Matt Berninger leads us backstage, discussing the creation of Fake Empire, how The National survived the early 2000’s New York City rock scene, and what it means to get lucky in the evolving landscape of the music business.
Episode 3: Matt Berninger - LE
Shirley: The Jump is a podcast where I, Shirley Ann Manson, sit down with musicians and talk about the one song that changed everything.
Shirley: In the interest of full disclosure, I have to confess, I was extremely nervous about the prospect of sitting down opposite Matt Berninger from The National having been a fan of his beautiful low mysterious voice for years. I somehow imagined that he was going to be incredibly introverted and quiet, and I always get nervous around quiet people, but actually the truth was that he was the opposite of that. He was very talkative, isn't in the least bit difficult to have a conversation with. It was actually very easy and joyful and fascinating and we talked about the delicate nature of ever-changing relationships within a band, which is of course one of my favorite topics and what it meant to him to still be here years later in the most beloved band like The National. This is Matt Berninger. How old were you when you started your first band? Your very, very first-
Matt: Not until college. Senior year.
Shirley: And is this with Nancy?
Matt: Yeah, it’s called Nancy. Nancy. Yeah, the names after my mom. I mean, yeah, it was weird. I couldn't play anything or do anything. And I still, they still let me name the band after my mom, but it was, it was just some friends just, you know, wanted to make, make some rock songs if they could. And, and, and we managed to make a few in college and I, and I never, never let go of that. That was the, the greatest thing I ever did that, that making that little record. Um, and we, we pressed the record. I remember we were all big. I was a big Guide By Voices fan, and Pavement fan. I remember they said something like, “You're not really a band unless you, you make a record and play live”. You know, you have to do both to really call yourself a band. You can't just play, you know, a couple of shows or put out, you know, uh, some, some, some songs on a thing and never play live. You kinda have to do both. So that was, we made sure we did that. And, and, and then we all left and we went, we went our separate ways. And then some of us ended up in New York and other people ended up at other places, but it was, it proved to me that I could, you know, that like, you could just, just, just do it. And so years later when, when, um, I was in Brooklyn and I’m just getting antsy and so that's when we got The National started.
Shirley: And your first record came out in 2001, right?
Shirley: Which is an interesting time, I think in the history of alt music.
Shirley: You all came out together, right? The Strokes and White Stripes.
Matt: Well we were practicing, we were trying to be a band at the time, seeing Interpol, and The Strokes, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and TV on the Radio, and all these bands that were practicing near us and, and we're going to see and they're all so much better than us, um, right. Right around then. Um, but, but then seeing, seeing those bands made us realize that like, we weren't going to, we weren't going to get anywhere unless we got good and, and it got a lot better. And it took us a while. There was a time where, especially right after, um, The Strokes and a few of those records and Interpol’s where there was just such a feeding frenzy on New York bands. And we definitely benefited from that. We toured Europe just simply on the fact that we were from Brooklyn. We didn't tell anybody that we were barely from Brooklyn, we were really from Cincinnati. But we got, we got booked all over little-
Shirley: Well that was the thing, which is the kind of the last one that I can remember, really, um, yeah, in recent times.
Matt: Yeah. I'm grateful for it.
Shirley:Yeah. So you've had, I mean, you really have had a rather blessed career thus far. You know, it seems from the outside anyway as someone just looking at-
Matt: I feel likeI mean, if I, um, you know, I, I definitely feel uh, touched or, or karma has been, has been good to me.
Shirley: So on this, on this particular podcast, we talk about a moment in every creative’s, you know, career, or their life, or their journey, or wherever you, whatever word you want to associate with this moment that I think any creative can relate to, which is when something happens in the creative process that really changes the way you then move forward. You've picked Fake Empire.
Matt: I feel like, like we were, we had gotten some attention for Alligator and most of the attention was for the songs that were sort of these screaming songs. And, and, and, and that was what, what got us close to be like, Oh, maybe these, this band is one of those sort of like tough punk, New Yorkie attitude things. And, and that was Alligator. But I, I felt that that was, uh, that was already a box that was, was maybe getting, uh, old. I think that the elements that came together on Boxer were the fact that we were just, everybody leaned into, well, what are you good at? What are you good? Like, what am I good at? And I wasn't a good singer, but I was starting to really become a good writer. And so I was mostly just trying to really focus on the writing. And so Boxer has all these sort of, we're bringing in horns and we're bringing in a lot more strings and those kinds of textures and, and not to, not necessarily to gussy it up, but to, to create a, a, a bed of, of, of a comfortable Sonic bed. I think mostly those guys were just trying to create something comfortable for me to sing in cause I'm not a comfortable singer, you know.
Shirley: And something unique.
