Q&A: The National's Scott Devendorf Talks Meeting Obama, Collaborating With St. Vincent and The Stresses of Recording

Categories: Interviews
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Keith Klenowski
The National
In this week's print edition we featured The National's Saturday show at the House of Blues. But the article--concentrating mostly on the band's latest album, High Violet--offered only a glimpse into an interview with bassist Scott Devendorf.

Here, we're giving you the whole thing--complete with anecdotes about a spontaneous concert for the POTUS, Devendorf's thoughts on Dallas' beloved St. Vincent, and what it's like to transform songs from album to stage.

And this may come as a surprise, but, despite The National's penchant for moody, brooding songs, Devendorf proved to be a lighthearted, conversational interview who not only didn't back down from any topic, but laughed a helluva lot.

Check the Q&A out in full after the jump.

One of the things that I found interesting is that you guys always play a fair amount of festivals as well as shows in venues. Is that a factor when you're prepping an album or working through instrumentation for a tour?
Not hugely... Definitely not in recording. I think, afterward, when we start to rehearse and learn the songs for playing live and everything--I mean I guess over the years, inevitably, we've been doing a lot of festivals. We play a lot of festivals, and sort of the hallmark of the festival is usually like four on the floor bass drum. Whatever, man. We probably amp it up a little bit for festivals, that kind of aspect--you know, sort of, not simplify the songs but sort of the driving element of the song seems to work well at festivals. As much as we can do that. We're not a dance band or anything, so... yeah. But I don't know if it's a huge consideration when we're writing, but maybe like, as we rehearse and play the songs live it can be transformed a bit from the sort of interior aspect of the recordings to the live version of the songs.

I had seen you guys at the Austin City Limits festival a few years back and I noticed that, while you didn't have say, horns, you still had--with Padma [Newsome]--strings and you still amped it up as far as some of the more orchestral elements that a lot of people would probably nix for an outdoor environment. It was refreshing in terms of presenting your full sound. I just didn't know if, in terms of rehearsal and preparation, are you sitting there going, "OK, we gotta lose that for the field."
Yeah, I guess some of it. I mean, obviously not every aspect, 'cause on the record there's cello and harp and all kinds of crazy stuff that kind of gets layered in there. I guess stuff gets cut out for sure, but I think we try to retain as much of the sort of basic warmth and layering that happens in the recording. So, yeah, I mean obviously Padma playing and the keyboards and the strings and the horns. We've done shows more stripped down, which is always kind of an interesting experiment. And then sometimes if Padma's unavailable or something we'll bring in a different guy or, you know, change it a little bit. But it's been pretty much for the last year horns, Padma on strings and keyboards and sort of the core band thing. So we figure out a way to make it work.

Are you finding that with this tour you're pleased with how High Violet is representing live?
Oh yeah, totally. I actually was kind of surprised with some of the songs and how they kind of changed live. Like, some of the songs that we didn't expect to be more, I don't know, whatever, upbeat songs, kind of become that. Like "Conversation 16" and "Afraid of Everyone" have really become live staples. I mean we play most of the record live. "Lemon World"'s been a real challenge, as it was in recording, to actually make it less flat-footed live so we've only played it--we've kind of played it a lot at the beginning of touring and now we've sort of cut it out of the set so we can kind of reinvent it. It's just one of those things. Like, on the records it works for sonic reasons but then live it just becomes a little, I don't know, flat-footed for lack of a better term, lately, so we're going to revamp that. Yeah, most of the songs have been great, you know, sort of transformed live for us.

What has been your--either collectively or just you personally--favorite off High Violet to perform this tour? Or even off an old album, you know, if you've pulled something out of the vault.
Well, for the new record, "Ghost," or "Anyone's Ghost" has been great--it's fun to play on the bass. What else... "Conversation 16," "Afraid of Everyone," "Vanderlyle [Crybaby Geeks]" for the moodier numbers. "Runaway" we've been playing a lot just because it, I don't know, sounds really good live, I think. And then for older stuff we've recently kind of unearthed or re-unearthed or whatever "Available" from Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, so that, kind of combined with the first track off of that record, "Cardinal Song." Sort of like a little medley thing we've been doing which has been kind of fun. And then there's a couple of new songs, or songs we didn't put on the record, that were actually gonna end up on--we're doing an expanded edition of the record, which is gonna come out in November some time I think. That has a couple of live tracks, a couple of B-sides, a couple songs we didn't put on at all. And so we're playing a couple of those.

So, I have to ask, while I'm sure it's been asked many times before, but for our readers, where did the title High Violet come from?
High Violet. It came from, it was actually.... well, all of our titles sort of come last minute. Like, literally, in like the last whatever, week or days of recording. Even some of the song titles. But yeah, the record--well, I think there's a couple of answers to the question. One is, that Matt and his wife sort of came up with it. I think it was like this idea of high anxiety slash high alert. It was sort of like, at one point, a comment about his stress level and the government threat level system--you know, orange, red, yellow, green, whatever the colors are. So violet was like sort of a non-existent whatever... But I think it was also sort of meant to be about an emotional state, like being blue, or being whatever.

