Features | Interviews

The National

By David M. Goldstein | 21 June 2010

2010 thus far has been somewhat of a banner year for the National. They’ve been touring non-stop, and recently released High Violet, their fifth (excellent) album that actually managed to debut in the Billboard Top 10, amongst the likes of Justin Beiber and the soundtrack to Glee. Recently, their bass player, Scott Devendorf, was nice enough to take a few minutes to chat with me about the band’s songwriting process, Brooklyn’s finest eateries, and why fans shouldn’t expect to hear the song “Sugar Wife” live any time soon.

CMG: First off, now that it’s finally out, congrats on the new record. I know most of us at CMG happen to be fans.

The National’s Scott Devendorf (SD): Cool, man. Thanks very much.

CMG: You’re out in Oakland now, right?

SD: Yes we are.

CMG: How has the tour been going?

SD: So far it’s been great. It’s been sort of a shortened version of us doing the circuit. We went to Europe for about twelve days, did a few shows, then came over here and did our big show in Brooklyn, and then almost immediately out to California.

CMG: Getting back to High Violet, I guess I read way back when that the idea was to shoot for happier songs. That didn’t happen, did it?

SD: [chuckles] Not exactly, right? I mean we tried it…I think it was just sort of the direction that the lyrics ended up going and, I don’t know, I guess there’s some moments of happiness here and there. I don’t think it’s completely dark.

CMG: What exactly would you say when people stereotype the National as being unable to have fun?

SD: Oh, ha. Well, we’re certainly not as dour as some people would think. Uh, I guess we like to think of ourselves as generally funny, happy people, but I guess the music points towards the darker side. But also, it’s one of those things where, obviously, not every single song is biographical. Some of them are more like abstractions and stories rather than autobiographical material.

CMG: How much influence did (producer) Peter Katsis have on the outcome of this record? You’ve worked with him as far back as your second record (Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers [2003]), right?

SD: Yeah, we worked with him on almost every record, but not the first record. It’s kind of varied as to his involvement….definitely he’s a major mix engineer for sure. As far as producing, he got a lot of production credit on Boxer, and an additional credit on High Violet. In terms of our involvement, we’re all very opinionated people in the studio, so it’s kind of like, often the record credits will just say “produced by the National.” Depending on the song, depending on the situation, it’s kind of a mixed bag, but he definitely helps us from a mix perspective and putting the song together. Especially in the studio, we’re using a lot of tracks, and he’s really good at organizing that and helping with sonics and recording.

CMG: I read you had that one song, “Lemon World,” that supposedly took 80 takes to get right?

SD: Yeah, that sounds about right. It wasn’t 80 in a row, but over the course of several weeks we definitely did work on that song many, many times. It kind of started as a demo, and we liked the quality of that, and it sort of morphed into various incarnations, I would say subtle incarnations, and it just kind of ended up in the end what it was in the beginning. I guess the sonic or mixing perspective changed a lot; there were happier sounding versions, louder versions, quiet versions, etc.

CMG: I’ve grown to like “Lemon World,” but did you ever get the point where you said, “Hmmm, do we really want to put this on the record?”

SD: We definitely crossed that path and raised that question several times during the multiple recording attempts. It just took a little bit longer than usual.

CMG: One of my favorite songs on the record, and I’d say one of your career highwater marks, is “England.” Can you walk me through the recording of that song?

SD: Sure. As far as like how…that song was kind of always the same. It started out as a piano song Aaron had written a sketch for, and that one has a lot of orchestration by Padma; it’s one of the main tracks Padma did a lot of orchestration on. So we sent him that sketch, gosh, back months before we even started getting close to finishing the record. So he worked on orchestration for that and he came up here from Australia, and then when he came over we really got into the orchestration and started bringing tenor players into our home studio to record. And so I think musically it was fairly complete for a long time before we got to actual mixing, and Matt was changing a ton of lyrics. It was one of those songs that was finished early on, or was at least a musically listenable composition, before there were actual lyrics. It’s that way with a lot of our songs; we’ll generally have about 20, maybe 30, unfinished songs, and it’s just about getting the lyrics and the song to work together, which is often a long battle. Definitely with the orchestration and layering, it sort of got a little bit grandiose at times, though I guess it’s kind of a grandiose sounding song.

CMG: Another one of our writers, David Greenwald, who’s a very big fan, had a question. He thinks the increasing paranoia of Matt’s lyrics seems to have dovetailed with the band’s increasing fame—coincidence?

SD: I don’t know. I think some of the attention that the band has recently garnered has been post-release or around the release date, so I don’t know if that had that much effect on the actual writing of the lyrics at the time, you know what I’m saying? I mean, you know, getting a lot of attention and getting reviewed and whatnot is generally favorable….maybe, I don’t know. It’s probably more of a question for Matt. I think, you know, he’s always kind of been that way? I think it’s just sort of the pressures of life. I think he’s definitely influenced by the fact that he recently had a child, so that’s obviously another world. I don’t know that the lyrics are directly linked to attention on the band…maybe somewhat. But I think the band is more about people in general; and not necessarily about us. So songs like “Afraid of Everyone” are semi-political, semi-personal, you know, maybe extreme politics. Things like that. So I don’t know if the lyrics are so much about paranoia per se, but a portion of them are personal.

