When The National’s Matt Berninger was a kid, his father’s favorite album was Stardust, Willie Nelson’s interpretations of such pop standards as Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” and George and Ira Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.” That album, Berninger writes in the media kit for his first solo album Serpentine Prison, “has a tenderness and optimism that must have worked its way into the fabric of my soul because every time I hear it I feel safe and happy.”
In 2018, after The National had finished recording I Am Easy to Find, Berninger — the band’s bespectacled, suit-wearing frontman — decided it was time to make his own Stardust. For guidance, he reached out to Stax soul legend Booker T. Jones, who had produced and arranged Nelson’s 1978 LP. Berninger had befriended Jones and his family when he recorded a track for the Memphis native’s 2011 album The Road to Memphis — a duet with Booker’s daughter, the late Sharon Jones.
Jones liked the idea, and in early 2019 Berninger began sending him songs he wanted to cover. Instead of mining the Great American Songbook as Nelson had, Berninger envisioned a darker track list that included the Velvet Underground’s “European Son,” Morphine’s “In Spite of Me” and The Cure’s “In Between Days.” He also sent Jones demos of original songs he had cowritten. Jones encouraged Berninger to continue along that path, and Serpentine Prison, which is out Oct. 16, morphed into an album of originals that Berninger says is about “s–t I’m dealing with, or that people I know are dealing with.”
As might be expected from the smoky-voiced lyricist for The National, Serpentine Prison features a cast of burnout cases, nomads and spurned lovers set to music that, while not a significant departure from that produced by Berninger’s bandmates (the Dessner and Devendorf brothers), is more sedate and nuanced under Jones’ direction. “It’s not the warmest hug, but it’s supposed to be a comforting record,” says Berninger. “Even though it’s got a lot of spikes in it.”
Anyone who’s been to one of The National’s concerts will understand. They are cathartic gatherings of people drawn to Berninger’s talent for evoking their pain — sometimes face to face, as he roves through the crowd and climbs over seats — while his bandmates drown out those demons with hocketing guitar lines and Bryan Dessner’s precise, amphetamine-rush drumming.
Serpentine Prison hits those marks in its own way, although the pandemic has delayed Berninger’s plans to present the album in concert. By phone from his home in Venice, Calif. (where he and his family have lived for the last seven years), he discusses with Billboard what he misses about touring, the record label he has started with Jones, his album’s connection to a Christmas 2018 argument with his father, and why The National probably won’t record a new album anytime soon.
Can you elaborate on the argument you had with your father?
My whole family was in Seattle where my parents now live really close to my sister and her family. They had just sold their house in Cincinnati. They wanted to move to the West coast to be by their kids, and I wanted them out here, too. But the house in Cincinnati was really special to me and to the whole family. It was even more special to my dad, but my parents sold it in a way I wish they hadn’t. I wish they had taken more time.
So, at Christmas that year, my dad and I were locking horns. My dad’s birthday is Christmas, too, and we were fighting all through Christmas. I gave him gardening tools for a present. I was talking to my dad about it recently, and he didn’t remember us fighting. I was like, “You don’t remember? I was in the backyard drinking vodka all the time and wouldn’t talk to anybody.”
What was so special about the house?
My dad’s grandmother had a farm, and then his older brother, my Uncle Jack, bought a farm in Indiana. I grew up on that farm. When my Uncle Jack sold that farm, my parents bought this property on the west side of Cincinnati, which was the closest thing to a farm. It had a creek and a bridge and woods and trails. My dad was constantly protecting his garden from varmints and raccoons with a shotgun.
That explains your gift of garden tools.
My dad actually moved the big creek that ran through the property like 20 yards to the South to save a tree my mom really liked. It took him five years, with wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of rocks. There was an old car that had washed down the creek — that’s how big this creek was — and he used the car to reinforce the bank, then poured concrete over the car to build a peninsula that diverted the creek and saved the tree. He built fairy towns inside of logs for my daughter.
This place was just a wonderland. It was a retreat. It became the homestead for not just my family but for my extended cousins — the same cousins that I grew up with on Uncle Jack’s Indiana farm. When my parents sold the house, it was like there’s no more Berninger farm left. I think that’s what the fight was really about.
The person who bought the house turned your old bedroom into a gun room?
They sold it to a Republican who turned my old bedroom into a gun room. There are literally a dozen semiautomatic military grade assault rifles on the wall where my mom had used ferns from the yard to do fern pattern wallpaper, so that it looked like you were in a forest. I think they painted that over and hung a dozen killing machines.
