Interview: Tom Berninger

Tom Berninger - Mistaken for Strangers

One of the men in the documentary Mistaken for Strangers is an easy going, laid back, heavy metal loving hard partier with a potentially budding filmmaking career in low budget horror. The other is the lead singer of indie rock darlings, The National, a band that toiled in relative obscurity for years before breaking through with great success only several years ago. These men are brothers and the film chronicles their sometimes rocky relationship.

The former is the man I am speaking to on the phone (who is still living in his brother’s shed in Southern California, but hopefully for not too much longer) and also the director of Mistaken for Strangers, Tom Berninger. Wanting to try to document his big brother Matt’s exploits on the road, Tom was hired by Matt and The National’s management staff as a roadie of sorts who was given only the most menial and thankless of tasks while on tour. It should have been an easy gig, but Tom’s eagerness to make a film and his unchecked desire to lead a booze fuelled rock and roll lifestyle while on the road leads to him getting fired and subsequently moving into his brother’s guest room to try and cobble together whatever he can out of the footage he got.

More than just a film about a bumbling goof who learns valuable life lessons and way more than a standardized rock doc, Berninger has helped to create a really sweet, genuine, and quite often bittersweet look at brotherhood that’s more about Tom and Matt as people than a look at how famous Matt’s band has become.

We talked to Tom about any potential fame he has seen as a result of appearing alongside his more famous and notable brother, how the film has the potential to bring new fans to The National’s music, why his brother has heavy metal tendencies despite not being a very metal guy, what he remembers about being on tour, and why he really might not be all that different from his big brother.

Dork Shelf: Shortly after the film played at Hot Docs last year and everyone started talking about it, The National did a free show in the Toronto and at the show I could actually hear people talking aloud during their set and they were openly wondering if you would be there or if you would somehow be back working with them.

Tom Berninger: (joking) Did they look like they wanted to hurt me?

DS: (laughs) No! It looked like they genuinely wanted to meet you or try to hang out. Have you gotten any of that since the movie has come out recently.

Tom Berninger - F2TB: Quite honestly, yeah. People have come up to me a lot now and want to meet me, and a lot of them have siblings of their own and they’re really into my story and my honesty, and that’s really great. It’s weird though, because now on top of that, my brother will come back from tour – and he only came back two or three weeks ago from a little tour they went on – and he brought back a couple of letters that people had given him just to give to me. That’s really weird, but it’s great! What’s amazing and what I’m happy about is that National fans are liking the movie because I didn’t want to screw it up, and I wanted to make an entertaining movie, but entertaining to everyone and not just fans, but with enough value to it for National fans to appreciate it and be interested in it. I like to think they got to know the band a little more. I’m really happy when National fans do like it. It’s nice.

DS: I think that goes both ways because going into the movie when I first saw it last year, I can honestly say that I wasn’t really a fan of The National. I had heard of them and knew the name, but I was a lot like you in that I was more of a metal and punk rock guy, so do you think in a strange way this sort of personal project for you can also been seen as something positive for the band when at first they were a bit weirded out by it and you didn’t know where you were headed with it? You used the music and the songs of theirs that you chose for the film very well.

TB: Well, thank you! Honestly, I had no idea what this movie was going to be until really the last two months of editing. In the last year of editing I knew it would more immediately be about me, and then in the last two months we finally saw what the movie was. You never know quite how it’s going to play. I was revealing a lot of personal stuff and some of Matt’s stuff, and I think at the time I stepped away from the editing chair and watched someone else edit my movie with the hope that could give it more shape and help polish it more than I could have having lived through it all already. That was a lot of fun because I honestly couldn’t do it anymore. I was too involved and I was too much in it.

In the early days when I was cutting, Carin Besser, who’s Eric’s wife and who was a former fiction editor for The New Yorker, she helped me cut the thing. From day one I always knew I wanted this to be a real movie. I don’t watch very many rock docs and I certainly have no interest in any indie band rock docs. What I wanted to was to just have a cool entertaining movie.

What I’m hoping, and what it sounds like you are responding to, is that people realize that this is not a rock dock. I mean, there’s a little live music in there, but this is a story about brothers and siblings and a story about me – a person – who is 29 and 30 and is going through some shit and trying to figure it all out and I’m faced with these major tasks that I don’t want to screw up.

