt like Bradley Cooper in Limitless because you were writing so much…
“I had a lot of really cool projects. I was writing a lot of songs with a lot of different people, we had been working on a musical with Peter Dinklage and Erica Schmidt [for 2021’s Cyrano], my brother, wife and I were in development of a TV show and there were a lot of things cooking right at that moment when COVID hit.
“The funny part is that I think I had way too many things going. I had seven big projects cooking and I had to call everyone involved and say, ‘It’s not gonna happen at all and I’m not going to promise that it’s going to come back’. In a weird way, it was a relief. For the first year or so or the lockdown and the shutdown, I was in a really blissful place – finally just chilling out. I was really happy to be home for so long with my wife and my daughter and everything.
“Then it caught up with me. Suddenly, The National were starting to think about how to get back out there, I couldn’t start writing. Nick Cave always talks about how there’s this little flame. You’re just trying to find that little flame that gets you excited about anything – whether it’s an emotion, a movie, a song or whatever. There was just so long when I couldn’t find the flame; I couldn’t light it. That triggered a panic. When we finally started to put the songs together that ended up being ‘First Two Pages Of Frankenstein’, that little flicker came back. Now I’m just throwing gasoline on the whole thing and trying to light the whole house up and keep it going for as long as possible.”
Back in 2020 we spoke about the song ‘Oh Dearie’ from your solo album ‘Serpentine Prison’, and you explained the meaning of the lyric, ‘Paralysis has me’. I noticed you’ve been describing that difficult period that followed as ‘paralysis’.
“That’s interesting because there’s so much foreshadowing of what was about to happen to me on ‘Serpentine Prison’. It’s funny, I’d only had this kind of level of a long period of depression and not being able to get excited about anything back when I was 12. I remembered that feeling and thinking, ‘What was about being 12 that’s so similar to what’s going on now?’ There was nothing I could identify necessarily, but I remember that lasting for like a year. Everything needed to shut down and reboot from nothing, but it took a long time for that light to come back on. It was a slow process of coming out of it.”
How was the process of returning?
“I ventured into antidepressants and quit smoking weed and drinking alcohol for a while. None of that really helped, to be honest! The antidepressants raised the floor a little bit when it was really bad, but I got off of those pretty quick. Smoking a joint and having a glass of wine with the band while we were listening to something that was kind of working was the way back to it.
“I tried to reboot myself physically, mentally and everything. Everything burned down. My brain burned to the ashes and I had to slowly rebuild it up again somehow. It was sobering to realise how fragile I was. Looking back, I was sick as hell. It was a whole physical thing triggered by real things and mental things. It was a total emotional and physical paralysis. I’ve learned to just respect it and respect how fragile everyone is.”
Was it a relief to complete ‘First Two Pages Of Frankenstein’ and see it all laid out before you?
“It was a relief to finish a record. There were more things happening but we had to put that record out because we had to tour, and we had 40 out of work people. We were all desperate and had to get this family and thing that we built back out there. We had to put the ship back out into the ocean.
“In the first many shows, the record was done but I was barely able to do that kind of thing. It was still months until I got back into mental and emotional shape and feeling great artistically and physically. We’re in a juicy phase now to keep writing. We’re going to take our time and have fun with this as we keep touring and keep writing. We don’t have a massive plan or direction. We just do what we want now. I think everybody feels that way.”
We’ve spoken before about how you would use weed and wine as a crutch to help you get on stage and connect to the songs. With this newfound compulsion and need for The National to exist, do you feel a different connection to the music, the band and the audience?
“I would always try and mostly pay attention to the song. Not to the crowd, not to anything – just the song. Remember the lyrics and try to connect to them. That was the most I could ever do, and I had to do that. From the very first days, I was terrified to look at the crowd, even if there were just two people. To make eye contact with the crowd would throw me off, but I’ve learned to take it in.
“Now I feel free to listen to the music, enjoy Bryan [Devendorf, drummer], enjoy the crowd and enjoy my own lyrics. I smoke a little bit of weed, I sip a cocktail throughout the show. There’s nothing before and nothing after now. It’s just a little bit of grease on the track. I’ve been having a great time connecting with the front row, the back row, the lighting guys and the whole thing. It’s been fun to figure out how to make these big weird rooms a playground. It’s fun to go out and see where the stairwells are. I go out and find closets and exits, just to see what’s out there.”
Was ‘Laugh Track’ always on the horizon or was it born of this joy of being on the road?
“When we first started writing, Aaron and Bryce [Dessner, guitarists] sent me so much music. I had been sitting on it for at least a year. A lot of the things across both of these records are from that long phase where they were all very prolific and I couldn’t do anything. ‘First Two Pages Of Frankenstein’ is frankly just the songs that were done [at the time]. Well, ‘Weird Goodbyes’ was the first one and we put it out just to say, ‘Finally!’ That meant a lot to me.
“I curated ‘Frankenstein’ and kept a lot back. It was my idea not to put ‘Weird Goodbyes’ in that batch, but then the other ones all kept growing. A few new things came up, but these two records definitely feel like one phase and one journey.
