The National’s Matt Berninger on recording his debut solo opus Serpentine Prison, the art of magical thinking and being taught pool by Neil Armstrong
This month witnessed the release of the first solo album by Matt Berninger, frontman of multimillion-album-selling masters of melancholia The National, who have carved legendary status in the canon of alternative music over the last 20 years. His debut record Serpentine Prison comes replete with production by a legend of another era – Booker T Jones of Booker T & The MGs – and it is a far more pared-down affair than the sometimes grandiose drama of the band he has fronted for most of his adult life. The record is a beguiling and deeply personal collection of songs, recorded over a two-week period at his home studio in Venice Beach, which effortlessly taps into the anxieties of the zeitgeist and the challenges of middle age, touching on everything from existential angst and weltschmerz, to the joys and challenges of parenthood.
There is a warmth and nostalgia on Serpentine Prison that might originate from his decision to record with long-term musical friends and family; but it is no understatement to say that the writing here is highly accomplished, marking Berninger as a genuine American troubadour, at home in the company of Dylan, Springsteen and Petty. Inspired in part by an explosive argument with his father, and a lesser-known covers record by Willie Nelson, Serpentine Prison is art presented with haunting and vulnerable simplicity.
How has the global pandemic, which has defined this year, affected you?
Well, The National was a non-stop trip for the past seven years, and the train was not going to stop itself, so it’s been kind of good for everybody creatively, and personally, but it’s also been totally fucked up. This whole pandemic has created so many traumas for everyone, on top of everything else. The state of the planet is also very much making itself known to all of us as well, and I think people are starting to finally pay attention to the earth choking, coughing, burning and crying out.
California certainly appears to be on fire…
I’m not really too close to the worst part of the fires, but a lot of friends are, so yeah, it’s a tough moment – the sky is red and filled with smoke. It’s really important that we don’t look away from what’s happening. We’re just parasites on Earth. It’s a host, you know? I was talking to Dylan about all that stuff, and he was like, “Well, the earth is ultimately going to take care of itself one way or another, and it might be doing that by getting rid of us.” I think the generation behind us must be absolutely overwhelmed.
You and Dylan share a kind of classic lyrical exploration of Americana – is Dylan a big influence on you?
I still have a lot to learn from Dylan, and I always talk about him because he can go places and do things that no other artists can and probably ever will. He just goes further. I love ‘I Contain Multitudes’, and similar, on his new record. I haven’t totally absorbed the whole JFK thing yet, but some art takes a while, and you can only absorb so much art at a time – especially when you’re in the middle of making art – because it’s going to affect you too much, or knock you off your centre. The Kennedys were incredible, but I don’t know if I could write a song about JFK, because they were also kind of privileged, sexist, silver-spoon Ivy League assholes.
Gore Vidal certainly wasn’t a huge fan, but still…a vast improvement on Donald Trump?
I still find it hard to get my head around the fact he was elected. There was interference, but I don’t blame the Russians. I blame us for creating Trump. Trump is an American, make no mistake; and he is a reflection of the worst parts of the American psyche – a reflection of white male fear. He is a very sad man, and it sounds like he was never hugged, and he never learned how to tell the truth; he just learned how to manipulate those around him to get whatever power he needed to survive. He’s a tragic character and he has made everyone afraid of each other again. He sells fear. That is what Trump is selling, and that is what all the news channels are selling – that’s how the headlines get the clicks.
The 24-hour news cycle of Hunter’s Kingdom of Fear…
Right. The news always begins with that big dramatic music that grabs you. It’s like the movies – The Running Man – and that has become politics. It’s all about fear of other people, and it all comes from patriarchy. Why do Americans have so many guns? Because we are so terrified of each other. It has got to stop. People have to vote, because I believe we can cure our system; we can cure our racism; we can even cure the planet.
Serpentine Prison seems to contain all these zeitgeist anxieties, but its delivery is much more laid back than the kind of heavier melancholy of The National…
Lots of the melancholia in The National comes from Aaron (Dessner) and Bryan (Devendorf) loving lots of really melancholic music. The National plays a certain way, somewhere between Joy Division and The Grateful Dead, and that’s coming from a genuine emotional place – and mixing four guys’ emotions into a four-minute sonic experience is the DNA of the band. There was different DNA in the writing of Serpentine Prison, because it was a different family of friends, and, of course, Booker T, who has been in so many musical families, and has been in every studio with every kind of artist. He knows how to go into any artistic tornado and figure out what that tornado is trying to do.
Was it a more isolated experience to write and record an album with different musicians?
I didn’t feel alone at all. I felt the opposite. Serpentine Prison is probably the most collaborative thing I’ve ever done. I will say this, and I don’t mean this as passive aggressive, because I love being in The National; I love it – I’m not abandoning anything – but, honestly, sometimes inside The National, I feel more alone than I did on this. The dynamic of a band with two sets of brothers means they can retreat to their corners with each other, and often I felt ganged up on by those guys. When you have five grown men – all with different intentions, needs and desires – together for 20 years, travelling the world and going through all sorts of shit, it really does take its toll – just like in any family; it can cause a lot of pain, and that pain can make people retreat. The National often retreats from each other, but we have to – sometimes you have to get away; you can’t talk to your family every single day, but you can’t break up a family, either.
