It’s 7am in Venice, California, and as usual Matt Berninger has been up for a good couple of hours. Outside the sky is hazy; a faint reminder of the world beyond this dreamy spot by the ocean – of the forest fires raging further up the coast, the friends in San Francisco and his parents in Seattle, who tell of how smoke has meant they haven’t been able to open their windows for days. “Yeah,” he says, voice long and low. “Between the pandemic and the fires and raging facism and everything, it’s grim. It’s sometimes tough to process.”
For more than 20 years, Berninger’s songwriting has served as a consummate processing of liberal American experience. First as lead singer and lyricist for The National, the band he formed in Brooklyn in 1999 and with whom he has proved that nuanced and literate rock can both win Grammys and fill stadiums. And now, with The National on pause, the release of his first solo album, Serpentine Prison, a warm, ruminative collection of songs made in collaboration with the Stax legend, producer and multi-instrumentalist Booker T Jones.
This morning Berninger is on ebullient form, and his conversation winds seamlessly from abortion rights to mycology, Jackson Pollock and erectile dysfunction commercials. When we speak, the US election is still six weeks away, and while it seems unnecessary to probe his politics – The National, after all, are famed Democrats, playing in support of both Obama and Clinton – the subject seems to hang over our conversation like the haze of a distant forest fire.
“I’m trying not to think about that,” he says of election day. “I mean I’m registered to vote, I’m going to vote, and I’m active in focusing on it in a certain way, but I’m also trying not to be overwhelmed or paralysed by it. When I turn on the news or I drink it all in, it can really suck your battery dry before you even get started for the day and so I try to be very careful about how much I absorb of the minute by minute chess game. This awful, most disgusting game of Risk, with real consequences and actual people suffering.”
Even so, he ploughs on: “The game, the whole game design, our whole political system, is so flawed and so rigged and it seems like sometimes it’s only the cheaters who can win it because the game was designed by cheaters. The game was designed by patriarchal racists. But inside of it I still believe in ‘We the people’ and I do believe in some of the foundations of our democratic ideals and goals, and the constitution, even though it was written by slave owners, white men, white patriarchal communities, deeply fanatical religious communities protecting each other from each other. So when they said ‘All men are created equal’ they definitely were just talking about white men at that point – they weren’t talking about women, they weren’t talking about people of colour, they were just talking about them.
“But somehow,” he continues, “they managed to put something in there that’s good, and I believe in those things, I believe in this country. I can’t believe I’m saying that because right now everything about this country and potentially soon our entire court system is maybe under the control of criminals and just liars and jerks! I’m profoundly ashamed of our government right now.” It is notable that not once in our 90-minute call will Berninger breathe Donald Trump’s name.
He likens the current political debate to “everybody just yelling at each other, everybody just honking their horns at each other, but no one’s actually communicating”. The left is just as culpable as the right, he suggests, just as drawn to the clickbait and the blazing headline, the posturing and the ideological silo-ing that can stifle true discussion. “No matter what, no matter how far on the other side of the spectrum someone is, I think sometimes you can change each other,” he explains. “I don’t want to become any less liberal or any less progressive, that’s such a weird thing to say, but I don’t also want to be pegged as this stock progressive liberal!” Sometimes, Berninger says, he will start to post something political online. “And then I question myself: am I just adding to the noise?”
In light of all this, it might feel a self-conscious moment, I suggest, to release a solo album as a white, male, middle class American. “I’m aware that the game is stacked in my favour,” he concedes. “I’m well aware of that and I use it – I play the game to a certain extent – but I try to mansplain to myself why mansplaining is f***** up! And I try to speak to myself as a white guy trying to understand what it feels like to be a cis white male and what it might feel like not to be a cis white male.” He pauses. “Is ‘cis’ the right term I’m supposed to be using?”
The characters that populate Berninger’s songs have long been messy, often screwing up, their language sometimes faltering; in this way they are perhaps well-suited to these ungainly times of cultural shift. “I think it’s important for people not to feel ashamed or be defensive about not knowing exactly what the right terms are,” he says. “And it’s important for us to change terms. We need for people to be able to identify themselves the way they want to be identified and we need to hear that. It’s not that hard to learn language! It’s a new word!”
He likens this moment of new comprehension to the point when he moved from his childhood neighbourhood, on the predominantly white west side of Cincinnati, to Brooklyn, and found that as he rode the subway to his advertising job each morning he became aware that he was “butt cheek to butt cheek with people of every colour and gender and history imaginable on the subway car, packed! And everybody’s just trying to get to work and hopefully get a seat if they can.” Having relocated to the west coast six years ago, he sometimes pines for New York and the subway for precisely these reasons. “You have to get closer,” he says. “You have to look in each other’s eyes to feel connected, and when you don’t, when you’re only looking at images on the internet or on Facebook, and all you’re seeing is anger, and all you’re seeing is screaming, and all you’re seeing is fires and guns on both sides, then that’s how we start to define each other.”
