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Matt Berninger is the lead singer of the indie rock band, The National. He and his band mates have been together 12 years and are originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, though are now based in Brooklyn, N.Y. The band insists they are not “political,” but they’ve been playing at re-election campaign functions for President Obama. Marketplace reporter Krissy Clark caught up with Matt Berninger outside the band’s recording studios in Rhinebeck, N.Y., to ask him why their song “Bloodbuzz Ohio” connects to the current national dialogue.
Matt Berninger: We’re all from Ohio, and this election in Ohio is becoming even more so than before the spot where the big battleground is happening. Honestly, the song was never really about politics… it was a love song. Some of our most political songs aren’t about politics. They’ve been used by — and we’ve been very happy that they’ve been used by — the Obama campaign and administration and stuff. But it’s more trying to avoid thinking about politics than trying to be partisan or anything. So, again, there’s no political message. I don’t think we have any songs with any messages or preaching a position in them — I hope not! Just because that’s not the kind of music I want to listen to too much.
But back to that song, I think there are some things in it… It’s a song about being young and in debt and “owing money to the money that you owe.” That’s something I’ve been under. The weight of debt, college loans, medical bills — it’s so easy in this country to go from being fine to suddenly being ruined. I know someone who had medical insurance but was hit by a car on his bike and had head injuries that required a lot of hospital time and a lot of different treatments. At a point, the health insurance just reached its limit, it was capped. So now he’s so in debt with medical bills. I think that that line, there’s just about a million people who didn’t do anything reckless and financially have fallen into a really desperate, scary place. I think in this country it’s really easy for that to happen.
Krissy Clark: Was there somebody you were thinking of in that line about “owing money”?
Berninger: Myself probably. I had a lot of credit card debt and it just felt like every time I thought I was on top of it, something would happen and it would just pile up and I wouldn’t even know.
Clark: It’s that floor, right? That’s part of the line, “The floor falling–” [“The floors are falling out from everybody I know”]
Berninger: It could just drop out. You shouldn’t been ruined because you got hit by a car. Just trying to get an education, you shouldn’t go deep into debt and into owing banks just to try to get an education. I think that’s awful how that works.
Clark: So the name of the song is “Bloodbuzz Ohio.” First of all, what the heck is a “bloodbuzz” — did you make that up?
Berninger: I did make that up! I just thought it sounded cool. I think the blood is like, we’re all born and raised in Ohio and so it’s in our blood. And buzz, it’s like you’re on a wine buzz, a vodka buzz… Mostly it’s a cool-sounding word.
Clark: Well, now there are other people that will use that word, in other contexts.
Berninger: There are drinks! In bars! In indie rock bars, there are drinks — I think it’s like tomato juice, like a Bloody Mary, plus like red wine and coke? It sounds awful. Basically it’s just mixing every red thing you can think.
Clark: And Ohio, you’re obviously name-dropping Ohio. Tell me about your relationship to Ohio. It has so much symbolism in America these days as a swing state. It gets so much importance every four years. But as somebody who’s from Ohio, in one of your lines you say, “When I thought about home–“
Berninger: “I never thought about love when I thought about home”?
Clark: Yeah, what do you think about when you think about home?
Berninger: Well, it’s interesting, all of us [in the band] are from southern Ohio. All of us have a perspective on how this country works because Ohio, especially Cincinnati, I think you shrink it down it’s like a microcosm of America in a way. Of how split it is, how divided it is, socially, economically, politically. It’s a very, very divided city and it’s also… We have, I have, so many family members and friends and people that I love and respect that have very, very different views on social things, political things than I do. When I think of Ohio, I have a great deal of frustration — the same way I have with the rest of the country — but I have a lot of empathy and respect for both sides of these views.
Clark: When I think of The National, I think of it as a champion of Middle America, and middle-class middle America. I think the New York Times called you “experts in the inner lives of people out in the American Heartland.”
