Mar­riage is dif­fi­cult. It’s some­thing that has to be worked on, by both peo­ple. There are times when you feel as though it can’t con­tinue

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE -

It is mid-morn­ing in Los An­ge­les and Matt Berninger is at home en­joy­ing the last few days of peace be­fore he cranks his band up for a glo­be­trot­ting tour in sup­port of their lat­est al­bum. The Na­tional are a band of brothers who in­spire near-re­li­gious de­vo­tion and there’s much ex­cite­ment build­ing on the strength of Sleep Well Beast, their newly re­leased sev­enth al­bum and one that’s been col­lect­ing eu­phoric re­views.

Berninger is heart­ened and re­lieved that it’s res­onat­ing with fans and crit­ics, and sug­gests that while its lyri­cal pre­oc­cu­pa­tions may be as dark as any al­bum they’ve yet re­leased — and cap­tures some of the angst caused by “that f ***ing Nazi-sym­pa­this­ing moron in the White House” — this al­bum has ar­guably been the most straight­for­ward they’ve made.

“We’re all liv­ing in dif­fer­ent cities — and dif­fer­ent con­ti­nents, in some cases — so it was a case of when we get to­gether, we re­ally make the most of our time. So, now when we’re record­ing to­gether, there’s a real fo­cus and in­ten­sity. We have these long ses­sions now where we ba­si­cally do noth­ing but make mu­sic. We can’t let our­selves get dis­tracted. When we were mak­ing Boxer [re­leased in 2007], we were all liv­ing in Brook­lyn just up the road from the stu­dio and there was none of that ur­gency.”

The al­bum may well be the most per­sonal that Berninger has made, and sev­eral of the songs ex­plore the dif­fi­cul­ties he has faced in his mar­riage. He’s can­did about this. “Mar­riage is dif­fi­cult,” he says. “It’s some­thing that has to be worked on, by both peo­ple. There are times when you feel as though it can’t con­tinue, and oth­ers where it can be sal­vaged, and I wanted to ex­plore all that.”

Berninger’s wife is Carin Besser, a for­mer edi­tor with the New Yorker and a for­mi­da­ble artist in her own right. “She worked on the lyrics with me,” he says. “And she’s had an in­put into the lyrics I’ve writ­ten since Boxer. She’s a writer, so it makes sense for me to talk to her about lyrics, to tease them out.”

The songs are re­mark­able. ‘Day I Die’ looks at some­thing that af­flicts all of those in shaky re­la­tion­ships — will their loved one be still with them at life’s end? The heart­break­ing ‘Dark Side of the Gym’ has Berninger croon­ing that he will try to “keep you in love with me for a while”, but there’s a sense that it will be im­pos­si­ble to halt the in­evitable.

‘Carin at the Liquor Store’ is even bleaker. “Blame it on me,” he sings. “I re­ally don’t care/ It’s a fore­gone con­clu­sion.” Berninger can af­ford a chuckle now. “It’s me singing her name — and the em­pha­sis is on the ‘in’, be­cause she pro­nounces her name dif­fer­ently than peo­ple might imag­ine.”

He’s writ­ten about his wife di­rectly in the past. ‘Karen’ a stand out from 2005’s Al­li­ga­tor of­fered an es­pe­cially mem­o­rable cou­plet. “Tie me to a chair/ F*** me and make me a drink” He laughs when re­minded of the lyric, and says Carin had no ob­jec­tions at the time.

It’s un­usual to in­ter­view a mod­ern-day rock star — and that’s what this book­ish, some­what nerdish fig­ure has be­come over the past decade — and lis­ten to them talk un­guard­edly about their fam­ily. But then, he, Carin and their adorable daugh­ter Isla starred in a TV ad­vert for Sonos speak­ers, and his en­tire fam­ily fea­tured in the much-praised Mis­taken for Strangers doc­u­men­tary four years ago.

Di­rected by his brother Tom and co-pro­duced by Carin, what seem­ingly started out as a con­ven­tional band-on-the-road rock­u­men­tary mor­phed into a story about two brothers — one a fa­mous, suc­cess­ful front­man, the other an Ev­ery­man caught in his slip­stream. It made for un­com­fort­able view­ing on oc­ca­sion, but its in­her­ent hon­esty en­sured it was im­pos­si­ble to turn away. Berninger didn’t al­ways cut the most like­able of fig­ures, but he says he had no re­grets mak­ing it and says its truth­ful­ness is cen­tral to much of who he is.

And it’s that raw hon­esty that makes The Na­tional’s mu­sic so com­pelling. “Pretty much ev­ery­thing I write is about my own per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence,” he says. “Some of it is height­ened per­haps, but I’m not one for hid­ing about fic­tional char­ac­ters.”

Berninger has long drawn from the well of fam­ily and child­hood, and the talks at length about the in­spi­ra­tion for the melan­cholic ‘Val Jester’, a song he wrote more than a dozen years ago. “Peo­ple are com­plex be­ings,” he says. “My un­cle Val was this man I had happy thoughts of when I was a child, but I dis­cov­ered later that some of his views were dis­turb­ing. There was ho­mo­pho­bia and racism there.” This fam­ily mem­ber is named again in ‘Day I Die’.

Like the other mem­bers of The Na­tional — Aaron and Bryce Dess­ner and Scott and Bryan Deven­dorf — Berninger grew up in Cincin­nati, Ohio, but their mu­sic only started tak­ing shape on mov­ing to Brook­lyn at the be­gin­ning of the 2000s. It was a fer­tile time for mu­sic from New York, although The Na­tional’s sound bore lit­tle sim­i­lar­ity to the post­punk in­spired mu­sic be­ing made by con­tem­po­raries the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

But, in re­cent years, as fam­ily life has taken a front seat, New York has been left be­hind. “We moved to LA about four years ago, just af­ter Trou­ble Will Find Me was done, and it’s our nest now.

“But” — he adds with a laugh — “no­body could ac­cuse me of be­ing a Cal­i­for­nian just yet.”

His Ohio roots re­main in­tact and his re­li­gious up­bring­ing con­tin­ues to in­form his songs. “I was

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