Nine Songs: Matt Berninger
For Matt Berninger, the greatest inspirations were often those found closest to home.
It’s 7am in L.A. when Berninger calls me from his home. Yet the sleepy-eyed hour has done little to dampen the spirits of The National frontman, a renowned early riser who thinks nothing of waking at 5am to work on lyrics. When I ask how he’s holding up, Berninger happily reports that he’s “Well-rested, trying to keep my head above the water and doing a pretty good job with that.”
It's no mean feat for a politically active American during one of the country’s most tumultuous times in recent memory. A time he admits has left him “just as freaked out and depressed as everyone else.”
After concluding our call, Berninger is looking forward to heading off with his family to an isolated farm to celebrate the release of his debut solo record Serpentine Prison. “Everybody’s looking forward to not having me talk about my record for a little while” he jokes. “Even the cats are sick of hearing me talk about it early in the mornings, but not me, I'm still into it.” And so he should be.
Produced and arranged by Booker T. Jones and featuring contributions from members of The Walkmen, Beirut and a host of the L.A. scenes brightest stars, Serpentine Prison, despite holding enough familiarity for fans of The National, is an assured branch out into refreshing streams. Losing none of his desert-dry wit, wounded vulnerability, and loose, charming melodies Serpentine Prison further cements Berninger as a master of mercurial heartbreak.
It’s a collection of songs of love and heartbreak, soaked with tears fuelled by late-night liquor store runs. Throughout the record, Berninger is comfortable sharing the discomfort he finds within in his own skin. “We worked on it fast and it came together fast, but it’s been done for a little while. It feels long overdue, I really can’t wait for it to come out.”
As we talk through his Nine Songs, Berninger describes his choices as being the “roots of my favourite types of songwriting.” His admiration of artistic risk, integrity and brave songwriting becomes immediately clear, as he effuses about the bands and songs, that in his own words “Made me want to do it.”
Despite having called New York home in the past and now living in L.A., it is perhaps not surprising that Berninger’s native Ohio, where he spent his youth, looms largest on his formative musical experiences. His highest regard is held for the local legends who showed a “pretty nerdy” kid that there was a life outside his state lines, and not only that, provided the blueprint for how to get there.
It's not without a sense of irony that Berninger now fulfils that role himself, and him recognising that which explains his own passion for local scenes and community, and his heartbreak at temporary pause COVID-19 has put on live music.
“There are still some really rich and fertile scenes. L.A. has a lot of really healthy little scenes. Echo Park in many ways is very much like Seattle or Dayton or New York were at different times and I can tell. And now that no one can even go to clubs, I think I miss that the most, the physical spaces and meeting other people. That's why it's so hard for people who are just beginning to find their scene and put their bands together and meet friends at shows. Suddenly they can't right now, and that's crushing.”
But not unlike many of the artists and songs that make up his Nine Songs selections, Berninger has faith that perseverance and belief will prevail for the next generation. “They're finding other ways to create scenes... however they have to.”
“I've said this a lot, my parents didn't have a very big record collection, but the ones they had they played over and over again, and this was one of them.
“There are so many incredibly devastating, emotionally raw songs all over that record - and some fun songs - but “Killing Me Softly with His Song” specifically; it was the single, the title track and everything. It's about going to see a show and falling in love with somebody on stage singing songs. This incredibly beautiful, otherworldly woman was falling in love with some nerd playing the guitar just because of the words and lyrics.
“There's a lot of songs that I really love that are songs about songs and this is maybe my favourite one. I keep thinking that it must have done something to my wiring as a kid - how to meet women, and how to get them to fall in love with you - because I can't play the piano or the guitar, but writing love songs is my favourite thing to do. To the point where I’m like ‘I need to figure out how to write something other than a love song.’”
“My sister Rachel is a year and a half older than I am and she started buying records at Peaches record store or somewhere in Cincinnati, or maybe it was mail order, and this was one of them. There was also The Smiths and U2, but I remember everything about this record.
“From the strangeness of the album cover, it looks like it's gonna be choir music or some sort of soft folk singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell sort of thing. Then you listen to the music and its these wack-a-doodle, dark, sketchy, madcap, angry, hilarious, confessional songs. It was unclassifiable. This record is one that just sort of blows your mind, it’s almost like Nevermind. It's so emotional and crazy and so infectious that you can't stop listening to it. And so many songs on this record are just as good as “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
“I stole lyrics from this song on a National song (“Hard To Find”). I definitely go back, and I excavate some of my favourite songs. I've probably stolen something from everybody on this list somewhere.”
