The National

Oct 02, 2007 Web Exclusive Photography by Nicholas Burnham Bookmark and Share


 

The June release of Boxer (Beggars Banquet), The National’s fourth LP, was met with the same universal critical praise that met its predecessor Alligator. One of the strongest records of 2007 so far, Boxer could be the soundtrack to walking home from the bar alone after last call. Before a free show at New York’s South Street Seaport, National frontman Matt Berninger spoke by phone with Under the Radar about the band’s heightened profile, the group’s creative process, succumbing to adult responsibilities, and other themes in the band’s lyrics.

Under the RadarBoxer has been out for a while now, and I’m curious as to what your thoughts are as to how it's been received.

Matt Berninger: It’s been received much, much more graciously than we could have ever anticipated. It’s good to see people are connecting with it and we're really happy about it. We didn’t know what to expect when we finished it up—it’s not exactly another version of Alligator, so we’ve been really happy with it.

UTR: The difference between Alligator and the first two records was a pretty large, both stylistically and in terms of the amount of attention the band got. That increased with Alligator and seems to have further increased with Boxer. Have things changed much in the last few months?

Berninger: When Alligator came out, it had such a small sort of following, but towards the end of that tour, we started to see our shows selling out. With Boxer, right when the album came out there seemed to be a lot of people waiting for it. And we’d never been in that position, where a record is getting attention before it even comes out. So that was exciting.

UTR: The album seems to have an undercurrent of the struggle to become a “responsible adult,” for instance, in the last line of the chorus of “Mistaken for Strangers” (“Another uninnocent, elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults.”) as well as the opening lines of “Green Gloves,” where you're singing about that disconnect from people you used to go out drinking with every night, as well as the undercurrent of “Racing Like a Pro.” Would you agree with that, or is that just a lyrical coincidence I’ve picked up on?

Berninger: It’s definitely a part of it, and that kind of obsession/anxiety is what we’ve been doing for a long time, at least in terms of the lyrics I’ve been writing. When I’m sitting and writing lyrics, it’s definitely the sort of things that I’m thinking about. It’s not autobiographical, but they are obsessions that in one way or another I’m sort of obsessed over or thinking about or stressing out about. It’s the thing of growing up and paying your bills and having to realize that you can’t just do anything you want anymore, whether it’s professionally or personally with relationships and fidelity and all those things. I think Boxer does touch on a lot of that. “Green Gloves” has a thing of you get older and you start to lose connections with people that used to be in your life constantly, and slowly they’re less and less a part of your life. It’s just a normal thing and an observation on how those things happen. There’s no messages or answers anywhere on the record, but those themes are swimming around in there a lot.

UTR: In keeping with that, Boxer seems to be a little more downcast and somber than Alligator – it’s missing the musical high points like “Mr. November” at the end of Alligator. Was that planned, or did it just come out that way?

Berninger: There was never discussion to do it differently. It doesn’t have some of the desperate freakoutsAlligator had. Late in the process of making the record, we realized that it didn't have those type of songs, but we knew that we couldn’t just go and try to write one of those things. The mood of Boxer is a very different personality. We became aware of it when we were almost finished and there was a short discussion of “Uh oh, we don't have any freakout, screaming songs.” But as far as the music and all that stuff goes, I don’t think of Boxer as being somber, though there’s moments of things that can be considered melancholy or whatever. We’ve always gotten that tag of being sad sack and dark, and I understand that with respect to most bands out there, we have more of that. But I’ve never thought of us that way. Boxer is different in that it doesn't have those kind of reckless, psycho freakouts like “Abel” and “Mr. November.” We never have discussions of what kind of songs we're going to write—we just wait to see what happens.

UTR: Maybe you’ve negated this next question, then: I was wondering if you think of yourself as a morose sort of person?

Berninger: No, I’m not. Maybe as far as lyrics go, the environment and the atmosphere when I’m writing lyrics—sitting at home on the couch drinking wine or whatever—the themes that come to mind and I dig into a lot are things that you’re trying to figure out, like relationships. But I’ve never thought of the songs as being dark. I think most of them have a pretty even combination of humor and…they’re not from a dark place, usually. They come from a hopeful place, even though I definitely dig up and show some of the ugly sides and some of the sadder sides of relationships. But when you’re writing a song, you try to shine a light on all the dark areas that make us human. But generally, I think it’s all pretty even-tempered.

