Matt Berninger talks about the unique life experiences that led to recording his latest release as a solo artist ‘Serpentine Prison’ with the legendary Booker T. Jones, and about his process for finding a creative exploratory space while touring with The National. Listen as Matt describes what he was like as a child, the music he listened to growing up, and the moment he realized how fun it is to make music. If only we had better hats!
Full Episode Transcription
Tom DeSavia [00:00:03] Hi, I'm your host, Tom DeSavia. Join me as I interview guests from music and entertainment from around the world about what they're up to right now. Stay tuned, because we're Gone in 30 Minutes.
Tom DeSavia [00:00:18] Hey, everybody, welcome to Gone in 30 Minutes. Very, very happy. I think it's our 10th guest. I believe you're our 10th guest, Matt.
Matt Berninger [00:00:26] Wow.
Tom DeSavia [00:00:26] Our guest today is Matt Berninger. Welcome. Welcome, my friend. Welcome to the podcast. Do people try to throw a hard G in your name all the time?
Matt Berninger [00:00:38] They do. I mean, it's even family members often have. It's a it's often been debated how to, how my last name is pronounced Berninger, Berninger, Berninger. We answer to everything.
Tom DeSavia [00:00:54] So what are you up to right now buddy? What's going on?
Matt Berninger [00:00:57] Drinking coffee in my garage, cave, office, which is behind my brother's house, which is a few blocks from where I live, and yeah, I'm coming here. I've been I've been I've been attempting to do nothing as much as possible lately. Just come and sit, not even turn on the stereo and see what happens. So, I've been I've literally been making putting a lot of effort into doing nothing. It's not it's not it's not easy just to sit there. It's my version of meditating, just like sitting in a chair.
Tom DeSavia [00:01:35] So doing nothing, but being in your creative space, as opposed to?
Matt Berninger [00:01:39] Yeah, doing nothing. You know, it's um, there's a lot that can happen when you, when you sit there and just waste an hour, you know, just like stare out the window.
Tom DeSavia [00:01:53] Does it wind up turning into something? Does your nothing end in something?
Matt Berninger [00:01:58] It ends up turning into something eventually because you just, your clock slows down, you know, you can just like, you know, I will not pretend that it is a form of meditation at all because I can't even get close to meditating. I've tried to meditate so many times. I can't or at least maybe I can just I don't never have confidence that I actually am. Anyway, yeah, but no, no, it's it's nice to have a spot and I do most of my writing like here I do so much or just most of my processing, you know, here, and I like having an office. I think it's when I when I quit my sort of corporate job, that was always something I really missed, I like going to a place, I like going to an office, or going to a room and you know, and sharpening the pencils and thinking, OK, here we go. I don't necessarily write well in the office, but I like being in the office. It's like I do more of my writing outside the office, but some sort of going to the office is some other part of the ritual.
Tom DeSavia [00:03:06] Has our current world or our covid world changed your creative process at all? Because you were, you're supposed to be on tour right now, like many people. You were supposed to be on a pretty extensive national tour and then promoting Serpentine Prison, which just came out. So do you find it's like it's launched you into thinking differently about your creative process or you just like take this?
Matt Berninger [00:03:34] I think so. Yeah, I mean I mean, on some levels, it's it's um. Touring, I always I did manage after a while to start to find ways on tour to, to go to the office, meaning to disappear, you know, I, the hotels and just like putting on the do not disturb sign on the hotel room and just closing the curtains. I spend more time on tour, probably in a hotel room with like a candle lit in the blackout curtains, than I do anywhere else on tour, you know, and a lot of it is, is I just have to recharge. I have to rest, and like the doing the shows and the travel is incredible and exhausting and exciting, and then if you try to add partying on top of that, then then you just you can only do that for like a week and you're ruined. That's why bands don't last very long. So, I don't really party much. I party on stage, I party right before we get on the stage, and I, but I, I really go back in at night, so, so when I'm in my hotel room, I am able to kind of get into that, you know, sort of just slow, weird, gooey, creative brain space. Especially because of the jet lag, and so in a lot of ways, touring can actually be a creative place after a while. If you figure out how to do that, you know, you turn you turn your hotel room into a weird, weird, dark, mental, you know, exploratory space, you know, and like that works. I found touring much healthier once I learned how to, like, kind of make my hotel room mine every time, you know. Does that make sense?
