Matt Berninger of The National talks about his debut solo album, “Serpentine Prison.” Also, film critic Adam Nayman on Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterful movies. And author Miles Harvey on the most infamous con man you’ve never heard of — James Strang.
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Matt Berninger Goes Solo With A Little Help From Booker T. Jones
When Matt Berninger decided to create music on his own, he just wanted to get together with friends and record some cover songs.
Berninger first worked with Jones over a decade ago. So when he decided he wanted to record an album of covers, he looked to his favorite covers album for inspiration: Willie Nelson’s “Stardust,” an album Jones produced.
“When you listen to “Stardust“, it feels like Willie’s sitting right next to you,” said Berninger. “And Booker produced and arranged that.”
So Berninger decided he’d roll the dice and reach out to Jones, even though he had no direct contact information for the world-renowned artist.
“I never had his email, but I went to his Booker T. Jones website and clicked the big management button and wrote to him to see if he’d want to be involved at all,” said Berninger. “And his daughter, Olivia, who is now his manager, wrote me back right away and said, ‘Yeah, he would be.’”
As the two began planning the album and Berninger shared cover song ideas, he started sharing some originals with Jones as well.
“And he’s like, ‘You know, do you have any more of these?’” recalled Berninger.
By the end of the brief 14-day recording process, they had 12 originals and seven covers. That’s when they realized this wasn’t going to be Berninger’s “Stardust” — it was going to be his first solo album.
“I didn’t have this idea to have a solo record until we were halfway done with this thing,” Berninger said.
The album features an impressive cast of contributors, including Matt Barrick (The Walkmen, Jonathan Fire*Eater), Andrew Bird, Gail Ann Dorsey (David Bowie, Lenny Kravitz), and Mickey Raphael (Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan).
So how did Berninger and Jones manage to wrangle all of that talent and end up with “Serpentine Prison’s” understated sound?
“We wanted the songs to feel spacious,” said Berninger. “And I wanted it to feel like you’re in the room with a few people.”
That’s why Berninger thought Jones was the perfect person for the job.
“Whenever Booker produces his records, I always say you can hear people look at each other,” Berninger said.
The studio was too small to fit everyone at once, so players came and went; working on whatever was in progress while they were there. Everyone came prepared to contribute.
“I mean, they all knew they were coming in to work with Booker T. Jones, so they did their homework,” Berninger joked.
Jones set the tone that made it all click.
“You know, he was very much the shepherd of the song. We’d get started, and he’d kind of figure out the groove and the tempo and all that stuff, and everybody would follow along,” Berninger remembered. “And so he would always say the songs were all there, we just had to catch them, you know? And he liked to catch them fast. We didn’t do too many takes. And he’s like, that’s good, let’s move on.”
That studio magic is on full display with songs like “Collar Of Your Shirt”, which features an interplay of strings, guitar and organ that pushes Berninger beyond his signature baritone.
“I wrote that with Walter Martin and we had the first half,” he said. “And then when we got toward the end, Booker just felt like it needed to go somewhere new.”
Jones felt the song wasn’t long enough and encouraged Berninger to write some additional lyrics. Then, everyone just followed Jones’ lead.
“He plays the Hammond (organ) like it’s a vocalist,” said Berninger. “And so at the end of ‘Collar Of Your Shirt,’ he was leading that in the melodies. And I would follow him up to those higher branches melodically.
“And (Jones made it) very safe to go into territory melodically. And he pushed me there,” Berninger continued. “And so, yeah, that one really, really means a lot to me because I think I learned so much.”
Also on the record, Berninger wrote the song “One More Second” as an imagined response by Porter Wagoner to Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” written in 1974 as she set out to pursue a solo recording career.
“She was writing that to Porter Wagoner as she was trying to leave his television show and kind of break out of the bubble that he was trying to keep her in,” recalled Berninger. “And she had to try to break that to him.
“And I always thought, well, if Porter Wagoner could write a song to try to, like, hold onto Dolly, what would he write?”
“And so ‘One More Second’ is this imagined way of thinking of these songs, like every desperate love song has another side of that story,” he explained.
