The National’s Matt Berninger on 10 years of ‘High Violet’: “We wanted to reach everybody”

The band's fifth album catapulted them from indie darlings to festival headliners. And all it took was friendship, fatherhood and advice from Michael Stipe

Matt Berninger is calling from lockdown in his home in California. After a long to-and-fro about how the coronavirus crisis is taking its toll on the physical, mental and societal health of America, he admits that the necessary quarantine has given him “the opportunity to process, slow down and chew on everything in a different way instead of chasing this one upward trajectory”.

It seems that The National frontman is in the perfect mood to take stock and look back over the last decade for the upcoming 10th anniversary of the band’s breakthrough album ‘High Violet’. (Though as he sagely notes with that familiar social-distancing-induced Groundhog Day confusion: “Does time even matter any more?”.)

10 years ago, The National enjoyed something of an Indian summer. 2010’s ‘High Violet’ was a landmark record for the band, elevating them from cult curiosity to chart-bothering festival headliners. The introverts opened up and brightened the corners of their black post-punk sound. In the words of the NME review at the time, ‘High Violet’ was a sign of the band finally becoming “fully grown-up, coloured in and going overground”.

If they weren’t separated and trapped in their homes right now, The National would be prepping to celebrate ‘High Violet’ by playing it in full at a run of shows peppering the schedule for the final lap of their tour for their acclaimed eighth album, 2019’s ‘I Am Easy To Find’. There was an indiegasm across the internet when the anniversary gigs were announced along with the deluxe vinyl reissue. It was the kind of reaction reserved for one of those very special records. ‘High Violet’ spoke loudly to the latest generation of kids who were never picked for the football team, who saw their own story in The National’s tale of geeks longing to be heard.

Why did ‘High Violet’ strike such a chord? “All the songs I’ve ever loved are fluid enough for me to sink into them and be the character,” Berninger replies. “You empathise and get inside their soul a little bit. Whatever’s wrong in your heart or in your life, the record absorbs it like a sponge. Later, you play it again and all of that emotion comes out again. All the things we needed were always there in good songs.”

The National formed in 1999 in Berninger’s native Cincinnati, Ohio before they moved to New York. The band endured a prolonged period of obscurity from their 2001 self-titled debut album and 2003’s underrated follow-up ‘Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers’; while The Strokes were scoring touchdowns for NYC’s garage rock revival scene, The National were stuck on the bench.

2005’s ‘Alligator’, their third album, first perfected the combination of dark, raw-nerved realism and heart-bursting indie anthemics that make up the DNA of the band we know today. 2007’s stately and opulent ‘Boxer’ was showered with acclaim, but the indie darlings were still far from the arena-filling heights of many of their peers. Heading into their fifth album, The National had to figure out who they were, and who they wanted to be.

“We’d just come off tour with R.E.M.,” remembers Berninger. “Seeing a band that good continue to exist and evolve for that long made us realise that we had to go for that. Michael Stipe teased us saying, ‘Why don’t you guys just write a pop song? Why don’t you write a radio hit?’ We were like, ‘We’ve been trying since day one! We don’t know how!’ He told us, ‘If you’re going to be in a band that lasts a long time, you either have to write a lot of hits or none at all’. At that point we were like, ‘Oh shit, maybe we’re safer going down the none at all route…’”

But, he continues, “I didn’t want that. I don’t think any of us did. We wanted to be a big band. We wanted to reach everybody. I’ve had manifest delusion since I was a kid. I wanted to be a rock star. I couldn’t play piano, but I wanted to be Tom Waits, I wanted to be Leonard Cohen, I wanted to be Nick Cave. You just pose, you absorb and you try. You get out there and do your best.”

Matt Berninger of The National perform onstage during Bonnaroo 2010 (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

Fully aware of their status as a ‘grower band’ (though Berninger laughs that “that always felt like an underhanded compliment”), they set about writing some songs that would connect straight away and on a huge scale. But first they had to iron out some of the creases in their creative process. Any band featuring two sets of brothers (twin guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner and drummer and bassist Bryan and Scott Devendorf) is going to have to deal with more tension than most.

“We always fought, and we fought so much while making ‘Boxer’ to the point where it had gotten unhealthy,” admits Berninger. “We’d been a band for 10 years and were exhausted through all the conflict – personal conflict, creative conflict, touring life, living on a bus together for so long. You’ve got all that shit going on but then you get into the studio and the record is how you connect it all back together again.

“Another thing that Michael Stipe told us was: ‘Remember you were friends first’. That pops up in our heads all the time. ‘High Violet’ was us following all of Michael’s advice.”

“Michael Stipe teased us saying, ‘Why don’t you guys just write a pop song’?”

Feeling “happy but depleted and desperate for this record to be good”, they started work, then swiftly halted. Already exhausted from recently becoming a father, Berninger was struck down by a nasty bout of flu – and then his grandmother died. On the plane back to the funeral, his eardrum burst under the cabin pressure, leaving him unable to hear in his right ear for a while. “Sometimes something forces you to shut down for a while,” says Berninger of his run of bad luck, “and you come back and it’s an opportunity to remember why you’re doing this.”

