Interview: Seven albums in, Matt Berninger shines a light on the inner workings of The National

When Matt Berninger calls me from New York on a Friday morning, he’s punctual and polite. Nerves hit me for a split second, if only because I – like many – consider albums from The National to be associated with some serious moments of emotional torment of uplifting. When posed with the opportunity to interview the songwriter behind the likes of “Terrible Love”, “Fake Empire” and more recently, “I’ll Still Destroy You” and “Born to Beg”, I didn’t know where to start.

Thankfully, Berninger made it easy. Chatting with him just before the band’s Australian tour begins this month, Berninger immediately dives in with praise of their fans and an excitement felt by the whole band when it come to bringing their newest record, Sleep Well Beast, down under.

“We figured out how to do the bigger outdoor stages pretty well, I think.” he says, conceptualising performing in the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House. “When we’re out on stage we usually try to just zero in on what we do, whether it’s in a small club or on a big outdoor one at a festival. We have an amazing team who are able to translate our vibe into something large; I never thought we’d be able to do that kind of thing. I was always nervous about losing the soul of a show, the bigger the venue gets and I do still think that is tricky. We’ve managed to do it as well as one can.”

“We’ve seen so many bands and we’ve been inspired by so many, including Bon Iver, and it takes a certain effort and chemistry, and a lot of luck and magic to make it work. Any time we don’t, we feel terrible. We take it seriously.”

With the release of Sleep Well Beast, The National’s seventh studio record, winning the band acclaim (most recently a Grammy nod in the Best Alternative Music Album category), Berninger muses on the album being an entry point for new fans of the band. As a collective, The National have covered much musical terrain already; starting your journey with Sleep Well Beast and working backward from there? You’re in for a ride.

“It was surprising that most people were hearing about us for the first time, on our seventh record.” he says of the band’s Grammy win. “That’s kind of awesome, because people come in without having any backstory. They come in from where we are now and then go backwards into our catalogue. That’s how I discovered Tom Waits. It was Bone Machine I heard and then I started going back to the early years. I like the idea that people are just finding out about us now and they’re going backwards.”

“I think the record is a bold record.” he says of Sleep Well Beast. “One big thing with us, is that we catch ourselves when it sounds like we’re phoning it in; we never let ourselves do that. I’ve never felt that we’ve phoned in a record at all. Everyone felt that we really, really did something special. There’s tonnes of other stuff that hasn’t been put out because it wasn’t good enough.”

So what makes Sleep Well Beast a significant entry in The National’s body of work? What prompted the positive response and generated connection to this record?

“It’s hard to say what the catalyst for it,” Berninger ponders. “Some of it was Trump, but a lot of the stuff [on there] was done before Trump won. The thing that shifted about it after Trump won, were lyrics. “Turtleneck” was a song that may not have existed, had he not won. Maybe there are things like that that did just add an extra level of intensity to it that were just of the time.”

“It’s a funny thing to still be a band that is still discovering things about each other,” he furthers. “It still is really exciting to be making records together. I think we’re really lucky that we all keep inspiring each other. I don’t write anything until Aaron [Dessner] or Bryce [Dessner] send me something; if what they’re sending me didn’t inspire me, I wouldn’t be doing it. We’re all just lucky that we have each other to kick one another in the butts a little bit.”

Compared to 2015’s Trouble Will Find Me, Berninger admits the dynamic within the band had changed. A process of letting go and indeed, being comfortable in letting go of some gripes and creative struggles was one The National got through to end up with Sleep Well Beast – a process Berninger remains positive about.

“I think we were trying to prove a lot of things, musically.” he says of Trouble Will Find Me. “This time, we weren’t trying to do any of that. We were just following the vibe of the songs; a lot of the songs on this one ended up being these seemingly complex things but when we started playing them live, they just worked really easily and quickly. Somehow, the not overthinking it and process of making this thing transferred into how we’re doing the live shows now.”

“We’ve started changing the sets a lot from night to night and not worrying so much if songs go off the rails.” he says. “Somehow, the loosening of all the anxieties and not worrying about failing when we went into the making of the record, has definitely become a big part of the live show too. Some of the other guys toured with Bob Weir from The Grateful Dead for a long time and they could see just how much he didn’t let the small stuff stress him out. There’s been a whole different vibe about it, lately.”

Moving forward, Berninger’s focus remains on creating music that isn’t rooted in worry, anxiety or drenched in periods of overthinking expectation.

“It’s a tricky thing for a band to start to figure out what they are and what their original essence is.” he says. “I think it’s always smarter just to not worry about that, just keep trying to write songs that are really, really what you like and that however many people in the band are into. I don’t think that there’s ever been a situation where anybody in our can’t work out a song that they weren’t really excited about.”

“I think it’s easy for some bands to chase their own tail. I can see how bands are pulled in so many different directions and we definitely have been, but it’s been like a five way pull. It’s always stayed upright; we haven’t completely fallen apart.”

Sleep Well Beast is out now.

THE NATIONAL TOUR DATES

February 21st | Sydney Opera House Forecourt | SOLD OUT
February 22nd | Sydney Opera House Forecourt
February 27th | Riverstage, BRISBANE
March 1st | Sidney Myer Music Bowl, MELBOURNE