A few weeks before the release of their new album Trouble Will Find Me, the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Ohio group the National performed their song “Sorrow” at the Museum of Modern Art. More precisely, they performed it again and again for six hours straight for an installment called, matter of factly, “A Lot Of Sorrow.” So yeah, they’re aware that some people think they’re a bunch of highly composed sad sacks, but that’s not going to stop them from having their fun.
Scheduling a six-hour art stunt a few weeks before the release of a highly anticipated album and accompanying worldwide tour seems like a strange approach to time management. Throw in the second edition of the Crossing Brooklyn Ferry festival (organized by Aaron and Bryce Dessner) and the release of their most recent documentary Mistaken For Strangers and it becomes clear that The National seem to hold the idea of down time in contempt.
But just in case you worried that The National couldn’t possibly fit something else in to their schedule, bassist Scott Devendorf says that the band will soon begin work on the sequel to Dark Was The Night, the indie-rock all star charity compilation that the band curated for the AIDS charity Red Hot. (They recently got the okay from the Grateful Dead’s publishing company to start work on a covers album.) The National is so busy that it’s no wonder that Devendorf’s interview with Paste was scheduled for 9:30 in the morning.
Paste will have a larger feature on The National later this summer, but for now read on for Devendorf’s take on how the Trouble came about and why his band can’t say no to anything.
Paste: Sorry to call at such a not rock ‘n’ roll hour, but this is the time I was told to call.
Scott Devendorf: Oh, it’s no problem. I’m up.
Paste: You just had that “six hour performance of “Sorrow at the MoMA, you had the film premiere, there was the Crossing Brooklyn Ferry festival. How is it when you have an album coming up, you also have all these other things to attend to?
Devendorf: (Laughs) We always seem to cram a lot of activity in to these already busy periods. So I don’t know, it’s something we’re used to at this point, but it’s no less stressful every time it happens. But actually doing the “Sorrow” thing, the six hour thing, was actually good physical and mental training for getting things goings with this record and touring. We started working with people last minute on the record, and then immediately all this activity started. So when it came to that, it was sort of a nice respite from the usual activity. So being able to focus on one thing for six hours and to play together as a band, was really kind of relaxing in a weird way. But then as far as the Crossing Brooklyn Ferry thing, we didn’t perform at that really, but getting it together was enjoyable to do and there were a lot of friends that participated. That was a refreshing thing, in a way. We’re in Ithiaca, New York, getting ready for touring and setting up the show and rehearsing up here. So there’s a lot going on, but we try to balance it out in such a way that it looks crazy, but crazier than it really is sometimes. But it is a little frantic.
Paste: Do you guys have a hard time saying no to things that might sound interesting, even if you might be too busy?
Devendorf: I think…yeah, we do. Exactly. Sometimes we do. I think the six-hour “Sorrow” thing, it is one of those things where you agree to things and then they sneak up on you and you go “oh,” but it actually turned out to be very enjoyable and different. We tend to try and do things that are interesting to us when we can, and that was a little odd and off the wall from a normal show or something. We do try to mix things up to keep things fresh for us.
Paste: How did that one come about, anyway?
Devendorf: Ragnar Kjartansson was a fan of the song, he heard it at the end of a film or something, and somehow just contacted us, and he and (singer Matt Berninger) had a conversation, and he turned out to be a really, nice, friendly sort of guy, and the concept of this sort of long, performative thing….he uses his pieces as kind of a meditative process, it’s not supposed to be painful or a slog in anyway, it’s supposed to be spending time with one thing for a long time. He has other pieces where its part of a composition or part of an opera over and over again for an extended period of time. He has a piece where his mother spits on him for four hours straight, or something.
Devendorf: It’s not like torture or anything. It’s not like that. He’s an outgoing Icelandic dude who is definitely super-funny, there’s definitely an element of humor to all of it. So I think that intriguing to us, for a band that’s so associated with inner darkness, we’re all pretty jovial people in general. So while the song might be called “Sorrow,” there was an element of humor in the whole repetition of it for so long. There was an element of comedy in wallowing in it.
Paste: So are you guys now officially sick of it and never playing that song again?
Devendorf: No! No! No! We were kind of tired of it for a couple of days afterwards, but we did end up…you know that PBS show Artist’s Den? It’s like an hour long show. We actually played it two nights later.
It’s actually more fun to play it now. “Oh yeah, I know how to do this, backwards and forwards and backwards again.”
Paste: You guys tour really hard, and you toured really hard for High Violet. Was it tough to find time to start writing this new one?
