May 07, 2007

THE NATIONAL: Sixeyes Interview with Matt Berninger

The National have been big to me all along. Hell, even the name sounds big. A lot bigger than the name they were going to go with, American Mary. The band name, 'The National', may not google very well, but jeez, it's better than AMERICAN MARY!

Over the past few years I've written about the band several times and I think I actually discovered them on a little French indie label called Talitres. A very smart little label with a small, but high quality roster... you should check it out (you should also check out the indie label, Brassland, a Brooklyn-based label started by members of the band with good friend, Alec Hanley Bemis). When the band started they sounded like they were being driven by a couple of guys with classical training who were veering off into rootsier territory, that may or may not be true, but not any longer. The band has grown, or better yet, they have matured with many of the pieces coalescing with the release of Alligator in 2005. Alligator simmered with anger, it had 'big teeth', much more than any previous recording by the Brooklyn based outfit. And this is what started the well deserved increase in attention for the band, the 'anger' in the songs. Powerful emotions of any kind draw attention, they elicit powerful responses, and all The National needed was that little boost of 'anger' to snare more people into listening to their wonderful music. And I think that the 'anger' came along at just the right moment for several reasons: the band is better than ever, they've toured the world together, they've matured, and independent bands are receiving more attention than at any time before. Perfect timing for their latest release, Boxer, a record which will stroke and lull you into forking over the prerequisite amount of coin at your local purveyor of fine music. Where Alligator simmered, Boxer shimmers, like soft light on warm water, a soft light that shines upon bluebirds, a woman named Ada, diamond slippers, and that damn Fake Empire. Boxer is a grower, just like all of The National's music, but the best things always require an extra effort and if repeated listenings to Boxer is all the effort required to fall in love with this music then life ain't so tough, is it?

The album Boxer was bolstered by the musical talents of Thomas Bartlett, who writes and records under the name Doveman (in fact, he was nice enough to answer a couple of questions at the post's bottom, in between touring with the bands The Frames and Antony and The Johnsons), Bartlett adds keyboards to most of Boxer's tracks. Also helping out was Sufjan Stevens who played piano on the song, "Ada". In addition to Bartlett's Q&A the interview also features Frenchman Mathieu Saura, who is hard at work on a film revolving around the band and the making of Boxer, it will be called A Skin, A Night - you can watch previews here.

I'd like to thank all who took the time to answer my questions, especially the gracious front man, Matt Berninger.

from Boxer
ada [mp3] expired

from Alligator (2005)
daughters of the soho riots [mp3] expired
Find more mp3s.

Boxer will be released on May 22nd on Beggars Banquet.
BUY the album, Boxer.
BUY Alligator (2005)
Download The National albums, tracks and songs for free with eMusic's trial subscription.

Sixeyes: Okay, you’ve got a new record (coming out May 22nd on Beggars) called Boxer. Tell me what you feel when you think of that collection of new songs and how does that feeling differ from your sense of 2005’s Alligator?

Matt Berninger: It feels very different from Alligator. There’s a different spirit inside this one. Less anger maybe. Boxer seems more trance inducing. It was sometimes hard to get perspective while we were working on it but it turned out better than we hoped. It seems more cohesive than anything we’ve done before and more spacious. I’m not exactly sure what that means but I can feel the environment of this one and it’s a nice place to spend 43 minutes, although I usually play it twice.

SE:I recall reading that you and the band quit your jobs before recording Alligator. Do you feel that that in any way contributed to the sound and the eventual success of the album? And how has that worked out in the long run? Did it influence how Boxer was recorded, or how it sounds?

MB: Alligator was filled with anxiety and I’m sure quitting our jobs was one of the sources of that. The 2004 presidential campaign was also a factor. Boxer comes from a different place. There’s still a lot of insecurity but there’s also a weird peacefulness in it. Part resignation and part escape.

SE: On the upcoming tour for Boxer, you’ll be opening for the Arcade Fire for six dates, including two shows in New York. This is obviously a fantastic opportunity for the band, how did it come about?

MB:We did a show a while back in Amsterdam, they played in the main hall, we played later in the basement. I think they came down and must have liked us. Bryce and Richard later did some touring together with Clogs and Belle Orchestre. I’m among those who think of Funeral and Neon Bible as two of the best records in recent memory. So yes, I’m thrilled.

