DiS meets Scott Devendorf of The National
Scott Devendorf should need no introduction. As one-fifth of arguably Brooklyn's finest exponents of alternative rock this past decade The National, he's attained legendary status along with his fellow bandmates the hard way, steadily building both critically and commercially over time to the hefty point they find themselves in today. One of two sets of brothers in the band, along with drummer Bryan, Scott's basslines and guitar riffs have provided the driving force for many of The National's most revered songs, while his status as a founder member - he and vocalist Matt Berninger go back almost twenty years - continues to this day.
This year saw the release of High Violet, their fifth and most successful long player to date, culminating in a Q Award last month for "Album Of The Year", possibly the first of many. Currently out on what looks like being one of their biggest tours to date, their European adventure brings them to UK shores in a couple of weeks time before heading off for the rest of the world until the middle of May 2011.
Here, DiS gets the lowdown on what to expect on their mammoth tour, their recent show in front of 25,000 people in Madison, Wisconsin and subsequent meeting with Barack Obama as well as their new, alternate video for 'Terrible Love', directed by the singer's brother Tom Berninger.
DiS: It's been possibly your most successful year to date in terms of gaining a new audience and ultimately attaining commercial success as well as critical acclaim. Does it feel like you've achieved everything you set out to or are their further targets to conquer you've set yourselves for the next record?
Scott: It has been a good year for us. We've done a lot of touring and I guess in many ways we have achieved all the goals we set out to do. At the same time if anyone had predicted this time last year the way things had turned out we probably wouldn't have believed them. I think once we've finished promoting and touring this record we'll kind of disappear for a while, and I guess looking at the dates we've got coming up for the rest of this year and next we're kind of halfway there...
DiS: I guess that leads me onto the next question. Are there any new songs in place as yet, and if so will any of them be making an appearance on this tour?
Scott: No, not really. We've about half a dozen new ideas but that's as far it goes at the minute. There are a couple of songs - 'Wake Up Your Saints' and 'You Were A Kindness' - which we didn't put on this record that are going on the expanded edition of High Violet when it comes out in a couple of weeks. We've been playing them live at festivals this summer and they've been pretty well received. It takes us a while to create songs and we aren't very good at writing on the road so I doubt there'll be anything new on this tour unless some miracle happens!
DiS: You've already briefly mentioned the expanded edition of High Violet, but what made you decide to re-issue the album in this format so soon after its initial release and how did you choose the tracklisting for the bonus disc?
Scott: The tracklisting mainly came from songs we had leftover from the High Violet recording sessions that we think are great, but perhaps weren't right for the final version of the album. There's a new version of 'Terrible Love' which we've just made a video for. It's a totally new recording of the song which I guess we've based more on the live version we play. 'Walk Off' and 'Sin-Eaters' were b-sides to 'Anyone's Ghost' and 'Bloodbuzz Ohio', then there's the two new songs I mentioned earlier and a few live recordings we felt showed some of the songs off the record in a whole new light.
DiS: Are there any more outtakes which exist from the High Violet sessions which may surface in the future, and do you envisage an accompanying film to commemorate this album in the way 'A Skin, A Night' represented the making of Boxer?
Scott: Matt's (Berninger) brother Tom has been out on the road with us all summer and part of the fall as well, and he made the video for 'Terrible Love'. He's been filming us at different points throughout this time, and I know he's working on that footage at the moment so something may come of it, although I expect it to be completely different to 'A Skin, A Night' as it will be more of a tour-based documentary rather than one that shows us actually making a record.
DiS: The new video for 'Terrible Love' is quite an interesting collection of footage, whether it be the different festival locations you've played this summer to the opening segment of Matt, glass of wine in hand, dancing around the piano while Aaron (Dessner) plays nonchalantly in the background.
Scott: (laughs) That bit was quite recent actually. It was taken in Nashville after we'd played a show at the Ryman Auditorium, which is kind of a great institution of country music.
DiS: Looking back at High Violet, are there any things about the record which you'd change or do differently with the benefit of hindsight?
Scott: I don't know, probably not actually. I mean, we work pretty intensely on all of our records and when they're finished we don't get to get back over the whole process in an analytical way. We never like to look back too much. We'd much prefer concentrating on getting the record out to as many people as possible by touring it straight after to worry about any mistakes we may have made during the recording. When we're on tour, a lot of the songs tend to meld and change from the recorded versions anyway, which I guess goes back to the reason why we felt those versions of 'Bloodbuzz Ohio', 'Anyone's Ghost' and 'England' were suitable for the expanded edition of the album.
