Brothers. As hard as it may be sometimes, you gotta love em, and the dynamic between brothers may be one of the most interesting aspects of any family situation, whether it’s a true family, military forces or a rock band. If you’re the older brother, you feel protective of your younger brother but also generally annoyed by their tagalong attitude. If you’re the younger brother, maybe you feel a need to live up to your older brother’s expectations while getting out from under his shadow.
For New York-based band The National, which sports two pairs of siblings among its five key members, it’s an ongoing point of discussion, but then there’s singer Matt Berninger, whose enigmatic lyrics and deep baritone voice provides the center of the brooding dark tone of the band’s music. That combination has made the band hugely popular in their native New York and across the world.
When the band went on the road to support their new album “High Violet,” Matt decided to give his younger brother Tom a job as a roadie. His brother had made a bunch of low-budget movies, but he brought his camera along to document the band’s progress and also his failures as a roadie that eventually got him fired.
The results are Mistaken for Strangers, which kicked off this year’s Tribeca Film Festival last week, and since The National has been one of my favorite bands for a number of years, it seemed like an opportune time to talk to their singer. Fortunately, the movie Mistaken for Strangers is a brilliant doc, almost shockingly so considering how incompetent Tom comes off at times as a roadie.
ComingSoon.net got on the phone with the brothers in separate interviews earlier this week.
ComingSoon.net: The movie is pretty self-explanatory about how you ended up on the road with the band. So what was your first discussion with Matt about filming everything? He obviously knew you made movies, but did he kind of just bring the camera along and start filming? Tom Berninger: Yeah, obviously I needed a job and he hired me to be a crew member for the tour, but he knew that I was going to bring a camera along, and he was up for it. He knew that if anything, there would’ve been good stuff to put on the website, these web videos to put on the website, if anything. I think it was both of our ideas just to do something fun for a little while with the camera, but we definitely didn’t know it would turn into a movie. I think it was both of our idea just because I’m his brother that I have this access and that the guys wouldn’t care if I was filming them in the dressing room or quieter moments.
CS: So you were just there as a roadie and to capture moments from the tour? It was never meant as a movie until much later right? Tom: Yes, until much, much later. I mean, I knew that I might be doing some sort of little small doc for the website or a DVD extra. I put myself in front of the camera early on, but at one time I thought it would be a really short rock doc on my experiences on tour, but I had no idea that it would turn into much more of a movie about me and my brother, and yeah, it grew much later, this whole idea, through my brother and the rest of the band guys they kept encouraging me to be more a part of the movie, maybe because they were a little afraid of what I had just shot of them for the first eight months. They knew that I didn’t have much, and whatever I did have, they were not quite sure they wanted it in for a movie. I knew they loved me and I knew that they loved having me on the tour for the most part, but they were definitely encouraging me to be much more of the movie, I think just to take the pressure off of them.
CS: Did you know the guys in the band beforehand from Cincinnati and were you the kid brother hanging around the band? Tom: I knew them through touring, through my brother coming into town and me going up to visit my brother through the years in New York City. I probably knew Scott the best–Scott’s the bassist–and that’s because Scott and my brother went to college together. But really, I was acquainted with them, but I think all the other band members were very open with me coming on and very giving of their time and giving up their egos a little bit just because they wanted to get to know me a little bit better, too.
CS: It’s funny because you are on camera a lot. I was curious, who was filming the stuff with you? Obviously you were filming the band but you’re in there, so did you have other people on tour just kind of helping out? Tom: Yeah, well, most of the time, whenever I’m on camera we used that location as a friend that lived there or sometimes a crew member would pick up the camera or occasionally, a band member would have the camera, but just because they liked seeing me. They were always a little more encouraging to kind of turn the tables on me a little bit and just put the camera in my face. But we used like all of that, you know? We eventually realized, okay, that is the movie and whenever I’m on camera, let’s see what there is because that certainly wasn’t an intention originally, but that became the movie.
CS: One thing I really liked about the beginning is that it shows off your not great interview skills, I guess. Tom: (Laughs) Yeah.
CS: How is it being on the other side of that? Is it easier being interviewed than giving interviews? Tom: I thinks it’s easier maybe being interviewed than doing interviews a little bit. But no, I wasn’t attempting to make a really hardcore rock doc on the band because I’m just not generally a big fan. Yeah, I’m a fan of the band, but I’m not a huge fan of indie rock. I mean, there was somebody better out there to make a documentary on the band than myself, but I just chose questions that I found interesting that I would gear to anybody, like any movie star or any rock star as like, “What kind of IDs they have in their wallet,” or whatever. I was trying to think of the most interesting questions that I could find coming from a brother, coming from somebody that is not making a typical rock doc. As I knew that my angle was some other angle.
