The National are one of the biggest indie bands around today, and their popularity is more than well-deserved. Following five superb albums (including this year's brilliant High Violet which is to be re-released in an expanded version with new tracks), and armed with an incendiary live show reputation, the band are returning to New Zealand in January to play three already sold-out shows. I talk to bassist/guitarist Scott Devendorf on a dodgy phone line which cut in and out a lot, but which lasted just long enough to allow him to mention new recordings and touring in the future.
Arguably the music is built around the rhythm work you and your brother [drummer Bryan Devendorf] do, was it a noisy household growing up?
Yeah a little bit. We started out less noisy – we were originally violin players. Then we got to middle school, high school, we got into rock, and Bryan took up the drums and I started playing the guitar. We had a little band in high school with wild guitars. Bryan and I were in different colleges but when we were growing up we had been in bands for a couple of years.
You started with Nancy, did you expect to be playing with [singer] Matt Berninger so long afterwards, and with your brother?
Actually no. After we finished with Nancy [Berninger and Scott Devendorf's college band which lasted until 1996], we were always big music fans, and had played in small bands here and there, but I think after college we didn't do music for a couple of years. I was living in New York and doing some graphic design stuff, which is what we did go to college for, and everyone kinda ended up in New York at the same time. I think the band [Project Nim] that my brother [along with current members Bryce and Aaron Dessner] had been doing for a few years had broken up. I just happened, kinda like a hobby after work. And here we are.
Is it weird revisiting the first album [2001's self-titled debut] – essentially here is an album made by a band who still have day-jobs...
Yeah it is weird for us. I still like the album – we don't play a lot of songs off of it, and it felt like a different time and place for us, as far as creatively and just with our lives altogether. You're happy at the time to make it, but I think it's like any band with your first record after you've made five records.
2003's Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers seems to be slightly forgotten - it's quite eclectic with its sound and not as self-contained as the later ones. Do you agree that it feels a little 'freer?'
Yeah, I agree. I think it's probably our biggest variety of songs and as a band we tried different things. I think it works on certain levels, and we still play it occasionally. I think again, it's like a growing, experimental record. I think by the way it's recorded as well and trying these different things, obviously a few of the other records are a little more focused. I don't know it's a fun record for us, and I still like it. Alligator, Boxer and High Violet are the ones we're better known for, but we do get a lot of requests from people at shows to play the older songs, which we do if we can.
I guess Alligator in hindsight was the turning point in terms of wider success, did it feel like it when you were recording it or during the early performances, that it was going to become this turning point for the band?
In a way yes. For us, it was the first record we did on a real label quote unquote. It was on [English indie label] Beggars Banquet and they loved it, and we were big English music fans. They had quite a good street cred. We had written and played all of the songs before we made the record. But in the recording it felt like it was adapted into something more serious and more 'real'. The other records we'd done, we had put them out on our own label, we'd been touring it and doing it ourselves, it seemed like a big step being signed on a label that was respected – yeah it was a turning point.
Did the success of Alligator put much pressure on Boxer?
Yeah it did, we tried to make a different record with Boxer. It wasn't as if Alligator had any huge commercial success, it wasn't that kind of pressure. But I think having a bit of pressure makes it a better record, because the record is different and had a bit of development to it. When we did Boxer, we had more orchestration and the horn lines on 'Fake Empire' and things like that. The sound was kinda 'thicker'.
When we were recording High Violet compared to Boxer, we were like 'we're going to dive in, but we wanted to make it a little more fun'. I think with Boxer though, at times it was a bit painful, we were spending a lot of time in the studios, spending a lot of time in Connecticut recording which involved a lot of cost. We had to leave the studio at one point and go back home for a while, which in the end, ended up being really fruitful, but it screwed up our whole scheduling ideas and our whole process a bit. Knowing we didn't want to do that again at the end of the Boxer tour, we recorded most of High Violet in Brooklyn in our own studio. Each record kinda developed in that way – Alligator was recorded all in Brooklyn but the overdubbing was done differently. With Boxer, it's not as if much changed all that much, it was just more protracted.
Did the increased instrumentation pose challenges live? You can't really imagine Fake Empire without the horns, or Little Faith without the strings for example.
Yeah, our touring band now – it's the five of us and three others in the band, who've been with us since the kinda heavy Boxer touring. We've changed as well, our songs are a little bit louder and more insular. I think we've also had to figure out how to play the songs a little bit, because it was never all of us recording in the studio at once. I guess live the songs are a little more streamlined, but we really want the songs to be as powerful as they are on record – it's a little scary to be touring.
High Violet sounds even more claustrophobic, did a bit of frustration creep in while making High Violet?
I don't know if it's frustration because in some ways High Violet was an easier record to make than Boxer. We kinda spent the same amount of time, but the actual time we were working felt a bit more appropriate this time. Frustration: Matt I know, some of the lyrics weren't even finished at the very end of the process, and it's a difficult technical process to get the music and the lyrics to align. I think every record we make is gratifying, but it's all to do with expectation when you go into it and what you give into it – with High Violet, we're happy with what we've done. It was both gratifying and frustrating.
Is it a fine line trying to get a balance between earnestness and passion – I guess if that's a criticism the band is the earnestness of it...
Yeah it is a fine line, because the music is a bit melodramatic sometimes, or at least more dramatic than may be necessary. We don't set out to make it melodramatic necessarily - I think we spend a lot of time sculpting the music that we play so that it has an emotional intensity to it. Matt does the same thing with the lyrics, he's always concerned about making songs that are too clear, or too cheesy or too unfunny or whatever. We do think about that a lot.
Were you impressed with how well the album has gone, shows selling out in five minutes etc. – you've been doing it for a while, has the success surprised you?
Yeah, we were really chuffed, especially with the record doing so well. We were all making jokes about it the other day, obviously we're very happy with the record charting on Billboard at number three, but it was like the worst record sales week in history, or twenty years or something. Obviously we're happy with it, our shows are really energised. We're trying to make every show interesting and different – that's something we value in other bands, where it's not like every show is like the other.
The album is very self-contained – was it a matter of recording just the required songs and working hard on them, or recording a whole bunch and cutting down from there? How does the re-issue fit in with the expanded songs?
It was definitely a case where we finished probably sixteen or seventeen songs for the record. There were a couple of songs that were great, but which didn't fit with the group of songs on the record. There are going to be some few extra tracks and some live songs, the songs are not going to be 'thrown away', there'll be part of the record, we're really happy about that.
You've had your music used for political purposes e.g. Fake Empire with the Obama election, is that a dangerous thing for a band to do, to draw a line in the political sand?
We get a lot of 'you shouldn't do that', but we had put up with a lot of George Bush for a lot of years, and it was that more than anything else, we were happy to contribute to what we thought was probably a change for the better. We'd never get more than involved than that, it was really just an instrumental to a video for the campaign. It wasn't one of the main songs. Beyond that it'd get a little weird, but we're certainly proud that we could get to do it. I don't really consider ourselves an ultra political band, we're more personal kind of people, thing.
You've had DA Pennebeker [Don't Look Back, Monterey Pop, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars] chronicle a show, how was it being filmed by a documentary filmmaking legend?
It was amazing, he was amazing to work with, obviously he's had lots of great stuff going back a long time. It was an opportunity which fell in our laps a little bit. We were doing a "sponsored show" but as a condition we got to choose a director to do it so we suggested him and it worked out really great. It was amazing, he was hilarious, and he had some great stories.