Features | Interviews

The National

By David Greenwald | 11 April 2006

In 2005, The National made headlines by releasing one of the year’s best albums and touring with buzz band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Alligator was an unexpected success, an album that gained critical and commercial momentum thanks to immersive lyrics and well-crafted songwriting. After a much-deserved rest, the band is back on the road in support of a new, extended edition of its recent full-length. Lead singer Matt Berninger spent a few minutes on the phone with CMG’s David Greenwald, plumbing layers of lyrical complexity, discussing this year’s indie sensations Arctic Monkeys and explaining why the band’s next album won’t be another Alligator.

*****

CMG's David Greenwald (CMG): What’s your writing process like? Do you work on things and bring them to the band, or do you guys all play together?
Matt Berninger (MB): It happens in so many different ways. I’m usually writing lyrics and trying to write lyrics and most of the time, scratching out bad lyrics while the other guys are noodling around and writing guitar progressions and little riffs. We just get together all the time and throw around what everybody has been doing. The songs start to come together in a collage-y way over time. It’s a mixture of being in the studio and being at home, on Pro Tools and four-tracks, but nobody comes into the room with a finished song.

CMG: You guys are coming off of a pretty big year. Alligator was on a bunch of year-end top 10 lists and things like that. It seemed like the bloggers in particular really supported the album and made sure it was on a lot of their lists – do you guys have the time to follow that or are you too busy with touring and recording?
MB: You know, it’d be cool to say that we don’t pay attention, but yeah we do and we were seeing people saying stuff – what happened for us, the record came out in April and it got great reviews but we were very unknown. Our name wasn’t out there. It was because of the bloggers and word of mouth and that kind of thing that over the year more and more people heard about the record. It had a huge impact on us and, y’know, we’re really happy about it. We didn’t expect it. We had this underdog status and maybe that was something that was part of the appeal, I don’t know. We don’t question it.

CMG: It must have been a nice tour turnaround after the tour with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah because they were getting all the press at first and then it seemed like you guys sort of took over at the end of the year.
MB: It’s funny, I think that tour was really helpful for us because that’s what sparked a lot of people finding out about us because we were the band that was following Clap Your Hands. That turned into a story of being a battle of the bands – I mean, we’re really close friends with those guys and we invited them on that tour before they blew up because we were in love with their record and in love with the music they were making. Then they became huge and they were the most talked-about thing so we were very aware of how awkward the situation was. A lot of shows, people were just coming to see them but definitely people heard us, the ones that stayed around. In fact, if we hadn’t toured with them, I don’t know if we’d have as much people talking about us or not but all of that is always out of our control. We just play as many shows as we can and try not to think about it, but we were watching that development. It was entertainment.

CMG: You’ve been on a break from touring – besides working on more music, what do you guys do with your time off? Do you guys have day jobs or are you a band full time now?
MB: We quit our jobs about a year and a half ago just to tour as much as possible, but when we’re home we can’t pay our rent with just the band right now. We freelance and do little jobs when we’re at home in New York.

CMG: I want to talk to you about Alligator, of course. I was just listening to the Cherry Tree EP and it seems like you guys made a pretty big jump from almost an alt.country sound on that and your earlier stuff to Alligator. The newer stuff seems sharper or more rhythmic. Something like “Wasp’s Nest” sounds totally different from “All The Wine.” Where did the change come out of?
MB: Our first record, which was several years ago, people put it in a sort of alt.country, Americana thing but we never thought of it that way. We haven’t had any visions or strategies of trying to be a certain kind of band. I think Alligator didn’t feel like we were making a huge strategic or sonic shift, it was just naturally the mood we were in. And I think the next record we do, we’re going to try to not make Alligator again.

CMG: There seem to be a lot of winks at the indie scene on the album – the line about “Bedroom kids who buy it for that reason” really sticks out to me.
MB: Yeah.
CMG: Is that a joke or is that more of a serious gripe?
MB: It’s kind of a joke. People’s relationship with music is something that’s very fleeting, you get crushes on something so quick and then you listen to it too much. I mean, it also refers to that certain things are just really promoted so heavily that they become popular even though they’re not that exciting, and those things usually don’t last very long. Certainly it’s not a gripe, I’m probably the same way, there’s a record I fall in love with and after a while I listen to it so much that I get tired of it and want to find something refreshing and exciting and different. People who really are listening to music often are like that, you just want to be turned on by something new all the time. That’s the way I am and that’s the way we are in writing music, which is why we don’t want to make another Alligator. We want to surprise ourselves, and I think it’s a good thing in the industry that people’s tastes are so fickle. I mean, we know how to write certain kinds of songs and we don’t feel like writing more, stepping on the same footsteps again.

