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The National’s Matt Berninger Is Totally Cool With Sounding Like Rain Man

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The National spent the nineties working typical dotcom-boom jobs in graphic design and new media, but from the rapturous reviews for their 2007 album Boxer, you’d never know they’d ever been anything but full-time musicians. Propelled by its piano-driven lead track, “Fake Empire,” the album landed The National on practically everyone’s year-end top ten list, and they’ll celebrate with two packed shows at BAM this weekend. Singer Matt Berninger spoke to Vulture about the upcoming shows, his voice, and why he’d be happy to open for Phish.

Your voice seems to have become the defining characteristic of the band. How did you discover it?
When we started out we were so obsessed with bands like Pavement and Guided by Voices, which I think in a way inspired a lot of people without any, I don’t know… sophisticated talent? They made you believe anyone could make great rock songs. As far as learning to sing, I remember just listening to Bee Thousand on repeat and just realizing you don’t really need to have… well actually Bob Pollard does have a great voice. But that if you sing with gusto, you can pull it off.

Critics get very creative about describing your voice — what’s the strangest comparison you’ve heard so far?
“Like chocolate and wool.” I’m like, “What?” Someone else said I sound like a combination of Ian Curtis and Rain Man, which I thought was good. Even when it’s an insult it’s sort of flattering.

There’s a lot of piano on the new album. Have you been lugging one around on tour, like the Walkmen do?
The Walkmen, they’re impressive; we toured with them, and every night the four of them got on the corners of that old thing and it was just falling apart, nailed together with two by fours. We just bring keyboards — we don’t have the back strength to bring a real piano!

Well, now you’re playing at BAM, which is pretty much the ultimate Brooklyn seal of approval. Are you using musicians from the indie-classical world, like Sufjan Stevens did?
In the classical world there’s this huge sort of scene, you can even tell there’s the same competitive spirit between them that there is among the Brooklyn indie rock bands. It’s funny to see those two worlds come together. We were just rehearsing yesterday, and I’m singing along, and there’s 12 people in the room playing, and I’m amazed, like, how did I get to the point where I’m singing in front of a room of people with instruments, not a single one of which I could pluck a G chord on? I feel like a poser. I never imagined I’d be on a stage with cellos and horns and me actually doing something along with that. If my parents could see me now!

You’ll be playing for some bigger audiences when you open for R.E.M. this spring. Are you concerned about that at all?
When a band gets more popular people think they’re leaving the indie world, but they’re just getting more popular, selling more records — we want that! We don’t have any precious image that the more underground we are, the cooler we are. I remember Sonic Youth saying once that they’d love to do shows with Phish, because they thought people who loved Phish would love them — they wanted to do those big 100,000-person shows Phish had, they didn’t have that “you’re legit if you’re small” thing. I would love to be able to break that spell. —Rebecca Milzoff

The National’s Matt Berninger Is Totally Cool With Sounding Like Rain Man