Interview Kevin Ho
Matt Berninger’s signature baritone was the perfect singing voice to complement the previously vocal-less ‘The Rains of Castamere’, rendering it potent with portentous menace. But beyond that now classic (and gut-wrenching) Game of Thrones moment, The National was already well on the way to transitioning from indie prominence to rock mainstream – Berninger, twins Aaron (guitar and keyboard) and Bryce Dessner (guitar), and brothers Scott (bass) and Bryan Devendorf (drums) recorded what, in our opinion, was their magnum opus; Trouble Will Find Me. While expectedly sombre, and not unlike the frontman’s penchant for nebulous gloomy poetry on prior records, the album saw the band searching catharsis where before there was none to be had. The arrangements are buoyant – uplifting even – giving Berninger’s rumination and low register less menace, hell, he even forwent his usual range and went higher on the new record. Curious of the seemingly positive sound of Trouble Will Find Me, JUICE had a chat with Matt Berninger on his melancholic disposition, starting a band way into your 30s, and the most terrifying man on television. And so he spoke, and so he spoke, that Lord of Castamere, but now the rains weep o’er his hall with no one there to hear…
Hey Matt! It’s good to have you back in Singapore. Do you remember any highlights from your previous visit, or anything else you wish to explore?
I remember we went to an amazing lil’ food court that had so many delicious and strange things that we don’t get enough of here. That was my favourite part. I hope somebody gives us a quick idea of what to do in the one day that we’re there. But I know I’ll be going back to that food court.
Let’s talk about your singing style. Have you always consciously sung at this low a register? Or did you previously experiment with different vocal ranges?
I never really thought about it? I sing in a lot of different ranges and more so now – I’m attempting to sing higher than I used to. I guess it was just the most comfortable place for me to sing. So it was not an aesthetic choice. It’s just the way I sound when I open my mouth.
What about the time when you began jamming in the studios? Were there problems in balancing the sound?
I don’t think so. The way we write – those guys have learnt over the years where I sing best, so they write it in certain keys where they know I’m gonna be good in. However I’ve been trying to get them to write higher just to push my limits. I think I spend too much time down in the low register ’cos it was the safest and easiest place to sing from. I was listening to a lot of Roy Orbison too; he can sing in four different octaves so I’ve been trying to learn how to do that a lil’ better. I’m not very good at it.
When you sing you have this melancholic character, but right now you sound just like any ordinary dude, which is pleasantly surprising. Is there a certain mentality or persona you adopt when you go on stage?
No, I don’t tell myself to do it. It’s more like I’m reacting to the music that the band is sending me. Also I go to a place where I try to write about things that I care about, and often such things are the things you can’t fix; you can’t solve; the things that you lay awake at night thinking about. So for me, I’m just working out the darker, blurry, and sometimes sad thoughts. And trying to make something beautiful out of all of that stuff is something I find very cathartic. I actually find it to be a very peaceful and comforting place. But I’m not a sad man! I get depressed like anybody else, but I don’t think I’m more melancholic than the average person.
You’re known for your sharp dressing style; suits and all. But we’re curious, what do you wear on casual occasions? Like for breakfast or a baseball game?
Well… I almost never wear shorts for one. And it’s not because I’ve anything against shorts, it’s just that I’ve always felt more comfortable dressing up a lil’ bit. I do have comfortable jeans and sweaters, which comes with the territory when you have a five-year-old daughter to look after. I don’t wear a three-piece suit everyday though? So I’m not a dandy. But I kinda wish I was. Maybe as I grow older I’ll start to fade out my jeans…
You’re also quite reputable for going all berserk in the crowd, something you’re quite fond of doing in ‘Mr. November’. So what is going through your head while you’re dragging that mic’ cable and being touched by indecent fans?
I go out because I wanna be touched by fans; I wanna touch people. I want people to hug me. But I don’t want people to ‘grab’ me? Especially like some people in the UK, people there just like to grab me inappropriately. But I like to go out and sing to people – it’s a very communal thing. What’s going through my head is just a catharsis into the moment; the community; and how a bunch of people came to be in a rock show together. I do think it shares something similar to church; that evangelical practice and all. But I’m not a religious man at all. There’s something about it that’s kind of healing and makes us feel less alone in the world. I find it to be a very moving and healthy thing.
When you first began with The National, you were in your 30s? So was there this premature concern – like compared to other bands around like The Strokes or Interpol – that perhaps it was a bit too late to get into the game?
Well, when The Strokes and Interpol first came out, those guys were ‘really cool’. There was no doubt about that. But I was a huge fan of Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits, and Nick Cave. And I’m also a big Guided by Voices fan, and that guy was a schoolteacher for 10 years before he started one of the coolest bands ever! None of us really wanted to be a young and ‘in fashion’, or having a lot of beautiful people around us. We were just trying to write songs that we really loved. And my heroes were not the young cool-looking dudes, they were the old cool-looking dudes. Heck I wanted to be Leonard Cohen when I was 14 years old. I didn’t want to be Mick Jagger.
We read that there was much less anxiety when the band created this new album. So how bad was it before? What problems did the band face?
To put it very simply, there’s a lot of talent and ego in our band, including mine. We had a fear of making bad songs, and a lot of anxiety about what kind of records to make; what kind of band to be. All these things that normally tear bands apart – we had a lot of it too. And then we toured with R.E.M., and Michael Stipe told us, “Remember, you guys were friends before being in a band together.” So Stipe was the one who reminded us how lucky we actually were. With this last record, we had gone through a lot of the darkness that bands go through, but came out on the other side. And we have this newfound respect and confidence for each other. Plus we had kids, so that made us realise that there were things more important than a rock band. So that took some pressure off the band and allowed us to have more fun with this record.
We still can’t believe you guys played ‘Sorrow’ for six hours straight at MoMA. If you could pick another song to play for six hours, what would it be? Or is that something you plan to never do again?
Well, with ‘Sorrow’, that one worked ’cos it was a fun, yet very meditative kind of song. If there was another one? That’s a good question! I don’t know. I would do it again, with ‘Sorrow’ even! I guess ’cos we have a special relationship with that song, and I honestly think that’s the only one it would work with. I wouldn’t wanna do it again with a different song.
And we can’t resist asking, but who’s your favourite character on Game Of Thrones?
Oh gosh! I like Jon Snow’s girlfriend who just shot him in the back with a bow and arrow. But also Tywin Lannister – he’s such a terrifying man, and I think he’s an amazing character. Somehow I identify the most with him, and yeah I know that’s an awful thing to say. Maybe it’s because I feel I’m part of that clan in a weird way. But yeah, I love the show.
The National played at Hostess Club Weekender at Fort Canning, Singapore on Saturday 22 February ’14.