From the Montreal Gazette, fantastic interview:
MONTREAL - The National's fifth full-length album, High Violet, has met with across-the-board praise since its release in May and has provided a springboard for a lengthy tour that brings the Brooklyn quintet to Montreal's Osheaga Music and Arts Festival on July 31. For full information on the festival (which continues Aug. 1), see www.osheaga.com.
The Gazette's Jordan Zivitz spoke to National singer Matt Berninger shortly after High Violet's release. Here's a transcript of the interview.
Gazette: It seems like a lot of bands recording a follow-up to a successful album try hard not to repeat what they did the previous time. Did you have any of that going into High Violet from Boxer?
Matt Berninger: Well, we had some of that going into both Boxer and High Violet. The funny thing is, we thought we went pretty far away from Boxer with High Violet. But I think when you have the same five people making music, we didn't reinvent ourselves necessarily. But we were trying in some cases to avoid the sort of stately elegance of Boxer. We were trying to rough it up a little bit and make it a little uglier and a little more cathartic, and a little less distant and more direct. Whatever exactly that means. But yeah, we did try to do stuff like that.
Gazette: When you said "stately elegance," I couldn't tell if there was a note of distaste in your voice. Do you look at that side of Boxer as something you lost the taste for?
Berninger: No, not necessarily lost the taste for, but we just wanted to not repeat Boxer. Boxer has a very specific kind of personality. It wasn't designed necessarily that way from the beginning - it just turned out to have a kind of a vibe, a personality, that was really special, and we didn't want to try to recapture that. We were trying to go into some other dark corners, slightly new territory for us. And we didn't know what kind of territory that was going to be, but we did try doing things a little bit differently and we tried to avoid some of our habits, I guess, with High Violet and tried to discover some new things. I was saying I don't think we reinvented ourselves necessarily - we just stretched ourselves and went into some new places within the small world of The National, I guess. And it was really satisfying. A lot of that is the guitar tones, avoiding fingerpicking songs, even though Runaway does a lot of that. And then I was focusing a lot more on melody than I ever had in the past, trying to find these more active, moving melodies and less of my mumble-talk singing that I've done a lot of. That was just the way I would naturally sing the song, but this time I was trying to not worry about words so much and find more infectious, catchy melodies for the stuff before I even thought at all about any words or themes or ideas of what the songs would be about. I think that has made the record feel for us like a new thing. I think we were all happy with the discoveries and the development of the band, of ourselves, of whatever.
Gazette: That idea of focusing more on melodies ... not that it's you vs. the rest of the band, but did that align your songwriting more with the other members?
Berninger: Well, I've always been sort of in charge of the vocal melody; as far as musically, we all chime in. But this one, it was just my own desire to find new things, singing in high registers. I never thought that much about melody before High Violet. Mostly it was just getting the words and trying to get the ideas, and the feeling and the delivery. How you tell a story or how you sing a song or how you tell a joke is much more important than the words of the joke. And I would try a million different ways in the past. And a lot of the time I was never really worried about whether it was a quote-unquote "good" melody, you know? That never seemed that important to me. Just, does it sound real? Does it sound forced? I'm always trying to avoid something that sounds too forced. But this time I actually started thinking, well, maybe I should think more about melody. Just for something new. And I still sing the way I sing - I'm not exactly David Bowie on these songs - but I do think there are things in a lot of the songs that we might not have done before, because this time around I put the lyrics aside and didn't worry about those until I felt like the song was going to be good even without words. And the truth is, the harder part was getting words to work in a song that didn't ruin the melody. And that's a weird thing. Sometimes if the song lyrically is too written or over-thought or too detailed or too specific, or whatever, a great melody can sound terrible with the wrong words - and vice versa. So the lyrics ended up being in some cases more difficult than any of our other records, because often some of the stuff I was writing made the melody sound silly. When two things are kind of playing the same role, they conflict with each other. These things have to be dance partners; they can't both lead. And that's always the trick, I think, with songs: realizing that the song or the melody is doing a lot of the heavy lifting, and so sometimes the words need to stay out of the way. Or just give enough that it gives a bit of an image or a bit of an idea, but let the melody and the music fill in the rest of the colour. I think when it comes to the writing, the hard part is figuring out how to take away stuff and how to not overwrite the songs.
Gazette: So would you get no pleasure out of writing in a more florid style? I mean, I'm a huge Nick Cave fan, but he definitely draws attention to his own lyrics.
