The National's Matt Berninger

The National's Matt Berninger
The National are currently on the road with R.E.M. and Modest Mouse, supporting last year’s "album of the year” for many, Boxer, as well as a new DVD, A Skin, A Night, and EP companion, Virginia. Singer Matt Berninger took some time out to talk about why they chose to do the tour, the response so far, the new DVD/EP and how jumping from Beggars Banquet to 4AD has affected the band.

So how’s the tour with R.E.M. going?
Well, Vancouver was the first show we did with them and Modest Mouse, and it was great. And then we did Sasquatch! Festival, and then another show just with Modest Mouse. Last night we just did one of our own shows in San Diego, and now we’re back in L.A. with the whole big, R.E.M. production thing. It’s been chaotic and awesome, y’know.

How did the R.E.M. crowd react to you in Vancouver?
Well, they were very receptive. It seemed like we had a lot of people who knew us at the show, which is nice, because I think it makes the people who’ve never heard of us pay more attention. It’s been great, at least just that one show so far. And I think it’s a good match for us. There aren’t that many bands that would make sense for us to open for, and this is one of the ones that is an obvious good idea. And so far it’s proving to feel that way. It’s a good way to get introduced to more people, y’know, outside the small, indie blogosphere universe, which is kind of where we existed for a while… which is great, but we’d like to not just rely on that base of people. Yeah, we’re very strategic about why we’re doing it. Also, it's a blast. Every night we get to watch R.E.M.

It’s great for me too, because even though I do like R.E.M., I wouldn’t normally go see a concert of theirs. However, with the National and Modest Mouse on the bill, I will.
[Awkward silence] Right… [Awkward silence]

So, you’ve just released a new DVD called A Skin, A Night, which was directed by your friend Vincent Moon. How did the project arise?
He just asked to come with us and bring his camera for a while. We’ve known him for a long time; we met him years ago in Paris. In fact, he was the one who helped bring people to our shows over there. He’s always done that. The things that he loves, he’ll tell people about. Way, way back when we had very little fan base anywhere, much less Europe, and we went over to Paris to see what would happen, he was there and he’d bring a ton of people to the shows. He took the photos on the inside of Alligator. And with this thing he just asked to come along on a tour we were doing, kind of in the middle of when we were doing Boxer, and be sort of a fly on the wall in the studio. He was only with us for a few weeks in the studio, and we ended up working another nine or ten months after he left. So, it’s just a small snapshot of us in the middle of a process.

We knew it might be uncomfortable, but we know him and like him, and his presence was very… he was almost like a ghost, y’know. We wouldn’t even know he was in the room half the time. So, it wasn’t really that weird to have him there. But he was also there at a time when we were kind of in the dark as to what we were gonna do. We didn’t really have any songs, and we were a long way away from having any sense of what Boxer was gonna be. I think we still had quite a bit of anxiety at that point. So, what’s captured in his little movie is definitely in the middle of a dark time before we knew what we were doing. He never wanted to make a documentary, he said, he wanted to make a film that had the feeling of what it’s like to be making a record. He wanted to capture the tedium of it.

When you first saw the film, how did it feel to see yourselves on camera trying to figure out how to make this album? Were you cringing at all?
We all kind of just laughed at ourselves. I seemed to get the most laughs for the line where I said the camera was like a gun or something; I’ve been made fun of by the band for months now. Y’know, it’s always awkward seeing any photo of yourself, but we tried to stay out of his business. We let him make what he wanted to make. We didn’t need or care for it to be a promotional puff piece, and we definitely didn’t have any interest in it being the "rockumentary” about a band making a record. The further away he could get from that, the better it was, as far as we were concerned. On one side, yeah, it was embarrassing, but on the other, it’s a movie that stars us, which is pretty cool.

Did you have any input into what went into the film? Or was it all Vincent?
That was all him. I remember when he showed us an early cut of the film, the only thing we asked was if he could find any footage of us actually smiling or laughing, which I know he had, but he largely ignored that. But we did think it painted us as more tortured artists than we actually are. Although in all honesty, the window of time that he was there was a pretty difficult time for us. But then we said, y’know, whatever, it was his vision of what a film about the National should be like. So, we let him do what he wanted and I’m glad we did. It’s one of those things where if you get enough people trying to shape something that’s about them it’s always gonna turn into a mess. So we let it be his piece. And he’s never thought of it being a documentary, but an experiential thing that’s just an hour-long long, kind of like how a record is.

Was the Virginia EP added on to the DVD as a companion or was it something you were planning to compile and release regardless?
Well, we had a lot of songs, which some existed as b-sides or on the Daytrotter website, or one that came with a French newspaper. But then there was "You’ve Done It Again, Virginia,” which almost made it to the record, but just didn’t fit on Boxer, but was a song that we loved. So there was all this stuff that was Boxer-related, and then when the movie came together it just felt like those two things should be together. They’re sort of branches from the Boxer phase. And in a lot of ways the EP was put together out of convenience, as we'd constantly be asked for links to these songs, so we just put them out together at once. But it wasn’t exactly willy nilly; we had a lot of stuff lying around that we didn’t put on there. There are a lot of very unfinished songs, and the film doesn’t actually contain any finished songs, just pieces.

Finally, you just recently moved over to 4AD when your label, Beggars Banquet, folded. Has that changed anything for the band?
To be perfectly honest, we’re still kind of working for the same people. We’ve always felt that we’ve been signed to [A&R guy] Roger Trust; he’s the one who’s always been our guy at the label, and was always supportive of us, long before anyone was. So, we still basically work with him. It’s sort of sad that Beggars, the label, is gone. But I’m not sure what will change. I’m not even sure if we’ll be officially part of 4AD. I think on the books we might be, and when the next record comes out we might have the logo on there. It’s up to us; we might just want the Beggars Group logo on there. It doesn’t matter a whole lot to us. As long as we’re still working with Roger. That was the one thing we were thinking about when we heard there was re-organisation going on in the Beggars Group.

The bonus, though, is that you’ll have easy access to Vaughan Oliver to design your album covers, if you choose to.
Yeah, but also that would piss off Scott [Devendorf] because he does all of our album covers! No, he’s a big fan of Vaughan Oliver’s too, so we’ll see.