I interviewed Matt Berninger, lead singer of
The National and father of 5-year-old Isla right before he went on stage in
Santa Barbara. I asked him if he thought that being a rock star had prepared
him for fatherhood. He sort of fiddled around with the "World’s Greatest Dad" mug
I’d given him in honor of Father’s Day and said, “No. Not really. I can’t say that anything about what [I’ve
done with the band] has been any good preparation for fatherhood.”
Matt and his daughter Isla pose for the 2010 cover of 'Under The Radar'
Since this is a
Father’s Day article, I asked Matt’s father Paul the same question a couple of days
later. Paul just kind of laughed and wanted to know what Matt had answered.
While it might
seem that I was getting nowhere fast, Matt and his dad were great to talk with
and I came away with five reasons rock stars just might make good fathers.
You don’t become a
rock star overnight, even if it seems that way in the media. The National was
nominated for a Grammy this year for their album "Trouble Will Find Me." "Trouble" is their sixth studio album. Matt was 30 when they started the band in 1999
and already had a lucrative career as a designer.
Paul tells a story
about Matt and the band being on the road in the early years. Nancy, Matt’s
mother, drove down to a show in Kentucky to drag Matt home for a good meal and
decent night’s sleep. Her arrival at the show doubled the audience.
persistence to get up and play for two people in a ratty bar somewhere in
Kentucky. It also takes persistence to raise children. You have to keep making
sure they go to bed on time, even though they inevitably argue how they’re not
tired. You do lots of things that require stamina and determination like staying
on top of homework in the early years, following up on discipline, going to the
park on a Saturday afternoon when you desperately need a nap and so on.
2. Growing a thick skin
Growing a thick skin
is one of those slightly underground, but necessary skills in parenting. Think
about all the “advice” strangers in the grocery market dole out on your
parenting skills; the meetings at school you cringingly attend when your kid
gets into a fight on the playground. There are the times you waltzed off to
work feeling good in a new shirt only to realize at the end of the day that
you’d had spit-up running down your back since you’d said goodbye to the baby
that morning. And for anyone with a teenager, you know you don’t just need
thick skin, you need armor some days.
When Matt was ten, he started learning piano. As his dad tells it, he quit as soon as he learned there would be a performance. No way was he getting up on stage.
Performing in Los Angeles earlier this year
The path to become
a rock star isn’t cut and dry. Matt describes acquiring that thick skin out on
the road. “We failed a lot, at the
beginning, but it was so satisfying. All the shows we did that nobody came to,
some of them were humiliating, especially when you’ve travelled all over and
driven and you’ve been sleeping on floors, and you do another [show] where nobody’s
there and another one where nobody’s there. You’re just exhausted and depressed.
It’s humiliating to be any kind of artist in a lot of ways. But, we would just
laugh about that.”
All of this sounds
like good prep for when your 12-year-old lets you know how she really feels
about your new haircut, or when you’ve decided to let baby cry it out a little at
bedtime. Or your mother-in-law starts wondering aloud how long it really is
necessary to breastfeed an infant.
3. Dealing with sleep deprivation
This one’s pretty
self-explanatory. There’s really nothing that can make sleep deprivation
easier. But sleeping on floors while driving all over the country and touring
sets you up for an understanding that being sleep deprived probably won’t kill
the world, playing live music to adoring fans and being away from home for long
stretches might not sound like a primer for fatherhood. But for Berninger, it’s
helped him hone in on what’s really important about family.
“I’m thankful that
my dad was always amazing and present. You know he was a lawyer and he came
home every day. He was always there doing stuff and so I never felt like it
was 'Dad’s gotta work,' 'Dad’s lost in his job.'
16-month old Isla with her dad in the studio
"The fact that I’m
gone so much really bothers me because my dad was always there. He came home
every night. He was there every morning. I know how great that is and how nice
that is. So the travelling is the hardest thing. But
we’re figuring it out. I think [there’s a] whole shift in the way people
think about, at least men think about their responsibility. What is a good and
satisfying life, for a man, I think has developed and grown and gotten much more
balanced and healthy. I think it used to be success and ego and all these
"But it’s dawned on
me how satisfying and enriching — how nice it is, how nice it feels — to know you
got a happy kid. You can’t always control that, but that is a pursuit and a
challenge, to try to be a good dad and a present dad, and raise your kids to be
ethical, happy, courageous and brave.”
The fact that
Matt’s schedule is very different from his father’s has made him take stock of
what’s important and choose what kind of parent he wants to be.
5. Pursuing a dream
When Matt was ten,
he started learning piano. As his dad tells it, he quit as soon as he learned
there would be a performance. No way was he getting up on stage.
Matt tells about his father overcoming his fear of public speaking in order to become a lawyer and
support his family. Paul said that he never got over his fear, he just got more
used to the panic attacks.
It’s easy to hear
the appreciation father and son have for each other, and for their successes and
challenges in life. By the end of our conversation,
Matt had revised his opinion a bit on the possibility of rock star being prep
Matt and Carin Besser with their daughter Isla
“I’m a really
happy person. I’m so happy with what’s going on with the band and it’s
exciting. So when I’m home, I know I’m instilling this sort of courage to chase
these wild things with Isla. I think maybe that’s good. And I think a kid can
"When I was working
at a day job — and it was a good job — I was kind of miserable. And I was
coming home from that and with the stress of the 9-to-5 and clients and all
that kind of stuff, I was drinking more then than I do as a rock star. I’d come home and be just so bored and I hated my job so much I would drink. I
don’t know what kind of dad I’d be if I were miserable.
"So I think the
band has made me, in some ways, a better father just because I’m a fulfilled,
excited, happy person who [knows] we’re doing well writing rock songs. That’s