Matt Berninger Gets Honest About Encores and Etiquette

The National frontman shares insights on the band's new album, what it's like to write songs with his wife, and how he got fashion tips from a few members of the Bad Seeds.

(Photo Credit: Ian Gavan/Getty Images)

Brendan Francis Newnam: Each week you send us your questions about how to behave, and here to answer them this week is Matt Berninger, the frontman for the band The National.

They got their start around 1999 playing small gigs in Cincinnati. Since then, the band has earned a Grammy nomination, opened for then-president Obama during several speeches, and this week, they’re releasing their seventh and latest album called “Sleep Well Beast.” Here’s a clip from the single, “Day I Die.”

Rico Gagliano: In that song, you’re singing about what seems to be a relationship in which one of the parties in question is questioning how long the relationship will last. I read you wrote some of the lyrics on this album with your wife, Corinne… I mean, what’s it like writing about relationships on the rocks, with your partner?

Matt Berninger: I mean… I think all relationships hit the rocks sometimes.

Rico Gagliano: Never man, I don’t know what you’re talking about. That’s insane.

Matt Berninger: [laughs] A lot of the songs are about struggling to try to get off the rocks, you know what I’m saying? And so she’s into that. And also, she’s a writer and she gets that if you’re not digging into the soft parts of it, it’s not worth writing about, you know?

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, you’ve been singing in The National for a couple decades now, and you guys were part of a huge surge of indie bands who kind of blew up in the mid-2000s, and you’ve met with great success. I wonder how, if at all, is success different now than you imagined it then?

Matt Berninger: That’s a good question. I mean, we did imagine.  We did dream, you know? We did have fantasies of being rock stars. And how much of it feels like it’s what we dreamed of? A lot of it. I mean, a lot of it’s awesome.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Like what’s awesome?

Rico Gagliano: Tell us the awesome parts first.

Matt Berninger: I mean, it’s awesome when people come up to you somewhere and stop you on the street and say, “Thanks,” you know, for songs you made in your bedroom, and say it had helped them.

And then… I also just get to kind of sleep whenever I want to, and I’m in charge of my life, you know? I’m in charge of every hour of it… except for when I’m on tour, but even then I’m kind of taking charge of doing it the way I need to do it. So I’m not going to complain.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You know, I think about some of those other bands — Grizzly Bear, The Walkmen, Death Cab — we’ve talked to a lot of them on this show and you all seem remarkably well-adjusted. Moreso than rock and roll musicians of the past, I would dare to say. Why do you think that is?

Matt Berninger: I mean, Kurt Cobain died. You know? He was so many people’s favorite thing, and it’s scary as hell.  I think a lot of people are realizing that, like, you want to do it for a long time, it’s so fun, and it’s so rewarding, and it’s so easy just to let it all fall away and just let it all fall apart. And so we were just constantly trying to keep it from falling apart.

Rico Gagliano: Before we launch into our etiquette questions, which we should probably do here in a second, I’m wondering if you have any pet peeves of audience behavior perhaps, when you’re playing?

Matt Berninger: No. I have pet peeves about myself. And I don’t like watching so much of my performance because I just look just so uncomfortable so much of the time! But no, I don’t have any problem with anything that’s going on in the audience.

Rico Gagliano: Cellphones even? Like something that I —

Matt Berninger: No, but respect the people around you! I mean, I did go see a Nick Cave show, and a couple right in front of me had their backs to Nick, and they were filming themselves with their flash on, with Nick behind them. And they were, like, making out in front of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ performance, and filming it right in front of me.

So I’m watching them make a home movie for themselves! I’m like, ‘Really?’ I mean, my wife didn’t want me to get into a fight, so I just I went and watched the show from the aisle. Yeah, I don’t know. That’s all outside of my jurisdiction. I’m not a cop.

Rico Gagliano: You’re a rock star.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, we’re still going to need to you to police our listeners’ etiquette questions. We’ve told them you were coming and they submitted them. Are you ready for these?

Matt Berninger: OK.

Tour bus etiquette rules

Brendan Francis Newnam: This first question’s from Bob in Chicago, and Bob writes: “OK, here’s my ‘Almost Famous’ question… I assume there is a tour bus. I know you’ve started a family, and it made me wonder what kind of rules you set up for family and friends on the bus?”

Matt Berninger: That’s a good question. Yeah, we spend bursts on buses and stuff like that, and some people’s kids will come for… my daughter’s come for little sections of it. And when there are kids on the bus, everything revolves around them. It’s just, like, whatever they need. And it’s hard to live on a bus!  A kid has fun for a day or two, and then they’re just bored, because the bus is parked in, you know… just underneath arenas and behind industrial complexes.

