The National spent a bulk of 2013 on the road supporting their sixth album “Trouble Will Find Me” and the critically-acclaimed indie rock band are showing no signs of slowing down. Earlier this month, they made their first-ever appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” they’re booked for shows through the summer and next week, and their feature-length film “Mistaken For Strangers” hits theaters and video on-demand services.
The film premiered at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival and isn’t anything like a typical “rock doc.” It follows the band on their world tour supporting 2010’s “High Violet,” where they hired lead singer Matt Berninger’s slacker younger brother Tom to help out as a roadie. He often shirked his duties in favor of filming the band on a small camcorder, much to their dismay at times. His career as a roadie never blossomed (he gets fired midway through), but the footage that makes up “Mistaken For Strangers” is highly compelling. Instead of putting the band on a pedestal, he examines how a person makes sense of his brother’s fame and success, while coming to terms with his own failings and jealously.
Billboard recently spoke to the brothers about the making of the film, the next National album, the band’s Grateful Dead covers album project and more.
“Mistaken For Strangers” is not your typical movie about a rock band. Would you describe this as a “happy accident?”
Matt Berninger: When Tom came on tour, I encouraged him to bring a camera, but it was mainly to make a video or some bonus web content. We were filming a lot of goofy stuff. At one point, he was trying to make these little Monkeys or “Hard Days Night” vignettes. When Tom got fired from his role as Assistant Tour Manager and went home, he had a ton of stuff and he and my wife started going through it. She turned on the light and said “everything with you in it is funny, endearing and interesting. Especially the fact that you got fired and you’re having this struggle with yourself.” Tom getting fired was a pretty stressful event for everybody. At the time it was a huge bummer, but it made for a much more interesting story. Nobody expected it to turn into a weird movie about family.
Tom Berninger: We worked really hard in getting the humor and cutting for comedy. It was a surprise to us all, in that at I put so much of myself [in the movie] and filmed myself getting drunk and crying. It took other people to convince me to put that in the movie. It was a movie comprised of everything you’d think would go on the editing room floor.
There’s a lot of noticeable tension on the screen. Is it weird for you guys to feel that way towards each other?
TB: The movie touches on jealously, like why did my brother make all the right decision and I made all the wrong decisions? That was always going through my mind. We were always kind of close, and he was never a big brother that would beat me up or make fun of me. He was more or less another adult figure in my life and an idol. Matt became this impossible goal for me to achieve. It was the success and the fans and … what he does is really still a mystery to me.
Matt, there’s a scene in the film where you come off stage and describe the show as sucking. What makes a National show suck these days?
MB: Things go badly all the time. Technical things. And that doesn’t bother me. It goes badly for me when I feel like I didn’t connect … sometimes I don’t know if I’m connecting with the audience or not. It’s hard to tell. I feel like inside my head I’m not connecting with the show, I’m not connecting with the songs and the five of us together are disconnected. It’s that and all of us feel terrible. Sometimes you just walk off and you feel like thousands of people spent 40 bucks each and we weren’t as good as we should have been. It’s also anxiety built up. I drink a lot on stage, so sometimes it just builds up and when you have a bad show, you feel like you did. It’s an awful feeling. It doesn’t happen that often, but sometimes I walk off stage and I hate myself. That’s what makes a bad show. We want to try and be awesome every night and sometimes we’re not.
The National’s music is featured as music during a handful of scenes. Have you been approached to write for an entire film?
MB: Not me. I’ve been asked to write for some TV shows … we wrote a song for this movie “Win Win.” But Aaron and Bryce have been asked to score some things. They have done some scoring of films. We got to write a song for “The Hunger Games,” which was not actually in the movie, just the soundtrack. It has happened a couple of times and I do love doing it.
It’s been awhile since the “Trouble Will Find Me” songs have been completed. Has the band started writing for a new album?
MB: We have not. But that’s nothing new for us. When we are touring, which we will be doing all this summer, we go into a strange, creative space for the band where it’s all about the live show. We have to, for our own sanity, work on other things when we’re all on a bus together, traveling and being in hotels. If every moment of our lives gets sucked up by the National, we start to get … you start to resent it. We’ve figured out ways of how to not resent the whole thing. When it takes over everything, it’s hard. There was a lot of tension on the “High Violet” tour, the fact that Tom was around was the thing that balanced out my brain. Everything wasn’t just about the National. We will probably start working on a new record a few weeks after we are home from our last show. Then we’ll start to change gears to writing a new record.
So maybe this fall?
MB: [Laughs] Maybe this fall, we might start, yeah.
What are some of the other things you’re working on these days?
MB: I’m collaborating on a couple of things with different people. I did a collaboration with Joy Williams from the Civil Wars. There’s a couple other little things I’ve been doing. People have been asking me to sing on their record. I did a kids song for [The Walkmen’s] Walter Martin’s record. Just little things like that. [Guitarist] Aaron [Dessner] is doing a lot of producing, [guitarist] Bryce [Dessner] is writing more high-art, composed things. There’s the Grateful Dead project that everybody is kind of involved in. Those are all things that are outside the crucible of our band. To have these little collaborations is healthy for our band.
Speaking of the Grateful Dead project, is the National doing a song for that?
MB: Yes. And there’s a huge debate over which one to do. They keep talking about “Box of Rain” for me. Something because of the register of the vocals. I’m staying out of it. It’s [bassist Scott Devendorf and drummer Bryan Devendorf] that are probably the biggest Dead fans. There’s constant emails going back and forth about what to do. They kind of kicked me out of the whole Dead project because I kinda don’t know what I’m talking about. I’ve never followed the Dead much but those guys have become … they’re borderline experts on the Dead. It’s a fun thing. Meeting Bob Weir and playing with him in San Francisco was surreal and awesome. I can’t wait until that thing finally comes together.
Do you think the surviving members like Bob Weir and Phil Lesh would play on it?
MB: I think so. I don’t know. That’s a good question. I don’t want to say “yes” but certainly Bob Weir … we’ve done a couple things with him already and he’s the nicest guy. All the surviving members are totally supportive of the project. They sent everybody box sets that we could pass around. They just opened up their entire catalog to us. They’ve been 100% behind it. I’m not sure who’s signed up.
Tom, are you working on another film?
TB: The success of this movie took me by surprise. I’m trying to figure out the best road for me to take. One thing that came out of this film, is that I was very comfortable on camera. I’m thinking about taking some acting classes at Upright Citizen Brigade and some more serious acting classes, and see where that takes me. We’re thinking about taking cameras into the acting classes and following my life after this movie — following my life in California, going on auditions, getting rejected, maybe screwing up, I don’t know.