Last year saw the release of Mistaken for Strangers, a film that for all its hilarity and meta-narrative, gave full disclosure to the dynamic of family and fandom. Tom Berninger's documentary of sorts is a kind of sideways glance at the interrelationships that exist not only between himself and his brother Matt Berninger, vocalist for the critically acclaimed indie rock band The National, but perhaps more importantly the connectivity that ultimately comes with any type of music fandom, regardless of genre. While the film deliberately plays up the fact that Tom is an unabashed metalhead and the near complete antithesis of his older brother, it also shows the congruence we all share as fans of music culture and the sort of sanctity, albeit oftentimes hilarious sanctity, that makes our tastes so uniquely and utterly our own. SfB recently spoke with Tom about the film’s impact on his own life, why he loves metal, and what’s changed about his relationship with his older brother.
The fact that you’re a metalhead is one of the underlying themes of Mistaken for Strangers, Tom, and I’m curious to know where that fandom first started for you. Was there a specific moment for you where you realized how special this music was to you?
You know, it’s always hard to pinpoint because unbelievably our parents were not really people that listened to music all the time. So I don’t really quite remember the first time I heard a song and liked it or especially like metal. I think, and I’ve kind of pinpointed this because I love movies as well, but my love of metal and my love of songs that are aggressive and ugly and weird and maybe sung by monsters goes back to that I loved Little Shop of Horrors, the Rick Moranis movie version, when I was a little kid.
And I remember getting that tape, my parents gave me the soundtrack, and I just listened to Steve Martin, the sadomasochistic dentist singing about poisoning puppies and bashing cats’ heads in, and then the last song where the big monster plant sings “I’m just a mean green mother from outer space, and I’m bad,” and it has the word “shit” and other curse words in it. I remember as a little kid just loving that album. I honestly think I’ve loved horror ever since I was a little kid just because I was interested in movies.
It scared me, but I knew it wasn’t real, and I just wanted to know how they made that guy’s head get cut off. I know that guy really didn’t die, but I wanted to know how they did it, and I loved special effects. I loved the gore, and I loved Fangoria Magazine and Gorezone. So, I think I’ve always had this infatuation with monsters and gore and special effects, and then Little Shop of Horrors was the thing that brought music into it.
That was my first album or soundtrack that I ever truly loved and would listen to where I know all the words to all the songs. I used to imagine me sitting at the lunch table, and I wasn’t ever a nerd or anything like that, but I always hated the people that picked on the other guys, and I always imagined Audrey II being my friend at the lunch table and eating all the kids I hated. I would be in control of him, and we’d both be singing that song at the lunch table. [Laughs] I think that was my first love, though.
That relationship between the visual and the auditory has always been a key point for heavy metal just given the fact that so many fans come to the genre by way of being drawn into the album artwork or even band names that kind of call back to that horror fascination. Was that relationship something that worked to sort of bring you to filmmaking?
Yeah, I think so. Definitely. That was the beginning. I just liked music that made me feel more powerful than I really did in my every day life. Not aggressive music necessarily, but heavy music, loud music, music that scares other people – I just started liking it and obviously liking something that most other people didn’t or don’t is almost all of the appeal to all metal fans early on. It’s like you’re in a club.
My brother is nine years older than me and he would occasionally come visit me, but he was away in college when I was like twelve, so I had other sets of friends and my own influences, and I loved video games like Doom and Doom 2 and when Nine Inch Nails did the soundtrack for Quake I got totally into Nine Inch Nails. I just remember that I surrounded myself with violent video games and then from Nine Inch Nails my friend got really into Aphex Twin and that one song “Come to Daddy,” and I was like “Who is this? This is the coolest thing!”
I never had MTV. I just had a VCR, but my friends had MTV and there was just this whole world that opened up, and it scared me a little bit. I was one of those kids with the Internet early on, because my parents were like “We should get a computer for Tom,” but of course all I did was buy and play video games, and then I used a little bit of the Internet to explore music. I think at the same time, before the radio stuff, I liked early AC/DC. From there I was like “Who else is like AC/DC,” and then I got into Deep Purple and then Judas Priest and then from there it was Slayer because they covered “Dissident Aggressor”.
And then after Slayer it was Sepultura and it just compounded. It wasn’t really a heavy metal genre, but my friends were into things like Aphex Twin, and that just opened my world to a different type of music, and I liked being a part of that club. Especially because I have worries and anxieties and I felt pretty timid in my everyday life, and I felt like I was tough when I listened to my music.
It’s pretty amazing how quickly that kind of transformation can come. One day you’re watching Steve Martin sing with a plant and the next day you’re wearing all black and scrawling “Roots Bloody Roots” across the front of your Trapper Keeper.
