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“It Was Live Or Die”: Matt Berninger On The National’s ‘High Violet’ 10 Years Later

Coronavirus has turned all touring musicians into housebound music fans. “I haven’t been home this long in 15 years,” Matt Berninger wryly confesses. When reached by phone earlier this week, The National frontman chatted a bit about what’s keeping him occupied lately, including a recently completed solo album, Serpentine Prison, produced by Booker T. Jones. But more than anything he’s been spending his quarantine time listening to familiar favorites. “I’m really gravitating to Willie Nelson for some reason. I’m finding so much comfort in his stuff. And Sufjan Stevens,” he says. “I find a lot of solace in Carrie & Lowell.

As for me, I tell him I’ve been playing “Lemonworld” on a loop. One of the many highlights of The National’s great fifth album, High Violet — which turns 10 on May 11, an occasion marked with a new anniversary edition due out June 19 — “Lemonworld” is a tragicomic pop song spiked with dirty guitars, about a person who escapes home in order to spend time at a mysterious country getaway. I’ve always loved the song, but now the opening lines turn my blood cold:

So happy I was invited
Gave me a reason to get out of the city
See you inside watching swarms on TV
Livin’ and dyin’ in New York, it means nothing to me

That’s not the only song on High Violet that sounds like it could have been written last month. Apocalyptic imagery abounds in Berninger’s lyrics — the “swarm of bees” in “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” the emotionally zombified person who fears he will “eat your brains” in “Conversation 16,” the flood in “Runaway.” While Berninger doesn’t claim to have had any prescience about 2020 a decade ago, he’s not surprised that High Violet might have contemporary resonance for listeners.

“I’m listening to so much music and every third song I feel like was written for this very, very unique time that we’re going through,” he says.

For The National, High Violet signifies a pivotal moment in their history. Formed in 1999, they spent their first several years in the shadow of flashier New York City bands as they struggled to find their own voice on their first two albums. In 2005, they became a critical darling with Alligator, and then 2007’s Boxer made them a popular indie favorite. High Violet represents the period when The National finally became a mainstream act. Suffused with a musical grandiosity that blows far past its more introverted predecessors, High Violet debuted in the top 5 in the US and UK and permanently ushered them to headliner status in large theaters and arenas.

Looking back, Berninger says the making of the record was fueled by an anxious desire to not slide back into obscurity.

High Violet did feel like, ‘Oh, we can maybe be any kind of band.’ We were always trying to learn how to be a band at all,” he says. “Every single thing we did, it was live or die. If we didn’t make some kind of a splash with that record, it did feel that we would die on the vine.”

In the following interview, Berninger talks about the making of the record, and gives his takes on some of High Violet‘s most loved tracks, including “Lemonworld,” “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” and “Terrible Love,” which he admits the band might have screwed up for the original studio version.

What is the significance of “Lemonworld” for you personally?

That’s one of my favorite songs. That song was a struggle to figure out how to get it right for whatever reason. Every time we cooked it, it didn’t taste right. Somebody said to me we had 80 versions of the song; I think we probably had 20 actual different versions. We probably worked harder on that song than any single song, and I don’t even know if we ever figured it out right.

To me that song could have been written about this health crisis, and people fantasizing about escaping the city.

There are a lot of National songs that are about escape and about feeling on the outside and watching it from afar. There are two or three songs on every record that are about that. “Lemonworld,” specifically, it’s sort of a weird garden of Eden. It’s a place of freedom and silliness and sexiness and flowers and alcohol and nature and all that stuff. I guess whenever I think of “Lemonworld,” I think of an Italian Villa or something with lemon trees and all that kind of shit.

Our basic desires for connection, desires to be understood, and desires to be heard and seen or to escape, I think artists are always writing about it. And so when something like this happens, good art just resonates.

As a songwriter, do you think about how context changes what songs mean to the listener?

Certainly. That happens a week after the record is finished, I hear a song differently. I think songs evolve the way we evolve. The song I go back to over and over is “Famous Blue Raincoat.” I probably have to say it’s my favorite song, Not that I listen to it the most. It’s just the one that evolves the most for me. I’m trying to figure out the relationships in that song all the time.

You mentioned how hard it was to get “Lemonworld” right. Would you say High Violet was one of the most difficult albums for The National to make?

Yes. I mean, they’re always really hard and there’s always a lot of anxiety. There’s also a lot of joy. But there was so much pressure and so much emotion and people had so much invested in every sketch. Aaron and Bryce, they would name songs after people’s kids. They did that because they knew I would have to go work on a song called “Cora,” because Cora is [our engineer] Nick Lloyd’s kid. I don’t know if “Cora” ever turned into a song.

I felt like we were depleted when we started making that record. I got a really bad sinus infection and then my eardrum ruptured when I flew home to Cincinnati for my grandmother’s funeral. And then when I came back, I couldn’t hear in one ear. And so we had to stop and start. But I remember it being artistically really satisfying. I feel like we saved most of our conflict for the art. We were fighting to make the songs work and nobody would give up, which is good. That’s why we did so many versions of “Lemonworld.”

You were described at the time as the dad of the band. Do you feel like that was true?

Yeah. Maybe because I’m older, I’m a little more assertive or something. But there was a role that I played, which I didn’t necessarily like playing.

I remember interviewing the band around the time that Trouble Will Find Me came out, and it seemed like by then you had learned how to live more comfortably as a band after the High Violet experience.

