The National’s Matt Berninger talks to EamonSweeney about escaping hype, brotherly bickering, drinking on stage and their inspiring fans
Even though Michael Stipe has called them "the real deal", singer Matt Berninger has a refreshingly honest opinion on the hoopla surrounding his band.
"Indie rock can be a weird bloodsport of what's cool and what's not," he states. "For us, not being cool for so long allowed us to secretly become cool in the background. To be perfectly honest, I do believe we are a great band, but some of that is bullshit, this notion of us being the real deal and other bands being fluff. Having being so unsuccessful for so long, people are less willing to take us down."
Helped by an ever-growing army of passionate, often evangelical fans, The National's slow and steady rise has been the antithesis to the usual flash in the pan hyperbole and an even faster fall from grace. "They call it in the trade a firework career," DJ Steve Lamacq astutely said. "They go straight up and it's very pretty, and then they come straight down again." In contrast, The National very gradually rose. Not only have they stayed there, they've got that bit bigger and better which each subsequent release.
"People rooted for us because we weren't the Strokes or the typical flavour of the month," Matt agrees. "We saw it with the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, when they were being hyped so much. We didn't consider ourselves failures for not getting that, and the truth is we got better. Our first few albums were not as good as the later albums, so it's not that we were overlooked. It took us time to develop and figure out how to be a band."
And what an astonishing band they eventually turned out to be. Their last three albums shared the rare distinction of being considered consecutive classics and by some, bona fide masterpieces. Both Boxer and Alligator were not just hailed as albums of the year, but albums of the decade.
"Making Boxer was really stressful because Alligator before that was the one that opened the door a little bit," Matt reveals. "We had been pretty much in the shadows for our entire career until that record, so the idea of being pushed back out and the door closing was terrifying."
Michael Stipe once told the band over drinks in the Clarence that they should write a pop song and not be embarrassed about it. However, it's probably more to their credit that there isn't a sore-thumb hit along the lines of Shiny Happy People on High Violet.
"We have been tagged as gloomy miserabilists," Berninger admits. "I understand where it's coming from, but I never think about it when we're making a record. The obvious example is Sorrow as it's a song about sadness. I never feel remotely sad listening to it, or if I do, it's embracing that feeling and it's a really pleasurable thing.
"People talk to us about being dark. Nirvana were dark, but those songs had a joyful and cathartic feeling. You dig into that dark stuff. I feel there are as many goofy, optimistic and light-hearted moments as there are dark moments. A lot of it is the register of my voice. Nick Cave has a delivery that seems ominous, but he's actually hysterical. So are Morrissey and Leonard Cohen."
I've certainly never felt anything other than uplifted listening to a record by The National. As the aforementioned Nick Cave said, if music is truly great, it can only be celebratory. Plenty of people obviously agree and High Violet rose to number three in the US billboard charts, a truly phenomenal and richly deserved achievement.
"We wouldn't be a band if it wasn't for friends giving each other music," Matt says. "The fact that we're doing well makes me realise that for people making music and who love music, it's a healthier time than ever. You can make a highly complex record in your bedroom and distribute it from your bedroom without any major support network or radio play. If you've got a Myspace page and the songs are great, you've got a shot and you can compete with Kings of Leon. That's awesome and an amazing motivation for people who make music."
Matt is married to Carin Besser, a former short-story editor at The New Yorker. American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis has even written the band into his latest work Imperial Bedrooms. "We're mentioned in his most recent novel and he's said in the press that he listened to Boxer a lot when he wrote it," Matt says. "He's also said he's a big fan of High Violet. Recently, I met Paul Muldoon and he said how much he enjoys our music. He's one of the greatest living poets. It's really flattering to have all these people come out of the woodwork."
Matt also shares the distinction of being the only The National member who isn't related to another bandmate, as the band consists of twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner and brothers Scott and Bryan Devendorf. "It's part of the fabric of our band and the fact that we've brothers and twins is a very positive thing," Matt says. "It has its negative sides, and sometimes there's bickering, but for the most part it's good. We're not five guys from college and it's a different kind of relationship for better or worse, but mostly for better."
The Dessners and Devendorfs constantly come up with wacky nicknames for Matt, including The Naysayer, The Dark Lord, Mumbleberry Pie and The Echo Chamber. "My latest nickname is Dick Jagger and I've no idea why," he laughs. "We knock each other down when someone's getting a big head. The fact is that I don't play any instrument at all and the band is becoming popular, so they constantly remind me that on my own I'm useless!" Without Berninger's distinctive baritone, the band certainly wouldn't be as good as they are, so Matt really shouldn't be paying a blind bit of notice to such playful slagging.
A compelling and intense performer, Matt is often known to enjoy a tipple during a show by The National. "From the beginning to the end of the show is about two hours so often I'd drink a whole bottle," he says. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't use it as a little bit of a crutch. It is a little bit of a crutch, but it's one I enjoy. After five or six nights of consecutive shows that can catch up on you, so I'll stop for a couple of nights. I don't try to make more of it than it is. Often people think that I'm wasted on stage because of the way I perform. I do lose myself a little bit, but it's more in the sense of the adrenalin of the show and how weird it is to be on stage with lights and all these people watching you. I tend to get inside the songs and loosen my grip on everything. If I was drunk, I'd have a really hard time performing. There has been shows were I have been and it's not fun."
One of the most surreal things to happen to Matt in 2010 is when he caused an airport evacuation in Honolulu. "I had two hours of shopping to do before I flew to Hawaii to meet my wife and father-in-law," he reveals. "I bought a bunch of goofball gifts for friends. One of them was an alarm clock where you had to pull out three pins to turn it off. It was just a cheap, crappy gift and I didn't think about it, or realise that it was designed to look like a bomb, which isn't a smart thing to have in your luggage.
"The airport was evacuated and I was held for 45 minutes as they investigated it and my background. There is a funny aspect to it now, but at the time it was embarrassing and rather rattling. I called my wife and I didn't know what had happened. They were very decent and very cool with me when they realised my mistake."
The National will wind down their year with a series of Olympia shows and an Other Voices appearance, which Matt is looking forward to immensely. Regardless of what way the wind in their fascinating career blows, he's in no doubt about what's the most rewarding and humbling aspect of being a member of such a great band.
"It's amazing when someone tells us that one of records helped them through a really, really hard time in their life," he says.
"It's an inspiring idea that when things aren't going well in their life for whatever reason, they can listen to a piece of entertainment in a record and it can make them feel better about life. You can tell they're being really sincere. They always say, 'I don't want to seem like a sycophantic psycho fan'. It's always a great feeling to hear that. We certainly don't have any answers. At best, we're just digging at what are the things that get us through life and trying to be a good person."
The National play the Olympia, Dublin, on December 2, 3 and 4. High Violet is out now