The National have always made very cinematic music, so it should come as no surprise that “Think You Can Wait,” their contribution to the soundtrack of Tom McCarthy’s movie Win Win, found its way on to the Academy Awards’ shortlist of 39 songs up for Best Original Song at this year’s Oscars. The nominations haven’t been announced just yet, but Rolling Stone caught up with frontman Matt Berninger to chat about their chances at getting an Oscar nod, their previous experience writing for movies and his band’s progress in writing a follow-up to their 2010 album High Violet.
Your song “Think You Can Wait” was recently included on the shortlist for the Oscar for best song. How do you feel about your chances for an actual nomination?
That doesn’t seem like a short list, though, does it? 39 songs? I think we’ll probably lose to a Muppets song, but you know, there’s no shame in that. It was really fun to see our names associated with the Academy Awards in any capacity. If we are in fact nominated that would be a blast, but none of us are crossing our fingers on that. Win Win was just a really fun project to work on. Tom McCarthy asked us to write a song for the end of the film. The whole thing was just a really good experience. So yeah, if it gets any more recognition, that would be just icing.
Did you write your lyrics from the perspective of the characters in the film?
There were no specific references to characters or any moments in the film. The movie is about a good man who makes some mistakes and it catches up with him, and he is overwhelmed with life’s problems, all the small things that build up that can bring a normal person to the breaking point. And it’s a beautiful movie. Tom McCarthy always shows a lot of empathy for all his characters. He sees all sides of a person’s motivation, and he’s got a great deal of compassion for his characters. So the song, in many ways, is just sort of an abstract representation of somebody who is a little bit desperate, who needs someone to help him out, just hoping that somebody will see through their flaws and stick around and not give up on them. In that way it is specifically about the movie, but not in any particular plot development of the film or anything.
Have you been asked to write music for any movies since doing this?
There’ve been a few things that we’ve been asked to write for in the past. This one just seemed like a good fit for us, I guess. There was a recent film, not nearly enough people saw it, but it’s a really, really great movie called Warrior. We didn’t write a song for it, but our music was used in a really powerful way, and I was really proud to be a part of that movie too. We wrote and submitted a song several years ago for the first Twilight movie, which was rejected. Later, they asked us to write another one and I think we kind of passed on it. The second time, maybe, we felt burned from the first one.
You could have just sent them the same song again.
Yeah, we probably should have. I think it was a good song, too. We were also asked to write a song for Crown Royale Liquor several years ago. And we did, and we submitted that. That was also ultimately rejected because it had too many awkward sexual references.
Are you working on a new record right now? I know you performed some new songs pretty recently.
We are slowly starting to work on a new record. The two songs that we played live on the radio and at some of our last shows last year are contenders, I guess. We’re just kind of building a bunch of little sketches of ideas, just kind of stocking them up. Aaron and Bryce [Dessner] – those guys will send music and little sketches, and that will just build up. I will just sit and look through them over months and months and months, and start to slowly piece together lyrics. It’s a long, slow process, and that process has begun. But as far as any sort of idea as to when that process will end, we have no idea. Not for quite some time.
How long does it usually take to pare down a body of work?
From the beginning of just writing new material to mastering a final record, it’s usually 12 to 18 months. It’s slow for us. I know some bands that spend two or three weeks in the studio and they’re done. We’re just not that band. It’s not that we don’t work hard every day. Mostly, it’s me. It’s for me to write lyrics that I like and I’m not embarrassed by. Most of what I’m writing down when I’m starting a song is either just bad or very mediocre. The other guys are much for faster and more prolific as far as generating musical ideas and that kind of thing. I’m definitely the drag on the process. But it’s a process that we have all comes to terms with and are at peace with. We don’t have a leader. I may be the meanest, but certainly not in any way a very good leader. And the fact that I can’t play the guitar is also a problem, and makes it very slow.
Have you tried learning guitar or piano?
I have not tried very hard, no. And I’m a little ashamed of that. But I like what I do in the band. In some ways, this is my rationalization, but if I was a piano player or a guitar player I would probably waste too much time writing mediocre music instead of just letting those guys, who are much better and much more advanced musicians. It would take me forever to catch up with them. I think me learning guitar might just ruin our band.
Do you have ideas of where you’d like to go lyrically?
Every time I’ve had ideas in terms of large abstract ideas, themes and stuff, it’s never ended up going in that direction. When we made High Violet we had a lot of discussion about making an optimistic and happy and poppy record. I think the record is poppier than anything we have ever done, but it’s not exactly happy. One of the new songs that we’ve recently been playing is called “I Need My Girl.” It’s a pretty sentimental and direct song. It’s not loaded with obtuse creative metaphors and stuff. Aaron asked me “What’s that song about?” Well, it’s about needing your girl. You know, your wife or your girlfriend. There’s not a whole lot of reading between the lines on that one. And that was actually kind of a breakthrough, I think, for me to just embrace the direct sentimental love song. I don’t think the record is going to be filled with songs like that. But that was kind of a new place for me.