The National’s Trouble Will Find Me is a lot of things to a lot of people. To the Brooklyn band, it’s a sixth LP; another slice of brooding, caramel alt-rock that’s mimicked the chart success of its predecessor, 2011’s High Violet. For fans, it’s yet another private masterpiece – a soundtrack to dark bedrooms and long, lonely afternoons. Because despite The National’s success, their music remains necessarily intimate.
To borrow a lyric, when National listeners pass on the street, in public, they mistake each other for strangers. Instead, they’re the types who populate internet forums to heartily debate the literary references and allegorical meanings in Matt Berninger’s lyrics. Private, yet public in their privacy.
“Most of those forums are just me under different aliases, and they’re all correct,” jokes Berninger. He’s speaking down a phone line from his backyard in Los Angeles, where he’s put his feet up over the fire and, temporarily at least, is giving as much thought to reinterpreting his own lyrics as the fans do. “I do find it fun to have the lyrics being interpreted in a lot of different ways, and the truth is, I actually… my ideas of what the songs are about, it switches around all the time. The songs aren’t riddles and there isn’t a right answer. The discussion about what the songs are about – I’m in the middle of that, too.”
It may come as a surprise to hear such indecisiveness from a lyricist and vocalist who deliberately dots his songs with images lifted from the poetry of T.S. Eliot and Bob Dylan. Yet Berninger says the malleability is a key part of his creative process. “All my favourite songwriters, whether it’s Leonard Cohen or Cat Power or Nick Cave or Tom Waits – you can listen to their stuff over and over and over again, and it changes; it changes with you in a weird way. It allows you in. Wherever you are in your life, in your moment, it allows you in and it can be whatever it is that you’re going through.”
“So there isn’t a right answer to what our songs are about – some of them have specifics, but generally they’re more amidic than that, and it’s not by strategy, it’s just words in a song can only be so queer. A good song can only approximate ideas. If you try to connect all the dots, it’s probably not going to be very close to the truth.”
If it sounds like a lot to digest, that’s because it is. The National’s music isn’t suited to a summer fling. None of their records serve being picked up, hurriedly consumed and discarded in one listen. Indeed, the Brooklyn five-piece’s gradual rise to fame – debut The National came out in 2001, to all but anonymity – only mirrors the slow burn of nearly every song on each of its six albums. To the outsider, writing such dense material sounds like an exhausting process.
“It used to be,” says Berninger, “because I used to think that songs were supposed to be about something specific, and they were supposed to tell a specific thought or a specific story. But we’ve been a band for a long time, and I think once I started realising that a good song is probably about five different blurry things at the same time, I just relaxed with my writing and stopped trying to be too clever, and I stopped trying to connect the dots, and I stopped trying to make a point –because I realised that’s not what I liked about writing songs. It wasn’t about expressing an opinion or a specific narrative story or an image, it was about getting a lot of complicated, blurry stuff out of my head and into a song, and to make something beautiful or try to make something fun and cool about the mess in my brain.”
Around the time of the Trouble Will Find Me release early last year came a documentary, Mistaken For Strangers, shot by Berninger’s younger brother Tom. After premiering at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, Mistaken For Strangers is set for wide theatrical release this year, beginning in Australia to coincide with the band’s six live dates. Alongside behind-the-scenes footage of The National on tour for High Violet – some of it literally so invasive that it contributed to Tom being fired from his role as a roadie – is film of the band onstage in its earliest days, with a shouty lead singer in an empty club doing his best to be heard over the top of clunky, distorted guitars. It’s as close to amateur pub rock as The National have ever been. However, Berninger doesn’t think his band has mellowed over the years.
“I think probably the opposite. When we were first starting out, I can’t say we were ever mellow; we were tensed-up, anxiety-filled young men, and still are, I guess – just slightly older. It’s weird, the first shows we did, the small shows that we did when no-one was there, were as exciting and terror-filled as the big giant Opera House shows, the arenas and the festivals that we’re doing now. They are just different versions of the same kind of euphoric fear, you know – and I’m just happy that our band is still together and we’ve managed to keep doing this thing until the point where we’re five adults travelling the world on a bus together and we don’t hate each other yet.”
The closeness of Berninger’s relationship with his bandmates – the Dessner twins, Aaron and Bryce, and the Devendorf brothers, Scott and Bryan – explains why their recording activities tend to take place within a tight circle. Four of their albums have been self-produced, with occasional assistance from outside producers, albeit to limited extents.
“We have a pretty open idea of making records, meaning we have a lot of our friends and a lot of really talented musicians and even producers and mixers and people come in – but we’ve never given over, we’ve never had somebody come in as the conductor, the impresario or the producer of the record in that kind of uber way that sometimes people do,” Berninger explains. “And I’m not saying that’s a bad way to do it, but for us we’ve got five guys that are all really talented and very stubborn and have huge egos and have big ideas, and all those things conflict all the time, so to bring even another person into that – we’ve never been able to … The whole dynamic of our band is a weird alchemy of a bunch of people pulling in sometimes different directions but ultimately ending up in the same place.”
Berningers’ mother Nancy, an artist who now paints from her cottage in Cincinnati, Ohio,also paid a visit in Mistaken For Strangers. The film conveys the memories of an artistic and supportive family household and Matt acknowledges the influence it had for a young man who eventually decided to give up his career at a new media company and give rock music a go – even if he was no rock’n’roll rebel as a child.
“Where I grew up was more of a sort of cookie-cutter suburban area. My parents were loving and supportive of whatever weirdness their kids were into … it was a healthy place, on all levels, in terms of warmth and love and support and creativity. So I never had anything to rebel against too much. I think finding fascination and finding my heart and my guts being drawn into rock’n’roll music wasn’t because I lived in this weird, sheltered or constrained world in any way. I’m not a rebel at all. But my parents were very supportive of whatever weirdness was in my gut and in my heart. They weren’t too judgemental, so it allowed me, over time, just to have confidence and dive into that stuff. My mom was always like, ‘Just do whatever you want.’ And I had a job, and I was a professional, but all along she was like, ‘If you want to quit that and do something else…’ she would totally be behind it, and that’s ultimately what I did.”
It’s a heartening confession which reveals the one thing that keeps The National going today, for all the assumptions of moodiness and pessimism that are so easy to project upon artists who make a certain brand of introverted, mature rock.
“You just have to have the confidence to fail a hundred times in a row, and then maybe that one hundred and one-th time you don’t. That’s the stuff that you latch onto and that’s your stepping stone to the next thing. I think fear of failure stops people from reaching happiness, when the truth is, failing over and over is just part of the process.”
The National play at Sydney Opera House Forecourt on Friday February 7 and Saturday February 8. A Mistaken For Strangers screening and Q&A with Matt Berninger will be held at Dendy Opera Quays on Saturday February 8.
Trouble Will Find Me out now through 4AD/Remote Control.