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The National frontman Matt Berninger on the band's new album


For years The National have captured the sound of Gen X and Millennial anxiousness. The Cincinnati band is known for raw and at times searing lyrics layered over rich, pensive melodies, a sound that recently has been labeled sad dad rock.


THE NATIONAL: (Singing) I was suffering more than I let on. The tropic morning news was on. There's nothing stopping me now from saying all the painful parts out loud.

SIMON: The National's new album, "First Two Pages Of Frankenstein," merges their distinct sound with a star-studded lineup of collaborators, including Taylor Swift, Sufjan Stevens and Phoebe Bridgers. We asked Matt Berninger, who is lead singer for The National, about the title of the album, and he says it has more to do with his own creative process than Mary Shelley's.

MATT BERNINGER: Well, I was struggling to write. I mean, for a long period I couldn't write at all, and nothing was helping. And sometimes I'll just grab a book off the shelf, and I grabbed that, and I just kind of, like, skimmed over words. I'm not even really reading. I'm just, like - I'm just letting, like, words to pop in, and - but there was some line about tranquilizing something. And then there are these lines about being in the ocean and in the North Pole, and so, tranquilize the oceans between the poles, was just the first line I wrote. And that was like, oh, yeah, that's kind of the - what I wanted to do to my brain, I think, a little bit. So it triggered a song called "Your Mind Is Not Your Friend."


THE NATIONAL: (Singing) Don't you understand? Your mind is not your friend again. It takes you by the hand and leaves you nowhere.

SIMON: That song is one of several collaborations on the album, this one with Phoebe Bridgers.


THE NATIONAL: (Singing) Don't you understand?

BERNINGER: But, your mind is not your friend, is something that my wife was reminding me and telling me in the lowest moments where I just thought, you know, I was never going to be able to write again. And I was convinced that I couldn't go on stage again. And she was the one who kept saying, this is just your mind telling you that. It's not the truth. And which is - it really helped. It was like, oh, yeah, it's not me. It's my mind. Because I don't think you can always trust your own mind. You know, your thoughts don't always lead you or aren't really pointing to the truth a lot of the time.

SIMON: But how does an artist not trust their mind when so much art depends on feeling, instinct and judgment?


THE NATIONAL: (Singing) How you tapped on a box of blue American Spirits at Anyway Cafe a little under a month before...

BERNINGER: I've always written about not being able to communicate, and I've always written about depression, and I've written about all these things that I was in the middle of. I think I just - I reached the point - it was like, I didn't want to self-reflect. I didn't want to look in the mirror anymore. I was disgusted by it all. And I was - I had a little bit in my mind that maybe I have - maybe by dwelling, writing, you know, nine records or eight records about, you know, sorrow and heartbreak and all my problems, maybe I've created this situation. And I was like, well, maybe I broke myself. But eventually, I just - I had to crack into that again because that was the only way - you know, because the only way to get out of it is to sort of take a deep dive into it.

SIMON: And he seems utterly comfortable with exploring that sadness, not putting on some other face for the world.

BERNINGER: The stuff I connect to is the stuff that is - it's like, it makes me want to talk about things that I don't normally talk about or wouldn't otherwise. And so I don't go into anything, like, with an idea of, like, making a sad or happy or angry song. Anytime I've tried to - like, let's write a happy song, it's not - I can't do it. It doesn't do anything for me, you know? So I think I'm always trying to write self-medicating music for myself. Yeah.

SIMON: Matt Berninger and his band mates created a playlist on Spotify called Sad Dads, a label bestowed on them by their fans.

BERNINGER: I mean, we've been hearing that for a long time. And so eventually we just decided to kind of embrace it. It was either that or brunchcore (laughter). We're all dads, and we've all struggled with all that kind of stuff, so. But I think the truth is being a dad was - throughout this phase was the one thing that was like, oh, you know, I'm good at that. That's what I'm really good at.

SIMON: And boy, he did get some cool dad points for his collaboration with Taylor Swift on a song called "The Alcott."


THE NATIONAL AND TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) I had to do something to break into your golden thinking.

BERNINGER: I think our kids have always loved what we do, and they're always in and out of the studio and always have been, you know, a part of the fabric. But collaborating with with Taylor and Phoebe did add some check marks to the whole thing, you know.


THE NATIONAL AND SWIFT: (Singing) It's the first thing you do. Give me some tips to forget you. You tell me your problems. Have I become one of your problems? And I tell you the truth. Could it be easy this once? It's the last thing you wanted.

BERNINGER: My daughter was telling me that, you know, friends in school - some of them were National fans, you know, and this was before any of the Taylor Swift stuff. And I just assume it was, you know, that moms or dads that were playing it around the house. Now there's a whole different sort of set of eyes on us.

SIMON: While writing with Phoebe Bridgers and Taylor Swift makes for some high-profile duets, Matt Berninger says that he's really learned about co-writing lyrics from his wife, Carin Besser. They've had to set some rules to make their artistic collaboration work.

BERNINGER: With - "The Alcott" was - I was writing about my wife, and I was writing about her magical thinking and her - you know, her writing in her golden notebook and how we very, very tentatively approach each other with our art sometimes and how it can be tricky to share, you know, really personal art about someone with that person, you know. And my wife always - and I, we always - when people ask us that, we always kind of say the same thing, that it's incredibly rewarding but also dangerous and tricky. And my wife and I have a - you know, a policy of kind of the art comes first and then we'll talk about it later, you know.

SIMON: Matt Berninger, frontman for The National. The band's new album, "First Two Pages Of Frankenstein," out now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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