The National Frontman Matt Berninger and Brandon Stosuy on Creativity and Collaboration

What is the Point of Staying Creative in 2020?

I’ve known Brandon Stosuy for more than 20 years. We met when he booked The National to play a show in Buffalo, where he was living and going to grad school at the time. On September 9th, 2020, we caught up via Zoom to talk about Brandon’s new book, Make Time For Creativity, as well as the book that follows it in the series, Stay Inspired. (I contributed to the second book.)

We spoke about finding and helping to make spaces for joy instead of fear. We move through our childhoods (in Ohio and New Jersey) up to the present. We talk about personal talismans, like punk clubs, college radio, libraries, and zines. We also discuss the importance of friendship and collaboration: people, working together, in real-time, in a room, is something maybe we’re all missing right now. The main question we keep coming back to: Why prioritize creativity in 2020?

The answer we keep coming back to: Slow down, calm down, counteract fear, and locate joy.

–Matt Berninger

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Matt Berninger: Your book Make Time for Creativity came out last month. Reading it, I was struck by how personal it is, and how it’s very much a hybrid of different types of books—journal, memoir, self-help.

Brandon Stosuy: I was on the phone with my dad earlier and he pointed out that Make Time For Creativity is a memoir. I hadn’t really thought of it exactly like that. If that’s what the book is, part of the memoir are the voices of friends and collaborators—like you—giving their own life stories and advice. That’s what happens in real life, and a book is never just about one person. And, maybe it’s never just one thing. So, it’s an oral history of the creative process, and it’s also a journal—people who’re reading it can fill in their own story, too.

I’ve been thinking about influence and inspiration, and how meeting one person leads to the next, or seeing one person’s creative process inspires your next move. It happens so naturally, and those little connections resonate and then become bigger over time. I guess that’s a definition of community? I wanted the book to be a community snapshot.

MB: When we talk, I know I always use these funny 3D model visual metaphors to illustrate how we affect each other. I see the people in your book as part of this three-dimensional spider web, or cotton ball, or a handful of bubbles in a bubble bath. All these people are connecting, and you can go from any point in that thing to another point, so fast, and find a connection with one of the people inside it. There are all these living artists in here…

It’s like you don’t have to pick a scene to be in; you can be in all of the scenes. You can be in all of the bubbles. You can be on all the threads. You can be in all of them, like Andy Warhol or David Bowie or Nick Cave or Nina Simone, or whatever, like Elvis, the Beatles. They all were movie stars. Some of them went to a retreat and they became gurus, some of them became everything.

It’s like, Andy Warhol was on The Love Boat, right? It’s like he did everything. He did urine paintings and was on The Love Boat, made films that changed everything, and also, kind of invented bands with the Velvet Underground.

BS: Something I learned early on from Warhol—when I was 14 or 15—is that art isn’t always making a drawing or painting or sculpture. The same thing with Marcel Duchamp. I can’t make art in that way, but one thing I can do is curate, or take a thing and put it in a different context, give it a different title, and offer it a new life. As a teen, when I saw Duchamp do that with a toilet or iron or whatever, it blew my mind and I saw all these new possibilities.

When I was talking to my dad earlier, I pointed out to him that all the stuff I misread or misunderstood as a kid actually ended up helping me. I thought that Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road without stopping. I didn’t realize there were editors. I thought he sat there for days doing it. That misunderstanding informed how I did my zine as a teenager, but I was totally wrong. He had all these editors involved. It was a much longer process. But even through that misunderstanding, that was hugely influential.

It doesn’t need to be someone super well-known, either. I’m not all that into celebrity culture, and that goes for influences, too. I’m often more influenced by people around me. I was telling my kids the other day about an art teacher I had in high school. His name was Mr. Hulfish. He was always drawing when we’d come into the room for the day. He was making marks on the chalkboard for months, a little at a time. Eventually it became this massive impressionistic painting. We were all shocked when we saw what these little random-seeming marks had become.

“I discovered Raymond Carver from Sonic Youth’s Sister liner notes. I’d go to the library with all the names from the liner notes scribbled on a piece of paper.”

It showed us: “Something else exists outside of this place; here’s this guy who just chipped away at this every day, and now we have this massive mural on a blackboard.” He ended up dying of colon cancer and we wouldn’t let the janitor clean the blackboard for months.

