In the nearly two decades The National has existed as band (yeah, I know), they’ve gone from indie rock cult heroes to Grammy-award winning, festival headliners. Bassist Scott Devendorf has been there every step of the way – in fact, he was the member who stepped up to the podium to accept the award for Best Alternative Album at the 2017 Grammy Awards. The band’s evolution has been nothing short of meteoric and their prestige among their peers is constantly skyrocketing. Last year’s excellent Sleep Well Beast is just further evidence of that, showcasing the band expanding their sonic palette with a newfound affinity for electronic production and some of their most refined songwriting to date.
This weekend, The National performs two nights at Forest Hills Stadium in New York where they’ll unveil a limited edition vinyl edition of Sleep Well Beast to mark the album’s one year anniversary. To commemorate the occasion, KEXP is sharing a brief chat we had with Devendorf from this year’s Sasquatch! Music Festival. Devendorf discusses everything from the group’s unique approach to collaboration, their mutual love for graphic design and video, his side-project LZNDRF, and a bit of what it was like to be animated for Bob’s Burgers.
KEXP: I'm super interested to hear about the process of the latest record. You guys incorporate a lot more electronic elements and drum sampling. What made you decide to embrace that direction in the music?
Scott Devendorf: We're always trying to sort of, whatever, improve ourselves. [laughs] No, you know, it kind of just pushes us a little bit, and we're sort of familiar with what we can do with our, sort of, chosen instruments. I think kind of getting a little bit outside of comfort and familiarity is good. Bryce was playing keyboard exclusively for like ten days at one point, so we were all pretty into that. I don't know. It was just kind of fun to get outside of what we're used to.
As a bassist do you have to get in a different headspace when you are introducing different elements to the music?
Yeah, I mean, Aaron and I both play and write bass parts of the record. He writes a lot of them too. So we're always switching around in the studio, and then I was playing a bunch of synth stuff for a while, which was super fun, and I totally don't understand it. [laughs] Yeah, so I think it's just kind of an element of surprise- both for yourself and listeners, hopefully.
How have you incorporated the new elements into the live show?
I've mostly been on bass, I have to say. [Touring band member] Ben [Lanz] has actually picked up the mantle of all the hard stuff. [laughs] Ben's been playing drums as well as keyboards and stuff. I'm mainly on bass just to kind of keep it together, but a little bit of shaker, a little bit of guitar, that's fine. Yeah, it's been fun. We had a fellow, Ben Sloan, this guy from Cincinnati, who we just did a festival with. He's a friend of Bryan's and is a really good trained drummer guy from CCM. He played on several shows with us, and it's kind of fun to sort of, like, get the ensemble a little bigger. So, yeah, adding more people, but that was kind of a temporary thing. Hopefully, he'll join us again.
It's cool to hear about the collaboration you guys have on the bass parts. Is that something you guys have done throughout your records?
Yeah. We're always kind of working with friends or having people sing the songs or whatever. It’s kind of trying to keep it a little looser, I think. We tend to get very microcosmic about it, as everyone does with recording. Layering stuff. So this record was more about, I think, Matt really wanted to simplify a lot of the songs and what you were hearing because we tend to sort of orchestrate and pile everything on. So this one I like that it's pretty sparse in places. There's still some orchestration. We couldn't resist. [laughs].
Do you spend a lot of time as a band discussing the themes that you want the record to feel or be about?
I mean, I think it reveals itself to us a little bit along the way because he tends to take a little while to write the lyrics and be happy with them, and he works with his wife. It's like a collaborative effort. We don't often hear the final lyrics or even lyrics at all until much later. So we try and craft the music based on commentary from him and he's pretty good at editing and FPO-ing [for placement only] lyrics and stuff. So it's less of a mystery, I guess. I always liked that aspect of it though because it's like, “Oh, now it has a focus” or whatever. I mean, it's obviously helpful to have that sooner sometimes. On this record, there's this song ["The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness] and he really threw out all the lyrics at the last possible minute, basically. Not the last possible, but very last minute and changed them all overnight and really changed that song a lot. Like, what it meant and sort of the direction of it or whatever. That was probably the biggest challenge or emergency that we had. We really liked the song, and then when the final lyrics came in it was more political and more focused than perhaps it was before.
That's very interesting because something I really appreciate about your music is how well the music and the lyrical content feel so cohesive.
We really write to support what he does, and he doesn't have a huge dynamic range, and he tends to sing in a baritone. Then he's pushed it over the years, and he's kind of getting more acrobatic, which is exciting. It is fun to make that sort of bed for him to work with and see what happens to him when he gets his hands on it and breaks it all apart.
Were there any records that you guys were listening to during the recording process that you were using as reference points? I love how they have that drum sound or bass sound or that tone...
Aaron always works on a lot of production work of other records for other people so he was really into... I mean, I think we just really get into instruments and styles of doing things, so it's not so much about listening to a record and being, like, “Oh, I love that bass tone.” Though I do hear that, like, “I love that bass tone.” But yes, more like we just kind of find a thing. I was playing this little synth thing, and it kind of generated a lot of fun mistakes. [laughs] So things like that. Yeah, like I said, with Bryce doing synth, just a lot of messing around with things that we didn't fully understand or we were kind of learning on the fly. It was fun.
I understand you guys were all spread out across the country.
Yeah, everyone lives in, literally, different cities now, but we all lived in Brooklyn for the beginning of the band and then for many years of the band. And then, slowly, people.. I moved to California, my brother moved to Ohio, Bryce was sometimes in France, sometimes in Brooklyn. Yeah, and now everyone's out of Brooklyn. We have always worked a little bit fragmented – that way where you are sending sketches or pieces of songs around, ruminating on them for a while before we actually get down to making anything.