And this is a dear family friend. That’s what’s also so messed up about it. I had all these feelings about that. I’m much harder on my dad’s friends sometimes than my dad is. My dad and my Uncle Jack were the only Democrats I think in their whole social network. It was hard for them to be the only ones who were cool with gay marriage. So, God, my dad is totally my hero, but we still go at it sometimes.
You end your notes with the line, “This record isn’t about my dad, but it is for him.” What does that mean?
The record is all my stuff — s–t I’m dealing with or that people I know are dealing with. And yeah, there is stuff about my dad, and there is stuff about my childhood. But it’s not a dark record about my dad at all. My dad and I talk all the time. I’ve felt unconditionally loved by my mom and my dad from the second I was conscious of that. It’s a show of appreciation for him if anything. I made it for myself. I made it for my dad, I made it for Willie Nelson, I made it for my daughter. But mostly for myself.
This fight with your dad reminds me of the scene in Mistaken for Strangers where you upend a coat rack backstage because you are unhappy with a show. Do you find that anger can be a creative tool?
Well, sure. Anger, sadness, depression, anxiety, fear, lust, self-loathing — art is the only place for that stuff, and it’s the best place for all that stuff. Or a therapist. If you can’t afford a therapist and you need to go more than once every two weeks then I suggest art. I suggest going to rock clubs. I suggest starting a band. I suggest making a record because making art has saved my life. It saved my soul. It saved my heart.
Is that your history with therapists — once every other week?
I only started seeing a therapist a couple of years ago. I actually was a big believer in therapy before I ever started going to therapy — just from hearing about its benefits from friends. It’s funny. I found out about five years ago that my Dad had been meditating for 20 years. I was like, “Of all the bad advice you’ve given me, that would have been useful!”
The worst advice my dad ever gave me was when I was about 13 or 14 and I think he discovered some dirty magazines, and he said, “Son, I want you to know there’s nothing wrong with masturbation. Just try not to make a habit of it.” [Laughs.] By that time, it was already a habit. So, I was like, “Why didn’t he tell me about meditation?” My dad’s the best.
Serpentine Prison has a track, “Silver Springs” on which you sing, “Don’t suck, don’t die.” That was Kristin Hersh and Vic Chestnut’s vow to each other.
That’s where I got it from. I stole that line from Kristin’s book. It’s a reference to the pact that these two musicians had with each other, and one of them could not keep it. When I was writing “Silver Springs,” I was channeling this “Badlands” mindset: You’ve got to get your girl and get out of town. Silver Springs, Florida was a place where my family would go.
The song is about the exodus of young, artsy people from the Midwest and the South to places like New York, L.A., Chicago or Austin. I feel that distinctly. I was also listening to [Bruce Springsteen’s] Nebraska, and a lot of that album is about hitting the road and getting out of Dodge. I wrote that song for my daughter. At some point you have to strike out and do your own thing.
What was freeing about doing this solo album compared to doing one by The National?
Well, I don’t really write differently. The musicians I’m working with color my writing a little bit, but if you took the lyrics from The National, the lyrics from EL VY and then the lyrics from this — they’re all about the same three or four things. When I’m writing melodies and lyrics, I’m the same person. I don’t have any other mindsets. It’s just one bowl of Ramen up there. What album a song goes on; with what group; the album cover art; is there a tour; is there a movie; is there a video — that’s the craft. But when it comes to writing melodies and the lyrics, it’s always coming from the same vein of oil that is going through my soul or my brain.
I was just about to point out that despite your success with The National, you are still able to write and sing authentically about people who are despairing or losing something big in their lives. You mentioned Springsteen earlier. After the success of Born in the U.S.A., he seemed to grapple with how to stay authentic. How do you stay in touch with that vein of oil, as you put it?
I don’t know. I’ve had incredible artistic satisfaction and fulfillment beyond my wildest dreams. I’ve talked to astronauts in space. I’ve met presidents. It’s f–ked up, and it’s amazing — and I can’t believe it. I’ve also done well. I don’t have any other job, and I can pay tuitions and rents and stuff just on making art. That’s really rare, and I don’t take that for granted. I’m so grateful, but I still struggle with all kinds of s–t.
