Disclaimer: This blog entry is mostly for myself and includes a lot of “thinking out loud” and expository narration (lol), but it also has some fun Q&A action that’s clearly indicated anyway. Thank you.
So, a glaring omission from this blog is probably a recap of The National’s performance here in Manila, which is sadly over a week old already. I interviewed Matt and Aaron (!) which I still can’t wrap my head around, even though my article ran yesterday in The Philippine Star’s Young Star. Its original incarnation was about 1,300 words—500 words over the limit I was given. I’m actually very happy with how they condensed it, even though writing my word vomit was really hard because I had a lot to say.
Well, that is what Nothing Spaces is for!
(Although, I have to say that I am going to have to post photos some other time. Sarie and I shared a camera and I need to figure out a good way to determine proper attribution, though truth be told, most of the awesome photos are probably hers. Also, I “narrowed” it down to 120. Who the hell is going to want to see 120 photos of a performance?)
So, context: I got to spend 15ish minutes with Matt Berninger, cutest bearded person in all the land, aka Mumbleberry Pie, and Aaron Dessner, one half of the supremely talented super twins. With five other people, yes, but fifteen minutes nonetheless.
Like I said in my piece, looking at them from across a table is vastly different from the usual squish-vision when you are in a sea of roaring and adoring fans. I think I didn’t expect them to be funny, for whatever reason. When we sat down and placed all of our recording devices near-ish Matt, he said, “Do you want these closer?” and he brought them into him like a hug or something and said, “Check, check, check!” and I just about died because I’m a freak and it was adorable.
Sidenote: Raymond, the editor of the section of the paper the interview appeared in, kindly asked me to restrain myself. LOL. I think he knew that a version of this blog post was going to happen if he didn’t tell me to tuck away the fangirl. Aldus, one of the journalists I was beside (+ author and Purple Chicken), said I handled it well for a super big fan, so I consider this a success story that I am attributing to my shyness. High five, shyness. You did good this time. (By the way, Aldus wrote an excellent piece on this not-so-secret meeting here.)
I’m not actually sure how to do this, but I bet it’s going to be a long-ass thing… So, I’ll start with my favorite parts. I think one of my favorite parts about the entire thing was when they were talking about their performance of “Sorrow,” at the MoMA PS1, in collaboration with Ragnar Kjartansson, an artist. They played it 108 times in six hours.
And then Ju asked what they would have liked to play for six hours, if they could have picked a different song.
Aaron: We didn’t know this, but the music historian, Alex Ross, he writes for The New Yorker, and not long after, he wrote an article about a set of chords that have, throughout modern history, signified sadness in music and “Sorrow” has the same chords. And Phillip Glass, the composer, has already said in an interview that that was his favorite National song because it has this circular chord progression that means sadness to him, so actually, I think that that’s the perfect song to have done that with, and I think Ragnar knew that.
Matt: We don’t know how he knew that. We didn’t know that. Maybe it was a good guess, but yeah. It’s kind of a song that we have, I think, that would make sense to do that, which is not one that we probably would have picked. I don’t know what we would have picked, but…
Aaron: Funny enough, we tried to write… Years ago, we wrote another song with the same chord progression that we never finished or we did finish…
Aaron: “Big Man!”
Matt: Oh, there’s a song called “Big Man.”
Aaron: It’s actually a cool song…
Matt: It wasn’t about any of us.
EL OH EL. I was keeling over like a tru dork. I think this is getting a bit long, so I’ll save the rest for later.
We were told that no cameras were allowed so I left my camera with Sarie (who was saving a spot for me in the front, since I had been in line since 3:30 or something. Not planned; basically I had no other ride), but this happened instead:
Obviously, I am not over it just yet. I can name a handful of people who are in the same state as I am. You know how the song goes: My mind’s not right.
