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melodrama, sadness and love songs with the national

Matt Berninger, The National’s charismatic front man has a voice that can reach into your soul and draw out things you didn’t even know you felt.

by Ger Tierney
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24 October 2014, 1:50pm

My excitement was matched only by the sheer terror that he'd be mean and my escapism into The National's music would be ruined forever. This is my go-to band for good days, bad days, falling in and out of love, so the stakes were high. I needn't have worried; Matt was not only charming, intelligent and engaging he was also wonderfully kind. I definitely did not manage to pull off the persona of professional, neutral journalist that I had intended, instead he was met with Ger Tierney Super Fan with voice shaking nerves. His reaction was to put me at ease and answer my questions with consideration and enthusiasm.Following the release of their most recent album Trouble Will Find Me and the documentary Mistaken for Strangers, directed by Matt's brother Tom Berninger, The National are playing another epic show at the O2 on the 26th November. I spoke to Matt about the aftermath of the documentary, the euphoria of writing a sad song and meeting his heroes. 

I saw Mistaken for Strangers back in June, it was a really extraordinary insight to the band and into you as a person, was it quite a difficult experience to expose yourself a bit more than what you're maybe used to?
Yeah, it totally ruined my mystique! Nobody really wanted my brother to make any movie at all, because whenever there's a documentary about a band and they try and make that band look cool they always come across as fools. We were hypersensitive to whatever he was going to do, luckily we should have never worried. He went the other way and made us possibly look less cool than we really are and I think he did that on purpose, but it was funny. Ultimately I think the film is a pretty accurate portrait of us as people. I'm really happy with the whole thing.  

It gave quite an honest and sometimes strained account of your relationship with your brother, was that quite a difficult thing for you and your family to see after the release?
It wasn't difficult. We've always been honest with our emotions. My family was always a pretty safe place to show your ugly side, my parents encouraged us to like ourselves, even with all of our flaws. I sing about all the awkward little details of what it's like to be a human being so the movie definitely suits the DNA of the band and my family. It was a good exercise for us. We're never that cagey about emotions. 

Your music really evokes quite powerful emotions, do you think about the listener when you write, or do you just put only yourself into it and hope that people will connect? 
I don't consciously think about what a listener is going to take away from a song. I have to be interested in it, I have to be moved by it. Sometimes on a weird academic level I can be excited by the song and other times it's just purely on an emotional level. That's what I care about. If the song doesn't stick with the band, if we don't still really like it after months of listening to it and tinkering with it, then we throw it away. We follow only what our own hearts and minds want to do and I think we figured out a long time ago that that's just the smartest way to approach it because if you try to anticipate what someone else will like, its just going to sound fake. 

Are you ever surprised what songs people pick up on?
We always joke about the fact that we're always surprised at how people always describe our band as being sort of dark and brooding and melancholic, then we'll listen to a record after having a total break from it and laugh about how depressing it is. We have such little self awareness of how brooding and sad we are, when we're having so much fun when we make these albums, its not until so much later when we listen back and think, "oh yeah, we're dark as shit", and totally get it. 

That's surprising to hear that you're not in that dark place when you write some of the songs?
There are some songs, like Sorrow. I do find digging into those emotional things and the melodrama of your personal, emotional being exciting and cathartic. A really moving sad song leaves you with one of the most pleasant euphoric feelings, like Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave or Dylan, it's the really sad ones that make you feel so connected to other people in the universe.

My favourite lyric is 'you know I've dreamed about you for 29 years before I saw you'. What's the lyric that you're most proud of?
I'm happy I wrote the line about being a ballerina with my cock in my hand, I'm just happy that I left that in the record, I have a particular pride in that. The lyrics I like are the ones that sound the most saccharine yet you pull off a line about loving somebody but do it in a fresh way. To say 'I love you' in a way that feels authentic, that's really hard.

What about the line that I just mentioned?
Yeah I guess so, but it's hard for me to think of one line. I'm really feeling good about the lyrics on the new record, I liked going into larger, cosmic things, heaven and mortality and some of the more abstract ideas that I was digging into. It's really dangerous territory because you sound like an idiot, but I couldn't resist. I enjoyed freefalling into that empty space of cosmic unknown. I was kind of proud of that.

What lyric do you wish you'd written?
I think Leonard Cohen's Famous Blue Raincoat is like, the pinnacle in my head of song writing. That song feels like it could be a novel, a four-minute novel, you don't know exactly what happens but there's so much mystery. That song blows my mind, it doesn't feel like a song to me, it feels like some other thing, some higher work of art. 

Who is your hero, who would you most like to meet?
When people say 'if you could meet anybody' I actually don't want to meet my favourite. I've had opportunities to meet Nick Cave and it's okay, I don't need to, there's no reason why I need to meet Nick Cave. It's not like I want to be friends with Nick Cave, although I'm sure he's a wonderful man. I like that Nick Cave has this special place, he's not a human, I don't want him to be a human being, I want him to be a legend, to be a ghost, it's so much more fun.

Who would you most like to see play live?
I figure I'd love to go back to one of those early Sex Pistol shows or something, or Joy Division, that kind thing, and see something when its new and strange and just first walking out into the world. That's the most amazing exciting thing to see.  I saw The Strokes play one of their first shows in New York. I remember I had that same feeling that everyone else was feeling. That first song, from that first album for the first time, you just couldn't believe it, what a fucking amazing band. If you could ask me if I could go back in time, I'd probably go and see that first Strokes show again in New York.

The National perform at The O2 on the 26th of November.

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Text Ger Tierney