I've just found an old interview I did with The National's Matt prior to their Koko date, touring 'Alligator'
It's quite geekily centred around this record but after reading that Pitchfork interview I thought a few of you might like to read it. Apologies for the poor formatting, just ignore it...
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The National / Matt Berninger / 31st May at Koko
thw: So I presume you’re back over here because of the support slot on the “editors” shows?
m: yeah, we were about to go back into the studio when they asked us to do some shows, so it just felt right that we should play in front of the uk audiences and this show is sort of at the end.
thw: it’s been quite handy because I get the feeling that the last lot of shows kind of came around too quickly, as it seems to take a while for the album to grow on you?
m: yeah. We came over a couple of times, and we’d been over for our last record a lot too, but it seems “Alligator” very slowly, after it had been out for about 6 months, started catching on in different places. When we first booked this last show on our own it was gonna be at “the garage”, which is much smaller. And then it sold out really quickly, so they moved it up to “the scala”, and then that sold out so they moved it here and we were pleasantly surprised that there were that many more people that had caught onto the record. And so the whole cycle is ending on a very positive note for us.
thw: how did the “editors” dates go?
m: editors were really fun. There were huge crowds and not everybody there had heard of us obviously, but I think we were able to win people over a little bit and there’s also this thing that sometimes there’s less pressure when you’re opening for someone else and you’ve nothing to lose. It’s the shows when everywhere pays money to come and see you that worry that you’re going to fuck it up and lose fans. editors were really awesome, and the crowds were really receptive.
thw: cos you also toured with “clap your hands say yeah!” before on a joint tour, and that must have been quite weird as they seemed to “explode” overnight even though they were actually the support?
m: yeah, it was a definitely a funny, kind of awkward thing. We invited them to open for us on the tour and 6 months later their record became this phenomena, and some of the crowd just went to see them, and then left. I mean, it only happened at a few shows but it became, sort of the story, and when it was happening we thought: “well there’s nothing we can do”. You’d go out in the room to play and there’d be a lot fewer people in the room than for the band before but the whole press thing latching onto it ended up, in a weird way, doing a lot of good for us. Suddenly we were a legitimate, older band that was being overlooked, so we got a lot of attention for that. In fact we got a lot more attention from that than anything else, so it was quite funny. We’re good friends with them and had a really good time throughout the whole tour but it was funny for us to be reading the press; people were up in arms, and some were pissed that crowds were leaving after cyhsy. It was weird, but it gave us all a different kind of push and things changed a lot for us after that tour. Somehow there were lot more people paying attention than there was before.
thw: I was actually watching those itunes documentaries about the tour the other day and they seemed to almost pit you against them? One part you walk out of a venue, another time one of you look deflated in the back of a taxi when “cyhsy” get interviewed on the radio… but you’re both listed as top 8 mates on myspace?
m: yeah, we kind of had fun with that. In the American indie-rock blog sphere, it was this “battle of the bands”. We even ended up playing this big soccer match against them as if we hated each other…
thw: did you win?
m: we did win. We did very well. Probably because we cheated… Some of those guys are more footballers than we are though and into the game, but we played dirty…
thw: there was another interesting part of that documentary where one of the journalists said you were better than most other bands around because you were all older, and had “less time to get it right”
m: less time to get it right?
thw: yeah, in that you’ve maybe not got those earlier 5 or 6 years to knock about trying to make it big like some teenage bands do, and you get more commitments as you get older - especially as some of you are family members?
m: I never wanted to think of it that way… like we’ve less time because we’re gonna die sooner! But yeah… we’re 2 sets of brothers and me, and we grew up in cinncinati but we weren’t in a band then. After our day jobs we started to get together at weekends just for fun… we didn’t make a record and try to get signed or anything. We released it on our own and didn’t play out a lot, it was definitely just a hobby so we all had something to do to take our minds off work. And then our second album got an amazing amount of press - I mean not huge mainstream press, but it was this underground highly regarded record. So we went back in to make another record and that’s when beggars approached us. We’ve never had a big strategy or vision of how to become a popular band but we just started touring more and more and left our jobs because we realised we wouldn’t have many more opportunities to tour around the world and play your rock songs in say paris and rome; and so we threw away our normal lives for a while to chase that fantasy and we’re still in the middle of that chase
thw: so how does is work when you’re not recording or touring an album? Do you need to get other work or can you survive off the record sales?
