When a band called The National made its debut more than a decade ago, it was considered an underdog in a busy independent music scene. The lead singer's melancholy baritone and the lush instrumentation didn't always fit the irony-laden swagger of the aughts. The National has endured, and these days it has a hard-won following. It headlines big concert halls and late-night talk shows.
Singer and lyricist Matt Berninger recently spoke with NPR's Audie Cornish about the band's new album, Trouble Will Find Me, as well as being in a band of brothers, how his own brother inspired "I Should Live in Salt" (and made a documentary about their tour together), and his own sheepish attitude toward the band's recent success. You can listen to the radio version at the audio link and read more of their conversation below.
Tell us a little bit about the lyrics to "I Should Live in Salt."
"I write all the lyrics, and this one was sort of inspired — very much inspired — by my younger brother, Tom, who's nine years younger than I am. And he was on my mind a lot while we were making this record because he was living with my wife and I at the time. Still — actually still does. So he was on my mind and in my house. But he came on tour with us when we were touring for High Violet and made a film [Mistaken for Strangers] about his experience there, which is, which was — it's a complicated movie. We're very different brothers. Whereas I might be kind of buttoned-up and ambitious, he's more lax in his approach to the universe, I guess. We love each other a great deal, but there's often a lot of conflict between the two of us."
And there's some fun imagery in one of the verses: "Can you turn the TV down? You should know me better than that."
"The lyrics to that are like a bunch of little fragments of thoughts about him. And, truthfully, it's about us actually getting to know each other as adults, because I went off to college when he was a little kid. He was 9 when I was 18 and went off to college, and then I moved to New York after that. And he kind of went his own — a different path.
"I felt a lot of guilt, because I think [he] needed an older brother the most when you start hitting your teens, and that's when I sort of took off and disappeared on him a little bit. I mean, we've been close our whole lives. But then, when he came and joined us on the tour as a roadie, it was the first time we were spending a lot of time together as adults. And it was a big shift in our relationship and trying to figure out how to love each other and respect each other as adults — not just this much older-younger brother sibling dynamic. So the song kind of is a reflection on all of that."
It's interesting, because the band The National is made up of siblings. There are Aaron and Bryce Dessner, and also Scott and Bryan Devendorf. So you're the guy who doesn't have a brother there.
"And that's always been a really healthy part of our band dynamic and stuff; it's very much sort of the glue that's kept our band together for 14 years. And I actually missed my brother, and I also was envious of the relationship they had — that they were traveling the world with their brother and had that person to lean on and vent to. When my brother came on tour with us — to have someone to lean on and complain about the other guys to or whatever, because there's so much tension living in a bus together."
And you said you felt a little guilt, but the chorus is, "I should live in salt for leaving you behind."
"Honestly, that was just kind of an abstract image or something in my head and I don't know. I think Lot's wife turned to salt when she looked back at the city. I think they used to pack bodies in salt. So there's not specifically any meaning into it directly, but it seemed like a bad thing to have to live in salt. A lot of my lyrics are approximate meaning without me knowing why they sound right."
How did your brother react to this? Now that the movie is over that he was making and you're coming out with this album, what's that relationship like?
"Our relationship is much better. It's good; it went through a healthy sort of rebirth of understanding each other, like I said, as adults. And he's 33 now. He was 30 when he came on tour with us. But as far as the song goes, when he heard the song, he thought the song was about salt. He didn't — he had no idea that it was about him at first.
"But he is a heavy-metal guy. He does not listen to a lot of indie-rock, which I guess that's the demographic or something that our band fits into. So he — it's funny, we're extremely different in many, many ways, but then, underneath the surface, I think we are very much brothers. There was a breaking point where we realized that he's very different than I am and we're both adults now. That's when I think a whole different level of respect happened. I mean, we still fight like crazy like brothers or anybody does, but we just had to understand each other as people and not as older brother, younger brother."
I don't know if this is right, but I read that you don't play an instrument.
"I don't play an instrument. I pretend. I try to ..."
Air guitar? Or you mean they hand you a tambourine?
"And I'm told to stop every time."
Your lyrics are very emotional and, on this particular album, speak very directly. It doesn't feel like there's a lot buried in all kinds of metaphors.
"Yeah, I used to hide behind a lot of clever, colorful metaphors. There's colorful stuff on this one, too, but this one is more direct, I think, and is more emotionally naked and a little raw, and I don't know how that happened. Writing the lyrics, I was no longer really worried about the image of our band or what people will describe our band as because of this song or that. I mean, we've been described in the past as, you know, 'sad sack' or 'melodramatic,' and I absolutely understand. And I ..."
Wait. You're saying you understand? Do you feel that way about your music sometimes?
"I think our music is emotionally even-keeled. Meaning, I think our music is — most people's music has the same amount, you know, of ingredients of sadness and humor, and I think our music is really funny, too. I mean, a lot of the lyrics are really funny. But I think it's a pretty normal, healthy amount of both — darkness and light in our records. So I don't think of us as darker than other bands.
"We've been described as a miserablist, dark, moody band, and I get it. I get it, because I think my voice just sounds that way maybe, and there are places I dig into the dark stuff and sad and melodramatic stuff, but I love that. I do. I love to make songs out of some of those shadows — you know, some of the things you lie awake thinking about, social anxieties and romantic insecurities and all that stuff. And we never put a song on a record that doesn't move us emotionally, no matter how catchy or academically interesting the song is. If it doesn't do something to that pit in your stomach, your heart, it won't make it onto our record. Over the years, that has become our only guiding sort of principle: If you feel it, then it's good."
