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
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