Names of Strangers
Aug 09, 2013
Photography by Ray Lego Issue #46 - June/July 2013 - Charli XCX
Though The National's latest release isn't a huge departure in any musical or conceptual sense, vocalist and songwriter Matt Berninger says it was made by a different group of men than those who made their previous albums. For one, parenthood has a way of reordering priorities for the three band members who have started families, and recording and touring takes on a different weight when you have a wife and child waiting at home. For another, they're no longer particularly concerned with how their music is received, a revelation Berninger makes while acknowledging that he had often found the band's relatively few negative reviews to be more stinging than their mountains of positive press were gratifying. That's a privileged position, he admits, as the band had followed a career trajectory that by 2010 had culminated in mope-rock masterpiece High Violet, an album whose triumph could have afforded them the opportunity to stand back and enjoy the spoils of their success for a few years. Instead, at the very moment they didn't need to make another record, The National made Trouble Will Find Me.
With brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner starting a series of song sketches before they had even completed the touring for High Violet, the band soon had abandoned any plans to take a deserved hiatus. Instead, they ended up with a collection of songs that are more nuanced and idiosyncratic than those on any previous release from the band, as well as one that adds humor and heart-on-sleeve sincerity to lighten the distinctly disenchanted worldview that has darkened Berninger's coal-smudged baritone. Very much a songwriter's album, it's also full of odd and often elusive references that hang in the air between airy guitar textures and simmering rhythms. Here, Berninger offers a peek behind the curtain of his creative process and untangles some of the more knotted moments on Trouble Will Find Me. [Note: These are extra portions of our interview with Matt Berninger, quotes that didn't make it into our main print article on The National in the June/July 2013 issue.]
Matt Fink (Under the Radar): Was there anything about the arrangements that Aaron and Bryce were sending you that pulled you in a certain direction as a lyricist on Trouble Will Find Me?
Matt Berninger: Yeah. I never write lyrics out of context with the music. I never sit with a notebook and just start writing lyrics. I do it just with my headphones on, listening to whatever music sketches they've sent me, singing along. Most of the time, I'm looking for rhythm and melody, and by not worrying about lyrics I'll free associate with whatever comes to mind. I think sometimes the mood of the music that I'm singing to will pull me in directions lyrically. Often, I've gotten the credit or blame for the band being thought of as a dark, moody, miserablist band, or whatever we've been called over the years, but I think a lot of that comes from the music, and I'm just reacting to it. I will admit that I easily and happily go to some of the sentimental and melodramatic, dark places in my head and heart, but I'm reacting to the music most of the time.
Aaron said that he thought that if this record has one theme it would be death. Do you agree?
It has a lot of different themes, but that is a recurring one. It comes up, and not in any sort of grim or depressing way, but I think there's a sense of addressing it. I'm 42—I don't feel that old. So it has nothing to do with aging. It's more of the idea that we have a short amount of time that we're around, and I don't believe in heaven, so I was singing songs about heaven just because it's an abstract thought. It's the impact that we have on our friends and the people around us that is our afterlife. Now I have a daughter, and I can see that she's so much like me. It's your friends, it's your spouse, it's the people you pass on the street that you do a kind thing for. Or if you're an asshole, your afterlife is that you create a little bit of hell. You've brought something bad into the world, and that stays in the world if you've been bad to people. I think the record is ruminating on that stuff, but in kind of a playful way. Some of the characters meet their demise in awkward situations. The song "Humiliation" is kind of about what if, outside of a dinner party or something, I was blown up by a drone missile, out by the pool. What an embarrassing way to go, and what would people say about me? So the record is about death, but I don't think about it as being morbid in any way.
Listening to this record, I picked up a lot more loneliness or longing than death.
There's a lot of that, too. There's a lot of love songs. "I Need My Girl" is one of the most direct, earnest love songs we've ever written. I wrote it about missing my wife and daughter. It's pretty simple. It's not about any other thing. And there's a lot of romance, a lot of pining. "Pink Rabbits" is a love song about a relationship that has fallen apart, and then they come back. A lot of songs are like that. I'm a romantic, and I love singing about that stuff. I've been happily married for a long time, but all that romance and fear and anxiety and confusion continues to happen in any kind of relationship, whether it's a new one or one you've been in for 10 years. I just love making songs out of it.
I was wondering about the song "I Should Live in Salt" and whether you envisioned that as a conversation between two people or one person's internal dialog?
I think it's probably more of an internal dialog. In truth, that song is very much—but not on an every line level—about my younger brother, Tom. He was very much in mind the whole time I was writing thoughts and lyrics for that song. It's about maybe feeling some guilt about having left somebody or abandoned somebody. Not that I felt so guilty. I left for college when my little brother was nine years old, and then we became reunited when he joined us on tour. He just finished making a film about that, and it's really good. It's called Mistaken for Strangers. But we spent a lot of time together over the past couple years, and he lives with my wife and I still, actually. It has been a great thing, and it has also been a really toxic situation. But now we know each other as adults, and I think the song is a reflection on our relationship, and some of it is my guilt or feeling that he went in a different direction than I did. He's a brilliant, hilarious, happy man, but the spirit of the song is about him. The salt in the song, I couldn't say why I put that in there. It could be something like "I should live in tears" or something. I don't know. It just felt good. Maybe I'm hiding some of my earnest emotion in that one behind a weird title.
I was also wondering about the title of "Don't Swallow the Cap."
