Ahead of the release of their seventh studio album Sleep Well Beast, The National frontman Matt Berninger spoke to superfan Madeleine Chapman about their new look, politics in music, and why Ed Sheeran got to cameo on Game of Thrones and he didn’t.
I’ve never considered myself a melancholic person. In fact I’d go so far as to argue the opposite. But at the age of 14, after a childhood of listening to yacht rock and pop music, I discovered something all on my own. Sad music. During the season four finale of House, a slow song played during an emotional moment that I really liked so I looked it up on YouTube. It was ‘Passing Afternoon’ by Iron & Wine and it opened up the portal to a world of sad music that meant for the next two years I was never allowed the aux cord. Iron & Wine, Bon Iver, Ray LaMontagne, Damien Rice, Lisa Hannigan, Imogen Heap. I couldn’t get enough of the ‘songs that play when people die on TV’ sub-genre. Somewhere in among all the mopey, angsty ballads sat The National.
I didn’t know it at the time but The National had already established themselves as being the most popular band that no-one’s heard of. Meaning, by 2014, when they performed at what was then Vector Arena and is now the hallowed Spark Arena (sponsored), it sold out despite their music never being played on the radio, like, ever. My brother, sister and I all had tickets to the concert and had booked flights from Wellington to attend but then my brother got a severe case of glandular fever and my little sister got a severe case of being a little shit to Mum, so suddenly I was going with a friend instead. We went to a BYO beforehand, got very drunk and talked about which song we hoped they’d play. Of all their tracks, we both wanted to hear ‘About Today’ aka ‘The Saddest Song of All Time’ the most. Maybe I actually am a saddo. Anyway, we stumbled off to the concert and got so invested in the unlikely scenario of them playing the extremely long ‘About Today’ that when they did, we both started crying. Actually you know what, I don’t really remember it so maybe we didn’t. But we definitely did and it’s fine.
It’s been three years since then and four years since the most consistent band in the world put out an album. Their upcoming release Sleep Well Beast slots in seamlessly with their discography, staying true to their sound while still growing within it. An apparently rare feat these days (cc: Bon Iver). Alongside the new album comes a very welcome announcement of a single live show at Villa Maria Winery on February 25th. This time I’ll actually go with my siblings, we’ll take a picnic, and I probably won’t get so drunk. But I’ll still well up if they play ‘About Today’ and that’s fine.
The below interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity because I asked some dud questions, sorry.
With most of your songs I feel like you’re singing to a third person and I’m just listening in. But on this album I felt like you were almost singing to the listener. Is that just me being narcissistic?
Huh. I don’t know. I often put things in conversational mode, just because it’s the theatrical, like setting a little scene and liking the idea of a song having two perspectives and having more than one voice. This one there’s a lot of stuff that’s intimate and conversational to another person, who’s often inspired by my wife. Or I’m just talking to myself. I’m thinking less about myself than I used to so maybe there is more of a general mode of universal talking to a wider audience. I dunno, you’ve just made me think about it for the first time so I can’t answer it but I will chew on it.
Trouble Will Find Me had what I thought was a very cool black and white aesthetic that was prominent throughout it and this new album seems to have a very carefully curated colour scheme and video style. What was the idea behind the new look?
It’s actually kind of evolving. The three videos we’ve released so far and the next one we’re gonna release have all been done by Casey Reas, who’s an old old friend of ours. So he’s been doing all of those. That whole visual aesthetic of those videos is very much an extension of the work he’s always done so in many ways he’s the author of that whole vibe. All this visual stuff, it’s not so much that we had a creative theme or idea but we brought in our oldest, favourite collaborators from the visual world to do it. So I credit them with helping to create the vibe for the whole thing. And it’s evolving. Most of the videos we’ve shot have kind of been done quickly, just with the footage that we’re collecting from all the parts of the promotional process. We’re filming and recording everything and putting it back into the creative machine and repurposing it and spitting it out as videos. Almost in this weird organic process. The process has been the coolest part of it, for me, where it’s just loose and reckless and just happening in its own way.
You’ve mentioned that on ‘Hard to Find’ there’s a lyric that references but doesn’t explicitly mention the Sandy Hook shooting. Are there lyrics from this album that, while they may sound broad, are actually about a very specific thing that happened?
There’s tons of little stuff like that. I mean, there’s even a Karl Rove quote in this record. I’m not going to pretend we’re not a political band. I don’t know how all that stuff – not just American politics although American politics right now are particularly terrifying and grotesque and humiliating – but I don’t know how any artists are able to just separate the things that happen to us as a society, both on a political, cultural, emotional level, I don’t know how you separate that from your art. There’s no novelist who would ever come out and say “I like to keep politics out of my art” or something like that. Even a filmmaker or playwright would never say that. I don’t know why musicians sometimes say that. I just don’t know why they do it. So yeah, we’re political people and politics comes into the art we make. Sometimes in obvious ways on the surface level and sometimes it’s in the weird little blurry emotional levels. This record has a lot of that stuff. But it’s also about my wife, it’s about the band, it’s about friendship, it’s about fatherhood, it’s about being a son. Love songs are really political to me and political songs are really emotional like love songs. I don’t put them in different folders.
I will admit that when I listened to this album there was one song that I didn’t really like as much as the rest. But even as I was not enjoying it I knew that in three months is would be my favourite song because that seems to happen with all your albums.
