The National’s Scott Devendorf talks stepping back to let new creative voices emerge on I Am Easy To Find

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The National | photo by Graham Macindoe | courtesy of the artist

The National‘s striking new album finds the New York band at their most reflective and impressionistic, alongside a cast of many new collaborators, including the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, orchestral and electronic instrumentalists, and several women who lend their vocals to the project. I Am Easy To Find arrived on May 17th with an accompanying short film of the same title, directed by Mike Mills — an indie filmmaker known for Thumbsucker and 20th Century Women — and it marks the band’s first full-on foray into the world of multimedia releases.

Ahead of tonight’s Philadelphia show at The Mann Center with Courtney Barnett, The Key spoke to The National’s bassist Scott Devendorf about the choices the band made on this new album, and their experiences of writing and performing together for over twenty years. Devendorf was warm and modest as we spoke on the phone — he showed how comfortable he feels living an adult life in the world of modern rock music.

The Key: How would you describe the experience of touring with this album and this configuration of musicians, and how has it been different from touring with other albums?

Scott Devendorf: Different, so far, because with the first five shows we played the entire record front to back minus a couple of the choral pieces when we didn’t have a chorus — but we did do them in New York. It was really amazing, it’s really a different way to approach it. It’s really cool having – I think – multiple singers other than ourselves. We have Kate [Stables] and Pauline [de Lassus] with us, and then James [McAlister] joining us on drums, so it’s really interesting. From my perspective, it’s a lot of fun because I have my brother to my left and James to my left and singers in front of me, so I feel very lucky position-wise onstage to get the whole sort of ensemble situation over there, which is fun. It’s just a lot more stuff to listen to, so from the musicians’ standpoint there’s a lot more things to react to – and it kind of just opens up a lot of possibilities.

TK: Considering the different instrumentation and the new possibilities you’re thinking about, would you say you approached your bass parts differently when you were writing for this album?

SD: I would say yeah. Aaron [Dessner] and I both write bass parts for the record and so I think, definitely both on this record and the last one we were both kind of conscious of – the bass kind of came last in some ways, because there’s so much going on that we had to sort of sort through and you kind of have to then react to what’s left, you know? Versus playing along the whole time. So, I think, yeah the bass parts on both this and Sleep Well Beast are kind of more fragmented and I find them more interesting, as opposed to the type of bass that holds the roots. They’re a little more melodic, a little more active. I’m into it.

TK: I have heard that the band was working on a lot of this new material during the same sessions when you were working on Sleep Well Beast, is that right?

SD: I would say not a lot, but yeah maybe about a third of it. And then Mike Mills got involved a little bit after we were done – while were touring Sleep Well Beast he approached us to do a music video, and at that point we were sort of done with making all the videos for Sleep Well Beast but we thought that we would like to work on another project. So that started this sort of back and forth between us, the relationship of working on the songs we had, and then making new ones that then became I Am Easy to Find.

TK: And if you were coming up with some of those songs at the same time as the Sleep Well Beast songs, how did you decide what was going to go together on Sleep Well Beast and what was going to go together for a following album?

SD: We had about twenty-five, thirty things on our little white board that we keep track of everything on. And so I think thematically, a lot of things started to fall together for Sleep Well Beast and then other things weren’t in that theme, or didn’t make sense yet. And then they got tabled, and a few things we didn’t use at all. We tend to do that on each record, just make a bunch of things and then gravitate towards what’s working. I think specifically Matt [Berninger], when he’s writing lyrics, he’s working with things that he can write to first, and then he’ll go back and approach the other songs, like ‘I like these but I didn’t react to them right away.’ So it’s more of seeing what works with him and then kind of adjusting course accordingly. And you never really know – there are songs we really love that we still haven’t finished working on yet, like ideas for songs. Yeah, we kind of have to write with him, for him, and then also kind of figure out what everyone wants too or prefers too, so it’s quite a democratic process sometimes. You know, nothing really ends up on the record that no one likes, we all have to have some love for it.

TK: How would you personally articulate some of the themes that are on I Am Easy to Find and its relationship to Sleep Well Beast?

