Matt Berninger webchat: your questions answered on Morrissey, Taylor Swift and infinite creativity

Last modified: 04: 10 PM GMT+0

The National frontman joined us to discuss his debut solo album, Serpentine Prison, and to answer your questions

That's all from Matt ...

User avatar for mattberninger Guardian contributor

These questions were great! So happy to answer whatever. Hope you like the record. I'm super into it! I've been playing it on repeat. When you ask what records I've been listening to non-stop, I took a long break from listening to Serpentine Prison because I was doing so much talking about it, but just in the past week I've got back into it. So I hope it connects. And thank you.

Bethniest asks:

Hi Matt! Cyrano was one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. Any chance those songs are going to come out as a record?

User avatar for mattberninger Guardian contributor

Yes. There's a film, a major motion picture being filmed right now, and I think they use about 12 songs in it. Not all the same songs that might have been in the stage production that happened last year - there have been a couple of different productions. It's been a five or six-year project. My wife Carin and I wrote 25 songs, Aaron and Bryce did all the music. So yes, there will probably be an OST that has some of those songs in it sung by a cast of brilliant actors, and that's been an incredibly challenging but incredibly fun and wild experience of trying to make a musical. Carin and I just finished writing for it about two weeks ago. So we finally finished all the writing we're ever going to do on Cyrano. About half of what we wrote will be in the movie, I don't know what will happen to the other half.

MynameisRia asks:

What song are you now listening to on repeat? Are you the type of person that listens to songs on repeat? That one person that has listened to One More Second for 1,203 times on Spotify is me.

User avatar for mattberninger Guardian contributor

Wow. It's funny, there are different songs that'll get in there and I can't stop going back to them. There's a song by Rodney Crowl, he's a country musician, he played with Roseanne Cash for a while, and there's a duet they do together called It Ain't Over yet. I keep going back to Aimee Mann's You Do. Joan Shelley's The Push and Pull, I keep going back to that. There's a Julia Jacklin record called Crushing that I keep paying. Run the Jewels, Phoebe Bridgers' Punisher, Fiona Apple's record, I just think they are the best, total masterpieces coming out right now.

I've been a big fan of Taylor Swift's for a long time

laurasnapes asks:

Did Taylor Swift’s melodic responses to Aaron’s music make you hear his work, which you’re so familiar with, differently at all? Did it open up paths and potential that might feed back into your National work in future?

User avatar for mattberninger Guardian contributor

It was really fun and exciting to hear Cardigan, for example. I had that sketch from Aaron and I was in the middle of writing all these songs for Cyrano de Bergerac, and at the same time, I Am Easy to Find, we had written so much stuff there. There was a lot of music that Aaron was making that I wasn't doing anything with yet, and he asked if he could use some of those sketches for something else, and I was kind of relieved because I had run out of steam on writing. So when I heard Cardigan I recognised the sketch immediately, but what Taylor did with that, I could never do it. It made me really hear how good she is, and I've been a big fan of hers for a long time, but hearing how differently she approaches things and what she did melodically was so fascinating. I'd heard a lot of this music and I never would have written that. What she did with what Aaron as doing was very different than what I would have done. I think it's the same when Aaron hears me with Booker, like, wow, there's so many potential new ways of doing this. When Sufjan Stevens came into the mix of the National, I remember it was like, whoa! He opened up a whole new branch, a whole new wing of the house, of where we could go with the band. He told us, you could go this way and we didn't know we could do something like that. All along the way, I think the smartest thing the National has done, the reason it's still a healthy, creative band, is because we've gone out and learned and brought so many people back to it. And gone off and had all these new experiences. Aaron's work with Justin (Vernon) and Bryce's work with Innaritu, and our work bringing Mike Mills in, Gail Ann Dorsey - all those things have always brought more colours to our palette, new tools we bring back to the barn. So yeah, it was really exciting and enlightening and fun to see how much we can all grow and discover.

Updated

dimlocator asks:

What’s your favourite Bad Seeds record and why?

