The National's Scott Devendorf: No one wants to put out a shitty record

Categories: Interview
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.

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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.

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