"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Matt Berninger is the suave lead singer of the National, perhaps our greatest rock band, that once-in-a-while art band that emerges from the margins and ends up on the Billboard album charts and playing “Saturday Night Live” despite being genuinely quirky, smart and emotionally devastating. He is married to a former New Yorker editor. He wears suits and takes wine seriously. He writes complicated, brooding songs and gets selected to play before a Barack Obama campaign rally.
Tom Berninger is his fuck-up younger brother. He prefers T-shirts with his favorite ’80s metal band to suits. He’d rather sleep on a bus than stay in a nice hotel. He is not allowed anywhere near the president.
When Tom needed a job in 2010, Matt had what seemed like a good idea. Tom could become a roadie for the National. They’d bond on the road and develop the relationship Matt always hoped they’d have. Tom, well, he wasn’t so sure. For one thing, he kind of thought the National sucked. So slow! So brooding! It would not be like touring with AC/DC.
What happened next is the story of “Mistaken for Strangers,” a documentary Tom made with footage he took on the road. He thought maybe he’d make a short clip for the band’s website. But when Tom looked at the material — after being fired for being perhaps the worst roadie of all time — slowly he, Matt and Matt’s wife, Carin Besser, realized there was a much rawer, and honest, story being told. They’d captured something awkward and aching about two very different brothers trying to find a connection in middle age.
It’s a remarkable movie, playing now in select theaters and also on most cable video-on-demand services. Earlier this month, I sat down with Tom and Matt to talk about the film.
So why in 2010 do you ask your brother to join the band on the road?
Matt: Well, it was a bigger tour than we’d ever done, so we needed more people to help. We were having two buses for the first time and all this kind of stuff, so the logistics were going to be difficult and he was back, living in Cincinnati and he’d finished film school, and was in a little bit of a holding pattern between jobs.
Tom: I was in between jobs.
Matt: I had a job to give him. Although I didn’t, really. I forced Brandon Reed, our tour manager, well, I talked him into hiring Tom as his assistant.
You are the singer, you do get to do that.
Matt: But the truth was, it was unfair to do that to both of them because that’s a really hard job. You need a certain type of personality and Tom just doesn’t have it. Which is OK. I could never do that job. You just have to be a whole lot of different — someone who is buttoned up and can keep 25 plates spinning.
Tom: I also had to collect foreign currency. I didn’t know what the hell I was looking at.
Matt: So he needed a job, and I had one. But also I missed him. I went to college when he was a little kid.
So it’s a nine-year difference between the two of you.
Matt: Yes, so he was 9 years old when I went off to college, and then after college I moved to New York, so, we hadn’t actually been together in a serious way for almost 20 years.
Tom: You would call me up, though. Matt would call me up occasionally when I was in high school.
This is still in Cincinnati?
Tom: Still in Cincinnati. And you would always say, “You should come out on the road.” And this is when you were in vans and you were kind of miserable. You were always promising me to take me out, like, “You should come out and we’ll see the country. Let’s do it.” And honestly, he always wanted to do something like that with me, and I was totally not interested.
Why is that? Sounds like fun — the road with my brother’s rock band.
Tom: I don’t know. That just didn’t interest me. I’m like, “OK, yeah. Cool, cool.” And I just would not like, not really think twice about it, really.
Matt: Well, why did you do it this time? Why did you say yes?
Tom: Well, because you were offering me a job, and I was in between. And also, at that point in time they were in big buses and they were really famous. You weren’t really famous when you were asking me the first time.
I’m not going out in a van with you between Des Moines and Lincoln, but I’ll join you in Paris!
Tom: I was a fair-weather fan, a little bit. It was a lot more enticing this time around, and honestly I thought I could use their fame to promote myself. I mean, in a good way. Like, yeah, let’s do some video stuff for their website, and maybe I could do video stuff for somebody else’s website someday. I wanted to jump-start my film career.
You bring your camera on the road — did you have any intention of actually learning the roadie job?
Tom: When I was first hired I thought I could, I might, if I get good at this, I have an in with a big rock band, I could become a roadie.
Matt: Then the very first day of tour, he was asked to pull a truck up onto the sidewalk so we could unload.
Tom: Well, someone should have been watching me. It was really ridiculous.
Matt: And he tore the awning off of a store down near the Bell House, because we were doing some promo shows. Tore an awning off of a store, and it was an awning store, it was a store that designs awnings.
Well, they had plenty of extras.
Matt: Yeah. (laughs) It was an awning store. So day one, he costs the band like $3,000. Which is several weeks’ pay. That was like a week or two’s pay. That was day one. Brandon, to his credit, allowed that type of thing, and allowed Tom to stay in that role of assistant tour manager for another eight and a half months or so, until he finally was like, I can’t, I need somebody else.