CS: When you were on the road filming, was there an obvious point when this was transitioning into something different? The other guys in the band must know because you’re asking a lot of questions about Matt, so they must know that it’s more about Matt. Were you aware of it before editing? Tom: A little bit. Towards the end of the tour I knew one of the directions it had been going. What you see in the movie is, when we’re interviewing guys you saw in the movie it’s kind of the last moments of my interviews, where I would start out the interview asking solid rock doc questions, albeit kind of bad and kind of generic, and then I was like, it’s a band of brothers, that’s a really good angle, so I’m going to talk about their brothers, and I started talking about brothers. By the end of it, a natural progression was my problems with my brother. That was the most interesting stuff for us and it almost felt kind of like these guys are my psychiatrists or my shoulder to cry on. We kept all that stuff. All the stuff of me asking the guys about Matt was kind of interesting, I think, for me at least. Some of the stuff about their brothers was interesting, but for the most part, like, the documentarian becoming the subject of the movie and the subject trying to help me as best as they can, the band trying to give brotherly advice, that was kind of the fun part of the documentary.
CS: Sure, there are a lot of levels. I was curious because you show a lot of your fallibility in the film. Were there any regrets or questions about whether to include something that you left in anyway? How do you not feel very self-conscious about that kind of stuff? Tom: I think, well, Carin, my brother’s wife was my co-editor. I was there at the editing stages, at the Final Cut computer, but she was there with me all the time. She really kind of told me the most interesting stuff was kind of the dark stuff. I shot myself drunk a lot of the times and maybe as I was shooting myself I thought maybe this is really funny when we edit. I think it was through her encouragement that I would keep filming myself and luckily I shot myself in all different types of moods and the editing process got very stressful for a long long time and I kept telling myself, my brother and Carin. There were some moments in the movie where I was going through some major doubts about my movie and my abilities and I knew that I had to throw the camera on me because I felt like I was going to cry. I was having kind of a nervous breakdown af few times. I knew I had to make something. I knew I had to make a great movie or a really bad movie because I had so much into the game that I didn’t want to make an average movie.
After we hung up with Tom, we immediately got a call from Tom’s older brother Matt, clearly the better known of the two for his work with the band, but we mainly focused on that brotherly relationship and how it was shown in the film before asking about their new record
ComingSoon.net: I just talked to your brother a bit. He’s a really interesting guy. Matt Berninger: Yes, he is.
CS: It’s funny, I just did a shorter road trip with my brother this weekend and when I watched this movie I thought “Okay, maybe I can relate to my older brother’s annoyance with me from time to time. Matt: Oh, right, you’re the younger brother. (laughs)
CS: I’m the younger brother, yeah. Obviously the band hasn’t made a movie before and you had people film and document the band. What was your initial thought when Tom had the camera and started filming on the road. Were you nervous about it or did you feel you had the footage and didn’t have to do anything with it? Matt: Yeah, I mean, the initial thing was just I think the idea was he was just going to film some kind of behind-the-scenes goofball stuff that maybe we would put on our website or something. There wasn’t really any idea that it would be actually trying to make an actual feature documentary. The truth is we didn’t actually want one. We’d already kind of had something of a documentary about us, so we didn’t feel people need to know more behind-the-scenes stuff. If anything, it was just like, we were goofing around and I thought maybe if he had some stuff almost like the The Monkees, there’s The Monkees footage. So we did a lot of that. Some of that ended up making it into the final movie, but it was my wife who was very much saying like, “Well, if you want to make a real movie, Tom, you’re what’s interesting, you know?” I mean, the band is interesting because Tom filmed himself in some less than flattering times which he thought were going to be funny when he was drunk on the bus or this and that. My wife saw those– she worked at “The New Yorker” for eight years as a short story editor–and she was the one who recognized some of the ugly stuff was the most interesting stuff. Tom was brave enough and I guess had enough sort of foresight to film himself some of the time and inject himself into his footage some of the time because I think he wanted the world to know… He wanted to be the missing brother, the sixth Beatle or something like that. I think he kinda had a little chip on his shoulder and wanted to be part of the story because our band had two sets of brothers and they always asked me “What’s it like not to have a brother?” He wanted the world to find out that I do have a brother, so yeah, when the idea of actually making an actual feature documentary, it was clear that Tom had to be the central sort of person in that. My wife actually took the camera and filmed him trying to figure out all his footage, trying to figure out his film and that becomes part of the film, too. The whole meta thing goes into that.
