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Matt Berninger of The National

Not Fascists, Artists

After two albums slid below the public radar, Brooklyn quintet The National sprung Alligator (2005) and Boxer (2007) on startled rock fans nationwide. Pieced together in 1999 by five friends from Cincinnati, The Nationalís ascent via Alligator offered the band members the opportunity to make music full time -- and it was an opportunity they seized. Now, theyíve quit their day jobs and hit the road, tearing around the world on tour, all the while trying to evade the fascism boycott campaigns pitched against them. WaitÖfascism boycott campaigns? The Nationalís vocalist, Matt Berninger, spoke with SF Station about, among other things, that strange twist of events.

SF Station (SFS): Howíd the name "The National" come about?

Matt Berninger (MB): Seven or eight years ago we figured we needed a name. We decided we needed a name that was meaningless. So we went with the simplest thing. It worked on some level, but people couldnít really find our website. "The National" is so generic a phrase and it brought up all kinds of sites.

Then we went to Europe and people thought we were affiliated with right-wing nationalism. A lot of people asked about our politics, especially in Germany and France. And in Germany, people boycotted our show because they thought we were some kind of nationalist group or something. I guess we didnít really think that through. But weíve found some fans, I guess -- maybe they all think weíre fascists.

SFS: What influences you guys? What are you listening to? What are you reading?

MB: We all have different record collections. We have different music backgrounds, too. Bryce comes from a professional music background. I was a college rock kid so I listened to The Smiths, Tom Waits, Nick Cave. Weíre such a collaborative band and no oneís really in control, so itís hard to trace any significant influences. We take inspiration from wherever we find it -- movies, overheard conversations, books. Eventually, we collage it all together. Iíve never been able to sit down and write a lyric, really. The real work is in the corrections and in finding the connections, which is a slow process.

SFS: Speaking of collaboration and writing songs, whatís The Nationalís process for composing?

MB: Itís a collaborative process. The other guys are always feeding me bits of music. I listen to it over and over and over in my head trying to put lyrics to it, trying to sing to it. No one comes with a presented, finished song. Itís really not controlled by any one person. The egos are strong, but thereís no captain. Nobody really owns the songs or is precious about any original version. Itís frustrating sometimes, but itís the way we put music together. We chop songs up, try them different ways -- like I said, itís a slow process, trying to discern something from little ideas.

SFS: How do politics influence your work? Both of the recent albums seem somewhat political at times.

MB: We donít really think about politics when weíre making the music, but itís definitely there below the surface. Alligator is more desperate. It was written around the time of the election, when Bush won for the second time. ďMr. NovemberĒ sort of expresses a desperate frustration with things. Boxer has a different mood, itís more escapist, more resigned, trying to avoid thinking about how bad things are.

Itís about not thinking about things and not taking responsibility -- sort of an internal reflection on responsibility. It sort of asks, what does it mean to be a good adult? What does it mean to be a kind, responsible person versus someone who just lives to fulfill desires, someone who has no responsibilities? Itís a pretty bleak scene out there politically, but Iím optimistic.

Itís been a long time, though. Right know Iím standing next to the Grassy Knoll -- you know, THE Grassy Knoll -- and thinking about how much that assassination changed the course of history. Itís hard to say where historyís going next, but Iím optimistic.

SFS: Howís touring? What does the future hold for you five?

MB: Well, weíre touring through the end of the year for sure. Itís exciting, we have good crowds every night. In a few months, we might start writing on a new album, but I donít really know what the future will be exactly. Weíre just trying to making music we want to listen to ten years from now.

The National perform at The Grand Ballroom w/ St. Vincent on September 29th. Tickets are $22.50.