There’s a scene where Brandon stops you when you’re carrying some liquor bottles backstage and says something like, “We have to pay for all that.” And the impression is clear: You’re freeloading on the band’s tab while someone else does all the work.
Tom: Well, the hard part of my job is that Matt or Brian, or even the twins, would ask like, “I’m having some friends come by after the show, could we have some whiskey back here? And some tequila maybe.” And I’d be like, sure, absolutely. I’d go order that, and go get the venue runner to go out and get some whiskey. I’m getting it for the band, and of course I would drink some too, and then Brandon comes and yells at me. He was intense; I was a little jealous because he is slightly younger than me. And I had a bit of an issue with that, honestly.
Matt: Yeah. ‘Cause he was your boss. Though he was my boss in a weird way too, on tour. I go and do what he tells me to.
So you missed your brother in 2010, but what was the real state of the relationship? Were you close? Were you frustrated with him? There are scenes in the film where it almost looks like you realize you’ve made a mistake taking him out — Tom’s getting in the way.
Matt: We were close, and we would talk a lot. Weirdly, I was still trying to be the older brother, and trying to get him to try to be more like me a little bit. Or not be more like me but … I was frustrated that he sometimes let things stop him in his life, and he let the wind get knocked out of his sails a few times. And I get it, that happens to people, but basically I wanted to kick him in the ass. I would always say you gotta put your own wind into your sails, you can’t sit around and wait for that thing to get out there. I wanted him also to do this other roadie job, but I wanted him to bring his camera to make something for our website or a video. But I never regretted for a second while he was on tour that he came. Things got tough, things got complicated, there was a lot of stress — but there’s just always a lot of stress with touring. Then the conflict with Brandon caused a lot of stress. But I never felt it was a mistake bringing him. And then obviously now, he was able to make something out of all of that the whole band thinks is a better film about the band than any portrait could have been.
Tom: I had a great job at a TV station, I had benefits, all that kind of great stuff. And I quit my job, and I was kind of floundering around. And I think Matt taking me on tour and letting me bring a camera, I was forced to make something. Because I was waiting around for the best idea for some sort of sci-fi/horror movie and it just wasn’t going to happen. And this forced me to, pushed me to shoot something I’m completely unfamiliar with. And I realized early in the editing process that I had some sort of angle. I certainly didn’t think I was going to make a movie. But I found some sort of voice.
In some ways, you find that voice by not taking a very serious band that seriously. You get them on camera and ask them whether they take their wallets onstage. And they don’t always seem amused.
Tom: Some of the questions that I did find interesting. I mean, people talk about the wallet question, but I really liked the nightmare question because when your life is a rock star’s, when you have a life in front of thousands of people, and do interviews all the time, what do you dream about? What are your nightmares? What is a nightmare to a rock star or a celebrity? People thought those were funny, but these are the things that I find interesting. What are your nightmares?
Matt: Mine is my brother making a documentary about me. That’s my nightmare.
You sound kind of annoyed by some of those questions, though, at the beginning. You snarl a little: Do you have any questions?
Matt: The truth is it wasn’t so much annoyed …
As wanting him to take it seriously?
Matt: In retrospect, I think the questions were better than I recognized at the time. I mean, yeah, they’re a different kind of questions. But it wasn’t the questions themselves, it was just his lack of …
Tom: My organization.
Matt: His lack of focus, his lack of organization, being prepared. He wasn’t prepared. And that was a constant thing. Because it was also in the middle of the tour where the situation was deteriorating with his role as tour manager with Brandon. Because you have to make a list of things to do every day, and you have to get up at 5:30 in the morning, and you have to check them off. It’s not that Tom was incapable of doing things, but he would just forget three. He would always do 75 percent of the things he was supposed to do, instead of 100 percent. And so when he came in with these questions, it felt like he had 75 — it felt like he had partially prepared. And it wasn’t so much that it was bothering me, but I knew if he was going to interview the other guys in the band …
Who don’t seem the type to suffer fools.
Matt: And they loved Tom, keep in mind. But everybody’s stressed out and busy, and they have a million things to do, so it was like, if you’re going to sit down and interview everybody, do your homework. So I, the impression I got was that he just wasn’t doing his homework. And I asked him if he’d seen any other music films, if he thought he was going to make a film, and he hadn’t really seen any other music films.
Tom: Well I didn’t want to, because honestly I was like, why would I want to watch something that obviously, I’m incapable of doing. I understand why it’s good to watch films, but not when I’m doing it. I don’t want to be like … that’s impossible.
Matt: We still disagree on that. I think it’s fine.
