You can read my story here, and you can peep after the jump to read my interview with The National's Scott Devendorf. He's the mostly-bass-playin' dude. The one who's, according to The New York Times, "strikingly spare of pate." Devendorf and I discussed the dynamics of being in a band with two sets of brothers, what it was like making High Violet, whether or not he and the rest of the band have any idea what frontman Matt Berninger's lyrics are about, Berninger's collaborative relationship with his wife, making music in a hip-ass city and more.
Nashville Cream: First off, I know you guys swap instruments quite a bit, but you primarily play bass and some guitar, right?
Scott Devendorf: That’s right.
NC: OK, cool. Well, I think it’s safe to say you guys are kind of a grower band. Not only have you gained more critical acclaim with each release, but your audience also seems to have kind of grown exponentially over the last decade as well. Was there ever a point when you guys said to yourselves, "Wow, this thing might be sustainable. We might continue to grow and be able to quit our day jobs?"
SD: [Laughs.] Good question. I don’t know if there was ever a day that we said that, but you know, all this stuff has happened in the past 10 years, and I think there were several instances over the course of that time where we did a lot of work and a lot of touring and got to a point where we’d play a big show, or when a record gets picked up by a big label like Beggars Banquet, the label that we were on — now we’re on 4AD. These kinds of moments, or milestones if you will [laughs]. For us it was the little things, where we’d play a big show in Paris and it’s sold out. I don’t think we’re ever felt like, "Hey, we’ve made it!" but I think there were these little things that happened just along the way that are significant to us and sort of made a bit of the hard work pay off, you know? And lately the band has gotten a lot more notoriety and press, and the record charted for the first time and that was a big deal to us. Just like small things along the way. It’s never been this overnight situation.
NC: Never been like a moment when it was like, “Whoa.”
SD: Yeah, but you know, we played at Radio City this year and that was a huge deal for us. A big famous place in New York, you know, that was kind of wild. With things like that I think we kind of step back once in a while and are like, "Oh this is really cool."
NC: I read that you guys would go into the studio and record sort of instrumental demos more or less that you’ll pitch to Matt. Correct me if I’m wrong, but is that still sort of the way you guys do it? Do you build these songs for him to lay lyrics on top of? Is that the process that’s best for you guys?
SD: Yeah, it seems like the process that works for us. It’s not really the most efficient process. It sometimes can be really frustrating because mainly Aaron or Bryce will write things and Bryan and I will put some ideas in there, too. Usually it’s kind of like this little collage in that way, where it’s sending out a bunch of stuff to him that he checks out and sees what he can work in with the stuff that he has — either a melody that he’s working on or sometimes not even a song, just kind of like parts or ideas or whatever rhythmic qualities or something they have that sort of fits well with stuff that he’s working on. He’s not like a musician musician. He has a good ear, and he’s a big fan of music, so I think he has a strong idea about what he wants to do with things. Actually, it’s frustrating sometimes, because we’ll have like 50 or 60 ideas, and maybe only 20 of them were the favorite ones. So it’s just kind of like this back and forth process. It’s a pretty accurate way to describe it.
NC: Will there ever be a time where he’ll just sort of veto an idea, or you guys veto one of his ideas?
SD: [Laughs.] Definitely. It’s harder for us to veto his ideas because he’s the one writing the lyrics. Sometimes he’ll — not necessarily by nature is he trying to do this, but on the past two records, it’ll be … late in the game before we actually hear a song. We’ll work a lot on the music or the idea or there’ll be a scratch vocal or something, but we don’t know what the final lyrics are, what the song’s about until maybe really late in the game. That can be exciting-slash-terrifying.
NC: So you may have a song for months before it even has a title?
SD: Oh yeah. The titles are always the last to come. Usually the titles are the titles of whatever you randomly give the sketches. For a while they were all Civil War battles. [Laughs.] "Fredericksburg," you know. Matt usually names the songs in the end, they’re not usually super tricky names.
NC: Some sort of reference to the lyrics, right?
SD: Yeah, or sometimes ... “Conversation 16” was totally not related to the lyrics. I think that was almost like a goofy dialogue. Like, if you were readying a movie script and there’d be "Scene Four," or something like that.
