Interview: The National

Following a UK tour in support of Editors and a headline gig at Koko in May, Chimpomatic's BC caught up with Matt Berninger of The National to talk about Alligator, Shakespeare and more.

Chimpomatic: May's Koko gig seemed particularly important to the band - as you said you had never played to a crowd that big who had come just to see you. Was it a big night for you?

Matt Berninger: It was. A year ago we played in London to just a handful of people so it was nice come back to such an overwhelming crowd. It was also the last show we'll play before going into the studio to record the new record, so it was kind of the last breath for Alligator.

Chimpomatic: I read somewhere in the past that while you were touring with ‘Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’ some people would leave after seeing them. Surely those days are over now?

Matt Berninger: That doesn't happen anymore. The truth is, it only happened at two or three shows but that story might have been the turning point for us as far as being a band that people have heard about. We got more press about how people were missing out by leaving before our show than we probably would have gotten otherwise. Angels come in disguises.

Chimpomatic: The crowd were hungry for the band, and it was an excited atmosphere. What was it like to play Koko? It is such a great venue and must be like playing on The Muppet Show from where you were standing.

Matt Berninger: With all the balcony levels curving around the stage it felt like the audience was leaning in over us like a giant friendly bear. We loved it.

Chimpomatic: You seem to get totally consumed by the music on stage, pacing around nervously. It’s quite electrifying to watch and really captivates the audience. How much of that is your stage act?

Matt Berninger: I wish it was more of an act. I have a hard time chilling out on stage. The combination of terror, adrenaline and wine puts me in a weird state. Most of the time I try to pretend I'm alone and just be inside the songs. If I open my eyes and think about being in front of 1500 strangers I'd freeze and forget the lyrics.

Chimpomatic: How set in stone was the set list at Koko? Did you give us more due to the response? Everyone around me was shouting for ‘Friend Of Mine’ but didn’t get it, and then at the end it seemed like you just wanted to keep going.

Matt Berninger: We played more than we usually do. We would have played more but sometimes we know when to stop and leave on a high note. If we had gone on any longer it might have gotten ugly.

Chimpomatic: 2005 was a great year for music. There were so many great albums released - Alligator, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Z – My Morning Jacket, Illinois – Sufjan Stevens, Funeral – Arcade Fire, Spoon – Gimme Fiction, some bigger hitters and also a lot of surprises. ‘Alligator’ is one that I keep going back to, time after time. More than a year on and it is still as compelling as ever, what do you think is the secret to it’s success, compared to your previous albums?

Matt Berninger: Our earlier records were much harder to find but that's probably not the only reason. I don't really know what the secret to Alligator is. I'm just happy that people connect to it the way we do.

Chimpomatic: When looking at that list of great releases of 2005 are you proud of the company you keep and is there any other recent releases that you rate highly?

Matt Berninger: CYHSY was probably the record I was most thrilled by last year.

Chimpomatic: Your sound is often compared to British bands like ‘Tindersticks’ and you are currently touring with ‘Editors’ who have what must be an annoying 'Joy Division' sound-a-like tag round their neck. Do you see a lot of your influences coming from a British sound, whatever that might be? How do you see your band fitting in to the New York scene?

Matt Berninger: We've been compared to Bruce Springsteen, Pixies, Nick Cave, The Smiths and Simon and Garfunkel and wouldn't argue with any of it. We don't think about it much. Its hard enough to just write songs that we all love without thinking about who we learned from.

It don't think there is a New York scene. There are too many bands doing very different things. We've never felt like we were a part of a New York scene and I doubt if anyone else here does either. It's more of a lazy angle for music journalists than anything else.

Chimpomatic: Listening to ’Alligator’ reminds me of making a piece of art, when you know what you want to say but by simply saying it the idea vanishes. You seem to hint at the truth, drip feeding the listener - never quite giving everything. Is that a fair description of how you go about writing songs?

Matt Berninger: It's hard to say anything definitely and get it right. There are so many sides to romance, frustration, etc. that the closest you can get to the truth is to describe the details around it. Most of Alligator is fragments of specific moments and thoughts that are meaningless on their own but together they form a murky approximation of ideas. One of the few lines that stands up alone is "All we gotta do is be brave and be kind." I stole that from my girlfriend.

Chimpomatic: The ambiguity in the songs is refreshing to listen to. As soon as I have summed it up as angst ridden, lonely music you will come out with “I’m the great white hope,” or “Serve me the sky with a big slice of lemon,” and there is an overwhelming sense of positivity. I feel a similar thing when listening to Morrissey’s lyrics. On the surface they are downtrodden and jaded but the overall view is of hope, humour and a romantic love of life. How intentional is this overall feeling during the writing process?

Matt Berninger: A lot of the lyrics are little pieces of embarrassing inner dialogue with a mixture of awkward melodrama and overconfident swagger. It's hard to resist occasionally wallowing in melancholia, there's something very satisfying about it, especially when its set to music, but there's usually an optimistic flip side. Sometimes its delusional optimism but I don't see any reason to be realistic in a rock song. Its more fun to go out on the limb.

Chimpomatic: Alligator was obviously born out of the more successful elements of ‘Sad Songs…’ like ‘Murder Me Rachael’, '90-Mile Water Wall' and the awesome 'Available,' Are there any elements of Alligator that you are expanding on for the new material and if so what are they?

Matt Berninger: We don't have a vision for the next record yet. There are about 25 loose sketches floating around right now but we have no idea which ones will stick for us.

Chimpomatic: How is the new stuff going and when can we expect to be seeing a new record?

Matt Berninger: We're going into the studio next week but we probably won't release anything until next year.

Some pop quiz questions:

Chimpomatic: What are some of your top 5 songs or albums?

Matt Berninger: These are they records I've probably listened to more times than any others:

Bob Dylan - Time Out Of Mind
Billy Bragg - Worker's Playtime
Pixies - Surfer Rosa
Proclaimers - Sunshine On Leith
Nick Cave - Let Love In
Guided By Voices - Bee Thousand
John Lennon - Plastic Ono Band
Tom Waits - Bone Machine
All weird looking white guys except Kim Deal.

Chimpomatic: What is your favourite city?

Matt Berninger: NY

Chimpomatic: ‘24’ or ‘The Wire’?

Matt Berninger: Thank you for asking this. The shows are not in the same league. The Wire is Shakespeare compared to 24. 24 is a kids show. I'd also like to ask what the deal is with MI5 (Ed: 'Spooks' to the UK viewer) ? The first two episodes showed a lot of promise but it went immediately downhill. (Ed: It's a classic BBC case of not being able to justify a big budget show which won't bring back it's cost in revenue.)

The three shows that renewed my faith in the entertainment industry are The West Wing, The Office and The Wire. Kids should have to learn these shows in school.

Chimpomatic: Wilco or Radiohead?

Matt Berninger: I'm a fan of both but, Radiohead.

Chimpomatic: Who is going to win the World Cup?

Matt Berninger: Probably the Republicans?


The National
Chimpomatic Review: Koko, London
Chimpomatic Review: Alligator
Chimpomatic Review: ULU, London



27th Jun 2006 - Tumblr