Sometimes these songs aren’t necessarily autobiographical. People keep asking me about the song “Oh Dearie,” which looks deep into the well of depression. I’ve been halfway down the ladder, but I’ve never been at the bottom with no ladder. But I know people that have been there for the entire time I’ve known them. Or they’ve only gotten halfway up the ladder. They’ve never been out of the well. That song is about those people and my empathy for them, but it’s not about me.
I’ve never been suicidal. I do write and think about suicide a lot. I’ve never been afraid of thinking about slipping off this mortal coil into whatever you think of as the afterlife. I look at my daughter, and my dad looks at his children and his grandchildren — and, probably before long, great grandchildren — and we’re always thinking about their future. When my dad was building fairy villages inside hollowed-out logs for his granddaughters, he wasn’t doing that for himself. He was doing that for their spirits for eternity. They’ll never forget that s–t.
In addition to recording Serpentine Prison with Booker T. Jones, you started a label with him. Why?
Family is family, but then there are other versions of family. A band becomes a family. A label becomes a family. Sometimes you’ve got to do something outside of that family. I’m so grateful for the 4AD family, and I still feel a big part of it. But I wanted to start my own family. I talked to Booker about it, and he was like, “We should do that.”
We talked to a lot of labels, and landed with Concord, which owns Stax Records, where Booker has a really long history. We even talked about rebooting Stax for a new generation. But Booker had a mixed relationship with Stax, so he was like, “Let’s do our own thing.” Concord also said, “Let’s start fresh.” So, I named it Book Records, and then I had to change it to Book’s Records because Scott McCaughey [from The Young Fresh Fellows] and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck have a label called Book Records, which I didn’t know about. Scott Devendorf found it out right before we were about to put this record out. So, this record says Book Records on it, but officially it’s Book’s Records.
Will you still tour behind this album once concerts resume?
Yeah. I cannot wait. I’ll probably do other types of shows — however artists are figuring out how to perform. I really miss it.
What do you miss most?
This the only thing I miss: The hour before the show starts and the show itself. An hour before the show is when everybody starts to get in the zone. Whatever else is going on in your life, you have to tune it all out. I like that. I like getting into that place — putting on my suit, tying my shoes, putting on the [mic] pack, getting my ears in and getting taped up. I love that f–king five minutes before the show when you have to barf, you have to s–t — you want to just run to the airport, but you can’t.
You also really want to get out there on stage, and when you walk out and see the people, I can’t tell you what that feels like. That’s euphoria, mixed with terror, mixed with exhaustion, mixed with adrenaline, mixed with alcohol, mixed with weed, mixed with teardrops, mixed with sweat, mixed with a mosh pit — and people. I get to climb all over s–t. People get to scream in my face. I get to scream in theirs. It’s primal therapy. It’s indescribable.
That’s a pretty vivid description.
But then it takes me three hours to chill out and be able to fall asleep. Then you’re up at 5:00 a.m. to go to the airport. That’s the part I don’t miss. But the shows, and the fans in the front rows and the people and the eye contact. You see a kid on somebody’s shoulders, or you see a bunch of young women or an old guy by himself, and you connect with them. It’s always f–king intense.
Sometimes I get in fights with people. I get grabbed all the time. I mean, I climb over people’s seats — I guess I’m crossing borders, getting in their space — but you don’t get to assault me. I have been known to assault back, especially in the U.K. Dudes in the U.K. always want to have a funny story to tell. That s–t I don’t like, but everybody else that’s just crushing and singing. I like to be hugged a little bit. I like to hug people. I like getting spit in my mouth.
Are the covers you recorded going to see the light of day?
Yes. Two of them are out sort of. I did a cover of The Cure’s “In Between Days,” which came out on BandCamp for voter registration a couple of weeks ago. And then a Mercury Rev cover I did with Booker, “Holes,” came out on Seven Inches for Planned Parenthood. There’s about four or five more that are coming out on the deluxe edition of the album.
A lot of your bandmates in the National have been doing side projects. Do you guys have any timetable as to when you’re going to get back together to record a new album?
No. We’ve made so many records — from Sleep Well Beast and I Am Easy to Find, to all the LNZNDRF stuff, the Big Red Machine stuff, the Big People Machine stuff, Royal Green and Aaron’s record with Taylor, Folklore — the coffers are a little empty. Which is good. That’s always when we’re in a good place. I think we have finished a phase of The National, which is a good feeling. It’s kind of like till the soil, plant new seeds and start watering. We’re not in the phase where we can go in and write a song or do any recording yet and probably won’t be for a while.