Berninger: Well, Nick Cave is one of my heroes, and you can hear that in my songwriting, the way he can be brutal and hilarious and fearful and vicious, all within the space of two lines. He can go everywhere. But sometimes his stuff does seem extremely written, and I think he writes a lot and he writes fast and he's a genius. Well ... I don't know how fast he writes. But it does seem like he just spills awesome ideas. It's never-ending. With me, it's a much slower gushing process. Some of my favourite lyricists do things that I love, but also do things that I want to avoid. I mean, Bob Pollard is one of my favourite lyricists, but there are certain things he does that I try to avoid doing. I don't want the songs to be abstract poetry or refrigerator magnet poetry. And that's what Bob Pollard does. He does more than that, but he'll put a street sign next to a Burger King slogan next to a Dylan Thomas quote. He'll stitch things together in wild ways to see what kind of tension he'll create by weaving those together. Sometimes what he's doing, I think you can hear the randomness in it. And I guess I'm trying to avoid a little bit of that. That is where the weird energy happens, with the juxtaposition of types of phrases, but I scrutinize them to the point of the minutiae of those connections, and it takes a long, long, long time. And I don't know necessarily what I'm looking for when I'm looking for it, but I do it until it feels right. It's not a quick, random stream-of-consciousness process by any means. The collecting of ideas is more like that. But the fine-tuning of the lyrics for a final song is a much more deliberate and calculated and slow process.
Gazette: So do you come across lines that you love but wonder if they really fit a song? That line "I was afraid I would eat your brains" leaped out at me in Conversation 16 ... it seems hilarious or out of place at first, but then if you look at it in another light it seems really poignant.
Berninger: Yeah, that's an example where that song needed a torque. It needed a weirdo torque for the rest of the song to work. The whole record, actually, needed that sort of bizarro absurdity. For me, a song can't just be a bunch of awesome phrases, awesome one-liners. I fill books with things that I put three stars next to - like "oh, that's so amazing, what a great line," but it'll never work in a song, because sometimes you have too much. It's too "all caps." There are lines that you can tell when it was written you gave yourself a high five. Those very rarely work in songs, because they sound overwritten. So it's a combination of the fragments that just hint at something, plus you've got to put a sincere heart on your sleeve - earnest things right next to the absurd jackass moments. You have to have them both for most of our songs to work. There are occasions when you can just go straight down the middle with a song - like Runaway, it's very direct. It's got a little abstract imagery, where I'm not even sure what the flood is or what the swallowing of the sun is, and all that kind of stuff. It's abstract, but it feels like it means something very, very important, and that's why it works with the rest of this simple song about devotion and about loyalty. So that one doesn't have any goofball moments, but in the context of the record that song plays a very important role. It's a big puzzle piece and a big part of getting the balance of stuff. The "eat your brains" line, when I first put that in the song, right towards the end, I think the other guys bristled at that a little bit, because they felt, "Well, that just sounds ridiculous." But now I think that's become one of their favourite lines because in the context of all the songs, it's both funny and sweet. There's something tender about it. It's obviously not about zombies or cannibalism - it's about how you're afraid that you're going to mess somebody up. You're afraid that you're going to somehow make someone screw up their inner beauty by being a boring asshole or something. You're afraid that you're going to bring them down with you. That's kind of what I hear in that moment of that song now. Anyways, so it's a slow process of getting just the right plates spinning on the right levels, and getting them all going for them to work with each other the right way. Create a balancing act.
Gazette: You're talking musically as well as lyrically, right?
Berninger: Yeah, definitely. Bloodbuzz (Ohio) is an example where if it weren't for the way Bryan (Devendorf) plays the drums, that song would be a completely different song. I sing it almost in a gentle croon, and the fact that he's just slamming it at 100 miles an hour with this force, it creates this tension. And what those guys are doing with the guitars and the horns and pulling it all in a different way ... a lot of our songs have that. I mean, I guess that's what any band does ... a bunch of people playing different instruments and putting stuff together, it's always trying to find that alchemy. It's like making the perfect meal, the perfect banquet, where you need just the right amount of salt and the right amount of wine and the right amount of meat. It takes a long, long time to find that balance. And with us, because nobody's in charge, nobody knows what we're trying to cook in the first place. So it's a slow process of us all pushing and pulling in different directions until we start to find those places where it starts to balance. It starts to work. I think that's why it takes us a year and a half to make a record. I mean, we weren't being lazy. I don't feel like we were working slowly at all. I felt like we were working non-stop for a year and a half, and it still just took that long. And we even felt like we didn't have enough time and we had to hurry it up at the end. But that's just the way it's always been with us.
Gazette: Do you sometimes fight against your instinct, or try to write counterintuitively? You mentioned Bloodbuzz Ohio, which seems like a song where you could have easily lapsed into your Abel or Mr. November scream.
