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The National talks Trump songs, 'Game of Thrones'

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 9/5/2017 Patrick Ryan
Matt Berninger of The National © Mark Metcalfe, Getty Images Matt Berninger of The National

It's been a stellar run for indie-rock reunions. 

Following the long-awaited returns of Grizzly Bear and LCD Soundsystem, The National is back with its first album in four years, Sleep Well Beast (out Friday). Now living in different cities with families of their own, the five-piece, formerly Brooklyn-based band wrote and recorded their seventh effort in Los Angeles, Berlin and upstate New York, piecing together many of the songs via email and file-sharing sites. 

USA TODAY caught up with frontman Matt Berninger, 46, to discuss the new music. 

Q: You've described this album as being emotionally autobiographical, rather than based on specific details about your life. 

It's about a marriage falling apart, although my marriage isn't falling apart — it's a really healthy marriage. It's not autobiographical in the sense of, "These are the events of my life." My wife (writer Carin Besser) and I just had our 10-year anniversary. It's hard to be married, to share your life, all your dreams and ambitions, compromise and have a family together. This record honestly looks over the edge of all the choices that you make with someone, but it's a pretty fun record, even if it sounds grim. 

Q: You've also said that two of the songs — Turtleneck and The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness — were inspired in part by Trump's election? 

Inspiration's a word that I love, so I don't want to taint it by saying Trump inspired anything. But yeah, those are visceral reactions; Turtleneck is just a physical reaction to it. I've been (writing) about politics since George W. (Bush). It's part of my brain, way before I had a kid and even more since. 

Q: How do you feel the way you write about politics has evolved since Fake Empire (which was used in Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign) and Mr. November (inspired by John Kerry's failed run)? 

In my personal life, I listen to podcasts and talk about it with friends, but when it comes to music, I just want the band to be an escape. But by escaping it, it is a way of healing or processing. So I'd say those songs don't try to say anything other than just express a feeling. The expression of the feeling is the message. 

Q: Outside of hip hop, we haven't seen many artists get political in their music this year. What do you think about the current output of protest songs

It's a personal decision. I don't even expect other members of my band to be politically outspoken, but I don't know what an artist makes art out of then. For any artist to avoid politics, it's the same thing as somebody saying, "Well, I like to avoid romance in my life."  I'm like, "Why?" Sex, politics, love, fear — they're all part of the same thing. I understand that it's tricky to talk about because it leads to so many arguments, but as an artist, if you're not untangling the messes, you're only adding to the mess. 

Q: Where did the title, Sleep Well Beast, come from? 

It came from a bunch of places. There was this thing called resignation syndrome that I was reading about that was caused by trauma. Kids were falling asleep and not ever going to wake up, but it wasn't a coma. I thought it was some sort of protective thing. I've always felt like sleep was a place where we physically recharge, but also our souls recharge. The beast, I think of as a positive thing. When the beast wakes up, it'll be rejuvenated and ask a lot of questions. The next generation is going to be the beast: They're going to wake up mad when they see how we've left the world. 

Q: You recorded a song, The Rains of Castamere, for Game of Thrones back in Season 2. Have you noticed new fans coming to your music because of it?

What was super funny was I performed The Rains of Castamere in Vegas a few months ago (at a Game of Thrones concert). When they introduced me, they said, "Everyone, this is Matt Berninger from the band The National!" It was dead silent, just nothing. And then they said, "He'll be singing The Rains of Castamere" and the crowd went (nuts). It was like somebody fromDespacito just showed up to play. They all knew the song but didn't know (who I was). It's cool. We've gotten a different world of fans through that. 

Q: Have you lobbied for a cameo? 

I did. The truth is, I hinted to (co-creator) Dan Weiss on more than one occasion that I'd be totally fine taking any small role or in the background. But he never took the bait or just ignored me, so it doesn't look like it's going to happen. 

So Matt Berninger came out to sing Rains of Castamere, no biggie! #gameofthroneslive #thenational

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