SD: I feel like Sleep Well Beast was highly political in some ways and this one is not in other ways – we’d say it is political, but different, it’s more like personal perspective. I mean, Sleep Well Beast we finished right as the 2016 election was happening and we weren’t so psyched about that. So there was a lot of songs like “Turtleneck,” you know, just sort of aggression and – not aggression, but aggressive reactions in the songs to what was happening around us and around everybody at that time. I feel like thematically, this record is more reflective somehow, and I think due to the movie having the sort of arc of a person’s life, that really played into it. Like I said, there were maybe like five or six songs that we had started and worked on and then those made there way into this record, but then we wrote another – I don’t know, ten songs or something. [laughs] Some of them wordless, some of them choral.

But I think that, yeah there is this overall sort of reflection on relationships and experiences, and how you sort of put together your life. I think also the state of the band being around for twenty years, we’re a little bit in a reflective mode, [laughs] now trying to just process all that’s happened and ask ‘Where do we go from here?’ And I think that those things made it into the record for sure – I feel like the record has a very afterlife quality to it, just due to the fact that this person lives and dies in this movie. And I think that a lot of the songs are kind of from that character’s perspective, I would say, or that couple’s perspective in a life, and it’s not Matt’s perspective of a dude on the streets of New York in the year two-thousand-something. They’re more like … just kind of more universal.

TK: I want to talk a little bit about recording and your studio experiences with this album. At this point in your career, what has it been like for the band to have studio spaces that are essentially all your own, and provide you the freedom to do anything you want? And have your relationships with the studios influenced your work on this album?

SD: Well, our history was that we started in our own recording – [laughs] I mean, not a recording space, an apartment. That was the beginning of the band, with an eight-track little recorder thing. On mini-disc, it was so sweet. [laughs] And then we moved on and we had a friend who had a studio, and so we went to that studio and we did some work. And then, yeah we recorded in commercial studios, but usually not that many of them, just a few. And then at some point after Boxer [in 2007], into High Violet [in 2010], we had a garage that was Aaron’s garage at his house as like a project studio, more or less. And we could never really fit there all together but we did manage to get a lot of good work done there. I think doing that and just moving away from commercial by-the-hour studios definitely has helped us relax a little bit. It’s really stressful when you’re trying to finish a record and you’re not finished with it, and you’re paying a day rate – as any band will tell you. You gotta get it done. So I think there’s a perk in being relaxed but also not worrying about the end or when it’s ending.

I think also just because of the way we work. Like, if we were a band that set up and tracked in a week, it would work well. And we still do that kind of thing, but we are often recording and mixing through the same process now. It’s not like we would use the recording studio and then go to the mixing studio and then go to the mastering studio. Now it’s like, we’re recording, mixing, and not quite mastering but getting stuff to the point of listenable, within our own confines. It just gives you a better perspective, I think. I guess it depends on the project, but for what we do this works pretty well.

TK: I know you’ve done some work with the engineer Jonathan Low, who is originally from Philadelphia – what has it been like working with him?

SD: He is amazing. He is an incredible talent, incredible intelligence, incredible patience I think, [laughs] which are all good things for us. And also he and Aaron produce a lot of records together aside from The National. John is amazing, so talented. A great musician, great drummer, and also just really able to have perspective over the whole project, I think. He also has so many good production ideas, and I think he just has the right personality and right temperature for dealing with us, you know? So I can’t say enough good things about Jon Low.

TK: I want to talk a bit about your collaborators and the other musicians on this album. Do you think the songs take on new meaning for you and the band when there are other people’s voices involved?

SD: I think for sure they do. I think to sing a song you have to apply some sort of attitude towards it, in a way. And I think we are comfortable or familiar with what we know Matt to do. But I think it’s good for him, honestly, sometimes to hear other people sing these songs. I know on this record definitely, there was a point where this whole film and this whole record in some ways was about him and his relationships and friends and, you know, love life and all that. But it was also about something else and someone else. And so to have everyone come in and sing it only seemed to make a lot of sense. I think it just opened up everyone’s attitudes about what it could be, a little more. And also from the musical side, like – oh okay, so now there are choral voices on it, or there are two women singing, or it’s Matt in a duet, or it’s Matt solo – just every song had a different roadmap that we kind of figured out along the way.

