The National has mastered a certain brooding, complex, wine-drunk rock sound—one more focused on time signatures and textures than power chords. Their music has always been particularly synonymous with singer Matt Berninger's crisp baritone, as he throws out witty one-liners and devastating confessions. Their new album, I Am Easy To Find, is the most radically different they've ever produced, partially because Berninger's voice is just one of many featured on the album—instead, it's filled with guest female vocalists who help bring a new perspective to the songs and band.
Another one of those new perspectives—and arguably the most important influence on the album—is director Mike Mills (Beginners, Thumbsucker, 20th Century Women). Mills contacted the group about collaborating on a visual project, which turned into the 24-minute short film I Am Easy To Find, featuring the music of The National and starring Alicia Vikander as a woman at every age in her life. Mills also ended up co-producing the album, with his notes and thoughts on the songs deeply influencing the record.
In a press release, Mills explained, “The National gave me the stems for their songs, some were sketches some were finished and encouraged and allowed me to create my own versions of the songs to score the film. The album then features different versions of these same seven songs—and nine new songs which sometimes refer to the themes, texts, ideas from the film—but are their own work, their own piece of art."
We spoke to Mills about why he listens to the band when he writes, how he got involved in this project, why Berninger is like a "sweet trickster figure"—and got an intimate peek into the nitty gritty of what it's like collaborating with The National.
How did you first get introduced to the music of The National? It was around the Boxer record, I heard them on the radio. I'm an old punk rock person, and I feel like there's part of them, especially that record, that has a Joy Division quality to it. That spoke to me, and then from there I went back to Alligator. I've been a consistent listener since then and gotten all the records.
I also like to write to them, so I'll put a song or a record on loop all day long—I do that with some other music too, but I listen to them all the time as part of helping my creative process. I think it's the combination of Matt's lyrics [Matt Berninger, the band's lead singer] being so personal and coming from such an observed place. I find [their music] like just very healing and comforting. People call them sad, but I don't really think that's sad personally.
Which films or which projects have you written while listening to them? Parts of Beginners and parts of 20th Century Women. And then just when I'm doing other non-feature stuff. When I'm writing a whole script, it takes me forever, like years, and so I have all these different ways to help me get through the pain of it. And one is a lot of coffee and loud music and headphones. It just sort of puts you in a trance state when you don't even have to admit that you're back at the writing table again.
So you don't get distracted by lyrics or anything? That doesn't interrupt your own flow of thoughts? Yeah, everyone says that. [But] these are songs I know really well. It's not like a new song.
So for me it does two things: one is I have company. I have friends in my head. And there's this kind of feeling like, well they're doing it and if they can do it, I can do it. Because writing is really so lonely and filled with so much doubt, for me. And then the second thing is that sometimes you can use it to get yourself in a certain state. Because writing is a little bit like acting—you kind of have to feel it, what you're writing. So if you know you need to do a certain kind of theme, sometimes I'll queue up a playlist or certain songs just to help put me there. And it just becomes this weird energetic thing.
So when and how did you reach out to them about collaborating? Or did they approach you? So, I had done 20th Century Women and I had done all the press—and there was a lot of press for that, it goes on and on. And you kind of lose your mind doing that a little bit. You talk about yourself so much, you're just done with yourself by the end of that. And you kind of hate yourself and you're just pretty lost on what you're doing.
So I kind of needed to reboot. I didn't have a script in my head, and I was feeling really quite lost about what to do next that would be good. I was a little empty or something. I started off as a director doing music videos and I love music videos. I love music, I was in punk bands when I was a teenager. Music is a key part of how I do things. So I thought, I'm just going to reach out to this band I love. I didn't know them—actually, it took a couple tries to even get to their manager. But my agent did it.
Luckily, Matt liked 20th Century Women and they knew about my work and they seemed into it—I hit them at a perfect time. They were touring Sleep Well Beast and feeling kind of spent as well I think. They weren't thinking they were about to do another record and were just kind of in this in-between place. I said to Matt, "Do you want to do a video?" And Matt, I don't know if you've ever talked with him, but he's kind of like a...sweet trickster figure. He was like, "A video...or something else?"
