While it feels like they may have only just released their acclaimed seventh album ‘Sleep Well Beast‘, The National are already looking to the future – and shaking things up. Read our interview with frontman Matt Berninger below.
‘Sleep Well Beast’ marked the most successful period of the band’s career to date – entering the UK charts at No.1 and landing them a Grammy. Ahead of a huge summer that includes a massive headline show at London’s Victoria Park, the band finally feel like they’ve ‘arrived’.
“When the record was done, we all just felt so good and confident about it,” Berninger told NME. “We all just had a fear, but winning the Grammy was not something we thought much about. Well, I’d be lying to say we didn’t think that much about it but when we won, it felt good.
“We’ve always been a band with a bit of a chip on our shoulder, every band has a chip on their shoulder. But we realised we didn’t deserve that attitude anymore. There’s nothing to be bitter about anymore. Not that there ever was, but we always seemed to have that sort of abstract blurry bitterness about us. If it means anything, for us the success meant that we don’t need to climb that ladder.
He added: “We no longer get to think about the industry. Trying to be a successful band is a big balancing act of art and commerce. We know there’s a whole game to it, and I guess feel like we have won the game. We don’t have to play it anymore.”
You’ve got some huge shows coming this summer, headlining a bunch of massive festivals including All Points East Presents at Victoria Park in London. Does this feel like a victory lap?
Berninger: “This is a big summer. You put out a record, and then you hit the road, you go go go go. Now we’re slowing it down instead of worrying about what opportunities we’ll be missing. We passed on a lot of things just because we know it’ll go crazy and it will hurt the band if you try to do everything that’s offered. Just looking at all the bands and people that we know that are going to be at Victoria Park is crazy, especially with our name among them. Then the next day, man. There’s no secret that Nick Cave is one of those people that I just have obsessed over and study and steal from.”
The crowd at Victoria Park is going to be pretty huge…
“Yeah, that’s a big gang. When you’re up on a stage in front of 2,000 or even 200 people it doesn’t feel that different, you don’t get that much more nervous. You just have to be connected to the songs, and just be. I’ve got to go inside my own head and I’ve learned how to do that. All those people watching you sing personal, embarrassing love songs is bizarre. You feel exposed and vulnerable. It’s just like cold water that you just feel healthier after. It’s an emotional and physical experience that’s just really satisfying. I do get nervous as hell, I smoke a little weed and I drink wine. It does help me slide into that blurry space of where the songs came from and helps me not to think about the 40,000 people in front of me.”
You told us before that you already had plenty of new material written. Will you be winding down to head into the studio after these shows?
“We’ve been in the studio. We’ve been recording wherever we go. We had a bunch of stuff that we just recorded in Buenos Aires when we were in South America just because we had a day or so.We’ve been constantly just writing. Even before ‘Sleep Well Beast’ was done, there was already a bunch of stuff cooking, but when Trump won it just didn’t feel right for whatever reason. I can’t even tell you why. ‘Sleep Well Beast’ had the pivot when the world changed.
“We stayed in the kitchen. We don’t do that thing where we don’t talk to each other for months anymore. I don’t know what form or when this next album is going to come out, but we’ve been doing some other really interesting collaborations with people too. It’s all way more than halfway done.”
“Those guys are amazing guitarists, but I think on ‘Sleep Well Beast’ they were trying to lean away from being a guitar band. In the past few years they’ve just tried to let their hair down with guitar solos. I’d also say that touring with The Grateful Dead had an effect on us. Not that anything we are working on sounds like The Grateful Dead, it doesn’t – but just the nature of meandering and letting the vines just grow and get gnarly for a while. We’re just loosening up our boundaries and letting the songs evolve.”
Lyrically, do your find yourself looking inwards or externally on your new songs?
“Maybe now I’m trying to not write from my perspective but other perspectives that I fantasise over. I don’t know if I’m going to sing on them all yet. We start thinking ‘why does it have to be my voice all the time?’ We’re opening it up. I’m not so much naval gazing about my own life, I’m looking at things from different angles, or at least trying to. The lyrics, the guitars, it all feels a little different. What it’s going to feel like when it’s done is hard to say now.”
Are you inspired to write about life in Trump’s America, or is that a black hole that you don’t want to fall back into?
“I’m definitely not thinking about Trump anymore. You could’t not for so long and that’s why we couldn’t dig into it. I’m open to discuss it on a daily basis but I’m not trying to make a deliberate motivated theme during what we are doing now. Frankly I think Trump is practically insignificant now, he’s just a distraction to other things that are happening. So I think that even singing about him is just stale – it sounds old already. He already feels like he is old, gross news. All of America will look back on it with self disgust. We have to. Around 70% of us already do.
“The stuff I’m trying to write is not trying to sort that shit battle. I think being at some of those marches and all these things are obviously totally connected. Trump is dredging up all the old tendencies of racism and corporate crime. He’s just exposing it all, it’s undeniable. I do think there is a massive shift happening. You should be watching what’s happening in the streets, especially with the young people. It’s just so clear that people 20 years younger than me are trying to make it clear that they’ve had enough. It’s towering up and becoming a tangible movement. I am a total optimistic person, but Trump’s presidency will take a long time to undo – and some of it can’t be undone. He’ broken up families.
“The world is infected by all the same racism and sexism. We’ve denied so much of it for so long and he’s making it so hard to deny. There’s going to be a sea change. The dark clouds have rolled in, and it’s the darkest before the dawn. This is the last of the gross old patriotic conservative way of thinking. Let’s hope, right?
The line-up for The National’s headline show at All Points East Presents is below. For tickets and more information, visit here.
APE Presents… The National – Saturday 2 June
The War on Drugs
Public Service Broadcasting
Broken Social Scene
This Is The Kit