Tom DeSavia [00:05:34] Yeah, and well, it's funny. I wonder if you because I was talking something about this the other day, where, you know, by my job, which I've been doing since I was 19, my job was essentially to be an extrovert. That's just the job. Meeting with people all the time, you're interacting with people all the time, in an office environment or in a social environment, but I've always said, like, I always need at least like if I could go like three, four days and then when I run out the battery, it just stops. It stops and I need alone time to sort of recharge and I've sort of read this. An ex sent me something once about the extroverted introvert or the introverted extrovert, I forget which one it was, and I read and I checked off every box, I'm like, oh s**t that's what I am. You know, so I've found to be able to take that time and now it's sort of the opposite. Now I'm looking for things like this to sort of engage me and it's, I mean have you, because same thing. You probably haven't been home this long, in how long? Fifteen years?
Matt Berninger [00:06:38] Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean it is a funny thing. Everyone's social behaviors are so flipped or just I mean and yeah. I get that I've, so much of my life is about being an extrovert, whether it's on stage or whether it's in interviews or whether it's just backstage on tour and everywhere when you're around people, so many, so many people all the time, and your obligation is to go to so many sort of get togethers and not an obligation, but just these things you can't say no to and you're forced to be, I've had to learn to be a more social person or learn how to, figure out how to enjoy that, if I can. More than I think it is natural for a person to enjoy, you know, I think most people actually struggle at parties and struggle at social events, and I do. Whereas like a rock show is perfect because it's not that social. I mean, it's social. You get to be around all these people. It's also like church where you don't do a lot of talking, you're not supposed to like, mingle that much. You're supposed to be there together to sing, experiencing something together and I like those kind of social things, you know.
Tom DeSavia [00:08:14] Well, it's funny going back to what you were saying earlier. So, you were an office hack for a long time. You were, you had a day job. You went to work. So that had to add some weird discipline to your life that then you were able to unshackle. Did that a lot of that discipline stick with you? Do you think that like that structure, I should say, I don't know if discipline is the right word.
Matt Berninger [00:08:36] Yeah. Or the. I think discipline, I mean, is sort of the right word. I think the professionalism or something like that. Yeah. Yeah. Going like getting a job and kind of rising the ranks. I moved to New York and became a junior designer at a new media company just right as, right as people were starting to have websites. You know, it was just shortly after email, people started using email and so like ninety whatever, ninety, late 90s and I went from junior designer to creative director in probably about five or six years and having clients and lots of different types of clients, you know, like clients that were like the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But then there's a thing called the Thomas Register, which is like an encyclopedia like of machine parts. Like all like the smallest, every kind of machine part if you were building, for engineers, building machines. It was how to find all the parts to build machines, and it was like these huge you know, it would take up a wall in a mechanics office or a machinist's room, these encyclopedias. And I had to figure how to take all that and make a website for that, and that was like, that was exciting. That was really fun. And having all these different corporate clients and pharmaceutical clients and financial industry clients and learning all the sectors and stuff and working with a big team of really interesting professional people and, you know, like high stress turnarounds and, you know, you know, all-nighters all the time. That was and then hiring a team of people and then later with the bubble burst and having to lay off people, having to go through all that side of what it is to be a business. Yeah, all of that very much informed all of my writing. I think towards the beginning, you hear me writing so much about feeling like a businessperson trapped or something, you know, inside of a and but that continues. Now I really and I genuinely value all of that experience, you know. I think The National is still a band. A lot of it is because we all maybe sort of went through some sort of phases of learning about just friendship, art, and trying to make a smart, trying to make smart business choices, you know. From the beginning, Aaron's like that to, you know, and everybody in the band I think, I think a lot of our experience of being in New York and all having kind of whatever serious jobs did ultimately really help The National navigate a lot of things.
Tom DeSavia [00:11:34] What were you, so what were you like as a kid?