I was like, "Or what? What are you talking about?" He said, "I don't know." And he just had this kind of wild, mischievous permissiveness. And this whole project I feel like has been engendered by that first phone call, which was so like: who needs to know what this is gonna be, who knows if this is gonna work, who needs to know how we're going to put it out, if it's going to be for one song or every song on the record or why are we even treating these songs... they don't even have to be the same songs that are on the record. You could do your own mixes of them! So there was this highly creative, disruptive permissiveness on his part and what he wanted to do to the band, and I think the band also wanted to do.
As for me, I felt, "I'm lost, I don't know what to do." It's kind of a great place sometimes, when you're broken down and don't have a sense of yourself.
Did the band then send you the stems of these unreleased songs? How did that then get brought into it? So the way they work, they've got this big shared Dropbox going filled with sketches and ideas; it's like their reservoir, and they work in a layered, back and forth, figurative way, over many years.
The Dessner brothers [guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner] are very prolific and making lots of sketches, and then they send them out. Matt and Carin [Besser, wife of Matt Berninger, who works on the band's lyrics with him] pick ones that they like. And then they'd sketch lyrics on them. And sometimes Matt's process is kind of aural, figuring it out. So you'll get a demo that has some lyrics and some just sort of sounds and energies but it's not like in real words.
So all of the sudden I was part of that drama. It was really trusting. And I get to pick songs, and some are pretty done, some are not done at all and didn't have lyrics. Some are quite different for them. And I thought, what if I take this body, these seven songs, and went from there. And they never put any limitations or any notes to me or anything like, "You should do this longer, you should do it this way." They asked, "What would you do? What would be surprising to us?" And once I picked them, they sent me the stems.
It's a very intimate thing, to invite you into their world in this way. Yeah totally. I think they do that within their musical community, right? The band is a real broad platform really—there's the five guys, but then they collaborate with so many people involved. The Mouse on Mars guys, Justin Vernon, all the women that sing on the record, they make other records with them. And they send out the tracks and ask them, what would you do on this?
They do have that within their control usually. I don't know if they've ever done this before, where they're like, "Here's everything, do whatever you want with it. Surprise us." And Matt said to me enough times, "We're not precious. Fuck it up. Do whatever." By the third or fourth time he said it to me, I was like okay, I'm going to do that! [Laughs] I feel like I've now been asked to do that, the challenge is on.
And I did. I took the music you hear in the film, that's really quite different than the music that you hear on the record. They're the same songs, but they're different. I stripped things down a lot [for there] to be more space. I really loved some of the strings that were kind of hidden in the original version and I put them really forward. I'd start a song on the bridge, and I took lyrics from one and put it on another song, and put strings from one song and put it on another song.
And they were so game for it. It was very inviting, so benevolent and so open. That's the word—they were so open. And it was really contagious, you know? When you keep interacting with this person that's like, "Yeah great, keep going! What else would you do?" That was the spirit of the whole thing.
At this point, did you have an idea that you wanted this to be a female-focused project? Were the female voices already on these songs? No, no. That came after we finished the film. I had also just recently met Alicia Vikander, and she really sweetly reached out to me and was like, "Would you like to do something sometime?" That's the piece of gold that's in the periphery of my mind, right? I love her acting. I love Ex Machina, and what she did in it. It's really hard to describe, how to understand the kind of magic she performed in that movie.
So that's sitting on the side of my mind, and then this thing happened with The National. So I'm trying to put the two things together in my mind. In general, I just can't get going after 20th Century Women. I grew up in a household with a very strong matriarchy with these two older sisters, who I was always kind of observing, trying to figure out, trying to be part of. I'm very happy as a writer writing female stories, writing female characters. And even a lot of my experience, my history, my emotions fit very nicely within a female character. And I love working with actresses. So all those things fit together into this.
