I took the bus to work today because my car broke down, and I found myself in downtown Los Angeles, hemmed in on all sides by skyscrapers, alone with my bag and the headphones that covered my ears like an electric bulletin. Most artists milk the dusty landscapes of the open road or the same-same-sameness of a small town when they’re singing songs of lonely strangers or telling tales of getting up, getting out, and getting on. The National’s Matt Berninger, though, knows the feeling of being the barely-glowing light at the bottom of steel and glass canyons. The big city looks pretty until the neon starts to force itself upon you, and the glitter of bank signs and sky-high advertisements loses its luster once you’ve stepped through them enough. People in the city need a way out, too; no one’s safe; we hold onto the light by the edges and spin.
These are the assumptions that the National work from. These are the worlds, the people, the hearts that they create in their songs. Bruce Springsteen has always been (rightly) lauded for granting grace, vision, and dignity to America’s blue class, and for reminding the coasts that there’s something going on between them; Berninger’s stories draw similar lines around an entirely different class – the white, mid-20s/early-30s coastal hipster. At first, these groups seem to be diametrically opposed. The image of the self-conscious, faux-working class, gentrification-mad, spending-all-your-money-to-look-poor kids runs counter to that of the actual working class, those who already live in those parts of town and wear what they can afford. But Berninger recognizes the same things in the skinnyjeans that Springsteen sees in the bluecollars: a need to be reminded that life is too robust to be crammed entirely into workspaces and trapped between buildings, that there’s just as much dirt on Wall Street as there is in the fields. There’s much more to this, so look for it.
With all of the hype and laurels that accompanied Boxer, Berninger and the National found themselves at the tunnel end of other people’s points of view. May 20th saw the release of A Skin, A Night, French filmmaker Vincent Moon’s abstract portrait of the band that was filmed during the Boxer sessions. A Skin, A Night, which is available now on Beggar’s Banquet, is accompanied by Virginia, an EP of b-sides, live cuts, and covers (including Springsteen’s “Mansion on the Hill”) compiled in the wake of Boxer’s run.
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Aquarium Drunkard: How did you first get involved with Vincent Moon? Did he offer to film the Boxer sessions or did you guys approach him?
Matt Berninger: We’ve known him for about five years. He took all the photos for Alligator, the cover is his. He always has a camera with him so when he came to visit while we were working on Boxer he let it roll. He wasn’t ever really planning to make a documentary.
AD: What do you guys think about A Skin, A Night? Is it strange watching yourself in the process of creation?
Matt Berninger: It’s strange to see yourself doing anything on film. Especially a film that has been edited down to only show the uncomfortable moments.
AD: Your lyrics are a large part of what draws people to the National. Did you ever get a sense of being underappreciated as a writer back then, when the majority of people listening to your band didn’t speak the language that you were writing in?
Matt Berninger: I never used to think of myself as a writer. I always considered myself more of a sing-alonger until the lyrics started to get a lot of attention. Most of our early fans spoke French anyway so I didn’t expect much.
AD: In watching A Skin, A Night, we get the sense that revision and sweat are very important to your band. Some artists (Neil Young, for instance) can write and record an album in a week, but the film makes it very clear that you worked incessantly on Boxer, tweaking melodies and lyrics on “Green Gloves” and “Slow Show” in particular. What is it that drives you to revise so ardently?
Matt Berninger: We just work and revise until we’re happy with the song. We would all love for it to come quicker but we’ll stay with it however long we need to.
AD: How do you know when a song is “finished”? Is it tempting to tinker a song to death? When listening to Virginia, for instance, it’s fascinating to know that the line “Everything you say has water under it” migrated from “Slow Show” to “Brainy.”
Matt Berninger: I stole that line from my wife Carin and kept trying to find the right place for it. I should have put that one in every song.
AD: At what point did you realize that Boxer was beginning to cohere into a unit? Did it come across in the editing and revising of the individual tracks? Did the formation of the album differ from that of Alligator?
Matt Berninger: We didn’t really know what we were going to end up with until very near the end. I knew there were some great things happening but it was hard to see the whole picture from so far inside. Alligator was easier for some reason. I guess we had less to lose on that one.
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AD: There is very little smiling in the film, very little sense of play in the creation of Boxer, yet what you are doing is obviously artistically inspired. Do you find it hard to keep the flames of inspiration from smoldering as the night goes on, so to speak?
Matt Berninger: We smile more than the film lets on. He edited out all the jackassery for artistic purposes I suppose.
AD: How about live? Do you find it hard or emotionally draining to put yourself in that mindset every night? How do you combat having that emotional state carry over into your everyday life?
