The National’s Matt Berninger on Struggle & Regret, Embracing Failure, and ‘Trouble Will Find Me’

Last month, Brooklyn-based indie rock band The National released their sixth studio album, Trouble Will Find Me—which has since been met with both widespread critical acclaim and commercial success. A month prior to this, Mistaken for Strangers, an entertaining and heartfelt tell-all rockumentary-meets-mockumentary, helmed by frontman Matt Berminger’s brother Tom, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. And tonight, as part of their world tour, The National takes the stage in their very own borough at the Barclays Center

Though at one time they played to scarcely populated venues, over a decade later The National’s at the top of their game, garnering the recognition that for years they worked towards securing. Matt Berninger and band, comprising twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner and brothers Scott and Bryan Devendorf, continue to wow crowds, but getting bigger comes with its own set of challenges. So, too, does letting your brother make a movie about you.
 
Last week, Matt took time to chat with me, discussing topics from filming Mistaken for Strangers, creating Trouble Will Find Me, and much more in between. He openly addressed subjects like struggle, failure and regret, unfiltered lyrics and stealing lyrics, as well as expressing to me his concerns for the future of his signature audience walk—where he performs “Terrible Love” while winding his way through a sea of people—and admitting to loving their recent MoMA PS1 appearance, where for six hours straight they played “Sorrow” without stopping.  
 
First of all, congratulations on Trouble Will Find Me. Secondly, congratulations on Mistaken for Strangers, which is where I actually want to start. It proved a fairly incredible feat indeed. The Post-it Note scene alone made me anxious on your brother’s behalf.
I’ve made a lot of records—and it was mainly my wife and Tom who were able to shape a story, an hour-and-a-half-long actual movie. But this was by far the most daunting creative endeavor I’ve ever been a small part of. It was kind of amazing. I don’t think I ever want to make another movie. I don’t know if Tom does—he might, but it was a huge creative mountain, so I really respect him and my wife for seeing their way to the top of it.
 
Also in the film, there’s a telling line from you about your early experiences as a band playing at an empty Mercury Lounge and how you used that pain to fuel your work. Does that struggle still motivate you?
We’ve become a better band since those early days, but tension and anxiety are still present when we’re making records and playing shows. We’ve gotten better at both but mostly I’ve learned to respect failure. So many of our songs are about social anxieties or romantic insecurities—the things you lie awake at night thinking about. Every time we go on tour and endeavor to make a record, there’s a whole lot of failure that comes with it. We write more bad than good songs, and it’s just to respect that process, and understand that failure is part of anything. You have to keep working and leave failure behind. But, it’s still a part of our band’s DNA.
 
Have there been any mishaps or funny stories from tour so far?
There aren’t major mishaps necessarily, but it’s just sometimes a show can go south. Some shows have gone well, some have gone badly. You feel filled with performance anxiety or something like that. I definitely have a healthy amount of that. That stuff can just grow up inside you. You can have an awful experience in your own head. Performing live, we get better and better as the tour goes on, especially at the beginning, it’s a lot of stumbling and tripping up. When you feel like a show isn’t connecting, that can make you want to crawl out of your skin and under the stage. I usually just try to move on to the next song or show and try not to let it bother me. As I said, I’ve learned to respect that process of finding your comfort zone. Now these shows are getting much bigger. It’s not fear, just tension and anxiety, panic attacks or panic swells. That’s happened to me a lot, so I’ve figured out how to deal with it. It’s like jumping into ice-cold water and figuring out a way to keep swimming.
 
Do you have a pre-concert ritual that helps prepare you to take the stage?
I drink wine. That’s about it. Our band has never been one to do any kind of group huddle or anything like that. We each do our own thing. I try to find a spot where I can relax, drink some wine, put on my suit and steel my nerves. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. You never know when a show’s going to go well. Every show, we do everything we can to deliver, but sometimes we fall on our faces. I don’t think our audience can tell the difference, and I don’t think we can sometimes either. Sometimes the experience on stage is very different than what the crowd is experiencing. Some of the shows I mentioned, where I felt awful, I’ve been told were really good. So, you have to trust it’s going better than you think.
 