When in the process do you realize this is not just some clips for a website, and it’s not just a movie about being on the road, this is a movie about the relationship between two brothers? Because there’s a moment in the film where you’re screening footage, looks like at Town Hall in New York, and the screening does not go well. There’s another scene where you come into the house and there’s a million Post-its on the wall, and there’s not a lot of clarity to what you’re up to. It seems like at some point in the process of looking at this, or editing, or thinking and talking, you realize you have something different here. Matt’s wife, Carin, is an editor — did she help shape the story, help realize that this is a story about brothers and a relationship?
Tom: Well, pretty quickly after I got off tour and I interviewed my parents just about the differences between Matt and I, but pretty quickly when I saw all the footage I got from tour, I had some amazing stuff, and you see it in the movie like, these really strange encounters with each band member. But as far as some band arc or narrative? It wasn’t there. But what was there, was a lot of me, my bad attempt at trying to make something indie rock. And honestly, his wife, Carin Besser, who was an editor at the New Yorker, she sat behind me in the editing, when I was cutting in the editing chair, and we were seeing these scenes of me really, really drunk on the bus and she really liked that stuff. She said this is interesting. And when I filmed it, I thought it was supposed to be really funny, I thought it was supposed to be cool, and then when I filmed it — here I am alone on the band bus, all the band members are in a hotel, the bus is in the parking lot of a hotel. And it’s like, why would I stay in a hotel, when I’m on a band bus? And that night I was totally alone, rocking out.
And I thought that was so funny, so awesome. But it turned out to be quite sad. And kind of depressing. And that kind of stuff … and I realized, after the fact, when I didn’t have anything of a movie except for that stuff. It was like, this is really embarrassing, I don’t have anything good on the National and I just have myself really drunk. And that’s kind of when we’re like, well, what kind of movie do we have? And then later, I knew the movie wasn’t finished, I knew it had to be more about me, figuring out my own movie. And that’s when I had this crazy time when I just cried right in front of the camera for a half an hour. And this was honestly how the movie was made … I never thought it was going to be any good, honestly. I thought it might be funny. I never thought it was gonna be as deep and powerful as it is.
The road was not what you thought it was going to be.
Tom: No, not at all.
You were expecting more of a rock ‘n’ roll environment?
Tom: I was expecting a little more fun.
And instead it’s a job, trying to get from one place to the next.
Tom: It’s a job. And especially now, since you guys are so big, you have a crew to take care of. You have a crew to make sure your shows are good and people leave ecstatic, because people pay for it. You have a whole giant family, not just your family, but you have lighting guys that are relying on you, at least for the while you’re around.
Watching some of the footage of you onstage during this, it just makes you think, wow, he’s out there having to put these really emotional, complicated songs across, and there’s a complicated drama playing out with his brother right offstage. Is that ever on your mind as you perform, or do you just have to block that out? There’s the scene in the hallway where you come offstage and cruise right past Tom, without even acknowledging him.
Matt: The weirdness of being onstage and performing.
And actual turmoil steps away.
Matt: I’ve always been OK digging into all those uncomfortable conflicts, whether it’s romantic conflict or conflict with yourself and insecurities and fears; that’s always been a part of our music anyway. And having Tom around was mostly a good thing, he was somebody I could lean on and spill my guts to, and he was also a tether to what’s important in the world, your family and real life. The movie doesn’t show it as much, but it was very healthy for me to have him around.
We’ve been on tour and he hasn’t been around, and it’s harder without him around, without family around, because things get weird. You do night after night, and you get out there, and I drink a lot onstage and I go to a weird place, which my wife talked about in the movie, to do it. I love it, and it feels good. But the anxiety of it builds up, and the stress of it builds up, especially when a show doesn’t go well. And then these things are happening offstage with my brother, and he was having struggles, he was having conflicts with our tour manager Brandon, so … but all that stuff is just part of the normal DNA of everybody’s lives, everyone’s always juggling stresses about their lives, stresses about their family, and trying to figure out how to create a healthy balance in your life and not go too far into your job and lose your perspective on your family, all this kind of stuff. There’s a constant five-way tug of war that goes on in everybody’s life constantly. The movie shows a lot of conflict, but I think all that stuff is kind of healthy and normal. I think the movie is a perfect movie about our band, because our band isn’t about being rock stars. It’s just about how people struggle to be people, and that’s what the movie’s about, I think.
It’s also a band with two sets of brothers, as well, with the exception of you. So that’s got to create it’s own dynamic.
Matt: Conflict but also glue. There’s a lot of old deep resentments and fighting that family has. There’s definitely a sense that we’re all different threads in the same fabric, and the whole family thing is, the way all those connections make things stronger. So having Tom on tour made the band stronger, made me more grounded and connected and sturdier in a strange way, even though it looks like everything went terribly wrong, and it did, but it always goes terribly wrong in everyone’s lives, every other day, it’s just how you keep moving forward.
