Published May 22, 2013With 2010's High Violet, the National reached higher sales and bigger venues than they ever had before, but managed to maintain a pretty flawless reputation critically. The Brooklyn-based rock band follows up the massive record with Trouble Will Find Me, an album that stays true to the group's musical precision and darkly humorous lyrics. Frontman Matt Berninger opened up to Exclaim! about the band's working relationship, tour plans and how his new understanding of mortality affected the new collection of songs.
Where did the idea for [National documentary film, made by Berninger's brother Tom] Mistaken for Strangers come from and how involved were you in the process?
My brother's 30, well when he came on tour with us he was 30. He's now 32 or 33, but he's nine years younger than me and he was living in Cincinnati and I invited him to come on tour to kind of get him out of his rut. He's not an indie rock fan, he's more of a metal guy. I'd missed him too. I went to college when he was nine years old, so he was a little kid when I went off to college. Then later, I moved to New York, so we hadn't spent a lot of time together in those 20 or so years.
Part of it was I wanted to give him a job, but I wanted to see more of him. And that was good. He became the assistant to our tour manager; meanwhile, I told him he was welcome to bring his camera along and he was gonna film whatever. I thought the idea at that point was maybe that he might be able to pull some goofy stuff together for a video or something — which he did, actually. He did the video for "Terrible Love." He didn't have very ambitious ideas about it, but his relationship with Brandon Reed, our tour manager, didn't quite work out so well. To be a tour manager, even an assistant, you have to be very detail-oriented and very buttoned-up and on top of everything, which Brandon Reed is, he's amazing at that, but my brother is not. He's the opposite of buttoned up. He's completely buttoned all the way down. He's a sweet wonderful guy, but that didn't work out, that part of the job. So he ultimately was let go from the tour.
Anyways, he had shot like 200 hours of just weird, random footage, some of us just goofing around, him trying to do interviews and stuff and not taking it too seriously. But then after he got fired from the tour he went home to my parents in kind of a bummer state, which made sense. So then I invited him to move in with my wife and I to finish something, to finish the movie — and that becomes the whole second half of the movie, him struggling to finish something and make something out of the footage. It was my wife that jumped in and said, "The movie should be about you Tom, and what happened on tour — the ugly stuff and the not so silly stuff." My wife and brother managed to pull together a real movie that's not… the band's a part of it, but it's more a movie about family and stuff, though. That's the quick answer.
What's your relationship like with your brother now?
It's better than ever. I mean, he came on tour. I think I was still trying to be the older brother. I was maybe trying in many ways to push him. We're very different and I think we both came to peace with being very different. At this point, I'm just his brother. I can't be his older brother so much anymore. He's an adult and we've grown into very different adults. The movie's very funny, it gets a little dark, it gets a little sad, but ultimately it's a great, beautiful movie about our relationship and just the struggle to sort of stick with something and try to find faith in yourself or something like that.
You say it's more about your brother than the band, but do you think that fans learn anything about the band?
Yeah, I mean, if fans are expecting a rocking live tour movie with a lot of live shows, that's not what they're going to get. There are great live moments, but it's a very small part of the movie. But I do think you find out a little bit more about, I guess, me and the guys in the band as people than you would asking us about our songwriting process or "What's it like to be in the National?" That stuff can be found other places. It's better than a movie about the band. Some people might be a little disappointed or feel it's not what they expected, but we think it's a much better movie than any other standard rock profile would have been.
For the new album, Trouble Will Find Me, did you change up the process this time around?
Well, our process was actually kind of the same, in that we start with… Aaron and Bryce will send little music ideas and I will put them into my laptop and start singing along with my headphones on. We don't get together and write together in a room, we never have. Later, we craft the songs together in a room. We polish them and we develop them together, but we usually work separately for a big part of it. So, that sort of process was the same.
But what was different is we were… whereas in the past there would always be arguing and fighting and there was a lot of creative tension in what kind of songs, which of the ideas were good and what kind of band we were supposed to be and trying to be, and all these different things. That didn't happen this time. Part of it is we were more confident as a band and maybe we trusted each other more, but also we had some perspective, I think. And the fact that I've got a four-year-old, and Aaron has a baby and Bryan has two kids — there's a certain amount of… it put things in perspective, meaning that we realized that our band is not that important or that we shouldn't just stress out and obsess over the things that we have no control over, meaning "Are people gonna like our next record?" or "What's our image?"
People call us this kind of band, that kind of band, a depressing band. I think a lot of times in the past we've been fighting against things or trying to prove things wrong or whatever. This time around we stopped thinking about any of that kind of stuff. That filter wasn't there and so we didn't worry about it and about what kind of songs we were writing, we were just kind of chasing the songs.
The other thing that happened too is that we actually planned not to put out a record for four years. We just decided we were gonna just walk away from it for a while because we had toured for almost two years for High Violet. We were gonna take a long, long break. The minute we decided to take a long, long break, there was a release, there was a big weight that just dissolved off of our shoulders. Then Aaron and Bryce started sending me little ideas, it was always kind of like "Let's just put these in a folder somewhere for maybe some day, they might end up being songs on a record." So I would throw them into garage band, put my headphones on and do the same thing, I just started singing along and looking for melodies and throw them in a folder without worrying about "This is our next record. This is the record that's going to come after High Violet."
In a strange way, we tricked ourselves and before we knew it we had 15 or so songs that we were all really excited about. The births of these songs came really quickly and from an unselfconscious place and I think you can hear that on the record. I wasn't worried about what I was writing about, like "Is it too depressing?" or "Is it too romantic?" or is it too not this or that and I think Aaron and Bryce were also not overthinking it either. So the births of almost all of the songs on this record were very organic and unfraught. That being said, we did end up, once we had these 15 or 20 ideas that we were really excited about, then our normal process of crafting and reworking and throwing things at and trying it this way and tearing it apart and pulling it apart kicked into gear and we do what we always do. We probably ended up spending more hours, more time on this record than any record before, but somehow all the tension and anxiety that maybe went into the making of some of our other records just wasn't there this time. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing, and it might come back next time, but it was different this time. Long answer, sorry.