User avatar for mattberninger Guardian contributor

Hmmmm. I think Let Love In is the one. God, it's so hard to talk about Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and pick a favourite. I guess Let Love In just is so visceral, so raw. The cover, him with no shirt, staring up at God... So raw, punk, exposed. Nick Cave continues to unpack the unpackable, and he writes about things that seem always impossible to write about and he always has. I've always been in awe of his bravery and his humour. Talk about empathy - I think someone whose empathy for the most painful things and the most painful things, who understands the euphoria or life and the devastation of it. Whether or not he understands it, he's not afraid of either side and writes so bravely and generously about all that stuff. Ghosteen, I've only listened to it twice because I'm not ready for it. When you find an artist that's so far ahead of you, in such braver territory on every level, it just makes you realise how much potential there is and how much you have to do, and how high the bar is in the thing you do. For me, Nick Cave probably pushed the walls out and raised the bars higher than anybody in terms of a musician, an artist. He's my fave. I'm sure that's no surprise to anybody that I cherish every fucking thing he's ever done.

AlfonsoC asks:

Hi, Matt! Could you talk about your favourite books, the ones that have inspired you and perhaps will continue to do so ...

User avatar for mattberninger Guardian contributor

I'll be honest, I read the first third of so many books. There's a book right now that have set me off, The Overstory by Richard Powers, I think it won the Pullitzer. It's a masterpiece. It's about all these different people in all these different families over time, all connected in all these interesting ways. But it's also very much about trees. He manages to create this epic, multigenerational, multicharacter exploration of art and life and love through the paradigm of talking about trees, roots, species of trees and families. It's hard to explain but it's a total masterpiece and I'm just barely absorbing it. That's a new one I've been chewing on. A book I read a long time ago and that I've recently picked up again is Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks and it's about John Brown, the abolitionist, in the pre-civil war. He was anti-slavery, he and his family were all killed. He was also a religious fanatic. It's a whole story that's supposed to be told by his son, but you don't quite trust if you're hearing the true story. Russell Banks made this incredible historical novel that shows you how blurry the truth can get when it's told over time. That's a dark book to be reading right now so I can only read a chapter or two at a time then it's too heavy and I have to move away. I'm a Milan Kundera fan. The Great Gatsby is one that I always go back and unpack in new ways. Lolita - the combination of humour mixed with really dark impulses. Nabokov drove around America writing that while collecting butterflies on a road trip with his wife! Then they'd move on to the next town. Two Russians driving around, learning about America while he's writing this intensely funny, dark, fearless book. The language is so fun and playful, I love all the names he comes up with for the other guy whose name I can't remember, the pornographer that he's after who's now got Lolita. Arthur Rainbow. He's following him around America trying to track down Lolita, he enters all these names in the hotel ledgers that are so funny. There's just so much to dig into and discover in all these books. But in a funny way, I'm a skimmer of hyped top-shelf literature. I do not consider myself a bookworm or in any way a literary academic. My wife very much is. But the books I do love, I do kinda study.

blitzen asks:

Hi Matt - how is your brother and his film-making? Mistaken for Strangers was such an amazing documentary.

Tom Berninger and Matt Berninger in Mistaken for Strangers.
Tom Berninger and Matt Berninger in Mistaken for Strangers. Photograph: Deirdre O'Callaghan
User avatar for mattberninger Guardian contributor

He's making Mistaken for Strangers 2, and we're also working on a TV show. We've been working on that forever and a follow-up to the documentary. My studio is the garage behind his house, and he and his roommate are filmmakers. Tom moved to LA with us. Tom and Carin have been really my closest creative collaborators in so many ways for 10 years. Not necessarily on all the records but in my general life, all the different things I'm doing. Tom did all the videos for El Vy. This TV stuff we've been doing, there's this ongoing collaborative fun project that we just can't stop working on. So he's great, he's really great. He's blooming. We've all really flourished out in California, even Tom. I love working with family. That's the thing, even the National, it's just family and friends. You collaborate with all these incredible artists, meet all these people, but ultimately you come back to your best friends, your closest people and you keep making stuff with all of them. Then from there, it kinda extends outward. But for me, bands and family and collaborators, it's really good to mix it all up, bring everybody into that creative world. Even shooting a video at my parents' house, back when we did that. Do everything with all the people you feel closest to.

Updated

I want my daughter to listen to the Smiths. I don't want her to pay attention to what Morrissey says now.

djdazz asks:

Hi Matt, we are about the same age, with many of the same formative influences. The reception of all art changes over time, but I’m wondering how you reconcile your love of the Smiths with Morrissey’s recent political dalliances. Of course, I want to trust the art rather than artist, but sometimes it’s not easy. Your thoughts on the issue would be greatly appreciated!