CMG: What are some of the things you’ve been listening to recently?
MB: I really like the new Calla record, which actually probably isn’t even that new. What else have I been listening to a lot…I should probably just open my stereo and look what’s in there. I did get the new Arctic Monkeys thing, which is a good record. I’m excited about the Liars’ new record, because not everything they do is easy to listen to but it always will freak you out in some way. I just download the one song that’s off their EP that’s available and I love that. I just switch around a lot, I’ll go back and listen to nothing but Tom Waits for a week and nothing but Psychedelic Furs for a while or whatever, I just obsess over little things for a week or two and then move on.

CMG: I had a couple questions about the lyrics. I've always assumed them to be a fictional narrative. Is that how you approach them or is there more autobiographical content to them?
MB: There’s a little bit. I’d say it’s like 80% fantasy fiction and 20%, at least the seeds are coming from something that’s either a real obsession or question. When writing lyrics, usually sitting up at night drinking wine or whatever, usually it’s relationship stuff, but a lot of it is just writing little scenes and stories – it’s made up, but it’s like a way of taking your normal life and making something a little exciting and weird and telling fake stories about it that are maybe how you want your life to be.

CMG: A lot of the songs, like “Baby, We’ll Be Fine” or “All the Wine,” seem to have a really ironic tone. You’re saying one thing but meaning another. Is exploring irony and exploring contrast something that you’re really going for?
MB: I don’t think of it like that. “Baby, We’ll Be Fine” is a song about having to go work and trying to tell yourself that you can do this and you can be a mature responsible person, but it’s also… a lot of the songs, they strive for something, but they are also self-mocking in a way, making fun of your own inner dialogue and your own insecurities. I don’t think of it as being irony, I think it’s more of spilling your guts on one thing and laughing at yourself for your own pathetic heart-on-your-sleeve emotional stuff. They’re definitely self-conscious, but the twists and the humor, when it sounds very earnest one second but switches to ludicrous and over the top, I think it’s a natural reaction to the stuff that I’m writing about. It’s both pure and heartfelt but also you can laugh at it, and realize that a lot of that is thin and fake. There’s a lot of knowing that you’re being ridiculous and reacting to that but happening in and out of the song. It’s just pulling the lyrics together that tell a good story, paint a good picture. Got to be honest and put it all in there. Songs that are love songs that are just so specifically about how great your love for something is, usually I think that’s often bullshit because there’s so much insecurity and second-guessing and changing how you feel as often as you do, it’s double-sided, so most of the songs have both sides of the coin.

CMG: Well, that’s one of my favorite things about the album, that it’s very self-aware and it can make fun of itself. You have all these non-sequitor lines, I have to ask you about a couple – where did “ballerina on a coffee table / cock in hand” and “I’m a birthday candle in a circle of black girls” come from and what’s the significance of those lines?
MB: Both of those are delusional moments. The coffee table line is just an expression of making a complete ass of yourself but it’s filled with libido and irresponsibility and drunken buffoonery. It’s both funny and sad and pathetic. There’re lines that do that, that just kind of spin in it in a ridiculous way, but they’re actually kind of the more important lines in the song. The circle of black girls, the birthday candle thing is just very self-conscious. I grew up in Cincinnati in a very white neighborhood and went to like an all-white school. And really living in Brooklyn now, when I first moved here, I was very aware of being a nerdy white guy. The birthday candle is this sort of image of a skinny, awkward white guy in the middle of all these beautiful black people and it doesn’t have any more meaning than being self-conscious but also being sort of delusional and a fantasy image – it’s obviously not any kind of literal thing, but it’s a weird way of expressing the feeling of feeling awkward.

CMG: Who are some of your influences as a writer?
MB: As far as music, it’s people like Morrissey and Tom Waits, people who can do that thing where you feel like they’re telling the truth but then they also will turn on you and be both very sweet and heartfelt, and cruel and absurd. At least the lyrics, you can tell that they’re not just writing what they think is going to be a cool-sounding pop song. It’s complex emotional stuff, even if it’s just about drinking or being absurd. You really feel that it’s from their belly. But I’m just as inspired by TV sometimes and movies. I don’t know, I read, I read a fair amount but I just yank little things here and there.

CMG: What was the last good book you read?
MB: Right now I’m enjoying Please Kill Me. I don’t read that many books about music, but it’s funny, it’s about the whole punk scene and Iggy Pop and it’s really well done. It’s people talking shit about each other, it’s like reading US Weekly for punk or something. The book that I was obsessed with that I read a couple times was Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames, which came out in the last year. He’s a writer that put himself and his characters into these absurd situations but with a real compassion. He makes fun of himself but he has this empathy for all his characters and when he makes fun of himself, he’s also very compassionate towards himself. So that was a book I thought was really beautiful, it’s really just funny and sweet.