“Let’s do this,” smiles The National frontman Matt Berninger, clapping his hands, dimming the lights and lighting some candles as for peak wintry vibes as we sit in his dressing room backstage at The Brighton Centre. It’s the opening night of their victory lap UK tour to cap off 2019, and they opted for Brighton over London to cover the south coast. I put it to Berninger that this seems a little more fitting for a band like The National – bitter winds coming in off the sea, surrounded by the flickering lights of out-of-season seaside glamour. “Yeah,” he laughs. “It feels more appropriate.”
As the end of the year and the end of the decade approaches, it seems like a good time to take stock with The National. They started the decade with the release of ‘High Violet’, the record that took them from beloved indie darlings to an arena-filling institution. They ended it with their most ambitious project to date ‘I Am Easy To Find‘ – a sprawling album with accompanying movie directed by Mike Mills and starring Alicia Vikander, with the band flanked by a cast of incredible female vocalists to follow the narrative of a young woman travelling through life. On the record and on stage, where they’ve been joined by the likes of Phoebe Bridgers, Eve Owen, This Is The Kit’s Kate Stables and David Bowie collaborator Gail Ann Dorsey, The National seem less like a band and more like an open musical community.
“There’s been something happening to me on stage for a while that’s been really nice,” Berninger tells NME. “I’m just starting to enjoy it more and loosen up. For whatever reason in the past, I could just never get comfortable. It’s like not wanting to be in water, but I still like swimming. Now I’m starting to really enjoy being in the water and I’m just warming up.”
With a newfound comfort and perspective, Berninger is also gearing up to release his debut solo album ‘Serpentine Prison‘ next year. That’s a pretty bold way to kick off a new decade. We sat down with Berninger for a candlelit chat about inspiration, collaboration, weed, wine, and new beginnings.
What impact has this year of collaboration had on the way you work?
“There’s a combination of stuff going on with me, performative and writing-wise. I’m just trying to make it more fun. It’s not about the content that we’re doing, but the expression of that content doesn’t have to be dour. It can be, and that’s also incredibly fun. I find myself enjoying the songs and the lyrics now. Instead of trying to not look like an idiot, which always takes up 75% of my brain space when you’re on stage with all the lights and hundreds of people looking at you.”
Are you feeling more like ‘yourself’ on stage now?
“It’s a really uncomfortable spot for me, or it definitely used to be. I would do whole shows where I would be hitting myself in the head and hunched around that microphone stand like it was a branch in a flood. I never knew what to do with my hands, my body, my clothes, my face, anything. I would just close my eyes, hold onto the microphone stand, stand perfectly still and try to just remember the lyrics and sing OK. There’s a Leonard Cohen quote that says every time you step on stage, the possibility for disaster and humiliation are extremely high. I was always so aware of that, so I would just hold tight in there and not let go for an hour and half.”
And how would you describe your new state of mind on stage?
“I started to just let go and relax, and get inside the songs. I started to sing them like I was alone in my bedroom then try to open your eyes and let people see you in your bedroom. I still shut down when you become self aware in moments. The weird thing about performing is that you have to lose self-awareness a little bit. You have to be a part of something larger. It’s not about you in the moment or what lyric you fucked up, it’s about the whole thing in this whole room. You’re not the centre of it and it’s not going to fall apart if you fall apart.”
“Marijuana and cannabis have definitely helped me relax on stage. It’s definitely helped me write and with my personal relationships with the band. I’m a big proponent of it.
When we spoke in 2018, we talked about your reliance on weed and wine to perform. Is that still the case?
“The wine used to be my only crutch, now I use that crutch less. White wine on the rocks is nice to sip. Marijuana and cannabis have definitely helped me relax on stage. It’s definitely helped me write and with my personal relationships with the band. I’m a big proponent of it. These things are here for a reason, but they were made illegal for financial reasons. Hemp was made illegal because it was a cheap threat to the textile industry. Part of cannabis gets you stoned a little bit, so they turned that into this evil and illegal thing and used that to incarcerate people.”
So from stepping away from the centre, you’re walking straight into the spotlight by releasing a solo album. What drove you to that?
“I wasn’t driven to make it, actually – I was retreating towards it with ‘I Am Easy To Find’, as well as all the touring. Plus Aaron and Bryce [Dessner, twins and guitarists] and I am wrote all the music for a musical of Cyrano. That was really cool and we want to make that into a record. They were some of the best songs I’ve ever written. With that plus making ‘I Am Easy To Find’ with Mike Mills, Carin [Besser, wife and collaborator] and I were writing about ourselves but for another vehicle. We were servicing an idea while still writing very personally. I was slowly cooking little things that weren’t really for anything. It was a non-collaborative exercise.”
And then the solo music just spilled out?
“I had a bunch of music from friends too that I was writing too, plus I was tinkering around with some cover songs just to learn how to get out of my own moulds. All the covers and the solo songs were a respite from the higher pressure jobs of the musical and writing for the ‘I Am Easy To Find’ film. With all those things, I was conscious of having a job to do. All of the other little songs I wrote had no intention.”
So you’ve been writing a lot?
“It’s been busy, really prolific, very exciting couple of years. I’ve been through a maximalist writing phase. I’m still writing way more than I ever did. I’m like Bradley Cooper in Limitless or something. I’ve been editing myself less, and I’ve been less insecure both on stage and in my writing too. I’m writing more, but I don’t know if I’m writing better. I don’t know what to do with it all. I guess I’ll have to make more records.”
