State of the Nation

6 February 2014 Doug Wallen

State of the Nation

Doug Wallen, Ed#450, January 2014

With an Australian tour commencing, The National's Matt Berninger takes stock of how he and the band have evolved, and what audiences can expect.

As singer and lyricist for The National, Matt Berninger is a hero to thousands, his brooding imagery and robust baritone a key factor in the Brooklyn-based band’s mounting success. But he’s not perfect: the 42-year-old drinks a lot of wine when performing and, until two years ago, he’d been a smoker for half his life.

Berninger had tried to quit repeatedly in the past, managing to kick the habit while his wife was pregnant, only to resume after their daughter was born in 2009. But in between The National’s fifth album High Violet (2010) and last year’s Trouble Will Find Me, he was finally able to quit for good using prescription medication.

“I thought I’d never be able to look at a cigarette without just going for it again,” he recalls, “but something changed. It got out of my system.”

While there’s been talk of a renewed range to his voice since ditching those pesky cigarettes, Berninger says that’s not why he hits higher notes on tracks such as the ballad ‘Heavenfaced’. It was actually the influence of the late Roy Orbison (1936–1988) that got him pushing more in that direction. “In one song he would sing in three or four different octaves,” Berninger marvels. “I was attempting to see exactly how high I could sing. I hadn’t actually tried that much before.”

The surprising breadth of his delivery is only part of Trouble Will Find Me’s mystique. A long and absorbing album, it’s the purest distillation yet of Berninger’s hangdog soul and the inventive, orchestral leanings of his bandmates, two pairs of brothers: Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Bryan and Scott Devendorf. From the elliptical drumming of album opener ‘I Should Live in Salt’ to the aerodynamic tautness of ‘Graceless’, it’s so full of dark, understated beauty that even dozens of listens don’t unlock it completely. No wonder it picked up the band’s first Grammy nomination, for Best Alternative Album.

For all the attention focused on Berninger’s lyrics – with such odd, mantra-like refrains as We’re out looking for astronauts and There’s a science to walking through windows – each album’s creation yields notebooks stuffed with many more lyrics that never make the cut. And he’s not saving them for a rainy day.

“Everything that’s left over just feels like the by-product waste of the process,” he admits. “It’s like all the footage that ends up on the cutting-room floor of a movie. I let stuff just pile up in corners. I’m not precious about it.”

When it’s suggested that the notebook pages could accompany future reissues of the band’s albums, he counters, “I’d be embarrassed to publish them. There’s a lot of doodles.”

Lyrically, Berninger is fond of recasting borrowed snippets, with Trouble Will Find Me lifting phrases from the 1950 song ‘Blue Velvet’ on ‘Humiliation’, and from the 1983 Violent Femmes song ‘Kiss Off’ on ‘Hard to Find’.

While he hopes he won’t get sued for it, there doesn’t seem to be much danger: his usage is always minimal and remade in a new context. And that’s not to disparage Berninger’s own imagination, whether it’s his oblique wordplay or hypnotic choruses.

In ‘Pink Rabbits’, he even invents the cocktail of the same name, though he’s since found out there’s already a Pink Bunny involving vodka and strawberry syrup. Berninger named one of The National’s earliest songs ‘Bitters & Absolut’ (2001), while ‘Baby, We’ll Be Fine’ (2005) mentions the fictional drink Sauvignon Fierce, which he thought would be “a funny, cheap, terrible beer”.

Yet he’s quick to add: “I don’t recommend anybody trying to make the drinks that I’m talking about, because most of it is just what sounds good together.”

That fondness for drink doesn’t translate to a wild touring lifestyle. “I do all my partying pretty much on stage,” he explains. “After that I go hide in the bus or the hotel room and watch bad TV.” Berninger avoids social outings, playing the loner in a way that recalls his ‘Demons’ lyric When I walk into the room, I do not light it up. “I do love coming off stage,” he clarifies, “having done a good show and connecting with a big room of people who are singing our songs. That’s the greatest thing in the world. But everything else around touring is something I have a hard time with.” He adds: “I drink so much wine on stage that I’m done after a performance. I just go away. Like a dog goes off into the woods to die.”

One of the new album’s best mantras is It’s the side effects that save us, from ‘Graceless’. When Berninger was quitting smoking via medication, he suffered the side effect of insomnia. He describes an “itchy and antsy” month in which he penned “a weird screenplay about time travel and the Charles M Schulz comic strip Peanuts.” Laughing it off, he demurs, “It was either brilliant or really dumb. I can’t remember. I can’t find it anywhere, and that’s probably for the best.”

» Doug Wallen is The Big Issue's Music Editor.

This article first appeared in Ed#450 of The Big Issue magazine.