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Interview: Scott Devendorf of The National

INDIO, CA - APRIL 17:  Musician Scott Devendorf of the band The National performs during Day 3 of the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival 2011 held at the Empire Polo Club on April 17, 2011 in Indio, California.  (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
INDIO, CA - APRIL 17: Musician Scott Devendorf of the band The National performs during Day 3 of the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival 2011 held at the Empire Polo Club on April 17, 2011 in Indio, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
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by David Safar

June 04, 2019

Ahead of headlining Rock the Garden on June 29, Scott Devendorf, bass-player for The National, sat down with The Current's music director David Safar to talk about the band's latest release, I Am Easy to Find. The two touched on the record's accompanying 24-minute-long film of the same name, touring around the country, and Devendorf's love of krautrock. Click the player above to hear the full interview, and read a transcript below.

So the new album from The National is out now, how does it feel?

It's exciting, a little nerve-wracking as usual, just getting it all together and making it all work.

Do you mean getting it to all work now that you're performing it live?

Yeah, because we make the records and they're done, and then we have to figure out their presentation in a way after that. We did a lot of promotional shows leading up to this, and it's been fun and interesting to get all the pieces together, like singing and playing parts.

Yeah I saw the show at Union Transfer last night, I imagine that's one of the first times you're playing the whole album live?

Yeah one of the first times, for sure. Yeah.

How did it feel when it was done?

It was a good show, energetic, some pieces missing, but it was okay. It's fun to get it all happening. There were no strings last night, we've been playing with strings for a while, so we are filling in those gaps and figuring out 'what do we do now?'

You play so many instruments when you are on-stage performing with The National, do you sometimes find yourself longing to play an instrument that is not in your hands at the moment?

You've got to live in the moment and focus on the task at hand, I don't think too far ahead.

You made this album fairly quickly, right?

Yes and no. Mike was working on the film a year ahead of us making the record basically, and that was sort of the touchstone for what we could do with the music. We had seven or so songs in the oven that we'd been playing live during the Sleep Well Beast tour and we'd kinda finished and we were like "oh, he's done this with the film." We really liked the film, so that became like, "oh why don't you come to the studio with us and help us figure out the rest." And we started to draw influence from things that were in the film and the script and then Matt and Carin and Mike worked back and forth on some of the themes and ideas that were happening.

For the listeners who don't know about the film, it's Mike Mills, it's 24 minutes long, it's beautiful.

Thanks Mike Mills.

It is something you want to watch multiple times. What was your first impression of it when you saw it?

We saw multiple versions of it and every time I was crying, so I was like "this is pretty good." It's a great encapsulation of someone's life in 24 minutes. It's like wow, seeing that all side-by-side and all the things that happen, like normal things I guess, but I was blown away by the emotion and the senstiivty in the film. We knew that would be the case knowing his other films, but just that he was doing it with us was overwhelming.

So you write the songs for the album and you have this companion film, after seeing the final version of it, has it changed the meaning of the songs on the album for you?

Yes. I think because about half the songs came from the film in a way. We did a few shows where we were showing the film and having a chat about the film and then playing a show. I watched the film a couple times [but] by the third or fourth time—I get really wrapped up in it so I didn't watch it for the last couple times and it was helpful for me. There's more music than there is in the film but it all feels like the movie in a way.

Let's get back to talking about the music and the tour that you're about to go on. How does The National prepare to go on the road?

We have some rehearsals, but not many, and then we just kind of start and figure out along the way, which is exciting. We have more people with us this time. We have James McAlister who is another drummer; we have Kate Stables and Pauline de Lassus who are joining us for most of the tour and occasionally other people come in, so it's like this moving target in a way. We did a lot of rehearsal this time, and by that I mean four days of rehearsal. I think less is more in a way. We know it's going to change every time depending on who's with us and the circumstances so you can't prepare too much.

Adding instrumentation to The National is not a new thing for you, but adding voice as an instrument is a new thing. How does that change things?

