In Conversation: The National’s Matt Berninger Takes Us Behind the Scenes of “Serpentine Prison”

The songwriter dishes on Booker T’s anecdotes, the inspiration of Willie Nelson’s Stardust, and finally going solo.

In his two decades spent fronting The National, vocalist and lyricist Matt Berninger has become unphased by early-hour work responsibilities. “The thing is, when you’re in a band and you’re touring, 3 a.m., 4 a.m. lobby calls are a regular thing,” he tells me. “And that’s after you get back from the show at 1 a.m.—not because you’ve been out partying, but because you couldn’t get back to the hotel until that time.” 

Despite the early hour of our Zoom interview, Berninger isn’t rushing to go anywhere. As a matter of fact, he’s still in bed, propped up on pillows against his wall. As if alluding to the last several months’ sense of anxiety, frustration, and overwhelming loss of normalcy as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Berninger is wearing a t-shirt with the word “VOTE” printed multiple times in big bold letters. “You can call it a clusterfuck, yes,” he affirms regarding our moment in politics. “It’s a dumpster fuck. It’s a cluster fire. It’s all of it.”

While the country may feel as though it’s become a living representation of the “This is fine” meme, Berninger has remained no less resolute in a number of creative enterprises. Not only working on material for the follow-up to The National’s 2019 album I Am Easy to Find, Berninger has been working alongside the band’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner—as well as his wife Carin Besser—on a film adaptation of Cyrano, the off-Broadway musical they developed with playwright Erica Schmidt that starred her husband Peter Dinklage (Dinklage will reprise the role for the film). 

Then, of course, there’s the promotion of Berninger’s debut solo record Serpentine Prison, an album recorded over a two-week period in late May and early June of last year that was produced by industry legend Booker T. Jones with contributions from just about every musical associate and friend in Berninger’s extensive rolodex. “It’s the most collaborative thing I’ve ever done,” says Berninger. “I love being a part of a team of smart people who are trying to figure out a problem.

There had to be at least some contingent of National fans out there that believed a Matt Berninger solo record was going to happen at some point. It was just a matter of when. 

I didn’t actually have any intention to make a solo album. I started out trying to make a covers album with Booker. I was lucky enough to know Booker from a long time ago, but in the process of just sharing cover ideas with him, I did share a few songs that were sort of these orphan songs that didn’t fit with any other band, and then he was like, “Well do you have any more of these?” When we went into the studio last summer, we went in with twelve originals and seven covers, and I was gonna just pick the best out of whatever happened in these two weeks. And at the end of the two weeks the originals were good enough to stand on their own. So I just picked ten of those that worked well together in a sequence and that’s how it turned into a solo album. 

Was the experience of recording a solo album at all what you expected?

In terms of being in the studio with Booker, I didn’t know what to expect. When I met him years ago I was just in the studio with him for about three hours, and all these famous icons were coming and going—Sharon Jones, Lou Reed, Lauryn Hill, Questlove, Biz Markie. But Booker as a producer—he was just really pleasant. So jump to ten years later and I was like, “I think I want to do this covers album, kind of like Willie Nelson’s Stardust. And it was funny, I finally got a vinyl collection set up out here in LA. I got speakers and a system, and then I just went to a local record store called Timewarp and started buying all these records, and I saw Stardust on the shelf. It was still in the plastic and I bought it and I took it home. That was my dad’s favorite record, it was one of those childhood DNA records. And I flipped it over and the first thing at the very top in all caps is “produced and arranged by Booker T. Jones.” 

“For Booker, these are just old buddies. He’s been in and out of studios, and the records have all had great success. And he treated me, I think, the same way he treated all those people. That’s just the way he is. He’s in it for the music. He’s not there for the stardom, or the Rolodex. He’s not trying to start a network.”

From that point on I was like, “He made this. I want to make something like this. Someday I’ll try to reach out to him.” And then in December of 2018 I finally went to his website and clicked on the management button and said, “Hey, I met Booker ten years ago. I’m trying to make a covers record. Would he want to be involved at all?” And I heard back from his daughter Olivia, who is now his manager, and he wanted to be involved. I said, “Would you want to produce and arrange it?” He said, “Sure. I just have to finish my memoir,” which he was a few months away from finishing. And so we started talking and he finished his book and I started sending him covers and it was last summer when we went into the studio for fourteen days and brought everybody out that I’d written all the songs with.

Had you forgotten that Booker was the producer on Stardust?

