Q&A: The National’s Matt Berninger on Clinton, Trump, and the Real Enemy


Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

This Wednesday night, November 2, indie rock band, Cincinnati natives, and proponents of automatic toilets the National will perform a Get Out the Vote concert for 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in Washington Park. We talked with lead singer Matt Berninger about the election, his father’s golf league, and walrus penis jewelry.


When did the idea for this concert first get floated?
It was not long ago—a few weeks or so. They asked if we’d be interested in doing something, and we were gonna go wherever they wanted in Ohio, but we were really happy they felt we’d be most useful in Cincinnati. So we get to go home and see our families, which will be a lot of fun.

It’s been mentioned that a couple band members were Bernie Sanders supporters early on—was there any discussion of whether the group was all-in for this concert?
I think everyone in the band is a big supporter of both Bernie and Hillary. We’re all progressives. I don’t know who in the band voted for Bernie in the primary, but most of the Bernie people understand that Bernie is joining the fight and Hillary is listening, and all of these people will hold her to her promises. I think that’s good. When it comes down to it, one of these two people [Clinton or Trump] are going to take the country in a very different direction, and one gets closer to Bernie’s direction than the other. I think people understand how this works. Bernie is going to stay involved, and so will Elizabeth Warren, so will Barack and Michelle Obama. This is the team.

It’s certainly a bit different than the team on the Republican side, with Rudy Giuliani, Roger Ailes, Scott Baio…
The whole thing right now, it’s such a gross, awful—politics has become this really, really nasty spectacle of meanness. On both sides. This time more than ever. Democrats and Republicans, we’ve all been so riled up against each other and we’ve villainized each other. And I know there are some issues where people can’t see it the other way or empathize with the other side—that’s going to happen. The question of a woman’s right to choose, the way I might define it, is different than the way more conservative family members of mine might define it as abortion and the terminating of a life. Even the language makes it very hard for us to talk to each other about. But Republicans and Democrats, liberal young people and old white men, the truth is, we actually have more problems with our government in common than we do apart. Washington and our politicians do not represent us—they don’t represent us. They don’t represent me, and they don’t represent all of my Republican cousins, and we’re all very angry, very frustrated, because we have very little influence. Nothing compares to the amount of money coming in from corporate interests, on both sides of it. So the anger and the frustration and the desperation felt by Trump supporters, as well as Bernie supporters, are really very similar shades of the same anger. We need to come together and realize that it’s the corporate influence, the .1-percent that is influencing our politicians more than all of us put together. We have no voice. It’s all corporate interests. That is our common enemy. I agree, we have to fix Washington, and the Trump supporters, one of their big motivations is that Washington doesn’t work. And they’re right, it doesn’t work for me either. It doesn’t work for liberals, for any of us.

The people that Washington works for is that .1-percent. The income inequality and wealth disparity is the true evil. If anything is rigged, it’s Wall Street, the corporate loopholes, the lobbying. We do not have a voice for the people. It’s Citizens United—that is the Death Star of corruption in our policies. So the ugliness of this election is because people are desperate, and for very legitimate reasons. It’s a common enemy, and I think we’re finally at a point where that’s dawning on everyone. This whole campaign has shone a light on the sexism and racism that is still so deeply infecting our country. The bigotry that is coming up out of all of this is hard to stomach, but it’s leading us to a real soul-searching as a country. I sense that we’re at the beginning of some new enlightenment in terms of our ability to talk to each other, because we’re all broken down now, and everybody knows it. My dad’s golf league, from the west side of Cincinnati, some of them can’t even talk to each other, and they’ve been friends since high school. They’re all good guys. What’s going on there? I feel like, when the dust settles from all of this, we’re gonna wake up and start talking to each other about all of this. We’re gonna have to, and it’s because we’re not each other’s enemy. The Trump supporters are not the enemies of the liberal, progressive people like me—they are not my enemy and I am not their enemy. We’re gonna realize that soon. The real enemy is the corporate influences, the money, Wall Street, the banks. They are the ones really pulling the strings. That’s where we have to change. Citizens United is our common foe.

EL VY, your other band with Brent Knopf, put out a song recently as part of Dave Eggers’ 30 Days, 30 Songs project (now 40 Songs)—was that always something you had planned to do with EL VY or did you kick around doing something with the National, too?
Dave Eggers just asked EL VY to do it. It was fun. Also the nature of that just felt like an EL VY thing. For whatever reason, with EL VY, we do these absurdist collage songs that are maybe a little less cerebral, just a different tone of song than what the National does.

Yeah, it seemed to work well with the computer game you guys did to go along with it. I can’t think of many National songs that would have paired as well with that.
We did [the song] really fast and it was so silly. It was this loose reckless thing, which was a fun thing for us to do. We didn’t even want the song to be partisan necessarily. We don’t mention Trump. The only people we mention specifically are Roger Ailes and Steve Bannon, but just their first names. The song isn’t necessarily an anti-Trump song, it’s just a song that is so frustrated with all the bullshit that we as Americans are being forced to see and hear. It’s just gross. I am anti-Trump, but Trump is just a symbol—it’s because of how disgusting and racist and the bigotry and sexism I see from him. It’s not really his policies—I don’t know what his policies are half the time, they change every other day. But I am 100-percent anti the way the government is not representing the people anymore. That has to change.

Did that “rich get richer” idea influence the title of “Are These My Jets?”

