MATT Berninger is the original reluctant rock star.
His band, The National, regularly headline arenas and are especially adored in Ireland, where they have sold out the 14,000-capacity 3Arena and topped the bill at festivals.
Yet it is only in the past several years that Berninger, who this week brings new project El Vy to Vicar Street, has made peace with his role as showman and entertainer.
Starting out, his first instinct was to bolt for the wings every time the spotlight focused on him.
“I never saw myself as a performer,” explains the singer, Cincinnati accent undiluted after more than a decade in New York.
“I’ve always been ambitious and creative. Being on stage performing — it was never something that I was ever comfortable with. As I grow older I’ve come to enjoy that side of it. “
Has he learned to embrace the inherent ridiculousness of fronting a rock band?
“I have been aware constantly of the inherent ridiculousness of it from the start. Way too aware in fact.
“Eventually, I started to understand that is why it’s so great — why it’s fun to look at someone who looks like they’re crawling out of their skin, who wants to creep under the floor boards but who can’t because they have to stand there and sing.
“That’s cool to look at. I’m more comfortable with that now.
“People love to see someone go right to the edge of total humiliation. People love to watch Mick Jagger, not because he’s so poised, but because he’s so absurd. That’s why they love hair metal and heavy metal — these ludicrous characters peacocking around.”
El Vy is a a collaboration with Brent Knopf, previously of the Portlandtrio Menomena (the hard to pronounce band name is, they joke, a collective noun for “Elvises”).
For Berninger it was a way of occupying his downtime on the road with The National. He was upfront with his bandmates about the dalliance — and they were mostly supportive.
“The guys were nervous about it — they worried it might effect The National if I humiliated myself,” nods Berninger.
“They thought it could hurt the group. At the same time they were totally aware that I had no choice. As it turns out they love the record — maybe they’re lying but that’s what they have said.”
Artistically, El Vy arrived at just the right time. Having led The National since 1999, Berninger felt he needed to reach out, broaden his range of influences.
When you’ve played with the same circle of musicians as long as he has it’s important to find new ways of challenging yourself.
El Vy, who released a debut album Return To The Moon in November, was an entirely new Everest to climb.
“I would work on the ideas when I was on the tour bus with The National or back at the hotel. It was a healthy way to keep occupied — it stopped me going to after-parties and that sort of thing.
“Working with someone who has a very different musical chemistry opens windows in terms of your own limitation.”
Backstage in Frankfurt, Berninger is surprisingly chirpy. We last spoke just before the release of Boxer, The National’s breakthrough album from 2007.
The band’s rising star had begun to weigh on him. He’d just given up his job as a successful graphic designer and was now committed to earning his living as a musician.
The prospect, it was tempting to conclude, filled him with foreboding.
All of his music is personal but the El Vy record especially so. Berninger grew up in Cincinnati (as did the rest of The National) and Return To The Moon is a rumination on his adolescence and the music that he discovered and which changed his life.
“A lot of the songs are related to me as a teenager — discovering bands and going through what a person goes through in those years. I knew I wanted to do something artsy, take the road less travelled.
“My sister would bring home records by The Cure and The Smiths and REM. To me, that was so different from Van Halen or Debbie Gibson or whatever was on mainstream radio. It made me realise you don’t have to do something popular in your life. You can do whatever you want.”
If El Vy is a step down for Berninger in terms of media exposure and the size of venues played, it is assuredly a big leap for Knopf, who has spent his career on the indie club circuit.
“We joke about it — that I get big hotel room and he’s on the crappy tour bus,” says Berninger.
“Actually, he’s having a blast. The fact that at the rooms are packed — lots of girls up the front. It’s a whole fun thing for him. He’s not married and he’s living the dream.”
These are not the anecdotes you expect of the brooding frontman of The National. Berninger, who is married to a former New Yorker fiction editor and has a six-year-old daughter, seems to have mellowed.
He nods: he is far less inclined to get into a row with a bandmate now than in the past (though he and Knopf had plenty of creative ‘differences’ working as El Vy he says).
“Disagreements still happen all the time in The National. What’s changed though is that people realised that it’s probably going to be more interesting if you throw impulses up against each other.
“If a song is pulling in two different directions — that is often going to lead to a more more interesting chemistry than if one person was the creative director on it.
“What’s changed is that Aaron [Dessner, National guitarist] and I have relaxed our control impulses. We will both argue to a certain point — and then we will let it go, pick one or the other or a certain combination.”
Dessner says he used to be much more terrified of losing control of a song.
“Aaron and I would have had far fewer fights and probably ended up making the exact same choices if we had just realised that both ideas were good. The song is just going to be slightly different — we shouldn’t be screaming at each other over this stuff. These are rock songs and we’re having a blast and paying our rent. It’s the best thing in the world.
“Both of us realised that once we started having kids. It was like: ‘Why are we so mean to each other over a rock band? We’re the luckiest guys in the universe.’ ”