DiS: That's one thing I've often felt when seeing your band play live in that several songs do take on a whole new direction at times. Is that something you set out for consciously, or is it just a natural process of evolution?
Scott: I think it is just something that evolves naturally. When we record it is structured in parts. We seldom play the songs live as a full band in the studio. Each of our pieces tends to be recorded individually at different times and then we sit down and gradually sculpt a song out of it, before eventually setting everything up in the room and playing it all at once to see how it sounds. The recording process is more about five microcosms contributing to each piece of music, and then once we're done it's a case of all coming together to figure out how we're gonna play the songs live. In that way I think we develop a whole new energy.
DiS: I guess in a way it also prevents each song from ever becoming stale if you're constantly looking at implementing new ways of playing them live.
Scott: That's what makes them quite interesting and keeps things fresh for us. For us when we release a record that's only the start of the process rather than the end product; learning to play the songs in a live environment and building on that is undoubtedly the hardest part.
DiS: You picked up an award last month from Q magazine for "Best album of 2010" which was presented to you by Bernard Sumner of Joy Division and New Order fame. How did it feel to gain such prestigious critical recognition in the UK and at the same time, be given the honour by one of your biggest musical inspirations?
Scott: It was a great honour, and at the same time very surprising to us as we've never been given any kind of award before. Obviously having Bernard Sumner present it to us made it even more special as we're really big fans of his music and he's a legend in his own right. I mean, we're all influenced by English bands from that era so I guess to gain recognition from someone we all admire meant more to us than the actual award itself.
DiS: Do you see awards such as that being pivotal to where the band may head musically in the future, or will you continue to write music more from the perspective of your fans' expectations?
Scott: I guess we're more about writing songs for our fans really. It's nice to feel we've been accepted on a greater level by winning an award for best album of the year, particularly when there has been so many great records made this year, but at the same time it's important not to lose focus on the people who've put us in the position where we've been able to carry on making music in the first place.
DiS: You are quite unique in the current climate as a band who've seemingly been allowed to progress at your own pace, which goes against industry expectations whereby bands nowadays have to strike commercial gold with their first release or face the risk of being dropped by their label. Why do you think that is?
Scott: That's a good question for which I don't really know the answer. If I was to hazard a guess, I'd say it was because we'd already made three-and-a-half records before we got signed to a major label. By the time we got to making Alligator we'd already acquired quite a reasonable sized fanbase for a band like ours, and when we signed to Beggars Banquet a lot of songs for that album were already in place. We've found that we've been fortunate with the labels we've been on - Beggars then 4AD - that they've always been trusting with us to make the records we want without exerting any market-driven pressure or time constraints. The A&R guy who signed us back then, the aptly named Roger Trust, seemed to put a lot of faith in us and I think we've been able to continue in pretty much the same way ever since. I don't understand why many labels don't allow bands the freedom to develop. It's almost as if bands should feel privileged to be given their big chance or something...it's a real shame I guess.
DiS: You recently played to 25000 people in Madison, Wisconsin at a rally for Barack Obama, and then I hear you met the president after. How was that?
Scott: It was pretty amazing all around. It was kind of like a weird coincidence how that thing came about as we were due to be in Madison playing a show, and about a week beforehand one of his advisers called us and asked if we could play a couple of songs at this event that was going off in support of the president, and we said "Of course!" We played a couple of songs, more in a stripped down, acoustic way rather than a full set of rock - and it seemed to go down quite well.
DiS: Is he a fan of The National's music?
Scott: It's unclear whether he's a fan of the band directly, although they used one of our songs, 'Fake Empire', in some of their 2008 pre-election broadcasts, so I'd like to think at least some of the people working for him are fans of the band!
DiS: You've been quite vocal in your support of Obama for some time. How do you respond to some of the criticism that's been levelled at him and his policies recently? Do you think it's taken him a lot longer than maybe he'd anticipated to correct some of the misdemeanours created by George Bush's administration?
Scott: First of all, I think it goes without saying that the eight years under George Bush were awful for everybody, and whoever had to follow that was always going to endure a tough time trying to put things right. A lot of the criticism that's been levelled at him is unfair, and I think the health care reform he's implemented in congress shows he's slowly moving in the right direction. Being the president of the United States Of America is a difficult job, and I guess it must be a thankless task at times. You can't always please everyone.
DiS: You're on tour almost constantly from now until the middle of March 2011 give or take the odd few weeks in between. I know the last time Drownedinsound spoke to Matt and Aaron from the band earlier this year they both mentioned changing domestic circumstances made touring more difficult, so how will you cope with such long spells on the road?