[Laughs] I kind of hid it pretty well. Still to this day I don’t shove it on anybody. I have very few friends who also like metal, so I still kind of keep it to myself. I went to a private all-male Catholic high school and luckily I had an art teacher who was totally cool as hell, so in art class I drew my zombies and whatever else. And also, I must say, I love art and am an artist as well, and what kid doesn’t wanna draw the Iron Maiden covers? I remember I had Iron Maiden posters and Megadeth posters on my wall way before I ever knew what they were. This was when I was eight. I would go to my Catholic parish festivals, and I lived in a totally Catholic Midwestern neighborhood.
But they would have these festivals and they would hire out these conscripts that would bring in these rides and whatever attractions that would make money. They’d have little carney rides and stuff, but they’d also have these booths, and they don’t do it anymore, but they’d have these booths where you’d throw a dart at a balloon, and you’d get these little tiny mirrors or a poster. It was back in the mid-80s so you’d get either Freddie Kreuger or Iron Maiden posters or all these other awful posters. So I got all the Iron Maiden posters because I thought they were really cool as hell, and I wanted to draw all those things.
It all goes back to the visual for you and that ties into my next question, Tom. What was the background for you deciding to make Mistaken for Strangers? It’s an incredibly fascinating film at least partly because there’s a sense that the viewer is deliberately being left out of a very elaborate inside joke between you and your brother, Matt. Was there a discussion with Matt about the idea initially, or was it something you just kind of let grow organically from the experiences that we see on the film?
It was both of our ideas. You’re right about thinking “What is this thing?” It’s a movie, and it is the truth, and it is me and my brother, and it is our relationship, but it’s an exaggeration of our relationship. At the time I was kind of figuring out what the next step in my life was. I was in my late 20s, and I was thinking “OK, I gotta figure out something,” and it just happened to be, and I’m gonna be totally honest with you, but my brother was like “I’m gonna be going on tour for my High Violet album. Why don’t you come along? You can be a roadie and also just bring your camera, and we’ll make some cool stuff.” He was thinking like some goofball stuff for their website or whatever, and that’s how it originally started.
By no means did I think I was gonna be making a movie and absolutely by no means did I think I was gonna be making a movie about myself, but it became kind of clear halfway through that there was something really funny about Matt’s younger brother Tom, who was like the only brother not in the band, and who liked heavy metal, and who was kind of chubby, and who in some ways is kind of the opposite of what The National has made as their kind of image. The image of The National is so not me, and it was all funny to the whole band and hilarious to them that I’m holding a camera in front of their faces and asking them questions, and it’s like I have no business doing this, and that’s where the idea started. But it is true. A lot of the stuff is real. All of it’s real, but it’s just exaggerated.
It’s funny because it gives a pretty accurate depiction of that weird relationship, especially now, that exists between indie music and heavy metal. Sites like NPR and Pitchfork are giving as much credit to a band like Pallbearer as they are a band like The National, and it’s awesome because then you have crossover with fanbases who might not otherwise come across these bands. It is funny, though, because there’s like this myth of disparity that exists with those two worlds like they can’t coexist when it’s obvious that they totally do. I think the film captures that in a hilarious way. Was that a dynamic you had in mind while making the film or that you saw while filming?
Yeah. I knew and we all knew that, yeah, there is this weird thing happening with metal where it’s obviously becoming much more acceptable or cool. I mean, it’s always been cool, but it’s becoming more accepted and bands are blurring the lines. It’s breaking down barriers about what music is, and that’s awesome. I think some people that like extreme music that think a band is selling out because they’re on Pitchfork or NPR or Stereogum are just ridiculous. Those writers are young writers. Those people aren’t categorizing themselves.
With the film there was kind of a freedom for me. In some ways I thought I added a bit of cool credibility to The National, and then also I hoped The National could give a cool credibility to metal because, to be perfectly honest, I don’t really listen to my brother’s music that much, but they sing some dark stuff. My brother screams a lot. It’s not dainty music, The National. They play some pretty heavy stuff. Sure, they play slow songs, but it’s not dance pop. The National is probably the furthest thing from dance pop.
In fact, The National is probably closer to metal than they are dance pop. If you listen to “Lit Up” or “Mr. November,” Matt screams. Their live shows are crazy and intense and ugly, and he’s breaking wine bottles. It’s punk almost. There’s a bit of a hardcore edge. I felt when I was making the thing there was obviously humor in there. I play the more humorous side of metal a little more in the movie than I really do like. I mean, I play Halford’s Christmas song at the end. But I really was wasted on the bus and no one else was on the bus, and I’m like “I’m gonna be drinking on the bus all night, because everybody else is sleeping in the hotel room. I’m gonna sleep in the bus! I’m gonna get wasted and listen to my music!”