I think I would say that with all the musical collaborators too. Like having Mouse on Mars come and do some programming – with everyone’s input, there’s always something new to react to, versus how the five of us work together. So I think having voice or every different musician in there was for sure – for us – enlightening.

TK: And I want to ask about the significance of the women’s voices on the record. How did the members of the band think about the inclusion of specifically women’s voices when you were writing for the album, and how do you think the inclusion of those voices has influences the outcome of your work on the album?

SD: Well I think the inclusion was something that made one hundred percent sense. When we had five songs, it was kind of working in a way, but then as the record and the movie began to merge into a single project, it was like – oh okay, well having this male voice kind of narrate this whole woman’s life in the film doesn’t make sense at all. And we knew, we have a ton of people that we’ve worked with in the past or have toured with, or are married to in some cases, [laughs] and just having them involved was already making sense from a friendly perspective. We were doing projects together anyway, and then we’re just like, ‘Hey, would you guys mind to come over and sing?’ And then as soon as that happened then it started to really blossom into something that was making more sense to everyone, and it’s this larger kind of vision of it. Versus trying to kind of force something that – I don’t know – wasn’t.

TK: Can you explain a bit more about the making of the film and your personal perspective on the film, and how you and the band were involved?

SD: So Mike [Mills] made the film completely on his own over a pretty short time, I think about five days or so. And this was ahead of us even thinking about making a new record, this was like a year ahead of that probably. And so we just had it to react to at first, like the rough versions of the film, and we were really blown away by what we had seen in it. It was emotionally moving, it was sad, and we all cried several times; it’s a sad movie in some ways but it’s also just sort of normal, as far as what you see happen. Nothing is ultra-dramatic, it’s just normal things that happen in people’s lives and so I think everyone could relate to that.

I think having that film not finished, but well in progress and with us understanding the theme, it was a lot easier for us to grasp what the record could be about. Because I think before were started there were a couple of songs that had a totally different lyric and a totally different perspective, and maybe more in the Sleep Well Beast kind of aggressive perspective. And I think this sort of reflective quality I was talking about before started to emerge, and then it became this other thing. Where we’re kind of looking from an outside perspective at another person’s life, or another person’s … you know, way of just going – being. And I feel like for Matt, he also took a step back, and went ‘Oh okay, so it’s about this.’ And it just changed even how we made the record a little bit, like having Mike come into the studio, which we had never really done, having him there to work with us, or make suggestions, or disrupt things. I think that all felt more comfortable because of the themes of the film and because of the new voices, everything we talked about.

TK: I’m interested in this reflective aspect of the album that you have been talking about – and obviously you guys have been playing together for so long, so it makes a lot of sense – but can you tell me anything about the experiences and events that have helped you grow into that kind of place?

SD: Sure, I mean like I said. Take twenty years and add all the things that could happen in twenty years, and it’s like going to high school five times. And that’s how I think about it, it’s like we’ve been to high school or college. You know, five times – since we went to high school and college. And it’s like – that’s insane. And then we have five people in the band, and then we have seven people who tour with us, and now it’s like ten people. And then we have a family of people who work with us, our crew and management and everyone. And everyone honestly has known each other – the longest, I think, Brandon [Reid] our manager, and for a while our front-of-house and tour manager, fifteen-plus years.

TK :And since you’re playing with Courtney Barnett at The Mann Center in Philadelphia, I wanted to ask what the band’s relationship with Courtney Barnett is like right now? 

SD: We love the music of Courtney Barnett. She worked, thankfully, on the Day of the Dead project that we worked on, she did a song on that and it was awesome – and we’re really honored that she agreed to share this with us.

TK: Can you tell me about any other projects you’re working on outside of The National right now?

SD: There are other projects, they’re sort of in the nascent stages. We’re working on another LNZNDRF record at some point, hopefully in September. And, there’s a bunch of things always bubbling up in our world.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The National and Courtney Barnett visit The Mann Center the night of Tuesday June 11th. The National will continue to tour throughout the US and Europe for the rest of the summer in support of I Am Easy to Find. Courtney Barnett will play Firefly Music Festival later this month. Her latest single “Everybody Here Hates You” came out in April.

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