10 Feb 2024

The National’s Matt Berninger on depression: 'It’s like a flu that just holds on'

From Music 101, 1:20 pm on 10 February 2024
Matt Berninger, frontman of rock band The National

Matt Berninger, frontman of rock band The National Photo: YouTube screenshot

"Appreciation" doesn't begin to describe how Matt Berninger feels to be performing onstage again after debilitating depression.

The National frontman talks candidly to Music 101 about his slow recovery, his songwriting happy place and performing at "magical communal parties" around the world.

"We've suddenly become a better live band than we've ever been in our whole lives," he tells Charlotte Ryan.

This audio is not downloadable due to copyright restrictions.

The National play Auckland's Spark Arena on 24 February and Wellington's TSB Arena on 25 February.

Although he couldn't be happier now, three years ago Berninger was in the depths of a year-long depression that felt something like "a flu that just holds on".

He says depression that's akin to a "genuine physical illness" often takes people around a year to come out of, and it was really helpful to know that it had an expiration date.

"I think people who are really depressed just have to trust other people who've been through it, and doctors, when they say it's not going to last forever.

"When you're nauseous you can't imagine not being nauseous - but you know it's gonna go away. When you're depressed, you don't have the ability to have that kind of perspective."

The depression came on slowly, went away slowly and in the meantime completely drained Berninger of hope.

"It was a physical thing, of course - it's your brain - but when you're inside of it, you don't know what's wrong …

"It's impossible to define it and it's also impossible to have any perspective on it. You feel like you're never going to be happy again and that's terrifying. "

For a long period, he stopped drinking alcohol or smoking marijuana - "things that I loved". Then, when an antidepressant succeeded in "raising the floor a tiny bit", he was able to enjoy recreational drugs with his bandmates again and find a way back to music and happiness.

Berninger says no other "major lifestyle changes" have been part of his recovery.

"Just being active again and trying to do more exercise. But it can creep up - no matter how physically healthy you are. Depression doesn't seem to care about how many vegetables you eat."

The National

The National Photo:

What really pulled him out of depression's clutches was getting back onstage with The National - although at first it was hard looking at the audience.

"Touring is always exhausting and stressful but I've managed for 20-something years to do it.

"Having to go back and do that, back into that space, kind of terrified me and was one of the hardest things for me to just relearn how to do.

"As I kind of got back into the groove of it and found my footing again, and ... the ability to perform, that's when I realized it was almost like starting from scratch."

The National do the same with their 175-song catalogue at live shows now, picking the nightly setlist via a massive magnet board.

Berninger chooses not to be part of the song-choosing and sees the setlist for the first time onstage.

"We're all just happy that we had made all this stuff that so many people know."

After a year of songwriter's block, Bernginger is also grateful to again take pleasure in his "awesome" day job.

"I sit around and I make some tea. I'll smoke some weed, listen to music, listen to some sketches that we're working on … I only work when I feel like it, which is kind of like in a two-hour spell every morning and a two-hour spell in the afternoon.

"I don't have any rigid process or anything … I'm just writing songs all the time… I write without even thinking about it. I sit by the fire and listen to music. The thing I love to do the most - and when I'm having the most fun - is working on songs. It's my favourite thing to do."