In these books, it was cool to see friends I have like you and Meg, who makes music as Hand Habits, and how you both talked about trains, and the importance of trains for you as kids, and in your work, from totally different points of view. Meg is in their twenties. You’re in your forties. They’re from a small town in upstate New York and you’re from Cincinnati. But there’s this connection. So yeah, there is that cotton ball spider web connecting it all together.

MB: Another example of this: My brother went to Elder High School in Cincinnati. My dad and uncle Jack used to teach there and my grandpa was a student there. I didn’t go to that school. I went to a different school, the Jesuit High School. They’re both Catholic. My brother Tom’s was more the Catholic high school, mine was more of the Jesuit high school. There was one teacher in this conservative bubble, Robert Beemon, who still does a radio show there and changed so many people’s lives I know in Cincinnati, like Mark Fox, who did the cover of our High Violet record—he’s an artist, who’s just really, really successful.

My friend Jeff Salem and my friend Jeff Tyson, my friend Jeff Wahrman, my brother Tom, the list goes on and on of all these dudes like me from the west side of Cincinnati that chose art instead of whatever other thing and it’s made their lives rich and beautiful. And it’s a struggle to be an artist, but none of them would have survived, I think, inside any other kind of web if they hadn’t had that art web inside that Catholic high school. They never would have gotten out of that bigger web and found this. They live all over the world now.

It’s so funny, even objects are connected to these webs. It’s not just ideas and art. Over at the recording studio Sound City [in LA]  in the storage warehouse, they have the studio couch, the little studio couch that was there when Nirvana made Nevermind and countless other records. It had been in the mixing room, and now his crappy little couch with this ugly purplish pattern is back in the garage there. I sat on it because I know that when those guys sat on that couch listening to Nevermind, from the speakers, and hearing “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” you can’t tell me Kurt Cobain wasn’t in a state of euphoria—and not just drugs, or whatever.

And so that couch made me think of the happiness of the Kurt Cobain legacy and body of work and even the happiness of that space. Sound City is a church where these gospels were written. And there was also a table where Johnny Cash apparently used to sit in a wooden table and write and work on lyrics and then there was Tom Petty’s old vocal booth that had shag carpeting for soundproofing. And this like, “Oh, my God, how many records did Tom Petty sing inside those little weird walls?” Those things are part of that spider web, too.

BS: So much is about finding a connection. That’s in Los Angeles. And then, people who are living in small towns are looking for that kind of resonance, too. I remember living in this tiny Pine Barrens town of 800 and sticking tinfoil on the edge of my boom box, so I could get better reception to hear the Princeton college radio station and not realizing [that the DJs] were just nerdy college kids.

At the time, they were heroic figures to me. I idolized them. I love the idea that the sounds were just flowing through the air, and you would just put up the antenna and make this connection and sometimes hear or catch something by mistake.

I’ve been thinking, too, about all the books I happened upon by mistake—just wandering around a library and thinking, “All right, I know this guy Andy Warhol, like what else? What’s connected to Andy Warhol?” Then I would pick up a book, “Oh, wait, they mentioned this other guy. I’m going to go check that out.”

It’s those kinds of things, pre-internet, when I would drive 40 minutes to the local library with my little brother and we would just hang out there and find books, take them back home, and then spend a week with them and bring them back the following week. For example, I discovered Raymond Carver from Sonic Youth’s Sister liner notes. I’d go to the library with all the names from the liner notes scribbled on a piece of paper.

MB: Right. Like, I discovered Gerhard Richter because he did Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation cover.

BS: Exactly, yeah. I did that, too. In fact, I write about it in one of the Abrams books. These things are interesting because they’re like little coded memories a lot of people share without realizing it. You’re in your own town discovering Gerhard Richter. Then there’s some kid in New Jersey discovering Gerhard Richter that same way. It’s all in there. I was hugely influenced by the Misfits as a kid, and didn’t realize my friend Melissa [auf Der Maur] was, too, until she wrote about it for one of these books.

“If there’s too much time to stop and think, it’s easy to be on news sites like ‘Holy shit, this is really bleak.'”