Hmm. I’ll take you along my roller coaster of emotions on the day of the show. I didn’t eat anything after a really big breakfast that ended around 11 a.m. This was mostly because I didn’t want to pee, poop or throw up. I was a little nervous, I didn’t really know why I was, but I was a bit restless. Past noon, I get a text from Raymond asking me if I wanted to interview them. I am very, very bad at interviews, in that I will 60% of the time, clam up every time. (Just kidding.) But I said yes, because I felt like I would be such a dumbass to say ‘no’! Fuck you, shyness, you know?
So then, after learning about the interview, I knew that if I ate anything, I would puke and/or poop. (Sorry, lol.) I planned to eat post-show, like I always do anyway. When everything anxious inside me has settled into a reliable depression instead.
I was so stupidly restless the entire wait. When I got there, Elyoo was already waiting, so I sat next to her. I also saw Kasey, Betti, and Elaine. Deus and Kathy and Tara showed up, then everyone else did, too. It felt like a congregation of lonely people. (Apologies if you were there and are not, in fact, lonely. It’s just how it felt.) And we waited and waited.
(Both photos from Kathy’s Facebook, sorry for posting Without Permission!)
They started letting people in at about past 6, which I thought was unusually early, but you know, I’ll take it! So continues my journey of trepidation and anxiety.
And this went on until 9 p.m. I waited outside with the rest of our round table group and missed Buke & Gase and most of Youth Lagoon’s set. I’m a little relieved that I am not really a big fan of either band, that hearing them through the walls was enough.
Then the interview happened and it was beautiful. (More on that later.)
As some of you may know, I saw The National two years ago in Singapore. It was for their High Violet tour and it was glorious. I think that entry captures the magic of seeing them a bit more clearly than this super-long roundabout thing that I’m writing now. But, I’m trying.
All the Wine: the contents of which Matt later poured all over the stage.
I don’t know, I keep quoting their lyrics, but I figure I’ve embarrassed myself enough already so here: I was in a perpetual state of rosy-minded fuzz and I figured out that I can be extremely, emotionally detached during shows. I usually cry and feel the feelings days after. That’s just how it is.
I theorized that I just maybe have no emotional attachment to Trouble Will Find Me yet, and the bulk of their setlist is from this album, but that’s just simply not true. I love that album, and maybe half of the songs on it make me cry. I think I just rarely cry at shows, on the spot, and I think it’s because excitement reigns supreme in this environment for a hermit like me.
Speaking of setlist, this is what they played. Bolded are my favorites:
- Don’t Swallow the Cap
- I Should Live in Salt
- Anyone’s Ghost
- Mistaken for Strangers
- Bloodbuzz Ohio
- Sea of Love
- Afraid of Everyone
- Conversation 16
- Squalor Victoria
- I Need My Girl
- This Is the Last Time
- Slow Show
- Apartment Story
- Pink Rabbits
- Fake Empire
- Mr. November
- Terrible Love
- Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks
Incidentally, Sarie and I took turns holding a TASCAM to record the entire show, which is uploaded here:
Apologies if you can hear any of us, which you can. Still it’s a pretty decent recording, considering the sound system… One of my favorite parts is when the opening riff (IDK, chord? I am dumb) of “I Need My Girl” plays and everyone loses their shit. I think that kind of encapsulates what my steady state of emotions is during shows. I freak out then and there, and then I internalize my feelings after that. Like I’m still doing now. I can’t count how many times I teared up listening to The National, post-Hostess Club Weekender. Weirdo, I say.
I did stop singing along and cried when Matt started singing So worry not, all things are well, we’ll be alright, though. Because it’s Matt and The National, you know? Telling me it will be okay. Kind of. That’s how it felt like anyway. And who can you believe if you can’t believe in Matt Berninger?
You know, I feel really lucky that I got to witness that last, stripped down song, “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.” Here’s a small part with a super-cute super silly Matt, but I have a full-ish video that Sarie took with my camera that I intend to upload soon.