User avatar for mattberninger Guardian contributor

I'm really glad somebody asked me. I brought up Morrissey and the Smiths so many times to journalists over the past few years because I'm interested to talk about that, and so often it never makes it into the interview because it's just such tricky territory, right? Because Morrissey was one of the voices, writers, performers that made me - maybe more than almost any, at this phase in my life when I was 15, 16, 17. When you just feel like a misfit. But I was a misfit with a lot of confidence. I had a lot of chips on my shoulders, small chips. And then to hear this other person from a place that I'd never heard of, didn't know anything about Manchester, didn't know anything about England, really, and then here was this band and this singer singing about all these emotional, hugely dramatic grievances - the Boy With the Thorn in His Side, Please Please Please let me get what I want, these raw pleas to the universe to be understood. And so funny. Morrissey, the thing that's hardest to square now, is how a person with such empathy for himself and for the misfits and those around him, writing so beautifully about that, now seeming to have very little empathy for other perspectives. It's a hard thing. I listen to the Smiths a lot still, and I listen to Morrissey a lot, and then I do pay attention to the things that he says and it's heartbreaking. I feel like fear and the anxiety of the world has maybe kinda overtaken him a little bit, and I guess it makes me try to keep my mind open and keep listening to everyone. At some point, the older you get, you can close your brain off. I feel like Morrissey became very frustrated because he wanted the world to be a very specific way. When festivals have to change their rules because he's there, I understand that when he's making sure the entire festival is vegan because he believes in that. But I think at a certain point you can't control everything, you get bitter and angry and that's happened to a lot of people. The world is chaotic and out of control and people retreat to a very small corner when they feel they cannot control the world, and I feel he's retreated to a very small corner that doesn't have the empathy that he used to have. I think about it a lot. I wish I had a better answer. But the Smiths still provides me a lot of comfort and inspiration and empathy. I still listen to the Boy With the Thorn in His Side and feel less alone in the world. The Smiths really helped me out of some emotional, dark tangles and they still do. Morrissey's body of work, so much of it provides me really healthy, positive answers, still. I won't give up that. I won't put those records in a box and bury 'em. I want my daughter to listen to the Smiths. I don't want her to pay attention to what Morrissey says now. She listens to them now in fact, she loves them. Frankly Mr Shankly - how can you not love that song? Girlfriend in a Coma, it's great.

Updated

Mazzini asks:

Hi Matt. Any plans post-Covid to visit Cambridge and dine at Vanderlyle? I believe they approached you for permission to use the name for their restaurant.

User avatar for mattberninger Guardian contributor

Yes please. There's a bar in Portland called Pink Rabbits now. There's beers named after stuff. There's a Fake Empire production company that puts out TV shows. It's funny, I love that - it's an incredible ego boost when bars and restaurants and beers are named after lyrics. And babies! It's insane. I'm really grateful and thankful for all that.

Words for me are these amazing Legos

Sydrock01 asks:

Hi Matt! Serpentine Prison and the entire boxer album has been on repeat for weeks, and the other albums years! I was wondering how you come up with such peculiar but fittingly perfect words? You are the best lyricist I have ever heard! “Anonymous castrations” for example, what allowed you to put such words together? Thanks! - Sydney. Whoops! I meant “anonymous castrati”