The emotional aspect is definitely evident.
I think, yeah. I mean, the songs are all kind of about, you know, we're trying to make a really hopeful record or something--a happy record--but it's really dark in a lot of ways. Also supposed to be kind of funny, and it was supposed to be characters kind of trying to figure out things in their lives which is sort of, I guess, the universal theme of our band or something. But you know, I think it was like, it's sort of like people in these sort of states, trying to solve these problems or something--like family issues or relationship issues, or whatever so...

I had interviewed Matt before and he said that a lot of his lyrics come from personal experience or just things that he's thought about or fretted over. And then he works them into fictional scenes or camouflages them. But I think that lends itself to sort of emotional accessibility for people to identify with. In that same vein, your albums, rather than being, like, just a catalog of individual songs, have kind of, I don't know, been credited with being soundtracks for characters or for people. So, my question is, where do you think your characters are--where do you think they are in their lives--on this album?
Well, I think the other records are... Alligator was sort of like this guy off in the street, whatever, dating. There's a lot of night reference, sort of being out at bars or clubs or something, you know? And Boxer's the stately, like, build-a-relationship record, and this one is, I think, guy, person, whatever in a relationship trying to figure out the intricacies of day-to-day life sort of thing. It's like almost--there's a lot of social anxiety, I think, in all the records, but, I think, a lot on this one. "Afraid of Everyone" is the most literal translation, where it's like, you're trying to raise your family or your friends or whatever, and you're, there's this-- I mean it's the most overtly political song on the record, for lack of better term. This sort of like heightened state of everything: left, right, everyone fighting each other over these big issues.

That one seems, too, almost like a male version of  post-partum--trying to deal with what to do, how do I shelter them, what do I do with this, you know? And putting on the game face when you're at a loss.
Right. Yeah, exactly. It's like...yeah.

I have to tell you, it's funny that you said that about Boxer because actually that album has been a huge, pivotal part of my own relationship. I'm getting married and that was our growing and dating album.
Congrats! Yeah, it is a very growing and dating album. Yeah, it's funny--it's weird for us. Whatever, like, we write the songs, but we don't, we can't experience the songs like people listening to the album can. So it's just inevitable, we're just like "all right!"

We took to Boxer because they weren't like, you know, cutesy love songs. It was all the good and bad stuff about love and it's so realistic. And I think High Violet has that in terms of familial stuff, and social stuff. Speaking of which, you guys are pretty socially and politically active too what with your campaigns for Obama, Dark is the Night and so on. Were those opportunities that presented themselves, or do you guys leverage your passion to make them happen?
I mean, we try. You know, we're a band that's like, it's kind of like one of the most useless things in the world, [laughs] so we, at least, try, you know. I mean obviously we appreciate that people like it, but it sometimes feels like you're living in this weird world where the world's happening and you're in this band driving around and playing shows and like doing things like that. For us, it gives it a--not a purpose, it has it's own purpose--but it's also like you feel like you're doing something. We don't work at jobs that are like 9 to 5--though we have--and so I think for us it kind of gives us a grounding reality a little bit. And also it's kind of like the least we can do in a way. [Laughs.] Like, at least you can put together a charity record and help do something. We love doing stuff like that. It's like, in a way, we try not to be an overtly political band but, like, yeah, when we feel strongly about stuff we try and get involved and at least try and help out like in our own kind of pitiful little way. And it's worked out pretty good. Actually, funny sidenote to this: Yesterday we played in Madison, Wisconsin. We did a show that night but during the day it turned out that Obama was in town and he was campaigning for the November elections--just sort of like getting people excited about voting, whatever, you know. And so they asked us to play and so we did. We played like two songs, and Ben Harper played as well, and there was like a brass band that played. It was all like pre-his speech type of thing and I think Ben Harper's part was webcast or something.

Just last night?
Yeah, like yesterday. Yeah, and then we ended up meeting the president, of all things.

That's amazing.
Yeah, we were kind of shitting our pants. We're flying high today.

I would say so. Puts into perspective your rise all the way from you guys being in what, Nancy? Was that the first band with Matt?
Yeah.

It seems like it's been a bit of natural progression, like a growth, allowing you to have these side projects and these things that you enjoy doing--the charity stuff and being able to have actual human interests, you know? So do you think, that sort of ascent in fame is preferable to having your life totally overtaken by some sort of skyrocket to stardom?
I think so. It's nice to have a bus and drive around and be, whatever, rock stars, but it's not really something I think any one of us ever aspired to. So we're just kind of feeling lucky that things worked out at all. Like we've gone through a bunch of--y'know, it's taken a long time and whatever. I don't know. Yeah, of course if 10 years ago you had told us, OK here's your choice: You can either take 10 years to do this or you can be really famous in two years and then whatever, I think... You know, you never get that choice, so I think, I'm happy the way things worked out.