So, how does the songwriting process for this solo album compare with how The National has worked for the last 20 years?
“People ask me all the time: Do I have to go into a different head space to write with The National? I’m like, I don’t have different head spaces, you know, I don’t have different rooms in my brain. It’s all one giant circus tent,” Berninger said. “It’s like my brain only really has the Matt Berninger channel on all the time, you know?”
Berninger said the biggest difference between the creation of “Serpentine Prison” and a record by The National is in the recording process.
“With The National, we tinker, and we send stuff back and forth, and songs are these lab animals that we keep,” he said.
“You know, it’s like ‘The Island Of Dr. Moreau‘ and everybody changes the DNA of the creature and then sends it back in,” continued Berninger. “And that’s what’s fun about The National is the songs go through these mutations and developments when we pass them all around.”
But Berninger chose a different classic novel to describe working with Jones on bringing “Serpentine Prison” to life.
“This was a sort of like all the ingredients were all brought to the lab at the same time, and we just waited for the lightning to strike until the thing rose up off the table and started walking around,” Berninger said.
The 'Masterworks' Of Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson
In 1997, in the midst of a Quentin Tarantino-infused indie movie hysteria, filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson burst onto the scene with the release of his second feature, “Boogie Nights” — an Altman-esque epic of the interlocking lives and stories of the performers and creators involved in the San Fernando Valley porn industry of the 1970s and 80s.
Film critic Adam Nayman was just a teenager who snuck into the cinema to see it.
“I saw that movie when I was 16. I wore a trench coat to look older, which is stupid,” Nayman told WPR’s “BETA.”
“We’re all really hopped up on the idea of Quentin Tarantino and ‘Pulp Fiction’ was holy writ for us when we were in high school. And yet the first time I saw ‘Boogie Nights,’ I remember being disappointed,” Nayman recalls.
Even though Nayman would remain well aware, but mainly ambivalent of Anderson’s prestigious talent, his professional career continued to intersect with Anderson’s output. In fact, in 2002, when Anderson released his Adam Sandler art film, “Punch-Drunk Love,” it was one of Nayman’s first professional screenings as a critic.
Nearly a decade later, Nayman was assigned to write a piece on Anderson for Cinema Scope magazine’s special 50 Filmmakers Under 50 series even though he had pitched several other filmmakers to cover.
“My editor actually kept turning down who I wanted to write on,” Nayman said. “I had a list of about 10 people I wanted to write blurbs on, and either because I’d written on them before or other people had claimed them, he said, ‘Why don’t you write on Paul Thomas Anderson.”
Coincidentally, later that year, Anderson released “The Master” which Nayman went to review. It was sitting in the cinema that his opinion and appreciation about Anderson changed.
“This is one those perfectly realized American movies I’ve ever seen. And in the years since then, not only has my admiration for his work going forward maintained, but my interest in the previous work deepened,” Nayman said. “He’s such a singular artist at this point, which is why I think it’s a good point to write about him.”
Now, Nayman has completed the companion book, “Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks (Abrams)” which is a complete retrospective on the oeuvre of one of America’s modern filmmaking auteurs.
Nayman took a unique approach into structuring his study on Anderson. In lieu of following the chronological release of each film, he instead sequenced the book by the historical eras each film is set in.
“People write so much about the way his movies depict California and also use California as a very persuasive microcosm of America,” explains Nayman. “I thought that by dealing with the historical films first, you create a context for a lot of what happens in the more contemporary ones. And it’s just so fun to put the movies out of order to go from ‘Boogie Nights’ to ‘Hard Eight’ to ‘Magnolia’ to ‘Punch Drunk Love.’
The only outlier to this outline was Anderson’s latest film, “Phantom Thread” which is his only film set outside of California.
“It really is a movie about time and recurrence. I thought, ‘Well, let’s loop the book around with it. Let’s start and end with it, because it exists out of Los Angeles, out of America, a bit out of time,’” Nayman said.