Berninger: Right. Even if it feels like something that we've done before, if it feels right, we won't over-think it too much. We try not to be overly cerebral about it, and if something just feels good, we'll follow it, even if it might be footsteps we've walked in before. But if it feels like we've done it before, it's got to be really, really good for us to do it again. In Bloodbuzz, there was a moment after the choruses where the guitars are playing this hocketing rhythm - dun-dun dun-dun dun-dun da-da-da-da dun-da-dun - that used to be all done with horns and trombones, and it was this really powerful brass moment.
Gazette: Like the end of Fake Empire?
Berninger: Exactly. It was great. And it was a major part of the song, and it was in the very last days of making this record when Aaron (Dessner) and I were like, "You know what? It's awesome, but we've just got to get rid of it, because it's like Fake Empire 2.0 in that moment." And the truth is, what happens with the horns at the end of Fake Empire is better. And that was one of the biggest battles we had, because people had been listening to it with this really powerful horn part for months. And Peter Katis, who was mixing, and the other guys thought we were committing suicide with that song by taking those horns out. But that's an example where, yeah, it did sound great. It was really, really good. But that was definitely a shirt we had worn before, and we looked better in it last time. But we knew we could find a different way of creating a really powerful instrumental moment in that song, so I'm really glad that we went with the guitars, the way the guitars are playing that aggressive role. It's this dark, weird, floaty song, and then with the horns, all of a sudden it turned into this party moment. So the personality didn't feel right, either. Those are the type of things that I think happen in every single song over and over again, for the whole course of writing something. I think that's the main thing that makes us a pretty good band: we will throw away good things to try to find something a tiny bit better. We do that a lot. We also will not worry too much about the song being kooky or academically weird. Sometimes we'll embrace simplicity, or what you might think is simplistic. But there's a big difference between simple and simplistic, and we'll go ahead and pursue something very simple and develop it in a way without trying to be avant-garde or an indie-rock art-school project. I don't know ... we do both. At the same time, there's a side of us that will pursue complex orchestration along with the ugly garage-y moments. I think we value both of those perspectives on the song.
Gazette: And having a simple arrangement doesn't preclude having a lot of complexity woven into it. It took me a few listens to Runaway before I really got what the brass was doing.
Berninger: Right. And a good example is the song Afraid of Everyone, which if you strip away some of the vocal melodies and some of the things, the backing vocals that Sufjan (Stevens) did, and you take away everything except for the guitars and drums, it's kind of what we would refer to as a meatball song. Without those things, it's musically simplistic. But we know you can take some of those things and then bend that with those other elements to turn those things into a really good foundation. And it took a long time for that song to become not just a stupid meatball song. But now it's one of my favourite songs on the record. I think it's one of the most interesting, both musically and lyrically. But it started out from something that could easily be described as just stupid music. Aaron did describe it that way to me, in fact. He sent me a sketch that had three parts to it, and I took out the two parts he thought were interesting and looped the one part he thought was stupid, and that was the basis for that song. He was a little shocked and dismayed that that was one of the songs that we were going to work on, because Aaron sent me 60, 70 different sketches and that was probably his least favourite. And I devoted all this time to it and he was a little bummed that I was throwing away other songs to pursue Afraid of Everyone. But there was just something about it that I was attached to: the simple guitar progression and the vocal melody I was doing that I knew, with work, we could make into something great. And it took work. But I think we did. My point is that we trust each other. Even though at first he thought it was a waste of time, Aaron trusted me and the fact that if I'm hearing something in that song, there must be something there and we'll find it. And then I'll trust him. On the other side of it, the song Little Faith wasn't one of the ones I thought I would be able to write to, and I wasn't that attached to it, but it was a song that the other guys were really excited about, from the perspective of the music and just the basic sketch. So I trusted them and just kept working at that song. That's kind of how it works with us. There are arguments, but we'll also follow each other down these dark alleys. We're always willing to chase each other's whims.
Gazette: On Little Faith, the rhythm section sounds like the core of the song, but then there's a passage where it drops out and the mood completely changes. Is that the type of thing where the song can turn an unexpected corner for you?