You mentioned that you and some of the other guys have kids now, and on the last record there was a song about the fear that comes with becoming a parent. Has it influenced your songwriting at all since?
Well, I think the last record had some anxieties about "Was I gonna be a good parent?" But this one… no. It's been different and I think the influence of having a daughter on this record is that there are a lot of songs on this record that kind of ruminate about or dig into the idea of mortality and existence and non-existence. I think having a kid made me realize, first of all, I never thought about death that much before, but now I realize that my kid, she needs me around. So, that's one side of it, but then the other side of it — this idea of afterlife and all this other stuff, which I don't believe in. In a way, though, seeing my daughter who's four now and I can already see myself in her so much, I found a clarity of what the idea of [trails off]… my existence will stop at some point, on a personal direct level my light will go out at some point and my soul isn't going anywhere, I don't think there is any sort of afterlife in that way. But seeing in her, so clearly that I am a part of her, the idea of afterlife became so clear to me, much clearer than before that it's how we are to each other and effect each other, and that's all of our afterlives, be it heaven or hell. If you're not a good person, you know, you're afterlife is kind of a hell because you spread that.
That's, not so specifically, in this record, but those ideas come into it a little bit here and there. I find this record to be actually very soothing and healthy expression of the ideas of existence and non-existence, or the investigation of it in some fun ways. There's also songs about if I were to cease to exist in an embarrassing way — the song "Humiliation" is like if I were to be taken right now in this kind of embarrassing situation, what would they say and what would be the impression that's left? So there's a lot of sort of funny ideas of death on this record.
Do you have favourite songs on your records?
Yeah, it shifts around. With this record, the first song I love, that song was written about my brother a little bit, more than a little bit. There's also, it's a different kind of song for us, "Pink Rabbits" on this record I really, really love. None of the songs on the new album... we wouldn't have put a song on the album that we didn't really, really feel good about. It kind of moves around. I mean, "Heavenfaced," I'm real happy with that song, it does things that I've never done before with my vocal range. When I listen to this record, I find it a lot of fun and very, very cathartic and it works well on repeat. Even though it's our longest record, it sort of feels like our shortest, it doesn't feel that long to me.
Have you played the new stuff live yet?
We've played almost all of the songs live, to varying degrees of success. Some of them are harder to figure out than others. "Sea of Love," we just did that on TV and that turned out to work pretty well, we did that on the Jimmy Fallon show. But, yeah, we've been starting to get ourselves ready to tour and stuff. It takes a little while sometimes, we don't worry about any of those things when we're in the process of crafting them for the record, so we'll have to find ways of doing some of it. We're in the process of that and it's going well.
You're starting the cycle of promo and touring, is that part of it still fun for you? Does it ever get less fun?
The shows and the performing is always exciting and it's not always comfortable, it's not always fun, but it's always wild and exciting. I think with High Violet, we maybe did a little too long and too much and the wheels were sort of coming off at the end of that, but I've probably said that about every record and every tour we've ever done. I think we're trying to figure out a way to balance our real lives, or you know, normal lives with this rock band stuff and sometimes it's kind of hard to find the right balance for that and we're all trying to find that balance. I think, for me, that will mean doing a little bit less touring than we did for High Violet. I can't be away from… or I bring my daughter and wife along more, but then again, living on a bus is not a healthy place for anybody and I don't know if I want to put my family through that. But, if it means being with them more, we'll do that.
You mentioned earlier about intending to take a longer break between records and maybe slowing down a bit on this tour, but do you think that the National is something that you guys are always going to come back to? Where do you see it going or are there other ambitions or projects you still want to chase?
Well, no. Like I said, in some ways, this record was the most enjoyable and the band is in a better place interpersonally than we've ever been. I think also, in terms of creatively, this is our best record, but I've kind of thought that about all our records. I sincerely do think that this might be our best record. Both creatively and interpersonally, we're doing better than we ever have. Bands can't last forever, I think we're all well aware of that, and we're close to 14 years. I want it to last as long as possible, but I don't know. I don't know what's going to happen. Maybe we'll take our long break after this record. Maybe the next one won't come out for five years or something, but I don't know, we haven't really talked about it. At some point, a band is probably smart to stop, just for mental health reasons, if anything else.
Is there anything left over from making this record that you still want to do work on or is that all wrapped?
Songs and stuff? There are a lot of songs that we didn't use. We zeroed in on about 13 or 14 of them this time and then we just focused on those. But there are about 15 others that are really good too, so I don't know. We have no intention right now of diving into those. The next record might come really fast, but it might take five years. We're at this point where it's hard to tell, we're just.. we love this record and we're doing everything we can to get the most people to hear it. Right now, we can't see much past this thing right now. I'm sure there will be a future, but we're not looking at the future right now. We're just looking at this and how do we do this well.
You're still working out the new album live, but you're coming back to Toronto in June. What can fans expect from the upcoming show?
That's a good question… we kind of, performance wise, we do the same thing that we did when we were playing in like the Horseshoe Tavern. What we do on stage isn't that much different; there's a bigger production. We have a really brilliant production designer, this guy named Michael Brown, and he's been cooking up all kinds of really weird and fun stuff for this tour, so that'll be exciting. In many respects, we trust him to help bring our small songs and our intimate sort of songs into a big atmosphere or a big room. Yeah, I think it should be really fun. Playing these new songs is starting to get really exciting and we're figuring them out and I think it'll be really good.