Matt Berninger [00:11:39] I mean, I had a huge ego, I think, I mean, I was mostly like a goofy kid. I think I got a lot of, got away with a lot a lot of s**t because of sense of humor, but I was a nice kid. I was always, you know, I was I think, you know, I think I would always be asked to all of the dances because I was nice and could dance pretty good, and like my sister, my older sister's friends would always ask me to their high school dances and stuff like that. I was, I was like medium popular, you know. I wasn't that athletic, but I was somewhere in the sort of like a foot in both the nerd, artsy nerd and whatever tough guy world. I don't know, I was kind of like, yeah.
Tom DeSavia [00:12:27] Was music invading your life, like from a young age? Like when did, because I know about your art background, but when did music sort of come in?
Matt Berninger [00:12:37] I mean, I do. It's funny like being in love with music, and hearing music around the house, like as a kid. I always think of, I've talked about this a lot, but my parents didn't have a big record collection, but the 20 or so records they had were just like all I really remember until I was 13 or 14. Right, so before I was 13 or 14, it was it was, you know, some country, Willie Nelson, Roberta Flack, some R&B, you know, Olivia Newton-John stuff and Judy Collins and just kind of a, kind of weird spectrum of stuff, but not a big collection of music.
Tom DeSavia [00:13:17] One of those 20 records your pop had was Stardust by Willie Nelson, and that was something you'd been listening to or just had heard it was in the air growing up, right? That was one of the major records.
Matt Berninger [00:13:28] Yeah. Yeah.
Tom DeSavia [00:13:29] And I didn't realize until we were talking that that record was produced by Booker T.
Matt Berninger [00:13:35] Right.
Tom DeSavia [00:13:35] I've known that record for years, and so that had to inform your makeup so much, just hearing that record so much, and I'm coming back around because obviously this new record, and you have a partnership with Booker T. now. How did, how did that come about, you two getting together?
Matt Berninger [00:13:53] Well, you know, it's a very circuitous way, is that about 12 years ago, Booker. I was asked to sing on a, do a duet with Sharon Jones on a record that Booker T. was doing, and then, back then, I didn't even know that he had produced and arranged Stardust. Right. I, that wasn't in my head. All I knew is that wait, Booker T. Jones, and at first, I was like, wait, you're talking about the Booker T. Jones wants me, and so I went and did that. And that was just this incredible experience, and I got to meet him, and I met all these really incredible people, including Sharon Jones, the late Sharon Jones. No relation, but and I just really, really just that was just one of these amazing experiences that I almost just like. Well, that happened and put it away. Like in this like, like someday I'll tell that story, because it was only a few hours that I was in the studio with him and then, and so, and we did not keep in touch for ten years Booker and I. But about two years ago I was cooking up the idea of doing a covers album and I, a local record store here I went, was buying a bunch of vinyl and they had Stardust. I was like, oh, Stardust like one of my dad's favorite records, and I took it home and I flipped it over and right on the top I could pull it out. Right on the top it says produced and arranged in all caps by Booker T. Jones, and that was one of these like, that was one of these like this record was produced by Booker, and I like I met him once and maybe I could get him to play on something some day because I want to make a record that's kind of like this, and yeah, and that was, and so I went to his website and clicked on the button for management and his daughter Olivia wrote me back the next day. You know, luckily, they remembered who I was from ten years earlier and he was interested, and it developed into this whole sort of relationship where we were working on a lot of covers, and then I started sharing some originals with him, and this record turned into more originals than covers, but it was. It was a, it wasn't like I hadn't been thinking about this for like a long time. It was, it was, kind of the idea came up a bit of a covers record and then this lucky connection I made, and I reached out and made it work, and he was incredible. I just, it was such a, the whole thing I feel like it was almost like a dream, you know.
Tom DeSavia [00:16:42] It's amazing when you go down the Booker T. sort of rabbit hole and realize just how much of pop culture he's touched, and it's one of those moments like I didn't know till we were having that conversation. I knew the Stardust record really well. I didn't know he produced it, until you brought that up.
