The National – Ukula (Summer)

An interview with Matt Berninger of The National
(originally published in Ukula Vol.3 No.3)

Photo by Walid Lodin

White shirts, neckties, Citibank lights, punch tables, empty tuxedos, “the unmagnificent lives of adults” — hardly the stuff of rock n’ roll. And yet within the lyrics of The National’s Matt Berninger, these commonplace images induce a compulsive tugging at the loose threads of existential meaning.

The National’s music is equally compelling, but patient. It sidles up, full of nervous energy and subtle melodies. Nothing is obvious on the first listen except for the haunting resonance of Berninger’s woody baritone, or maybe the occasional turn of phrase, a rolling drumbeat or shades of the ever-present piano.

With the same glacial confidence found in their music, The National has asserted their importance to the indie rock world. Building on the unanimously glowing reception of “their first masterpiece” Alligator in 2005, they have returned this spring with Boxer, their most accomplished effort to date, as well as an enviable stint opening for the Arcade Fire and five sold-out headlining nights at New York’s Bowery Ballroom.

How is it that this gimmick-less band, whose dynamic live show (highlighted by Berninger’s captivating and sometimes volatile presence — he is known to walk off just to clear his head and have a smoke when things get too intense) has retained the attention of both the mainstream press and the fickle blogosphere? It seems to have a lot to do with returning to day jobs from time to time just to keep in touch with normality. Not very rock n’ roll indeed.

“We never actually planned to be a band that tours and does this,” says Berninger, “but once we started doing it, the idea that maybe I wouldn’t have to spend 40 years of my life getting up at 7 in the morning and putting on a tie was exciting.”

“I’m always trying to get away from it, but then when I’m away from it for too long you start to get weird.”

Back in 1999, when getting weird wasn’t a worry, Berninger formed The National with two sets of brothers: the Dessners (Aaron and Bryce) and the Devendorfs (Bryan and Scott). Originally hailing from Cincinnati, the crew had relocated to Brooklyn and released two records on their own label, Brassland, before being signed to Beggars Banquet on the success of 2003’s Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers. Their first release for the UK independent label, Alligator prompted a national tour that consumed more than 9 months, and left the band noticeably exhausted.

Returning home, they began working on what would eventually comprise this year’s Boxer. Berninger admits that they don’t have much of a process when it comes to writing. “It just happens in so many different ways,” he says. “The only process that we’ve had is just kind of a random collage-ing system of bringing elements together. Nothing works all the time, so we’re always changing it up to try and get the songs sounding right.”

“I don’t like songs to be about being in a band,” says Berninger. “There’s only so much you can talk about and it’s a very limited experience. It’s really important to take breaks and get outside of the band and get some perspective. Some songs are thankfully outside of that little world.”

When inside of that little world, the band splits their time between recording with Peter Katis (Interpol, Oneida) in Connecticut, and working on things in their own apartments. Berninger explains, “Sometimes it’s easier to get the mood of something working if you record it in your living room or your bedroom as opposed to being behind the glass in a studio.” Working from home played a large part in the lyrical development as well. With songs such as “Guest Room” and “Apartment Story,” Berninger creates an insular moodiness plagued by a reluctance to venture out and experience the city around him.

“I didn’t leave the apartment for perhaps too long in certain spells and got a little stir crazy, and I think you can hear that in some of the songs,” says Berninger. “Some are literally about boarding up the doors and windows and staying inside and avoiding everything.”

The band did manage a few breaks while working on Boxer, “just to come up for air” as Berninger suggests. One particular mini-vacation came in the form of an invite by flamenco guitarist Pedro Soler to play at a guitar festival in Southern France. Along for the ride was filmmaker Vincent Moon, who filmed the concert and a number of impromptu performances of the new material in unique locations for his Take Away Concert series.

Moon also spent a number of hours lurking in the shadows while Boxer was recorded, compiling footage for a documentary on the band. He assured them that it isn’t a rockumentary, and from what Berninger observed, “it was just more of him watching little moments and collecting them together.”

It’s an interesting description of the filmmaker’s process, considering Berninger’s own approach to writing lyrics: “It’s just collecting stuff,” he says. “I never sit down and actually write lyrics, but when I do the songs are kind of too aware of themselves so it sounds really overwrought.” Instead, Berninger assembles words from disparate sources, “I definitely collage things together. Sometimes it’s conversations or movies — ‘Mistaken for Strangers’ has a moment of dialog in it from Spielberg’s Munich. I stole the phrase ‘showered and blue-blazered’ from a Jonathan Ames book called Wake Up, Sir! I’m a pack-rat of little scenes.”

A number of ‘scenes’ seem to come directly from Berninger’s experiences working in an office as a freelance web designer. Lines like “Underline everything, I’m a professional” (“Squalor Victoria”) and “Fifteen blue shirts and womanly hands / You’re shooting up the ladder” (“Racing Like a Pro”) sound like they’re taken directly from the compulsive notes he makes at his desk and in conference rooms. But what seems like an oddly unappealing way to get inspiration is actually the key to understanding The National.

“I’m trying to escape having to sell your time five days a week to a company or whatever,” he says. “[But] when you’re working on a project or dealing with clients or going to a conference room, sometimes that’s really good for your brain.”

“There’s also the need, the basic desire to be free and to not have any responsibilities,” he continues. “It’s trying to balance that stuff out and not lose what’s really good because you’re trying to get a little piece of everything. You can’t. You have to give up certain things and make sacrifices or else you’ll end up independent and free, but you also might be very lonely and bored and sick of yourself. It’s kind of a theme, a thread that runs through probably almost every song in some way or another.”

Appropriate to the Prufrockian weightiness of his struggles, Berninger injects a considerable amount of clever wordplay and striking images into his lyrics that one tends to laugh off without decoding their significance. Whether it’s absurd gestures like “It’s a common fetish for a doting man to ballerina on the coffee table cock in hand” (“Karen”), or the mundane detail of “Watch their videos, in their chairs” (“Green Gloves”), he mines the grey depths between satire and empathy.

Though he admits that the songs aren’t necessarily autobiographical, “I think they know – people, friends and a lot of ex-girlfriends… when it’s them in certain songs. I can’t tell how comfortable people are with that. I’ve never asked permission, but I haven’t lost any friends over it.”

The National may not simply be the product of Berninger trying to work through his personal hang-ups, but still he maintains, “I have a hard time writing a song if it’s not about something that I’m trying to actually solve.”

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