CMG: How would you say the live show differs from the albums? To me, onstage the National come off as a polished but big, noisy rock band, whereas in the studio they’re more subdued. Is that by design? By necessity?

SD: Right. I think it’s probably by the nature of how we work in the studio. Often while we’re working in the studio we’re working in parts. Nothing ever really comes together until the very end. We’re not really the kind of band that hits the studio and sets up to record all the songs in a week, you know? Although sometimes we talk about how it would be an interesting experiment to do something like that. It’s kind of hard for us because Matt tends to work individually on the sketches we send him, so we never really get that sort of “playin’ together as a band thing” until we’re actually rehearsing and playing our show. So I guess it’s somewhat cathartic in a way, and that’s why perhaps it comes off as The Live Experience. Also, in addition to Padma and the five band members, now we’ve got horn players, so it’s going to be a louder, more raucous thing. It’s kind of fun for us to translate the softer stuff into something different.

CMG: You guys are all originally from Cincinnati. Do you find yourself rooting for the Bearcats?

SD: Are we rooting for the Bearcats? Um, I’m not a huge follower of sports in college, but I guess I like ‘em by default, even though I don’t really follow them.

CMG: What about New York sports?

SD: Well, my brother (Bryan Devendorff, drummer) is a big baseball fan so he recently subscribed to MLB.com, you know, the live streaming TV thing. He’s pretty excited about that. We all can enjoy sitting down to watch a baseball game together. I don’t have a team preference all that much, but I do appreciate the sport. My brother is probably the biggest baseball fan in the group.

CMG: Did you guys ever figure out how to play “Sugar Wife” live? I only ask because I saw you back in 2005 and someone yelled for it, and I’m pretty sure you responded with “Sorry, we never learned to play it”!

SD: Ha. I think there’s a list of about fifteen songs we never, ever, ever play, and that’s definitely on the list. We’re working on it because I know people always request semi-obscure songs that we never play. So, I’m always keen into learning them and playing them, but I’ve got to get everybody on board sometimes. So no, we have not learned how to play that.

CMG: You call it obscure, but you filmed a video for it!

SD: Yeah [chuckle]…well, to us it’s obscure. It’s obscure in that it’s on Side B of Sad Songs which we only have played in history maybe about half of that record live. We’ve been toying with the idea of bringing back some old songs, maybe reinvent them, for our own enjoyment, and also because people want to hear them. I dunno, sometimes in the midst of putting out a new record a band gets really excited about the back catalog; Matt might need to bring out the teleprompter, though.

CMG: Who writes out the setlists each night?

SD: Usually Aaron and Matt. Aaron’s kind of the band representative and Matt always has songs he wants to play, and we always sort of agree. Mostly we’re okay with playing whatever, but we’re always trying to figure out what the trajectory of the night will be. Or in the case of the current tour, it’s interesting because we’re often playing multiple nights in each city, and don’t want to do the exact same songs, so we’re trying to change it up a bit.

CMG: In other words, when you do a multi-show run, you’re trying to write out a different setlist geared towards the people who might go to more than one?

SD: Yes. Of course there’ll be some similarities. We’ve got about thirty songs rehearsed for the tour and kind of mix them around. There’s usually about 18 to 20 songs a night. Personally, I think 20 is kind of long, but anyway…

CMG: Was Padma touring with you onstage in 2005?

SD: Hmm…good question, I’d have to look back and remind myself.

CMG: I’m only curious because at the Warsaw show in Brooklyn in 2005, your violin player had extremely long hair under a ski cap, and I didn’t think it was him.

SD: Yeah, come to think of it, that probably was him. Like, long, pretty hair?

CMG: Practically ’80s metal.

SD: Yeah, I think that was probably him. He changes his look from short hair to long hair pretty easily. He’s got very good hair.

CMG: What can you tell me about the opening band you’re playing with in California?

SD: Ramona Falls. One of the members is the keyboard player from the band Menomena. We did a bunch of shows with them a couple years ago, and they’ve got a new record coming out, and Ramona Falls is the keyboard player’s side project. He and Matt are good friends and he asked if he could play on the tour, and we said yes. And back on the East Coast, we’re teaming up with the Antlers. They’re nice guys who put out a very good record, and we share a manager with them.

CMG: Okay, last question: I know you guys are from Brooklyn, and I’m calling from the East Village, I just need to know, where are your favorite places to eat in Brooklyn?

SD: Oh, okay. I thought you were going to ask about the East Village. I love the East Village.

CMG: Well, that works too.

SD: I’ll tell you both. In Brooklyn we live out on the other side of Prospect Park, south side, Ditmas Park neighborhood. And there are several good restaurants up there that have opened up in the last few years. One of them is the Farm on Adderley on Cortelyou (note: he’s right, this place rules). What else…there’s a really good Mexican place called Cinco de Mayo that’s tacos, but not. We used to live in the East Village, my wife and I, the second year I moved to New York. It’s changed a bunch since then, but we’ve always liked Veselka, though we realize it’s not the world’s greatest restaurant.

CMG: Agreed. But there’s something classic about it. It’s the East Village cafeteria.

SD: Exactly.

CMG: The song “The Geese of Beverly Road” on Alligator, is that a reference to Beverley Road in Brooklyn?

SD: Correct. But we spelled it incorrectly on the album.