On his first ever album of solo material, Serpentine Prison, the venerated voice of Grammy-winning group The National conjures a beauty both warm and disarmingly bittersweet with the help of unparalleled icon Booker T. Jones.
You initially intended to create an album of covers (but in the end, none of the cover material made it in). How does covering others’ songs help you understand making music?
I love doing covers, but it’s often hard. It’s hard to figure out how someone captured the magic in the song. And you’re like, ‘I’ve heard it a thousand times, so I should be able to play it.’ So that’s what’s really interesting – it’s hard to do a cover well. Then there’s things you don’t realise. Or at least, some things that I didn’t realise. I can only learn by – I have to pull apart a motorcycle to learn how to ride one. Let me just say, I do not know how to take apart a motorcycle, or how to ride one. Never plan to. However, it’s sort of that.
A song like Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You, it has a spoken-word confessional, right in the middle of it! That was a huge number one hit. How many songs now have that kind of spoken-word moment?
I love that part in Dolly’s version – she’s so gentle.
It’s so real. I mean, [it’s] a genuine breakup song about a real relationship. It’s a genuine letter to an actual person she cares about deeply, and that’s why when you listen to her sing you believe her – because it wasn’t a product.
The emotion that (co-producer) Booker T. Jones manages to coax out of the organ across the album is astonishing; what did you learn about his approach to the instrument, and producing?
The Hammond organ is kind of his signature, but he plays everything. Literally. He started off on trombone, and played on Mahalia Jackson’s album when he was a teenager. He didn’t have to learn – he went to university to study music after he wrote Green Onions. He knows Egyptian music, classical music. He said every single [organ] is different – it’s like meeting a new person every time. He has to get to know it a little bit; there’s 600 little altered connections within [the instrument]. And, then the Leslie speaker that goes with it is a really important component, and those two things were designed separately by guys that famously hated each other.
So, the way he can take an emotional thing and make [change with] the slightest tone, [it] gives you a pang of something. He talked to me a lot about lyrics; when we were playing songs he had the lyrics in front of him, and he’d look at me a lot in the booth; he would stare at me as if to say, ‘Listen, I’m looking, I’m paying attention.’ He was the shepherd and everybody would follow. He’s a band leader, and that’s where the special magic is.
The video for beautiful single Distant Axis – created by your brother Tom Berninger, and Chris Sgroi – is brilliant and hilarious; I love that there are no starscapes or wizards green-screened in; you’re just writhing around on the very obvious floor. Tell us about how it was made.
My idea was that I’d be floating through the cosmos, with detritus and just stuff floating around, and [it ended up] looking like the worst Tim & Eric thing imaginable – and Tim & Eric is supposed to look bad, and we knew this wasn’t going to look good, but it didn’t look bad enough to look good. So we made the most of whatever we shot, and Tom edited it.
At one point someone drops a billiard ball onto your face. It looks painful.
I did get some minor injuries.
What do you dig about working with your brother?
He’s lived with me for hundreds of years. He and I have never stopped working – the best time I ever have with Tom is filming some dumb, goofy thing. Tom did all my videos for EL VY, and Tom and my wife and I are making a clip in a TV show. It’s nice to have your whole team like, literally in your house sometimes.
Sibling closeness is super special!
It seems the reason The National is still together after 20 years – well it’s a lot of reasons, but it’s that we’re more family than we are a rat pack of dudes. We didn’t meet drinking and talking about rock and roll and girls and stuff.
There’s a pair of shoes that seem to have some special significance for this album – we see you receive them in a box in the Distant Axis clip, and they could be the ones in the album’s cover art (with a slithery shadow). Are they special?
I have a lot of shoes. Most of which I hate, and are uncomfortable. I get a lot of free shoes. Musicians get a lot of stuff. We get a lot of sunglasses, and shoes. I wear prescription glasses for my sunglasses so I never get any of the cool free sunglasses. So, there’s a bunch of shoes. The shoes that I’ve been posting about and kind of obsessing over are from Tom Ford, blue suede loafers – I’ll tell you the story.
I had a photoshoot, and it’s really hard to do a photoshoot during lockdown – even getting clothes sent – but what did come were those shoes. But here’s the thing: if I was going to wear them I would have to purchase them, because once you wear a shoe like that they’re scraped up in the back. So, once a foot has walked around on them other than a carpet in a showroom, they’re your shoes. And these ones retail for $1,500, but somehow the stylist had gotten them for $800. Also, the suit she bought on Etsy, this vintage suit – the next video has those shoes and a suit.
Anyway, the label gave me a budget for clothes rental. I’m sure Billie Eilish doesn’t have to rent anything, but I’m not renting anything. I blew the whole budget on that suit and those shoes, so I got to keep them. So, yeah, I didn’t get anything for free but my label inadvertently gifted me a vintage three-piece suit and $1,500 shoes. I got a deal. And the weird thing is, it’s my own label, so we’re already in the red. Thank you so much for asking me about the shoes.
Serpentine Prison by Matt Berninger is out Oct 16 via Book Records/Caroline.
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