"Donald Trump is a white supremacist and he's our president," Matt Berninger says. "There are no words for how dark it is. . How bad it is. America is finally facing a true reckoning of our own history."

These are big words from The National's frontman. They are heavy. They are loaded. They are almost unthinkable for a musician to say about a president. But they are also, sadly, inarguable.

The National are not a political band but the increasingly awful state of their nation has seen politics seep insidiously into their new album Sleep Well Beast. On record Berninger has never spelled out exactly what he means, preferring hints and allusion to get his gist across, but on the rip-snorting, thrashy rock song Turtleneck, he takes on Trump directly.

"Another man in shitty suits everybody's cheering for / This must be the genius we've been waiting for / Oh no, this is embarrassing."


The song was written the day after Trump was elected last November and it's been all downhill for America since then.

I'm talking to Berninger the day after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which saw counter-protester Heather Heyer murdered by a white nationalist and Trump giving his infamous "violence on many sides" in response.

It's fair to say these events are weighing on his mind.

"We're political people. I don't think of it as a political record but obviously, it is. I think everything is political right now. I think everything always is political. Every love song has been a political song for me."

"I'm an overly political individual. Everyone in the band is real political because we all have kids. I can't separate politics from my children, my daughter. But we don't go into recording with an agenda to have a political point of view or a message. It's mostly cathartic expression of twisted emotional tangles," he explains. "A song like Turtleneck is a primal scream. It just feels good to scream those words to that drumbeat and those guitars."

He stops for a second and laughs, "I don't know why".

Berninger's straightforwardness on this track won't be the only thing that surprises fans. It's by far the most all out, guns blazing song The National have laid down. It even features - gasp - a guitar solo.

"The sound of a violent guitar solo with a distorted amp is sometimes the only sound that properly captures how your gut feels, the anger or fear or sadness or the lust," Berninger says as a way of explanation. "A distorted guitar has been used for so long because it's the closest thing to an emotional clarity. I'm not sure why we never did them before. But this was like 'holy shit! Of course, we should have guitar solos. We're good at guitar solos. What the f**k were we waiting for?'"

This attitude informs the album. Sleep Well Beast finds The National in an experimental mood and sees them embracing loops, samples and, as mentioned, blazing axe solos.

"If art can't go terribly wrong then it's not fun to listen to," Berninger says. "There's been a big embrace in our band of total reckless experimentation. Just in sound and weird ideas. Nobody's going to get hurt. People might hate this or find it pretentious but thinking about that doesn't help us make art at all. We just have to trust in those moments when the five of us look at each other and say, 'you into that? I'm into that. Okay, cool. Let's go. Let's chase it.'"

Even the album's title, mysteriously evocative, ambiguously descriptive and open to interpretation, has political connotations. Despite its free associative origins.

"The 'beast' to me is not a bad thing. I almost think of the beast in terms of Where the Wild Things Are. Like the children... the future... the beast is the awareness of the future," he says. "Our children and our children's children will have a lot of very difficult questions for my generation and the generation before us. Basically the last 40 years have led to where we are right now in America. They will ask us how we let this happen, to the planet and to truth and morality. And to America. So that's the beast. The beast is the hard questions that I think my generation is about to be asked by the next generation."

It sounds doom and gloom but Berninger sounds upbeat, almost chirpy about this.

"It's a positive thing. It's not a bummer to me. I'm happy," he smiles. "I want my daughter to be asking her politicians and her leaders really hard questions. I want the youth to not stand for what we have been standing for far too long."

"I am an American with a great deal of pride in the things of this country but I'm also aware - and now much more fully aware since Donald Trump became president than I was before - of just how deep our ills are. Meaning the racism, sexism, income equality, Wall Street corporate greed and all that stuff.

"Donald Trump is humiliating, terrifying, deplorable. But I do believe in America there's a cancer that's been in the body and right now it's all on the surface, it's all bubbling up. Hopefully, the attempts to cure this sickness of racism and white supremacy and the ethno-centralism of which our country was founded and built economically, will see it being talked about honestly in a different way now.

"It's very bad. It's totally screwed up right now. Hopefully next time we talk there will be something different we can talk about. A little better."

Then the singer of The National lets out a weary sigh and says, "Yesterday was a real bad day for America. A real bad day for America."


Who: The National
What: New album Sleep Well Beast and a gig next year.
When: The album is out now. The band play Villa Maria Winery on February 25, 2018.