Matt Berninger on "Sorrow," Trouble and Trey
Despite the fact they all hail from Cincinnati, OH, during the past 15 years, The National have come to define Brooklyn indie-rock. In certain ways, that makes them quintessential New Yorkers: the five members of the stalwart indie-rock band met when they were teenagers, grew up listening to a very Midwestern mix of alternative rock and jambands, relocated to the big city in their 20s and, only after years of struggling through the club circuit on slow burn, achieved their musical dreams. The band’s often overlooked Ohio roots and trademark sibling dynamics play out during Mistaken for Strangers, a film directed by lead singer Matt Berninger’s brother Tom, which has finally achieved a wide release after a year on the festival circuit. Around the time of the film’s completion, Relix and Jambands.com spoke to Matt Berninger in his native Cincinnati about the band’s humble roots, Midwest upbringing and confident new album, Trouble Will Find Me.
We are in The National’s collective hometown of Cincinnati, OH. Although the entire band grew up around the city, you lived a little ways away. Can you describe your neighborhood versus the rest of the band’s?
I grew up on the West Side. I mean, I make more of it than they do, but the East Side was sort of like—the West Siders always thought the East Side was the snobby side and the West Side was sort of the wrong side of the tracks. It is not really like that—I grew up in an amazing, normal suburb, but I like to pretend I grew up in the gritty side of town [Laughter.]
What was the New Wave indie-scene like in Cincinnati when you were younger?
There wasn’t a big music scene. Shake wasn’t the record store I went to. When I was growing up on the West Side there was a little place called Circle CDs that—I don’t even know how many years it lasted, but it was in this little house. You wouldn’t even believe that there was a record store in there, but it was one of the only places. And because in ’97 and WOXY was a radio station out of Miami, there was a very small but crazy sort of alternative rock scene in Cincinnati. On the river right here, you would come down and there was a thing called Night Waves, where once a month on a Tuesday night there would be a river boat that would play nothing but New Order and The Smiths and The Cure. And also because they were out on the river, they were serving underage kids. And so I was 16, and I was going and getting drunk on a river boat, you know, drinking to The Cure with lots of cool, older goth girls and stuff. By far, the most significant part of my life as far as music was doing that thing.
So ’97 WOXY was sort of a lifeline for artsy, alternative kids in Cincinnati, but there was also a lot of really awesome bands like The Tiger Lillies. There was The Breeders, and those guys were just up the road sort of. But Afghan Whigs, and there were a couple of bars and stuff where you would go and see local bands that were badasses. And my favorite was The Tiger Lillies. I guess every city has its underground weird art/rock scene—I don’t know if by other city standards was it healthy, but I was just super into it, and it felt like the coolest place in the world, and it definitely was a formative thing. Also Braniac. They were also around, and one of the best bands internationally at that time.
The National have been described as the definitive Brooklyn indie-rock band but you are all from Ohio and now live throughout the country. In what ways would you say you are a New York band versus a Midwestern band?
Maybe personality-wise, or maybe a certain amount of my self deprecation comes from being a band that came from Cincinnati. And then we moved to New York for school and all that kind of stuff. Maybe that is the Ohio in the music I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I think all the Cincinnati bands, even Guided by Voices or Breeders or Afghan Whigs, there is something about the DNA of those bands that is about not being cool or something like that, but embracing and being spitefully un-cool in a weird way, which is even more cool. I don’t know, maybe there is some of that. I can’t tell. It’s really hard to say, but being in Brooklyn was a big motivating factor in our band. We formed in Brooklyn, and we practiced right next to Interpol, and they sounded amazing through the wall, and it made us try harder to be a good band, and it took us longer to be a good band, so I don’t know. It’s hard to say how much Ohio is in our musical DNA.
According to your bandmates, Trouble Will Find Me was recorded quicker than average The National album. Do you agree with that assesment?
It wasn’t quicker, it just happened with more ease—some sort of different vibe.
Aaron Dessner said he gave you these nuggets of music, and you jumped right into the lyrical process a little bit quicker than normal. Was it something about those songs that hit you more immediately or was it you have gotten more used to the recording process?
I think it could have been the music and, in some cases, it definitely was—like “I Should Live in Salt” and “Pink Rabbits.” And some of the music he was sending me wasn’t overthought too much. In the past records, they wouldn’t send me something unless they thought it was, from an academic perspective, really, really, really interesting or good, and none of that ever mattered to me. I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. I mean, I could tell, “Oh that’s maybe weirder,” but it didn’t ever make it any better to me. The simplest thing is sometimes if it was the right sequence of chords. It didn’t matter if it was breaking any new ground.
But I think this time Aaron was sending me stuff that might have been a little less over thought because he had a baby at the time, and he was stealing hours away just to go back in the studio and do little things, and I think he wasn’t over thinking it. Well, that’s the way I like to think of it, and it might have had something to do with the fact that I was connecting to it in some sort of immediate visceral level. But then again, it might have just been because we were just relaxing a little bit about what kind of band we were, what kind of image there was about the band. We didn’t really care as much about being cool or weird or anything. Not that we ever did, but this time we were just writing songs and chasing the songs, and we weren’t overthinking it too much.
And do you think that is because High Violet was so successful? In that sense you have already proved yourself?
It might have had something to do with it. But I think it was a combination of having three records that were sort of on all smaller levels but sequentially sort of on a—critically embraced, but also people just seemed to find us because of all three of those records. It wasn’t like after High Violet all of a sudden people knew who we were—it was a very gradual thing. So I think we kind of felt like we finally had the confidence, like, “We finally know what we’re doing. Let’s not worry so much about whatever the image of The National is or whatever the next National record should be.” Are we supposed to reinvent the wheel?
So I just think we were just listening to the music, and I wasn’t worried about the lyrics being overly sentimental—I should avoid writing too many sad songs or too many sentimental songs because that’s been our label for so long: a sad, miserable, depressing guy. I never thought of it that way, even though I understand why a lot of our music gets that label and it makes sense. But this time I stopped worrying about that. I stopped caring, and songs like “I Need My Girl,” the stuff that is very sentimental, and songs like “Pink Rabbits”—there are these kind of meandering piano ballads. I think all of us were just thinking if the song sounded good, that’s all that mattered. It didn’t matter if it was like, “Oh, what would The Dirty Projectors think of this?” Like The Dirty Projectors love our band and vice versa, but they are very academic, and so I think there was a time for Aaron or Bryce, they wanted to—and Bryce especially—cared about that. This time, I think even he was like, “Well, let’s not worry about all those sort of abstract issues.”
It’s funny when you mention the word sad because I always felt that while your music has always been very introspective and dark it is not as overtly sad and gloomy as a band like Radiohead. Your songs are almost uplifting in a subtle way.
Yeah, I understand why we get the dark, mopey, depressing sort of thing because we are probably more that way than most bands. But I just think that our songs are really funny a lot of times, and so there is a catharsis in sort of digging into that dark stuff.