It was in California that Berninger thought about working with Booker T Jones again. He had first met Jones when he was asked to appear on his album The Road from Memphis. With his record player finally set up in his new home, he set out to buy some music. At a second-hand record store, he found a copy of Willie Nelson’s 1978 record Stardust – “one of my parents’ favourite records”, Berninger says warmly, “and anytime I hear anything from that I just feel comforted, or a sense of everything’s okay, everybody’s the same, we’re going to be okay. I don’t know, I just feel safe.” Back home he put Stardust on the turntable, and when he flipped the record over, he saw the label read “Produced and arranged by Booker T Jones”, he remembers. “So that’s when the seed started, that maybe I should call him and I could maybe make something like Stardust.”
The original plan was to make a covers record, and perhaps to “sneak one or two originals” on there too. But when he sent Jones the originals, the producer quickly became more interested in the new material and encouraged Berninger to keep writing. The 10 songs that appear on the record, pared back from 20, “feel like they really are meant to be together”, he says. “They felt like the right sweater, you know?” The covers will be released separately on Book Records, the new imprint he and Jones have set up and that is still establishing its identity. “It just might be one record a year and one book a year and that’s it, I don’t know!” he says eagerly. “Maybe it turns into a record shop or a coffee shop.”
Although the songs on Serpentine Prison bear a familial resemblance to National songs, writing them was a process of using “the same muscles, but trying to lift different weights, I guess, or do different moves or swim different strokes”, Berninger says. He has various songwriting projects – The National, his solo material, a collaboration with Brent Knopf called EL VY, and more recently a musical based on the 17th-century playwright Cyrano de Bergerac that is now being adapted from stage to screen. And across them, he has found that “there are different goals sometimes, or different processes to get there, and the songs need to do different things, but I guess when you get down to writing the real words and the emotion in the thing, I’m only writing about myself. I’m definitely writing characters, I’ve been writing characters that are versions of me, or not even versions of me but versions of me I want to be, or versions of me I don’t want to be…”
He writes often with his wife Carin Besser, a former fiction editor at The New Yorker, a collaboration now so long-running that it is hard to disentangle one’s influence from the other. “I mean, I feel like even our conversations, even our fights, are just versions of us writing,” he says. In some ways, Serpentine Prison grew out of a fight, though on this occasion with his father rather than his wife. On Christmas Eve, the day before not only Christmas Day but also his father’s birthday, Berninger “unleashed” on him for “a long list of things, only one or two of which were his fault”.
For Berninger it was a significant dispute, an indelible moment in their relationship. But as the release of this record approached, and he spoke in the press about the fact that this record “isn’t about my dad, but it is for him”, his father mentioned that he had no recollection of the argument in question.
Berninger was flabbergasted. “But don’t you remember: I was like in the backyard, drinking vodka and smoking weed the whole time and I wouldn’t come in and talk to anybody?” He asked his father. “You don’t remember that huge fight that we had about Catholicism? I was trying to explain that I’m a Pantheist, polytheist and I think institutionalised religions are more bad than good – don’t you remember that?” Eventually it rang a bell. “Oh yeah,” he remembers his father saying. “But we have that conversation every time we see each other!” He has come to realise that maybe it wasn’t really a fight with his dad, that in fact “I was fighting with myself over things, which means I’m fighting with my dad because I am my dad”.
Conflict, whether with his wife, or his father, or, famously, with his fellow band members in The National, can offer rich creative territory for Berninger. Though he has come to realise that there are better ways to fight than others. “I don’t think fighting is bad, I think fighting and conflict over people’s feelings is a healthy thing. A fight is way better than buried resentment,” he says. “But it’s how we do it. Sometimes fights can be damaging and sometimes you can go too far and sometimes you can hurt each other and do real damage. I come out pretty strong. I’ll kick a garbage can across a room once a year, that type of thing! I’ll slam a door. And I can yell, and that is violent. Volume, and the choice of words, can be violent in a non-physical way.”
These days he is learning a more nuanced way to argue. “I try to catch myself,” he explains. “Just say it, don’t scream it. Just walk out, you don’t have to add the door slam.” He thinks for a second. “But sometimes you do have to add the slam!”
It’s an approach that Berninger is clearly taking both domestically and politically; a desire for greater understanding and contemplation, a lowering of voices, a hope for change and common ground. He returns to the subject of the coming weeks, to the turmoil that has spread across America and the wider world this year. “I think this is a last desperate gasp of white patriarchal racist, sexist, capitalism,” he says. “Capitalism is collapsing, thank god, but along with it democracy might be collapsing a little.” And whatever happens after the election, and the pandemic, and the social unrest, and even after the fires on the west coast, there is cause for optimism. “I do think what’s on the other side of all these things might be wiser and more truthful,” he says. “Right now we’re definitely in the fog. But I can see light.”
Serpentine Prison is out now on Concord