Devendorf: Uh, yeah. We didn’t expect to get back to things so quickly. We also tend to be regular with our schedule. It takes a long time to record and write, and we end up touring really long. Not by any planning, but we tend to have three years between each record. We toured 22 months or something, and we were tired and wanted to take a break, but also the touring ended up better than how it started, so we felt like we had achieved what we wanted to do and we felt good about the band playing together. So we started writing and Matt quickly started reacting lyrically to stuff we were sending him. It just started to flow a lot quicker for some reason. We thought we might take some time off and do some other things after all that touring, but he started writing and it started really quickly and actually he wrote the first song on our record “I Should Live In Salt,” really quickly, almost in a day after getting an idea for the song. And once that locked in to place, it felt like the rest of recording was happening, and we started to make a plan to do so. I don’t…it just kind of happened, and we went “this sounds great.” We went about it in a different way than the last record. We built a studio at the end of touring for Boxer, and recorded High Violet there, and we did that again this time, but this time we did a bunch of rehearsing there in the summer, and ended up going to upstate New York in the fall, and we set up as a band and did a lot of the basic tracking, and some of it we used and some it we didn’t, but I think that aspect of it, getting everyone in the same place in a relaxed environment…it wasn’t like a crazy, commercial studio. It helped things get done quicker. We just had a different idea and attitude about how to write and record this record. We did end up recording in our studio again, but I do think the whole process was at times laid back, but at times tense as usual. We’re all picky and specific.
Paste: What song was that, again?
Devendorf: “I Should Live In Salt,” that is a very different type of song for us, which was very refreshing, because we didn’t want to make the same album over and over. It allowed us to feel “oh, we’re working now. We’re getting fresh ideas.” For that song he was singing higher, the music had an odd time-signature, it felt like something new for us, and that was the spark that got things going.
Paste: Your music can be very composed and intricate, and you definitely have a very defined aesthetic. It’s definitely something that The National Does. Listened to the new one, it doesn’t sound like you guys have changed that, but given enough time it does sound like its own thing. Is the goal to each time to find a new way to be The National? To find a new spin on a signature sound?
Devendorf: For us, we want to keep things interesting for ourselves. We want to not make the same album. But at this point the band has a sound, Matt has a voice and a way of writing. With the voice and the music, it’s readily apparent to the listener who it is. We know things that work and things that don’t, we’re trying to find things that are refreshing for us. We know we’re not going to make a disco record. But on each record we’re trying to find a new sound or a new way to play it. The last record was more of a claustrophobic style. We love it, but we didn’t want to do that again. This record is more open and, I don’t know, wide, sonically. And we were working in a more analog setting, and that affected how we thought about the sound and how it came out.
It’s funny, because it would be tough and all, but in a way it would be the easy route to say “let’s go disco or heavy metal” or some other obvious reinvention. It seems like subtly changing your sound is a tougher thing to do.
It’s not calculated. We don’t sit down and go “okay, we’ve got to make some rules that we’re going to play by.” We just try to come up with as many ideas as we can come up, like 30 each, and then we narrow it down to 20 and then to 15 that we’re going to go back and work with. We’re always searching and trying to find things. And we never know. Because our process is such that Matt doesn’t write the music but he writes all of the lyrics and a lot of the vocal melodies, he decides what he’s going to work with, and it’s not always clear what things are going to stick. We know the things he can latch on to, but sometimes he’ll latch on to things we didn’t expect.
Paste: A few weeks ago Stereogum did a list of the 10 Best National songs, and one of them was a new song “Rylan” that didn’t even make the album.
Devendorf: Yeah, we were playing that song live at the end of the High Violet touring. That song, we really like. It still exists, it just did not get to a point that we liked it for our record. The music for that song, we’re working on it. We have some pretty solid songs at the moment that are coming along.
Paste: Do you think you will take some time off after this one? It sounds like you have a lot of songs almost ready to go, do you think you might just dive right in to the next one?
Devendorf: Yeah, I don’t know, we haven’t really gotten that far yet. We do have a lot of songs that were recorded but aren’t fully formed, and I think when we get a break again we’ll work on those some more. It’s hard to say. This year and next year are going to be pretty packed with touring for this record. So I don’t know. We have out life planned out until the end of 2013.
Paste: Do you guys have that Midwestern attitude where if you’re not constantly working you start to feel bad?
Devendorf: There probably is that. I don’t know. We don’t really feel bad, we never….we always as a band we feel like we’re the Bad News Bears. “We’re not the best, we’re not some super group.” We’re talented on a certain level, but we’re always feeling like we have to work hard all the time. Even the title of the record is tongue in cheek a little bit, but it’s also true. You can’t rest on your laurels. You always have to work hard. It doesn’t come easy for us.