m: we do a little bit of freelance stuff to help pay the rent, but we’re just now starting to barely make enough money to survive without having to do too much other work. Which is something we never dreamed of. It’s a nice spot to be in, but we all had to move to cheaper parts of Brooklyn and live off credit cards for a while; so we’re still deep in the red but it keeps getting better. We’ve never had any thoughts of it all exploding, like it does for a lot of bands, but its been a sort of slow process of word of mouth, creeping around people telling their friends about us. And that’s how we’ve started to gain our audience, which has been a long and slow process…
thw: it does seem like you’re one of those bands that you find out about through a friend and a bit of time. I think when I reviewed it, I said I liked the record a lot but didn’t quite love it. And then, 3 months later, several of us on the site realised we’d been listening to it every other day and had it in our end of year top 3 lists and had bought your whole back catalogue…
m: we’ve heard about it being a record that slowly grows on you and I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not, but people have all had that response to it. On first listen, its kind of an awkward album and it doesn’t quite fit into that “new york sound”, whatever that is, so people had to look it sideways for a while. But so many people have told us that…
I guess for us when we were making the songs, it was usually the ones which were a little awkward and different that we ended up liking the most and sticking with. The super-poppy ones got boring quickly, and we felt we’d heard it before and so we’d throw that sort of song away a lot. Maybe that’s why our records don’t have these instant hits on them!
thw: and you play down your loud side of things too. “abel” was your first single but is the only loud track on the whole record until the last track?
m: yeah, there’s a lot of quieter and more murky songs on it. They’re kind of crippled in little weird ways, which is why we like them. Those are the songs that stick with us longer. The immediate stuff feels like it could have been made by a whole lot of other bands, but it doesn’t sound like… us.
thw: how do you feel about “alligator” in hindsight? Is it your favourite record?
m: yeah I think? I’m really happy with how it turned out and it’s really different to the one before it; and that first full length was when we were a very different type of band. So on all the records we’ve evolved and changed, and we don’t want to put the same shoes on everyday. If it feels like a song we’ve already written in a different way…. I dunno, we’re always looking to try and surprise ourselves. And sometimes even if that means flopping, we’d rather do something that’s refreshing for us. The next record is going to sound a lot different to “alligator”… we don’t really know exactly what it’s going to sound like but I know we’re going to try and go into different rooms with it.
thw: when you were releasing the singles off the record, why did you remix some of the songs?
m: yeah a lot of people didn’t like them so much! I think we almost felt like that as the original version is on the record, let’s fuck around with it a bit and do something a bit different? Brian, scott and I remixed “secret meeting” and we liked it! We were really happy with it! And we also did another version of “lit up”
thw: I preferred that version to the l.p. one
m: yeah, a lot of people did. We fail half the time, and succeed the other. But we had that opportunity to play around with it and if it’s a song people have already heard and are gonna buy it – again - we felt like we ought to give them another version of it.
thw: one of the things I did like about that “secret meeting” remix though was how much more like the live sound it was? “alligator”’s a great record, but it doesn’t quite capture that extra dimension you have when you play live?
m: yeah, that was definitely the case on “lit up’ for sure. Brian had started doing some different things on the drums live, and we’d fallen for that so we updated the song to where we were with it. Every song evolves a lot when we play live and take it on the road, but we tend to do that a lot and pull songs apart. It’d be boring for us if we were just doing the album version each time, as we don’t have a whole lot of interest in that.
thw: but that’s a really refreshing thing. Like on “baby we’ll be fine” when the “I’m so sorry for everything” refrain goes on and on and gets louder and louder…
m: I think it comes from playing live and a lot of endings start to grow a bit and become a little jam. I’m not always sure that’s the best way to do it? Live, that works but on record versions we’re not going in that direction I don’t think, but if something’s feeling good you just wanna keep doing it for a little bit. So we definitely let the songs stretch and evolve after the album’s finished.
thw: cool… well as you wrote them, I ought to ask you about the lyrics. Whats the line “break my arms around the one I love / and be forgiven by the time my lover comes / break my arms around my love” about?
m: I think it’s somebody in conflict with being in love with 2 people in different ways. Or maybe…. I dunno, there’s not anything specific about it… but often you feel a certain kind of passion at certain times, and others you don’t, but you’re trying to not fuck up and throw away something that’s good. It’s kind of loose… a lot of the lyrics are a little bit ambiguous. It’s not so much a strategy as such, just that a lot of times when you try and say something definitive it quickly feels false and there’s always going to be a lot of different sides to any sort of emotion or place you’re in. so it’s usually the more flexible lines that last longer, and that’s one of those where they can be interpreted in a few different ways. Those are the kind of lyrics, like tom waits, nick cave, Leonard cohen, where the words are just a little weird but somehow live longer. Most of the time the lyrics are trying to avoid saying anything too direct, as it’s never quite “real”? It feels kind of like bullshit. The ones that could be a few different things are the ones that feel more accurate
thw: how do people react to the lyrics? Do people get it?
