The National's Matt Berninger and Brother Tom Hash Out Their Past Dramas

Issue 14 BACKLOT Tom Berninger - H 2013
Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

Issue 14 BACKLOT Tom Berninger - H 2013

The indie rock star and his brother, a newly-minted filmmaker, discuss their differences growing up and discover a few remaining sore spots.

Since their film opened this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Matt and Tom Berninger have spent two weeks discussing their feelings: about how they’ve grown, what they’ve learned and just how embarrassing Tom acted for eight months.

The narrative goes like this: a rockstar invites his semi-estranged 30-year old brother on an international tour, giving him a job as a roadie and allowing him to film behind the scenes of the traveling indie rock circus. The kid brother gets fired from the tour, then moves in with his disappointed brother to try to make something out the video he captured before getting booted.

It’s easy to say that the resultant film, Mistaken for Strangers, tells the story of a brother stuck in his brother’s shadow, hoping to finally find himself after years of groping around in that dark looking for an identity. But it’s not that simple.

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"It was late high school, early college, and I’d get calls," Tom remembers, hearkening back to the late night missives he’d receive from Matt while he was on the road, gigging and fighting during the early days of The National’s rise to fame. "I could tell you missed me more than I missed you," he adds, laughing.

Matt Berninger is nine years older than his brother, the serious and driven one to Tom’s more carefree personality. He left home for college when Tom was just nine years old, and spent years barnstorming with his band before reaching any sort of success. In those years, homesickness and the need to connect made Matt the vulnerable one.

"I missed being around him, and we’d been close even when I went off to college," Matt remembers, sitting across from his brother in a hotel room in New York. "The other guys [in the band] have had their brothers around, and I did have many times where I felt kind of lonely and sort of the odd guy out, and sometimes you just need that family member and the person you can just vent to and spill your guts to, so I would often call Tom from Germany, behind a backstage tent at a festival -- literally I remember many times, hiding in the dark against some sort of fence -- probably a little drunk and really depressed and calling him, it’d be two in the morning, knowing it was somewhere in the evening there, wherever he was."

At this, Tom smiles. Things would change, of course; the documentary wouldn’t be possible otherwise. The National got bigger -- especially after they released 2007’s gloomy and soulful Boxer -- while Tom struggled in the pursuit of his own dreams; he directed two ultra low budget horror-fantasy films that amounted to little. The rapid ascent of the band -- they've sold millions of albums and played for President Barack Obama -- compounded the problems, as did the clash of personalities between older and younger brother.

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"I can be an overbearing sort, I was not easy on him," Matt acknowledges. "What I thought was being encouraging was sometimes maybe browbeating and being overbearing and just being hard on you. And you often thought, well it’s easy for you because you’ve been so successful, and I was trying to pound it into you that, it took forever to get successful, and you don’t just have an idea and suddenly you’re a big star or successful. You can't just walk into a place and want to do something, it's not what happened with us."

Suddenly, old wounds begin to slightly crack open, years of misunderstanding that had perhaps not fully been addressed now returning.

"Yeah you would, I would get down and depressed, because I had this creative feeling, I wanted to make something, but I felt like I wouldn’t do it, I wouldn’t start, or I’d quit doing it because it was hard for me to express myself,” Tom responds. "It's hard for me, I made a Johnny Appleseed movie that I finished, I made a DVD for my friends, but I didn’t push it out to festivals and it wasn’t quite right. And I just never promoted it, and I guess I never quite found the creative outlet. And I’d get down. I’d get depressed, and you would always just like--"

"Say 'just persevere,'" Matt interjects.

"But it was easy for you, because you hit it," his brother argues, to which Matt counters, "But we didn’t hit it, we fought."

"I would always try to explain to him that you have to kind of carve success out of stone with your bare hands and you create your own luck and most of it is failure," Matt continues. "It's like, you look at our career as a band, it's failure, failure, failure, a little blip of success, more failure, another little blip of success, and you just keep trying to stack those little bits of success together and find your way through that, but it’s not about being discovered or suddenly being a genius and then suddenly people recognize your genius, you kind of have to just improve and keep working on your craft and the thing you do. Our first records are bad."

To that, both Tom and Matt’s wife, Corrine, quickly respond, "They’re not bad."

"They’re not bad, but we’ve become a better band," Matt counters. "Our first record is not very good. I'm just saying. And your first movies are not very good."

"See what I’m saying?" Tom says, turning and laughing incredulously. "I like my second movie."

This draws laughter from both Matt and Corrine, and perhaps the realization that there will always be differences in the way the two brothers see the world. Even so, making the documentary drew them closer together, and promoting it has helped them learn even more about each other, strangers no more.

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