CS: Part of The National’s appeal is that you’re dark and serious but people going to see the movie and it’s almost “Spinal Tappish” at times, so were you surprised by how funny the movie is? Matt: Not that surprised. I mean, my brother, he’s funny and because he’s guileless. He can’t help being himself and he can’t help asking the weird questions and he’s not a professional. He’s not a journalist. He’s not sort of a pro, buttoned up guy. You could define him as being very buttoned down. He’s the opposite of buttoned up. That’s why people find him sort of fun to be around. So when we were looking at the footage, whenever he was either, his voice was behind the camera asking the questions or his face was in front of it, we could see that that’s actually him entertaining. He’s magnetic. I think he knows that about himself a little bit, but yeah.
CS: At one part there’s a scene where the band manager tells your brother that she’s worried about how the band’s image is portrayed “You should worry about the band’s image.” I was curious how you felt about that. Were you less apprehensive what you actually saw what you were doing? Matt: No, I was apprehensive because like I said, I prefer my rock stars to be mysteries, and I know he had a lot of unflattering footage of me, you know, losing my temper and all this kinda stuff. Ultimately though, when I saw all the unflattering stuff of himself he was putting in it, and my wife was also sort of shepherding the project, in a way. I knew that she would protect me in some sense, but also wanted to tell a story, we’d have to kind of show both sides of it. Also, having seen Tom’s courage showing himself in some very, very unflattering moments, I said, “Well, I need to let him show me in some of those moments as well.”
CS: When you first saw the first cut, what was the most surprising thing and what was the most surprising thing when you saw the final movie? I don’t know how many cuts you’ve seen. Was there stuff that was really surprising the first time and the last time you saw it? Matt: The thing that blew me away was that I knew parts of it would be funny because I was there when he was asking a lot of these idiotic questions about “Do you guys have wallets onstage?” and I always did. I knew there would be some of that stuff, but I gotta credit Carin my wife for taking it to a whole other level of when it gets to sort of the chemistry of the family and the chemistry of brothers and when my Mom and Dad were interviewed it takes a much darker turn into sort of pretty kinda serious territory about motivation and it’s about somebody’s self image and how people are their own worst enemies. That was what I was what I was blown away by that they could create a multilayered, multidimensional story about people. It’s about family and kind of a universal tale it’s not just kind of a goofball buddy comedy.
CS: Your mother seems really sweet, by the way. Matt: Yup. Yeah, she is.
CS: The movie just touches briefly upon the new record. Was that something that you just didn’t want to spend too much time filming? Was it not as interesting because you had all that other stuff already? Matt: There was a little bit about the new record, but I mean the truth is we tried to have this movie finished and out of our hairs and out of our lives and out of our house a year ago. I mean, Tom was living with us when he and my wife were editing it together and that’s a great but potentially toxic living situation. So we were all sort of desperate just to finish it, but we all also realized that it has to be really good if it’s going to come out at all. The timing of it ended up taking so long that it started to overlap with us making the new record. That became a whole other like subplot a little bit of Tom’s kinda seeing about and asking the guys like how it is they think about making a record and there’s a lot of questions like he was searching how do you guys find your idea and how do you guys finish it and how do you guys do something true? If there is a message in the movie, it’s just mostly about you have to have perseverance and faith and patience with yourself and patience with your dream and work hard at it. It’s more sweat than inspiration, you know? Ultimately, I think we ended up sticking with it and he edited it and my wife stuck with it and a lot of other people helped us finish it. Us making the new record was just kind of in the background of them trying to finish the movie and everything kind of dovetailed a little bit.
CS: Lastly I want to ask about the new record. I know about the Hurricane Sandy stories, so did you guys set out to create a very different record from “High Violet” and the previous ones or will this still very much The National we’ve come to expect? Matt: I mean, it’s going to be The National. I mean, I think when I open my mouth I kinda sound like me and it’s hard to not sound like The National. We didn’t have any plans with this new record. We didn’t actually have any sort of strategy of what kind of record to make because this time, in a strange way, we had reached the pointand some of us had kids and stuff where everything was in perspective with the truth that basically that our band doesn’t matter that much. Where other records, we weren’t as worried about how difficult a process this is and what kind of record we wanted to make this time. We wanted to make something different than “Boxer” and “Alligator,” but we didn’t actually think of that stuff at all this time. We were just writing songs that we loved and we weren’t worried about if they were too sad or too dark because people call us a depressing band. We didn’t care how people were going to describe us this time. We just chased the songs. I think there’s something much more unguarded and sort of visceral in here about some of these songs because they won’t go through any of the sort of academic or anxiety filters in our brain.
CS: That sounds great. I can’t wait to hear it and hopefully I’ll get back to New York in time for the Barclays show. Matt: Thanks a lot.
This interview is dedicated to this writer’s older brother Robert Jenson, who went above and beyond to get him across country to the finest healthcare facility to cure his leukemia. I may be the annoying younger brother in this family, but I probably wouldn’t be alive right now if not for him. Thanks bro.