Berninger: Yeah. That song wouldn't work without that moment where the bottom drops out and suddenly there's nothing but wide open space in something that a moment before was clattering forward with this frantic energy. That's one of those things where we knew we just needed to find those spots that would make the rest of the song work. One of the interesting things about Little Faith is, I think Bryce (Dessner) and Bryan just hit record and Bryce turned on his pedals, and that sound was already there from some old thing he was messing around with. It starts with just that loop, that guitar feedback loop, but that was a mistake. It wasn't something that he planned to do for the song. That was just happening, and then Bryan just started hitting the drums and Bryce on a beat started playing a rhythm, a different riff, and I think most of what you hear on the record was that very first moment of chaos, trying to figure out how to turn the buttons on to start working on a song, and those guys, without thinking, just recording something. And I know Bryan spent a lot of time trying to redo those drums, because I think maybe the fidelity of the recording wasn't great, but he never actually was able to replay those drums in a way that sounded as effortless and spontaneous. Because it was only spontaneous that one moment. And he was never able to top it, I think. That was one of the other things that was different about this record, is that since we had our own studio, we had the luxury to just press record every time we walked in and turned the lights on. We would just keep everything. And because of that, we were able to keep those sorts of moments like on Little Faith, or on Terrible Love - the guitar tone that starts out the whole record was kind of just from the demo.
Gazette: When that song came on, I wasn't sure what the album was going to be like. I thought, "They've gone really dirty and grungy." Was it a pointed decision to put that at the top of the album?
Berninger: No, we didn't think of it as a statement at all. It's just where it sounded best. We were trying to put together the sequence; it took us weeks and weeks trying to figure out the sequence. And putting that song first wasn't a moment of "let's freak people out and do something controversial or ugly at the beginning." We never thought of it that way. We thought the song sounded awesome there. And that song's weird, because when we started playing it live, it started to find a different sonic vibe. And then we played it live on television - it was the first song I think anybody heard at all, and it sounds very different to the recorded version, and people got really attached to it. And the truth is, it has become I think one of the best songs that we play live. And it sounds different than the record. And people would argue that live sounds better than the record. Live it has a tighter, less chaotic, less ugly low-fidelity vibe than the record version. But yeah, the record version, we never actually thought of it as being that bad. (Laughs) It wasn't until we played it better on TV that people, when they finally heard the version on the record, were kind of disappointed. At first. I think people have grown to like it both ways. But yeah, that was never a strategic play by any means. We had no idea how that song was going to turn out when we play it live. We just wait and see what the record is going to end up like, and we don't have much perspective on it until much, much later.
Gazette: I remember three of High Violet's songs being played at your last Montreal show, in May of last year - Runaway, Bloodbuzz Ohio and Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks. When you preview songs live, does it strengthen your impression of how they should be approached, or does it make you less certain?
Berninger: That's a good question. Bloodbuzz was a song we played live a lot before we figured out a recorded version, and that was one of those cases where we were playing it live with that horn fanfare stuff I mentioned, and that was how we thought the song should be. But when we cut it in the studio, I think the fact that we had been playing it like that for so long was one of the reasons why it was hard to let go of something that was an identifying part of its character, just from the live show. We've never been a band that wants to capture what we sound like live on the record, or vice versa, try to perform the way that the song sounds on the record. But it's often the case where the songs that we play live will sometimes blind us a little bit. When we play it live for so long, it will sometimes blind us to what's good about it, or the other possibilities of directions in which to take that song, because it gets ground into our head one way. And sometimes it isn't that great of a song yet. So sometimes we have to work backwards to forget about what kind of song we think it is. That was the case with a bunch of them that we had been playing together. But we don't know. I also think on another level that in some cases it really helps to find a new energy for a song by playing it live before you record it. We haven't settled on any one way of doing anything. We just know we'll keep exploring and keep trying different ideas until we have 11 or 12 songs that we think are great. That's the only strategy we've ever had.
Gazette: You played a considerably larger room each of the three times you came to Montreal after the release of Boxer. Do you miss the smaller venues, or are you happy to move on and upward?
Berninger: Well, there is something kind of amazing about being in a small room that's packed and hot, but to be perfectly honest, we played to really small rooms for a long, long, long, long time, and no, I don't miss it that much anymore. And we'll still do that. We just did three shows in Brooklyn before the record came out at this small place called Bell House, and a couple of shows also at this little store. We'll do some of that stuff. But no, we're happy we're playing at some of these bigger places. And some of the theatres and venues we're playing are just so beautiful. The BAM Opera House (in Brooklyn) or a lot of these places just feel really good. So no, I don't miss it that much. And Massey Hall (in Toronto) is one of those famous, iconic places we've been dying to someday get to a point where we can play. The small places have an awesome vibe about them, but am I bummed we're playing places like Massey Hall and Radio City and Royal Albert Hall? No. I love it. It's awesome. Scary, but awesome.
Go Here to Download live versions of Terrible Love and Runaway. I am particularly intrigued by this version of Terrible Love.
Go Here for to Download "I'm Afraid of Everyone" with Sufjan on Letterman
Go Here for a live version of Vanderlyle Crybaby Geek
Go Here for that Bloodbuzz horn ending he discussed, I like the album version better.