Matt: I mean we're now we're trying to avoid sounding like that, that we, you know,
Shirley: Yourselves! [Laughs]
Matt: When we finally figured out how to sound, sound genuine or like we're not trying to wear someone else's clothes, um, that's when it got really exciting. That's was also when we, we were fighting more than anything. Like Boxers-
Shirley: At this point in your life.
Matt: And, and it's so funny. I listened to it and I am trying to remember what all the things we were fighting about so much. And I think it was, we were all so terrified of having to go back to normal jobs and, and we knew that this was, this was going to be our fourth record, right. This was the second record on a real label and it was like our kind of our fourth and it was like, if we don't plant some kind of flag, you know, at this point that's, that has a light on top of it that everybody, that, that's different from the other flags around it. It's just,
Shirley: Do or die.
Matt: No one's going to... we're going to be lost.
Matt: I was also starting to write better. I was, I’d, I’d, my wife who's a fiction editor and a poet, and she was at the New Yorker for so long. It's like, you know, I was trying to impress her, you know, she was-
Shirley: Were you dating at this point?
Matt: Yeah, we were. We were, we were, we were really together. Uh, Boxer was the first record that, um, she really was there for in like, and I was like running all my lyrics by her.
Shirley: So with Fake Empire- can you remember where you were when you wrote it?
Shirley: And how does that process work? Where were you?
Matt: I think that piano, there's just the little piano, the little piano rhythm.
Shirley: Are you at home?
Matt: Yeah, I think I was, I mean we were, I was writing really slow at that time. I write really fast now. But back then like any, any line that I was w-w-, a friend of mine, would always described it this way, my friend Sam Sheridan described writing, cause he, someone else described it as like, you know, squeezing drops of blood from your forehead to try to get a line you like.
Shirley: Did they present you with some music and you go home and you-
Matt: Yeah, I mean that's how, that's how almost, and I'm sure that's kind of what it was like at this point too-
Shirley: And is it still like that?
Matt: Now, now it's, it's those guys just send me little sketches. Sometimes it's a little bit of guitar, a little bit of piano. Sometimes it was more fleshed out thing-
Shirley: But you write separately from the band?
Matt: Yeah and-
Matt: Well I just put it in GarageBand and, and listen and they'll send me 10 things and I, and I'll throw them in really fast. And, and, um, and, and sing along just without- I'll just throw it into a GarageBand thing and just sort of singing along mumbling nonsense. And if it feels like it's, if it feels like it's, I don't worry about like what a song is going to be about, I just feel like, Oh, I'm emotionally, I'm emotionally, that’s emotionally magnetic.
Shirley: Now, did you have a title for this? Or, cause Fake Empire is a fantastic title. Like right off the bat, you know, I heard that this was the song you picked. I'm immediately intrigued. So did that come first?
Matt: I think so. I think so actually I think, I think I actually, um, the idea of just the word fake empire, half-awake in a fake empire, I think was the phrase that was, was like, a lot of times it's just like you'll just come up with a phrase like, or even a title and the rest, the rest is sort of, is a seed? And the rest, you don't even know what kind of, what kind of plan it's going to be, but, but a little phrase or a word, uh, becomes the thing that that becomes a garden, you know, um, eventually and you just like let it go.
Matt: Once we gave up ever, once we realized that we weren't going to be able to be, we weren't going to be those New York bands. Um, which is okay cause we wanted to be different bands before those bands anyway. You know, it was like, it was, it was a moment where like, okay, that whole game is over or something and we're kind of, we were kind of glad that we didn't, we didn't get too attached to it. And so we, we still had some places, some places to pivot to. And so Boxer was a big pivot, but it was really, we didn't, we knew we were pivoting, but we didn't know if it was if we were pivoting off a cliff, you know? Or into something that was going to be good. I remember feeling really, really, really, really excited by it and really positive by it.
Shirley: By this particular song?
Matt: Well by this song, this song Fake Empire. Also just w-w the reason why I chose this as the song is because there's so many elements in it that, uh, just Bryan's drumming, you know, it might be the most important thing in the whole song.
Shirley: And it’s a strange time signature, correct?
Matt: And then the poly-rhythms that are going on and, and, and, and, and then, then Padma Newsome, who was, uh, Bryce and Padma were in clogs together. He was a big part of the band for, for 10 years at that time. And he really stepped up and he wrote the fanfare, the horn fanfare-
Shirley: At the end of the song?
Matt: At the end of the song, right. So suddenly there are these things that were not rock and roll things.
Shirley: And what, sorry to interrupt, but what, at what point in the album did you write this song? Like was it at the beginning, the end, the middle?