[Laughs] which one? Should I guess?
‘Turtleneck’s an outlier so some people say no, that’s not an experience they want.
That was me.
I hear that. I totally get that. It’s definitely the gnarliest one. There’s a sketch called ‘Haunt’ that turned into ‘The System only Dreams in Total Darkness’ and then another version turned into ‘Turtleneck’. And ‘Turtleneck’ was the one where I just took all the loud parts, put them on a loop, and sang to it. So it’s just a freight train of frustration, I don’t know what it is. Just anger, I guess. Today, after what Trump has said recently, I have a feeling there are a lot of those songs that are coming out for a lot of people. Sometimes there are things that are just total catharsis.
I’m not comparing, this is not an equivalence, but Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks is maybe one of my favourite records. But there’s that song about the fucking jack of hearts or whatever it is. Ugh that’s just unlistenable for me. So I hear that. It is a weird red herring. And maybe it’ll grow on you. Sometimes it’s the only one I can listen to. Today that one’s on repeat for me.
On the other side of that, you’ve referenced the idea of a ‘great National song’. I heard certain songs on this new album and immediately thought ‘oh, this is a National song’. For those who are unfamiliar with your work, what would you say is the greatest National song?
Oh god. If I were handing over a sequence of songs to an alien – not an alien, there are a few earthlings who’ve never heard a single National song [laughs]. I don’t know, I would probably start with the latest thing we put out into the world. So maybe I’d start with ‘Carin at the Liquor Store’ and then maybe go backwards. I don’t if there’s a single song that captures that but ‘Carin at the Liquor Store’ perfectly captures one of our personalities as a collective. And ‘Turtleneck’ captures a whole other one. So I don’t know, everyone in the band would recommend a different song as being the one that defines us.
You’re performing here next year and you’re performing at a winery, which is perfect because you usually drink wine onstage. Does it affect your voice in any way by the time you get to the end of a concert?
The drunkenness? [laughs] I don’t know if I’ve ever drank enough to be slurring my songs. I get amped up and I get emotional and definitely the wine affects that. And the emotion certainly affects my singing. So yes, it totally affects my singing. I smoke a little weed and I drink a little wine just to perform. And that helps me let go of the anxiety and the weirdness of the situation – being on stage in front of a bunch of people and singing intimate love songs that are sort of about my marriage, in front of a tonne of strangers who are staring at me. It is really, really, really, really, really weird. When I drink a little wine and I smoke a little weed, I’m able to pull down a kind of curtain – or at least a shade – where I’m only half present in the awareness of the moment. If I’m too conscious of all the people in the moment I can’t perform. I get really anxious and panic-attacky, and it’s very uncomfortable. Some of it is a crutch, yes, to get me to a performance space where I can do it and enjoy it.
So it’s like a high level version of people that have to have a few drinks before they can do karaoke.
Totally. I’m doing that on a high stakes. That’s exactly what I’m doing and sometimes it feels just like that. I have to actually sing the songs and the words, I have to actually mean them and sink into it, and kind of get lost in the drama and the melodrama of the words of the song and the drums and everything. I have go all the way into it to do it at all onstage. So it’s all or nothing for me. The shows where I’m onstage and not able to completely let go and connect with the music are hard. They’re not bad, sometimes those are interesting and sometimes I actually perform better. But the ones that work for me are when I’m a little bit floating in outer space.
Ed Sheeran recently cameo’d in Game of Thrones and performed a little song. Were you also offered a weird close-up cameo when you did ‘Rains of Castamere’?
No. I canvassed for them to use my head as a severed head somewhere. The excuse they gave me was that those severed heads are actually super expensive so it just wouldn’t be cost effective to put my head in there in any way, shape or form. In fact, in the first season they had to recycle old heads and apparently they got in trouble because they used a George Bush wax head on a stake somewhere. I’m not anywhere in the show, unfortunately, and since it’s winding down I don’t think my head will show up anywhere.
I’d argue that everyone in your band looks way more like they could be on the show.
Who do you think would be what?
Well you look like a Lannister.
I’m obviously a Lannister. Bryan’s just some sort of rogue killer.
Aaron and Bryce have got to be from the North.
Mmmm they both think of themselves as Jon Snows but they’re not.
Nah they’re more of a Robb Stark figure.
Yeah maybe Robb Stark. What’s Scott? You know because he doesn’t have hair he’s gonna be the eunuch and he’s not gonna be happy about it. Go beyond the hair here. But I’ll let you answer that because I’ll get in trouble.
The first song of yours I ever heard was ‘Slow Show’. But every time I hear the lyric “you could drive a car through my head in five minutes from one side over to the other”, I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean. Is that a long time for a car to be driving through a head? Or does it mean there’s nothing in your head?
That’s a good question. I think the idea of that one is that there’s not a lot there. It’s like small town with not even a movie theatre. There’s not a whole lot to do. I think in that moment I was just lost and there was nothing really happening. Just feeling like you’ve got nothing to offer. I think. It’s supposed to be a very small place with not much to see.
My mind was going ‘maybe this is a tiny car in a very large head and therefore it’s a long time’.
Nope, it’s a very small head [laughs].
The Spinoff’s music content is brought to you by our friends at Spark. Listen to all the music you love on Spotify Premium, it’s free on all Spark’s Pay Monthly Mobile plans. Sign up and start listening today.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.