Brooklyn quintet The National continue to garner critical accolades off the back of their new album High Violet, at such rapid pace that they are beginning to resemble one of those little bowerbirds that decorate their nests with coloured bits of plastic; except in place of shiny plastic things, it’s the top of rock critical lists; and they are people, not birds.
FasterLouder spoke with bass player Scott Devendorf—whose brother Bryan also plays drums in the band, but who should not be confused a further set of brothers, twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner who both play guitar—on the phone from London on the eve of the most closely contested election in that country’s history.
Which is also apt in another way, because England – an expansive, exceptionally pretty song from High Violet, is very definitely up there with all the best things the National has ever recorded:
“Famous angels never come through England
England gets the ones you never need
I’m in a Los Angeles cathedral
Minor singing airheads sing for me…”
Oh, and they are planning to return to Australian in early 2011. Which is awesome.
Hi Scott. You’re in London?
Yes, we’ve got a show tonight at Royal Albert Hall. We played at Electric Ballroom last night, which is like a 1000 person rock show. So last night and tonight couldn’t be more different.
You guys really know how to pick a room. When you played in Sydney, is was at Angel Place in the recital hall, which is an incredible sounding space.
Oh yeah! That was such a cool place.
Will you be touring here on this album?
Yes, we are going to be touring Australia. And I think we’ve planned for this and next year now, so it looks like some time in January 2011. We’ll probably be doing New Zealand and Australia.
That has been such a long time between drinks – four years.
Yeah, I know.
What’s been the thing that has changed the most for the National in that time?
That’s an interesting question. We’ve had two records either end of that, and in between we’ve done a lot of touring and recording. And then on a bunch of other little projects – just a bunch of playing. So I think that band’s gotten better, as a band. The working all the time. The dynamic, I don’t know how much it’s changed. But just the sort of difference between this recording and the last recording, the way we work: that hasn’t really changed that much, you know? We’ve just been working all the time.
For how long has the band been the thing you do all the time, without having to work otherwise to pay the bills?
I did before this – and I still do – graphic design work, freelance. But something that’s full time? Since about 2002. The band wasn’t making a lot of money then, but we were touring a lot around then. And in the last five years or so, it’s been a real full time thing. I still do the odd design thing now.
Do you think that some kind of heyday has passed us for people to be able to make a living full time from music? Or do you think it’s always been difficult to make art your life, whatever the climate around it?
I don’t know. It’s an interesting time for sure. I guess with the “demise” of the record industry, yeah, I think it’s definitely difficult for labels to make a living in the way that they used to. Everything about the way that music is listened to and sold has changed. I think for bands? I don’t know. For us, when we started the band, the internet wasn’t the way that it is now. So our record that’s just come out, it’s changed again in that time.
I think it’s always been difficult to make a living through art. But I think it’s just one of the things you have to stick to it, and hope. There’s always a bit of wishful thinking. But I also think that because of all the changes in technology, in a lot of way it’s easier for bands to be heard than it was five-ten years ago. Because, you know, you see it everyday. There’s new bands and their music is all over the internet. I think that live music has actually been helped by all of those sorts of things, because people want to see these bands that pop up online. I think the virtualisation of music in general has helped artists become more visible. But labels, it definitely has hurt. But only because they’re operating in an outdated mode.
How big are the ambitions that the National has? Do you want to be a really, really big band?
I mean, sure. I think every band wants to be a big band in a way. Do we want to play in stadiums? I’m not sure. I mean, my favourite places are medium-sized clubs, and theatres are great. Ambitions? I don’t know. We’re just really grateful to be doing what we’re doing, and we feel really lucky to have come as far as we have in ten years. It’s more than we ever imagined it would be. I’m humbled by the whole thing, really. And surprised.
When you tour with someone like R.E.M., and you get an insight into a world where things for them are so big, does that sort of make you want to be a part of that? Or do you feel a bit distant from something that is as much of an institution as they are?
It was kind of one of the best tours we could have ever done. We’re such fans of their music from the past and now, and when they asked us we were super-excited and immediately said yes, of course we’d do it. And yeah, it did give an insight into a world we’d never been into. Such large stadium concerts, and what’s involved in that.
It was probably one of the better examples of how to be a good band, because they were super nice to us, nice to everyone, Modest Mouse and us. And they treated everyone really nicely, and really fairly, and it was probably the best possible sampling of that kind of world you could get into. I imagine there’s bad, annoying versions of that world, but it was definitely something that made us feel like, there’s a way of doing this right.
So you can be big and not be an arsehole, it sounds like.
[Laughs] Exactly! They were so nice, they were great.
To talk about the new album, High Violet in some ways seems a lot more subdued; there’s a lot more quiet moments then there have been on previous albums, especially in the last third. Previously your records seemed to be about the smaller things, the [everyday things you come up again in the work world. High Violet seems much more outward and broad, less inward-looking.
In the band the lyrics are all Matt [Beringer, vocalist/lyricist], and we work on the music, and it’s a kind of back and forth, music/lyrics thing. He sometimes has ideas about arrangements and elements and we work on that dynamic. As to the themes on the record, I think since the last record – then there was a lot of dealing with work world scenarios, and getting older.
I think those themes are always in it, for us. And the lyrics might be very personal, but they aren’t always biographical – I know that for a fact [laughs].Otherwise we’d be incredibly miserable. Sometimes they’re part story, part truth, part invention sometimes. Sometimes they’re just surreal or ridiculous, and they’re intended that way. Sometimes it’s misinterpreted; they’re meant to be funny, but it doesn’t always come across. That’s partly the sombre nature of his tone of voice, and the music has this kind of, uh, dark quality to it. We try to cheer it up a little bit though!
The recorded version of ‘Terrible Love’ is so different, and so much more reined in than the live version. Is that a thing that happens consciously when you tour songs, they kind of grow in a different way to how you recorded them? They can become other things live?
Definitely. All the songs when we play them live take on a different character. But that one specifically, yes. The recording is very mellow but the live version is much more punk rock. I like that about touring the record, the songs take on a character other than their recorded character. In the studio, songs are almost not finished until the end. So it’s fun for us to try and recreate these songs live. It’s really fun to rebuild the songs that way.
Is recording a quick, or long process for you?
This record took a long time, they all did. We started just with ideas and sketches in late 2008 and worked all through 2009 on the recording while we were touring. It takes a long time. It takes Matt a long time for form a lyric, it takes us a long time to shape the songs. It’s not a quick, like, take two weeks to do the recording and then take a break and then mix it. Our mixing took two months! We’re recording even while we’re mixing, sometimes. So I guess you could call it inefficient, but it works for us.
Did you go in with ideas from other records you really found inspiring?
I’m actually unable to listen to other music while we’re recording. Mostly because I think, we want to be in our own little world. It’s almost uncomfortable to try and listen to anything else, because inevitably you can’t enjoy it. I can’t say that we were listening to anything. I was unable to listen to any full record while we made the album. But now we’re done I can listen to anything, and really enjoy it.