Matt Berninger, the crooning front man for the popular rock ‘n’ roll band, The National, likes to write songs while riding his bike. The sharp, rapid-minded and loquacious singer-songwriter engages in conversation often like a metaphorical triathlon participant. His brain is chugging along in a marathon, swimming laps and cycling all at once. But amidst all the frantic activity, a logical through-line emerges. So does sonic and melodic clarity. Berninger says lyrics come to him as he pedals, avoiding trees and following traffic signs, because when his mind is focused in on myriad other things, the art can step forward and show itself. Revelations like these are the substance of Berninger’s forthcoming solo record, Serpentine Prison, out October 16th.
“When I’m riding my bike,” Berninger says, “most of my mind is focused on not hitting a tree or not falling off. Most of my mind is occupied with moving forward. So, the other part can let go. It turns off the noise that’s in the way of the good thoughts. It clears your mind.”
For someone with such an electric cranium, Berninger, a former white-collar ad man, says he appreciates music because it can bring a calm over him. While, in song, he has a voice that’s smooth and low, his brain, he jokes, can be “high and spikey.” So, he writes songs in order to slow down, take his time. It grounds and occupies his vibrant imagination.
“It’s fun to listen to music,” Berninger says, “because it keeps you centered on one thing. Music calms me down.”
Today, perhaps more than ever, there’s a lot to think about. Not only does the world around us seem to be changing rapidly, human beings have more and more access to information and misinformation. The world is smaller, spinning at a greater pace. So, for Berninger, it’s important to have things to consider at length, to stay with and chew on. For the songwriter, music is as much a tool for self-expression as it is a one to learn about people.
“I’m not like most of the artists I love, I don’t think,” Berninger says. “I don’t know if I’m anything like Megan Thee Stallion. But I love that song. In some ways, I compare her to Robert Mapplethorpe. How the song celebrates her own beauty and sexuality.”
In the early years, Berninger’s own life started connected to music, but not super closely. He muses that his parents must have gone to a record store one day in, say, 1975 and bought 25 albums and just played those same 45’s for the rest of their days. Later, through his older sister, Berninger learned about bands like The Violent Femmes and he discovered groups like U2 and R.E.M., so-called “alternative” bands or “college rock.” He found out there was a second Elvis (read: Costello). And the Manchester band, The Smiths, also heavily influenced him – a relationship he finds particularly prickly today.
“There was so much empathy and so much beautiful writing about himself and his community and neighborhood,” Berninger says of Morrissey, The Smiths’ front man. “It’s hard to square it with his xenophobia today.”
Berninger, who grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, found himself exposed to and shaped by college rock ‘n’ roll on a popular local station. He also dove into past sonic dynamos like Bob Dylan, Nina Simone and fellow baritone, David Bowie. The best of the artists, he says, are chameleons, or creative filters for whatever time and environment they’re in. As Emily Dickenson put it, it’s the truth told slant. And at his best, Berninger follows in their footsteps. For as methodical as his singing can be, the words and ideas crackle.
“I almost never pick something to write about,” he says. “I just start writing. It’s about turning this, like, dark cotton ball a little bit and looking at it from this or that angle. Or being inside the ball – I always try to write from inside that cotton ball of now.”
Berninger, who is currently working on his own musical adaptation of the classic Cyrano de Bergerac stage play, has produced a solid, unique solo record for 2020. Serpentine Prison is a maze of thought alight in the sparks that emanate from the grind between comfort and discomfort. It’s sweet and thoughtful in its melancholy (“One More Second”). It’s brooding in its delicate joy (“Distant Axis”). It’s a walk through a garden when you aren’t sure if it’s about to rain. But isn’t rain good for the garden? Hush; listen. It’s a real success.
“My dad was a lawyer so that his kids could do whatever they wanted, so his kids didn’t have to be lawyers,” Berninger says. “My dad considers himself a successful person because he gets to see his kids happy. As I get older, I worry more about my own happiness and my daughter’s happiness and that part of success. But at the same time, I’m ambitious with my art career. It’s like riding two surfboards. But if I had to choose one, I’d stay home and become a lawyer, or something.”