Matt Berninger [00:16:57] Yeah, and you don't know. There's so many things that he's on that you just, that he's all over the place and you don't realize it, and, yeah, just you know, he's very much the Zelig-like character in contemporary American music. You know, like everything, disco, and country and soul, and so it's, but I actually did not bring in Booker for any aesthetic. I mean, yes, Stardust, he produced and arranged it, and I wanted the record to have that kind of atmosphere and that kind of a sort of feeling to it, but it wasn't so much that I wanted Booker to bring in all these different genres with him. It was, I kind of wanted his, just his personality, and because I remember in the studio, you know, a decade earlier, which it was a chaotic situation. A lot of people were coming and going. It was kind of, you know, in, you know, not a lot of time. It was on a schedule and through, in the middle of that, Booker was just so pleasant, you know, and made it so. I mean, I remember being really worked up and nervous and, you know, and he was he was just so pleasant. So I was like, well, I wonder what would happen if I spent two and a half weeks with him, you know, instead of two and a half hours, and all I can say was, it was incredibly pleasant the whole time. It was, he brought that thing that this sort of like making the room fun, making the room feel serious, making the room feel like we're here to do something important, you know, and he brought all that and and all the musical stuff too.
Tom DeSavia [00:18:53] Well you just said, and that's what I was sort of getting around to because he does one of the things like that as. There's really, you know, there's many types of producers and there's certainly the the producers you bring in that you're going to get their sound, you're going to get like, OK, I want that. I want the Daniel Lanois guitar sound. I want the, you know, whoever drum sound. I want the, the thing that. I went down this rabbit hole a while ago because I knew those M.G. Records really well, but I didn't know, like, a lot of what he'd done, and I literally started at Wikipedia and went through, and what's fascinating about him, I think specifically about when it comes to Serpentine Prison, is he's such a chameleon that he doesn't enforce a sound on anything he does that I hear. I guess if someone wants a Booker T. vibe, he could sit there and deliver that, but he really kind of comes in and it seems like, you know, it's a, it's a wholly, wholly new sound you two created.
Matt Berninger [00:19:44] Yeah, with Booker it's almost like there's a. There's a, I don't know, there's a special sort of vibe or the temperature. There's a spirit in the room on songs that he's on, and you won't know it's necessarily Booker T.. Like there's some songs have like a, just a spirit to them, and I mean, is it the way he's playing the Hammond? Is it because he does it so subtly and, you know, hardly knows. He only he only steps into the spotlight when, you know, you're so moved by the song, you don't even realize you're listening to a Hammond solo. Right? So he's, he knows that he's always there servicing something else. Right, and so I think that's why he's an incredible musician. He's an incredible producer is because when he's listening back, he's not listening for individuals. He's not listening for so specifically himself at all. He's listening for a an experience. Right, and he'll know exactly what these ingredients, I mean he's like a chef. He's a master chef where you like like, you know, he takes a sip of the soup and he knows exactly what to take out and what to add, you know? So that's what it was like all the time. All the time. Yeah.
Tom DeSavia [00:21:06] It's like, and so like just getting to know you during all this, you seem to be someone who's really collaborative. You really enjoyed collaboration.
Matt Berninger [00:21:18] Yeah, I can't do anything, I can't really make anything alone. Even, I mean, like I would never be able to sit down and write a novel, or I would never like, even doing art, painting and artwork like that. I do do it, but like, I don't, it's like it's more fun to do it in a studio with a bunch of people, you know, where there is like a bunch of people making art, like I, I like art camp and I that's why I do love being in a band, and I love going to the studio and I love being in a design studio and all that stuff. I do like being on a team of creative people trying to solve a problem together. You know, it's like West Wing or something or Apollo 13. I love that vibe, you know, and, alright, time to make a record, you know, and go on tour and you rally you get everybody together, so. Yeah, I don't really, I can't, I can't really make stuff. I try to make stuff alone, but it's lonely.
Tom DeSavia [00:22:19] Well, I was going to say, and was it, it had to be a, you know, an adjustment just going into a solo creation, and you seem to put together the right staff for it. Was it, was it fun? Would it make you enjoy it more when you were around another group of people?