“I’ve been through a maximalist writing phase. I’m still writing way more than I ever did. I’m like Bradley Cooper in limitless or something”
How did the legendary Booker T Jones come to produce the album?
“Last December was when I wrote to Booker. I met him about 10 years ago when I sang on his record ‘Return To Memphis’. I had all these covers I wanted to do, I just had my vinyl player set up and just started to build my collection up when I got ‘Stardust’ by Willie Nelson, which was one of the five or six records that my dad had when I was growing up, along with ‘Killing Me Softly’ by Roberta Flack, records by Judie Collins, Barry Manilow, the Grease soundtrack, Waylon Jennings.”
Were they the constants in your childhood?
“There were less than 10 records in my childhood until my sister brought home The Smiths’ ‘The Queen Is Dead’, U2’s ‘The Unforgettable Fire’, The Violent Femmes and R.E.M. It wasn’t until my sister brought home that stuff that I had much musical sense or paid much attention, but ‘Stardust’ was one of those records I liked and remember. I flipped it over and it said ‘produced by Booker T Jones’ and I’d never known that. I had one of those ‘I know him’ moments and wrote to him the next day to see if he wanted to play on the record or collaborate in some way on these covers I was doing, because he’d done that for Willie Nelson.”
And he seemed like a natural fit for your ideas?
“His daughter and manager wrote back the next day and said, ‘Booker would love to do this’, so I asked to write and arrange’. That happened super fast over Christmas break. We spent 14 days in the studio and the whole thing was done really fast. I don’t know when it’s coming out or how it’s coming out, but it’s coming out next year.
What did he bring to the record?
“It was chaos. There were a lot of different people coming in and he was just this Svengali character in the centre of it all: very calm, very focussed and just unbelievably musical. Every direction we thought of, he was like ‘Let’s go further!’ We ended up not putting any of the covers on it. We were working on originals as well and we decided to focus on those because I was flying everyone in and wanted to focus on my songs first. I have all these covers too that I don’t know what I’m going to do with, but that’s where it is and I’m excited about it.”
What is it about the character and sound of the album that sets it apart from your other work?
“I wasn’t trying to do anything with a genre in mind. With the covers, which you might never hear, I was singing some country songs, some soul songs and different things. I didn’t think about the style of the songs or even trying to avoid sounding like The National or [side-project] El Vy. There’s cross-pollination, but I wasn’t trying to go after anything. I just wanted to find some good songs. I just wanted to see if I could do something by myself, so I brought in 20 of the most brilliant musicians and some of the coolest people I know.”
“It’s not the greatest solo album in the world, but it’s in the top five”
‘Walking On A String’ with Phoebe Bridgers is pretty great.
“That was a whole other thing. It’s not part of the record. I wrote that song with Mike Brewer for the Between Two Ferns movie, who also has a song on the record with me, and getting Phoebe and her whole team to come in on it was a blessing. The song wasn’t working quite right until we turned it into that duet. I’ll probably do more one-off stuff like that. Even with the solo album, I didn’t know what to do with all the stuff I was writing that didn’t fit into a bucket. It’s not the greatest solo album in the world, but it’s in the top five. What else is there? ‘Imagine’, ‘Harvest’, Beyonce’s ‘Dangerously In Love’, then my record ‘Serpentine Prison’ is probably fourth, then Bryan Ferry’s ‘The Bride Stripped Bare’.”
With so much going on, will there be a new album from The National next year?
“I don’t think there will be another National record next year. After [2017 album] ‘Sleep Well Beast’, we talked about taking more time to focus on other projects. At the very least, I know that everyone is looking to slow down. There was no talk about starting another record before we made ‘I Am Easy To Find’. None of us are talking about another National record right now. Every single other person is doing a bunch of different stuff next year. I’m sure we’ll get together. We were writing on stage together the other night and we always are. We used to try to plan it, but we’re not any more. The National is touring next year too.”
You’re ‘High Violet’ in full at Homecoming Festival and Best Kept Secret. Will there be more?
“There are going to be more than those two. We’re just trying to slow the bus down a little bit. We’re saying no a lot more now. Our families miss us.”
Is it a headfuck that it’s been 10 years since ‘High Violet’?
“Has it? Oh, is that why we’re doing it? Oh, that makes sense! That’s an interesting feeling. It doesn’t feel that long ago.”
Are you excited about living inside all of those songs again?
“I like it. I used to want to stick to the songs from the new record on tour, but now I like throwing anything in on the setlist and trying to see what old songs sound like when we do them now. When we do an old song, we’re almost always surprised by how much we like it. We often make these little improvements and are like, ‘Oh why didn’t we do this the first time?’ With any of your records, they kinda look like teenage photos capturing an adolescent period.”
“Records change. Records grow up. We all have and the records have too.”
Do you ever feel embarrassed by older material?
“Records change. Records grow up. People change dramatically in just a few years because of circumstances and self-discovery. We all have and the records have too. I like that. I feel more connected to the old stuff because it’s still us and we’re not embarrassed by it. The old songs could be as important as anything we’re doing now.”
Do you feel that perceptions of The National have changed too?
“Early on, we were called ‘alt country’ and that wasn’t a cul-de-sac we wanted to get stuck down, so we moved away from acoustic guitars and jammy stuff. Now we’re trying to let all that jammy stuff back in. We’re less conscious of ‘the brand’ of The National. We’ve been called so many things and none of them have been: dad-rock, sad-sack-mope-core, brunch-core, Americana. Every time we got called something we wanted to shake it off, now we just want to wear it all.”