SE: I saw you and the band play Toronto at the Horseshoe Tavern and at one point you walked off stage and I could see you on the stairs having a smoke. I was wondering if you still smoke? I ask because when I first heard your new song “Fake Empire” I thought you sounded differently and attributed it to the way the vocals were recorded, but now I wonder if perhaps you quit smoking?

MB:I was still smoking when Boxer was recorded but I quit after mixing. Since then I’ve only had two cigarettes, both in Brussels about a week ago.

SE: You’ve said in the past that writing songs for you is piecing together the best bits of what you’ve scribbled down on scraps of paper, and I think that’s what makes your songs so distinctive and memorable, but do you ever feel the songs have a schizophrenic feel for you, with regards to memories tied to different lines in one song?

MB: I don’t really have much of a writing process. I’ll get at a song any way I can but whenever I’ve tried to write the lyrics for a song in one sitting they’ve usually ended up sounding rigid and overstuffed. The collage approach works better for me. It allows more space for flexibility. A hazy image or expression is often more tangible than a clear one and when the right two seemingly unrelated ideas are put next to each other they can create something unexpected. We do the same thing with the music.

SE: How important are the unsung, or unseen, heroes of The National, Peter Katis and Padma Newsome?

MB: Peter and Padma have had immeasurable influence on our last several records. On Boxer we started working with them earlier in the process than ever before so they had much more of a hand in shaping these songs. There’s some nice alchemy at work between us. Boxer and we owe them a great deal. The album cover was taken at Peter’s wedding, he’s in the center dancing with his sister-in-law.

SE: Tell me about the documentary that Mathieu Saura/Vincent Moon is working on... has he finished shooting?

MB: Don’t expect Cocksucker Blues. I’ve only seen the clips that have been floating around the internet so I can’t say exactly what it’ll be. He says it’s not a ‘documentary’ but more a film about making music, of which we happen to be the subjects. He’s been with us on tour and in the studio a lot and we usually never know he’s filming. I expect to look like a jackass, just hope the lighting is nice.

SE: I’ve never asked about food in an interview before, but is comfort food as big a deal on the road as I imagine it would be? What do you like to eat on tour?

MB: We’re not picky. The hardest part is finding time to sit down and eat healthy. Vitamin C, Zinc and Advil will probably be diet staples.

SE: Is being the main guy doing all the PR nerve racking at times? I mean, do you feel the pressure of being the point man whenever a new record comes out? Is there anything positive you get out of doing all the interviews and press?

MB: I can't complain about people wanting to ask me about our record. No one payed attention for a long time so we don't take their interest for granted. I do get sick of myself pretty quick though. I'm not exactly a graceful conversationalist lot's of "um's" and "hrmmm's". Bryan's actually the best spokesman. He's got an acerbic wit that sometimes gets him into trouble. He's a much better read.

SE: Any fascinating books, movies, TV shows, websites, records, etc., that you could point our readers in the direction of?

MB: I still think BBC’s The Office is one of the greatest works of art of the century. Just finished Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion. It’s sordid and bleak on the surface but there’s an uncommon tenderness in it. I’m also pretty into the new Battlestar Galactica series. It’s worth it just to see Edward James Olmos say “frack” instead of “fuck” so as not to offend children.

SE: Finally, what does your schedule look like for the next six months with regard to touring, video shoots, and recording?

MB: We just finished a video for "Mistaken for Strangers". It was a collaboration between my brother Tom Berninger, Ryer Banta and Hope Hall. They call themselves Thread Count. The video is more about us making a video than about the song. I’d say better than "Sledgehammer".

We start touring next week and will continue on and off through the end of the year.

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  1. i first read this yesterday, there is a difference between reading a interview on magazine and reading on a blog. I always love congratulating worthy people. So congrats Alan, very nice interview. Now my brothers say too [i]'bulut, play the national'[/i]. Yes i love this music and i'll play...

  2. Anonymous6:04:00 PM

    Great interview cheers.
    Didn't realise the guy did the take-away shows as well...

  3. thanks for this interview, alan!

    matt likes the new battlestar galactica. i love it, too. i'll stop now before i say anything embarrassing.