When a band called The National debuted out of New York more than a decade ago, they were considered underdogs in a busy indie music scene. The lead singer's melancholy baritone and the lush instrumentation didn't always fit the irony-laden swagger of the aughts.


THE NATIONAL: (Singing) I can't get my head around it. I keep feeling smaller and smaller. I need my girl.

CORNISH: The National has endured, and these days it has a hard-won following. It headlines big concert halls and late-night talk shows, and the band has a new album out. Lead singer Matt Berninger writes the band's lyrics, and he told us the story behind the first song on the album, a song with a curious title, "I Should Live in Salt."


CORNISH: It turns out it's about his little brother.

MATT BERNINGER: He was on my mind a lot while we were making this record because he was living with my wife and I at the time. Still, actually still does. So he was on my mind and in my house. But my brother and I are just very different type of people. And whereas I might be sort of kind of buttoned-up and ambitious, he's more lax in his approach to the universe, I guess.


NATIONAL: (Singing) You're not that much like me. You should know me better than that. We have different enemies. You should know me better than that.

BERNINGER: We love each other a great deal, but we're - but there's often a lot of conflict between the two of us and...

CORNISH: And there's some fun imagery in one of the verses: Can you turn the TV down? You should know me better than that.

BERNINGER: Yeah, yeah. The lyrics to that are like a bunch of little fragments of just thoughts, you know, about him. And truthfully, it's about us actually getting to know each other as adults, because I went off to college when he was a little kid. He was 9 when I was 18 and went off to college, and then I moved to New York after that. And he kind of went his own - a different path. And the song a little bit - I think I had a lot - felt a lot of guilt, because I think, right, when maybe he kind of needed an older brother the most, you know, when you start hitting your teens, and that's when I sort of took off and disappeared on him a little bit.


NATIONAL: (Singing) I should leave it alone, but you're not right.

BERNINGER: Then when he came and joined us on tour as a roadie, it was the first time we were spending a lot of time together as adults, and that was a big shift in our relationship.

CORNISH: It's interesting because the band, The National, is made up of siblings. There's Aaron and Bryce Dessner...


CORNISH: ...and also Scott and Bryan Devendorf. So you're the guy who doesn't have a brother there.

BERNINGER: Yeah. And that's always been a really healthy part of our band dynamic and stuff. It's very much sort of the glue, I think, that's kept our band together for 14 years. And I actually missed my brother, and I also was envious of the relationship they had - that they were traveling the world with their brother and had, you know, had that person to sort of lean on and vent to. And, you know, when my brother came on tour with us - and had somebody there to, like, lean on and kind of complain about the other guys to or whatever, because there's so much, you know, tension living in a bus together and all that kind of stuff.


NATIONAL: (Singing) I should live in salt for leaving you behind, behind.

CORNISH: And you said you felt a little guilt, but the chorus is: I should live in salt for leaving you behind.


BERNINGER: I think that was - I mean, honestly, that was just kind of an abstract image or something in my head, and I know there's some legends of, I think, Lot's wife, like, turned to salt when she looked back at the city and stuff. And it seemed like a bad thing to have to live in salt. And so a lot of my lyrics are approximate meaning without really me knowing why they sound right, though.

CORNISH: How did your brother react to this? And now that you're kind of coming out with this album, what's that relationship like?

BERNINGER: Our relationship is much better. As far as the song goes, when he heard the song, he thought the song was about salt. He didn't - he had no idea that it was about him at first. But he is a heavy-metal guy. He does not listen to a lot of, you know, indie rock, and there was a breaking point where we just, like, realized that he's very different than I am, and we're both adults now. And that's when I think like a whole different level of respect between us happened. I mean, we still fight like crazy like brothers or anybody does, but we just kind of had to understand each other just as people and not as older brother, younger brother, just a brother.

CORNISH: Well, Matt Berninger, thank you so much for talking with us.

BERNINGER: Thank you. It's been my pleasure.

CORNISH: Matt Berninger is lead singer of the band The National. Their new album is called "Trouble Will Find Me."


NATIONAL: (Singing) Oh, don't tell anyone I'm here. I've got Tylenol and beer. I was thinking that you call somebody closer to you. Oh...

CORNISH: This is another track off the new album. It's called "This is the Last Time," and it was recorded live at a Tiny Desk Concert here at NPR. You can hear and see more from that performance at npr.org/music.


NATIONAL: (Singing) I won't be vacant anymore. I won't be waiting anymore. I won't be vacant anymore. I won't be waiting anymore. I won't be vacant anymore. I won't be waiting anymore. I won't be vacant anymore. I won't be waiting anymore.


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