Matt Berninger on Writing ‘Weirdly Optimistically’ About His Fears
On 'Serpentine Prison,' the National frontman’s solo debut, his goals are connection, discovery and “euphoria” through music
Talking with Matt Berninger is a lot like listening to his idiosyncratic lyrics: he starts off on one topic, then veers off into unexpected but illuminating tangents. During a call from his Venice, California home, his mind seems to work like a needle skipping around on a record – he switches his focus often, sometimes even mid-sentence. When asked about making art during this pandemic, he tells SPIN, “I feel like paintings and poetry and movies and Wonder Woman  is coming out the same day my record comes out, I think. Look at [how] the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy are collaborating on the new Public Enemy album.”
He’s not quite correct: Wonder Woman 1984 actually isn’t coming out until Christmas (for now). But his album, Serpentine Prison – his first proper solo release (he previously collaborated with Brent Knopf on EL VY) – will be released on Oct. 16. As with the eight albums he’s made with the National, his solo work shows his urge to make deeper connections (within himself and with others) through his music.
This is why, despite these troubled times, Berninger knew it was the right moment to release this album. “My record was done well before any of this,” he says, “but when I listen to it now, I’m like, ‘That fits.’ We’ve all felt really disconnected for a long time.” With Serpentine Prison, he hopes to make a difference: “I think art is the only way for us to communicate and to connect. Because obviously, no matter how many cable stations or apps or news feeds or message boards you’re connected to, those things are only dividing us.”
SPIN: How does it feel to release something under your own name, as opposed to with a band?
Matt Berninger: Every time, it’s like having a baby. I’m really excited, really nervous. Putting out records is always super, super terrifying. I’m a little afraid every time I post something on Instagram I’m going to ruin my career, and I almost have! There’ve been some posts I did on Instagram where I’m like, “Oh, my God, that’s not what I meant!” And I had to hurry up and get it down because no one understood the joke, and the joke wasn’t very good, anyway. So I’m terrified the first time I do anything.
Then how have you found the courage to work as a musician?
I didn’t have a great voice or a great talent for songwriting for a long, long time. But when I was at the University of Cincinnati [studying graphic design], I met Scott Devendorf and Mike Brewer. We formed a band called Nancy. We made a record called Ruther 3429, and we played two gigs. We were all obsessed with Guided by Voices and Pavement. That’s where I was like, “If those guys can be in a band, then I can be in a band.” But then some of us moved to New York; some of us couldn’t stay in New York, so that band stopped naturally. That first band Nancy, making that record, was kind of like I got bitten by the rock and roll vampire. [Berninger and Devendorf would go on to form the National.]
What made you decide to do a solo album now?
It didn’t start out as a solo thing. It started out as, I wanted to do a bunch of covers just to learn how to sing better, and I wanted to work with [producer] Booker T. Jones. He worked with Willie Nelson to make Stardust, and that’s a good covers record. But then I had all these orphan songs, and I didn’t want to start another band, so I started sharing these originals with Booker. When I’m writing, I’m not writing like, “It will be for this.” I’m always writing about myself.
Your lyrics tend to be serious, but your onstage performances can be quite exuberant. How do you find the right balance?
I feel euphoric when I write those songs. I feel euphoric when I sing them. I can’t write a song, or can’t go back to it, unless I’m lifting up a rock and discovering something either terrifying or exciting or real. Very rarely is there a song that ends up on a record that I wasn’t crying while writing it at some point. Not like weeping, but working on it, you finally get a melody and a lyric that lands right, and you realize how much you needed to say those words in a row. And you get overwhelmed. I get really moved. I’m always trying to actually discover something real about myself. I’m really trying to expose myself to myself. Because I’ve got this safe place to say the most honest things to thousands of people — and I get away with it! I do not take that gift for granted. I feel like I’m connecting to myself when I’m writing. If I connect to a song, all I can do is assume that it will resonate with other people.
What did you discover as you wrote lyrics for this new album?
I think everything I’m writing is about fear and desire. Fear, I do think that’s the thing that stops us from doing all the things that are going to make us happy and will make other people around us happy. Fear of telling the truth to each other about ourselves. And fear of telling each other about our fears. Fear of fear. Because fear is the opposite of love. Love isn’t just this thing that settles into you. Love is bravery. Bravery and love are synonymous. Fear and hate are synonymous. People think these sensations are something that comes to you: “love finds you.” No, no — love is something you do. I’m not fearless. Anybody who says they’re fearless is crazy. What bravery is, and what love is, is taking all your fear but leaning in anyway. I’m always writing weirdly optimistically about my own fears.
Do you remember the first time you ever finished a song where you thought you’d really succeeded as a songwriter?
It was on the Nancy record. I was doing some good writing hidden in there. But I also have some lines about the Millennium Falcon and shit. That’s one fear I have, is listening to that. Okay, I’m going to go ahead and say “Florida Girls” off of Ruther because it’s the only one I can remember! I guess I felt like I had written something worth putting out then. But I’m not so sure. I know that the first lines are, “Florida girls are greased up…” [He pauses.] That’s it. “Florida girls are greased up” is the first lyric, and I really hope no one finds out what the rest are because I can’t remember.
You know we’re all going to go look that up now.
I know! Now you’re going to have to find out, and this could be it: this could be the end! I’d like to say, I apologize if I offended the ladies of Florida.