Matt and Tom Berninger on Mistaken For Strangers, brotherhood, the future
"I think he should go into modelling," smiles The National frontman Matt Berninger, softly shooting his brother Tom a sideways glance. "Hair modelling?" he replies, wide-eyed, before a stone-faced Matt sips his coffee and shoots back: "Plus size men."
"I’d say I’m husky, slightly larger than average size," shrugs Tom. Sitting upstairs at the Hackney Picture House ahead of the UK premiere of The National’s acclaimed new documentary, this is not the banter and chemistry of a director and his subject – this is that comfortable atmosphere that can only exist between siblings. Throughout Mistaken For Strangers, there’s a Larry David of tension in the air as a black humour underlies what is less of the ‘concert movie’ that you’d expect, and more of a universal and timeless tale of brothers and rivalry, of victory and failure.
The National are a band comprising of two sets of brothers, but Matt is the only one without – so he invited his on the road. Shot by Tom, the film follows the band around on their world tour in 2010 as they finally rise to huge international acclaim off the back of the worldwide acclaim that followed in the wake of High Violet – but also tells the story of Tom’s own identity crisis as he measures his own life against that of his successful brother.
"You’re too set in your ancient patterns of behaviour as brothers," guitarist Bryce tells Tom at one point in the film. "You’re the underdog and he’s the alpha male. You’re not going to win."
But win he does. Tom may be the underdog, but in this film he beats his demons, everyone wins and brotherhood prevails.
"I learned a lot about Tom," Matt tells us, adjusting his specs while stroking his beard. "We both learned how to respect each other as two different types of people in the world, even though we’re brothers. He was always a little brother to me, and now that he’s an adult I think of him as more than that – he’s my peer. Seeing all of the stuff with the band, for one made me realise how lucky we are to still be around. Some of the family connections in the band are probably why we’re still around. That’s the glue that has kept us through a lot of things," before pausing to glance at his grinning little bro. "Why are you looking at me?"
"I’m not, I’m listening," giggles Tom.
"Don’t look at me that way," Matt smiles with a wry smile. "It’s made me realise that family is a significant part of why we’re around. I also realise that I’ve got a terrible temper…"
Indeed, the peak of the tension in the film comes when the combination of a less-than-successful gig followed by being followed in such close quarters by his intrusive little brother causes Matt to have somewhat of a mini-meltdown of a tantrum backstage – something that he admits he wouldn’t have been able to do in front of just any film-maker.
"He’s got a serious temper," grimaces Tom. "He has a limit where he just flies off the hinges every single time, whereas I cry. I’ve realised that I’m a crier. It sucks being the crier. I wish I could get angry at him but I can’t. I just take it and then cry."
"He’s a crier, I’m a screamer," chuckles Matt. "Man, I sound like such an awful person."
Tom is quick to reply: "Sometimes you are!"
Yup, if there’s one thing you can say about Mistaken For Strangers, is that it’s a less than flattering portrait of the band at times.
The National at London’s Alexandra Palace (Chris MacDonald)
"I think if somebody other than Tom was making a film about us then they would have been much more reverential to the music and to the image of the band," admits Matt. "I don’t think Tom cared about that at all. If anything, he wanted to destroy the image of the band!
"I mean that view that we are these hyper-self-serious pseudo-intellectual bookish…whatever. He knew us more as a very different type of people to what he’d read about us. He wanted to up-end the ‘brand’ of The National. If someone else had made this movie, they probably would not have had the same access to the bathrooms, the showers and I probably wouldn’t have thrown a temper tantrum around any documentary film-maker. I would have kept my cool until they left the room, but Tom was there, everywhere, and he was the reason I was losing my shit. There’s no way that anyone other than Tom could have made this movie. Somebody else could have made a great documentary about the band some day, and I’m happy that Tom made this one – even though I look like an asshole."
And what did Tom learn about his ‘rock star’ older brother?
"I was never jealous of Matt, but I was always wondering why he always seemed to take all of the right roads, whereas I would somehow just crash into a ditch over and over again. What I realised is that they just worked really hard to get where they are. They had ditches too but they put out their best efforts, stuck with it, kept at it and that was what they taught me. Even if you have a bad show, you’ve got to brush it off because you have another one tomorrow. You have to act like rock stars even though you don’t feel like rock stars.
"You’ve got to pull yourself out of it and believe in yourself, have this delusional optimism that you’re better."
Being so emotionally involved in being is such close quarters with his little brother in one of the most eventful periods of career has influenced The National’s output beyond Mistaken For Strangers – it has also inspired Matt’s songwriting and altered relationships within the band.
"On the last record, the first song is kind of about Tom," ponders Matt. "’I Should Live In Salt is kind of about the pent-up guilt of having left home when he was a just a little kid, when he needed me the most he was gone.
"Now, I don’t know how much the film is inspiring the band to make new stuff, but it’s inspired us to resolve our conflicts. It’s been a catalyst for us to deal with our shit and be as healthy and nice to each other as we can be."
And now that he’s realised he’s not a roadie, he’s not a tour manager and he’s not a straight-up documentary maker, it looks like Tom has FINALLY found his calling – so expect to see on a screen near you soon.
"I always thought I’d be behind the camera making little horror movies, which I’d still love to do," says Tom. "Me being in front of the camera is this new thing and it seems like I make people laugh. Now I now why I made people laugh when I didn’t want them to – I was trying to be serious and people would just be like ‘oh, you hilarious’ I never took them seriously but now I know that I have a funny way about me and I’m thinking about being in front of the camera more."
Matt chimes in: "I want him to try and make a TV show, he’d be better at trying to make a TV show about something more real so we’ve been talking about that."
And as for the future of The National, Matt says that progress on their seventh album is ‘very slow’.
"Only because everybody wants to change the way we work from the past. Not because it doesn’t work but I think we all feel that if we make another record like we’ve made the last three or four – we don’t need to do that.
He continued: "We’re talking about getting together, which won’t be until about October, taking a little break and then getting together to try and write together in a room – which we’ve never done. We always work on little things and email back and forth. We have no idea whether it’s going to work or not, but that’s as far as we’ve got with the new record: trying to work out a plan and a different approach.
"That might fail miserably, but then we’ll try it a different way. It’s not going to be a hip-hop record, I’m pretty sure. I wish we could but I’m terrible at that, I’ve tried."
If that fails, there’s always modelling….
The National will be appearing at British Summer Time with Neil Young, Tom Odell, Midlake, Ethan Johns and many at Hyde Park, London on Saturday 12 July. For more information visit Gigwise Tickets.
Below: Exclusive photos of The National, live at Alexandra Palace, LondonTags: concert, director, film, movie, music, release, tour, tv