From his home on Long Island, Scott Devendorf of The National lists off a playlist he’s made of some of the bands he’s been listening to: Shame, described was “sort of a weird, British Fugazi,” Mac DeMarco, and Destroyer, the band from Canada that he and his brother Bryan Devendorf like. The National is one of the biggest acts in indie rock right now, with its eighth full length album, I Am Easy to Find—a robust 16-track collection of collaborations hailed as the band’s most ambitious yet, featuring vocals from Gail Ann Dorsey, Sharon Van Etten, Kate Stables, Mina Tindle, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.
The five-piece Cincinnati-born, yet largely New York-based band—which includes twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner (the latter of whom had a Grammy before The National would)—have expanded their sound, reach, and sense of freedom for creating whatever the hell kind of music they want, pleasing longtime fans and continuing to make new ones.
And yet, individually and together, it seems that The National manages to remain true to themselves, what they like, and to the people that love their music. Each member is part of a sum that makes up a truly great band. I had the opportunity to talk to Mr. Devendorf, who was quite warm and open, about where they are, what they are up to, and where they might be next.
Just last week, you were in Philadelphia for a small show at Union Transfer, which was recorded for Sirius XM. It’s really cool that you chose that particular venue for such a special show.
Oh, I love that venue…. We played there before, on the last record, and we’ve been to Philly many times. Our sound engineer and now our manager, he grew up in Philly, and we have sort of a strong tie with him. And actually, a lot of the people we work with are from or live in Philadelphia, which is interesting. Three of our engineers went to school in Philadelphia.
The setlist for the Union Transfer show was great, as they all are. Can you talk about how you put together a set list for something like the Union Transfer show versus larger stages at a festival or arena?
The set list for the first few shows that we’re doing [on this tour] are introducing the new record-type of shows, so that’s what we’re mostly playing. Union Transfer wasn’t the whole record, nor was the show we recently did at iHeartRadio… it depends. For the first five shows we played the whole record front to back, and as time goes on we’re going to mix it up with older songs from Sleep Well Beast, and the whole catalog, I guess. Aaron usually makes the setlist, but we try to make them as different as possible, which is sometimes hard to do, as we have a lot of songs now, so we have to weave in old songs. But it’s fun. We did a show in Austin that was sort of a good model for us going forward, which [was] just other songs that we never play for an entire set! We were near the end of the tour and were like ‘Hey, let’s put a set list together of all the songs that people ask for and we never play,’ and we kind of did that. And that was really enlightening for us, and fun. We hope to mix up it more, I guess, given the new record….
It’s interesting to hear that is a good model on your end, since the people who are going to your shows certainly want to hear the songs you don’t play very often, and the new album has “Rylan” on it, a song everyone hopes you’ll play, as it was previously unreleased.
[Laughs] Yeah, we will play that quite frequently, it seems. But I think even the songs we like to play are good songs, too. Even more than people like to hear sometimes (laughs). So it’s fun to change it as much as possible.
So I had read a headline, from the New York Times, that the band was poised to perhaps take a break from touring or recording, and that Mike Mills, who you worked with on the album as well as a short film, kind of brought everything back together. Is that true?
It is true! We had finished touring in mid-October 2018, and prior to that Mike had contacted us, maybe a year or more before, I think…. When Sleep Well Beast came out, he was interested in doing a music video. And we were like ‘Well, we’d love to do a music video…. whatever you want to do.’ Because we’re big fans of his movies, and he’s a super-sweet dude….So, he had approached us asking to do a music video, and we were in the middle of Sleep Well Beast, so we weren’t needing to make videos, but we were needing to do something, and we wanted to work with him. So we were like, ‘Here are a bunch of unfinished songs that we have recorded and some of them we are planning to use.’ Of the new songs, we played probably four or five of them on the Sleep Well Beast tour, near the end… “Light Years,” “Quiet Light,” and a couple more…. We sent him what we had. And he took them and sort of started to abstract the songs and put them over this musical film he was making that we later saw and were really excited about. [Ed. Note: Mills’ film is also titled I Am Easy to Find]
If you had to describe the difference in process or experience between recording or creating this album from the one previous using three words, what would they be?
Three words (laughs heartily). “Much smoother than?” (laughs) Or, “Less fighting between [us].” Nah, it was good. Like, I think having the movie as a touchdown and an inspiration really helped us. The movie is great and did help inspire a lot of lyrics and helped inspire the themes, and just kind of what the album was about in general. I think once we kind of had the film as a jumping off point of sorts, it was really inspiring to everyone involved.
Do you all have any pre-show rituals? Or, even just something you do often, since you’ve been together for so long.
(Laughs) Well, we don’t do a group hug, we don’t do a high-five, or any team-building exercises. I know why…. I guess it is because we’ve known each other longer than the band, so the ritual is just sort of getting together, and talking right before we go on. I’d say my brother is the only one with a ritual. He actually practices before we go on, like these drumstick exercises… he’ll drum on practice pad. Matt makes himself a nice cocktail, and plays DJ in our room, which can be distracting, because he switches songs a lot, in the middle of the song, and it’ll be like, “What are you doing?!” Anyway, everyone just sort of mills about, until we get the show on the road, as it were. But no ritual.
Two-parter: What did you eat in Philly around your Union Transfer show that particular night, and are there any recent food memories that you have from concert dates?
Yes, and yes…. In Philly, my cousin, before the show… we had some drinks and some salad. But when I returned to the venue, cheesesteaks of the meat variety were available. I’d missed out on that because I went to meet up with my cousin. But let’s just say cheesesteaks were eaten by many people. But you know what, my brother is obsessed with ramen noodles and finding good ramen in any city we go to. So we were just in New York, and this is his memory, but I will share it, because I do love this place. He went to Mr. Taka, this awesome place in the Lower East Side. And it’s awesome. He went there twice in 24 hours. I get to go whenever, since I live here, but since he lives in Ohio, it’s like a specialty. So we have good memories of finding ramen, and he’s usually pretty successful.
I appreciate your time. Any words for your fans, or to our readers?
A million thank you’s for caring about us at all. We’re happy that anyone enjoys our songs and get something out of them. We’re lucky to have pretty dedicated fans who are wonderful people. So, thank you, everyone.
The National perform Tuesday, June 11 at the Mann Center in Philadelphia and Wednesday, June 12 Prospect Park in New York City. The album and short film I Am Easy to Find are out now from 4AD. For more information, go to americanmary.com.