Yes, The National has become a cultural touchstone of sorts, its edgy, dark-hued songs synching perfectly with our current age of anxiety (the band’s self-titled debut was released days after 9/11). Now comes Trouble Will Find Me, yet another collection of moody, richly textured tunes marked by frontman Matt Berninger’s deep baritone and evocative lyrics. But the new record also feels like a departure, as if The National finally seems comfortable in its own skin.
Berninger, speaking by cell phone from a recent tour stop in Toronto, confirms that the band is indeed in a different place, both creatively and personally.
CityBeat: You guys are notorious for your tortured creative process. Has the writing and recording gotten any easier for you over the years?
Matt Berninger: This was the first one where I enjoyed writing the whole thing, and I think that is because we didn’t actually plan on making a record for a while. We planned on taking a long break, and somehow by removing any deadline or any strategy or plans for the next record, we removed some sort of abstract tensions that happen interpersonally and in our own brains. And so we were just kind of chasing songs and writing songs quickly in a freewheeling sort of way, because we didn’t even think we were making a record.
I had more fun making this record since maybe our first two (2001’s self-titled debut and 2003’s Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers). They were really fun to make because we had nothing to lose and we didn’t even know what we were doing. We didn’t even know what kind of band we were then. It started getting contentious and full of anxiety once we started getting a little bit of attention and once we got a real label. Alligator, Boxer and High Violet — those three were kind of wars to make.
CB: It’s funny you say that because this one seems more subdued — laid back even — than anything you guys have done since probably the first record.
MB: I think it has a more strangely relaxed personality to it, even though a lot of the songs and a lot of the themes go into dark places. There is something more peaceful and relaxed about this one. It’s less pent up and tightly wound, or something.
CB: I noticed that you guys recorded much of the record during the heart of the presidential campaign. Given your political involvement over the years, I’m curious how that impacted things.
MB: Similarly to having kids and stuff, I think back in 2008 when we were invited by Obama’s campaign to get involved, we had a big question about, “Is this something we want to do? Do we want to put our band in that sort of context? Do we want our band to be a political band?” The answer to that was, “No, we don’t really want our band to be associated with anything political.” It’s not about that — most of the songs are love songs or drinking songs. We’re not a message band or anything like that, and we still definitely aren’t, but being asked to get involved as individuals — the five of us are all liberal men — we were like, “Yes, we have to.” There are some things that are more important than a band. We knew that we would get a lot of flak, but it didn’t matter. The choices that were being made (by politicians) impact the future of our kids. The rules were being written, and that was more important than losing some fans, frankly.
So, with the making of this record, the latest presidential election was happening, and we were very involved in going to different things, but we were able to sort of separate the two in a weird way. With all that was happening, the record was almost like a respite, a comfort zone where we didn’t think about that stuff.
CB: The cover art is a pretty significant departure from your past album covers. What was the thinking in using this particular image (the cover features a photo of a woman whose head is bisected by a mirror)?
MB: I loved it because it had the same elements the record had — meaning there is something sweet and silly about it, but also sexy and a little creepy about it. It had a lot of the elements that aligned with the record. It also didn’t look like any of our other records, and we wanted this record to be distinct. It was just kind of a lucky find, and the artist (Bohyun Yoon) was happy and gracious enough to let us use it. I love that it doesn’t use any Photoshop or computer effects. We chose the image early in the process, so that record cover was also in my head for the last phase of writing the lyrics.
CB: Why do you think you ended up expressing yourself through music as opposed to literature or visual art? (Berninger has a design degree from the University of Cincinnati.)
MB: I just got lucky to be invited in a band when I was in college. I had no musical talent at the time and only slowly have developed my own sense of musical talent. For me it was always where I was the freest and most reckless in terms of expressing my thoughts. When listening to The Smiths or R.E.M. as a kid, there seemed like there were no rules to it. The point of Rock & Roll was that you could do whatever you wanted.
Guided by Voices and Pavement were the ones that really made me believe that I actually could be in a band. Not that they don’t have formally sophisticated songwriting skills and ideas, but it just felt like they were doing whatever they wanted. Lyrically and musically everything was just like wild and silly and dark and twisted and would take left turns and right turns. It was a wild, expressive medium. The point was to do it however you wanted to. I think that’s why it always affected me and I connected to music more other forms of expression.
CB: You said something recently about the possibility of the band ending at some point…
MB: (Laughs.) We’ve thought about the band ending every week for 14 years, and so it’s a constant question of, like, ‘How long should we do this?’ The touring and the lifestyle of living on the road, it’s not something I like. I love the shows, but I hate living in a bus — it’s a nice bus, but it’s still a bus. You could put me in the fanciest hotel room at the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris and I would still rather be home watching TV with my wife. It’s not that healthy of a lifestyle. There is no other way to put it. There is constantly a question of, “How long is it a good idea to do this?”
Oddly, interpersonally we get along better now than we ever have, the five of us in this band, so we’re at a healthier place than we’ve ever been. We don’t talk about what’s going to happen next. I think it’s a smart way to do it. When someone asks me if I ever think about the band ending I say, “Yeah, I do all the time.” I always have. We toured with R.E.M. and talked with them about it. They had a lot of really beautiful philosophies about their band, and they decided to end it in what I thought was very graceful way. So someday we probably will stop, but I don’t think it’s going to be soon.
THE NATIONAL performs at the Bunbury Music Festival at Sawyer Point on Sunday, July 14. More info: bunburyfestival.com.