Interview: Matt Berninger

It seems like everyone wants to talk to Matt Berninger. Everyone wants to know what’s new with The National. Everyone’s curious what that song was really about. So, when I got the chance to sit down with him at the end of EL VY’s inaugural tour, I was kind of floored. And a little intimidated. Luckily, he is one of the most charming, easy-going guys out there with phenomenal taste in music and a great sense of humor. Read on for his thoughts on Cincinnati hipsters, his creative process, and the differences (or lack thereof) between EL VY and The National.

I guess I’d like to start with your background in the Midwest, because I think traditionally it’s not an area that people associate with rockstars and the indie music scene…

In terms of the midwestern influences on the music…Cincinnati, where I grew up, is like a big melting pot. It’s extremely conservative, but it’s also got a really progressive side. So political tensions and racial tensions and all those things were always just right on the surface all the time, because you’d walk in a room and you wouldn’t know if you’re with people who would think the way you do or the opposite, but all your friends and family are across the political and social spectrum. So I think that’s been a big influence. I think that’s a big part of the way I write, and stuff I’m sure is coming from that place. And also…maybe feeling like a slight underdog or a slight outsider to cool New York or cool Los Angeles or cool Paris or whatever. There’s a bit of an insecurity that’s definitely a big ingredient in The National’s music, which is why I think it connects to a lot of people. Because a lot of people feel sort of insecure or self-conscious about not being cool enough, and that’s a by-product of growing up in the midwest, I think.

Did you ever feel like there was maybe less pretension surrounding you, growing up in the midwest?

Oh…I mean maybe? I don’t know. Weirdly, I would say the most pretentious people I’ve ever met were from the midwest or places where they had a chip on their shoulder. The hipsters of Cincinnati make the hipsters of Brooklyn look…you know, mellow. Cincinnati hipsters—the fashion, the who knows who, the small pond politics of what’s cool and what’s not cool are much more intense than [in] the big pond. Oddly, leaving Cincinnati and going to New York was a huge pressure release from the social anxieties of what’s cool and what’s not cool. I had one foot in the Cincinnati supercool scene. I dated a girl who was into all the coolest bands and the coolest coffee shops. All her friends were the most interesting artists in Cincinnati and all that kind of stuff and…there was an extreme amount of attitude there, and less so when I got to New York and Williamsburg and Brooklyn. I never actually lived in Williamsburg, but people think of us as that kind of thing. We’re definitely not. I don’t feel…I’ve never felt from Brooklyn at all. I felt like a Cincinnati misfit who’s in New York city on this wild ride. I know that our band’s sort of synonymous with Williamsburg. We’re a Brooklyn band, but I’ve never felt like Brooklyn was my home. It felt like an 18 year adventure.

So then, when was the moment when you decided to do this and start singing?

There was never a moment. I’m still like, “How long can I get away with this…and when am I gonna have to go back to my day job?” And that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. I actually liked my day job and there’s a big part of me that that I wish I just had that simple stability of being and coming home every day and not having to travel so much. Obviously the benefits of what I do are so wonderful. People…I mean, today somebody told me that their daughter is named after a song. They have a daughter named Ada, and like that’s like…that’s…there’s no way to put that in perspective. That’s just so amazing. And I’ve met people with lyrics on the insides of their wedding rings and stuff like that. That’s the way I am. I have lyrics tattooed on my body from rock ’n’ roll music that I love, so the fact that I actually get to do that and it makes that impact on people…because it makes that impact on me, I get it. I totally get it. And it’s the greatest thing in the world. But, I always do feel like this might just go poof and I might have to go actually work hard for a living. I mean, that’s funny. I work harder at this than I’ve worked at any other thing I’ve ever done in my life because I love it so much. But there wasn’t a moment. There wasn’t an, “Oh we made it! We crossed over!” There’s never been that moment really. I do feel like this is what I do now, which is a bit of a strange thing. But it still feels temporary, you know?

Okay, so I know you’ve had to talk about this like a million times so we don’t have to talk about it for long…

No no!

…but I’m interested in hearing about differences of songwriting processes between The National and working with Brent Knopf. Because I know he sent you a bunch of ideas and is very systematic in the way he layers and constructs his songs, so I’m interested in hearing how that all worked.

Yeah? Well what I do doesn’t feel that different. The National sends me stuff and I find bits and pieces of it that I like. Sometimes it’s like the whole thing I like. Other times I just like the chorus or just the verse part, just this bridge part or something like that. And then I’ll take that part and I’ll put it on a loop and I’ll write something to that. So, it’s similar with Brent. And Brent writes a lot more and a lot looser…he records everything, right? And then he sends me everything. Which is great, because it only takes me a little time to listen to it and I can usually tell after one or two listens if that’s gonna be something that I can work with. It’s like a person. It’s like you see somebody and after you meet them once or twice you know whether or not you’re going to make an effort to see them again. And so with a song it only takes me one or two listens to know that like, “Ok, yeah that one’s just not for me. That person or that thing…I’m not attracted to it for whatever reason.” I can usually zero in and whittle down to what I like pretty quickly. And then I take those things and I just put them into GarageBand and I just sing along to it…like free associate and not worry about lyrics, not worry about anything really. And just kind of lean back and sing along and I’ll put it on like a long loop and I’ll just go for a while, and then I’ll open up another track and do the same thing. I’ll do that without worry, without thinking, without even trying, and then I’ll go back and listen to what I did, which is actually the hardest part because most of what I do is terrible.