“The Afghan Whigs are from Cincinnati and they were big home time heroes. In fact, Bryan Devendorf from The National took a lot of drum lessons from their drummer Steve Earle. I can't remember how old I was exactly when I first started paying attention to them, but Cincinnati had a really amazing scene and The Afghan Whigs were definitely the alpha Cincinnati band.
“I think they got signed to Sub Pop right on the heels of Nirvana. This was right before they blew up and you could tell it was happening. Greg Dulli was from the west side of Cincinnati and seeing this guy from the same side of town as me on stage, I was blown away. These Cincinnati dudes were so visceral and incredibly skilled musically. They all had chops and Greg Dulli can sing as good as John Lennon.
“Then there's just sexiness and scariness. I've told this story before, but when I saw them at Bogart’s in Cincinnati, I was standing right in the middle, about ten people back. Greg Dulli came out and right before they launched into this song, I swear he looked me right in the eye and he just spat the cigarette he had in his mouth right at me and launched into this guitar riff. And holy fucking shit, it was just so aggressive, but the songs were filled with confessional pain. I've never met him, but right away I was like ‘I get you dude, you're a fucking west-sider Catholic aren’t you?’
“That was the tip of the spear of thinking maybe I could get out of Cincinnati and be a rock star someday. The Afghan Whigs and this record and seeing them in Cincinnati was a major, major thing for me.”
“I'm a very progressive liberal and I find Morrisey’s current politics really disgusting. Yet I still listen to so much of his art, especially early Smiths and hear so much incredible songwriting, incredible poetry, incredible bravery, and incredible empathy for everyone, including, and sometimes mostly, himself. But I loved his sense of self-protection, of self-care and self-aggrandising. He really was a cheerleader for himself - just like Greg Dulli, but in a different way - confessing all his true demons and saying, ‘I'm OK with myself nonetheless.’
“This song is just such a simple prayer. It is exactly what it is, ‘please let me get what I want.’ Then there are little details of not having had a dream in a long time, it's so sweet and yet so genuinely pleading. It’s beautiful and I still have faith when I hear it. I have faith in this kind of writing and this kind of music, regardless of other factors sometimes.
“I don't think it's a good idea to go back and try to pull apart the things that you love and try to dismantle them and convince yourself not to love them anymore. I think by understanding how much you love that work (you) maybe figure out how you can continue to love somebody who might need your love. I still love Morrissey. What can I tell you?”
“When I was in college the first time, I was really in love with somebody amazing. Her name was Caroline and that's when I fell in love with Tom Waits. Sometimes you fall in love with an artist at the same time you fall in love with a person and they all get mixed up, right?
“We dated for about a year or so, then I transferred schools and we broke up and she ended up getting married to a painter. She was from Cleveland and I drove to their wedding. I remember driving home from Cleveland to Cincinnati listening to this record just crushed, because I broke up with her and I was still half in love with her.
“The truth is I got into Tom Waits in a weird way. I heard something on a compilation and I didn't know anything about him. Then I went and tried to find something, and I found The Early Years and I didn't even think it was the same artist. It was a funny moment when I started to connect the dots between his early stuff and the stuff he was starting to do in the early ‘90s when I discovered him.
“This record Closing Time was one of my favourites, it's such a tender record. It’s before he started really experimenting and going into the Franks Wild Years and Bone Machine territory. There's just something so sweet and heart-breaking and sentimental about it.
“It's one of those records I hear and I’m like ‘Oh my God, I'm back in that car driving from Cleveland to Cincinnati every time, every song.’ Even when a record reminds you of heartbreak, it's just such a great feeling.”
“I was recommended Icky Mettle in a record store called Wizards in Cincinnati by one of those really intimidating record store guys - a very John Cusack dude. I went in and was looking around and he was like ‘Hey, you want something cool?’ and I was like ‘OK’, and he gave me Icky Mettle by Archers of Loaf
“I fell in love with Archers of Loaf and saw them when they came through town. The visceral, muscular power of all those songs and the crazy poetry of “Web In Front” just blew my mind. But then later Eric Bachmann does this very different intimate, personal, quiet project and I was like ‘Wow this guy can be the lead frontman of Archers of Loaf and do this?’ He's remained one of my favourite songwriters, even now, he's just an incredible writer.
“I was listening to this record a lot while I was on a trip through India in 1999, 2000 or something like that, with a girlfriend and some of her friends. She was Swedish and it was one of those relationships that was so romantic, but you just knew it probably wasn't going to be the long-term fit.
