Trouble will find me: an interview with Matt Berninger
The National’s lead singer talks about the band’s new album, creative pressure, taking risks and his brother
A few weeks ago, I interviewed Aaron Dessner from The National in Brooklyn for the newspaper. Matt Berninger was also supposed to be part of that interview but, between the jigs and the reels and other commitments and rehearsals, it didn’t happen – until now. Here are some thoughts from the lead singer on writing the new album, creative pressure, taking risks, the live show and his relationship with his brother. The National play Live at the Marquee, Cork, on June 28; Odyssey, Belfast, on November 9 and the O2, Dublin, on November 10.
Did you find the writing process for the new album easier than before? Aaron mentioned during our interview that you wrote the lyrics to one song on a plane trip to Singapore, for instance.
“For whatever reason I found writing melodies and lyrics for this record easy. Not that I didn’t spend endless hours doing it, probably more than any other record, but it was just more enjoyable this time. Usually writing lyrics for me is like bleeding drop by drop from the forehead. This time the blood just poured out.”
Does the fact that the last album did so well take the pressure off you as a writer? Or does it make you even more eager to press on creatively?
“I think the success of the last three records gave me the confidence to stop worrying so much about what kind of songs I was writing. In the past, I think I avoided certain sentimental urges. This time I didn’t care. This record feels more emotionally honest and raw to me.
What do you think is the biggest risk you and The National have taken during your career?
“Making “Boxer” after “Alligator”. “Alligator” was the first record that anyone paid attention to and it seemed like it was the screamy songs that got us that attention. I purposely avoided screaming on “Boxer” because I didn’t want us to paint ourselves into a corner. It was a gamble. At first when “Boxer” came out people were a little let down and we worried that it might be the end for us. But then it began to grow on people. “Boxer” bought us our creative freedom.
Has your intensity as a live performer taken a toll on your health? Is it exhausting to deliver such an emotional, full-bodied performance every night?
“Yes. I drink too much because of anxiety and there is definitely a certain level of mental and physical deterioration after 22 months of touring. I can see how musicians get weird and creepy. Trying to avoid that.”
One of the most telling things about the band is your collective connection with your fans. Is this something which has become harder to maintain the bigger you have become?
“I don’t know. We pour everything into every show and try to make the big rooms feel small. I think the songs make the connection. We know that most of the people in the room only go to one or two rock shows a year and they picked us so we better deliver.”
As the only member of the band without a brother in the band, how did it feel to have your brother Tom around documenting things for the Mistaken For Strangers documentary?
“At first, I loved having him around. I left for college when he was nine years old and after that I moved to New York. We hadn’t really been together much for 20 years. I missed him and I was happy to have him around to vent to and unload on. But after a while the tension between Tom and our tour manager Brandon boiled over and caused a lot of problems. Then he got fired. Then he moved in with my wife and daughter and me. Things got weirder and tenser. I’m just glad he and my wife filmed everything.”