For Matt Berninger these days, it’s not bad to be the lead singer of the National. High Violet, the band’s fifth album, was released last year to near universal acclaim and debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, and while the group isn’t hopping into the studio together anytime soon, Berninger has kept busy, logging studio time with Sharon Jones for Booker T.‘s upcoming album The Road to Memphis, as well as a radically altered remix of the 2010 Grinderman track “Evil.”
Hive spoke with Berninger a few days after the National’s most recent European tour, where we discussed the perception that he’s a buzzkill, recording Jones and Booker, his hero Nick Cave and the likelihood of starting a beef with Justin Bieber.
In the “Conversation 16″ video, you and Mad Men‘s John Slattery play Secret Service agents protecting President Kristen Schaal, playing up the band’s less serious side.
Yeah. [Director] Scott Jacobson contacted us and wanted to do a video for that song. He did a video for Fiery Furnaces [2009's "Even in the Rain"] and I liked that video a lot because it was light and casual and not a slick, Hollywood type of thing. The treatment was written mostly by Kristen and her boyfriend Rich Blomquist, who’s a writer for The Daily Show. It’s a lo-fi, lighthearted, silly video. We were really happy because our band’s image is a little bit dour and overly serious and it was so nice to have somebody pick up on the fact that we’re sort of goofballs.
People always want to know why you’re so sad.
[Laughs] It makes total sense. I do write a lot of songs that are about sadness. I have a song called “Sorrow” on our last record. But in the songs, there’s a lot of comedy, happiness and optimism. I think I’m really good at writing emotionally honest, ugly, awkward and sad things, and I love to do it. I find that very pleasurable to dig into that stuff and celebrate and embrace it a little bit. I think people probably have an image of me as being dark and morose or miserable. I have my days, but for the most part, I’m a pretty happy guy. With this video, it’s nice to have some of these other sides of us come out.
You’ve been playing a lot of festivals recently. Do you approach those sets differently from a headlining set?
Over the years, we’ve been becoming a better live band on a lot of levels. When you’re playing in front of bigger and bigger crowds, you can’t just be five guys standing there on your feet. We’re still trying to figure out how to remain true to ourselves, but still entertain a big audience.
I saw one of your peers headlining an outdoor festival a few years ago and playing like they were bored in their basement.
It’s a fine line. We have horrible stage banter. Occasionally, we’re funny if you catch us on a good night. But I guess it’s entertaining even when it’s stilted, embarrassing banter. You have to try to connect on that way. When you’re playing [250-person capacity New York venue] Mercury Lounge, you can just close your eyes and dig into the song because everybody is 10 feet away. It’s been a struggle figuring out how to play the bigger shows. We don’t want to be boring, but we also don’t want to be fake. I drink a lot and try to just think about the songs mostly. I flail around on stage and have done that for a long time. It’s my way of losing my grip and letting loose and just becoming completely absorbed in the music. That is, luckily, fun to watch.
Some of your bandmates have said that everyone just assumes you’re drunk.
That’s actually a much safer place to go than the awareness of being in the middle of a stage with lights on you and having to entertain all these people. If I think about that, those have been the shows that have just felt awkward. I don’t get wasted but I will drink about a bottle of wine over two hours on stage, which is a lot of wine but not that much. But it allows me to just lose a certain amount of that self-awareness so that I don’t feel awkward looking foolish. I don’t know how any singer stays smooth, calm and collected at a rock show.
When was the last time you got stage fright?
Every show. I remember doing our first few shows and just having to go home immediately after and having a slight meltdown from anxiety. It’s not the same kind of constant, throbbing terror now, but I feel a little nauseous before going out every night and it takes a while to get comfortable. In many shows, I never get comfortable.
So we’ll never see the “Jagger Swagger” from you?
I think people like Mick Jagger put on a lot of that stuff and it’s a big defense mechanism. I can see how that might work. If you play a role that allows you to become a character, it’s easier to be up there as that sort of artifice. I have a hard time putting on that showmanship swagger. I oftentimes just wish I could go out in a Ziggy Stardust getup or wear sunglasses onstage just because it would be enough of a shield.
No one’s telling you you can’t, right?
[Laughs] Well, honestly, I don’t do it because Michael Stipe once told me that wearing sunglasses shows disrespect to the audience. I don’t necessarily agree, but I always remembered that and thought that was cool. He can look somebody in the eye and sing right to them. I can’t do that. I very rarely make eye contact with anyone and either stare at the exit sign or close my eyes. If I were conscious of the way people are watching me perform, I think I’d be too mortified and embarrassed. When you get into self-conscious spirals, you can’t stop thinking about messing up and looking like an idiot.