NC: That song in particular feels like a slice out of a relationship.
SD: Yeah, exactly.
NC: Past Matt’s vocal melodies, does he really contribute much in the way of instrumentation or arrangements, or conversely, do you guys really weigh in on lyrical content?
SD: [Laughs.] Again, it’s funny because I’m just thinking about past records. He usually has a lot of strong opinions about the music without any sort of direct musical way to contribute. So he’ll kind of describe something as a color or a sound that’s, like, some visual reference for it basically. He’ll never say, like, “Play an F-sharp.” He doesn’t know what an F-sharp is. It’s more like the feel of something that he’s going for, either with the trajectory of the lyrics or music. And we’ll try a lot of different sounds and ways of playing. I think with the past records there’s a little bit of frustration at some point because he didn’t want any finger-picking or something on guitar playing. If we have any sort of signatures aside from the low baritone voice [laughs], you know, it’s the sort of interlocking guitar parts and stuff that is played because [Aaron and Bryce] are really good at it, and it’s something we like. Having him say, “Oh, we don’t want that at all,” is kind of like, “Oh. [Pauses.] OK.” [Laughs.] Which is fine. I think we’re always trying to make different records, and I think by the nature of trying to make different records, you kind of have to build up and tear down a bunch of ideas. It’s sort of our way of working. It’s frustrating. The process of it gets us to something at least we think is interesting.
NC: We touched on the lyrics a bit. I know they can be a bit cryptic sometimes. Are there ever songs where you guys really don’t know what it is he’s referencing or talking about?
SD: For sure, yeah. I mean, we like the fact that the lyrics are a bit cryptic, and I think that they are kind of open to interpretation. They’re not exactly like, “Here’s the song. I love you, blah blah blah.” They’d probably be a lot more accessible in the pop music world if they were a little more direct. We sort of like other bands and other music that is not exactly clear. Yeah, but sometimes we are a bit biased to what he’s talking about. It can be too cryptic at times, but I think he knows that too. He’s sort of always going for something in between clarity and interpretation, so I think in doing that he can go sort of too far in one direction or the other. I think he’s always fighting that battle within himself, too. He writes a lot of lyrics with his wife as well. She’s a writer, and she helps sort some ideas out, and I think it spices up the lyrics.
SD: Yeah. I mean, not every song but like on the, I can’t remember right off the top of my head, but there’s two or three songs on this record that she kind of wrote a big part of or helped write stuff and sort some ideas. So they have a little collaboration thing going on, which is kind of fun for us to watch, because when we’re not fighting with him, we get to watch her fight with him. It’s kind of fun. It’s not really that bad either. I’m being a little dramatic.
NC: Understandable. Just that kind of give and take.
NC: How long did it take you guys to make High Violet? It was probably a year, right?
SD: It was about a year on and off. I mean, we kind of slowed down at the end of touring Boxer, worked on building the studio and then took a break and did this charity record called Dark Was the Night. Well, we just did one song on it, but [Aaron and Bryce] did a lot of curating, working with different artists on that. That was sort of in the downtime when Matt was working on lyrics. We sort of started recording, we did a concert for the Dark Was the Night thing, we did a couple of shows here and there, they did another project of theirs called The Long Count. So yeah, it took a year, but it wasn’t like a straight year of recording. It was kind of like, we worked on some stuff then we took a break, and then we went into the studio. We kind of really started focusing on it … probably, I’d say, late summer of ’09 to about when we finished. And then we spent about eight or 10 weeks once we got done recording everything, we went up to the studio to mix, but or mixing process is kind of like recording still. We’re still tracking guitars and vocals, everything basically. So that was about eight or 10 weeks, mid- to late-November, and then January and February we mixed it in parts.
NC: So you said you guys built a new studio in this time since the last record?