“After not wanting to think or write about anything that I had been going through for so long, finally I started writing about it all. I hope I don’t write about depression for a while because I feel like I turned over every leaf and looked into every corner there. There’s a lot on these two records, but it all feels very connected to me. I wanted them to essentially have the same cover.”
That said, a lot has been said about how ‘Frankenstein’ feels like zero hour while ‘Laugh Track’ is rising from the ashes. Do you think that’s fair?
“Yeah, it’s not necessarily chronological but knowing how we made this batch of 20-something songs means they’re woven into one big tapestry. On so many of the songs I’m barely making any noise. Physically you see the band coming out of a long mutation and slowly sprouting back to life and I hear that across the record.”
Since ‘I Am Easy To Find’ you’ve been more open to having other voices on the tracks. What’s it like to have these people like Taylor Swift, Phoebe Bridgers and Roseanne Cash inhabit these songs with you?
“It’s always incredible. The song with Rose Cash, I was writing it and thinking about getting her on it. I had become friends with her and she was one of the few people I talked to during my shutdown period. She was very helpful in saying a few things to me to flick that candle back on. When we were back, I couldn’t wait to bring her in on something.
“With Phoebe, we had these three songs that I wanted her on – and I needed her on the song ‘Laugh Track’. It needed that voice. That song is just asking someone to tell me that it’s going to be OK, or at least fake it for me or help me fake it. It needed that comforting presence. There’s something about the gentleness of Phoebe’s delivery of sometimes ungentle of awkward thoughts that was going to be perfect for that. Aaron really wanted to see what she would do with ‘Your Mind Is Not Your Friend’ and ‘This Isn’t Helping’, so she just sang on all of them.
“The Taylor thing was super organic. We’ve known her for a long time and obviously Aaron has been doing so much amazing stuff with her [having produced her last three albums and ‘re-recorded’ records]. I wrote ‘The Alcott’ with my wife Carin in mind, Aaron sent it to Taylor and she added her own perspective on it and wrote all her parts to it. It was a true duet where she heard that and inhabited the character that I was singing about – which is almost always Carin.
“It’s not really a strategic game. Obviously Aaron’s work with Taylor Swift is going to bring a different kind of spotlight, but it’s been fun and cool. All of that has been a really healthy branching out.”
Are they any surprises that have come with that spotlight and being brought into Taylor Swift’s orbit?
“No bad surprises! We’re getting a lot of friendship bracelets. What I see in Taylor Swift is her incredible generosity to her fans and the people who love her. She makes such a joyous event of everything. I was up until midnight with my daughter and her friends waiting for ‘Midnights’. She makes an event out of a record and a work of art and it hardly ever happens anymore. The Beatles would pull that off and I’m absolutely in awe of her ability to bring so much excitement and joy to so many people. It’s in my home and I love it.
“With The National, part of our commitment to putting on great shows is because these nights we spend with strangers singing together is what really matters – how magical and strange that is.”
You described the era of these records as ‘shedding a skin’ – does that mean this is the end of a chapter?
“I think so. With ‘I Am Easy To Find’ where we were working with Mike Mills and so many other voices, because it called for that because it was a story about a woman and her mother, meant that we’ve gone through a long phase of working with a lot of singers. I feel that these three records of ‘I Am Easy To Find’ through to ‘Laugh Track’ are artistically connected. We’re done with a lot of those branches and now it’s time to grow out of the other side of the tree, whatever that means.”
Bryan told us he wanted The National to make a stripped-back punk rock record like IDLES…
“Everybody says that! The guys send me rock songs all the time, but I can’t fake that. People can hear a fake rock song because it just sounds so pathetic and effortful. I’ve got to actually be in the zone and feeling it. That’s starting to happen more, but when I was going through my phase, I wasn’t angry at anything – I couldn’t muster the energy. I couldn’t raise my voice above a whisper. There are even songs that are sonically aggressive, but I’m just mumbling.
“I don’t warm my voice up and go in and try to belt out a hit rocker. It’s impossible and I can’t do it. Everything just has to be organic with us. Thank god. I wouldn’t know how to start if I had to cook up a song from a strategic recipe perspective in terms of career arc or anything like that. Whatever’s going on, I have to write that.”
In that spirit, is the sitcom still coming?
“Not unlike Frankenstein, a lightning bolt has started its heart again! It’s a really great show. It’s called Das Apes, and with the pandemic we had to put it down. Das Apes is alive, and that’s all I can say. There was nothing happening because of the writers strikes and stuff like that, but we’ll see. I’m not going to drown in projects like I was before, but that it is one of them that I really want to do and it might happen.”
Is it still autobiographical?
“There’s a lot of detail from autobiographical things, but not just mine – also Walt Martin and Matt Barrick from The Walkmen have all kinds of stories. Tom my brother is essentially the hero of everything. Tom and I play ourselves, my wife isn’t in it, but the whole chemistry and DNA of the show is very different than anything I think that exists. It’s really cool, joyful and funny. The Mistaken For Strangers doc that Tom, Carin and I made captures the spirit of this television show, but it’s not going to be a fake doc or anything like that. But who knows? It might not be anything. It might just be on our laptops forever.”
‘First Two Pages Of Frankenstein’ and ‘Laugh Track’ are out now. The National’s tour continues through Europe before returning to North America, later visiting Australia and New Zealand in 2024.