It's funny, because people have assumed things about that. One person thought it was "Don't Swallow the Cat," and they thought it was an Alice in Wonderland reference. Some people thought it was a druggy reference. And some people have interpreted it as "don't swallow the cap on a mushroom," like LSD. I honestly don't know. It sounded good. Some people think I was referencing Tennessee Williams, because there's something about how he died drinking a cap of something. I'm not sure. It might be because I have a 4-year-old, and they're always sticking things in their mouths, like the cap on toothpaste. I don't actually know what that title is about. I was just singing along and free associating with the ways words sounded, and weird little phrases ended up in there, and you don't know where it comes from. You forget, and it evolves into other meanings. I mean, R.E.M.—Michael Stipe also wrote lyrics because they sounded good, just these weird, mumbly lyrics. It was more about how they sounded than having some sort of message in the lyrics. I always loved R.E.M. for that, because listening to it, you could almost make it about yourself. I could interpret it in ways that pulled me into their music. It wasn't like I was being told a message or told a story. It sucked me into it because it was so blurry, and I could make their songs about whatever I was dealing with. Maybe I do a bit of that.
I was also wondering about really specific references, like in "I Need My Girl" when you mention being a 45 percent-er.
That was one of the first songs I was interested in, and that was way before Romney made his comments about the 47 percent or whatever. And then there was also the Occupy Wall Street stuff, and it wasn't necessarily about that, the lyrics. It was, I think, about not totally being there for somebody. It's probably about my wife, and I was gone so much. We've been together for 10 years, and a lot of that time I've been touring. It was probably shades of not being present enough as a father and a husband, and I think that's what that's about, when you're only halfway there. Or not even halfway. Luckily, my wife has been very patient with this band and me, and we've made it work. But I think I have a little bit of guilt about being so distant so often, because the band has swallowed so much of my life up—in a great way. I'm grateful for it, but there are other things that suffer. That was just a little bit of an acknowledgement of that and probably a bit of an apology.
How about the song "Fireproof"? Is that about someone you know?
No, no. I think that's mainly a romantic notion of a femme fatale kind of thing or someone who seems so emotionally indestructible, but then somehow that's often a shell or a façade. In that song, I think the character isn't as fireproof or an invulnerable as they wish they were. I think it's a romance song. I think it's a love song in a way, probably a little bit about myself.
When you put a specific name in that song, like Jennifer, do you expect that anyone you know named Jennifer will think it's about her?
Well, my best friend's wife is named Jennifer, and the name Jenny pops up in another song. And I let him hear these songs a while back, and he said, "Why are you writing all of these love songs about my wife?" He said that jokingly. And my sister-in-law's name is Jennifer, too. It's just a name I like. It's a name of people I know and am close to, and rhythmically it fit well in those spots. Often, I'll use a name that rhythmically or sonically sounds good, or I'll just make one up, like "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks." "Vanderlyle" is a made-up name—it's not even a real name. My wife's name is Carin, and I think the song "Karen" from way back was probably specifically about her, but the name "Carin" didn't fit rhythmically so I just changed it to Karen.
Also, on the last song, "Hard to Find," which has the line "You can all just kiss off into the air." Is that a Violent Femmes reference?
Yeah. I just stole that. [Laughs] I do that a lot, where I'll sing other people's lyrics while I'm trying to figure out melodies, because I've found that if I'm trying to think of lyrics while I'm thinking of melodies, it's like putting blinders on in a weird way. So I just free associate and drink some wine, and if I'm blocked I'll sing other people's lyrics. Occasionally, I can't come up with anything better, and occasionally it's a quote from somebody in a different context that creates a whole different feeling and imagery, and that, specifically, is one where that phrase sounded so sad and beautiful in that context.
I also read you stopped smoking on this record. Did you notice a difference with your voice as an instrument?
Yeah. I don't know if it was quitting smoking or listening to so much Roy Orbison, but I was definitely trying to stay outside of my usual range. I'm a baritone or whatever they call me, and I was trying to sing in a different area and it would definitely change the emotion of the song if you would sing it high or sing it low. The very first one, "I Should Live in Salt," for a long time I was singing a whole octave below that. And it sounded good, but it had a more dour vibe. So when I jumped up an octave and sing it where I do now, it has more of a wistful sadness than a grim, dour thing. I was playing around with a lot of that. Some of the songs start really low and end up really high. "Heavenfaced" does that. I was attempting to do some of the things that Orbison does. I think he could sing in four octaves. That's very rare for a human voice to be able to do that. I can't, but I think I was giving it a try here and there.
It seems like the way you move back and forth between those two ranges gives the album a broader emotional range.
Yeah, musically that was happening, too. We were doing things that were stretching our arms in ways that maybe we hadn't. High Violet has a fuzzy, murky personality in a lot of the songs, and we were into that. There was a lot of tremolo, and this time those guys were playing more harmonic chords and stuff. The song "Pink Rabbits"—there was something about the chords that they are stringing together that it's an incredibly flexible song. I could sing almost any melody in the world and it would work with that. That's an example of one that I got obsessed with and I wrote eight different songs to the music that you hear in "Pink Rabbits." So there was something that was going on that started with the music. These songs were opening themselves up for me to be able to go all over the place, and I think "Pink Rabbits" has six or seven melodies in that song. That's an Orbison thing, and I tried to do that in purpose. His song "In Dreams" almost sounds like eight different songs in one.
[This article first appeared in Under the Radar's June/July 2013 digital issue.]
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