Scott: It does look like we're on tour all the time but we do try to keep it in regular blocks of three weeks or less with regular breaks in between, which over the course of the year means our schedule mainly revolves around touring but that can also make it a lot more comfortable for us as well. At the same time, we're not the sort of people to go excessively crazy when we're on the road either - it's not like we're all twenty-years-old anymore - and even though the prospect of ten hour overnight drives doesn't exactly make us jump for joy, we still find many ways of making touring as enjoyable as possible.
DiS: I guess once you're accustomed to that kind of lifestyle it becomes the norm in many ways.
Scott: I guess so. You get used to it, although for us it's more of an individual thing. For Matt it's probably more difficult than the rest of us at present with him just becoming a father over the past year or so.
DiS: With such an extensive back catalogue of songs to choose from, how do you decide what goes in the setlist on a daily basis, particularly on such a lengthy tour as this?
Scott: Choosing the setlist can be something of a daily battle! Obviously the core of the set will be based on High Violet, but then we're constantly looking at incorporating older songs into the set. We try to change it on a regular basis - certainly we very rarely play the same set two nights in a row, and particularly with some of the venues like Brixton and Dublin where we're doing three consecutive nights we'll be changing it for each show. We've been delving into the back catalogue quite a bit, so hopefully people will be pleasantly surprised by what they hear!
DiS: The last time I saw you at this year's Latitude Festival you played 'Available' from Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, which is a personal favourite of mine and a song I'd never previously heard you play live.
Scott: We've played that song several times over the summer at various festivals, so it will definitely feature during this tour. We've also been doing an acoustic rather than full band version of 'Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks' which has been quite well received, so that should make an appearance as well. 'Lucky You' has almost made a re-appearance at the request of several fans; we still have to work on it some more but don't rule it out before the tour finishes. At the same time there are certain songs that we've never played live and we'll probably still continue to never play them live. It's tricky because when you're on tour you only have a few hours every day to rehearse, and that usually happens during soundcheck, so we tend to use that as a basis for bringing any new songs into the set.
DiS: You're taking Phosphorescent on tour with you for the rest of this year. How did this come about and are you big fans of Matt Houck and co.'s music?
Scott: We played a show with them around three years ago, and then just before the last record came out, we asked them to do a show in this little space we had in New York called All The Music. It was like a week's worth of events with musicians, artists and film makers chosen by us during the week before the album came out, and they did this very sixties inspired, psychedelic jam kind of thing, which was awesome. We've remained friends with them ever since, not to mention huge fans, so we asked them to do this tour with us. Matt Houck is a great songwriter with a great voice, plus he shares the same Christian name as our vocalist and they're both blonde, so...!
DiS: I read an interview which you did a few months back where you mentioned one person you'd really like to collaborate with in the future would be Victoria Legrand from Beach House. Has anything materialised since?
Scott: It hasn't come about yet but I think it's something that could happen in the future. They opened a show for us in Brooklyn and we saw them a couple of times during the summer at festivals. They're also good friends of Grizzly Bear who we also know really well, so I'd like to think something could happen in the future. Her voice is amazing, and Teen Dream is possibly my favourite record of the year, so hopefully...
DiS: Just one final question. If there was one defining or definitive moment of The National's career, what would it be and why?
Scott: Gosh, it feels like there has been so many! The whole meeting the president thing was kinda awesome, but at the same time I guess that was more extra curricular. I think when we look back at some of the big shows we've done, and then compare those with some of the ones we've got coming up on this tour - I mean, three nights completely sold out at Brixton Academy I'd never have expected this time last year, so we're really looking forward to those shows. I guess each subsequent tour can be quite definitive because we're quite fortunate in that there's been more of a demand to see us with every album we've released.
DiS: Hopefully it will continue in the future.
Scott: Indeed so...
The National are currently on tour throughout Europe until early December, calling in at the following venues:-
16 Milan Alcatraz (*)
17 Cologne E-Werk (*)
18 Neu-Isenburg Hugenottenhalle (*)
19 Luxembourg Den Atelier (*)
20 Den Haag Crossing Border Festival
21 Brussels Ancienne Belgique (*)
23 Paris Olympia (*)
24 Bristol 02 Academy (*)
25 Coventry Warwick Arts Centre (*)
26 Glasgow 02 Academy (*)
27 Manchester 02 Academy (*)
29 London Brixton Academy (w/Menomena)
30 London Brixton Academy (*)
1 London Brixton Academy (*)
2 Dublin Olympia Theatre (*)
3 Dublin Olympia Theatre (*)
4 Dublin Olympia Theatre (*)
(*) all dates w/Phosporescent
Their tour then continues for the early part of 2011. For a full list of dates visit their official website.