Matt Berninger, in spite of being grounded from the road, has a body clock that still operates on a rock tour schedule. For instance, when reached by phone last month at a mid-morning hour, The National frontman confessed that he had been up since 4:30 a.m.
“Lobby calls for the airport are always 5 or 6 a.m.,” he said. “I think I did train my body to be ready always at 4:30 to get out of bed and just start packing, you know?”
In a normal year, Berninger would be gearing up to tour behind Serpentine Prison, his first proper solo album. He conceived the LP in 2018 as a covers record in the mold of Willie Nelson’s Stardust, the deathless 1978 classic in which the country singer reimagined American standards with the assistance of producer Booker T. Jones. Berninger approached Jones about producing his own collection of interpretations of indie-rock chestnuts like The Cure’s “In Between Days” and The Velvet Underground’s “European Son.” But Jones was drawn more to the originals that Berninger showed him, co-written with collaborators like Brent Knopf (the other half of Berninger’s cheeky synth-pop band EL VY) and Walter Martin of The Walkmen.
The result makes for an interesting contrast with Aaron Dessner’s recent work on Taylor Swift’s Folklore. While Berninger’s creative partner in The National essentially smuggled the band’s aesthetic into the music of the world’s biggest pop star, Berninger has deliberately leaned into the band’s most overt dad-rock tendencies. Just as Stardust is a record that numerous generations have discovered via their parents while riding in the back of minivans, Serpentine Prison is a languid, low-key record apparently designed for graying Gen Xers and millennials quietly sipping whiskey cocktails while their children tear apart the house during lockdown. Also like the Wille Nelson record, Berninger has foregrounded his voice like never before, positioning himself as a louche, middle-aged crooner in the mold of Nick Cave or I’m The Man-era Leonard Cohen.
In this interview, Berninger talked about Serpentine Prison, his anxiousness to make a “loud” rock record again, his love of U2’s Achtung Baby, and why he’s like Christopher Walken.
You’ve talked about Stardust by Willie Nelson being an inspiration for you. Why Stardust?
Well, it was one of those records that my parents had, and they didn’t have a huge record collection so pretty much my whole childhood there were 10 records that were always on. I remember Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly, there was Barry Manilow, Judy Collins. I remember the Grease soundtrack. But Stardust particularly was my dad’s favorite record, I think. It’s just one of those things, whenever I hear it, whenever it comes on, it’s just a comfort. It’s like putting on your old sweater that always fits.
Originally you were going to make a covers record, but this album isn’t that.
I wanted to do a bunch of covers just so I could get outside of my comfort zone. Then in that process with Booker, I sent him a few originals — there was one I wrote with Walt Martin, “Distant Axis,” that he really, really was into. And that’s when he said, “Let’s start focusing on the originals.” We ended up doing 12 originals and six covers in 14 days.
Have you heard Bartees Strange’s album of National covers?
I think it’s super cool, I love it. His original, that song “Mustang,” is really, really interesting. I’m a fan.
What was it like working with Booker T. Jones?
We moved really fast. We recorded everything in 14 days including almost all the overdubs. He would say, “Matt we got that one, let’s move on to another fish.” He’s like, “We don’t need to keep catching this tuna. Let’s go find a shark.” He moves fast.
I imagine that must have been refreshing given that National albums tend to take a long time to make.
When we’re in the studio, it’s go, go, go. It’s 24 hours, people are napping and getting up and keep working. Not because there’s a deadline, it’s just because everybody is there and into it. Getting the songs written, and getting to the part where we go into the studio with them, sometimes is a lot of emailing, a lot of tinkering, a lot of back and forth. The songs spend a lot of time in the lab, our own individual labs before we take them to the barn.
Is there anything you were able to do with this record that you haven’t been able to do with The National?
I wasn’t writing for a movie, I wasn’t writing for touring, I wasn’t writing for a character other than the character I’ve invented for myself. I wasn’t worrying about any of these songs working together dramatically or anything. I just knew that Booker would be able to make them all feel part of the same family once we got them into the studio. I knew all these songs were children of all these different partners I had written new songs with, and how do I make all of these orphans feel like we’re all part of the same family? That’s a lot of what Booker was able to do.