Matt Berninger [00:22:38] It made me. One big thing is it made me realize is how fun it is to make music with anybody and how fun it is to be in a room with people, and I think what the problem is sometimes with rock bands, and I'll say this with The National, like we've been in the room, so many rooms together, so many small rooms all over the world, shows, backstages for so long, and you just start to, you just, you start to breathe the same oxygen. That's why I think The National is still an interesting and good and healthy band, because everybody is able to, like, get out of that room sometimes and go into some other rooms and realize like, oh, remember why you go into rooms with people. It's not about, it's about what you're doing together. Not what's going on with you individually, you know, or and, yeah. So, it reminds you. It's like when you join another gang for a while, it reminds you like what, or you spend time with another family, you really start to learn about your own family and put your own family in perspective, you know.
Tom DeSavia [00:23:43] Yeah. Right on. Okay, you know what it's time for Matt?
Matt Berninger [00:23:45] Is it time for the lightning, the lightening hat or round?
Tom DeSavia [00:23:49] It's time for the lightening round with Sammy Davis Jr.'s hat.
Matt Berninger [00:23:49] Tell me if this is the truth. Is that Sammy Davis Jr. his actual hat?
Tom DeSavia [00:23:54] That is the actual hat. I actually have a certificate of authenticity I could send you if you don't believe me, and I wish you'd be not so aggressive and challenge me.
Matt Berninger [00:24:01] I'd like you to get that over to me right away. That certificate.
Tom DeSavia [00:24:04] Yeah, I got it, I've got it in the other room. I swear to God. It was a friend of mine who went and bought it at an estate sale. It's an Abercrombie and Fitch hat.
Matt Berninger [00:24:16] That is cool. That is a Rat Pack hat.
Tom DeSavia [00:24:18] That is a Rat Pack hat. Maybe I'll let you, I'll let you borrow it.
Matt Berninger [00:24:21] Okay.
Tom DeSavia [00:24:21] But just borrow it. You can't have it.
Matt Berninger [00:24:23] I've got a [00:24:24]douchey, [0.0s] I've got a really [00:24:25]douchey [0.0s] rat pack hat I'll put on for my, for the end.
Tom DeSavia [00:24:29] Okay, I'll do to it, you know.
Matt Berninger [00:24:34] Here's my, uh…
Tom DeSavia [00:24:36] I took my questions out of the hat, and I'll just wear this.
Matt Berninger [00:24:40] I did go through a phase of thinking that if I got just the right hat, I would, I would.
Tom DeSavia [00:24:44] This was all a set up to just make me look completely idiotic in a hat, isn't it? Look how cool you look in that hat. Look at me.
Matt Berninger [00:24:50] No I look like a jackass.
Tom DeSavia [00:24:52] I look like a [00:24:52]jackass. [0.0s] I look like I'm.
Matt Berninger [00:24:55] We both look like jackasses. Anyways.
Tom DeSavia [00:24:55] You look good. Alright. Well, I took the questions out, so I'm just going to ask some questions. You can pass on any of these, but I might judge you if you pass. I always like to start with who was your first celebrity crush? Go for it.
Matt Berninger [00:25:10] Olivia Newton-John.
Tom DeSavia [00:25:11] Good one. What's the best single day on the calendar for you?
Matt Berninger [00:25:15] The best single day?
Tom DeSavia [00:25:15] Yes.
Matt Berninger [00:25:16] Oh, I like Christmas Day because it's also my dad's birthday. I like I love it. I mean, it's always a stressful day. I like the day after, I like the 26th. That's the best. Right.
Tom DeSavia [00:25:28] That's my favorite day. It's the longest time until Christmas again.
Matt Berninger [00:25:33] Yeah, and then it's like all the family shit is**t’ss over, but you don't have to go back to school and you can just like, nobody's going to, you can do whatever the f**k you want on the 26th. You know, I like that one the best.
Tom DeSavia [00:25:44] Our producer just pointed out to me that it's the 11th show, not our 10th. We specifically find that eleven is a good number and a very lucky number. Can we go with that? So, you're the 11th guest.
Matt Berninger [00:25:54] Yeah, that I'm, I'm okay with that.
Tom DeSavia [00:25:58] What's the first tune you learned to play?
Matt Berninger [00:26:01] I can't play any tunes.