How has your personal definition of success changed from the release of the first album in 2001 to now?
Back then, it was just getting anybody to notice us at all, which took a long, long time. In the beginning, all we wanted to do was have some people listen to us so we could at least know we made some tiny scratch in the history of rock and roll even if we were forgotten the next day. Our definition now is somehow trying to avoid turning horrible. Our biggest motivation is fear of writing a bad record. I think at some point we’re not going to know and my biggest fear is not being able to recognize whether your own songs are good or not. My definition of success now is to figure out a way to have the band continue, but without it ruining the rest of my life. I think all of us are trying to figure that out. It’s easy for your life to get lopsided and there are plenty of really successful, miserable musicians.
How did working with Sharon Jones and Booker T. Jones on “Representing Memphis” come together? And more importantly: Can a guy from Cincinnati rep the River City?
[Laughs] Booker T’s manager was a fan, and called to see if I wanted to stop into their studio and try a few things. We hadn’t heard any music. Booker T. just played the song for us, told us the melody and handed us the lyric sheets. He sent Sharon and I to sing in the same microphone, so she’s singing into one side and I’m singing into the other. Singing across the mic from Sharon Jones is pretty intimidating. Also, I’m used to going 40 takes and using Pro Tools to piece together the right pieces that don’t sound horrible. This was all on tape. We never recorded like that without a computer, so aside from it being a sing-off with Sharon Jones, I was only going to get one take and that would be the keeper take. But we pulled it off. The song is me singing about Mama’s cooking and growing up in Memphis. I grew up in the white suburbs of Cincinnati. Booker T. was like, “You’re from Cincinnati; that’s a lot like Memphis.” I was like, “Um, parts of it are, but I went to private school in the suburbs. My mom was a decent cook but…”
The other big collaboration this year is with Nick Cave’s Grinderman on the “Evil” remix. What was the vibe like there?
I think the collaboration was overstated a bit. It makes it sound like Nick Cave and I were getting drunk and singing together. It wasn’t quite the case. I’ve known [Grinderman drummer] Jim Sclavunos for a long time and he knew Nick is one of my three go-to favorite artists of all time. I had reservations about the song, though. I’m already a Nick Cave fanatic and I think I sing like I do because I probably copy him subconsciously more than I want to admit. I was terrified that I’d sound like I was just mimicking him. I purposely sang out of my register a little bit, sang much higher than usual and put a melody to it that doesn’t exist in the original song. If I tried singing it like he’s singing it in the original, I’m going to sound like an idiot.
Last time you were in Tokyo, you brought back a clock that evacuated Honolulu Airport. Are you on the no-fly list now?
I didn’t have any issues with airports after that, but when we did a rally for Obama [in 2010], we were all vetted and when I met the White House people, they all went, “Oh, you’re the guy with the clock.” Apparently, they had to take my case to the National Security Council for review to make sure that I wasn’t a threat before I was allowed to be near the President.
Is there a band ritual at this point when an album is finished?
We get away from each other. We’ve been through enough times where we hate each other so much and we worry if we don’t want to do this anymore together. We’ve done that enough and come out on the other side with a good record and had good times on tour. It has to do with your alchemy as a human being. If you live on a bus and are spending too many late nights and not getting enough sleep and not eating well, no matter who you’re with, you’re going to start to turn cranky. We just need our space and recharge.
Was there ever any danger of the band breaking up?
I mean, we’re always in danger of that, but I think we all know that that would be a huge mistake for many reasons. We’ve been turning down a lot of offers for shows this year because we know at some point, there will be a breaking point. No matter how much we get offered to do them, I think we all realize that there’s a tipping point where it gets unhealthy and it could do damage. We will always walk right up to that line, but I think we’re starting to see it coming sooner and know when to put the brakes on.
Are you comfortable with this cycle of two to three years between albums?
I think we all probably realize that after we tour this year, we’re going to be taking a little bit of a break. And it’s good for a band to disappear for a little bit, both for the band itself and the fans. The bigger question is what kind of record are we going to make next time? Everyone wants to evolve in a way; we don’t want the next record to sound like any record we’ve made before. We’ve been using the phrase, “Throw out the playbook.” We need to dump every habit that we’ve ever had and fail a little bit to find out what’s right.
Last year, High Violet debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200 behind Justin Bieber. Last month, he beat you for Best International Breakthrough Act at the BRIT Awards. Are you willing to go on the record and start a beef right now?
Man, he’s been beating us down all over the place. I would have to go listen. I don’t know if I’ve heard one of his songs. He might be brilliant. He might be the next Nick Drake for all I know. Is he? Maybe not. Before we start that beef, let me go listen to his records and I’ll get back to you.