The National's Scott Devendorf: No one wants to put out a shitty record
Photo By Deirdre O'Callaghan
The slow-burning career trajectory of the National is similar to their songs and albums themselves. What starts as a gentle wave of emotion and intrigue gradually swells to a point where the listener simply gets swept up in the raw sentiments of the track, eventually taken somewhere far different from where they started. After small-scale local shows at the 400 Bar and the Fine Line, the Brooklyn-based quintet opened for R.E.M. at the Xcel Energy Center in 2008, then graduated to First Avenue for a memorable pair of sold-out performances in 2010 as part of their High Violet tour.
Ahead of the National's biggest area headlining show yet at Roy Wilkins Tuesday night, in support of new album Trouble Will Find Me, Gimme Noise was able to chat with bassist Scott Devendorf. He was picking up some last-minute supplies in Brooklyn before the band flew to Australia the following day to headline the Splendour In The Grass Festival. Devendorf, part of a pair of brothers in the National, shared with us what the recording sessions were like for the new record, how playing bigger rooms has affected the band's approach to their live shows, and the affinity the group has developed for Minneapolis over the years.
Gimme Noise: How is the tour going in support of the new record?
Scott Devendorf: So far, so good. We just finished about a month or so of touring in the U.S. and Europe, and got back a couple weeks ago. Then we did a show in our old hometown of Cincinnati the weekend before last, which was really fun. Now we're heading to Australia, then coming back to start another U.S. tour on August 1. The shows have been really fun, and people seem to really like the new songs, and we like playing them. So, it's all good so far.
How did the series of New York shows come together -- and how rewarding was it for the band to return to your roots for those gigs?
Knowing that we had a bunch of large shows coming up, particularly the Barclays Center show around when the new record came out, we wanted to play some smaller shows for fans at places that we had played in the past, back when the band first started here. So that was the idea. We played at Mercury Lounge, we played at a place that used to be called Galapagos but now it's called Public Assembly, and we played at a very small bar in our neighborhood called Sycamore, which wasn't really a venue that we had played but we all like it there. We just wanted to do some fun, smaller shows for our fans, and for ourselves to warm up before the tour. It was actually really, really fun. We didn't know what to expect out of it, other than Mercury Lounge which we played a ton of times when the band first started, and we've always liked playing there. It was fun for all of us to play these places again. It was cool.
Other than the bigger venues that you guys are now playing, what do you see as the biggest change or shift in your live shows from one album to the next?
I think just having another new 12-13 songs to add to our repertoire, has made for a longer, fuller show -- we're playing like two-hour sets now. We're trying to incorporate not only our new songs, but a lot of the old songs that we haven't played for a while. When we ended the last tour for High Violet, we played six shows in New York where we tried to vary the setlist every night, and I think we're carrying on that spirit of variety to the new shows too.
For me as a listener, there's always been an intense sense of intimacy in the National's music, which allows fans to connect with the songs in an extremely personal way. What is it, from a creative standpoint, that allows you guys to reach people and connect with your fans so poignantly?
I think we've always tried to write music and songs that affect us personally, and have an emotional impact for us. Our songs can be not so immediate, which can work to our own commercial detriment sometimes [laughs]. But I think it's always been important that the songs mean something to us, and we feel that if the songs have an emotional impact on us first, then someone is going to get it. With experience, and having written and played a lot of songs for a long time now, we know what works and what doesn't work. Though we're always trying to push it a little bit, because we don't like to get stuck in our ways so much. For us, it's important that the songs have an emotional pull to them, both in the music and the lyrics.
You guys were planning on taking a bit of a longer break after High Violet -- but Aaron and Bryce just kept writing new sketches for songs. Were you surprised with how soon you all were back in the studio together?
Yeah, a little bit. We discussed taking a bit of a break off, because we had done 22 months or so of touring, which ended on a big high note with all of the shows here. And after that, we were all like, "All right, let's take a break." But we're all busybodies in that way, and we just keep doing things. So they were writing stuff, but I think Matt kind of started to respond to stuff a lot sooner than he has in the past. He found his way into some of the songs kind of quickly this time, which I think pushed us all. Once we got a few songs together -- not finished, but complete as far as ready to record them -- then we all realized that we were sort of working again (laughs). Which was fine by us.
How does a song take shape from the musical sketches that Aaron and Bryce have, or the lyrical sketches that Matt comes up with -- how do they evolve in the studio for you guys?
The sketches themselves are kind of like pleasant, melodic things, and we try to include a lot of stuff in it that they can exist on its own. So, from the beginning there's usually a core piece with some extra parts to it which has a trajectory to it. And that usually gets chipped apart a bit by Matt, who kind of hacks at them in a way. As well as in the songs that he chooses to work with -- for often there's things that we enjoy or prefer that he may not find a part for, so that can be difficult for us. But usually we come to an agreement on them, as far as the things that are working. We figure things out, and then put the songs back together.