And this is one of those ideas where I don't have a good story behind it. It's just like bloop, it came to me one day. And also I'm dealing with this record that's unfinished, right? I don't know where the songs are going to go, so I need a broad idea that can hold things I don't know are coming. So I said, "Okay, a whole life, that should work." [Laughs] I should be able to have enough correlation with it, whatever music and lyrics Matt comes up with and that band comes up with.
And there goes the problem. I have Alicia, but I don't have a lot of money, I'm not really interested in doing CG or makeup stuff. How do I have her be a whole life? I was like, "Huh, well Ex Machina makes me feel like she could just play every age. What if I did that? What if I just made slight changes to her hair and slight changes to her clothes, and she just does it physically and energetically." And I thought, huh, okay cool. So the whole idea in all of these weird complexities came to me quite easily after a lot of worrying about other ideas. This one came quite easily just over a day.
I love the conceit of the film. When I saw it, I didn't know what to expect. There's a trend right now, with a lot of bands and artists who are incorporating visuals in a much more proactive sense alongside their music these days. So you don't know what to expect, whether it's just an accompaniment, if it is a main thing, how much effort went into it. But I was very moved by this movie. I was surprised at the depths of emotion that were contained in it, and how much it felt like it could have been an even longer piece. Well it's interesting. I did call it a video, right? I'm happy to do videos. And the band, I think, was more ambitious than me. They're like, "No, you need to do a movie." [Laughs] Something that works on its own, and isn't just illustrative of something for us. And that both [projects] are going to be these weird twins that are competitive with each other. Matt describes it a little like they are cooked in the same pot and then they're poured into different molds.
It's really true. Neither one had to follow the other one's rules. And they gave me total permission. The other thing I think is really different about this is I controlled the mix of the music, and they kind of encouraged and allowed me to really change the music. When you listen to both of them together, there's two versions of them all the songs. They feel really different.
The way the music was kind of cooking and developing in the film, they allowed that to influence how they made the rest of the songs on the record. And then the songs on the record, which are using content from the film, like the Brooklyn Youth Choir is singing the subtitles for one of the songs ["Dust Swirls In Strange Light"]. But that song isn't in the film. So there's a song on the record that's coming from the film, that's referring to the film, but isn't in the film.
So there's all these weird ideas bouncing back and forth, which is also partly [the result of] working on it for a long time. We edited it and sent things back and forth for eight months to a year. It got more and more complicated and more and more weirdly interwoven. When we finished, when we met The National's press person, they're like, "What did you do? How do we explain this?", and me, Matt and Carin were like, "Ahh, we have no idea." Everything that just happened was so weird, how can we encapsulate it?
Clearly the movie influenced and affected the way in which they completed the record, especially with those songs that reference the film like "Dust Swirls In Strange Light," the instrumental "Her Father In The Pool" and "Where Is Her Head." Yeah, "Where Is Her Head." The children's book the dad is reading to Alicia when she's a little girl, I had to write it. Because they didn't have the money and the time to license a children's book. And I said, "I can write that, I have a kid." And then one day, Aaron sent me a song in Dropbox and I was like, "What are those lyrics? Those are so cool and strange!" And I realized, "Wait, are those the subtitles" and then he laughed and emailed back to me, "No, that's the children's book." And I thought, how neat, I was excited, I didn't know he was going to do that. He did his own version of it, taking lines he liked and setting it to music. And it's not in the film, so that's a weird back and forth.
And then "Oblivions," that song was just the music. I put it in the film, and what they wrote is one of my favorite songs of theirs ever. It's such a beautiful portrait of marriage and long term relationships, and how they're both sort of consistent and yet sort of paradoxically impossible, and the whole idea is sort of impossible. Even though you have the consistency of it you also have all the fear and instability all the way through, forever. What a neat painting of marriage.