This really seems like a singer’s record, where the focal point is your voice.
Yeah I wanted that. If you listen to Stardust, Willie is really clear, really high in the mix. When Booker works with a vocalist, he really features it because he is sort of the vocalist in The MG’s, if you listen to all the Hammond lines. In The MG’s, he was restricted from writing lyrics because they had a good thing going with “Hip Hug-Her” and “Green Onions.” I think he resented that a lot.
How comfortable are you at this point with your voice?
I think of singing as sort of acting out the writing. When I’m on stage or when I’m in the studio, the singing of it is sort of performative every time, and it’s not really about the melody. Usually the melody is reflecting the song. Really early on, I could barely go to the microphone stand. That was how I felt. I felt really, really tight, wound up, and nervous, and so was the music. As we all have loosened up musically and gotten more comfortable performing, the music changes and melodies go out in different places. I really have tried to actively learn how to sing and discover a melody and write melody along with words. Part of covering songs is doing that, that’s how you learn. We tried to cover “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys and it was such a disaster. I think we tried twice, and everybody was looking at each other like, “This is embarrassing.” Quickly aborted. Sometimes you’re just not going to be able to do it. You just cannot ride that dolphin. There’s no way you can ride that dolphin.
Has Willie Nelson influenced you as a singer? He also has a thing where he never really seems to be pushing his voice. It feels like he’s talking to you, but it’s also very expressive. You’ve had a similar path as a singer too, especially on this record.
Willie definitely does that, and Leonard Cohen is like that too. It almost sounds like he’s sitting across a table in a café, and leaning in, looking right at you in the eye when he sings. Willie sings, it’s all heart, you know? It’s all tender. It’s all apologetic. You don’t hear too many Willie Nelson songs that are mean and aggressive. I mean, some of them are bitter, for sure. Sometimes. You don’t hear him raging. He’s got it dialed in where he’s chill. I don’t know how he does that. I don’t know he stays so chill. Actually, I think I probably do.
What did you think about the Taylor Swift album that Aaron Dessner worked on? It interesting to see the aesthetics of The National’s music seep into her music.
Some of those songs, like “Cardigan,” the music for that I think was called “Maple.” I would never have been able to do what Taylor did with that one. There were two songs that I had been listening to but hadn’t had any lyrics.
At this point, how interested are you in making a loud rock record? Sleep Well Beast had some good shout-y rock songs, but you haven’t really gone there for a long time.
I’m really anxious to do it. Brent Knopf and I have been slowly cooking a rock record and we keep calling it Achtung Maybe. We’re trying to get Daniel Lanois to produce it.
We haven’t reached out to anyone with regards to producing it but that’s what we’ve been talking about, Achtung Maybe.
Is that an illusion to writing U2-ish songs, or is that a jokey title?
No, no. We’re both obsessed with Achtung Baby and everything about that record. “One” is on that record, right?
Fucking “Mysterious Ways” and shit. I love everything about that record and so does Brent. It’s been five years or whatever since EL VY. There’s no solid plan or anything like that.
It’s funny that you bring up U2 because I’ve been playing them a lot lately for something I’m writing. I was just thinking about the MacPhisto character that Bono made up for the Zoo TV tour.
Oh my god. That’s kind of like when Dylan did that, trying to do the “white face” stuff, right? Michael Stipe had the blue across his eyes. There’s definitely a phase where all your favorite artists go through a big makeup phase.
Would you ever consider having your own makeup phase? Or adopting a character on stage?
I consider everything, I’m a method singer, I’m a method performer, I’m a method writer. I’m always channeling my own stuff, but there is a character. It’s like Christopher Walken — he almost can’t really be anything other than Christopher Walken. I’m not saying I’m Christopher Walken, but I think that’s what I am as a singer. On stage, I have to take an hour to get ready to be that guy, to be that guy that goes out there and sings and dances for two hours, and does all these songs. I get emotionally to the middle of those songs and if I can’t, I hate it. I don’t like writing a song unless I’m really, really, really sucked into it emotionally. I really hate being on stage unless I’m really, really sucked into it emotionally.
Serpentine Prison is out now via Concord Records. Get it here.