In this approach, Nayman leads off with “There Will Be Blood” which many critics and fans consider Anderson’s magnum opus. The film was loosely based on an Upton Sinclair story “Oil!” and starred Daniel Day-Lewis in an Oscar-winning turn as oil man/tycoon Daniel Plainview. Nayman himself argues that this was the film where Anderson reimagined his “imaginative scope.”
“It’s a very easy movie to remember because of how stark and graphically powerful it is,” Nayman said. “Whatever arguments people make about its central metaphor about capitalism and religion or the believability of the plot, I think it’s inarguable that he put things together on a level of sound and image and location and production design that just took the collective breath away. And it was imaginative in a way that his other mostly realistic films hadn’t… It’s not just that they hadn’t achieved it. They hadn’t attempted it.”
The pairing of Day-Lewis and Anderson was both fruitful (the two of them would again collaborate on 2017’s “Phantom Thread“) and fortuitous.
“I think the two interacted at just the right time,” Nayman said. “Anderson had the discipline to key a movie to one story, one character, one psychology, instead of his ensemble thing, and he caught Day-Lewis at one of the last moments before he became too iconic to play anything.”
Anderson’s ability to extract powerful performances from some of Hollywood’s biggest stars – like Tom Cruise in “Magnolia” — is one of the filmmaker’s defining characteristics.
“Anderson has said many times, once Cruise said he wanted to work with him, he went and wrote Cruise a part,” Nayman said.
“Magnolia” was Anderson’s sprawling L.A. melodrama follow-up to “Boogie Nights” that – save for a dazzling overture – received fairly mixed reviews from audiences and critics alike.
“Magnolia, for better and for worse, for success and for failure, was a guy trying to be as much of a showman as possible,” Nayman said. “There are some movies that feel like they’re made like the clock is going to run out. And if I don’t get everything into this movie before the buzzer hits, I failed. Given the millennial context of the movie, I think makes it extremely interesting and extremely contemporary to the time when it was made.”
The turning point for Anderson comes in 2002’s “Punch-Drunk Love” with Adam Sandler. It was when Anderson pivoted from bloated ensemble narratives to focused character studies.
Sandler was a curious choice for a “serious” filmmaker to partner with at the time. Sandler was mainly known then (and has continued) as the curator of sophomoric comedy characters like Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore. However, Anderson noted something deeper in those performances.
“I think that Anderson saw something in Sandler that has always been there,” Nayman said. “(Anderson) got a really amazing performance out of him. With Daniel Day-Lewis you know you’re going to get the performance. With Sandler, I think it was seen at the time as blood from a stone. But really, Sandler’s always had the talent and the depth.”
The movie would earn Anderson the Best Director award that year from the Cannes Film Festival and was championed by jury member and one of America’s finest auteurs, David Lynch.
“The highest compliment that you can pay ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ to me is that David Lynch wanted to give it an award,” said Nayman.
Anderson’s work may be coming full circle. Recent images surfaced online of Anderson on set with Bradley Cooper during the production of his rumored coming of age story set in San Fernando Valley.
“The idea of him doing a high school comedy is sort of counterintuitive since his movies have gotten more mature, but it might also be interesting for him to look back at adolescence with some distance,” Nayman said. “I’m interested to see what Anderson comes up with.”
Nayman shouldn’t need a trench coat to go see this next one. “Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks” is available now from Abrams.
The Most Audacious Con Man You've Never Heard Of
James Jesse Strang could be the boldest con man in American history.
At least, that’s the case that Miles Harvey makes in his book, “The King of Confidence: A Tale of Utopian Dreamers, Frontier Schemers, True Believers, False Prophets, and the Murder of an American Monarch.” Harvey, who spoke about Strang on WPR’s “BETA,” sees Strang as “a lightning rod for all the excesses of the mid-19th century — all the intense religious movements, the social reform movements and the apocalyptic fears.”
“There’ve been at least three good books about Strang, by my reckoning, and all of them have their strengths and all of them did some great research which I built upon,” Harvey said. “But for the most part, these books looked at Strang in a couple of different ways. One, as a sort of footnote to Mormon history and to the history of the Church, and the other as sort of a regional figure. One of the books is called ‘Assassination of a Michigan King.’ And I saw Strang as a much bigger kind of figure. … I just saw him as a very American figure.”