What I learned making this thing is that I learned that there are a lot of people out there like me who feel the same way and who are having a tough time right now. They’re in-between jobs, or they’re losing their jobs, whatever. My story and what I was going through was very universal and you don’t have to be a fan of The National or know who they are at all to like this story.

DS: Just as a fan of fictional films I have always loved the art of a well placed song, and it seems like you were always able to find songs of their that you could drop into the movie and it would make perfect sense. It never feels like a rock doc or a concert doc, but just a well crafted music that has good song choices in it. Was that something you deliberated over for a while in terms of how much you wanted to really include the band as a whole in something this personal?

TB: Yeah, I mean, I guess when you see the live moments, you don’t see the whole song. You seem just moments here and there. We did try to figure out what was the best little live moment that you could have and what songs sound good where. But to be honest it was always story first and band second. We had the score of the movie, though, which was these early instrumental sketches of the new album, Trouble Will Find Me. It was a lot of fun going through all of Bryce and Aaron Dessner’s instrumentals to use over certain moments of the movie, and that was fantastic. There was just some beautiful, beautiful stuff in there.

You know that I’m not a big fan of indie rock and I hardly ever listen to it at all. It’s hard kind of movie to use heavy metal in, though. (laughs) I love heavy metal. It’s my favourite kind of music to listen to. As far as in a cinematic form… (laughs) it’s not easy. It sometimes erupts against the editing, so it’s always nice to have a kind of sweeping score.

I really wanted a lot of heavy metal in there. I got a little bit! But I was lucky that The National really do play very cinematic songs.

DS: I never realized this about the band either, but I think both you and Matt would agree that as a frontman for a band, he really isn’t a very metal guy, but he’s really getting into it on stage and you really captured the kind of stage presence and swagger he has, and that’s pretty rare that he’s an indie rock performer who can actually go to that place.

TB: Yeah! Here’s the thing: there might be a few other indie rock bands out there like them, but The National they really rock out. My brother can scream, they throw things around on stage, they put on a rock show. You go to one of their shows and that’s what you get. Matt filling up this cup of wine and handing it to the crowd is one of my favourite moments that I caught. I think that it comes from his love of early bands like Guided by Voices that he’s told me he would love and who would go crazy on stage. That is what draws me to The National, and to their music a little bit, too, I guess.

It’s weird because I think The National are given a bad name in rock for being this band that does really sad, depressing music that people can’t get into. Maybe that’s partly true, but they’re on top of that and they’re just really cool and really fun people. And I can relate to that kind of, I guess, falseness, because metal gets a similar bad rap. People things it’s too aggressive and depressing and evil, and metal’s not all of those things either. I feel like there is a weird connection to me in terms of how they write their songs and what their songs are about. Metal and The National, as far as I’m concerned, talk about things and subject matter that people are afraid to talk about in their daily lives, but that everybody feels. Metal and The National sometimes revel in darker themes. But a lot of people feel that way and those people want to know that other people feel that way and that it’s okay to revel in the darkness and depression just a little bit and give them a bit of power and inspiration.

DS: You and Matt have such a love for each other that you try to calm each other down when the other one experiences a great deal of disappointment, but you both experience that disappointment in different ways. You get really sad about it and start internalizing everything, and he can get very outwardly angry and upset. At the same time, you guys have a similar approach, but the person who is upset never really seems to listen because you are both pretty emotional people, but your emotions are often very opposite.

TB: We’re nine years different and my brother is older than me, so he was always going to be different than the person I am, and it is frustrating. We made this movie and everything in it really happened, but we’re still brothers. We still fight at least once a day. I still live in his garage in Venice, California, and hopefully I’m moving out soon, but it hasn’t been easy.

The only things we really ever come together are movie, especially comedies, and that’s about it. Maybe some action movies. But from music onward we couldn’t be more different. What I find important in life is not what he finds important in life. I love video games. He doesn’t even know how to control Mario. We are from totally different generations. The things he takes serious I would say “What are you stressing out about? Who gives a shit?” Then he gets frustrated with me when I don’t take things seriously. It’s frustrating. We do fight a lot.

