“I would replace the word ‘hope’ with ‘work.’ You have to work hard for your passion and dreams.”
“God, this is quite loud – what is this?” It almost looks like Matthew Berninger still feels a bit out of place at a big rock festival. We met him and Aaron Dessner on a Friday afternoon at this year’s HURRICANE FESTIVAL. Canadian punk rockers DANKO JONES are playing next to the small interview tent. The two Americans are not familiar with that sort of music. “Are they from Germany?” asks Berninger. A couple of hours later him and the rest of his band will enter the smaller blue stage of the open air event, playing one hour of old and new hits in front of an impressive crowd. The indie rockers from New York are on a run. 2010’s High Violet was something like a breakthrough for THE NATIONAL – a ticket out of the little clubs and into the big concert venues. They haven’t done anything extraordinary to achieve this, just recording very good songs. “We try to get a bit better with each record” explains Berninger. THE NATIONAL are taking small steps by sticking to themselves, “It’s what brought us in this strange situation.”
So, how does it feel to be the biggest indie band of the world right now? Berninger smiles and answers “Oh, you got to ask ARCADE FIRE for this one?” As wild and as intense the front man acts on stage, in person as calm, friendly and quite open minded he seems in person. “It’s kind of bizarre to be a big indie band, isn’t it?” he continues, “It doesn’t feel that way.” But big indie bands are no rare thing anymore, a lot of bands acheived success via commercials and television programs. This is something Berninger and Dessner don’t want labeled as a bad thing. THE NATIONAL has done quite well in their home country, while they’ve avoided many of these things. Reportedly, even the US president is a fan of the band. “Yeah, that’s kind of ridiculous, isn’t it. I don’t think we are on his iPod, are we?” asks Dessner with a grin. “We’ve supported his campaign and we still think it’s good work but I’m not sure he’s actually a fan.” But why shouldn’t he be? There seems to be something about THE NATIONAL‘s dark, melancholic and morbid sound that touches millions of people world wide. Maybe it’s Berninger’s desperate voice and the bittersweet lyrics, maybe it’s the musical foundation laid by Dessner and his brother Bryce. Maybe it’s the honesty.
The lead singer has no explanation: “I still don’t know how we got that big. Might have been quite lucky. That’s all.” Berninger, in his early forties, sometimes appears older than he actually is. Maybe it’s the way he crafts his wise words. He has seen a lot and although he’s fronting a successful band, married to a loving wife and a beautiful daughter, he still struggles with demons. Still THE NATIONAL‘s latest album Trouble Will Find Me feels like the most relaxed record they’ve done in a while. “We took a bit away from the claustrophobic notion of ‘High Violet'” explains Dessner. “Very basic recording, we were surprised how easy it went and how quick we got the music” he continues, “and than Matt found enough time to write these beautiful lyrics.” It might sound a bit lighter but there’s still enough heavy lyrical material on the album. Matt Berninger on his lyrical approach:
“I wouldn’t call it desperate. I think it’s just familiar topics set in perspective by seeing from a different angle.”
THE NATIONAL: “Nobody can tell you what the future brings”
Writing lyrics is sill his passion, as he tells us when when we get to the famous NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION-question. Still, he didn’t felt that much pressure after High Violet. “The pressure was on us. We created it to stick with our ambitions.” The band is not done yet although Berninger recently stated that he doesn’t know if THE NATIONAL will still be around in five years. “It wasn’t meant that way” he explains his former statement.
“Nobody can tell you what the future brings. But I always admired bands like R.E.M. who decided it was the right time to leave and just vanished. No farewell tours, no reunions. They just had their time and decided to leave, that’s it.”
So does a rockstar have a deadline? “Well, he surely has” answers Berninger with a demure smile, “but I can’t tell you when exactly it is in my case.” Still, there is no need yet to retire. Especially when we experienced the singe, live on stage. There is still this spark in his eyes whenever he sings, a certain urgency, combined with slices of madness. “It’s also a bit due to the wine” he explains laughing. It’s common sense that Berninger drinks a lot of wine during a show by THE NATIONAL. “I just need a bit of it to slightly detach myself from reality, to lose grip and lose anxiety.” He needs to slip a bit away from reality to sing about it in all of its disgusting beauty. The concept of THE NATIONAL is still working, and they have survived as one of the few New York indie bands that popped up in the early 21st century. The singer explains:
“I wouldn’t see us in a ‘Class of 2001’ I must say. We were rehearsing in the room next to INTERPOL back then and I saw THE STROKES as they were playing in front of only a handful people. But back then I already sensed their talent. It clearly were exciting times back then but not in a class time. And if it was class we would’ve been the lazy pupils I think.”
Both musicians laugh at Berninger’s answer. Dessner is the quieter although he and his brother Bryce mark the musical heads of THE NATIONAL. Together with the other pair of siblings – Scott and Byran Devendorf – this makes Berninger the fifth wheel of two sets of brothers. “There’s no competition between us brothers,” states Aaron, “unless it’s creative nature.” The lead singer might have no problem with this as he states. The events on the past tour might have brought clarity in this as well. Berninger hired his younger brother as roadie but he actually did a quite miserable job, filmed a documentary instead and created decent tension before he got fired by the management. The result is a recently premiered movie called Mistaken For Strangers. “It became more of a family documentary than proper tour movie” explains Berninger. But he made his peace with it and he clearly isn’t hiding his difficult relationship with his brother.
Maybe that’s one of the explanations for the success of these guys. They are not another pretentious stadium rock band, they haven’t sold-out and they never hide their feelings. They’ve worked hard and consistently for their current status. Being asked what he thinks about hope and passion, the singer explains: “I would replace the word ‘hope’ with ‘work’ because actually, that’s what you need to do. You have to work hard for your passion and dreams.” He clearly isn’t a fan of hope although he knows it exists. “It’s just not everything, you can’t rely on it.” Blood, sweat and hard work – is that what it’s about? “America’s new working class heroes – that’s good, write that down!” he scoffs, with a smile. THE NATIONAL‘s story is one of success through hard work, a bit of luck and the bravery to stick to its own ideals. Barrack Obama would appreciate that spirit, the whole world might as well.
Interview by Annemarie Havran and Norman Fleischer