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The National at 25: Matt Berninger on the Band’s Longevity

The band’s vocalist opens up about how they keep evolving 25 years into their career and discusses their upcoming Australia/New Zealand tour

The National

Graham MacIndoe

The blackout curtains are drawn but it’s still light out. A discarded room service tray delivered 10 hours prior sits on the floor of Matt Berninger’s hotel room. He’s revisited the plate three times because he can’t find the key to the inconveniently locked snack bar.

“That’s my kinda day,” Berninger tells Rolling Stone AU/NZ from Arizona where his band, The National, are performing the next night. Undeterred by his snack bar frustration, he answers the first round of questions warmly: are The National getting better with time, 25 years into their career? How does the band keep evolving as the years go by while maintaining strong critical praise?

“For the longest time, we were just slowly figuring out what sort of alchemy worked with us musically,” Berninger says by way of explanation. “Then we started leaning in to what we thought were our strengths and over the course of – it feels like – the last 10 years, I do think we tried to not sound like ourselves, even though it’s proven much more difficult than we realised.”

The band’s passion for making music seems to only be accelerating over time. Last year alone, The National put out 23 songs across two albums, First Two Pages of Frankenstein and Laugh Track.

“The last several records, and Sleep Well Beast [2017] and I Am Easy to Find [2019], we were trying to do things differently than we’ve done before,” he says. “That part of it is looking to write songs that are unfamiliar or starting from a different place. We’ve definitely gone out on some branches instead of trying to write this way or that way.”

When it came to their 2023 albums, their usual recording processes were totally overhauled, defined by distance during lockdowns. The space between Berninger and his bandmates and their eventual reunion triggered a new period of creativity; they tried unfamiliar methods, including capturing loose or subconscious jams during soundcheck. 

“Some of the songs that ended up on Laugh Track were the first ones born from that chemistry,” Berninger explains. “Right now, we’re all leaning into that. We all have certain ways we swim, but the water changes and the waves change and the whole environment that we’re in shifts and we are all adjusting to that.

“It’s almost never a conversation with The National in terms of, ‘Let’s make a record like this or that,’ it’s always organically what’s bubbling and what feels exciting and fun. When we get in a room, the room becomes us.” 

With 10 acclaimed albums and just as many successful headline tours behind them, as well as several Grammy Award nominations, The National are rightfully revered as one of the greats of 21st century indie rock. In 2024, the band will celebrate 25 years of making music together – longevity many of their peers haven’t been able to maintain. 

“I think the most challenging [thing] for bands to stay together is all that interpersonal stuff. It becomes like a family after a while,” Berninger says. Their kinship is very real, with two sets of brothers, Scott and Bryan Devendorf and Aaron and Bryce Dessner, joining Berninger in the lineup. The closeness the band enjoys is one of the reasons Berninger believes they have made it this far. 

“It is very much a family. The thing that’s kept us together is we’ve always given each other whatever sort of space for that,” he says. “Staying creatively motivated is essential but staying friends is more important.”

The National will tour across Australia and New Zealand this February and March, and Berninger is looking forward to returning to the two countries. According to him, trekking so far from home adds a special feeling to touring that the band doesn’t get visiting other places.

“It feels like a surreal fantasy land – more than Europe does and more than places we’re more familiar with,” he insists. “I think the fact it’s just such a long flight and then you wake up and it feels like you’re in a new world – that’s always made tours there really fun. You feel like you can take chances.” 

While live performances were once an “intense struggle” for the vocalist, he’s come to understand the expectations of the crowd and what makes him give his best show. 

On stage he typically appears incredibly focused, two hands clasped carefully on the microphone stand, eyes tightly shut, seemingly in the zone with his rich tones emerging from deep within. At some points during a performance, he’ll freely vibe out to the music; at other moments, he’ll insert himself into the crowd. 

Asked what it takes, Berninger says his stage presence “almost never comes naturally.”

“It used to be an uncomfortable place. I have to get emotionally connected to the songs to feel good and it’s something that’s hard to do when all these faces are looking at you – but I don’t want to shut out the audience. I have to get in this nice mental mixture.

“There’s a big part of it that is a performance, I am illustrating songs and using the whole stage and going into the crowd and trying to connect with everybody in that room. If I don’t connect there I feel like a fraud, like a fake, and if I also am only doing the theatrical thing and listening to the words I’m singing, that also feels fake. I have to be this conduit between both those things. 

“If it becomes too polished it really feels wrong to me – so all of that is going through my head the whole time, I’m constantly trying to turn off those self-conscious thoughts of understanding what I’m doing and just do and just be. I can get there a lot during shows and it’s a very rare place, it’s incredible.”

The National head to Auckland, Wellington, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth through February and March. Ticket information is available here