UTR: Can you talk about your creative process, both individually and as a band?

Berninger: It’s a slow process. I don’t know exactly what it is, but often scraps of songs will get started and I’ll sit with them and listen to them and write to them, and we’ll pass them around. It’s very collaborative—nobody owns the songs. I never write the lyrics ahead of time. I wait ’til we start to work on a song to figure out what the lyrics are. There’s nobody who has a song written out and this is the way the song goes—we send files around and get together and work on it together and then go home and work on it in our bedrooms or whatever. It’s a thing, but it takes us a long time for everyone to be happy and satisfied and to get the song to where they want it to be because nobody owns anything —there’s no captain. So it’s a slow, sometimes frustrating process, but unexpected things happen when someone gets a song and takes it in an unexpected direction than where the little sketch of a song seemed to want to go. We’re always looking for moments where a song turns or something happens that wasn’t the most obvious way to go with it. Often we fail and it can ruin a song, but we’ll tear ’em apart and keep noodling with them until everybody’s happy. Most of ’em take a really long time, though some of ’em go quick. There’s no formula and we throw away most of our stuff, but whatever ends up on the record are the songs that, after a long time, stayed with us.

UTR: It seems like on Boxer, you’re singing in a lower register more frequently than on the other records. Was that something that was a conscious decision or am I totally off base on the whole thing?

Berninger: I’ve got a limited range. I don’t think with this record there was ever a conscious idea of making it a lower-registered thing—I don’t know if it is. I think the vibe of the record is—definitely not gloomier—but without the screaming and that kind of stuff; maybe it's a little more sedate. But there was never any sort of plan in regards to that. The songs that made it on to Boxer were the ones that we all were in love with and the ones that worked really well together.

UTR: The band is spending a good chunk of the fall on tour in Europe; is there any place in particular you’re excited for?

Berninger: We’re playing all over the place. We’re really excited to go back to Dublin. For some reason, whenever we go to Dublin, it’s an insane show, so I think most of us are kind of looking forward to that. We always have a really great time in Paris, and we’re going to Istanbul for the first time. We’re going a lot of places we’ve not been before.

UTR: The band doesn't get a lot of time off when you're not touring. What do you do during downtime?

Berninger: Right now, there’s not a lot of downtime, but if we have enough downtime, we’ll try to do some freelance work, just to get our brains out of the band stuff. I think we all kind of go to our corners when we have a week off, just to reconnect with normal life. Being trapped in a bus and touring with people is kind of hard after a while. We e-mail occasionally in our downtime. I watch a lot of movies.

UTR: Have you seen anything good lately?

Berninger: My favorite movie of the year is Knocked Up. I thought that was brilliant. It was hilarious and it was a really, really well written movie. So that’s at the top of my list.

UTR: With two pairs of brothers in the band, are you ever the odd man out? How does that affect the general attitude of life in the band? Is there any sort of sibling rivalry?

Berninger: Not really, no. I’ve got a brother, and he made our video for “Mistaken for Strangers.” And I’ve known Scott and been really close friends with him since college 12 years ago. There isn't a whole lot of sibling fighting that goes on. Anything that happens is usually between me and the drummer [Scott Devendorf].

UTR: Any reason for that?

Berninger: [Laughs] I think we’re just the most opinionated, cranky assholes in the band.

UTR: Is there any band's career that you’ve looked at and tried to emulate?

Berninger: I don’t know. Duran Duran? [Laughs] Spoon is a good example—they’ve been a band that makes great records for so long, and they slowly, slowly found an audience. We’ve made a lot of records, and in the past, we’ve had a very small fanbase, which has always been wonderful. Bands like Spoon are really inspiring, because they stayed with it for so long—just really committed, and now they’re finally getting a large audience. We have a lot of respect for the bands that stay together through the thick and the thin. Most of the time, there’s more thin than thick in the life of a band. Wilco is another example. We don’t really know how to plan our careers, though.

UTR: I can’t imagine you want to be kicking around on stage like Mick Jagger when you’re 65, but at the same time it’s not something you want to give up too quickly, either.

Berninger: I just want to live until I’m 65. Whether or not we’re still playing on stage. Then if we are, that’d be great.

UTR: What’s next for you guys?

Berninger: In about an hour and a half, we’re gonna play a free outdoor show here in New York down by the river. After that, we start touring a lot.

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