The National Interview
Starting out as kids in Ohio and now approaching middle age in the most energized city on the planet, New York (they call Brooklyn home), the five men of The National still find themselves without the 'household name' tag. But continually enjoy the bestowing of the 'critically acclaimed' banner. A banner they wear like mysterious gimlet-eyed contestants in a beauty pageant. A pageant held in a decadent and decaying, smoky-smog drenched European city. This is The National.
Feeling the lavishing praise heaped upon the band's fourth release, Alligator, the five men of The National have been and will be living on the road standing up to the media's praise and the band's promise. A promise that has kept 'those in the know' waiting for the band's new albums like men wait for the bathing suit competition in a European beauty pageant... This is The National.
Creating music, quietly rich, from an insular or small town perspective, a view no doubt reached due to the sibling make-up. I'm not saying they sound 'small town', they are a small town. A fading American town full of shut down steel mills, empty parking lots, and too much time to think. A town built on the backs of European immigrants, where the music rises up from a deep old well, flooded with centuries of culture and living. Standing in the center of this sound is the dark, anxious voice of Matt Berninger. A sonorous voice, which begs many comparisons, but flattens them with the lyrical unveiling of faults and foibles. This is The National.
Alan Williamson (*sixeyes), contributing writer at betterPropaganda, tossed a few questions their way... and Matt from The National tossed back some answers... this is The Interview.
Better Propaganda: I feel that The National derives much of its character from the often obtuse and sometimes humorous lyrics and I'm wondering... are there many inside jokes in the songs? Also, do you first write in a more personal vein, but then have to dress up the lines when you feel too exposed?
Matt Berninger: Sometimes I worry about exposing unattractive details but the awkward, ugly little moments are more tangible and compelling than sounding cool. Some of it is autobiographical, but a lot is just storytelling. The woman in red socks pissing in the sink in "City Middle" is only partly true. Its interesting to shine a light on the unsavory things we do but it's never intended as a joke. I don't mean to humiliate the people in the songs. I try to have respect and empathy for them, especially when they are me.
BP: Matt, do you keep a notebook nearby at all times to jot down those lines that come in a flash? Was the couplet, "It's a common fetish for a doting man to ballerina on the coffee table cock in hand" (from Alligator track, "Karen"), one that was scribbled in a notebook for future use? Do you write songs around lines like these, or are they more often used like a 'key' to unlock a song that feels stalled?
Matt: I try to keep a notebook around but I usually can't find it. I write a lot on the backs of magazines and old mail. Most of the lyrics are pulled together from scraps. I rarely sit down and write a whole song. I've tried that but the lyrics are usually awful. The one song written that way was, "About Today", from the Cherry Tree EP, there's only about five lines in that song. I like it.
I don't remember when the "ballerina" line was written but I do remember putting a star by it.
BP: The band has already toured the new album, Alligator, quite a bit, which of the new songs has surprised you the most after all these performances? Which one has grown in ways you wouldn't have anticipated?
Matt: They all mutate after playing them over and over. We don't try to replicate the album versions. I think of the album versions as snapshots of a song at that moment. I'd like to think they all grow up and get better, but sometimes they turn fat and ugly. "Lit Up" has changed quite a bit. We recorded a new version in Paris two weeks ago. It's looser and more fun I think. We were drinking.
We also recorded a new song called, "You've Done it Again Virginia", just acoustic guitar and piano, in about three takes. It's my favorite song right now, maybe because it's a newborn.
BP: Back to songwriting, how does the band approach a song? Do you all pretty much build the song up from scratch together?
Matt: We don't have a process. The songs have come together in a lot of ways. Sometimes the seed is a guitar melody, other times they start from a drumbeat. We all work on little things at home and bring them to the practice space. Occasionally a song will happen spontaneously like "Mr. November". That one was written in about an hour while rehearsing. Other songs we'll noodle around with for months or years until they start to take shape. "Abel" used to be a ballad, not a very good one, until Bryan switched to a pounding drumbeat and I started screaming.
BP: Your latest release, Alligator, is out on Beggars Banquet, your first album for this label... what prompted the jump from the tiny, but discerning, American indie label, Brassland?
Matt: We started Brassland ourselves with our friend, Alec Bemis, to put out our first records. After a while being on our own label started to get complicated. Frankly, we just wanted someone else to deal with all that stuff so we wouldn't have to think about it. Bryce and Aaron are still involved with Brassland but Alec is running the show, and doing very well with it. Brassland is putting out new records by Baby Dayliner, Pela, Eric Friedlander, Clogs, and potentially a new record by Lee Ranaldo.
BP: What was different this time out when it came to writing and recording the new album and to what would you attribute the acclaim Alligator has received over your previous releases?
Matt: We didn't go into making Alligator with any plan. We didn't know what kind of record we were making. We wanted to set up at home and work casually as opposed to spending a month in a studio but that was the extent of the planning. We didn't think about the label or worry much. We had fun noodling around and doing it at our own pace. A lot of it was written at night and it definitely has that feel to it, whatever that is.
I think Alligator is the first record most people have heard about. A lot of people think it's our first record. The other records got mostly great reviews but on a much smaller scale. That simply has to do with Beggars getting it out there to more people.
BP: What are you guys listening to these days (other than your own bad judgement)?
Matt: The Crooked Fingers song, "Sleep All Summer" (Ed: off of the LP - Dignity and Shame). I play it every few minutes.
BP: I read something about the band name being an 'everyman' type thing and that one problem with using 'The National' was that it was hard to find your website. Your homepage is found at www.americanmary.com, where did the name American Mary come from and why isn't it the name of the band?
Matt: It's a song off our first record. We never thought of changing the name, although we should have. The National is a pretty sucky name, but American Mary would have been worse. I can't change the name but if I could I go for something with more sex appeal. For example: Hairless Heiress or Erector.
BP: Since we're on the topic of your website... who takes all those great pictures on the site?
Matt: Scott and I take most of them. There are about 500 pictures that come up randomly. Sometimes you need to click a while before you get the tasteful nudes.
BP: Was Alligator recorded and engineered completely in home studios? I read that recording was done in band members homes and the record was mixed by producer, Peter Katis, at his home.
Matt: Most of it was recorded at our homes or practice space with Paul Mahajan. He engineered the remote recordings. We then took everything to Peter and spent two weeks mixing and more recording. It was a good way for us to work. There's an interesting mixture of low and high fidelity. We'll probably do something similar next time.
BP: Finally, what will the band be up to for the rest of the year? What's the next big project slated for you guys?
Matt: We'll be touring through November with short breaks. I'm getting anxious to make another record. I have a feeling it'll be very different from Alligator but its too early to know. There's no clear vision for it yet. We don't usually know until it's done.