“Just being in New York has been the impetus for everything the band’s ever done” says Scott Devendorf, the affable bass player for Brooklyn denizens The National. “Having this rich cultural thing happening – music, art, whatever, has made a huge difference. Just being to see anybody you want and having a lot of bands close by, I think that really drove us when we starting, and now that we’re serious about it, I think it’s a really healthy thing to have going on”.
While a laidback and chatty character, it’s clear the incredible, pulsating energy of the city is something that’s vital to Devendorf, and in turn, something that forms an important backdrop to the band’s creative restlessness. The gestation of 2010 masterpiece High Violet was painstaking, he explains, with songs changing repeatedly over the course of a year, being radically re-recorded in some instances, and being recorded in multiple versions of songs in pursuit of some elusive musical alchemy. “Songs like Lemonworld, which is a really simple song in a lot of ways, at one stage we had eight different versions of that… just taking different flashes of the songs”. Intriguingly for a band whose songs are eternally described as growers, it seems to take them a while to value their own compositions: “A song may end up where it starts. We really never know”.
Their live show, which stunned Australian audiences at a string of rapturously received shows back in January, is an ever-evolving beast, with freshness and dynamism being key concepts. “With a new song, when we get more confident playing it, when we’ve kind of figured it out, we try to change aspects of it” he says. Similarly, their set list is rarely static, with Devendorf promising “random songs from older albums” to feature in their upcoming Australian shows to “make things more varied and interesting for everyone”.
Everything about the band’s creative process seems to designed to prevent staleness or over-familiarity; unusually, the band tends to rehearse individually or in pairs more than as a group and their songwriting process is equally novel: the band will generally complete an instrumental piece before handing it over to singer Matt Berninger to add vocals. A range of side projects keep members occupied in their time off; guitarist Aaron Dessner has recently produced a record to fellow Brookln resident and sometime collaborator Sharon Van Etten, while Devendorf has used his rare moments of downtime to start work on compiling a Grateful Dead tribute album.
With The National due to return to Australia for November’s Harvest festival and a pair of side shows, Devendorf admits to finding the sheer size of festival crowds “pretty intimidating” and thinks festival goers can be “confused” by the band’s slow-burning, nocturnal music. “Festivals seem to attract a certain genre” he muses “but then we do have a more anthemic side, the more rock songs”. Crucially, however, festivals take the band out of the comfort zone and introduce them to new audiences.
Although plans for the next record are minimal at this stage, Devendorf does suggest the band may look to record more quickly, a move partly inspired by the success of their two most recent singles Exile Vilify and Think You Can Wait, which both started life as piano sketches and were both recorded in relative haste in between touring commitments. True to form, however, plans may change several times before they re-enter the studio. The price of The National’s sky-high quality control, it seems, is eternal restlessness.
Originally appeared in: Faster Louder