'I'm on a streak. I've started smoking weed and writing' – The National's Matt Berninger on creativity and the influence of his wife on their music
This year was supposed to be very different for Matt Berninger. He might have been concentrating on working on the Cyrano de Bergerac musical that he and wife Carin Besser have been obsessing over. Or he might have been trying to get a scripted reality television project off the ground with his brother, Tom. Or he might have been able to devote himself full-time to another of his side projects - an as-yet-unnamed band featuring previous collaborator Brent Knopf. You see, 2019 was not supposed to be about The National at all.
After their seventh album, the Grammy-winning Sleep Well Beast, was released to universal acclaim in 2017 and Berninger and his fellow Ohio natives - brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Scott and Bryan Devendorf - had finished an extensive tour, the plan was to park the band for a while. But that's not what happened. And, Berninger quips, it's all Mike Mills's fault.
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That's Mike Mills the director of quirky indie films, rather than Mike Mills of R.E.M. fame, although Berninger is a major-league R.E.M. fan. Moviemaker Mills has long been a National aficionado and around the time that Sleep Well Beast was being released, he emailed Berninger, wondering if he could make a video for one of the tracks.
It turned out that Berninger was just as enamoured with Mills's work. "We were all kind of finished that album and we felt there wasn't anything more to add to that but I was such a fan of Mike Mills that it was like, 'we have to do something with him'.
"He had just finished making a big movie [20th Century Women] and he didn't want to make another big movie right away," he says. "There was a window where he was available, so I gave him, like, 12 unfinished, half-baked songs and asked him to check them out and if he liked anything, then maybe we could do something. Basically, I was putting the bait out there to see if he wanted to do anything other than just a video."
Mills took the bait and the result is a 24-minute short film, I Am Easy to Find, starring Swedish actress Alicia Vikander and a similarly titled 64-minute album - the longest the National have yet released - which was co-produced by Mills.
The film complements the album and vice versa, Berninger says, but it would be wrong to think of the album as merely a soundtrack to a short movie. And it's far from a stop-gap either: its genesis may have been very different to any previous National album, but it feels like one of their best so far - and that's saying something, considering the band have been delivering one superb album after the next since their third offering, Alligator, came out in 2005.
"Mike's ideas and interests serendipitously dovetailed with what I was obsessing over," Berninger says. "One thing folded into another and expanded into this combination record-film. From the very beginning, he was leading and we were following - but while the songs are looking from different perspectives, it's as personal an album as ever."
Berninger has always put a lot of himself into his music - and mostly the vulnerable, angry, fearful, anxious and petty side. One of the aspects of the band that has connected so fully with their admirers is the sense of a frontman laying himself bare and entirely eschewing the cocksure arrogance that is the raison d'être of so many rock bands.
"The songs," Berninger says, "are about what it is to be a person living in these times and being married and getting older and having children and all that kind of stuff." It may be unglamorous, but it's highly relatable.
Berninger's wife Carin - a former literary editor at The New Yorker - co-wrote several of the new songs and she was entirely responsible for the lyrical content of two of the best tracks, 'You Had Your Soul With You' and 'Hey Rosie'.
Berninger is speaking to Review from the back of a car being driven by his manager, while Besser sits in the passenger seat, and he sounds sweetly awestruck by her creative abilities and her unsung contribution to his band.
"Boxer," he says of their breakthrough 2007 album, "was a turning point for us and Carin's influence on it was small, but profound. She stood behind the awkward ducklings - songs like 'Gospel'. I wasn't sure about them, but she loved them so much, and I had such faith in her as a writer and editor and she made me believe.
"When it came to giving it to the label, they were a bit hesitant - they wanted a lot of rock songs like 'Available' [from second album Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers] but we didn't have anything like that, but she gave me enough confidence to be able to say, 'Here's the record - take it or leave it' and very quickly they said, 'We'll take it!'."
Since then, Besser's influence has grown. "She's never tried to be part of it. I've always pulled her in. We wrote a lot of Sleep Well Beast together" - remarkable, when one considers that it feels like a classic break-up album - "and with this one, she felt like she could step out of the shadows a little bit, especially when I ran out of energy at the writing stage."
Berninger has called I Am Easy to Find "a creative reboot" and while it's unmistakably a National album, it also features half a dozen female vocalists, including Sharon Van Etten and Lisa Hannigan.
"A bit like Carin, Lisa has become part of the fabric of the National," he says. "She's played on stage with us quite a few times and Aaron [Dessner, guitarist] has worked with her. Dessner produced Lisa's most recent album, At Swim.
"When we saw the film [completed during the sessions for the album] we thought, 'We need other voices'. Aaron and Bryce [Dessner] know a lot of singers and then we met people like Gail Ann Dorsey [best known for her work with David Bowie]. We had different people to come in and sing all the songs and then Mike Mills curated which voices worked well for which songs."
Berninger says he doesn't beat himself up over songs like he used to. If something isn't working out, he moves on to the next thing.
"I don't know what's happening but I'm on a streak where I'm getting up early in the morning and instead of just laying there and staring out the window - and I do a lot of staring out the window - I've started smoking weed and writing, and I think I've written something like 81 songs in the past four years.
"Maybe it's something that comes with experience, but I've been writing more and faster and editing less and not fretting about it. Truthfully, I didn't feel like this was a hard, stressful record to make. Nobody was fighting over the direction of the record. We no longer strategise, just create."
It wasn't always that way. Albums like High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me were delivered after torturous work. In his fly-on-the-wall documentary, Mistaken for Strangers, Berninger's brother Tom captured the tensions within the band in the early 2010s, particularly between the twin creative forces, Berninger and Aaron Dessner. But, as is so often the case, it's that friction that can lead to great work.
Looking back, Berninger feels happy that the band were allowed to develop at their own pace.
"Sometimes I wonder if we had had some success right out of the gate, what would have happened? Bands like Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Strokes who are brilliant, brilliant bands… I think some of that burning spotlight can burn you out.
"It's not necessarily that that happens to the musicians… it's more that people feel like they've had enough of you. We were lucky in that we were on this slow drift for 10 years before people started getting sick of us" - he's joking, presumably - "and because there wasn't a big, bright light on us we became a bit like a fungus, being able to grow in the moist shadows of whatever genre we're in."
Much of the remainder of 2019 will be taken up with touring, but Berninger says he is itching to devote himself properly to other projects including the aforementioned Cyrano de Bergerac musical. "We've written about 20 songs for it, Carin and Aaron and Bryce and I. And Tom and I have been slowly cooking a TV show, taking it to one level before backing away again.
"I'm ambitious, although you could say that my ambitions in these various fields are far more than my abilities," he says. "But it's good to be in water that's over your head a bit - you either get to choke or swim."
'I Am Easy to Find' is out now. The National headline All Together Now, Co Waterford, (August 2 to 4)