You’ve also tried to work some of this out in songs. “I Should Live in Salt,” from your last album, is written about Tom.
Matt: “I Should Live in Salt,” I was thinking a lot about Tom because he had been on tour, and he was living with us when we were making this new record, and he was struggling to make this film, and during the process of making this film, I started to understand that Tom is just a different person than I am. There’s a line in the song that, “we have different enemies.” And so I think that song is about me trying to cope with some kind of guilt of having left him when he was a little kid and I went off to college, but also I started to understand that he’s his own person and I shouldn’t try to shape him into something he’s not.
Tom: Personally, I think it could have been a little faster and a little more fun.
(laughs) There’s a really funny scene on the bus where you are trying to turn it into the party you hoped the road would be — and Bryan and Scott launch into New Order karaoke. Which is my idea of a good time, but not what you had hoped for.
Tom: I was lucky enough to be forced on the band bus, because I was actually kicked off the crew bus; they didn’t want me around because I just didn’t do a very good job, and I was slightly bummed.
Matt: You didn’t get kicked off the crew bus.
Tom: Yes I did!
Matt: I requested that you be on the band bus …
Tom: Well, I wanted to be on the crew bus because it was more of a chilled-out environment. Cooler, frankly cooler people. Scott and Bryan, they party to Grateful Dead and New Order.
Matt: Bryan rules the sound system on the bus and it’s almost all Grateful Dead and New Order back and forth.
You both clearly have different taste in music.
Did you try to force your favorite bands on him, growing up?
Matt: I did. My older sister Rachel gave me the Smiths, and R.E.M., and I tried desperately to get Tom to connect to the Smiths the way I did, or to connect to R.E.M. the way I did, or Violent Femmes or Tom Waits or Nick Cave. It was just not his cup of tea, it wasn’t going to be …
Tom: I was never really defiant against Matt necessarily. He would just send me stuff and it didn’t really click with me. I kind of liked the fun of metal. I like to draw, and I really liked the illustrations on metal covers. And I really liked horror movies and sci-fi, and I kind of liked Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. And I think also at that time, I was also trying to be slightly … not ironic, but I’m gonna like something that nobody else likes.
And did that get in the way of your relationship as brothers? Because at that age — well, at lots of ages — music is identity and sometimes we surround ourselves with people we have that in common with.
Matt: The sports teams you like, the TV shows that you like, the movies that you like. It’s why some fathers and sons don’t talk about anything but sports together because it’s common ground where you can share and be open and communicate with somebody without digging into your own personal things. I wanted Tom to like the same music that I liked, and it would never cause a conflict really. And I think it was good that Tom found his own identity with horror movies and metal and stuff like that. I just realized he’s not going to be like me — and that’s good. The whole process of making this movie was just a whole realization that we’re different. We’re different people, which is good.
And your mom thinks he’s the better artist.
Tom: I am probably the better artist, quite frankly.
She’s a painter, and your dad does what?
Matt: He was a lawyer, but the truth is, he was a lawyer his whole life, but also a super-crafty, artsy guy, and since he retired from practicing law he’s taken up sculpture — and so the house, they live by this creek and there’s all these bizarre welded sculptures and mini Stonehenges all around the front yard of our parents’ property, and it’s great. They’ve always had a real respect and love for the arts without putting too much pressure on it. They just think it’s fun, they think art is fun. So when I quit my successful job as a creative director, and told my mom that I think I wanted to quit so that I can get in a van and try to be in a rock band, both my mom and my dad were like, That’s a great idea! You should do that. You should quit your good job and try to be in a rock band, because that sounds like fun. And so our parents are awesome.
How did the movie change and bond the relationship between the two of you, because clearly to some extent, the Matt and Tom on-screen are characters and you’re telling a story. You’re not exactly the people in the movie.
Tom: I mean, it’s not far off.
But the bond here feels different.
Tom: I live in his garage in Venice, California, and it’s converted and has a bathroom and a shower. I can bathe and water myself.
Matt: (laughs) Water yourself.
Tom: We fight a lot still. But I think with this movie I think I found my voice in a weird way, and I think he saw my voice in a weird way, and it’s like –
Matt: You see the world through a different lens than anyone I know, and it’s sometimes strange but it’s also really compelling. And I started to realize, like I said, why should I keep trying to get Tom to be what my idea of successful is? He’s clearly found one of his own. And I’m really so proud of him. I still want him out of my garage.
Do you like the band more now?
Tom: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. They’re a bunch of great guys. I still don’t listen to them recreationally. They’ve got so many fans. There are so many little metal bands out there that need my help more.
David Daley is the editor-in-chief of SalonMore David Daley.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)