Here comes trouble
The National tell Eamon Sweeney about the philosophical dimensions of their new album, Trouble Will Find Me, famous fans and nearly freezing to death in Dingle
Not wanting to bother Matt Berninger of The National with trivialities such as what he had breakfast or what's his favourite colour, Day & Night chooses to dive straight in at the deep end. Berninger has penned a very interesting lyric on I Should Live In Salt, the opening track from The National's sixth studio album Trouble Will Find Me that goes, "Learn to appreciate the void."
A recurring theme of existential literature and philosophy is the void and the need to confront it to find true happiness, was that what he was getting at?
"Whoa!" Berninger exclaims.
"I've never thought about it like that, but you're right. This record has a lot of ruminations on the afterlife, or more to the point, asks if there is an afterlife."
"I'm a secular humanist, but I was raised as a Catholic, so I guess I've got all that guilt combined with the intellectual principles of a secular humanist.
"The afterlife lives on in those you've touched with your life. This became so much more obvious to me after having a child.
"Long after your body is mud and your consciousness turns out like a light, you're still there in them and they are still in you in so many ways."
"Heaven or hell depends on how you treat those around you. It extends to strangers on the street. I'm not saying I'm a nice guy to everybody on the street, but it will be my own little hell if I'm a dick to someone.
"All of this comes in and out of this record, but in fun ways. I find it much easier to grasp this rather than some abstract notion of the afterlife, or whatever version you care to believe about seventeen virgins. They all seem so silly, but we all know this one to be true.
"Phew, that's a hell of a lot philosophy. Sorry, I've just had a lot of coffee. Next question."
Not at all Matt, I started all this existential stuff in the first place. Trouble Will Find Me is in Berninger's words "a fun album about death" that some rather illustrious friends came on board for, including Sufjan Stevens, Richard Reed Perry of Arcade Fire and St Vincent.
"Sufjan is my neighbour and Richard Perry from Arcade Fire is probably my closest friend," explains lead guitarist, backing singer and co-songwriter Bryce Dressner.
"It's definitely not done as, 'Hey, let's have some celebrity guests.' It's not like Jay-Z is taking a verse or whatever."
"He wouldn't have anyway," Berninger adds playfully with a grin.
"We asked him. He seems to show up to Grizzly Bear gigs with Beyoncé in tow, but not ours."
While Jay-Z doesn't suddenly burst through the door exclaiming, 'Yo! What's up Matt?', the band have their fair share of notable fans.
Author of American Psycho Bret Easton Ellis went as far as to write the band into his most recent novel, Imperial Bedrooms, which is named after an Elvis Costello album.
Easton Ellis wrote: "The National is constantly floating in the car, the songs commenting on everything neutral encased within the windshield's frame ... and the fear builds into a muted fury and then has no choice but to melt away into a simple and addictive sadness."
Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish poet Paul Muldoon is also hopelessly addicted to their inimitable brand of sadness. "I'm not a big bookworm, but I'm very pleased that some very, very smart intellectual people like our band," Matt says. "It's an ego stroke for sure.
"My wife Carin is a brilliant woman and she's also a brilliant editor. She's helped me become a much better writer. Without her, I doubt people like Paul Muldoon would like us. She's made me graft what I do. She's a poet and a short stories editor at the New Yorker.
"I also steal some of her stuff, but I do give her credit, though probably not as much as she deserves. She's the Wizard of Oz."
As well as appealing to the literati, The National are an enormously popular band in Ireland. Tickets for their show at the Marquee in Cork next month sold out in 15 minutes and Ireland is the only territory in the world where their last album High Violet went platinum.
In November 2006, they played Whelan's and the Triskel Arts Centre in Cork. In November 2013, they're headlining the O2, a leapmade via multiple nights in the Olympia and an unforgettable appearance at Other Voices in Dingle.
"Doing Other Voices was cool," Bryce says.
"It wasn't cool, it was absolutely freezing," Matt interrupts. "Glen Hansard told us we got to do it. He was absolutely right, but it took us forever to get there and the heating was broken on the bus. We almost got hyperthermia."
Another memorable encounter for the band occurred on Irish soil was when Michael Stipe met them and gushed: "You're so good it's scary." Stipe also told them not be afraid of writing a pop song.
"We stayed up with Michael Stipe until 6am in the Clarence Hotel before flying to Scotland to do T in the Park," Bryce recalls.
"Michael could tell that we were a little anxious about being a so-called cool band," Matt continues. "He just told us to go ahead and write something easy-going. I'd consider Don't Swallow the Cap on this record to be a pop song."
So, basically he advised you to write your equivalent of Shiny Happy People?
"No, not quite," Matt laughs. "When you think about it, Losing My Religion is the catchiest song they've ever written, which is a really deep, dark and somewhat confusing song."
In addition to next week's release of Trouble Will Find Me and two major Irish shows in Cork and Dublin, The National are also releasing a film later this year entitled Mistaken for Strangers.
"It's a much better movie than any silly tour diary or live documentary," Berninger says. "The band are profiled, but through the reflection of my brother's story. It's really funny and really sad. It's a great movie and I'm really proud of him.
"Basically, my brother came on tour with us to work as a roadie and assistant tour manager. Ultimately, things went sour and he was let go. It caused a lot of friction between us. Then, he moved in with my wife and I when the tour was over.
"My mom makes him read all my interviews. So many of them say, "So, you're the guy without the brother." (Bryce and Aaron are twins and Bryan and Scott are also brothers) I've an older sister and she doesn't complain as much. I might mention him, but it would always get cut out of the article.
"While it's part of the charm of the movie, he went through some tricky stuff about his own personality and figuring out what to do with himself. He was still living at my parents' while I had just become this big rock star.
"He was never jealous. He just found it a strange position to be in and that's what he addresses in the movie."
As The National's powerfully emotive music continues to set new box office and sales records, both Matt and Bryce are extremely flattered whenever a fan tells them how much their music means to them.
"We've had a lot of people who've said our music has got them through very hard times," Berninger says. "Whether they are struggling with their own demons, or death and bereavement. I vividly remember talking to this guy who'd lost his brother.
"Even though I've been very fortunate not to have any tragedies in my life, whenever I've gone through hard things people like R.E.M., The Smiths, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Cat Power really helped me deal with ugly things.
'Songs are powerful things. My brother listens to very different music to me, but I know AC/DC and Judas Priest have got him through very dark places.
"Whatever it is, music is a mainline to your emotional centre and your soul. Or at least that's the way it is for me. For other people, it might be books or movies, but for me music is the emotional heroin.
"When other people tell us that our music has moved them or helped their lives in some way, it's awesome. It really doesn't get any better than that. We never take it for granted or roll our eyes. It always means a lot. We're fucking lucky that people listen to us."
Blood buzz Berlin
The Trouble Will Find Me album premiere in Michelberger Hotel courtyard, Friedrichschain, Berlin
Day & Night is standing in a courtyard a literal stone's throw from the longest standing section of the Berlin Wall.
This intriguing piece of urban space was designed by world-renowned German designer Werner Aisslinger, also is responsible for the flagship Mercedes-Benz store in Frankfurt.
It's a stunning setting to savour in the melancholic majesty of Trouble Will Find Me, which The National perform live for the very first time.
Don't Swallow The Cap
Sea of Love
I Should Live in Salt
Trouble Will Find Me is out today, The National play the Marquee, Cork on June 28 and the O2, Dublin on November 10
Day & Night