Berninger: We’re definitely not experts on anything. We’re five men from Ohio. Most of the songs and lyrics that I write about are mostly just about me. I don’t try to presume to understand any kind of demographic. It’s just usually an attempt to figure out myself and I guess I just happen to represent whatever they’re talking about. The middle class.
Clark: Well, you have a line in another song: “You’re pink, you’re young, you’re middle class.”
Berninger: I get sunburned easily, so that’s where the pink came from. I think I’m pretty pink right now. But I think a lot of our songs are self-conscious in an anxious sort of way — exploring a lot of our songs is exploring my own neuroses, insecurities about this and that. The identity of being a youngish, adult white male in this country, because that’s what I am and that’s what I know. I think a lot of our songs dig into that.
Clark: I think a lot of artists and writers don’t talk about class like that and I think it’s interesting that you’re not afraid of even using a word like that–
Berninger: Just to say the word ‘middle class’ in a rock song does seem kind of lame.
Clark: Or awesome.
Berninger: (laughs) Yeah, maybe–
Clark: –to the Marketplace audience.
Berninger: I never go into a song with an agenda, like, “This song’s gonna be about this! This song’s gonna be about the middle class or class issues in America.” I never do that. It’s just words start to come together and general themes start to form, but I never really start off with a message in a song. But what I do know is every time you try to start off with something that sounds cool, like “that’s a cool-sounding lyric” — except for “bloodbuzz,” that’s an exception — but if you try to be cool in a rock song it’s so obvious and it sounds so ridiculous.
Clark: Are you more conscious of class, that you even thought in a song to describe yourself as a middle-class person?
Berninger: Growing up middle-class, I never thought to question that I was provided for. My parents, we never talked about money. They had plenty of money stresses but as kids we never really felt it. They made Christmas ornaments out of costume jewelry, stuff like that, but we never really thought about being in a class — and if you’re in a class where you don’t have to think about it, then you’re in a class that’s well enough off not to worry.
I think this country’s starting to become much more about extremes of poverty and people are sliding below that line and we’re starting to turn into that kind of nation with a tiny percent of super wealthy and then everyone else is very, very poor and we’ve been going in that direction for a while and that’s pretty scary. I have zero resentment for people that do well and make money — I’m doing well now! I think what I find infuriating and wrong is when people are using their money and influence and power to change the rules to safeguard their wealth and to make it hard for other people to compete and get there. So I think the game has been rigged a little bit and it keeps getting a little more rigged.
Clark: These sorts of thoughts that you have — you were saying you’re not a political band, but–
Berninger: I’m a political person. I mean, not a terribly informed one, to be perfectly honest. But I really started paying more attention — and I think a lot of people did — when Bush was elected 12 years ago.
Clark: Do these thoughts filter — I know you have a lot of notebooks that you write your songs in. Do these sorts of thoughts filter into your notebooks?
Berninger: I don’t have like a “Political Thoughts” notebook, and a “Romance Thoughts,” and a “Thoughts About Drinking” — but, yeah, basically, frustrations with life filter in. Frustrations with myself, things you don’t like about yourself, those all filter in. The truth is, out of all the songs we have the one that’s most political is “Afraid of Everyone” and that one was about just not knowing what to believe at some point. At both sides of it, left and right, there was so much oddly-packaged information and misinformation and untruths that were implied as the truth by both sides. You just didn’t know what to believe. I think so many people are in that position; I think the media providing misinformation is just something people have come to expect and that’s so terrible. I think the truth should be this finite thing and there’s fact-checking organizations but there’s all these competing fact-checking organizations. I mean — a fact is a fact and you figure it out! How can there be these fact-checkers directly competing? So I don’t know. I think that whole thing causes an unbelievable amount of anxiety and I think that song “Afraid of Everyone” is a little bit about that.
Clark: You guys have been big supporters of President Obama and played fundraisers, sold “Mr. November” T-shirts where the proceeds went to the campaign. What in your life has made you care about the election and inspired you to support Obama?
