Interview: Matt Berninger of The National talks about 'Serpentine Prison'

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Matt Berninger catches up with Jade about his debut solo record 'Serpentine Prison'. (MPR)

Last month Matt Berninger of The National released his debut solo record, Serpentine Prison on Book Records, a new imprint formed by Berninger and Booker T. Jones in conjunction with Concord Records. Jade caught up with Matt about working with Booker as a producer, and how he's been spending his free time lately. (Hint: It includes Bear Grylls videos.)

Interview Transcript

JADE: Hey, it's Jade, inviting you to another Current virtual session, and today, we are joined by the frontman of The National, who now has his own solo record, it's called "Serpentine Prison." It is Matt Berninger. And thank you so much for joining us today. And I want to say, this has been such a weird sort of reset time for a lot of people, and how are you dealing with that?

MATT BERNINGER: Yeah, I am resetting, too. I'm rewiring. I'm adjusting. I like being home this much; I do like that a lot. But it's hard. It is hard not to see people in person that much. It's hard not to see people's faces; only people's eyes. It's hard not to be able to go be with and around people in restaurants and in subways, and I find that really alienating and unstabilizing -- or destabilizing. So that part of it's rough. So I kind of swing back and forth between finding great sort of comfort in just being home and trying to rethink how to approach, you know, life or whatever, you know, everything!

Yeah.

And then also just really missing the simple things, yeah.

Yeah. I think it's weirdly a combination of being grateful for all the little things and discovering those little things in your life, and then, just missing things so much. But one of the things that has been a comfort is all of these new albums that we've gotten this year from people, and listening to new music. And you do have a new album, and a solo album! I've always been a huge fan of the National, and you guys have played together for several decades at this point...

Two. Two decades.

...So what was it like going into a room with a whole new team?

Well, it was interesting because almost everybody who I worked with for my solo album I've either worked with before or throughout the National, or I met and got to become a collaborator with through the National. So it feels like an extension, and everybody that I've worked with has worked with pretty much everybody, or at least toured with, everybody in the National and my other band stuff. In El VY also, is involved.

And when I'm in the studio with the National, there's a lot of people. The National doesn't feel like five guys, you know, anymore. So in some ways, it wasn't that big of a leap. The biggest difference was sort of the process. The National take their time, and it's a laboratory of experimenting and ideas. But this record, I kind of made really quick. I didn't overthink the songs too much when we recorded it in about two-and-a-half weeks. I just wanted to give it that quick, live feel. So the speed kind of at which we made it was the biggest difference, and that was really fun to move fast and loose and not overthink it. So just the process was different in that way.

And were these all new songs? This was nothing that you kind of had in your back pocket that you were kind of thinking about, but entirely, like, spur-of-the-moment writing?

It was a little of both. I think some of the songs, like the first original -- I started out making covers, I'd just wanted to do a record of covers with Booker [T Jones], but then I had a few originals that I had sort of laying around. And two of them, one of them was "Distant Access," that I had written with Walter Martin from the Walkmen, who I've been writing with for a long time; and another one was a song that I wrote with Michael Brewer, who was in my first band, Nancy, and I sent those to Booker, and he was just really, really excited about them, and he was in many ways more excited about those than the big collection of covers that I thought that I wanted to try to do with him. And so, once we added those to the mix, I just started writing more and adding more to the mix. So a lot of the songs were written, you know, with Booker's encouragement to write more, but you know, a lot of them, I'd had the lyrics or had half-baked ideas with all these different people that I didn't know what to do with. So Booker was sort of the unifying principle; he's like, "Let's focus on more of the originals and what else do you have," and then I just started working on those and with everybody. And so it switched to a record of originals kind of like that, organically. Yeah, I didn't have a plan in putting out a solo record until I had suddenly made one.

(laughs) The best things happen like that. And I'm curious about the Booker T connection, because it feels like you and Aaron [Dessner] and Bryce [Dessner], it's like you guys made a list of all of your favorites back in the day, and somehow, all of you are working with these heroes of yours. How did it come to be that you and Booker T Jones got to know each other, and now he's producing the album? The organ playing on there is really beautiful on the new record, too.

I would say the National has allowed us to just cross paths and meet so many people. You know, R.E.M. and Bruce Springsteen and, you know, all these incredible artists. And I think the way I got to meet Booker was because he asked me to sing with Sharon Jones, no relation, but the late Sharon Jones, on his album, and we did a duet called "Representing Memphis," and that was about 12 years ago.