We also kind of took apart a studio that we had in Brooklyn and built a bigger version of it upstate where Aaron lives. I think doing that was kind of the first time we could all live and work together. The other studio was pretty tiny and great for doing overdubs or doing strings, but having everyone set up and bash out a song was not really in the cards there as much. So I think having a new studio and just more or less living together thing helped sort of glue it all. We were sort of recording as we were mixing. We'd mix in the same space as the recording, and we didn't have to pack everything up and take it to the mixing studio. It was a more fluid way of doing it.
Did the writing process start while you guys were still spread out? Before you had time to come together?
Yeah, yeah. It always does. I mean, usually, it's Aaron and Bryce sending Matt stuff months ahead or a year sometimes [laughs]. He just works with it as he finds what he can work within it. Then it will be like, “Great, there's like ten or twelve things in there that we can work with, so let's get together and try and play them or whatever.” [laughs] There's some structural talk, I guess, ahead of that and learning and figuring [out] forms and whatever. We've always been very constructive and destructive, you know?
Do you think the distance has been helpful at all? It seems like you all have different projects that you're working on now.
Yeah, I think that's been helpful. I mean, definitely working on all the different things, everyone brings something back from those experiences. So, like, we did LNZNDRF and the Day of the Dead thing and Bryce is always doing classical, new music stuff and Aaron's always producing records for other people, and Matt works with EL VY and does his own thing sometimes too. I think, if anything, it sort of helps everyone grow, for sure. Just trying different things and playing in different styles. That kind of thing. And it also just keeps us excited to get back together and do our thing because we know what this thing is and how we bring all of those new elements to it is always a nice surprise.
You guys have been pretty renowned for your live performances.
Yeah, we've just played a million shows over the years. It's like, we were not that good in the beginning, and some days we're still like, argh... But I don't know. I feel like we've done it enough that we know kind of what works for us and what our strengths are as a live band, I guess, and it's gotten good.
Did you guys think about what you wanted to present with this record?
I mean, we've more and more gotten into the staging aspect of it with videos and thinking about what's the video is going to be like. We spent a lot of time just thinking on that stuff, and Matt and I were graphic designers for jobs when we first came to New York before we had the band. So the visual aspect of the music is always something that we're thinking about. We love album covers and stuff that looks cool. So yeah, it's always an ongoing concern with the onset of the video stuff, and Michael Brown, who works with us, is really responsible for generating all that and thinking it up. It's kind of like how we worked on the record – this back and forth on the design process. It kind of falls into how we make the music and how we make the show and how we make the record cover. We definitely thought way more about it this time. I feel like in the past we've always rushed to get a record done. So we kind of set it up like, “Alright, let's not rush to get it done, but let's do it thoroughly.” It was a lot of hard work, and I feel like the next time we do something it will probably be very different, but I think it was a good way to work. Like, give yourself enough time, and it will all happen. There you go.
I remember you guys mentioned after Trouble Will Find Me there was some talk about doing a companion record really quick.
Yeah. [laughs] We always talk like, "Yeah, we're going to do another record within six months!" I don't know what really... I think some stuff just kind of lingered on, but we tend to if it doesn't get worked on right away... I mean, right now we've even been throwing around ideas about putting out old stuff to kind of collaborate with other people on and all kinds of ideas. Like unused things or instrumental things that we did, but yeah, we'll see. We always say things like, you know, “Strike while the iron is hot.”
The album won a Grammy. What was that like?
It was pretty bananas, yeah. I mean, we went once before. We got nominated for Trouble Will Find Me and did not win, which was fine. It was exciting to go. And so this time I ended up being the only person from the band who went. [laughs] My wife went with me, and then Brandon, my manager, and Shaun, from the office, too. A couple people went, but I was the only band member, so I had to go give a speech if we won. I was a little nervous. I tried to think, like, “Well, there's a twenty percent chance since there were five bands in the category.” I didn't think we would win, but then we did, and I had to run up there and say something intelligible. I think it was okay. Everyone was like, "Oh, it was great." It seemed fine, but in my mind, I was freaking out. It was interesting and cool. I saw Tony Bennett. He walked by. That was exciting. I saw Lisa Loeb. I think she has a kid's album out or something. She won for that. I think I was right in between Mastodon and Lisa Loeb.
That's quite the spectrum.
It was a fun experience for sure, yeah.
Do you find that winning a Grammy has had any kind of impact?
I think... yeah. I mean people say it's, whatever, but, I mean, people know of it, and then they hear about the band maybe because of that. So, yeah, it's good for us. I think my mom is really excited. Our parents are excited. So, you know, I think it means something to the world. It's not something we set out to achieve but certainly, that's cool.
Are you guys working on new material right now?
Not at the exact moment, no, but hopefully we'll take a break in the fall when all this touring and festivals wind down and get back to work on something. We'll see.
What about your other project, LZNDRF?
It's a fusion of Lanz and Devendorf. We removed all of the vowels. There's a town in Austria called Lanzendorf, which is cool, but then we realized there's a family name, Lanzendorf, and it just started to get confusing, so we were like, “Oh, we'll just drop the vowels and that will be easier.” Anyway, it's great. We actually might do some recording for that sooner than later – perhaps on tour. It tends to be a very improvisational in its genesis, I guess. We work it out later. Ben is sort of the captain of that ship, and so if he's motivated and has time... The last record we did, or the only record we did, we made it in like two days. I mean, two days of recording and then some mixing. It was super quick. So, yeah, Ben's super talented at making music, but also organizing and Pro Tooling and all that stuff. He seems motivated and has some time, so we'll get together.
Last question and the most important question. What was it like being animated for Bob's Burgers?
It's wonderful. It's kind of a highlight of my life. Yeah, it's very special. I'm honored.
It's a big achievement.
It's kind of like, I'm good. I've been made into art.
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