Berninger: Well, when George W. Bush became president by such a small margin, that’s when personally all of us really sort of — for many, many people that was the moment where [everyone realized] “oh, it matters so much.” About paying attention. I woke up for 3,000 mornings with a president that was making bad decisions.
Clark: Did you do that math?
Berninger: Isn’t eight years close to that? 2,400 or something? We did have anxieties about having the band become involved in politics definitely — and I’ll be perfectly honest, I don’t want the band to be thought of as a political band. I don’t think any of our songs have any sort of partisan preaching or messaging and we don’t really talk a lot about politics on stage. But, it started because “Fake Empire,” they wanted to use the instrumental version of “Fake Empire” in a campaign video when he was first running and we were big supporters of him then so, yeah, we’ll definitely do that. And then that led to invitations, and they played that song in Grant Park when he won the election and that led to other invitations to do stuff — both in the 2010 midterm elections when he went to Wisconsin…
And we talked about it and all five of us, we’re like, “Well, we might lose a lot of fans.” But all five of us personally are liberal white men from Ohio and we can see how easily it can shift. Ohio was one of the ones you were just watching, and it was literally down to Cincinnati, Hamilton County. And when it went red… that was one of the things that just… There are things that are more important than our rock band.
I’ll say this: I hate politics. I hate the way our country has this giant political death match every two years, really; I think the two-party system is not the best but with this situation and this election you gotta fight the fight that’s in your front yard. You can’t look out your window and be like, “Oh, they brought knives to the fight. I don’t approve of that.” You can’t sit there and have the things, your values, the things you think are right be under attack. You’ve got to run outside and jump in and fight with everything you have. The luxury of sitting back watching from the window… I agree, the political process is poisonous and gross right now. And we’ve had a lot of backlash from conservative fans.
Clark: You’ve gotten some hate mail, right?
Berninger: Well, we’ve gotten postings.
Clark: What kind of things?
Berninger: Just like, “You’re a rock band, shut up, we don’t want to hear your opinions on politics.” And I totally understand! I don’t want to be talking about politics either. I want to write love songs, and songs about drinking and partying and whatever. And I don’t really, I don’t write political songs — but I agree, when I listen to rock ‘n’ roll, I want to escape thinking about that kind of stuff. I absolutely understand. But — but it’s the fight that’s in the front yard.
Clark: You guys go on tour a lot.
Clark: I was just wondering, in the last four or five years, as the band has gotten bigger and as the country has really changed from the recession through the tepid recovery, are there images that when you’re looking out the van window that you think about in terms of how America is doing?
Berninger: Well, yeah. When you drive through most of America it doesn’t look like America’s doing too great in most places you’re driving through. Granted, the highways and rock clubs are not in the nicer, wealthier parts of towns. But I think most people can walk around and look around and you get a sense of how America’s doing.
Clark: Are there images? Specific images?
Berninger: Yeah, when you see foreclosure signs and storefronts. So many towns you go through, clearly there used to be so many businesses on this street and now there are two out of 30 storefronts that still have their lights on.
Clark: Now I’m wondering, just lastly, you’re here to record a new album. Any observations along these lines about the economic state of things that are going to filter in?
Berninger: Not right now. There’s not a single finished song — we have about 30 half-baked ideas. Truthfully? I’ve been doing a lot of interviews about our support of Obama. And thankfully, the band and recording this album has been a bit of a respite from all the political stuff. I was in Ohio with my parents just a couple of weeks ago, and made the mistake of turning the television on and I couldn’t believe the avalanche of political stuff they’re getting. The mailbox was filled with DVDs, images of how Obama’s father was a Marxist or whatever. And that movie which I didn’t know existed — “2016: Obama’s America?” It’s the number one documentary in the country! Being here in New York and just writing rock songs has been a nice retreat from all that stuff.
I’m just so tired of it. I think the way our political machine works is gross, especially now with so many super PACS that can put so much information in your mailbox and on your television. I just think it’s awful. So yeah — our rock record won’t have anything to do with any of that stuff.
Clark: Thank you so much, Matt.
Berninger: My pleasure, thank you.
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