I met him and just really had a good time in the studio with him and got to meet his wife, and I just really thought he was just a really fun person to be around. But I didn't keep in contact with Booker; it wasn't until about 10 years later that I was listening to Willie Nelson's "Stardust," which is a record I love, and I flipped it over and saw that he produced and arranged that, and I was like, "I've always wanted to make a covers record; Booker produced and arranged my favorite covers record -- and I know him!" You know? And so I reached out to him again after 10 years, and I said, "Hey, would you want to do this?" And right away, he was like, "I would love to." That's how it started. Yeah, I kind of pinch myself. Yeah. So many amazing -- I mean, because of the National and that success and that, we've met Presidents and we've performed for astronauts in space and we've hung out with Michael Stipe on Halloween! I can't believe the things that have happened. Yeah.

Yeah, it's surreal. What's been the most surreal? Was it Presidents or was it Michael Stipe on Halloween? And also, sidenote: What did he wear as a Halloween costume?

The Obamas were up there, too.

Yeah! And Obama.

Well, Michael Stipe wore -- he dressed as a banana. He was King Banana.

Perfect.

It was in Berlin, and we all just made costumes out of whatever was around, and I think we all went as sort of like punks with Mohawks and you know, whatever. British Invasion punks or something. And he was King Banana, and we just kind of followed him around Berlin all night.

As you do.

Yeah. It was amazing. I mean, like all of these things are surreal. Yeah. But then they're also you can't believe it's happening, but then it's also just kind of like any other night, you know? Kind of looking for the party; "Aw, this party," you know, hard to find where you're supposed to go. And Michael Stipe still is out there struggling to find euphoria the same way we all are, you know?

Yeah, well, if anything, I think this pandemic has humanized so many people that people look up to. I mean, the fact that we're doing this sort of interview where I'm in your space. We are in a place that is a comfort to you that perhaps you never thought people were going to see.

This is all a projection behind me. This is all -- I designed this in Roblox. (laughter)

Yeah. MS Paint behind you right now.

Yeah! (laughs)

But I do want to go back to those covers that you've been doing, because this was supposed to be a covers album, and if you do get the deluxe edition of the album, you do get to see some of those covers. There's a great Velvet Underground cover; Morphine I dig a lot, so I'm glad you did their cover as well. But thinking about those covers, how do you approach covers? Why did you pick those songs, and why did those ones still end up on the album?

It's funny. I had a list of like 30 things I wanted to cover, and we just kind of started with those, and that's kind of as far as we got, because we started working on originals. And why did we start with those? I think Booker really like those when I shared it. There's a Bettye Swann cover -- she didn't even write it; I can't remember who wrote it -- but I fell in love with her version of "Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye," so I covered that. A lot of it was, when you cover another song, regardless of how simple you think the song is or how many times you've sung along to it, it's a whole different thing of actually, you know, stepping into that outfit and going out into the world and wearing those clothes. You know what I'm saying?

I learned a lot about melody. I learned a lot about my voice by trying to sing someone else's songs and someone else's melodies and someone else's rhythms. I learned about rhythm. When you try to copy something, you really discover what you don't know -- you know? -- about that thing that you thought that you knew so well. You just learn more. That's kind of why I wanted to do it. And it's just fun to perform really well-written songs. It's like, "Oh! Like great songs, even I can make this song sound good it's so good." You know?

Yeah. I think it was Brian Eno who said that's a great way to break out of the trouble spots that you fall into with your own songwriting, those ruts that you fall into. That it's a great way to break out, is by doing some cover songs.

Do you find that you are drawn more to cover songs or are you writing right now? Because I think the pandemic can kind of go two different ways, because I've seen so many artists this year releasing covers, and maybe that has something--

Mm, yeah. I was just talking about that with [touring band member] James [McAlister] the other day. A lot of people are, yeah. It's interesting. I think people are finding comfort in music throughout this. I definitely have. There's been so many new songs I've never heard before from new artists I've never heard before, or old songs that I'm just allowing myself to maybe sit in more or spend more time with, just because, I don't know, there's a lot of time to figure out what you're going to do with. And I mean, I've been reading books again! Other than just, like, airplane magazines. So I suspect people are just realizing some of the universal truths in all these old songs that made them the songwriters or the people they are, you know? And so many beautifully written songs that are well-written songs apply to these moments we're in right now, even though they could not foresee where we would be in the world today, right? Just a good song that's truthful about a person's anxieties or their desires or their fears resonate right now with all this stuff. All good songs feel like they were written for whatever moment you're in. I'm discovering that. Even my record, "Serpentine Prison," has nothing to do with the pandemic. All those songs were written before that. I don't know. It's a funny thing. I'm connecting more with music and art, and it's providing a lot of solace and health.