We figured out non-music things because of music; there’s these clear or weird or fuzzy connections between the arts. I learned about Keats and Yates through the Smiths. It wasn’t like I was some wise teenager, I just happened to know it through listening to “Cemetery Gates.”

MB:You knew these people were on your side.

BS: [laughs] And I even only knew about the Smiths because I had a teacher in high school named Mr. Semptimphelter, who was this cool guy who was in his late thirties, but seemed old to me at the time. He taught history, and could tell I was into punk, or whatever, and introduced me to so much. He was like, “You should check out the Smiths.” So I did.

One day he walked into the class and on the chalkboard he wrote, “There are some bad people on the right.” He looked at me and smiled and because I was a 14-year-old freshman, this felt like a major moment. A passing of a torch. It’s like sharing a mixtape.

MB:The books you’re making and mixtapes are the same thing.

BS: Right. It’s a toolkit. It’s a curated selection of things. It’s also a skeleton-key.

MB: We’re talking about places in a network… like a church can be a community and your parish and your grade school or your high school or your sorority or fraternity, your political thought. They all become these tribes, but also what I love about art and music… I don’t think museums are a good place for art, but rock clubs are, like something that runs in Cincinnati, and there’s a bunch of them, or the Mercury Lounge, for example, on the Lower East Side.

There’s countless little places like this and for me they were churches. It’s where I saw Cat Power, it’s where I saw The Strokes, it’s where I saw everybody at once. I first saw Spoon at Brownies. And I saw Iggy Pop in Cincinnati at Bogart’s and also Morphine and a bunch of bands at Sudsy Malone’s, where [The National bassist] Scott [Devendorf] and I would literally do our laundry, watch Morphine, and buy the record from Mark Sandman at the end of the show.

And then we get to know a bunch of people who were there at that show. Boom. There’s a spider web of people, there’s empathy, like “We’re connected. We desire the kind of things that we want to be told, that make us feel less alone.” It’s all connection.

But then there’s Fox News versus MSNBC. There’s the New York Times. And what I think the problem is with some of those things—like news—those are networks of fear. Everything is a news alert, every channel, no matter what side of the spectrum you’re on, every graphic is just to scare you and to wake you up from the Cialis ad, right? “We’re back with whoever it is. Jesus Christ, they’re back. What’s happening?”

Every time. And so it’s here. It’s these spider webs of fear, which is the opposite of love. That’s why Trump was elected because everybody loves a horror movie. And he just gets the most ratings because fear is like sugar or heroin. You just have to have more of it and because it feeds itself.

BS: Exactly, and that’s why it’s been important for me, for my whole life, to find places that don’t come from fear—like you’re saying, finding the venues, the books, and the art that give you a feeling of joy, and then just double downing on that. It helps us. It’s a shield against that fear.

For me, it was those teachers I mentioned. It was my friends. It was City Gardens in Trenton. My brother and I would drive there to see so many bands. I saw Nirvana there before they were huge, and so many others. We found belonging there. Saw people that resembled us in some way that we didn’t see in our hometown. It was so positive. It was also pre-cell phones, and so we were fully present in this place. We weren’t halfway in and halfway out Instagram. It was full immersion.

MB:The first time you wrote about The National—which is how we met—it was our first review. In it, you refer to what we were doing as a Bildungsroman, right? And it made me look at that word. I remember thinking to myself, “I’m going to do one of those some of these days. I’m going to figure out what that is, what he’s talking about.” But it feels like these books for you are sort of that word…

BS: Right. A coming of age. A spiritual quest. A life. Yeah, it does. I mean, that’s why it interesting to me to have that clarifying conversation with my dad—you talk to your agent, you talk to the press, the publisher and stuff, but then my dad was just like, “These are kind of designs you made when you were a kid, but now, people can also add to it themselves and write their own thoughts. You can pull from these people who are all part of your life and all contribute to what you’re doing.”

“As a kid, I reached out to the writer William H. Gass, and asked what I needed to do to be a writer, and he wrote back with a list of books to read.”

