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The National: “At peace with the darkness”

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The National
Photo by Alex de Brabant
Short Profile

Name: Matthew Donald Berninger
DOB: 13 February 1971
Place of Birth: Cincinnati, Ohio, USA 
Occupation: Musician

Name: Aaron Brooking Dessner
DOB: 23 April 1976
Place of Birth: Cincinnati, Ohio, USA
Occupation: Musician

Matt and Aaron, how often do you go to concerts where you are not on the guest list?

Aaron: That’s true, not very often…

Matt: I actually don’t go to shows anymore. Rock concerts have lost their appeal for me.

Why?

Matt: Maybe because I have spent too much of my life in rock clubs. I don’t really go to parties anymore either. I’ll usually be in the bus by 11:30 after a show.

Probably because you always drink a bottle or two of wine during your shows…

Matt: Everybody likes to watch a drunk gorilla smash shit.

Definitely.

Matt: The truth is, I’ve never quite felt totally comfortable up on stage. I’ve gotten more comfortable, but drinking wine is a crutch that gives me a little courage. It helps me lose a little bit of the self-consciousness and the awareness of how awkward it is standing on a stage with lights and a bunch of people looking at you while you sing love songs. It’s an embarrassing and kind of awkward thing, there is something humiliating about it in a strange way.

And being on stage in front of thousands of people is an inopportune time to have an existential crisis…

Matt: “What am I doing?” goes through my mind 20 times during a show and for hours after every show. Luckily the answer to that question has become clearer and clearer as time has gone by and we’ve realized that we know what we’re doing. But if I were to think about it in the moment, I would freeze up. So I drink wine on stage to sort of loosen my grip on reality a little.

But you drink very visibly onstage. On some level that is just part of the show, right?

Aaron: The element of Matt losing it a little bit is part of the entertainment. Our show has always been a mixture of the classical composed elements on stage and this kind of punk awkwardness and messiness – at times quite arranged or intricate and at other times harsh and jagged. If we were up there just very tightly playing a bunch of songs it would be kind of boring.

Matt: Touring and putting on a great live show every day is something that we have learned to do better. Even though we are doing it over and over and over again, we can’t ever phone it in. We are well aware of how lucky we are that so many people are buying tickets to come watch us play our rock songs, because we know so many people in other bands who bust their asses but are not quite as lucky us we are.

If you couldn’t support your families with music, would you still have to make music in some way?

Matt: Probably, I think so.

Aaron: We were making songs long before it could support anybody. We made things for several years like that and we would all do other things while making music on the side.

Did you ever question what you were doing back then?

Matt: Even though we had humiliating shows where literally nobody was there, it was never the shows that made us wonder about what we were doing. It was mostly the twelve hours of driving in a van, sleeping on the floor in a youth hostel – those were the dark times.

On your last album there is the line, “When I walk into a room, I do not light it up. Fuck.” Do you feel pressure to perform in everyday life as well?

Matt: I think everybody feels that way, you know? A lot of our last record is us embracing ourselves as a band and that song is about learning to understand yourself and be okay with your tendencies. I became at peace with the darkness or the personality that I have. I am usually pretty funny and happy. I think I do light up rooms every once in a while. Once a year… It’s just a funny line, too.

It seems like you don’t take your lyrics too seriously.

Matt: It is the melody and the rhythm that are by far the most important and then words and imagery and stuff, story bits will start to stick to a melody and that is the way I write. I never sit and fill a journal with lyrics. Most of the time I’m trying to write a feeling, not a story. I’m not necessarily trying to describe the details of a place or event so much as the feeling of the thing. It is a kind of weird alchemy that is elusive until it feels right. Like the line “It’s a terrible love and I’m walking with spiders.” I’m not sure what that specifically means, but I know what the feeling feels like, kind of.

A lot of times that feeling sounds sad. What do you think of your reputation as a band of old guys writing depressing music?

Matt: We have tried to push back against the label of being miserable, sad, dark, and depressing and all that stuff. I stopped even caring and I stopped worrying, “Oh god, I don’t want to write any more depressing songs.” I stopped putting that into my head at all, I don’t care. A song is a song and, if I am emotionally connected to do it, whether it is sad or not sad, I am going to chase that song.

Aaron: Anything we make together, as long as we all love it, can be a National song. And I guess we feel that we have proven ourselves and that we can relax a little bit and enjoy the songs. We stopped trying to look cool and stopped comparing ourselves to other cool bands.

Is it because you guys are bit older that you don’t care so much?

Matt: Our band kind of got rolling later than most rock bands do. I think most people start rock bands in their early twenties or teens, but I was almost thirty at the time when the band started really doing anything and it took another several years before people started caring about us. Not everything went well in the past 14 years, but we avoided falling into traps that are maybe sometimes easy to fall into. We were relatively responsible adults. And the fact that we came from real jobs we have a different ambition. We never had this ambition to be like cool, hot shit. The ambition of the band was to make songs and records that we liked, that is all. Every record has always been about a good song. A good song is so elusive.