The National's Matt Berninger Talks About Fatherhood and Avoiding Expectations

Categories: Interviews

Deirdre O'Callaghan
If we can measure a band's success in terms of bigwig festival slots and NPR features -- and let's face it, we can -- The National just may be the "It" alternative band of the year.

They'll play South Side Ballroom this Saturday -- their biggest headlining show to date in Dallas. It's interesting timing, because The National have never cared less about the spotlight.

It's been 12 years since The National released their self-titled debut album. With six albums now under their belts, including this year's Trouble Will Find Me, the Ohio-bred New Yorkers have expedited their slow but steady progress on their climb toward the top, and with this new view comes a new perspective.

"Nobody had heard of us until recently," frontman Matt Berninger says. "At least that's what it seemed like."

As so often happens, people began caring more about The National as the band began caring less about what people thought of them.

Thanks to Berninger's distinctively brooding baritone voice, The National are sometimes pegged with some annoyingly absolute labels. For years, the band has tried like hell to shed these all-encompassing categorizations by vowing to keep each record sounding uniquely fresh.

"With all our other records," Berninger explains, "our main conscious goal has been not painting ourselves into corners."

Trouble Will Find Me is a significant album for the band, in terms of both its members' personal growth and their collective creative freedom. But it has taken years for the band to make headway on this front.

"While writing [2007 album] Boxer," Berninger says, "we were under a lot of pressure to write Alligator 2, and have a bunch of songs where I scream my head off, like I did on 'Mr. November.'

"We made a conscious effort not to repeat that on Boxer, however, because I felt like if we did, then we'd be known as 'the band with the guy who screams his head off,'" he says, laughing. "I didn't want to paint us into that corner."

That hasn't stopped plenty of people from painting the band into some pretty specific corners - doing so, however, overlooks The National's hard-earned complexity and nuance.

"We made a conscious choice to try to maintain some longevity and keep the doors open," he says. "It was a gamble that paid off."

Berninger credits the atmosphere the band has achieved on its latest album to a loosened approach to production.

"Trouble definitely feels like a big shift," he says. "The difference is, its production was a less contentious creative process than it's been in the past. We actually weren't trying to avoid anything while making it, because we no longer cared about what label was stuck to our band," he says. "Whether it was 'Americana,' or 'Sad-Sack Romantic Melodrama,' or whatever, we just didn't care anymore."

Berninger's lyrics are smart, candid and romantic. They often read like poetic confessionals. He's known to write honest expressions of innermost fears and dutifully encompassing love, as well as comically witty views of habitual life.

"For whatever reason," he says, "I've never been afraid of being romantically melodramatic or earnest. I've always found the people who are willing to write the sentimental, weird love songs to be my favorites -- artists like Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Nick Cave and Cat Power -- people who dive into the emotional, broken, romantic twists and turns and ugly underbellies of romance. I'm definitely walking in their shadows."

Trouble explores new lyrical territories for Berninger, one of which is parenthood. His 4-year-old daughter, Isla, has shifted his perspective.

"On High Violet, I avoided writing about fatherhood," he says, "because I didn't want that to define the record. This time, I felt that less so. Trouble is the first record which having a child has influenced its writing. 'I Need My Girl,' for example, is about missing my daughter and wife."

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Berninger is a genius. One of the true poets of our time.

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