Tom DeSavia [00:26:03] Can you not play anything?
Matt Berninger [00:26:04] Actually, no, no. I took piano lessons. No I. I took piano lessons and you know, did all that stuff [sounding out melody] or whatever that one, Fur Elise or whatever. And so, but I got really stressed out learning a piano in a recital and I think I turned away from that, and so I can't really, I really don't play any instruments. So I mean I can toot, I can toot away on a harmonica as long as I don't, it doesn't have to be on key with anything.
Tom DeSavia [00:26:42] Do you ever do that like outside lonely one tear rolling down your face and just play something emotional?
Matt Berninger [00:26:48] Yeah, I do that.
Tom DeSavia [00:26:50] Okay, well I want to see you do that wearing this hat.
Matt Berninger [00:26:53] I ride my bike with no hands and just play the harmonica with tears coming down. That's how I met my wife.
Tom DeSavia [00:27:00] We'll get matching teardrop tattoos. What musician do you wish the world knew more about?
Matt Berninger [00:27:06] Eric Bachmann of Archers of Loaf and Crooked Fingers. Yeah, I think he's, I mean, I think a lot of people do know about him, but Eric Bachmann is right, as a songwriter, I just think is, I just love the way he writes songs and, uh yeah.
Tom DeSavia [00:27:23] Who else do you love? What other songwriters? Who are your favorites, new or old.
Matt Berninger [00:27:30] Well, I do I mean, I think right now there are more. I actually think they're better songwriters right now than there than there have been in a long time. I think a lot of people, like we've talked a lot about Phoebe Bridgers. I think she's one of the best writers. I think Fiona Apple's writing incredibly powerful stuff. I think Nick Cave is actually even writing his most powerful stuff. And Leonard Cohen's last record was his most powerful, or like one of his most powerful records. So, I actually - Blackstar, you know, by David Bowie. I think, I think we are we are in phases of high art, really good music, really good rock and roll. Christian Lee Hutson is a really great songwriter. I know I've been working with so many really amazing new people and just with touring with The National, just so many. This Is The Kit and Eve Owen, and we just, I've met so many Adia Victoria. We've had so many incredible people open for us that I think the bar is much higher in terms of songwriting than it was ten years ago or even or when I started.
Tom DeSavia [00:28:53] What mystery do you wish you knew the answer to?
Matt Berninger [00:28:57] Well, I really genuinely would love for a higher intelligence to present itself and save our [00:29:05]asses. [0.0s] a**es. Yeah, so I really, I really long I don't I don't I don't need or desire the existence of an interventionist God at all. Just give us cooler hats from the future.
Tom DeSavia [00:29:22] Cooler hats. It's all we want. All we want. Seriously man, your record has been a really, I'm going to use the “I” word, but important record to me during lockdown. It's great to get to know you and it's.
Matt Berninger [00:29:36] You said important not impotent?
Tom DeSavia [00:29:37] Impotent. [0.0s] It's [00:29:37]impotent.
Matt Berninger [00:29:39] Got it.
Tom DeSavia [00:29:39] But that's why I'm thinking a better hat might help me out.
Matt Berninger [00:29:44] Thank you. Thank you, Tom. I'm glad it's helping you; it's working. Yeah, that's great. That's great.
Tom DeSavia [00:29:55] Just getting warmed up and we got to go.
Matt Berninger [00:29:57] Yeah, I know. We're just starting to get inappropriate. That's great. This was fun. Thank you, Tom.
Tom DeSavia [00:30:02] It was fun. Thank you for being here. Thank you everybody, and we'll see you next time on the show, Gone in 30 Minutes. The logo's right there. There he is.
Matt Berninger [00:30:12] I don't know if we were in post-production mode, but here it is.
Tom DeSavia [00:30:17] There it is. Thank you, Matt.
Matt Berninger [00:30:17] All right, you guys. Thanks, Tom. Bye.
Tom DeSavia [00:30:20] Bye.
Tom DeSavia [00:30:22] This show was presented by Craft Recordings. Thanks for joining us for Gone in 30 Minutes. Produced by Laura Sáaez. I'm your host Tom, and we'll catch you next time.