Yeah. I've been saying that, because I feel more grounded -- at first, I did not, but now I've sort of fallen into a way to keep myself healthy and stable -- but I also feel like I am a grandma these days, because all I do is I read, I puzzle,

Wow, a puzzler!

Yeah, hardcore puzzling! I get very frustrated with it, so I'm not a natural puzzler, but I'm, like, playing Settlers of Catan via Zoom with friends. So just to, like, give myself solace, what's the dorkiest thing, the least cool thing, that you have found yourself doing during this downtime?

I've been watching a lot of fishing videos on YouTube. There's a guy named Bear Grylls. And I've also been doing a little fishing. I haven't been doing any catching of fish; I've just been standing at the water fishing. Which still counts as fishing. It doesn't feel dorky, but definitely the watching of the fishing videos, I'm like, "What?? This is -- what am I doing?"

It feels very zen is what that sounds like.

Yeah! It's nice. It's nice. It's thrilling to stand at the point-of-view of a camera of somebody reeling in a stingray. And he's just fishing off the coast in, like, somewhere in northern California. I think near Oakland or something, or San Francisco. And he just goes up and down, just like his neighborhood, and just fishes where he lives, and just tells you how to fish. It's fun. It's not like, out on a boat; it's just a guy who goes to his local spots with a tackle box and a rod, and different rods, and just shows you how to catch fish off a pier. It's just great. And it's easy.

It feels like that's a metaphor for something. Maybe.

Yeah. I think most people, you know, surfing or fishing or hiking, all those things are simply a way to touch nature and get back to the sort of, just the water and the earth and the things. Because we spend so much time -- we don't even touch the ground. We don't touch dirt, sometimes. Especially, I lived in Brooklyn, New York, for almost 20 years, and I realized you can go months without actually your feet touching sand or dirt or hands touching a plant sometimes! You know?

We are animals, and I think that people do stuff like that just to sort of connect with the planet. Not to catch a fish. It's more to stare at the water, you know?

Yeah. And we've all been doing a lot more of that these days, of connecting! Hopefully in a new and unusual, perhaps, way. But to close this out here because I know you've got other things to do, we've been talking a lot about independent venues, and saving our stages, and how is this ecosystem that we've built in the music industry going to sustain itself? And so, when you daydream about being back on a stage somewhere, what is that stage that you daydream you're back on?

Well, you just made me daydream about First Avenue right now. I mean, I've done a ton of shows there, you know? I remember being backstage there with everybody getting ready, tiny little backstage with Justin Vernon and everybody and all crammed back in there. I remember changing shirts, and it's all hot and sweaty. Yeah, I remember climbing up this -- yeah, the National's probably played in 500, 600 venues around the world, maybe. I think we counted New York alone, we'd performed in 35 or 40 different venues over the course of, you know -- half of 'em are gone.

Those places are churches. Those places are where I learned how to think about life. Those are where I met my friends. I met my wife leaning against a jukebox. You know, music bars, clubs are where I have found my whole world. It's my religion, you know? And I have faith in it, and I believe it. I'm also Catholic, you know. Sort of, you know. But music and those venues and clubs and bars have been my churches, for sure. So yeah, I miss them desperately. Yeah.

Yeah. Well, hopefully, we all get back to church sometime soon. And we'll welcome you back to Minnesota as soon as we are able to. Matt, thank you so much for making the time to talk to us.

Thank you, Jade. This is awesome. Thanks.

Yeah, thank you. And Matt has that new album, it's Serpentine Prison; you can pick it up now. We've been listening to it a lot on The Current. And I want to do a quick thank-you to Jesse Wiza and to Derrick Stevens for producing this. And thank you for watching and check back in for the next Current Virtual Session.

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