SD: Yeah, we built the studio, and that’s where we did a lot of the recording for High Violet. Like, actually that’s where most of the instruments are recorded and some vocals, but we’re kind of still trying to figure it out. It’s a great space, but it’s kind of ... [long pause] Sorry, I tried to pick the quietest street, but it turned out to be the loudest one. [Laughs.] Yeah, we were kind of just wanting to use the studio and then writing, so it was fun. It was fun for us because our process ... excuse me, this is taking a long time to describe [laughs]. It takes a lot longer for us to write than to record, so it’s not like we go into the studio for two weeks and track everything and we’re done. So having the studio was sort of freedom for us because it wasn’t by the hour or whatever. We were able to kind of work on drums for, like, two weeks ... just kind of like tracking a bunch of ideas.
NC: So do you guys sort of start with a wealth of material and ideas and whittle that down, or do you really just build one by one?
SD: We’re kind of working on a bunch of stuff at once usually. It’s like, we have all these 50 or 60 sort of sketched demo things that some of them were just a piano part, or a guitar part only or whatever, or drums and guitar; just some sort of simple ideas. From there, Matt figures out which ones he can kind of hone in on and start doing stuff for them, and then we kind of add things throughout the way. I mean, obviously we flesh them out a lot more and re-record them and cut them apart. But then for us it’s a little archeological. We just kind of throw a bunch of stuff on there and take it away, throw more stuff on, take stuff away. Some of the stuff that’s left is, like, the original guitar part might stay or a scratch vocal might stay in and then we’ll fill everything else around that or something. It kind of depends on the song.
NC: So with two sets of brothers in the band, does that influence the dynamic a lot? Do you find that there’s a lot of Dessner vs. Devendorf spats, or maybe like internal sibling rivalry going on?
SD: Yeah, it’s never usually Dessner vs. Devendorf. It’s more like Dessner vs. Berninger with, like, Devendorf as U.N. or something. There’s a lot of, like, Aaron and Matt kind of like debating and arguing and fighting with each other, because Aaron writes a lot of the music. We’ll have to sort of intervene either with ideas or peacemaking process or whatever. It gets heated but it’s never downright mean [laughs]. It’s usually just everyone really wants one thing or another from a song. It’s kind of a democracy, albeit a messed up one.
NC: Well I mean, some of you guys are stuck with each other no matter what.
SD: Yeah, it’s sort of great and terrifying [laughs].
NC: Well, I know you guys are from Cincinnati originally, but you’re based in Brooklyn now right?
SD: Yeah, well, we’ve all lived here about anywhere between 12 and 14 years, so the band actually started here, but we’re all from there. But we played music really casually before we started this. I mean, Aaron, Bryce, and Bryan had a band together in Ohio, and I had a really, really, really low-key band in college for fun with friends. Everything we’ve done with The National is all in New York basically.
NC: I’m sure you’re well aware there’s been quite a surge in indie rock, post-punk and experimental music from Brooklyn. Do you find that kind of inspires you guys to be more prolific, or is it really just kind of like a nuisance that everybody you come across wants you to hear their demo or something like that?
SD: [Laughs.] No, I think it’s great, and I think that there’s so much different kinds of music. And for a lot of cities, it’s not just here, but obviously it’s a lot here. I don’t know, it definitely inspires us to, you know ... it inspired us to start the band in the first place, to know that all that stuff was happening around us and us being big music fans wanting to do something ourselves. And it probably has the same sort of effect on bands that are just starting now. You see bands from New York, and they’re usually really good or at least interesting and I think it’s a good thing, I mean there’s all kinds of, I mean we’re not the most experimental avant-garde unit in town for sure but I think we all like different music ourselves. I think it can only be good having all that stuff happening. All these people being productive makes other people want to be productive.
NC: You guys are obviously in the middle of a record cycle right now, but do you guys have any plans for after this tour, future recording?
SD: Yeah, I mean we’re definitely gonna work on another record. We feel like we just kind of finished this one. We’re kind of like the band that it’s kind of hard for us to write on the road but we kind of try to do it anyways but it’s almost like we have to at least the way operated on the last two or three records make a record and then tour for about a year-and-a-half to two years and then kind of disappear for a time and then do something again. We’ve done enough and now we have the studio if we want to kind of not take three or four years to make a record. We’re not the most, like I said, fast-working bunch.