DS: There are two scenes in the movie I wanted to talk about specifically in terms of how you and your brother relate to each other. The first is when The National has that really disastrous show where the bass cuts out and the show stops for a lengthy period of time and afterwards Matt comes backstage incredibly pissed and takes his anger out on a coat rack. The other is when you have the screening of the rough cut of your film for the band and some other people and nothing works out like you hoped. You both had this way of trying to make the other look on the bright side of things. In those moments, though, you and your brother seem almost like the same guy.

TB: Definitely. That show when everything goes wrong was actually a really bad show, and I was happy to capture all the terror and horror that was on my brother’s face because that was really real. I felt like I was doing my job as a real documentarian at that time. (laughs)

But you’re definitely right. Just as his show goes wrong, my show goes wrong, and the only difference is that my brother and everyone else in The National still had to play a whole show after things got screwed up. They didn’t give up, but they got mad afterwards. I didn’t necessarily give up on my show, but I took it way too personally.

Things go wrong for everybody and you just have to keep pushing through. That above everything else is the most valuable thing that my brother has taught me.

DS: But even at that show, the band could have totally packed it in and left. I mean, they’re a band of note, so it would have been to a degree understandable if they just said “fuck this” and walked away from a show that makes them look bad. Do you think your brother might have noticed the similarities between your predicament and his in the film?

TB: You know, I think we do that all the time. But I think I should take my brother’s advice a lot more than he should ever take mine, but his major influence on me is just that hard work and a little bit of luck is all you need.

DS: When you got the job as a roadie, what was it like to just dive into this job? We can’t possible see everything that you did while you were out with them, but at first it seems like you took the job really seriously before you got fired, but it just got overwhelming.

TB: It bummed me out. For very obvious reasons I wasn’t make a guitar tech or a drum tech, and when I first got the job I thought I was going to be learning how to set up a drum kit and learning how to give each band member their guitar on stage. I never thought that you have to actually tune a guitar, as well. They didn’t let me anywhere NEAR their gear, which pissed me off. (laughs) That’s the cool job! That’s the roadie job! That’s what everyone thinks of when they think of roadies.

I was given the task of making sure the band and the guys gather in the hall right before they go and stage and make sure that everyone is there and that everyone has a water and then make sure everyone has a coconut water in their hand when they get off stage or whatever other bullshit they were drinking at the time. (laughs) I really only had the “personal assistant” job of a roadie.

I did take that seriously at first, and I always tried to take it seriously, but I just wasn’t very good at it because I was trying to film and shoot stuff. I was also trying to have whatever fun I could have, and I had to create the fun myself. I had to get drunk on the bus by myself. I didn’t have the glamorous roadie job. I had the tour manager job, which was lame.

The worst was that I had to learn how to count foreign money. I had to learn how to count Kroners. It was stuff I never wanted to do or never wanted to ever learn how to do. In my native land of the United States I never wanted to figure out when I am counting out money for merch how much money goes here or there, and now I have to deal with foreign money. It was all frustrating, and hard, and unglamorous. I really wanted to be the guy on stage grabbin’ the guitars from the guys and giving them new ones, but obviously I was never going to be doing that.

DS: What was the strangest request that anyone in the band had of you while you were their “assistant?”

TB: I’m trying to think… I don’t think there were any really strange requests for actual things that they wanted or needed. I remember Bryce right in the middle of a show was calling on my while he was literally shredding on his guitar to do something with the lights. I couldn’t hear him, but he was screaming at me to turn the lights up or turn the lights down. It was something with the lights, which again is not really something I normally deal with. He’s over here on stage shredding in the middle of the song and he’s screaming at me about the lights. So I run backstage and say “Bryce wants the lights lowered,” because I think that’s what he said, and he does it and I still don’t know if that was what he wanted because I never brought it up again. I do kinda want to know, though.

I mean, there was weird food. Everyone was always very particular about what they wanted and that was always frustrating. You don’t want to piss anyone off and it’s cool because some people are definitely allergic to some things, and it was just a pain sometimes trying to track down what everyone wanted to eat.

But, you know, looking back on it, I probably had the best band in the WORLD to be getting food for. (laughs) I could have had Van Halen and try to track down M&Ms. At least they weren’t assholes about not getting like a certain candy bar or a certain flavour of drink. They were pretty cool.

Mistaken for Strangers opens at The Bloor Hot Docs cinema on Friday. There will be a special sneak preview on Thursday night at 6:30pm introduced by the members of The National.