Chard and I kept comparing the two shows we saw because we are really big The National nuts, and we (unreasonably) feel personally affronted when things don’t go as smoothly as we might hope.
One of the things that pissed me off so much was when the bouncers literally played tug-of-war with the audience, when Matt was trying to go into the crowd, as he always does. He tried for the first two songs of the encore to no avail. I am so very happy for my friends who got to at least touch this wonderful man. I know that sounds creepy, but I am a creep and I thought you’d all be used to this behavior by now.
After the show, my brother, Sarie, and I went to Recovery Food for post-concert arroz caldo (yech), tapa (yum) and dalandan juice. Then, there was this “Official After Party” and we tried to tail them but we are unlucky with these kinds of things. And too stupid to realize that it would have been smarter to try and see them as they checked out of the hotel the next day.
ANYWAY. It was amazing. Comparing the two set lists, I think I much prefer the one this time around, even though I missed some songs off of High Violet like “England,” “Runaway,” and “Sorrow.” I’m not complaining, though. Like I said, I absolutely love Trouble Will Find Me.
In between songs like “Afraid of Everyone,” “Abel,” and “Mr. November,” it was so stunning to see them still capture the crowd in the most beautiful silence when they started playing “Pink Rabbits.” That was so perfect.
Bits & Pieces from the Interview
(This was a round-table interview with questions from six people, including me. Just to clarify.)
You have a very unique voice. When did you first realize you had this skill? At what point did you realize that you could sing?
Matt: The truth is there was never a moment like, “Oh, I can sing.” I actually didn’t worry about not being able to, even from the beginning. I first started singing in a band in college. I loved the bands Pavement and Guided By Voices, and it’s not about how they sing, and so it made me realize “Hey, you can sing however you want,” but then again, there’s people like Tom Waits and Bob Dylan. Are their voices good? I don’t know. Is Nick Cave’s voice good? Yeah, I think so, but it’s not because… I don’t think any of them are “good” singers. It’s mostly about delivery and what you were saying with your voice, so I never worried that much about it. I do think I’ve gotten better at it, but I never cared.
On Game of Thrones and “Rains of Castamere”
Matt: The Game of Thrones thing was us kind of inhabiting a whole other fantasy universe. Aaron and I went to L.A. and worked with their composer, Ramin, and we just kind of went with his vision and we were able to get into this sort of fantasy headspace and deliver that song in a way that felt like we were kind of in Game of Thrones so it was. I associate with the Lannisters, and I’m not sure why. That’s awful. Maybe it’s because I’m blond.
Both those things (“Rains of Castamere” and “Lean,” from The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) were really fun things to do. Whenever we’ve written songs for things outside of our own records, it lets us kind of step outside of our own shells a little bit, and it’s been really fun and healthy for us. We’ve had a great experience on all those things. Being on The Mindy Project was not something that we would probably do. There’s also a show called Bob’s Burgers; we were all animated as made out of gravy, and we get eaten. It was fun to be something other than we are.
Does literature play a big part in your songs?
Aaron: I think there was a period when you [Matt] were borrowing some things.
Matt: I wouldn’t so specifically just say me, myself, but all of us, we read. Those guys probably read more than I do, but I think it’s important to absorb and steal stuff from other things in the world. There have been a handful of books that I think about and go back to a lot when I’m writing and stuff. One weird book is called Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion. For some reason, that’s always the book that I [always go back to]. Because the story and the narrative is very fractured, but the writing is so beautifully written. The weirdness and the strangeness of the narrative, she pulls it off in this crazy, crazy beautiful way. And so that book has probably meant… I think of that, not so specifically, what happens in that book, but the crazy, courageous style that she wrote that in. It just made me realize just like… try things.