m: we get a lot written about them, and sometimes people hate them, but usually people seem to. And it’s the one thing I particularly focus on, but in a weird way they’re not always the most important part of things by any means. I usually want them to not get in the way too much or be ”all caps”… I’m usually trying to write lyrics that are emotionally a little blurry, but I never expected the amount of analysis that goes on. And often I have a hard time answering when people ask about certain lines: “is it autobiographical?” yeah… sometimes? A lot of it’s just fiction, or just different ways of thinking about things. We get a lot of attention about them, and I work really hard on them, but I don’t know how much people notice them?
thw: I think people take different things out of them… like me and my mate arguing about that line “I used to be here in the arms of cheerleaders”. I thought it was looking back on former glories and he thought it was plain arrogance…
m: a lot of the lyrics are both purposely cocky, and pathetic. Sometimes its funny… those bold, cocksure lines are in a weird way your delusional inner-dialogue of trying to build yourself up, a bit like in “taxi driver” when de niro’s play acting into that mirror. Play-acting this role, it’s both hilarious but odd and also pathetic, but I like those lines a lot. The characters come from a lot of my own insecurities and anxieties, so on one side try to stand up and be tall, confident and powerful but there’s also a very weak side to all of that. I guess that’s what makes the lyrics what they are, and why they stick with people; there’s a sort of empathy there
thw: is “Beverley road” a real place, and are there any geese there?
m: Beverley road is a place in Brooklyn where aaron and bryce still live, and the geese were actually the car alarms going off. The kids in Brooklyn are always skate boarding and setting off all the fire alarms, so from down the road all you can hear is this cacophony of different sirens going off. Yeah… I’m not sure it’s all that clear on the record, but that’s what that was all about
thw: nice... Are you going to play some new stuff tonight?
m: we were going to play 3 new songs, but one of them… we’ve never really played. We’ll play 2 new ones tonight I think. They’re kind of half-baked and we’re just going to see what happens with them. The one we decided not to play is really because no-one is really quite sure what the fuck they’re doing with it. But maybe we should play it for that reason? A train wreck is more often exciting to watch! One was going to be called “fruitball”, but everyone hated that title… rightly so, it’s a terrible name. A lot of the lyrics are even undecided on so expect a lot of mumbling. Another one is provisionally titled “start a war”, but I’m not sure if that’s what we’re gonna call it. Everything’s still cooking…
thw: are you gonna surprise us at all with the choice of set?
m: there’s a song called “Karen” which we never, ever play, but we are going to try and do it tonight. For some reason - it’s not even a complicated song! - we just always fuck it up so bad that it’s usually an embarrassment. I don’t know why, but there’s something about it? There’s a lot of piano on it, and playing it live in a big room, it’s just one of those ones that always sounds terrible… you can usually tell the ones we’re on thin ice with by the terror on our faces as we’re all looking at each other trying to remember when each change comes…
And we’ll play “about today” cos it’s a very comforting song, and gives me a break to get my breath back. It’s good for tension release.
thw: cool… lastly, I saw a quote on your press release where you said that “being in the national, [meant that] you were poor, but happy, and would never want to do anything else ever again”.
m: yeah, I think it was just after we’d left our jobs and moved to smaller apartments. We were stressed out, and financially we were building up huge amounts of credit card debt but still we didn’t have any second thoughts. It felt stupid, and like we should have started the band earlier like when we were in our teens… I’m 35 and I’ve only just started to pursue this… well… fantasy really. It’s a delusion that you think you’re going to be able to survive, and very few people can do it, but we just couldn’t resist going for it
Thw: Do you still feel that way?
m: yeah. Being away from home and touring is the hard thing. Playing shows is awesome, but just being on highways or in vans and hotel rooms for so long… last year we did 10 months of touring which isn’t even a lot compared to some bands, but for me especially it’s just hard to be…away… and not sleep in your own bed. You get exhausted and unhealthy. But that’s the only negative side. None of us are big party-ers but after 10 weeks of drinking it shows and starts to catch up with you…
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Yeah I know. tl;dr
But this one is for your Scout