And then I’ll find like a little piece that I like and I’ll grab that part and I’ll save it. So, the process for me is kind of the same. But it’s evolved into that process. Before I had GarageBand on my laptop it was much harder. But now I get in there and I chop things apart. The thing I found liberating is that I’m not worried about what they did. I’m not worried about just throwing away a lot of it. They have it, and if there’s something they loved they’ll remind me. But I’ll just delete sections and loop the sections I like. In terms of what those guys do? I don’t know. I know Brent likes to do a similar thing in terms of not thinking about it. Just press record and go and then press record again and do another layer. I think that’s a really smart way to do it. It’s a really enjoyable way to do it. I think if you’re trying to figure out, if you’re like, “Okay, I’m going to write a song. Let’s think about what this first part is, and now I gotta think about what would be a good key change, or a shift or a chord shift. What’s this next bit?” If you’re constantly thinking about that, it makes it less fun and I don’t think it helps you find the good ideas. I think it’s a slower process to edit yourself. I think I’ve only recently gotten there, and I think Brent’s similar where he’s learned not to edit himself. You can do that later, but don’t edit yourself while the creative ideas are being germinated or blooming. Even if they’re bad ideas, let all the bad ideas out there. So, weirdly there’s not a very obvious distinction between The National and EL VY in my head or anything. The live show and the personalities are slightly different, but it feels like a part of the same world in a way. It’s the same thing. I’m doing the same thing in both. I really don’t think of them as that different projects.

So for you the lyrics are really informed by the music?

The music is much more important. I’ve grown to think that melody is the most important thing, for me. For what I do. Yeah, the music and the melody…since I can’t play anything and the melody’s all that I can control. Lyrics are really really important, but they’re not quite as important as the melody. And the weird thing is that if I like a melody then I’ll end up writing better lyrics for it. Like, if the foundation is really good you’re going to want to really make the house beautiful, you know?

And, that’s another interesting thing, especially with all the multi-instrumentalists out there did you ever feel pressure to learn an instrument?

I did when I was a kid because I took piano lessons when I was little. And I don’t blame my piano teacher or my parents or anything, but it became a source of anxiety…a big thing of anxiety performing. I did recitals and stuff like that and I wasn’t good at all. I was a little kid, I was, you know, 10 or something. And I remember I did it for a few years and it just stressed me out so much. My sister and I would go and we would play duets together and do recitals, and there was a neighborhood piano teacher. And it just…it caused an anxiety, so I walked away from it. I didn’t want to do it. And I’ll say this, I don’t think I’m good at it. And I’ve tried. I even took piano [again]. I went back and took piano in college with a bunch of other people that had never taken it—my same age, never taken piano. And there was this jock, and I was like, “I love music, I listen to The Smiths, and this guy probably…” I remember this guy he was a total meathead. And we sit down and we start doing it and he just took to it. He was good. And weirdly, I believe that you can learn almost anything. I’m not someone who’s like, “Some people are talented and some people aren’t.” I don’t believe that. I believe that you can learn almost anything. But, here was a case where I saw, when it comes to piano, that sense and feeling your way around a keyboard or a guitar or picking that up…I’m a little bit all thumbs. I sometimes think that I’m a little bit dyslexic when it comes to it in a strange way. I’m very bad. I’m a bad musician. Which is really weird because it didn’t stop me from figuring out how to be a good singer. 

…And maybe I’m not a good singer…I just don’t know. There might be a thing in the fact that I don’t know what a G-chord is, or I don’t know what an A is, or a B flat. I just don’t know what those things are. Maybe that means that I don’t think about any of those things or that I do other things because of that?…I don’t know. I don’t know how to play this game. And there aren’t many rules when it comes to music. It’s like painting. There is a craft that you learn but there’s also wild experimentation. So maybe the fact that I don’t have a sense of the scale and the music—what notes will work against this and that—helps. There’s a whole lot of math to music. And I suck at math. So, I don’t know. But that’s kind of a rationalization for being lazy…and a big part of it is that I’m just lazy and never learned. But I don’t ever stress out about whether something is academically musical or sophisticated. I never worry. Like, the low art part of it versus the academic high art sense of the musicality of something…I don’t know any difference. I can’t put any kind of value on smart music versus dumb music. 

Well and I think there are different kinds of smart…

Yeah yeah! It’s like, I mean, I do think that so much of pop music is lyrically unsophisticated. Not bad. I love a good [hit]. But it does feel recycled. It feels like fast food…and I love fast food. But I know it’s fast food when I’m eating it.

And it’s not the thing that you’re necessarily going to be listening to for years and years and getting more out of over time.