“It was melancholic, yet super exciting travelling through India on a train and in all these old taxis and stuff. It was wild but I remember I would listen to this record so much. I had it on a mini disc. I took 5 minidiscs with me; I didn't want to take anything bulky because I was basically backpacking. It was one of those records you found solace in and it got me through a confusing and strange trip, which was sort of beautiful.
"We broke up just shortly after we got back from that trip so it’s another song that puts me in a place.”
“I can't remember if I bought a record first or if I saw them in Cincinnati at a club, but The Jesus Lizard show was such a physical thing. David Yow would crawl into the crowd. I'd seen guys dive offstage into mosh pits, but David just climbed over people and sing right into people’s faces, he would stop and talk to people and lick people, he was channelling something.
“Being in a crowd and being pretty nerdy, seeing David Yow almost naked coming towards you in a near beastly emotional ape state; to see someone let go of all fear of what a venue is and what a show is supposed to be, he just destroyed all ideas of what a frontman is supposed to be and do. Like Iggy Pop did, but David Yow was his own animal and when you see a creature like no other you just never forget it.
“And these records, the music and how Albini recorded them, are different from other records. “Nub” is off of Goat and is the one that imprinted itself on me when those guitars rev up. If I'm riding my bike and this comes on in one of my shuffle playlists, I just start pumping. It’s like a freight train, it comes up behind you and you have to turn it off or just go, no matter what state you're in.
“I would love to be at a disco dance party somewhere and have “Nub” come on and see what happens. Just a bunch of people on drugs and then here comes “Nub”, boy that would be fun. It's such a physical thing, I lose weight every time I listen to the song.”
“David Berman's writing, David Berman's voice, David Berman's delivery, everything about him was singular, every aspect of him was unique. You could sort of hear his external influences - Jonathon Richman or whatever - but there was no point in thinking of influences other than poets.
“I've talked a lot about Guided By Voices and Pavement and my first band Nancy was very much in that vein, but when the first Silver Jews thing came out it was just so cool. It was like ‘Wait what's going on here... the guys from Pavement are working with this poet from Kentucky and they all met in college?’ It was such a cool thing to have a band like Pavement’s ramshackle approach mixed with a poet, just friends drinking in crappy rooms and doing it fast and not overthinking it. It was so inspiring.
“Whether or not it's the first song he wrote or not, it does feel like one of those songs that he was like ‘I'm gonna put my name on this for sure, I am no longer fucking around here’ - you can tell. He continued to develop as a poet and as a writer and musician, and his last record as Purple Mountains is a masterpiece.
“The bravery, beauty and the reckless fun with which that guy wrote everything, you could tell that as troubled as he was, he was having fun writing and that this was something that brought him joy, even the darkest songs. And I get that. When I'm really in a shit hole mentally or emotionally, music - making it and listening to it - is always the thing that helps me get out of it.”
“Kim Deal is one of the greatest singers of all time and she's also one of the greatest lyricists in my book. Like some of the other people I’ve mentioned here, she is a singular voice with a very unique way of writing that is like no one else. I could have picked so many Breeders songs, but I picked a Beatles cover, because when you hear Kim Deal and her band making it their own, it's so ferocious, so tender, so harrowing, but so much fun too.
“It's really helpful and enlightening to do a cover, because you learn amazing things. It's really hard to not sound like a total sycophant and to honour a song you love. I love that when The Replacements opened for Tom Petty and did nothing but play Tom Petty covers the whole time. And that's what you have to do in a funny way. You have to kill your heroes a little bit, or at least go for it, otherwise you are just playing it safe.
“The alchemy of The Breeders is impossible to describe or recreate. It's almost like the Pixies. It’s impossible to explain why the Pixies are so incredible, but The Breeders were so incredible but nothing like the Pixies. How did she do that? How did she reinvent? I don't even think that she thought about it.
“Cincinnati and Southern Ohio had a lot of really good bands. Between Brainiac, The Breeders, Guided By Voices and Bob Nastanovich, the Pavement guys and David Berman in Kentucky there was a real weird literary experimental writers vibe down through that little corridor. I remember feeling so excited to be close to these people who were almost at the level of Nirvana. or even influenced Nirvana. Here is this woman and her sister who lived 45 minutes away. It was so wild; I would see them at places like Canal Street Tavern.
“All those bands were really influencing each other. I know that the Breeders were obsessed with Brainiac and vice versa. You'd see Kim Deal at Brainiac shows and it was so exciting to be in the room with these people that were getting out of Ohio, they were becoming stars, Greg Dulli included.
“It was really inspiring and liberating and enlightening. Not just the fact that they were making it, but that they were making it with such unique personal weird art. That's what was most inspiring about it all.”