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Interview: The National’s Matt Berninger on Closeted Indie Rock Deadheads

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By Brian Ives 

For all those looking for an update on the Grateful Dead tribute album that the National are curating for the Red Hot Organization, you’re in luck. Radio.com got the scoop, straight from the Brooklyn band’s frontman, Matt Berninger.

First of all, there’s still no release date for the compilation, but the album is coming along nicely. Secondly, the living members of the Grateful Dead are actually pretty stoked about the project. They, unlike many others, don’t find the idea of indie rock acts like Vampire Weekend, Bon Iver, Kurt Vile and the War on Drugs paying tribute to the most iconic jam band in any way preposterous.

“There are lots of closet Dead fans out there in the indie rock world,” Berninger told Radio.com.

He also said that the surviving members of the band have been very supportive of the project. “When they found out this [tribute album] was happening, they sent like, 50 box sets to us to give to all these potential artists,” Berninger said. “So all these Grateful Dead geeks were getting this personalized box set of their entire catalog, so it made a lot of people’s day.”

Related: The National Announce North American Tour Dates

Berninger, who actually got to play with Bob Weir when he joined The National onstage at last year’s Outside Lands, said he has a hard time wrapping his head around this whole thing.

“That’s a surreal thing in itself,” he said. “That you  have this idea – it was mostly [National guitarist/keyboardists] Aaron [Dessner] and Bryce [Dessner]‘s idea – to have indie bands cover the Grateful Dead and then to have the Grateful Dead say ‘I love that idea, how can we help?'”

Berninger was, admittedly, an “alternative rock snob” in his younger days, and not interested in the Dead. But like most adults, he grew out of his musical prejudices as he got older.

“When you’re in high school and college, you align yourself with a certain musical genre. Like, my friends were all listening to AC/DC and, for whatever reason, I went for the Smiths. And that was the way I defined myself as an individual,” he explained. “When you’re younger, you get very protective and defensive of your own identity. And you want to validate your position in the world, versus other people’s. So that happens when you’re young, and that’s a fun thing.”

“It’s like people align with sports teams,” he continued. “Why do you like one team more than another? It’s just part of your identity. I think that happens with rock bands and I think that’s a cool thing. But, as you get older and  grow up, you find the beauty in things that maybe you turned your nose up at.”

Following their performance on Saturday Night Live this weekend, the band is gearing up for the theatrical opening of their documentary, Mistaken For Strangers, on March 28. Shot by Matt’s brother Tom Berninger, no one in the band thought it would end up as a feature film.

“My brother had a little camera that nobody noticed, it was so small, and we just thought he was making some goofball things for our website. If we had known that he was making a full on documentary, we probably would have been a little more guarded,” Berninger admitted. “But it’s a really weird and beautiful, hilarious, sad and strange movie that he pulled off and when everybody in the band saw it , it was far more interesting than anything we could have imagined and we were really happy with it and proud of it.”

“But,” Berninger added, “had we known what he was doing, we never would have agreed to it.”

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