Yeah. That’s actually the only thing, and when I say pop music I only mean…most pop music is kind of amazing. And definitely hip hop is where the most innovative exciting things are going on. Generally, by no means exclusively. And it’s the most popular. So it is pop music but I don’t think of it that way. I don’t know, I don’t even know the distinction. I know that there’s all these categories of music and I know I’m an indie rock musician. I know that. But what the parameters are? Where are the borderlines and what does that mean? I don’t know that and I don’t know why necessarily. But whatever…I don’t think it matters that much.

Do you find that there’s been a difference in the fan reception of EL VY and The National?

That’s a good question. Fan reception…I don’t know. I think a lot of National fans are also EL VY fans. I think there are people that don’t like The National that love EL VY, and there’re a lot of people that love The National and don’t like EL VY. It’s across the board…which is probably totally expected. I’m very well aware of and respect the fact that there are National fans who can be…where our music is a really important thing to them. And I get it. Nick Cave is super important to me, so when they do something I don’t like as much as their other stuff…I can see how it can be unsettling, or not unsettling, it’s just f***ing rock music. Unsettling is definitely not the word for this. Global warming is unsettling. But it’s just like when you see somebody that you’re in love with come in with a new hair cut and you’re like, “Woah! What’s that?!” Or, for example, I think a lot of National fans hate my hair…

[Laughing] I get it…it’s all funny. But that was never a thought or concern and it still isn’t. I know that doing this other stuff is keeping me motivated and excited about The National. So, that’s why I said there’s not a big distinction between them. They’re all supportive. They’re doing the same thing. I’m trying to just…I’m having fun. I’m exploring. I’m trying to generate songs that I love with friends. It’s the exact same. And the National and Menomena, we were old friends too…we toured a lot together. And there’s The National group of people… so many are collaborating: Annie Clark, Justin Vernon, Sufjan [Stevens], Nico Muhly, Thomas Bartlett, and Sharon Van Etten, and, you know…just the friends that we’ve known. And the Walkmen, and Phosphorescent and Beirut and they’re all just like…we’ve all known each other and played shows together and done things together. So, this EL VY thing is an extension of all that too. It’s just that, I think it got…it’s the first time I’ve done it, so I think there was a little more like…uh…a little more judgement of it. But I welcome that, you know? And I like that people get…some people LOVE it and other people HATE it and that’s like…that’s exciting, you know?

Well I think that’s what good art is, it’s divisive.

Yeah, yeah! I mean, luckily, I’m in a really special, lucky place, which is maybe the death knell of people…like…when artists start to suck. But I don’t know, I feel like I’m only starting to…I feel like I’m excited as an artist, you know? There was a phase where I was starting to feel like I’m really good at this one thing, but…it’s easy to get to the point where you feel like you’re just playing to your own strengths and it starts to…when you lose the anxiety of potentially humiliating yourself, then you lose the excitement of it. If you’re not nervous about something being a total faceplant, is it that important to do it? Is it that interesting to do it? Maybe nobody needs it then. If it’s like, “Yeah, this is going to work,” and you’re sure of it uh…I’m less interested in it.

Has it been nice playing the smaller clubs again?

Really amazing. Only now I realize what a massive difference a barrier makes. When there’s no barrier everybody’s arms and drinks are right there at your feet and you can just lean over and sing to somebody or touch somebody or somebody’ll reach up and touch your hand. When everybody’s right there, that’s amazing. And then you move everybody three feet away from the stage where you can’t reach them. It feels like suddenly you’ve cut the cord. And so only this tour has made me realize that. And The National always…there’s almost never a show anymore where the crowd isn’t 10 or 15 feet away from you and there’s a giant gap. There’s like a moat of photographers and wires and mud and security guards. You’re behind a wall. And that is a bummer. It’s absolutely necessary, you know? [But] I’ve really enjoyed how close people were in this whole tour. And I want to try to figure out how to do that—keep doing that without it getting dangerous for people. Because it all has to do with safety and I totally understand. But yes, it’s been very fun.

Did you have a favorite stop on this tour?

There were so many things…Manchester a couple nights ago was a particularly…we were all like, “holy f**k” you know? It felt like something. I mean they’ve all been amazing but that one was… I think because we had all kinds of technical problems, it fell apart a little bit. That made it even more reckless. We were close to the end, [and] a bunch of things went wrong. All the microphones went out during one song and so two-thirds of it there were no vocals and I was just like screaming to the crowd. Sometimes those kinds of things can turn something that’s maybe getting a little bit rehearsed into something wild and new and fresh and on fire again—but this whole tour has been like that. Kind of wild and on fire.

You can purchase EL VY’s new album Return to the Moon on their website, iTunes, and Amazon, or stream it on Spotify.

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3 thoughts on “Interview: Matt Berninger

  1. Pingback: 35-minutes with Matt Berninger | My Head Sounds Like This

  2. Pingback: Matt Berninger on Songwriting for Off Camera Magazine | My Head Sounds Like This

  3. Pingback: 35-minutes with Matt Berninger | My Head Sounds Like This

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