This makes me think of the song "Graceless," actually, which at one point has the lyric that you "don't have the sunny side to face this." But it's actually kind of an upbeat song.
"A person with grace is somebody who's socially graceful or is a classy person, but sometimes you just feel the opposite of that, and you just feel like a jerk and a loser and a weirdo. And, yeah, so, 'I don't have the sunny side to face this' is sort of a self-mocking wink, I guess. Because you would never describe, I think, most of our music as sunny.
"But, yeah, the record goes all over the place, and our band has always kind of gone all over the place. And this record particularly, we let go of any anxiety of what kind of band we're supposed to be or what kind of band is a cool kind of band, and so we just chased the songs. And I think part of it is I've got a 4-year-old daughter, Aaron's got a baby girl and Bryan's got two little boys, and I think there's — having kids gave us some perspective ... that actually our band isn't that important. You know, if it disappeared tomorrow, we'd be fine and it's not the center of our universe. And so, in a strange way, we made a very unguarded record because we weren't so worried about disappearing overnight as a band, which can happen easily. I think we just stopped worrying about all that stuff that never helped us write songs in the first place."
You've been pretty forthcoming over the years about how the band is perceived. I read this quote in Rolling Stone, where you said, "When we started, we weren't exactly a cool band like The Strokes or Interpol, and for years, we tried to prove we weren't boring white guys. This time around, we didn't have to prove anything." And I found that really interesting, because you kind of did come out of that class — the class of 2001, I guess?
"We were in that class, but if we were in that class, we weren't really in the class picture. We'd be blurry and way in the background on the side. It was funny: We practiced right next to Interpol; I went and I saw The Strokes at places like Don Hill's and Mercury Lounge — little places before they became international superstars. And we put out our record right around the same time and it was largely ignored — and I'm certainly not complaining — maybe rightfully so. And in a funny way, I think we got lucky, because we sort of learned how to be a band and learned how to write songs together in the shadows a little bit, and I think that was good for us. And we learned how to play live and we learned how to be a good live band by playing in front of empty rooms and trying to win over people one fan at a time, and we did that for years and years. And it wasn't until our — we made two records that were largely ignored, and then we made an EP called Cherry Tree that I think was just when the chemistry of our band started to boil a little bit."
The sound of each album is different. I mean, you can sort of see the development with each album.
"Our record collections were so different that it took us three records to find our own voice a little bit — our own, what we are. And that kind of happened on Cherry Tree. I think is the first time that we really started to sound like The National — whatever that is — and that keeps evolving. But I think the fact that we didn't get a lot of attention for the first six or seven years, you know, steeled our resolve and made us even more hungry and ambitious and made us work really hard. And ultimately, I think it was really healthy for us."
Does it feel like you've kind of outlasted or survived much of the music from that scene?
"I don't know. We just ... when we were touring for High Violet, we did some festivals with The Strokes, and we were reminded again how unbelievable they are and stuff. But we have kind of built a different following or something."
I'm not picking on The Strokes. But for someone outside New York who maybe has a little Brooklyn-band fatigue from the past 10 years, it's interesting to see out of all the bands, The National really survived and created a catalog of something.
"I know we work our butts off and desperately are trying to make the best records we can every time, and try to put the best shows on. That's all we have any control of. I think we've been lucky, too. But we've definitely — we've earned our stripes, I think. I don't know, we feel very satisfied and happy with finally getting a little bit of attention, because we were in the shadows for so long."
It's OK to say it. I feel like I need to give you permission to enjoy some success. [Laughs.]
"I know. We got so used to being underdogs and being the sort of forgotten guys that now that we're getting a lot of attention, it's an awkward shift. And false humility is annoying, so, it's — yeah, we're doing great and we're happy about it."
In trying to understand what a National song is, one thing I did see over and over again is this idea that your albums are slow-burners or growers; it doesn't hit you in the face right away the way a pop song does. Can you talk a little bit about that?
"We would have loved to have been popular right away. And we would love, you know, we would love for our records to hit people over the head immediately. But we've heard that from people — that it's the fifth or sixth listen where it starts to reveal itself, you know. And I think just maybe the process of our neurotic tinkering of the songs often is why that happens; the songs turn and get shrouded in these little weird things that make them a little less direct or something, or obvious at first. I don't know. It's something we've talked about, but we don't know what the chemistry is that causes that. We've learned to accept it about our music and not fight it."
And they have a lovely way of, by the time you're nearing the end, really having blossomed into something big — you feel enveloped by the music.
"Yeah, they do. We embrace the drama of a song, and it grows and it swells and then usually there's a building of tension and then often a big release of tension. By no means is that a formula, but that happens a lot in our songs. We don't think about it; it's just we follow the song. In the end of "Sea of Love," it finally just lets loose — the song had to do that, you know? The whole thing is so tense all the way up until that part, and it was writing the melodies and us playing together that we all just like, it'll just go that way naturally. And it's really fun and exciting when a song just has its own momentum and its own force and weight behind it, and you just get swept along with the thing as it goes. A good song will do that, and we'll just let it sweep us wherever it wants to."
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