Yeah. I still sometimes think, I can’t imagine five more different people. Like, having brothers in the band and all that stuff comes into it. And tribalism and egos and fear of having to go back to real jobs. When you start getting attention for something, when that dream comes true, becoming famous for making art, the idea of losing it is terrifying. You just have to keep making the dream stay true.

“Bloodbuzz Ohio” was the breakout hit from High Violet. Did it seem like the album’s big song when you made it?

It started with a little mandolin sketch from Padma Newsome, almost like this little folky thing. Maybe I was drawn to it because we had just come off tour with R.E.M., and we watched them do “Losing My Religion.” I feel like it was written really fast and kind of easy. And then Bryan started playing the beat, and it suddenly went from sort of a nice little bouquet of flowers into this big, muscular tree. And that’s when we were like, “Holy fuck. This thing is big!”

That’s another song with apocalyptic imagery. A “swarm of bees” is almost biblical.

There’s always some sort of nature that invades the urban or domestic world in my songs. Either that or some sort of destruction. And it’s just a fear of death, right? I think I like to flirt with suicide, flirt with the apocalypse, with total romantic devastation. Everything. Just like look into the center, look into the darkness, look into the abyss. Because with rock ‘n’ roll, you’re never going to get hurt. The way you get closest to and understand life is to look at your own potential lack of it.

One of the best songs on High Violet is “Terrible Love.” I remember seeing you guys play it on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and thinking it was the greatest music that The National had ever made up to that point. And then the album came out, and it seems like you purposely took the grandness out of it. What was the thinking there?

Well it’s funny, because when we played it live on Fallon, we realized we’d fucked up the record version. We were like, “Holy shit!” And then we listened to the record version and were like, “Yeah, we should’ve cooked that.” But I do think there was a sense of trying to make things uglier. Maybe to hide the ambition. Maybe we were embarrassed by the ambition of it all. “Love” is a real dangerous word to use in the song. If you don’t use it right, it sounds canned.

We spent a lot of time getting those shitty sounding guitars. The way we were describing what it should sound like, they were not musical terms. We wanted it to sound like wet pine or wooly, or more like sludge and more like tar, more like saltwater. It was like, “Make it sound more like lemons.” And then we had to figure out what the hell that meant. So a lot of times we were adding lemons, and adding fuzz, and adding whatever. We tried really hard to make it sound like we weren’t trying.

When I heard the original album version, I assumed that you were skittish about sounding too much like U2.

I’m a huge Guided By Voices fan. The notes are a little flat, or a little sharp, and they haven’t figured out the bridge yet. Early versions so often have surprising honesty. It’s like seeing a picture of somebody with zits on their face. You kind of get to know them a little better. They’re not all airbrushed yet.

I think I was always really trying to make things sound worse. That wasn’t always smart. And “Terrible Love” is a great example of that. I don’t know if that one’s particularly my fault. I think we were all like trying to push it that way.

“Sorrow” was given a new life when The National played it for six hours straight during an art installation in 2013. Did playing it so many times in a row change your perception of it?

That song really grew on us all. You would think that we get sick of playing it again after playing it, I think, 105 times. But that experience sort of made us appreciate that song. When you do something like that over and over again, it’s a real mind fuck. Every line of it, you start to hear something new every time it comes around.

I remember writing most of that song in one field somewhere. I don’t know where the fuck I was. And I remember thinking like, “Oh, this is really something that means a lot to me.”

Is it unusual for you to write a song that quickly?

It used to be. “I Need My Girl” was written really fast. “About Today” I remember was just … done. But it used to be a real slow process of building a song and putting the words together, and finding the lines that would bounce off each other the right way. I just write less consciously now. It spills out faster. It’s no better, it’s just there’s a lot more. And then I go back and throw 75 percent of it away and cherry-pick that. But I write really fast. Songs like “Not in Kansas,” I’ll write in an hour and then maybe come back the next day and finish it in an hour.

I love “Not In Kansas” because of how loose it is, and all of the references you pull in. It reminds me of a Dylan song.

I mean, Dylan is such a master of that, of taking you to 500 places, rooms, roads, rivers, just inside his head, inside his soul, on a motorcycle. It doesn’t matter. He’ll take you all those places in such beautifully bizarre, just free-associative language.

What did you think of “A Murder Most Foul”?

I have not listened to the whole thing. [Laughs.] I just wasn’t in the mood to be taken through the assassination of JFK. It’s just like, “Fuck man.” But I love Maximalism. That’s just great. I like breaking the form and saying a 15-minute single is cool. But I haven’t absorbed it all.

I know you’re planning to release a solo album and have other projects in the works. But in terms of The National, have you started thinking about the next LP?

We don’t talk that much about albums. We all have folders filled with ideas, and then we’ll start sending things back and forth. We’ll have it 60 to 75 percent cooked and then we’ll be like, “Oh, we should probably go into the studio.” That’s the way The National kind of always works.

Whenever we say, “Let’s make a plan,” it just creates a deadline or anxiety or some sort of abstract stress in the future. So we just stopped making plans. And as soon as we stopped making plans, these records started coming faster and songs started happening faster. It’s a weird thing. But we are talking all the time and we really miss each other. We all really, really have learned to love performing. We’re healthier, and we’re just nicer to each other in general and we’re better. We’re a better band than we were 10 years ago for sure. We’re a better band than we were when we made High Violet. And so we have no plans to fucking take it for granted or fuck it up.

The High Violet 10th anniversary reissue is out on June 19 via 4AD. Get it here.