You’re about to perform at Barclays Center. Thinking back to those empty venues like Mercury Lounge, playing Barclays must feel pretty triumphant but also kind of distant from where you began. 
We are really excited about that show. The weird thing is, I don’t do much different. It’s the same mental space I get into, whether it’s in a little club with nobody there or a big arena with thousands of people, we do the same thing: get inside the songs and try to deliver a great show. 
 
The final scene of Mistaken for Strangers uses “Terrible Love” quite prominently, including your walk through the crowd. That moment was a high point of many shows on the last tour, but is it something that’s getting harder to pull off successfully the bigger your shows grow?
Yeah. The first time I did it was a really cathartic experience and connected the whole room. But now we’re going to all these festivals and stuff. I’ve done it a bunch and it can get really strange in the pit, especially in the U.K. For whatever reason, theirs is a drunker, more aggressive attitude and many times people have been trying to undo my belt, looking for souvenirs. I guess my pants would be the souvenir! Also in these big crowds, it gets dangerous for people. I’m a little nervous about somebody falling and getting stepped on. I’m trying to figure out different ways to do that. I love doing it, but I can’t promise I’m going to be able to keep it up. With the theater shows it is easier, but in the festivals it gets scary, so I don’t know what I’ll do. I think I’m going to stay on stage and hope that’s not a huge disappointment to people, but we’ll see. 
 
Trouble Will Find Me has been very well received. Lyrically, there’s a rawness to it. I’m wondering if you’re more comfortable visiting those areas because your life and career aren’t quite so precarious anymore?
This record I was less concerned. I’ve always been pretty unguarded in my lyrics, but this time, the image of our band is not that important. I don’t think any of us were thinking that way this time—not that we’ve ever thought that way much. But this time less so than ever. We were just trying to chase the songs that were moving us in some sort of emotional and visceral way, and we wanted to write songs that would make a record that was going to last, something broader and more timeless than High Violet. I don’t know if we achieved it, but that was the sense of what we were going for in this one.
 
Do you ever have regrets about any aspect of what you put out?
I never do, actually. If we master a record and it’s finished and there’s nothing you can change about it anymore, I usually let go of all those little things that were in my head. I love that moment: it’s a year-and-a-half or two years you’ve been working on something and thinking about it. Then, that moment arrives where it’s sealed and delivered. I can finally listen to it and enjoy it. Most of the things that bugged me along the way I end up loving, the little flaws here and there, the awkward moments. Once it’s out, I fall in love with it on its own terms.
 
Do you listen to much music when you’re writing?
I listen to a lot of music when I’m writing. This record I even let a lot of the stuff I was listening to come into it. There are lyrics that are just stolen—there’s a Violent Femmes lyric, an Elliott Smith lyric, a lyric from “Blue Velvet.” I was also listening to a lot of Roy Orbison this time and was trying a lot of things I was dazzled by that he does: all the different octaves he could sing in—he had a huge range. I was trying to sing outside my normal comfort zone, range-wise. Also, he does things with melodies, where he just takes left turns, songs that go through eight completely different melodies. I was inspired by that and copying him in some ways. This time, more than ever, other records were swimming around in my head a lot.
 
You chatted recently to the Canadian singer-songwriter Hayden Desser about how one of his albums had been like a friend to you during a difficult time. Is that what you’ve wanted your own albums to be?
You connect with records in very personal and very meaningful ways. All my favorite records are those that, for whatever reason, stuck to my soul. They helped me through something. Hayden’s record, The Closer I Get, is definitely one of those. There are records that you just sink into. They coincide with what you’re going through and become an ally. If our records do that for people, that’s the greatest compliment I could ever receive. That’s one of the reasons making music is so important to me, because there’s a very strange emotional reach. For me—more than books or movies or other things—music is like a mainline to your heart.
 
Speaking of, what do you feel you gained from playing “Sorrow” so many times at MoMA?
That was an amazing experience. It’s not about endurance necessarily, but reaching a euphoric Zen state, almost like a prayer or mantra. By doing that—we played it 108 times—it became very enjoyable. I broke down towards the end; around 96 or 97 I got all teary eyed and found it hard to sing—but it was a really beautiful thing. It was a bonding, between us and the 50 people who came and stayed for all six hours, one of those exercises of the soul that was really healthy. We feel happy for having done it. Now we know that song better than any other. People keep asking if we’re going to take it out of the set, but now it’s the one we do best!
 
[More by Nell Alk; Follow Nell on Twitter]

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