We have two additional vocalists, sometimes three, and then we have other people in the band singing too. I think the band is very much known for Matt's voice and drumming and the storytelling. I think having other people break that up and contribute to [it] but also sort of take it a different direction is super refreshing for us because as much as we love the sound of what we do, in some ways it's also good to break that habit.

Last night seeing Matt with two additional singers on stage up front. It's a different dynamic and it also looked like you were having a ton of fun.

There's more camaraderie I think. Everyone brings their own special energy to it. Pauline and Kate are right there and they can turn around and we can have a smile during the show. I think it also takes some weight off of [Matt's] shoulders because he's sharing the [singing] duties. It makes you more communicative along the way, which is always good.

We're really looking forward to having you in Minneapolis for Rock the Garden on June 29.

Yeah, super psyched.

You've spent quite a bit of time in our part of the country collaborating with the Eau Claire Festival, do you have any first impressions of the Wisconsin-Minnesota region?

We have always loved coming there over the years with the band. [We have] a lot of good friends up there and love the weather. I know it gets cold, but we always look forward to every show in the region because we always have a nice time.

Is there some sense of place that's connected to Hudson and Eau Claire? I've been to Hudson and I saw your Basilica-on-Hudson show and when I arrived I just felt this sense of place that felt very common between the two spaces.

Yeah, I don't know what it is exactly but there is water and trees and open space at both places and this kind of bedrock feeling. It's just big space in a way. The band started in Brooklyn and we're from Cincinnati, so we have these experiences that are related to each other—making music in Brooklyn and making music in upstate New York and playing it in Wisconsin. I feel like the band was claustrophobic for a while in sound and feel and then as we've gotten older and played together more and gone to these different places—it does change how you make music and think about it. We simplified it in some ways and then also made it bigger and wider.

You have so much more control now, right?

We had a studio in Brooklyn that was great but small. It was never a place where we could all set up and play. We made High Violet there; we made part of Trouble Will Find Me there. We've learned more about how to make records and expand beyond what we know.

Do you have that moment of realization like 'oh I just learned something new in making this record' or is it more like after the fact where you look back?

You don't know when you're doing it, it's kind of like 'I don't know if this is going to work' but I think we've been friendly to each other about [trying new things]. Bryce gave up guitar playing for ten days and just played synthesizer. There's been more of a 'try it before you buy it' thing. In recording that stuff and then messing with it—Aaron's been instrumental in producing the records too and collecting all the stuff and then we sift through it. When we were paying for commercial studios—as much as we loved them, there was always the sense of time and the clock and money. [When we were] making Boxer we had to leave even though we weren't done, but we were still on the clock. There's less of that now, so that's good.

So do you feel that this album is as complete as it could be?

Yeah, I do. In the sense that it encapsulates a time. I also like that it's a little open-ended. We can do something with it live differently... it's not an air-lock.

I know that you have a love of krautrock and I was wondering if you could give our listeners some recommendations for krautrock that you're listening to now? Or something they should know about krautrock?

They should know it's a wide horizon. There's the obvious Neu!, Can, Amon Duul '70s stuff. I think the spirit of krautrock is more important—it's a fun and open-ended way of music making.

I hear a lot of krautrock influences on this new album in particular, more so than previous albums from The National, do you feel like you're bringing that into the group more and more?

Yeah, definitely. We all like it in one way or another and I'd like to think that we brought a little bit of it into our group. There was a band—maybe Can—but they were talking about what they were doing growing tomatoes and weed and living in this little commune and I think that part of it—not that we're doing that—but I think there's a funny sort of lesson to be learned. It's not about music as much as it's about spirit sometimes.

We look forward to you bringing that spirit to Minneapolis in June, thank you so much for the time.

Thank you, David.

The National headline Rock the Garden on June 29, 2019. Get tickets here.

Scott Devendorf
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 28: Musical artist Scott Devendorf of The National accepts the award for Best Alternative Music Album onstage at the Premiere Ceremony during the 60th Annual GRAMMY Awards at Madison Square Garden on January 28, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images)
Theo Wargo/Getty Images