Matt Berninger: I don’t find it difficult to get into the songs when we perform. Losing myself in the songs is the safest most comfortable place to go in those situations.
AD: You’ve recently been ending shows with “About Today,” from 2004’s Cherry Tree EP. What’s brought you back to that song? I think it’s particularly strong because your lyrics are so sparse and uncertain while the band seems to fill in the details, particularly in the song’s end. It’s almost as if the uncertainty of the relationship in the song is more torturous than simply knowing that it’s over.
Matt Berninger: That song has evolved a lot over the years and everybody likes to play it. It’s become sort of a safety net. A soft landing.
AD: How much of your writing is autobiographical? Most of your characters are mid-20’s, upwardly-mobile hipsters, and I think that your audience identifies with that. To what extent are you singing from your own experiences in the dot-com world? Do you find yourself singing out to the world, or in to yourself?
Matt Berninger: It’s not exactly autobiographical but I’m always singing to myself about myself. If they’re not about me they’re about someone I want to be. Delusional self dramatization.
AD: There is a constant struggle between the “artistic” and “civilized” worlds on Boxer. In “Mistaken for Strangers,” for instance, you’re singing from the point of view of the one who has stayed true to his artistic vision, but “Apartment Story” and “Slow Show” are decidedly domestic. Do you find yourself struggling to maintain footing in both of those camps? How do you press on?
Matt Berninger: It’s not that hard to keep the plates spinning. They serve each other and both are honorable pursuits. I think most people probably lead duel lives to some extent.
AD: Many of the reviews of Boxer called it a war record, focusing on tracks like “Start a War” and “Fake Empire,” but the more I listen to those tracks, the more they seem to be about crumbling relationships. To what extent are those songs “war” songs?
Matt Berninger: Neither were every really songs about war. “Fake Empire” has political allusions but it’s also just a song about going out and forgetting your troubles. If anything, its more about trying to avoid thinking about the state of the world.
AD: I’ve spoken with several artists who have begun to write purposefully ambiguous lyrics because they know that their songs are going to be interpreted differently by different people; to what extent do you do the same? How do you feel about the way your songs are interpreted?
Matt Berninger: A song sticks with me more if its a little ambiguous. It allows for flexibility and leaves the windows open. It’s easier for me to stay connected and interested in something if I’m not 100% sure what it’s about.
AD: There’s a strange, almost Salinger-like sense of love and respect for the characters in your songs, as if the reason that you criticize, say, the professional with the white shirts in “Squalor Victoria,” is because you love him and think that he’s capable of more. Where a less mature songwriter would be more content to look down his nose at the guy, you put your proverbial arm around him. Why do you feel more inclined to be sympathetic to characters that others would likely write off?
Matt Berninger: Most of the characters are me and I tend to give myself a break.
AD: The Hold Steady, Nick Cave, and Okkervil River all name-drop John Berryman (among other writers) in songs. Who do you enjoy reading?
Matt Berninger: I’ve read some Berryman but I don’t tend to read very much poetry. I was reading a lot of Joan Didion and Grace Paley while working on Boxer. Lately I’ve been reading stories by Miranda July.
AD: Critics focus heavily on your lyrics, almost to the detriment of the rest of the band. Bryan’s drumming, though, is one of the unsung heroes of Boxer, in that he seems to propel the music in ways that most drummers can’t. He’s a lyrical drummer, if you will. To what extent has his talent been a boon to you and your writing?
Matt Berninger: Bryan is great because he doesn’t just play along. He changes a song’s direction and moves it around. The real unsung hero is Aaron. A majority of our songs start with something he wrote.
AD: You’re the only member of the National who isn’t related to another member of the band. Does that family connection bond you guys all together? How does the dynamic of being the only non-brother affect you, if at all?
Matt Berninger: The family bonds are a good foundation for us. The roots are deep. I have a brother, Tom, whose a filmmaker. We’ve been working on something together for nineteen years. We’re almost finished.
AD: How were the shows with REM and Modest Mouse? Were you having to fight to be heard, or were there people showing up for the National? Most of the venues that you played were outdoors, and I imagine that you went on while it was still daylight. How well does your music translate to that setting?
Matt Berninger: We went on early but I think we reached a lot of new people. We’ve played plenty of half empty rooms over the years so it didn’t shake us. Daylight doesn’t really seem to fit our music but I would just close my eyes and try to imagine myself in Mercury Lounge.
AD: Did you have much interaction with Michael Stipe or Isaac Brock?
Matt Berninger: We did hang out a fair amount. Michael Stipe is a really nice man. All of REM and their crew were very good to us.
AD: What comes after Europe?
Matt Berninger: A long bath and a nap. After that I hope to catch up on some TV.