Matt:I think it was, that's a really good question. I don't really remember. Uh, it was central to it.It must've been towards the beginning. Um, it must have been towards the beginning. Um, and-
Shirley: Sorry, I interrupted you. You were saying about how this suddenly was, you were utilizing songs- sounds that-
Matt: We were not just doing, we were like, like I said, everybody was kind of sinking into their comfort zones and just, just staying there and then everyone was figuring out how to like, how to like slide up to each other and, but, but staying in your comfort zone, you know what I'm saying? And so I think that fanfare was such an explosion. It was a musical. The colors of the Sonic Palette suddenly blew open for us with that. And I feel like that fanfare made us like the rest of the record. We went for things, and Sufyan is a big part of that record. And the song Ada, the, his piano playing on Ada, um, was really, really, uh, incredible. Just, it was, it was, pushed us beyond. Um, he very much, I think pushed us beyond our, our capabilities a little bit. Sufyan on was around a lot. I think I was trying to impress my wife.
Shirley: I love that. [Laughs]
Matt: I think Aaron and Bryce, Bryce were trying to impress, uh, Sufyan at the time. And I would get on the phone with my wife complaining about all of them and at the, and so we were, it was constant. It was a lot of conflict, but we were in his house together. That was-
Shirley: When you were recording?
Matt: Yeah. This was in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and where we were like, that's, Peter Kate has his studio and he is a Victorian house in a pretty not, not a fun neighborhood. It's not like you would, you would just almost never leave. And we never did. And, and Interpol recorded there. And there was one bar a few, a few miles away that they would go to. We never even went to that bar. We, it was always, we were always, we were recording in the winter and it was, it was kind of, we were just camped out in this Victorian house. And, um, it was, um, it was kind of, I won't say depressing. Um, it was, but it was, it was, it was a... intense and dark.
Shirley: Obviously there was a lot of pressure on the band, like you said, like you spoke of.
Matt: Yeah. Yeah. And so it just, it was a very heightened, emotional, uh, intense period for all of us personally. I mean politically, New York, all this kind of stuff. And, and, and it did feel like it was either the, the new beginning or definitely the end of the band,
Shirley: You know, you talk about and I really identify with all these things that you're saying about your self-doubt and your self-loathing and, and your insecurities and your concerns, blah, blah, blah. Has that changed at all, with all the success that you've enjoyed?
Matt: I’ve learned that, uh, I definitely, um, have let go of so much of the anxiety of, of humiliating myself. Right? And, and I've embraced, when I say humiliating, so it's to stand up on stage and, and to sing with lights on you is, um, is, is a ridiculous sort of thing. And I think that's why for, for, for, for a monkey to say, Hey, look at me. Here's my, here are my feelings. Any, my friends are go- we're all gonna get together and make music. And so we can express our feelings. You do that on stage in front of total strangers. Is a strange, strange thing. And I think people love rock and roll music so much because they desperately, everybody wants to be heard and listened to and seen as their own weird self and to be loved for the, for the, for not the package that they present themselves as actually of really what's inside. Like when you see Mick Jagger dancing around in, in, you know, he choreographs all those crazy dances, you know, the chicken dances, and he practices that stuff. And I don't think he's looking at that stuff thinking I look hot or I look sexy when I do this. He knows he's, he's gone all the way over to the point where he's like, I'm free. He's just, you see a free person just dancing like a chicken. And he knows that he's the sexiest creature on the planet at that moment. You know, looking like, you know, wearing a football outfit with no pads and, and, and you know, doing the chicken dance. So it's a, it's a, I think just people are desperate. Everyone's desperate to just sing, to scream their insecurities and fears out loud with music behind it. Cause it's so cathartic. Sometimes 20,000 people singing all those words and crying and laughing and getting drunk and throwing glasses, screaming ‘em in the face, screaming ‘em back at me. You know, I get people’s spit in my mouth because they're singing my own words. It's, I can't describe how, how euphoric and amazing it is.
Matt: I don't think of rock and roll as so much as a genre that's like waning or waxing or coming back or- It's, it's, it's a real, it's, I really think of it is a, is a, is a really continuous sort of fabric of threads of ideas. If you don't break apart your ideas of who you are or what your band is, um, it'll, it won't, it won't last very long. You know, it's like everything has to evolve. Every relationship, like my wife and I have been married for, for, for, for 12 years and um, or 13 years and it's, it's like in our marriage is different every year, you know a little bit, and my relationship with my daughter is different every year in my relationship with my band is different every year. And if you try to like, say, this is the way we act, this is the, this is the way that this is, these are the rules of this group. Everybody's gonna leave, you know.
Shirley: Matt Berninger, thank you so much.
The Jump is an original series from MailChimp, and I'm your host Shirley Manson. It's produced by Lyra Smith in partnership with Little Everywhere, executive produced by Dann Gallucci, Jane Marie, and Hrishikesh Hirway. Original music composed by Hrishikesh Hirway.
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