No, that was more of just someone who has a delusional idea of ruling the world and suddenly they wake up and find they were actually given that rule. Also, it’s a ridiculous song about walrus penis jewelry, which is an actual thing that my sister and members of my family have passed around, and I just threw it in the song because it’s the most absurd thing. This election, all the rhetoric and everything people are saying in these debates, I can’t believe the way people are talking, it’s so gross and absurd. Just the fact, the whole, ya know, the P-word. I can’t turn on the news without a newscaster saying the P-word! I’m just like, Oh my god. I need to turn it off. I have a seven-year-old daughter and this is gross, what the hell is going on? The song was more of an expression, a cathartic expression of frustration, so you just get to fly a plane and blow meat out of the sky. That’s as brainy as it gets.

Did you have some family contribute vocals on that?
Yeah, all my cousins, my mom, sister, nieces, dad, uncles, aunts—had all those people sing on it. I recorded it in Cincinnati in my parents’ basement just a couple weeks ago when I was back home. We had a big family party and I just took everyone down to the basement and recorded it on my laptop. At the moment I didn’t tell them that the song was going to be centered on walrus penis, but they all seemed to be into it.

When we last spoke, we talked a lot about Cincinnati and you growing up here, and it being a conservative area and you going to a Catholic school on the west side, and how that impacted who you are today. I’m a little bit younger than you, but I grew up on the west side as well. I was curious what you thought—the people I knew growing up and the people I know now who are conservatives, Donald Trump doesn’t represent those values, and yet many feel he’s their only choice. I’m assuming you’ve seen the same thing.
Yeah, the part of it that bums me out the most is that I know and like and feel connected to these people who I know politically are still behind Trump, or have been. How can we be so far apart? I use my dad’s golf league again: They’re all nice guys from the west side of Cincinnati. They all have kids, have daughters, they’re all good dudes. But it’s gotten to the point where they can’t even get close to politics, because they just can’t believe what the other person is saying. I do think we’re about to come out the other side. I’ve compared it to the worst Thanksgiving dinner where everybody hates each other, everyone has gone off to the backyard and people are leaving, and it’s time for everybody to say hold on, come back in. After this is over, the American public, we have to talk to each other and heal. It’s our government that is not working. It’s our government and media that is polarizing us, and we need to talk to each other. This is ridiculous. We won’t agree on many, many, many things, but I feel totally sure that we will agree on so many more than we think we will.

You mentioned your daughter—I assume you’re thinking a lot about her in terms of this election and where things are going?
Yeah. I realized a while ago that my cool, rock and roll career isn’t nearly as important as my daughter’s future. Earth is not doing well. The opportunity to live a comfortable and happy life with health and education, those opportunities are getting harder and harder. These [politicians] are going to make the rules for the world that you’re going to live in, for a long time. That’s why I’m involved with this and the band is involved with this. It’s just about getting people to want to vote—and I’m voting for Hillary Clinton, if people ask me that I’ll tell them—but it’s mostly talking about people needing to chime in big time on this, even if they are frustrated and sickened by it. We’re deciding their future, so they have to jump in. My daughter can’t vote yet, so I’m doing everything I can to help it go toward a world that is just for her, a little more just.

In that same vein, does it bother you at all when fans—perhaps with short memories—get mad when they see you are doing a concert for Hillary Clinton?
I mean, I don’t know, I’ve been an unapologetic, devout liberal from day one. But put it this way: I totally understand people not wanting their entertainers to talk about politics. I get it. When I listen to music, I don’t want to think about that stuff. I want to drink wine and dance around with my headphones on. I want a distraction from CNN. So the last thing you want, if it’s a band you like, is to hear the singer talk about politics. I get it…but I don’t give a shit. My daughter’s future is a hell of a lot more important to me than ticket sales, or album sales.

When they listen to our records, they aren’t going to hear a bunch of partisan political stuff. “Are These My Jets?” was for a progressive thing that was trying to get people to register to vote, and that’s my whole thing, but you aren’t going to hear much partisan messaging in any of my music. The stuff in the music is personal expression of anxiety and desire. I don’t want the band or the music itself ever to be a political voice box, but as an individual, I’m gonna do that, I’m gonna talk about that. And it just so happens that all five guys in the National are all pretty closely politically inclined toward the left, so when we’ve been asked by Obama or Clinton or charities or whatever, that’s something we want to do. But when we get in the studio, we just like to drink, and jam, and write love songs. That’s our thing.

Do you plan to do a lot of talking at the concert—
NO! (laughs) God, I’m not gonna talk at all. Rest assured, you’ll hear no speeches from me. Please, don’t release this audio recording! No, I’m there to sing, and absolutely, sing in support of Hillary Clinton. So unfortunately, half of my dad’s golf league and most of my cousins won’t come, and I get it. A lot of them don’t like the band, so that’s why they aren’t coming—I have cousins who are huge Hillary fans, they just hate my music. But I’m not gonna be doing any stumping or spinning, because really, weirdly, all of this is a real distraction from what the real problem is, which is that none of us have a real voice.

Any big surprises planned? Bill gonna come out playing the sax or anything like that?
No, I have no idea what they’re doing. We’re just on the bill somewhere and we’re gonna be there and ready. I have no idea who’s going to be there. Maybe the Cool Ghoul will come back.


For more info on the Get Out the Vote concert, click here.

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