User avatar for mattberninger Guardian contributor

That's a funny one to pick! I was like, can I get away with this?! That song, I was singing about castrati and that role in the Catholic church and how they literally did castrate boys for them to be able to sing better to god. That was a real thing! It's sort of harrowing. "Anonymous castrati" is such a tongue-twister. The silliness of the sound of a word in a song - the words can mean something very not silly. Words for me are these amazing Legos and you put them next to each other in different ways and sparks incredibly fresh ideas. Two different words glued together can create something brand new. There was a long time where I was like, god, everything's been written, how do you write new songs? Every combination of a love song has been written. There was a moment, you add two words together, add a third word and it's exponentially different, then a fourth word - it's like lottery numbers. You can say anything brand new and fresh forever. We'll never run out of ways to express ourselves. Sometimes you have to invent new words to do it. It's infinite, it's so infinite. You flip around the order of something or take one verse from one song and stick it into a different song and you've got a whole new song that's even better than those two other songs and you don't know why. It's like paint, it's infinite, the shades and the way you can put it together. The more you dive into your craft of what you do, you realise you never exhaust the possibilities, you just discover more paint, more tools, more endless opportunities to tell the truth, and new ways to tell the truth. That's been exciting. I think I've been writing more and more and faster because I realise there's just so much I can do now. By taking all the layers apart, you realise you can make anything out of those words. Switch one little thing and it turns a song totally on its head or upside down and the meaning gets thrown in a whole new direction by just adding one little thing sometimes. That's so liberating when you realise you'll never run out of ways to do this. The name Rylan, for example, I made it up - and it turns out people have been named that, but I just made up that name. The same with Vanderlyle. And now I have neighbours that live near me, there's a baby a block away named Rylan, some National fan! I see the baby every week and the parents are big National fans, it's really fun, that stuff's incredible. You can invent places, environments - Lemonworld is an entirely invented place, it's a fantasy. I often think of Lemonworld - I recently posted the Garden of Earthly Delights, which is one of my favourite paintings, it's funny and debaucherous, a garden of hedonism and carnal desires, and I've alway thought of Lemonworld as a funny, goofier version of that garden - people sticking flowers in each other's butts. When you invent a place, a garden, a room, a hallway and you put yourself or a character on that roof, next to that creek, on the edge of that town, suddenly you have half the story there in the environment. I start by imagining myself some place that I'd like to be. In a house out in the desert. In a car in Rome. And sometimes these are places I've been and moments I've had, and sometimes they're places I imagine being. You put someone else in that spot, or you're alone, and it starts to happen. A scene and an idea starts to come together. Conversations and details of that hallway or rooftop start to trickle in. You just get started. Put your head and soul in a place and see what happens. That's really exciting. I let the songs sorta write themselves. And I don't sit down and say, time to write a song. I wait til my brain is imagining, I'm daydreaming - let's start getting these fragments down. Sometimes when you're in that songwriting mode, it's very much like daydreaming. I guess that's the closest way I can describe when I'm writing - you're in this half-away, daydreamy zone. Part fantasy, part confessional, it's drama. You put yourself in a dramatic, intense, emotional corner and try to write your way out of that corner. You're always in these emotional corners! And sometimes you don't realise it til the day is over or you wake up the next day. So you start to just play-act the situation that you're in and see if you can get out of it.

Updated

Bringing everyone into the studio with Booker T Jones was such a dream come true

KellyLynch23 asks:

Hi Matt! Congratulations on your album! What have you enjoyed most about the process of this particular album?

User avatar for mattberninger Guardian contributor

The process actually! The process was new, meaning it kinda came together fast. All the people I brought in were friends from the past 25 years, from my first band, all my bands, from my favourite bands like the Walkmen, and my favourite musicians like Gail Ann Dorsey and Andrew Bird. I was able to bring in people I've only met in the last year or so like Harrison Whitford, and members of my first band, Nancy. Everyone got to come together in Venice. We recorded in a studio that's a bike ride from my house. Bringing everyone into the studio with Booker T Jones was such a dream come true. To have Scott and Mike and I working on songs with Booker T Jones 25 years after we started Nancy in college was just - we were all pinching ourselves the whole time. That part of it was really amazing, but then the recording process in the studio was 14 days, we were doing two songs a day including overdubs and we were going so fast. It was sort of chaos but just a really pleasant, warm, fun, goofy chaos. Booker provided this sort of divining rod for the emotional water we were looking for in the songs, and also just a focus. I needed everybody who was coming out to really zero in on someone other than me, meaning that in the studio is, I'm a nervous wreck, in and out of emotional territory, the stress of pulling it all together sometimes is - I'm not the best at doing that. I knew I needed someone else for everyone to focus on, someone else to be the planet with the most gravity, and Booker had the most gravity. We all revolved around him in the studio and that was, I think, what was made it work so well. Cos I had all these songs from different people and all of them have a very different DNA, it's like kids from different partners, marriages, all these orphans. And so somehow I had to have all these songs, including these covers. I wanted them to feel of the same family and Booker and Sean O'Brien, the engineer, made that happen. Those two guys were the sun we all revolved around, and that was good, that allowed me to just be a weird, orbiting singer and performer around that instead of trying being the centre. I was more of a support role in a lot of ways while we were recording. Booker had to be the centre to get it done on time. I put it all on my credit card, we only had these two and a half weeks or so, I was flying everybody in. Everybody showed up early, stayed late, focused, had a blast. And that was what was unique, the speed and focus.

