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For someone who admits that “relaxed” is not his natural setting, The National frontman Matt Berninger seems pretty okay with himself. What’s more, he seems pretty okay with anyone else seeing him for who he is, even when he’s perhaps not at his best. But more on that later.
Berninger and the band came late to careers in indie rock, and without the youth or cool that serves as the usual currency of that scene. He was doing well in his nice desk job as an ad agency creative director, but as he told The Telegraph, “Once I entertained the thought that maybe I wouldn’t ever have to go and sit in conference rooms with MasterCard to discuss web ads again, I couldn’t shake it.” As a family man, was he confident he could make a living in his new chosen profession? And what of the fact that his music experience comprised absorbing large amounts of vinyl and live shows versus the more tried-and-true approach of actually playing an instrument or reading music? Neither mattered much, really; he’s a guy that enjoys climbing out on the thin branches.
If Berninger and The National did come to rock late in the game, they came to it not only more confident in who they were as artists, but also more tolerant – and even appreciative – of the failures, though there haven’t been many to date. After a lot of rehearsal space toil (there’s only so much magic in art, folks), their complex, biting songs gained traction with each new release, from their self-titled breakout to subsequent successes like Boxer, High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me. In 2015, Pitchfork mused about the “surprisingly long shadow” the band has come to cast over alt-rock. “The National have emerged as a big-tent indie mainstay because their widescreen melancholia has proven durable and difficult to emulate.”
For a former ad man, there’s probably some good irony to be mined in all The National songs that have landed in commercials, TV shows and even political campaigns, even if it hasn’t brought them widespread fame or magazine covers. Ascendance has come through their giant base of live-show fans, many of who were looking forward to the band’s first documentary in 2014. Instead, they got Mistaken For Strangers, a film The Guardian called “a nail-biting, cringe-inducing study of self-destruction and fraternal love, a film full of emotional explosions…and how you can find beauty in disaster.” A few of those emotional explosions are courtesy of Berninger as he deals with his younger brother’s attempt to be The National’s assistant tour manager while also shooting a film about the band. If, as Berninger says, “I wasn’t trying to hide what an asshole I am,” he also doesn’t mask a very human need to love and understand the people he’s closest to.
Understanding his unusual approach to finding melodies and lyrics that stick is harder, though we certainly make the attempt in this conversation. He’s constantly throwing out one set of musical chemicals in search of another and is more tempted than terrified at the prospect of a flop. Six acclaimed albums and one well-reviewed side project in, he says he’s just in middle of figuring out how to be a songwriter. For Berninger, the magic trick seems to be in staying there.