Most people think of Matt Berninger as Eeyore, but The National frontman says that Tigger is his dominant personality. “Tigger’s whole thing is just go-go-go,” Berninger says. “But sometimes Tigger burns himself out.”
He’s not wrong. Berninger stays exceptionally busy. His debut solo album, Serpentine Prison, drops October 16th, arriving only a year after The National’s I Am Easy to Find won over critics. What’s more, he and his National bandmates have also been writing songs for Erica Schmidt’s onscreen reimagining of the play Cyrano de Bergerac.
That’s not all. Berninger is similarly writing new material with Brent Knopf, the other half of Berninger’s side project, EL VY, all while considering a return to the studio with The National in 2021. So, yes, fans may think of the characteristically sulky vocalist as Eeyore, but he’s really “99% Tigger all the time,” as Berninger tells us.
In anticipation of Serpentine Prison, Consequence of Sound had the chance to sit down with the singer-songwriter to discuss the album, how it transformed from a covers collection into an original work, collaborating with producer Booker T. Jones, anticipating the 2020 election, and why making an album feels like Jaws.
On How Serpentine Prison Became His Stardust
It started out that way because I started doing covers, and I wanted to do a bunch of covers, and that’s what Stardust was. As a kid, I don’t think I even knew what a cover was. I didn’t even know what Stardust was! Stardust was Willie Nelson’s voice and that record and that sound. When I say Stardust, yes, I think I wanted this record to have that sort of identity, feeling, and warmth.
I met Booker [T. Jones] about 14 years ago, and I got lucky to meet him and he produced me. So, it started as a covers record, and it grew organically into a combination of covers and originals. Then we released the originals as a solo album as a 10-song thing. It was a model, but we tried to record in the same types of rooms with the same types of microphones. It was very much an inspiration for this project.
On Serpentine Prison Becoming an Album of Original Material
I started sending Booker my ideas for covers. I think the first one I sent him was “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye”, a song made famous by Bettye Swann. Then I sent him The Velvet Underground songs and Morphine songs and The Cure. Then I had these songs I had been writing with people like Walter Martin or my friend Mike Brewer, who was in my first band, Nancy, along with Scott [Devendorf]. I sent him two songs — “Distant Axis” and “Loved So Little” — that I wrote with Mike Brewer.
[Booker] really liked those, and he said, “Let’s see if there are more things like this,” and there were. There were a bunch of other songs, and then I started writing some new ones, and that’s when I wrote “Serpentine Prison” with Sean O’Brien and Harrison Whitford, and some of it was written in the studio. It became a group of originals plus a group of covers, and they’re all coming out sort of together.
On Exploring New Musical Environments
I didn’t explore styles, but musical environments and feelings. All of my favorite artists don’t have styles; they just have the tools that they write the most with. They can paint their words or sounds, like organ sounds. Like Nick Cave. I don’t think Nick Cave has a style; he just has a Nick Caveness. Bettye Swann, Nina Simone, and the Beastie Boys don’t have a style. They just have the chemistry of those three guys. I just wanted to get the chemistry of these people in a room and the chemistry of the room itself, the microphones, and the couch we sat on as we listened to the playback.
I wanted to create an atmosphere or an environment, just like a connective network of things, sounds, jokes, comfortable chairs, and comfortable rooms. We also recorded close to the beach, and there were gardens. You could sit out in the garden and take a break in the sunlight. There’s art all over the place, like a lot of driftwood sculptures on the wall. We got John X [Volaitis] who runs Earthstar [Creative Center]. They have really cool lighting, and the building looks like the house from Up. You know the house from Up? That’s what that studio looks like, and it’s right next to Moon Juice, so there’s like, healthy things everywhere.
On How Making an Album Feels Like the Film Jaws
Well, my brother [Tom Berninger] and his roommate Chris Sgroi — they’re a filmmaking duo now — were in there filming the whole time. Tom and Chris were making a film while I was making a record. But in terms of movies that we were talking about, I keep talking about Jaws. When you get a bunch of different personalities in a boat, which is maybe a studio, and you go out to sea, which is maybe the music, and you try to find something, which is the shark, and it could be art or God or just a good song. The shark is just a good song. Not everybody survives. But making a record is kind of like the movie Jaws. It depends on who’s in the boat with you. I mean every time The National makes the record it’s like a version of Jaws, except there’s 25 people in the boat.
On The National’s “Mr. November” and the 2020 Election
I was talking to Booker a few days ago, and he says for a lot of women and people of color in this country, and non-binary people, for them it doesn’t feel like 2020 is that different from 1820. Booker just puts it all in perspective there. With regard to politics and candidates and Obama, Biden, Harris, and Hillary Clinton, I really liked Elizabeth Warren, but I also really liked Bernie Sanders. I also really like Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. I do think Biden and Harris are a good ticket.