You allude to Tennessee Williams in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof…
Matt: I think I was actually watching the movie version of that, that always stuck in my head when Paul Newman says that. He’s an alcoholic in that thing. He describes at some point your brain reaches a peaceful place, and that’s when “the click” happens, he says. I’m a heavy drinker. I don’t think I’m an alcoholic, but then again, somebody else would say… I kind of respect that that movie and that book, that Tennessee Williams talked about… We use crutches in life to help us in situations. It’s not always such a bad thing. I mean, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is maybe more bad than it is good, but I just thought it was a beautiful way of describing a crutch that we use as human beings in life, and I just stole it.
So what’s your crutch? When does “the click” kick in?
Aaron: Weirdly, we’ve also seen the dark side of that in this world of rock. A lot of people, including amongst ourselves; you can go too far, and you can lose your way, and sometimes that switch is not a positive thing either, but I think we all have our ways of getting through performing in front of people, because it’s not natural to any of us. We’re all slightly awkward or slightly shy about it, so I think alcohol has been a big part of our band since the beginning. The first songs we wrote were because we were hanging out, drinking as friends. It hasn’t really changed that much.
Matt: We’re relatively square, though, in terms of substance abuse. We drink a lot of wine, you know, there has been some weed in our history. But some things are very dangerous. I’ve never done cocaine, I’ve never done heroin, I’ve never done that kind of stuff… Some things are more powerful than we are. And I know that I’m not that strong, and those kinds of things would probably, could probably take me over so I don’t even go near it.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is a good example. I mean, he’s a man at the top of his game, and he’s got a family, but there’s this thing, this chemical that took him down, that took him over. He wasn’t strong enough to beat that thing. I get no delusions that there are just things that you should just stay away from. For me, alcohol is not one of those. That one, I can roll with. I don’t touch the other stuff, though.
On dealing with the pressure & power struggle within the music industry
Aaron: I think we’ve charted our own course. I would advise all musicians to do the same thing. I would say only now are we even playing the game at all. Originally, we just did our own thing. We made some music because we liked it a lot, but I think we all thought nobody is going to care, so we started our own record label and we did that for a few years. Then we signed to an independent record label because we had a chance, and we knew we needed it, and that really helped us. And now, finally, we are kind of like reaching the mainstream, so we feel like, “Oh, should we do a radio mix?” but it’s the first time in fifteen years that we’ve done a radio mix and it’s kind of in a weird reality, and I feel mixed emotions about it, because I like the version that we love more.
Matt: As the record industry sort of fell apart in a lot of ways, that’s when we snuck in and came in through sort of the side doors when nobody was paying attention and so we were kind of lucky never to get corded by the music industry or major labels. They never wanted us, and so we kind of had to figure out a way to do it ourselves. And then the music industry changed around us and then they started coming to us, on our terms. So, we kinda got lucky. We kinda got lucky, because we weren’t offered the traps that a lot of bands fall into. Those weren’t even there for us to fall into. And then, by the time they were, we knew not to go there. So, we just got lucky.
On “Bloodbuzz Ohio”
Matt: That song is about family, being the blood in your blood. All of us are from Cincinnati, Ohio. We all left there 10, 15 years ago. And there’s something that’s in the chemistry of our band. It’s just kind of about your history, and what you come from, whether it’s your family or whether it’s a place, that’s always there, and that… So it’s a song kind of about trying to understand what’s part of you is a person that will never go away, from where you grew up, and then missing that a little bit. Not actually being able to feel connected to that, the way you used to, and missing that connection and respecting that history, but also realizing that maybe some things are lost forever… I don’t know. That’s a good question, I had no idea.
What band do you consider the greatest influence?
Matt: I don’t think there’s one. It’s impossible for there to be just one. For me, I could name twenty of them. Tom Waits, Guided By Voices, The Smiths, R.E.M., Billy Bragg, Cat Power, The Pixies, Nirvana, Thompson Twins. The first concert I ever went to was a Thompson Twins concert, and it blew my mind. And like, “I want to be up there,” and that was before I even entertained the idea of being a musician at all. I bet everybody in the band would have a completely different list of ten bands. Nirvana would probably be on all them.