Updated

cedwards28 asks:

I discovered The National through High Violet, a now-favourite record of mine. How do you reflect on the album and its sound, a decade on from its release? Congrats on the new record!

User avatar for mattberninger Guardian contributor

That's a good question. Whew. High Violet, I don't think of the record, I think of the phase we were in. After Alligator, Boxer, all three of those records felt like these pivotal survival moments, right? Like, Alligator got us in the door, Boxer established ourselves as ourselves - that's where we found our identity or sidestepped some other kind of identity that we could have gotten trapped into, and so I think High Violet, I think we felt like we could do anything we wanted then. I think we felt a lot of confidence for the first time, and ambition. We always had a lot of ambition, but I think after pulling off Boxer and surviving and having people stick with us through that, I think there's a real liberating thing. So going into High Violet, I remember everyone was ambitious and excited like, alright, this is ours to fuck up now. We've arrived and now we have to stay. How do we stay? We were in full bloom finally. I still relate to the person I am in those songs very much, I don't know how much I've changed. Social anxiety, insecurity, self-doubt are constant. I think they're always what everyone's trying to overcome, their own self-loathing. Those are constants. But I think what shifted, or what's shifted for me as an artist and a person, is maybe just accepting that that's always the ladder you're trying o climb or the hole you're trying to climb out of, your own fear of failure, or your own fear of disappointing people or yourself. So I don't think that has gone away at all, that constant nagging self-doubt. But I guess I've embraced how to really write about that, dig into that. I stopped a long time ago trying to think of things to write about and I just kinda dig into what I'm actually thinking about - what are the things that when I stop talking and stop being an active social person, when the door shuts and you close your eyes and you turn off your light and stare out the window, where does your brain really go? What itches does it really wanna scratch? And I stopped trying to come up with an idea of an itch to scratch to write a song about. I just started scratching. It's stuff that I don't even know why I'm thinking about it sometimes. So I think that growth has been to just not try to write about the surface, but write about the insides, the guts, the dark centre of the impulse or the desire or the fear. And sometimes those are just little fragments, the closer you can get to the truth of what you're feeling is just the fragments or phrases, the bits that reveal the real centre. So I guess I'm just kinda patient to dig around enough until those honest worms deep in the soil come crawling out. I string the worms together. I don't know how they fit together but I know these things are important down here, the weird things. So it's sometimes like a collage of worms.

Matt’s with us now, dialling in from Los Angeles, where it’s 8am and the scene presumably looks something like this ...

The National are not a band inclined to give themselves a break. Look, they were planning to after 2017’s Sleep Well Beast, but then director Mike Mills approached them about making a movie, and so last year’s I Am Easy to Find was born. No sooner were they off tour than guitarist Bryce Dessner was doing big things with European orchestras, drummer Bryan Devendorf was releasing a surprise solo album, instrumentalist Aaron Dessner was making a surprise album with Taylor Swift and the whole lot of them were working on a musical adaptation of Cyrano De Bergerac. You don’t get the impression any of them have had time to ruminate over a sourdough starter this year.

Next up on the band’s extracurricular slate is Serpentine Prison, the official debut solo album from frontman Matt Berninger. (He has broken away from the band before – in 2015, he released Return to the Moon as half of El Vy with Menomena’s Brent Knopf, who is among the new album’s many guests.) Berninger had long wanted to make a record like Willie Nelson’s covers album Stardust, and asked Booker T Jones if he would help him make it happen. Along the way, some original demos slipped in and reshaped the project, relegating the covers to a bonus disc. The result is more soulful and spacious than much of his work in his day job, and will be released into the world on Friday 16 October.

You can ask Berninger about his new album, being temporarily displaced by Taylor Swift in the National, his enduring love of Nick Cave, his creative outlook, the in-the-works TV adaptation of Mistaken for Strangers – the documentary that traced the relationship between Matt and his brother Tom – and anything else you like (as a long-time National fan, I can vouch for Berninger’s excellent book recommendations) when he joins us for a virtual webchat at 4pm BST (please note – this is not our usual UK lunchtime slot, owing to the transatlantic time difference) on Tuesday 13 October. Until then, enjoy his excellent dance moves in his latest video.

Matt Berninger: One More Second – video

Updated

Contributor

Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

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