“Mr. November” was as much about Reggie Jackson as it was about John Kerry, and then it became about Barack Obama. It became about Hillary Clinton, and now, is it about Joe Biden or Kamala Harris? I don’t follow baseball, but I love that Reggie Jackson was called Mr. October. I remembered that, and I was like, “I should call this song ‘Mr. November’,” and I think I wrote it about John Kerry puffing himself up and what it takes for someone to look in the mirror and say, “I can be the President of the United States, and I can do a good job at it.” How do people from every spectrum decide to step into that role — what it takes from a mental and spiritual level to decide, “I want to lead Americans.” I do think that’s what “Mr. November” was always about. It’s about personal ego.
On Working on New Music
Well, Aaron and Bryce [Dessner], Carin [Besser], and I have been working on a Cyrnao de Bergerac musical for five years, and it started out as four songs and a stage play written by Erica Schmidt, who’s now since written a screenplay, and it’s going to be a movie, and there will be about 26 songs for it. I’ve written about seven or eight songs in the past month with Aaron, Bryce, and Carin for Cyrano, the movie.
Aaron and I have never stopped sharing stuff and writing together. We just don’t stop. We never stop. We wanted to take a big break after Sleep Well Beast, but then Mike [Mills] wanted to make a video and that turned into a short film, and it turned into a concept album, I Am Easy to Find.
So for this record, Serpentine Prison, I was writing new lyrics at the same time I was writing all these Cyrano and I Am Easy to Find lyrics with Carin. But Carin didn’t write any of these lyrics on Serpentine Prison. This is sort of my own. These are just songs for me. They weren’t supposed to be in a movie or a play. It turned into a solo album toward the end of the recording process.
On Finding Comfort in Friends, Family, and Places
I’ve been in Venice, California, the whole time. I’ve been talking to people who are in Brooklyn and who are in Manhattan, and everybody’s been having different experiences. I had a lucky opportunity to talk to Rosanne Cash, and her sons are home from college and everyone is sort of camping out together, and there’s something really wonderful about it. My sister-in-law, Jenn, and her family and their boys, who live in Manhattan, have all come out to LA and are staying out here with one of her friends.
A lot of people are deciding on places to just hunker down and camp out with their family and friends and the people closest to them. It’s definitely been really healthy for them. It’s been really healthy for me out in Venice. I’m lucky to have a big backyard and a trampoline, and I can ride my bike to the ocean and go fishing. I know a lot of people who are spending time in the early morning walking through Central Park or Prospect Park, and I used to do that. I used to ride my bike and walk there really early through those parks. Parks, trails, and beaches, as long as people stay far enough away from each other, are becoming places where people can get some sunshine and get some exercise and connect with the plants, with the water, and with friends.
On Tigger Being His Dominant Personality
My daughter has been obsessed with Stranger Things. We just finished Season 3, and at the end of Season 3, there’s a new Demogorgon that comes out in the shape of a human form, and it’s got that face that looks like a flesh-flower that balloons into fangs, so I’ve been doing an impression of that. I open up my mask, just smile, and say, “What’s up!” It cracks her up, but I just smile, and instead of doing a soul-eating flower Demogorgon, it’s just me smiling.
There’s a lot of Demogorgon ideas that could happen this Halloween. She already wants me to be Tigger from Winnie the Pooh, which is perfect. People often describe me as Eeyore, and I’ll say, “No, I’m like 99% Tigger all the time.” Once a week, I’ll be Eeyore, once a week I’ll be Piglet, and once a week I’ll be Rabbit. But Tigger is my dominant personality.
Tigger’s whole thing is just go-go-go, yes-yes-yes, “let’s try this, why not?,” anything’s-possible, don’t-be-afraid — that’s Tigger. But sometimes Tigger burns himself out and occasionally has a little Eeyore in him, and Eeyore’s got a little Tigger in him, too. Piglet’s all about worry, but Tigger’s like “do not worry. How’s worrying gonna help?” Tigger does seem happy, but he tires everyone else out, and he tires himself out, and he can be really obnoxious, but he’s also just looking for honey.
On What He’s Working on Right Now
I write songs all the time. I don’t sit down and try to write a song. I’ve been writing a lot of song titles, but sometimes I’ll just get in a rhythm and write something like “Serpentine Prison”. But there’s a lot of people I’ve been writing with. I think I’m finished writing the Cyrano songs now. I’ve been writing a lot more songs with Brent Knopf, so there are possible records with EL VY and possible records with Booker. With The National, we’ve been talking about getting into the studio next year or doing something here. Everybody’s in the studio. It’s the only place we can go!
Hopefully, there will be some touring with The National next year and some solo touring. I know people are asking, “Well how many National shows are going to happen and how many aren’t?” I don’t know. I don’t know how many shows are going to happen in 2021, but I know everyone in The National wants to pursue the things that they’re doing outside of The National, too. I’m working on stuff with Tom and Carin and a bunch of people on different things, so it’s a bunch of different projects that are all interconnected dots.