Hardly Hard To Find: The National Interviewed

Scott Devendorf in conversation…

New York five-piece The National has risen from off-radar also-rans to a globally known indie phenomenon over 15 years and six studio albums. The band’s latest LP, ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ (review), was released in May 2013 and earned a Grammy nomination, while charts-wise it went to number three in both the UK and US.

Fronted by the distinctive baritone of Matt Berninger, with the line-up completed by Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Bryan and Scott Devendorf, The National are to finish their ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ touring with a massive show at London’s o2, on November 26th. Ahead of that, Clash got on the phone to bassist Scott for a little catch up.

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‘Graceless’, from ‘Trouble Will Find Me’

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The National has grown in profile with every album. Do you have an idea of how big the band can become – and how you’ll respond when you get there?

I guess we have been at this for a while, so it’s been a very slow, progressive thing for us. Everything that’s happened to the band, we’ve been excited about, and we’ve seen a whole lot of stuff happen beyond our expectations. For me, I think we’ve been taking small steps all of the way, so we’ll just have to see how it continues. It is weird that the stuff we would wish for a few years ago, we’re now able to do, and have – like going all around the world, playing shows and festivals. So, I don’t know if there’s ever been a target, or a goal, in mind.

Do you ever wonder what the you of 1999 would make of the you of 2014, with The National positioned as it is today?

Yeah, I don’t think I’d have had any idea back then. We started the band as something to do after work, to play music together. It was a hobby. But steadily it became a bigger thing – first in New York, and then beyond. We were always inspired by bands around us, like Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Interpol – and we’d see their successes, and I suppose want some of that for ourselves. There was always stuff going on for us, in the beginning, but I guess that everything changed, and became more serious, around (2005’s) ‘Alligator’.

So it was that period leading up to ‘Alligator’, your third album, where you really locked into the band as a full-time thing?

Yeah, and signing to Beggars Banquet was a big thing for us. ‘Alligator’ was on a proper label, with good distribution and a great reach. We loved being on our own label (Brassland), but there was only so much we could do. I think on ‘Alligator’, we came to realise a more coherent sound, and that combined with the better record label… I don’t know, but whatever it was, it worked.  

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Hardly Hard To Find: The National Interviewed

The formative years for the band were really important. That definitely keeps us in check when we’re doing things today…

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When you were on Brassland, I know you came over to tour here in the UK – you stayed at my house, as weird as that might sound, as my housemates worked for your distributor of the time. I was out for the night, so I missed you. But having done that kind of cramped-van, crashing-with-strangers touring, I guess you don’t take what you have now for granted?

That definitely means that whatever we do now, however we travel and wherever we stay, we don’t take any of it for granted. The formative years for the band were really important. And at the time it was still a lot of fun. You don’t forget those tours, when the trips were on tighter budgets. We did as much as we possibly could, within our means. I have good memories of back then – and we got out to a whole lot of places. Being able to travel was great. That definitely keeps us in check when we’re doing things today, things that are way different.

Sticking to growth, are you able, this far into making music together, always able to find new forms of expressing yourselves, when you get together to write material?

I mean, every time we make a record, we’re aiming to do something different from before. Though I’d say we do have a distinct sound, something that is ours – but we like to push towards the edges of that. We think about the things we enjoy about our sound, and how best to push that into new spaces. We kind of get bored with what we’ve done previously, in a way. There are always things we like about past records – but we’re always looking to record in new ways, or with different people, to freshen things up. But it’s always a challenge. Especially as there are now public expectations surrounding our records. Anytime we make a new record, we get that challenge again. And hopefully we meet it, without upsetting our audience.

Well, it’s not like you’re about to make some freak-out jazz album. But do you think that having such a prominent frontman, with such a distinctive voice as Matt’s, gives you guys some freedom to go off-piste more, arrangements wise, than peers without such an immediately recognisable element in their music?

Yeah, I understand where you’re coming from there. Matt has such a distinctive voice, which we love – but we also have ways of writing music that we love, too. We have our range. But Matt is maybe our calling card, I guess. Everyone contributes, though, in their own ways – and while Matt doesn’t play anything, he’s not uninvolved in the making of the music.

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‘I Need My Girl’, from ‘Trouble Will Find Me’

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Something that I find interesting about you guys is that you’re unafraid to bring outsiders into your creative processes – ‘Trouble Will Find Me’, for example, features a wealth of contributors, from St. Vincent to Richard Reed Parry, from Arcade Fire. And you had Sufjan Stevens playing piano on 2007’s ‘Boxer’.

That’s the whole idea, to help us explore more sides to our own music. We’re five people who have played together for this number of years, and it’s nice to get that outside opinion. We’re quite an open band, and part of our recording process is to pile everything on and then begin to strip it away, and that’s where those outside voices can be great. That can take a long time, and having other people involved on a song helps us to find somewhere else to take it, perhaps when we’re struggling with quite how to reach that finished state.

The last few albums have arrived in three-year cycles, so do you have any plans in place for a seventh LP to come out in 2016?

Well, we’re slowly coming to the end of our touring for this album – I think we have three more shows. And then I think everyone is going to take some time off, some time apart from each other. And then we’ll begin to think about next year, when we’re going to write, and where, and how we might record. We have no specific plans in place yet, but there won’t be any kind of five-year gap between albums or anything like that. We have put a new record out every three years since ‘Boxer’, but that’s just how it’s come, naturally. I don’t feel we’ve ever rushed anything, nor that we need to. And that’s the same way I feel now. We’ll recharge in the next few months, and then get back together. It’s all fun.

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Words: Mike Diver
Photos: Deirdre O’Callaghan

The National are online here. See them live as follows:

26th – The o2, London, with Wild Beasts

Related: Slow Show: The Evolution of The National

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