And at that time, Halford came out with a Christmas album, and I was thinking “This is actually really good,” and I’m a big Priest fan. I love the fact that extreme music is obviously crossing over. Even though I do say, and it’s kind of a running joke, that I don’t listen to my brother’s music or any indie rock, it’s kind of true. I don’t like super light and poppy stuff. I can listen to it over at a friend’s house, or I can go to a show with a friend, but as far as what I put in my headphones, I’m not listening to light stuff that people wanna dance and party to while saying “I hope you have a good time!”
I just feel like that’s false. To me, I get that playing video games or when I watch comedy. When I listen to music, it’s something completely different for me. I don’t listen to it every day, but when I listen to music it’s something different. In some ways I wanna escape, but in some ways I just want to feel powerful. I don’t want to just dance and have fun. I wanna feel the energy when I listen to music. That’s why I don’t understand why people put music on in the background. What the fuck is that? Why are you putting music on anyways if it’s just gonna be in the fucking background? I wanna listen to it.
And that’s just the thing you see with Mistaken for Strangers. It takes something that’s seen by so many as being this very serious topic of taste and just shows it as the hilarious thing that it really is. I think the film is important in many ways because it captures what can often be one of the most ridiculous aspects of fandom or even music criticism.
This movie has been very strange for me. I think it’s starting to slowly sink in that I’m in the movie and the movie is actually about me and what I had been going through. It really touches me that people watch it and connect to it and it’s inspiring to them. It goes back to the type of music that The National play and the fact that there’s something about it that people like who wanna travel to the dark side a little bit. It’s hard to explain. I don’t really know what The National fans think. The one thing I do think my brother’s music is is incredibly cinematic. The way they write their songs with these weird crescendos and things, they’re great songs where you can relate a lot of your life into them.
I must say, and I don’t think it’s true of all metal, but a lot of metal is the same way like Agalloch, for example – their music is very cinematic. In some ways, I think metal and extreme music, for me especially, is the most direct form of expression. It’s another thing where I think you see crossover with my brother’s band. Both with metal and my brother’s lyrics, they’re talking about things and they don’t shy away from topics and subject matter that a lot of people don’t wanna listen to or think about but that we all feel. It’s what I love about extreme music. Sometimes it’s a celebration and not of hostility or evil or whatever, but I mean, think about it.
We all have days where we feel like we want to strangle somebody. I feel like so much other music and forms of artistic expression, they don’t explore that where metal does. It doesn’t shy away from these feelings that we all get – these feelings of aggression and anger and depression and frustration. They bring those out. Everybody feels those things every day of their lives. Some more than others. Obviously maybe metalheads more than others that feel lonely and lost. Metal and extreme music just gives it to you. They’re not afraid to show the darkness a little bit.
Did you see your relationship with Matt change as a result of the film?
The movie has definitely brought us together. Not only are we physically close together in a tour bus, but we finished the movie, and we worked on it, and I think my brother definitely sees me differently. He was never totally forcing stuff on me, but he did it for a long time. We weren’t very close for a long time, and he didn’t quite understand me, and I obviously didn’t understand him. He understands now that I totally live my life to the beat of a different drum. That’s the best way I can put it. [Laughs] But I’m just obviously a totally different person in many ways.
After making this movie and after working so hard on it, and of course I had help, but I opened myself up in the movie and he saw that I have many, many skills that he kind of took for granted, but he sees me and respects me now as a totally different person. He’s stopped giving me advice unless I ask for it. And I mean, I see him as much more of a person and not as a rock star now. I saw bad shows, and I saw him struggle, and I saw how hard he works on a fucking song. They spent two years writing, and I see the amount of work he puts into it.
And nobody’s a genius in The National. Very few people are geniuses, and so success is just a lot of hard work. People say it all the time, but it was just so refreshing to see. I now know that High on Fire and these other bands, they’re probably just a bunch of nerds when it comes to making an album. They work their asses off. Metalheads probably don’t think about the amount of intelligent conversations that went into making some of their favorite metal records.
They don’t like to think about it because it sounds lame. They just think these bands get drunk and fucked up and rock out, and that’s not how great albums are made. Very, very few. Maybe a couple were, but it’s mainly just really, really hard work. I imagine Slayer with Reign in Blood, they had Rick Rubin there just cracking the whip. [Laughs] That’s how it happens, and I just realized that. Great things and important things, they depend on how much work you put into them, and you really have to pour your heart and soul into it.
Thanks to Tom for his time.