Yeah, I mean I knew the basics about him, you know? “Green Onions” and “Hip Hugger” and “Time Is Tight.” But I also knew that Booker is all over—Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt, Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, Bill Withers. Booker told me this story where he was like, “… and I’m sitting there and Bob came over with his guitar and sat down and he started playing something and it was the most incredible song I’d ever heard. And I said, ‘Bob, what is that?’ And he’s like, ‘I don’t know.’ I wish I could remember it. He never recorded it. He’s never put it out.” And I was like, “Bob who?” And he was like, “Oh, Bob Dylan.” For Booker, these are just old buddies. He’s been in and out of studios, and the records have all had great success. And he treated me, I think, the same way he treated all those people. That’s just the way he is. He’s in it for the music. He’s not there for the stardom, or the Rolodex. He’s not trying to start a network.

Berninger with Booker T / photo by Chris Sgroi

I feel like a great deal of your creative process revolves around collaboration. Do you get anxious if you have to do something by yourself?

Lyrics I’ve always done by myself. Carin and I will share what we’re writing and comment and help each other out, but we’re not ever sitting there in the room writing together. For at least the first ten years of The National, I always felt very alone on stage. I felt like I was in a jar, just because I was alone in my own insecurity and the fear of it all. But then I started to really open my eyes and take in the crowd and turn around and take in the band and go climb on the drums, look Brian in the eye while he’s trying to, like, do a fill and scream at his face just to fuck with him. It all broke down. And then I was like, “Oh, I can take the diving suit off and just swim and breathe.” 

How would you describe the experience of recording this record as opposed recording a record with The National?

Booker knew I had fourteen days to try to make something and he wasn’t going to waste time. The National usually has a long time. We send things back and forth, and when we go into the studio, it’s our own studio that we built, and we go swimming all day and it’s slow and fun and chill. But the songs just really build and build, and that’s sort of what The National has developed—this DNA. With Booker, we were forced to have it be less. We didn’t have the time. Yeah, maybe we could have put more layers, but Booker was always like, “We don’t need anything more.” He likes to hear every instrument. He likes to hear what everybody’s doing. 

“For at least the first ten years of The National, I always felt very alone on stage. I felt like I was in a jar, just because I was alone in my own insecurity and the fear of it all. But then…it all broke down. And then I was like, ‘Oh, I can take the diving suit off and just swim and breathe.’”

It’s from his time with the M.G.s. If you listen to the M.G.s, there’s four people and you really see them in the room—you can hear them look at each other, you can see the stools they’re sitting on, you can just feel it. Not that The National doesn’t do a lot of editing. Our songs go in phases where they just become these giant layer cakes, and then we strip out and we’ll chop all the icing off and go back to just the batter if we have to. I feel like sometimes if The National made a record in two months instead of two years, it could be just as good. The problem is when you work on a record for three or four months, it takes almost the same amount of time to go back and find out what of everything you added is actually the magical elements.

It’s interesting that The National has developed this system of writing over the years where, say, Aaron and Bryce will build these song fragments or sketches and they’ll send them to you, where you then create or develop these free associated words and phrases on top of this foundation.

The truth is the melody and the rhythm are much more important to me, and I spend far more time doing fifty different melody ideas on a sketch than I do writing the lyrics. If you look at my GarageBand files, I’ll throw in a sketch from somebody, and it’ll be 25 tracks of me just mumbling melodies. I’m just looking for melody, because once you find a pretty good melody, you can evolve it, you can change it in the studio, you can take it further, you can jump an octave, you can add harmonies. But a melody or rhythm, once you’ve got that, it’s like flypaper.

photo by Chris Sgroi

With that in mind, was it difficult this time around not immediately having that foundation to lay your melodies and rhythm upon? 

It wasn’t that different, actually. I don’t play guitar or piano, and I don’t write poetry. I’ll listen to music and I’ll get a pattern and a rhyme in my head. I write lots of songs that have melody and pattern, whether it’s in iambic pentameter or Seussian rhythms. I have to have water to swim in. Everything I wrote with this, there was always some peanut butter to my chocolate. “Serpentine Prison” is an example where I think I had the vocal melody and rhythm—it’s pretty off the shelf. The words and lyrics started with the title. I just started rhyming words with prison: fishin’, missin’, vision. And then inside a funny Dr. Seuss rhyme, you can sneak all these progressive confessions in there. I talk about picking up my daughter from school stoned—not driving, of course—and it’s my daughter’s favorite song off the record. She loves that song because of all the rhymes. It’s the most beautiful thing. I’ll turn the song down and just listen to her singing about getting picked up from school and I’m stoned, and she thinks it’s about cookies. And I love it. I think she knows. She’s funny. She’s sarcastic.

I imagine she gets that from you.

She knows there’s always the comedy of sadness, that you can counter depression and anxiety with funny. You can make fun of things that you’re not supposed to make fun of or talk about. FL

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