Was the writing process on Serpentine Prison different for you?
I write in so many different ways. I used to write in notebooks and create multiple versions of a single song. I think for Alligator and Boxer, I had six different dog-eared notebooks, all with versions of the same songs, and it just became such a giant sort of burden to find where I was. Over the past 20 years, I’ve started writing in new ways, real slowly. And now I’m at a point where all I do is email myself rhymes and lyrics and kind of stream of consciousness stuff from my phone. And sometimes I’m doing that while I’m listening to music that I’ve been sent by friends, or I’m listening to someone like Willie Nelson, Lou Reed or Nina Simone.
You’ve said that Willie Nelson was a key influence on this record, and your relationship with your father…
There weren’t that many records in our house beyond the Grease soundtrack when I was a kid, but one of the records that was played all the time was Willie Nelson’s Stardust. So, every time I hear that record, I feel comfort and optimism, and it reminds me of my dad. In 2018, after The National finished recording I Am Easy to Find, I decided it was time to make my version of Stardust. I wrote to Booker T Jones, who had produced the record, and his daughter Olivia who was managing him, and they liked the idea. So yeah, this record was kind of for my dad, because we had been fighting a lot. My dad and I have always had a lot of conflict because we’re basically the same person. I mean, talking to my dad is like looking in the mirror and arguing with a mirror – a mirror that is a little wiser, but that equally doesn’t know the world you’re living in.
Why do you think so many of our worst arguments in life are with our family?
The people closest to you and that you care about the most are the people that have the most influence on you, because they are you, in a way – all these people made you, and sometimes the things you hate in yourself, you see in those other people, and maybe if you give to them, they give to you. So, it’s always the people you are closest to that you fight most passionately and most painfully with, because you’re always kind of fighting with yourself, right? I mean, it doesn’t sound like I’m fighting with myself when I’m screaming and shit, but I know that I am. I have problems with communication. I have a hard time letting other people express things they need to express to me sometimes, but I have no problem expressing myself to other people, and that can be a double-edged sword. I can be really hard on people, including myself.
What makes you happy?
I guess I am the most happy when I am rested, when I’ve had some sleep and I feel like I didn’t make too many mistakes yesterday and the ones I did make, I can actually get in there and fix them. I don’t meditate, but I see a therapist and all that stuff, and I think therapy should be free. Happiness is kind of an hour-to-hour practice. I mean, if someone cuts you off in traffic, do you give them the finger, or just let them go and slow down? That choice is there in every little moment, and then, obviously, there are the big choices, like, what are you going to do today? Are you going to go out and vote, or are you going to let someone else do those big jobs for you?
Would you describe yourself as a spiritual person?
I believe in connection and art. To me, Nina Simone and Jesus are the same because I learned so much from both of them. I was brought up a Catholic, and I still consider myself a good Catholic, but I believe our whole paradigm of what God is is sexist and racist, and that permeates everything in the modern Western world. My late grandmother, Emily, went to church every morning and was the sweetest and most bubbly person, and yet she also had a real problem with gay people and Black people. I could never square those two things. But she was going to the wrong church – she should have been going to rock clubs, and to see Nina Simone, instead of listening to white men talk about a 33-year-old who was tortured to death by other white men. I remember I had conversations with her about abortion, and, you know, how many people of colour I know and how many gay people I know that she would love if she just ever met them and stopped paying attention to what her church was telling her all the time; because, whatever they said to her, that’s not what Jesus was.
So, all spirituality is a personal construct?
Everything is kind of connected and part of the same organism. I mean, I think somebody like Nina Simone should’ve been as influential, and as much of a mogul, as Mark Zuckerberg – why not? What happened? I’m addicted to Instagram, but I’m addicted to Nina Simone too, and I post a lot about Nina Simone, or whatever, on Instagram; so it’s almost like it’s all the same organism, and you can change it – you can change the universe. You just have to imagine beyond what your observable world is – that’s what Galileo did, you know? There’s all this stuff about how when monkeys started eating mushrooms, and how once we got past basic survival, we started imagining what was beyond the stars, and what those stars were telling us. I mean, magical thinking is how we figured out how to land on the moon, whether that was a waste of money or not. And I actually met the guy who did that. Neil Armstrong was a friend of Uncle Howard, who was his local doctor in Ohio. He didn’t want to go to a big hospital when he had health issues, so he went through this little local quiet doctor who was discreet, and that was my great uncle. Neil Armstrong would come and play pool at Uncle Howard’s farm with us. He showed me how to hit a pool ball before I knew he had landed on the fucking moon!
Photography Arianna Lago
This article is taken from issue 27. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here