The National’s Matt Berninger on shaky hands, firing his brother and recording ‘Trouble Will Find Me’

The National

Two weeks ago I spoke to Matt Berninger, lead singer for The National, who perform just prior to Sir Paul McCartney next Friday at the Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival. In fact, I have twice before interviewed the band’s bassist, Scott Devendorf. You can read a story here and a Q&A here. (Both in the San Jose Mercury-News). Read my new story here. Until then, here’s some extras I felt were interesting enough to share here.

On learning, from experience, how the five band members operate and avoiding the stress with recording Trouble Will Find Me:
We know that the flow is sometimes tense and a fraught process for us, but as long as we keep working and not implode, we will end up on the other side of it with a good record. Alligator, Boxer, and High Violet taught us that.

So in a weird way, we just kind of relaxed because we knew we would get there eventually.

It wasn’t that things came easier, so much. It was that we were patient. We weren’t pushing it. We weren’t anxious. We weren’t so worried about ruining songs. It’s not that anything happened that much faster. We probably worked harder on this record than any of our other records. But we didn’t have the anxiety about the process. We were at peace with the chemistry that we have and our process. I think that’s why it was easier. After 14 years we knew ourselves, and we knew how we worked, and we needed to just relax. Even when we were fighting and arguing – in the past we were arguing because we were worried that the band was going to break up, and that would cause everybody an unbelievable amount of stress. Nobody wanted the band to break up, but we would fight about things, and we would be worried that we were on the brink of destruction; the brink of collapse as a band.

Q: Were there any specific events that influenced the direction or themes on the new album, such as having kids and becoming family men?
I don’t know if it was events so much. There were little moments. I had been talking to Aaron and Bryce about, “Why don’t we do more sort of strumming, acoustic songs?” – just because I had been listening to some classic American stuff or even some Bowie songs. And then Aaron sent me the music sketch for “I Should Live in Salt,” and that just clicked with me right away. That was an event where it was like, “This is different for us.” I jumped up, and I started singing it an octave higher than I usually sing. And then “Pink Rabbits” is kind of a meandering piano ballad that maybe we would not have put on another record. These two are like the touchstones or tent poles of this record. That’s kind of different for us.

On his frame of mind when recording the new album:
I was a little bit interested in the idea of existence and the idea of eventual non-existence. It’s not that I thought about it in a grim way, but that was in my head a lot. I just started to wrap my head around the idea of life and death and all that kind of stuff. That came into the songs in a lot of different and oftentimes funny and silly ways.

Q:  Whoever had the job of firing your brother as assistant band manager (as seen in band documentary “Mistaken For Strangers”), did that person have to go and get your permission first?
That was part of what the tension was. Our tour manager, Brandon Reed, who has been with us for 8 years – he runs the show. He’s an unbelievably professional. He’s our sound engineer and our tour manager. When he joined us, we became a much better live band. He’s somebody who we respect his role, so he was in a very tough position because I asked him to hire my brother as his assistant, and my brother just wasn’t that good at that type of a job. Nothing slipped through the cracks with Brandon, but with my brother, however, things slipped through the cracks. I put them both in a difficult position. I put my brother in a difficult position because I asked my brother to do something that he’s not really suited to. It’s not really in his wheelhouse. That caused a lot of friction. Ultimately, Brandon came to me and said, ‘Listen, I need to talk to you, this isn’t working out … with Tom.’ I respected that. I had to respect Brandon’s role, and he was right. That all became part of the movie, and that’s why the movie is complicated and interesting. Ultimately, Brandon loves my brother, but he couldn’t have him as his assistant. It was a real pickle.

Q: You’re pretty honest about not knowing to play any instruments. There’s many other singers like that, but many of them are now trying to cover for that by banging on drums at the front of the stage. What are your thoughts on that? Should singers have something in their hands at all times, or is a mic sufficient?
The truth is being on stage and being under the lights is being in a weird, uncomfortable place. It’s taken me forever to get used to it, and what I’m supposed to do with my hands has always used to be something I stressed out about. I do do things. I constantly have a glass of wine in my hand, or I’m leaning on the microphone stand. I find myself with these kinds of crutches, sometimes literally. But then I stopped caring. I stopped worrying ‘Do I look cool?’ I do a lot of weird stuff with my hands. People always wondered whether I might have various medical conditions. And I do have various medical conditions but none of the ones that people are guessing. After a while, I learned to embrace the awkwardness. And that’s just us. The National is kind of a weird, awkward live band. I think people actually connect with that in the same they connect with our songs. It’s taken us 14 years, but we’ve realized and embraced whatever it is in our specific chemistry without trying to be The Strokes, and without trying to be a band or look like band or act like something we’re not.

Q: What do you think about other singers who play drums?
I don’t really have any opinions on that. I love watching crazy, twisted, weird, awkward live bands. Some of my favorite live performers are Nick Cave and Boston Bob Pollard and the guys who stomp around; they’re a little bit animal, like gorillas out of a cage a little bit. They’re always the ones I find most exciting to watch other than the ones that are super slick and pro and graceful up there. I kind of like the awkward guys the most. That’s when I figured out, why am I trying to be something I’m not?

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