The National’s Matt Berninger: ‘I have a healthy marriage because I write about looking into the abyss’ (2023)

What’s your favourite song on your new album, First Two Pages of Frankenstein? 1moresecond

There are a lot of songs I’m proud of on this record because there was such a long phase where I just could not write at all. The last song, Send for Me, is maybe the kindest, most tender song I’ve written. A lot of these songs are pretty tender – I think I was attracted to the music that was the most self-soothing. I wanted to write a song to be there for other people, because I got through a phase of depression where a lot of people were there for me. It’s one of those unconditionally kind and loving songs, and I don’t write many of those. I’m always picking myself apart.

In Sorrow, you sang: “Sorrow found me when I was young. Sorrow waited, sorrow won.” Did it? And does it still? StCfThOtS

I’ve always struggled with a pretty normal level of anxiety and depression. I remember 12 being one of those years – I got the shit kicked out of me by a bunch of kids. I’ve always feared that feeling, but even though I write a lot about depression, I think I’ve been a pretty happy person – until 2021, I guess. I didn’t get my ass kicked but I hadn’t felt this sad since I was a little kid. No matter how delicious life was, I didn’t want to go out of the house. I couldn’t taste it. I had so much self loathing – “Why am I so useless right now? Have I created this – did writing all this create more sorrow?” So it did find me again. And it will probably find me in the future. Now I have perspective on it, knowing that it’s an illness. I have much more empathy for that part of me.

The National’s Matt Berninger: ‘I have a healthy marriage because I write about looking into the abyss’ (1)
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What advice would you give someone in their mid-20s regarding love and relationships? I’m yet to have a serious long-term relationship. It always destroys me when things end but the thought of things lasting also terrifies me. monocleman1

Finding somebody to connect with and keeping that connection is really challenging. Most relationships aren’t going to work out. But even from the short ones, the bad ones, you learn so much. There’s not a single relationship that I’ve had that I don’t reflect fondly on. When I met Carin [Besser, Berninger’s wife] I knew this is the one, and we’ve been together 20 years. You have to allow the other person to grow. Learning to recalibrate is not easy, but that’s how stuff lasts. I’m always trying to paint the shadows to figure out what are the things that make relationships fall apart and how to avoid that. I write a lot about things I want to avoid – Eucalyptus is about what would happen if we really did split up, whether the band or marriage. I have a really healthy marriage but I think that’s because I write about looking into the abyss.

I’m curious about how you and Carin write the lyrics. tallsaint89

I tinker away and she does her own thing. In so many songs on this record, there will be a phrase she wrote that anchors the song: Tropic Morning News is a funny phrase she came up with to describe doom and gloom. I love the way her brain works, so whenever there’s a bit from her that works, I have so much more confidence in the song. We refine together. We have learned where our boundaries are. Eucalyptus is a funny one – she’s like, “This song is so great, but we should probably talk about this later.” But the art always comes first. Since Boxer [the National’s fourth album, from 2007] she was always pushing me into the cold dark water because that’s where the most interesting swimming happens.

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I saw you in Whelan’s in Dublin in 2005 after Alligator came out. The band seemed genuinely taken aback that you were cheered back for an encore. Following some earlier setbacks, can you pinpoint a moment when you said: this is really coming together for us as a band? PaddyMcDonnell

That show was definitely a pillar, being so far from home and realising we’re not just another one of the “New York bands”. We definitely rode the fumes of the New York scene – the Strokes, Interpol – for a while. That brought a lot of people to our first shows in Europe and we milked that, but we did have a moment where we realised the reaction wasn’t connected to that. Whelan’s turned our heads a little bit – we’re not the B-side to Interpol any more.

As a part-time poet, I consider you and David Berman of Silver Jews to be two of my favourites. How much did he inspire the early lyrics of the band? nkeezy

David Berman’s one of my heroes. His combination of silliness and sadness is so incredible. A lot of my favourite writers, a lot of the greatest artists, do kill themselves – Elliott Smith for instance. I’m sure they had much healthier lives because of their music but it wasn’t enough for them. I think writing about the darkest thoughts, about suicide, is very healthy. People are so afraid to talk about that. But it’s a really normal thing. It’s something you should talk about. If you were to watch a live show, you’d see me mime things like hanging myself. You touch the scariest things and that’s how you defuse them. Artists make art because they’re trying to figure out something that’s too hard to figure out in any other form.

The National’s Matt Berninger: ‘I have a healthy marriage because I write about looking into the abyss’ (2)

When clambering into the audience during live shows, have you suffered any mishaps, like losing your glasses or picking up injuries? ZakTuck

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There’s a lot of grab-assing. I’ve gotten into near fights because there’s somebody who wants to make the moment all about them and they hang on to you. I’ve climbed on garbage cans and the lid collapses and I end up singing the rest of the song in a garbage can. I’ve climbed up on to bars and made myself drinks. We played a courtyard in Italy, I climbed up on to a balcony and there’s an old woman in her bedroom. I’ve climbed through windows of hotels and then had to figure out how to get back out through the lobby. I’m creating this weird situation, so I think I need to not do it any more. The crowds are big and the crush is dangerous.

In the song Pink Rabbits you reference the album Bona Drag. Do you still listen to Morrissey? scuzzboy24

I haven’t listened to Morrissey in a long time. I go back to The Queen is Dead, but I haven’t in a while. It’s a little bit hard to separate the ickiness of things he’s said. I still believe he’s a brilliant, sensitive artist. Morrissey was one of the first where I was like, that guy gets me. I have genuine love for him. But I’m in the same boat as all Morrissey fans, just like: “Agh, please!”

When you were still making First Two Pages of Frankenstein, someone said you had so much material that you were thinking of making a double album, but it’s your shortest album in 15 years. Did you leave a lot on the cutting room floor? Quaznarg

Everybody’s got some favourites that didn’t make it, including me, but we agreed that we wanted to make a record that didn’t overstay its welcome. It’s a kind of a heavy record emotionally and I didn’t want it to feel heavy because of its length. I Am Easy to Find [2019] was a long record. We really wanted this to be a little punchy. And I didn’t want to have to spend too much time in that place where a lot of the record lives. If it works for you, play it again.

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What does your young teenage daughter think of your songs? Teemelloni

She really started connecting with music a few years ago. Taylor Swift and Phoebe Bridgers are her favourite artists, not because I know them [they both make guest appearances on the new album]. When I play her National stuff, I can tell she really loves it. Our favourite thing to do is drive up the coast and talk about music. We live along these beautiful beaches but we never get out, she just likes to be in the car listening and singing. We’ll unpack a Taylor line or Phoebe line, and then she’ll listen to my lines. There’s some weird stuff where I’m like: “Let me explain that one.” Maybe your kid doesn’t want to know all the darkest corners of their dad’s mind. But I really talked to her even when I was in that real depression. She’s a real collaborator in many ways.

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You drop a lot of literary references in your lyrics. What was the last 10-out-of-10 book you read? MattN92

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It’s funny, it was Jeff Tweedy’s How to Write One Song. I didn’t read it until after I finished this record. He’s a hero of mine, but it was like when you’re struggling to ride a bike, the last thing you want to do is watch somebody doing wheelies. But that book so fun and beautiful. People always ask me what I’m reading and the other guys laugh because they’re the ones always reading on airplanes and I’m looking at US Weekly. Anything I pull off my wife’s shelf, I’m always like: “How did you find this?” Amy Bloom’s short stories have stuck with me for years.


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