When I was younger I thought those old Semiotext(e) books were cool because they could fit in your back pocket: You’re walking around with this book, and you could jot some stuff down in the margins, and it becomes part of your life. That’s cooler than any note app on any phone. And that’s partly what I was trying to do with this series of books: there’s space to write your own stuff. It’s a romantic notion, being able to leave a mark. It becomes this thing that feels useful to you, you personalize it, it’s yours. Whereas it’s much harder to leave a mark on the internet because things move so fast.

I’m trying to find that slowness again in something that’s so much faster—which is one cool thing, I guess, about quarantine. It definitely slows things down to one level, but then [my wife] Jane and I find we are just as busy. And so it’s still a challenge. I have so much stuff on my plate, but I like it that way, and I just end up doing more stuff. I was saying to Jane, “If I don’t do it, what am I going to do? Join Facebook or something?”

I’m going to be the guy that’s scrolling through threads on Facebook about avocado recipes, or whatever, or worse. I’d rather be creating things and collaborating. Especially in this time period, if there’s too much time to stop and think, it’s easy to be on news sites like “Holy shit, this is really bleak.” So, yeah, again, instead of operating from fear, operating from this positive space of making stuff, which feels to me more useful.

MB: Yeah, I mean, I do so many interviews and I like to do interviews. My parents always wanted us to overshare because they didn’t want us to have secrets, and so we didn’t. I always talk about artists like they’re fearless. That’s not the case. They’re not fearless. They have all the fear but they take all their fear and lean into that fear, that wall of fear and say “I’m going this way anyway. I won’t go like this with fear. I climb into it. I climb through it.”

The first time I got on stage or the first time I kissed a girl, the first time, all these things are conquering fears. If you hide from your fears and that’s all the cable news and all the channels, New York Times, they’re making money out of this, they’re selling so much fear because people buy it like sugar.

Art can save us from fear. It can also save lives.

William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops came out after 9/11. I got it, but it was too depressing. I couldn’t handle it. But then I later read about when Donald Antrim in The New Yorker wrote about his depression, and he writes so beautifully about suicide, and he was talking about Disintegration Loops and listening to it, and becoming one with the stereo, becoming one with the floor, and one with the world; he described the chords as a safety net that held him, kept him alive literally. He says, “I don’t suffer from depression. I suffer from suicide.” And he talks honestly about that.

I don’t suffer from that. I suffer from being a stoner and a lot of Catholic guilt and rage issues over why can’t I listen to The Queen is Dead. But, yeah, these things can save people’s lives at any time—you won’t even know. You won’t even know it. Nick Cave saved my life, Leonard Cohen—not saved my life—but just got me up that morning, got me through the day or through the night.

BS: I keep coming back to my dad. In this 45-minute conversation with me he was like, “All these people that you reached out to once, or learned about as a teenager, look at the impact they had.” I’m realizing that both teachers I mentioned are dead. But both left a mark on me that I can then pass to others.

As a kid, I reached out to the writer William H. Gass, and asked what I needed to do to be a writer, and he wrote back with a list of books to read—I read them, and they led to more books, and it gave me a full education. It was its own web. He actively helped me, and then I found all these books, and those folks helped me without realizing it, and then I told people to read those books, too.

This is why creativity is important in 2020: Little gestures matter, and they build and they build and they keep building—even when we don’t know it.

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Brandon Stosuy’s Make Time for Creativity is available now.

Matt Berninger and Brandon Stosuy
Matt Berninger and Brandon Stosuy
Matt Berninger is the frontman and lyricist for Grammy-award winning indie rock band The National, EL VY and Nancy. In addition to his work in music, he produced the documentary Mistaken for Strangers in 2013. In 2016, he co-founded 7-inches for Planned Parenthood, a curated series of records featuring music, comedy, spoken word, and visual art released in support of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. He is also the co-founder and creative director of Lemon House Productions. His first solo record Serpentine Prison, produced by Booker T Jones, is due out October 16th, 2020. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter.

Brandon Stosuy is the co-founder and editor in chief at The Creative Independent, the co-founder of the annual Basilica Soundscape festival in Hudson, NY, the co-founder of Zone 6 Management and Gallery, and has been a music curator at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles and at MoMA PS1 in New York City. He is also the author of two children’s books, Music Is and We Are Music. His first book in a trilogy about the creative process, Make Time for Creativity, published in September from Abrams Books.





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