Those lyrics came after watching the movie. They're not directly illustrating the movie, but they're about a part of the movie that they really responded to. And then Alicia's performance I think really blew them away. "Oh, well if she did that performance, we have to meet her there. We can't let her down. Now that she tried so hard, we have to try hard."
"Light Years" is a song at the end, that's another one that came after they saw the movie, and it has some really elliptical references to a mom and it's imbued with the narrative of the film, but not in any direct, causal way. The way that all Matt and Carin and The National's lyrics operate on a couple levels at once—they're both highly personal, and also things that we [the listener] can enter into. And I love that. When I saw that happening I was like, "You guys are referring to the film, but in the loosest, most lyrical and layered way." How smart and interesting, you know? We kind of kept informing each other of what the project was or what was interesting about the project, without having like an out-and-out straight conversation about it, and that was so fun! It just kept happening.
You were all picking up on the same things without needing to spell it out? Yeah. Or heightening it a little bit, or loosening the rules, or encouraging each other like, "Oh we don't have to be obvious. We're writing it kind of for each other, and it makes sense to you, so I'm gonna just keep going with this and see what happens." Matt's really good at that lyrically and the Dessners and the rest of the band are so smart about music and messing with your expectations, what is going to happen musically within a song but also in what they're going to do with their records.
You mentioned the word "painting" before, and I was very drawn to your use of color throughout the film, in particular with the interstitial sequences. I was wondering what the idea was about the shifting colors with that. So the original idea came real quick. Pop, pop, pop. I thought, I'm just gonna trust that. With films, you often spend years trying to get financing. You just inevitably end up vetting yourself, or re-pitching your film, or re-telling yourself what the meaning is. And this one wasn't like that, and so I was able to operate in a much looser way.
So with the colors, I was like okay, I have this black-and-white story. It's gonna be incredibly plot driven. It's chronological, and it's event after event after event. But I want some interruption. Life is so much more unknown than that. I want somehow to slice through that. I had other ideas, but I knew I wanted color abstraction. So at first it was painterly, it was loose paint for the opposite of the black-and-white stuff. But even that was too figurative, [I was] interpreting the shapes of the paint with the story that's going on. I wanted it to be even more open-ended, and that's when I got to the minimalist color fields. Something like Ellsworth Kelly's work, I really just thought about conceptual art. And as soon as we did that I was like, oh yeah, that's interesting, that's how I want this whole piece to operate. It's both highly specific and very open-ended and unexplained.
Do you feel that the collaboration is over now? Is it the kind of thing where you could see everyone further working together in some sense? I talked to Scott [Devendorf] the other day and he mentioned something about how they were interested in doing more with you. Oh, well that'd be fun. We haven't said anything like that in effect. I've been doing all the videos and the record covers and helping a little bit with the stage design, stuff like that, which is really fun for me because I come from a graphic design background. I've done so many record covers and they're so nice and easy about it. It just kind of continues the interwoven-ness of the whole project in a real fun way.
And you know, Aaron and Bryce also do scores, so I could totally see working with them. We're pretty friendly now, I really adore all of them. It's been such fun hanging out. If something happens that would be great. The other thing I think we all noticed though, at least I did, is that they financed this themselves, and we figured out a way to do it with like no money, so there was a ton of freedom, and the timing was really perfect for Alicia and me and them. That doesn't happen often, even if you want it to. It's just luck. Huge luck has happened. Maybe once-in-a-career kind of luck for these kinds of projects.
And then it's been this super rewarding, and they're so nice about it all, and inclusive with me. They made me a producer on the record, which they really didn't have to do. They're so honorable and courteous. [Laughs] So I'm down, it's been fun.
Did this jumpstart you working on a new film as well? Any followups to 20th Century Women? It did. I shot this in March of 2018, and then in the summer of 2018 into the fall, I wrote a script, largely listening to Trouble Will Find Me. It stirred all the molecules for me.
Are you going to be filming it this year? Ah, yet to be seen. You know how films are—many living parts.