When Strang disappeared from a rural town in New York in the summer of 1843, he was already using people’s confidence, said Harvey. Until then, he had spent time working as a country lawyer, as a newspaper man, and as a postmaster. Strang supposedly sold some land in Ohio that didn’t really exist. When the buyer came to western New York and learned that he’d been the victim of a con, Strang faked his own death and left town in a hurry. He headed west to create a whole new identity.
Strang reappeared 600 miles away in Burlington, Wisconsin (which is, of course, the hometown of former Dallas Cowboy and now CBS Sports football analyst Tony Romo). Harvey said that Strang wound up in Burlington because he had friends there, many of whom were Mormons. Previously, Strang identified as an atheist until 1844 when he traveled to the town of Navoo, Illinois. At that time, Navoo was as large a town as Chicago and it was the hub of the Mormon Church. There, Strang met Joseph Smith, the founder and prophet of the Mormon Church, and converted to Mormonism.
“Whether or not it was a real conversion, I can’t say,” Harvey said.
A while after Strang returned to Burlington, Smith was shot and killed by an anti-Mormon mob in Carthage, Illinois. A short time later, Strang produced a letter supposedly written by Smith. The letter said that Smith was turning over the entire Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Strang.
Harvey said that would be like “turning over the entire Dallas Cowboys for a fourth round draft pick who is on your taxi squad.”
“You know, Strang’s letter really didn’t convince a lot of people, but he stuck with it,” he said.
Strang also “discovered” some brass plates in Burlington, similar to the golden plates that Joseph Smith said he had dug up.
“And these plates were written in a language that only one person on earth had the ability to read, thanks to a miracle. That person was James Jesse Strang,” Harvey said. “Those plates further proclaimed Strang the head of this church. And so, eventually, Strang built a pretty big following. And he eventually became the biggest rival to Brigham Young for control of the Church.”
Strang moved the headquarters of the Church to Beaver Island in Lake Michigan in 1848. It was there that Strang crowned himself the King of Earth and Heaven. Whether he did so to satisfy his own ego or if there was a strategic rationale behind the declaration is a good question, said Harvey.
“I think he did it like kings have since the beginning of civilized society to firm up his power,” he said. “And I think, also, he wrote in these wonderful diaries that he kept when he was a late teenager and in his early 20s, he wrote about … what he called ‘My dreams of royalty and power.’ And he was just a little farm boy in New York at that time, a country lawyer. I mean, it’s amazing, his ambition and ego. And, you know, we might say now, in retrospect, narcissism.“
Strang later served as a member of the Michigan House of Representatives, where he fought for African-American rights. Harvey said that the one thing that he thinks Strang really believed in was abolitionism.
On June 16, 1856, at around 7:00 p.m., Strang was shot in the back three times at the St. James harbor on Beaver Island. Several officers and men stationed on the USS Michigan naval vessel witnessed the attack. Nobody on board tried to warn or help Strang. One of the assassins pistol-whipped Strang before boarding the boat with his companion and claiming sanctuary.
Strang was taken to Voree, Wisconsin where he died three weeks later on July 9, 1856. He was 43.
“He was assassinated by his own people with the help probably of the U.S. government and the state of Michigan,” Harvey explained.
At times in “The King of Confidence,” there are ways that James Strang feels similar to President Donald Trump. Harvey said that he didn’t make any direct comparisons, but acknowledged that he made two oblique references to Trump. Early in the book, Harvey writes: “Strang would come to embody a constantly repeating character in American history, a kind of figure whose grip on our collective imagination is as tight today as ever.”
“My time writing this book overlaps almost exactly with the Trump era from his announcement, his campaign, his election, his presidency,” Harvey said. “I guess I woke up every morning thinking about Strang and went to sleep every night thinking about Trump. And our times are similar, not exact. And I’m an English professor, so I’m into the humanities. And I think one of the things the humanities do, and I’m really passionate about this, is that by studying the past, we can learn about the present and the future, and we can make sense of the present, the future.”
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