And it worked out to where now Obama recognized you and ask you to play a show.
There we go. Yeah, it was kind of, we're basically like, OK, now we can retire. The President shook our hand and took his picture with us.

And he asked you.
Yeah, I was like, "Really?" I thought when we got the e-mail about it I was like, "No way."

You're like, "Guys, who sent this? Is this a joke?"
Yeah, yeah, totally. We're pretty happy.

Well, I would assume with you guys--especially with two sets of brothers--that usually the jokes are all played on Matt.
Pretty much, but his brother has been on tour with us, actually, for the last year, so he has a brother in the band now, too. He's like our videographer slash--yeah, he's been sort of like assistant. He's like production assistant slash videographer. He's a film student.

Oh, so now it's all fair.
Oh yeah, now it's even.

So, no like serious road pranks or anything?
[Matt] was always sort of immune to that stuff anyway, so now he has his little brother that he can beat up on.

Since Annie Clark is from Dallas here and you guys have collaborated with St. Vincent. What was that like? Do you plan to do that again?
Yeah, she's amazing. And I love her records. She's hilarious as well. And, yeah, we've done tours with her. She recorded, yeah, on the thing we did for Merge, their sort of 20th or whatever anniversary. The cover of a Crooked Fingers song. We did a couple of shows with her in France, we were on tour and the venue, it was like this awesome old amphitheater and the venue had asked us to do kind of like a "Bring your favorite band" type of thing so we brought Dirty Projectors and St. Vincent and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. It was kind of like Brooklyn Night in France. So it was really fun. Yeah, so we're always happy to do stuff with her. She sang on a couple of live shows on this tour. We did the big Radio City show she did, she came out for that. And at BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music] in Brooklyn as well. So any time that she is around and wants to work with us we love her.

Well she is a great instrumentalist.
Oh yeah she's an amazing guitarist and a fantastic singer. She's a delight.

Actually, this brings me to my final question. You guys have some pretty tight instrumentation and yet it reads effortless, or listens that way anyway. When you write do you find that that's been due to a natural creative progression or do you intentionally challenge each other and try to make that build up.
Yeah. We definitely challenge each other. Our recording process is probably on a more painful side of experiences. [Laughs.] I mean, it is fun sometimes, but I remember recently we were in the middle of mixing--just like weeks of mixing and recording. The simultaneous, ongoing process of people killing things and bringing it back and I remember, we were up in Connecticut and I had to go back to Brooklyn. We're friends with Sufijan Stevens and he was working in our studio while we were up there mixing. I walked in, they were having such a good time, he and his guys, just like jamming on some stuff. And he was like "Hey, what's up?" and I'm like, "Why are you having so much fun?" It was just like, I was jealous 'cause I had just left Connecticut the night before and driven home and like, "Ah, I gotta go pick up a hard drive" or whatever and go back up the next day. [Laughs.] So yeah, I don't know if that's the answer to your question but our recording process and writing process is pretty intense, I think. It's not efficient. It's very, like... It's like collage or like archeology or something. It's like, you throw all this stuff or you dig all this stuff up and you kind of like sift through it. I mean, we do stuff with purpose--it's not like it's without purpose--but there's so much layering and stuff. It's never like we're just jamming in a room and figuring out a song. Usually, it starts with something really simple and then Matt kinda works, figures out the stuff he can work with. And that's always either a great or a disappointing process, 'cause it's like you know Aaron or Bryce [Dessner] or one of us will really like something he doesn't like--or doesn't choose to work with--and that doesn't become a song and then there's a big fight. You know, it's like brothers trying to deal with anything. I think that for us live playing is kind of fun in way 'cause we've sort of gone through that process and at the end we're always happy with what we do. But it's a real battle. For, like, months at a time. It's pretty nerve-wracking so I think there's a sense of relief and elation when you're done with that and your like, "OK, the record's out. We're done." Like you've given birth or something like that.

Oh I can imagine.
I mean it's not as painful as that, obviously, physically. I don't know if we're the most cheerful bunch in the studio and it's like a big chess match or something like that.

Right, and too, not only the shared DNA, but over the course of that many years you kind of learn what buttons to push with each other so it's gotta be....
Yeah, I think everyone at this point has sort of developed their position that they sort of fight from, so it's kind of like--we like to think of it like it's kind of like the UN or something. There's like these three warring countries and there's a couple of us who are like the peace makers who kind of broker deals in between. I'm like Norway or something. [Laughs.] Bryce is like another peacemaker. And then there's like the three warring countries are like Matt, Aaron, and Brian [Devendorf]. It's fun. It's really fun.

The National preform Saturday, October 9, at the House of Blues
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