United in their vision and ambition, The National would finish what might still be their most cohesive and complete album to date. ‘High Violet’, with a title inspired by overhearing talk of the threat levels in New York after 9/11 (‘high orange’ being the most severe), was the crystallisation of all that they’d previously sought to master – but with a more accessible sheen.

You can feel this shift from first notes of opener ‘Terrible Love’: it’s there in the Dessners’ genius sonic textures, which are as rich as ever, but this time with a little more warmth, lift and release. The record may feature guest spots from indie glitterati such as Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver‘s Justin Vernon, and Arcade Fire‘s Richard Reed Parry, but they never distract from the record itself. Perfectly measured and never overblown, ‘High Violet’ is the victorious sound of a band reaching ever upwards.

Lyrically, Berninger reels through his usual themes of “trying to figure out who you are and if home is a place”. With a number songs written with wife, longtime collaborator and former fiction editor at The New Yorker Carin Besser, the issues of family, time, movement, and the impact of fatherhood weigh heavy on his mind throughout the record. On ‘Afraid Of Everyone’ he sings: “With my kid on my shoulders I try not to hurt anybody I like – but I don’t have the drugs to sort it out”. On ‘England’ he addresses a missed loved one (“You must be somewhere in London, you must be loving your life in the rain”) and on ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’ he makes the startling observation that “all the very best of us  string ourselves up for love”.

“I have so many songs about trying to find out who I am. I think that’s a thread I always walk along”

“I have so many songs about trying to find out who I am, Berninger says. “I think that’s a thread I always walk along. I had been in New York for over 10 years [when we wrote ‘High Violet’], and I definitely felt I wasn’t in Ohio any more. I was married, I had a baby and I was an entirely different person. The searching for who I was going to be – and trying to figure out who I used to be – was all part of that process. I was also wondering if I’d make art and music for the rest of my life. I really wanted to so bad.”

The album reached Number Five in the UK and Number Three on the US Billboard 100. The venues got bigger, the cult grew stronger and the music press lapped up the ‘nearly-men done good’ narrative. They headlined the second stage at Latitude Festival 2010, with momentum swelling to such an extent that they returned to headline the main stage the following year. It was a whirlwind period, wonderfully captured in the documentary Mistaken For Strangers, starring and directed by Berninger’s brother Tom.

In typical National fashion, they couldn’t simply savour the taste of success. “We loved the record when it was done,” says Berninger, “but whole career was just a series of moments of going, ‘We’ve made it! Oh, no we haven’t!’ Never count your fucking chickens. Never. The second you do, it’s over.

“We knew that we hadn’t fucked up and we knew we weren’t finished. Did we feel like we’d ‘arrived’? I don’t think we ever feel like that. We never feel like we achieved what we wanted to do.”

Berninger admits that “touring was really hard until about five or six years ago”, adding he used to “battle” within himself on stage, but is now far more comfortable in his own skin and less “emotionally wrought”. His vices of weed and wine are now more an aid to help him slip into the songs, rather than a crutch for anxiety and self-awareness. Even from this distance, though, he finds it “hard to tell” if he really enjoyed the original ‘High Violet’ shows as much as you might expect.

Either way, the band’s real ‘pinch me’ moment arrived in September 2010, when they were invited to perform to 25,000 people before a speech from Barack Obama at a rally in Wisconsin. “Meeting Obama seemed more important than being on any big stage,” says Berninger. “Now I’m playing in front of these big crowds and realise how much more significant they are than having a few photos with Obama. But at the time [it was] hard to have any perspective on it.”

“Meeting Obama seemed more important than being on any big stage”

In the Obama years, he says, the US exuded “a sense of enlightenment, optimism and possibility”. He adds: “Obama winning was just like, ‘Everything is going to happen now. America is finally going to stand up and be what it’s claimed and promised for so long but hasn’t been’. At the same time, there was so much division. Government had got so brutal and disgusting with Bush and even Clinton.

“Looking back now, the beginning of an eight-year Obama presidency – compared to what we’ve been living through now with four years of a fascist… I mean – wow, talk about perspective.”

10 years later and what’s going on in the White House now seems more backward and “gross” than ever imaginable. And guess what? The National still don’t have a hit to their name. Stipe was right. They’re still playing the long game and winning, with family and friendship at their core. The National now rub shoulders with Arcade Fire and The Strokes as a bonafide indie institution.

Berninger has just inked a record deal for his debut solo album ‘Serpentine Prison’ (literally – he signed the contract when NME reminded him on the phone). As well as writing songs constantly, he’s also working on a sitcom TV adaptation of Mistaken For Strangers with his brother and Besser, as well as a sequel to the original film. Matt Berninger is now the polymath rock star he would pose as back when he was a kid.

While it’s tempting to trace that thread throughout his life, though, he insists: “I’m entirely different to the man I was when I made ‘High Violet’. We shed our skins, we change, we evolve. We all have the capacity to become whatever we want.”

The National release the 10th anniversary expanded edition of ‘High Violet’ on June 19. The band are raising money for their touring crew during lockdown here.

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