But the bus rules? Our buses are usually pretty quiet, because there’s not a whole lot to do in the bus other than just go crawl into your bunk and it’s like a little coffin. You just like, shut it all out and you sleep, and it’s great, I love it. That’s the way everybody uses it. It’s like a little sanctuary. It’s not like a party.

I mean, we do have– the other bus is the party one, that’s the one Bryan [Devendorf, The National’s drummer] is on.

Rico Gagliano: Man, because I was going to say, you know earlier you were talking about dreaming of being a rock star? This doesn’t sound like the rock star dream.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Napping at will?! That sounds like a dream.

Matt Berninger: I go to the Devendorf bus every once in awhile. It’s a good time. It’s a good time.

Rico Gagliano: You’re not going to give us details?

Matt Berninger: It’s been a lot of Steely Dan today on the Devendorf bus.

Rico Gagliano: Ah, yes. R.I.P. Walter Becker.

Changing a partner’s sloppy fashion sense

Rico Gagliano: Here’s another question. It comes from Christine in Brooklyn. And Christine writes: “My boyfriend doesn’t really dress up. His closet’s pretty much been the same for ten years. How do I subtly nudge him to dress better on occasion without making him feel bad about how he looks now?” You’re a fairly dapper gentleman.

Matt Berninger:  I gotta say, it is hard to find comfortable clothes that don’t look sloppy. I mean, the truth is, if I could wear just cut-offs and tank tops all the time I probably would. I actually do at home.

But, I don’t know, just take him somewhere. I’m not going to promote any brands, but just take him somewhere and just say, “I think you look good in this.” Tell him he looks hot in something and he’ll put it on. I think.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Or you can say another guy looks hot in something and he’ll put it on.

Matt Berninger: Yeah, or just start hanging up pictures of the Bad Seeds all around the house and he’ll learn.

Rico Gagliano: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, those guys, the older they get, the better they look. How is that possible?

Matt Berninger: Well, Jim styled me for a photo recently. Jim Sclavunos, the drummer. I’ve never looked so cool. The key was, he took my collar, and put it on my jacket on the outside.

Rico Gagliano: On the lapel.

Matt Berninger: A little ‘70s style. But you need the right collar to do that.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, you gotta be careful with that.

Matt Berninger: If you’ve got a little wimpy collar, it looks silly. But also, the Bad Seeds told me about the whole “not buttoning the bottom button of the vest.” So I’ve learned a lot of things from Jim Sclavunos.

Rico Gagliano: So there you go.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I’m also going to point out: Christine… his closet’s been the same for 10 years.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, Christine’s been upset about this for 10 years.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And they’re still just dating and she doesn’t like his fashion. Guys, I feel like there’s a cry for help in here.

Rico Gagliano: Oh, really?

Brendan Francis Newnam: I feel like.

Matt Berninger: I think they should all change it. They should just switch clothes for a while, see what happens.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Hey, there we go. That’ll spice it up.

Matt Berninger: Just change it all up.

Rico Gagliano: It’s the modern age.

Passing on the double encore

Brendan Francis Newnam: I want to ask this last question, which someone submitted via Twitter, and it’s just a great question that you’re uniquely qualified to answer. And the question is, “Should a band feel obligated to perform the obligatory encore, or should they just play all the songs as one big set and be done with it?”

Matt Berninger: It’s a real awkward moment for everybody involved. And, you know, there’s a lot of bands that just don’t do encores. I think The Strokes never did encores.

Rico Gagliano: The Wedding Present, one of my favorite bands.

Matt Berninger: Oh, really? They didn’t do encores? Really? Maybe you’re right, yeah. I saw them at Tramps in New York City and you’re right! I don’t think they did an encore. So, I like it, I get it. But… but we do encores. I don’t know. And also, we’ve done encores that no one asked for, so…

Brendan Francis Newnam: And also, from your perspective, an encore is a moment to rest, too, right?

Matt Berninger: Yeah. I mean, I think of an encore mostly as a pee break, you know? Although I take those throughout the show whenever I want to anyway, so I just, like, it’s a —

Brendan Francis Newnam: Right: Don’t think of it as an encore, think of it as a pee break.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah. That’s rock and roll.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And then they come back and they’re like, “You know what? I feel great. Let’s play our number one song!”

Matt Berninger: Yeah. I will say: double encores?  We actually did that a couple times. It’s just stupid. It’s just like, “What are you doing?”

Rico Gagliano: What if the audience desperately wants a second encore?

Matt Berninger: Ugh. At that point they’re just faking it because they feel like… everyone wants to go home at that point, come on.

Brendan Francis Newnam: All right, Matt, thanks for telling our audience how to behave!

Matt Berninger: Did I? I didn’t mean to do that. Yeah, thanks, I’m glad I was helpful.