Talking with The National’s Matt Berninger before the band’s first Vegas show

Berninger, second from right, and his National bandmates.
Photo: Graham MacIndoe / Courtesy
Annie Zaleski

The National’s latest album, September’s Sleep Well Beast, adds bright accents to the band’s velvet-draped indie rock, like New Wave-leaning synthesizers and obsidian piano. Frontman Matt Berninger checked in from his home in Venice, California, to chat about the record, staying independent and why he associates Las Vegas with a painful childhood memory.

Let’s talk about Sleep Well Beast. It reminds me of The Smiths—the lyrics are melancholy, but the music’s kind of jaunty. The first band that I really connected to, and realized that it was more than entertainment—it was different than what Van Halen was doing—was when my sister brought home Louder Than Bombs by The Smiths. And then Joy Division, Violent Femmes and New Order—and eventually U2 and R.E.M.—those were the bands that I connected to pretty quickly. And, you know, it’s almost all white sensitive dudes talking about their feelings.

[I listened to] Tom Waits, Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen, and then Bob Dylan, Neil Young, then the Pixies, Breeders, Pavement, Guided by Voices—and all that stuff was eventually part of the mix of what I think of The National evolved into. The other guys came from very different musical backgrounds—classical music, a couple of guys are huge Deadheads, and [bassist] Scott [Devendorf] was more of a skate-punk, so there’s pieces of a lot of different musical DNA in The National strands. Sleep Well Beast in many ways is a big mixing pot of all of our influences.

The single “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” reminds me of ’80s-era Tears for Fears. I mean that as a very high compliment, because I think their music uses synthesizers in an interesting way, and it sounds ominous and portentous. I love the melodramatic, emotional, big-love, political stuff. I love the melodrama of when Nick Cave goes for it, and goes over the top. I love the big, heart-on-your-sleeve types of performers, like Janis Joplin and Nina Simone. Those are the ones that pour it all out, with tears in their eyes, and their arms stretched to the heavens. I love those kind of songs.

Making this record, what did you learn about yourself as a songwriter or as a human being? My wife and I wrote a lot of the lyrics together. A lot of it is about a marriage, about a relationship, how things evolve and change and how you have to redefine yourself. You get married as young people and then you became different people and the marriage evolves. I’ve been writing with and about my wife since [2007’s] Boxer, [which is] when I met her.

I learned a lot about myself as a dad and as a husband by digging and peeling into it, and writing these songs with my wife. A lot of it’s really personal; it’s not all autobiographical, but it’s all emotionally personal. I don’t work on something unless it’s somehow medicinal or somehow physically, emotionally and mentally therapeutic to me. Otherwise, I can’t waste my time on it. I don’t do anything unless it’s going to make me feel better, whether it’s smoke a joint or watch a television show. Everything is designed to make me help figure myself out and write a song. Everything’s trying to make me feel better in the universe. Every song is really intended to try to fix my life. This record was a lot of that, and it worked. My wife and I wrote it all together, and our marriage is really healthy because of it.

As the music was coming together, is there anything you guys didn’t want to do this time around? We always used to talk about, “Let’s avoid this” or “Let’s avoid that,” because we didn’t want to be put into a corner. From the very beginning, we were first described as an alt-country band—probably rightfully so. And then quickly we got described as a different kind of band, because we were trying to avoid being alt-country. Our whole career has been a series of dodging definitions, because either we were embarrassed by them or we just don’t want to be painted into a corner.

Sleep Well Beast feels like the first one where we really didn’t give a f*ck about what anybody called us, whatever genre or labels. We kind of embraced all of our own guilty pleasures, including things that we’d never done, like guitar solos. Aaron and Bryce [Dessner] are the best guitarists that I’ve ever seen, and they [actually] rip out face-melting solos every time they pick up a guitar. We just never put ’em on records. [But] this record has very little insecurity, for better or for worse. It was a blast to make, and it’s really fun to play live.

A lot of your peers have released records on major labels. Have you been approached to ink a bigger deal? We reached out to a few places early [in our career], and we were turned down by everybody, including Matador Records. Now we’re part of their whole thing—Matador and 4AD and everybody under the Beggars [Banquet] umbrella—and we’ve had no need to shop around or even take meetings with other labels. We’ve never had to fight for our places within a giant, corporate hierarchy. Not to say that Beggars Banquet isn’t a large company, but the ethos of that company has always been in line with ours. They don’t blow a lot of money; they don’t try to sell millions of records. They try to sell enough that enough people find it. They’re almost like a jazz label on some levels. There’s a lot of bands on their labels that don’t need to sell many records but can still put their kids in school. That’s all that mattered to us. So we’ve never even taken meetings with anybody else. And I don’t see it happening.

I mean, of course, the next time we’re negotiating with Beggars and 4AD, we’ll pretend like we’re taking meetings (laughs). But they’ve done right by us, and we’ve done right by them. It’s a good vibe.

Besides touring and The National Homecoming Festival in Cincinnati, do you have anything else major coming up this year? There’s a bunch of other projects that are cooking. Aaron and Bryce … I find out about projects they’ve got going on when I read about it on Pitchfork sometimes (laughs). There’s a lot of new National things cooking, but then we all have a bunch of other side things that are sort of interconnected. Everybody’s super, super busy. I don’t have any specifics, but we’ve been really energized.

I feel like most people I know right now are just really coming out of this fog of leaving the last year behind. It was a trauma for so many people in so many places, obviously Las Vegas included. And then [there’s] the continuing trauma of the fear of what’s going on with Trump.

There’s this feeling of flowers bursting through the frozen tundra right now. But here, it feels like spring is already starting to crack on both a literal and metaphorical way. Let’s hope so.

Do you have any memorable Vegas memories? I traveled across the country with my mom and dad and my older sister. when I was 7 or 8, maybe a little younger. We went through Las Vegas and I had a blankie—one of these things that I would not let go of; I [also] sucked my thumb. I was like the kid from Peanuts. I was a total Linus with my blankie and thumb.

I remember my parents went to gamble at the slots, and my sister and I went to some day care center. This was in the ’70s, probably around ’78 or so, and somehow I lost my blankie at that Las Vegas day care center. Every time I’ve been in Vegas since then, I always try to find it. I jokingly go to all the lost and founds around Las Vegas to look for my old blankie.

Recently I’ve had some amazing times there. I just did this thing with Game of Thrones,with their whole orchestra. My wife and I went down, and I sang as part of that traveling musical production in Vegas. We had a blast doing that.

[Also,] AIGA is a big design graphic-artist conference, and I was sent [to Las Vegas] as a representative for my company [prior to the National]. All these famous graphic designers were out there. My boss gave me $1,000 just to play with, like, “Here, have a little bit of fun.”

I came back with like $8,000 from that $1,000 he gave me. I skipped all the design conferences except one with David Byrne from the Talking Heads speaking about a book he had put together. He did a big slide show of weird photos, which was surreal and trippy. And then I went and gambled and made seven grand. So, yeah, Vegas agrees with me—big time.

The National January 20, 8 p.m., $51. The Joint, 702-693-5222.

Tags: Music, The Joint
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