How has the recording process changed over the years now that the band has been together for 14 years? Has it gotten any easier for you guys?
Yeah, in some ways. I guess it has changed a little bit. Around the era of Cherry Tree and Alligator and the earlier records before that, we used to do more jamming and playing together, and we kind of got away from that on High Violet and Boxer. And on this record we tried to get back into that a little bit more. So, we rehearsed the new songs here in Brooklyn, then we went upstate to do the basic tracking. And I think, it gives the songs a little more free, airiness to them, just in the way that the basic stuff was recorded. And then, of course, we went back and did a lot of the same stuff that we did on those past two records -- which is do a lot of tracking in our studio back in Brooklyn. Though the mixing process was a lot different for us this time. We did more of a traditional analog mixing, versus like a very Pro Tools type of mixing. I think all of that lent itself to us completing things a little sooner than we normally do, because we just had to make decisions and then move on. And I think that was a good thing.
But I think over the years, a lot of things have stayed pretty consistent. Matt tends to write abstract of the band, as far as he doesn't really sit in the room and write while we are playing. And we don't really play or write while he's singing. We kind of work backwards in a way, where we're writing, and playing and recording before we've usually played the songs. So, we build everything up, and then figure out how to perform it at the end.
One of my favorite things about your band is how each album you release is such a bold, artistic step forward. Each album seems to improve a bit on the one before it -- which is kind of a rarity in modern music. What is your approach as a band to ensure that each album represents a fresh new musical and artistic statement?
The band at this point definitely has a sound -- Matt's voice is a very recognizable feature of it, and we recognize that when we're writing and composing these songs. But we don't like to sit still, creatively. Music changes, our music changes, the world of music changes -- but we're not making disco albums or anything like that. We recognize the core of what we do, and we are the same people, but we try and improve ourselves musically and challenge ourselves, and try and incorporate all of the different influences that we all have.
And we're also very self-critical, both individually and of the group, and no one wants to put out a shitty record. In that way, with all of us being music fans of different types of genres, and with all of the experience that we've had doing this, that's what keeps us focused on making something that is interesting to us. And I think, as long as we make something that's interesting to us, and we feel strong about it, we usually know that there's a certain level of quality control that's going to happen. It's like, 'OK, if the five of us in all our differing opinions and all of our arguing can complete something, at least we're going to be happy with it.'
That being said, it's always scary and always super challenging when we don't actually know. There's no formula to it. We just try and chase every little song down and try and figure out what that thing is about that song that we enjoy and why it's good. And then, we figure out how to make it a statement on a record. And we always think about records as albums, like an old-school set of songs. We're not good at identifying a single or making a hot, ripping single, necessarily. At least not while we're making the record. There's no real exact formula of what we do. There's certain aspects that we know are our strengths, so we try and play to those. But we also try and investigate things both sonically and musically that are different each time. It's not that interesting to us to make another Alligator, or another Boxer, or another High Violet. It's more-so just making songs that make sense together that feel good, that make another new statement as a whole.
You guys have played some pretty memorable shows here in Minneapolis -- with Annie Clark (St. Vincent) at the Fine Line, and Justin Vernon sitting in with you guys at your First Avenue show. What are your thoughts of Minneapolis over the years, and the connection you've made with your fans here?
It's such a great music town, and such a legendary city in so many ways. And we're happy to have played there so many times, and for the fans that we have there who keep coming to our shows. We always look forward to coming there, because we know that the show is going to be fun and the crowd is going to be awesome. No matter the venue, every single place we've ever played there has always been super fun, from the small clubs to the bigger rooms. There seems to be no bad venues in Minneapolis.
You're playing with Daughter as your opening band on your upcoming U.S. tour. I've had the pleasure of seeing them twice now -- an excellent choice for an opener. What a wonderful young band they are. How excited are you to tour with them?
We're very excited. I think they're great. I've actually not seen a live show of theirs yet, I've only heard their records and watched some YouTube clips, sadly. But we heard of them from a friend, and I checked them out and they're really, really good. I was impressed. They seem great, and very young, and very talented. We're super psyched to play these shows with them.
You guys always seem to be involved in so many different musical projects, in addition to the National. Is there anything new that you're working on at the moment, or are you just focusing on the current tour?
We are pretty busy with touring straight through until November, but in between I know Bryce is working on doing a studio recording of this planetarium thing he did with Nico Muhly and Sufjan Stevens and a bunch of horn players, they were just upstate last weekend doing a little recording. Otherwise, sometime, somehow, somewhere we are going to do this Grateful Dead covers project that has been in the works for a couple years now. But we've been kind of occupied. It's another in the series for Red Hot like the Dark Was the Night compilation that we worked on a couple of years ago. So, this is the next in the series, but it's kind of up in the air as to the exact details of it, so I can't say too much. But at some point, we are going to record some Grateful Dead songs. At some point, hopefully this fall, we'll get to work on that.
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