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May 11th saw the release of The National's follow-up to breakthrough disc, Boxer (2007). Titled High Violet, it's different, I mean there's less squabbling and fighting in the songs, but don't worry there's still plenty of darkness in the violet shadows. And as usual, the backbone of the National's sound is it's rhythm section. Bryan and Scott Devendorf (drummer and bassist, respectively) are the skeleton which keeps the music solid while front man Matt Berninger is the muscle, or his voice and lyrics are. They guide and carry the listener through the shimmering colour washes of the Dessner brothers guitar work.
Based in Brooklyn, but currently on the road (check tour dates here), the self-deprecating Matt Berninger kindly took time out to answer several questions just for Sixeyes readers.
Sixeyes: I’ll start off by saying thanks for the new music and that hilarious new video for “Bloodbuzz Ohio”. I see the video was directed by a trio of women, one being your wife (Carin Besser). How was the experience of making the video and where was it shot?
MB: I’m glad you saw the humor in it. A lot of people thought it was serious. We were trying to ape these awkward old Serge Gainsbourg videos thinking it would be funny but many people who saw it just thought I was a self-serious douchebag. That’s only partly true. My mom was a disturbed by it. She said, “You look like a pedophilic Inspector Clouseau.” At least she saw what we were going for. It was all shot within a 5 minute walk from my apartment in Prospect Heights.
Sixeyes: How different is High Violet from the record you and the band set out to make, or thought you were making?
MB: We all had different ideas of what kind of record we were going to make but I don’t think any of us thought it would turn into what it did. We talked once about trying to write a fun pop record. I guess this is our version of that.
Sixeyes: I’ve read that the band's songs are built on demos that the Dessner’s record and send to you. Is this true in all cases? Have either Bryan or Scott recorded rhythms or melodies that you’ve worked with?
MB: The initial music sketches are about 60% Aaron, 30% Bryce, and 10% Scott and Bryan. Those percentages were arrived at scientifically.
Sixeyes: What is it that Peter Katis (producer) brings that the band keeps returning to him? Have you ever considered trying a different producer after one EP and four albums with the same producer?
MB: We like Peter because he jumps into the fray with us and joins the fighting. He’s also a genius when it comes to turning our crappy sounds into something great.
Sixeyes: There’s a paper I read regularly that features an interview each month which includes the question, “What should everyone shut up about?” I don’t want to get negative, so I’ll ask you “What should everyone hear about?” (music, art, film, books, politics, environmental issues… etc.)
MB: I don’t know really. I loved the movie Funny People. Eminem has a hilarious cameo.
Sixeyes: I read the story in the New York Times and laughed at the nicknames you’d been given by the others (the Naysayer, Mumbleberry Pie, the Dark Lord, Mr. Knee Jerk, Mr. Sony Headphones and the Echo Chamber). I wanted to give you a chance to return the favor and give up some nicknames you feel the others deserve or have earned.
MB: Bryan is sometimes referred to as Apocalypse Eventually. Aaron and Bryce at one point were Bung and Munch the Monkey Detectives. Scott was briefly known as Triple Homicide.
Sixeyes: Do you feel the pressure of being the last hurdle a song has to cross before its deemed good enough for the band?
MB: Not really. I relish the power. I like to wield it. I’m a natural wielder.
Sixeyes: John Darnielle, of The Mountain Goats, once (and only once) complimented me by saying he’d never been asked what I’d asked him. So my question is what was the last question you’d never been asked before? It doesn’t have to be in an interview it could be any question at all.
MB: A girl recently asked me to say her name so she could hear what it sounded like in my voice. Her name was Jade. I said “Jade”. It sounded amazing.
Sixeyes: In the song “Vanderlyle Cry Baby Geeks”, where the line is: “…swans are aswimmin’, I’ll explain everything to the geeks…”. Did that line ever refer to geese instead of geeks? Did you put Geeks in the title to circumvent the mishearing of that line?
MB: It was always geeks but people kept hearing geese. Yes, I added it to the title to help clarify. It think it’s also a better song title now too. Form follows function.
Sixeyes: I thought I’d go for the dirt this time, TMZ style (that’s the name of that show isn’t it… I hope). Some behind the scenes scoops about your big time fashion shoot for GQ would be great .You know, like who was the biggest diva?… that kind of thing.
MB: I’m usually the biggest diva. Bono’s hair guy did my hair for that. I think he did a pretty good job although it looks a bit wiggish.
Sixeyes: What about misconceptions about the band? With the increase in press (numbers wise and high profile-wise – NY Times, Uncut, Paste, etc.) have you seen an increase in misconceptions about band members and your music?
MB: People seem to think of us as miserable sad-sacks. I would describe us more as tender buffoons or nervous jackasses.
Sixeyes: Boxer got its name from the lover’s quarrels in several songs, or so I’ve read, and in the New York Times piece about the new album and where its title originated you’re quoted as saying, “None of it makes any sense. It’s all so crazy, but it seems so important”, in reference to a religious tract which inspired the title High Violet. Do you think that quote could be applied to the album's songs?
MB: It does suit the record I think. Most of the songs are desperate blurry approximations something meaningful. The thing itself is pretty flexible.
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conversation 16 [mp3] from High Violet