The National’s very own Scott Devendorf is very excited to return to New Zealand - gushing to me on the phone that he hopes to have spare time to explore the country, and describes their upcoming show at Auckland’s Villa Maria Winery next February as “idyllic.”
We spoke with Devendorf recently about the band's upcoming Auckland show, their new album ‘Sleep Well Beast’, and growing as a band…
...that is the connective tissue - dreamy spaces between the moments of the song.
COUP DE MAIN: The National are returning to New Zealand next February - which marks your fifth visit to Auckland. Are you excited to return again?
THE NATIONAL - SCOTT DEVENDORF: We are excited, yeah! It’s always a pleasure to go to New Zealand. It's been a little while too.
CDM: Is there anything in New Zealand you plan on doing if you have any time off?
SCOTT: I had great hope, which I think has since been dashed a bit because of a scheduling change, I thought we would have extra time to take some vacation after we play in New Zealand because we've always wanted to see-- we're usually always only in Auckland and we never get to go out, so it would be nice to do that, but I don't know if it'll be in the cards for this trip.
CDM: You'll just have to make a special trip down another time.
SCOTT: Exactly, we do love it there. My brother [Bryan Devendorf] was threatening to move there last time we were there.
CDM: It sounds like a rad venue too - it’s being held at a winery, and it’s all ages, an outdoor venue, and people can bring their families. Do you like mixing it up with shows, playing standard venues alongside venues like this?
SCOTT: That sounds idyllic.
CDM: It’s really cool that you guys have literally grown your fanbase from the bottom up in New Zealand, just as you did in the U.S. - your first ever show in NZ was at the Kings Arms, and since then you guys have come back again and again, steadily playing bigger venues, headlining ACL Festival a few years back, and now coming back for your own Summer show. Has this ethic of steadily playing larger venues been something really important to you guys?
SCOTT: It has, I mean for us we did more or less the same thing in the U.S. so it took a lot longer obviously. We had to do a lot more touring to get to that point in the U.S! But over the years, having done ever expanding places as more people heard about the band and stuff, I think it was helpful to our personal growth as well as to the band. We started the band later in the years too or later than most bands would begin, like almost when we were 30, some of us were young, mid-20s but 30, but it took several years after that to even get anyone to notice in the sense of it being a legitimate endeavour. So yeah, I think it has been nice for us to do that, I guess in a sort of micro way like New Zealand happened, and I don’t mean it like New Zealand is small, but in reference to size and population compared to the U.S., everywhere else you get a version of the same thing like you said with the Kings Arms and then up to headlining ACL [Auckland City Limits] over the course of many years. We're grateful and thankful and happy that people come to the shows and like them.
CDM: It’s interesting, so many bands won’t even come to New Zealand unless they can play a 2,000 or 3,000 capacity venue - it seems like the touring ethic for bands nowadays has changed slightly.
SCOTT: Yeah, I don't know why, because they're missing out. The closest equivalent place for near us would be California, climate-wise, and that sort of thing. But I think there is even a cooler, just the fact of an island nation is something awesome. Also, you know, 'Lord Of The Rings' which is wonderful, so it's a deep sort of-- magical, literally magical.
CDM: So many bands plan their holidays around touring New Zealand so it's like, you may as well stay a bit longer and have a holiday.
SCOTT: Yeah, exactly! That was our plan this time but like I say, might be cut off by scheduling issues, but last time I think several of our crew members stayed for like ten days and took a caravan and went down south and everything. We were inspired by their journey, but I would love to do that sometime.
CDM: So ‘Sleep Well Beast’ is The National’s seventh album - which is insanely impressive for bands existing today - people tend to be so fickle nowadays, but you guys are so beloved. How did approaching this album, differ to your previous work on albums?
SCOTT: Like you said, we have made a lot of records, this is our seventh, and each one is really hard. We've been starting with nothing and no content, and then having to make a bunch of songs that you all love, and so within the band, you never know at the beginning where it's gonna go but for us, we have this thing that we're at least trying to not repeat ourselves as far as-- our sound has certain signature things, like for example the type of lyrics in the minor key existence that we all live in, but I think we're always trying to find something that keeps it fresh. So for this time it meant just kind of letting go of the reigns a little bit as far as the structure of the songs and letting them kind of play themselves a bit and improvising over ideas, then coming back and collecting and re-listening to those and configuring new ideas. So I think for us, it was probably a different approach on top of our usual sort of structural thing that we do. It's probably the freshest thing for us.
CDM: Do you have a favourite song on ‘Sleep Well Beast’?
SCOTT: I have favourites that I like to listen to or my favourites that I like to play. I feel like they are pretty fun in both regards, but I would say that 'Guilty Party' is really good and fun, well not fun but pretty sad as a topic - it has a 'dancing with tears in your eyes' kind of vibe to it. The first song 'Nobody Else Will Be There' I think is really poignant and nice and is very fun to play, but is also dark and sad a little bit. I just picked out my favourite dark ones, I like those the best.
CDM: You guys have been introducing new songs into your live set ahead of the album’s release - do you find it important to give the songs a life before the studio versions are released?
SCOTT: We do. We have tried that in the past, and I guess all along we have sort of been touring and playing and we've not always done it the same way, but we have generated songs that have live performances in a way, but we've never really like gone out with a plan. Four years ago basically, or over the course of the last four years I should say, we played shows where it's like, 'Okay, we're going to try out two or three new ideas that we have on the record and develop them.' So 'Walk It Back', one of the new songs, we played that at leat two years ago at a couple festivals and shows. The song changed and evolved over the recording process, but there is a portion of it that was kind of tried out before recording it. The more that we can do that the better, in some ways it's sort of like 'road-testing' a song, which I think is super valuable because you kind of get a sense for how people react to it and how you feel about playing it and if you feel a natural good thing or if it gives you a feeling of anxiety <laughs> which there always is a little bit when you're trying something new. I think it's important to have a space to try it in, and what better space than in front of a bunch of people? We have tried that before and then some songs have just died on the operating table so to speak, as far as performing them, we’re like, ‘Eh, yeah that was good,' but never went back to it. But that has also happened in the recording process too, at the end of each record we end up with a bunch of songs that we didn't use or could've been, that were 80% there. There are a few this time that we'll actually revive in the future.
CDM: Have you guys ever thought of doing a B-sides release of stuff that doesn't make the album?
SCOTT: Yeah, we actually have done it - not like B-sides in collected works type of thing, but we did a couple of EPs. A few years ago after a record, ten years ago.
CDM: The 'Cherry Tree' EP is one of my favourites!
SCOTT: Thanks! I love that too. Thank you, I'm glad you like it. A lot of that didn't make it onto 'Alligator', but yeah, that was fun to make. The thing I was talking about, the EP collection and B-sides thing, I know 'High Violet' had a second disc with it, actually 'Alligator' did too, like a second disc with some B-sides and stuff, but then after 'Boxer' we did 'The Virginia EP' which sort of looks like 'Boxer' on its cover with the black and white and yellow, and it has some live versions on it and then some collected B-side type of songs that we haven't [officially released yet]-- actually a couple of those I would like to pull out because we've been talking about trying to re-learn some of the older songs and kind of revive them and send them into the world. Anyway, there's 'The Virginia' EP that has the little extras on it.
CDM: Important question, will a studio version of ‘Rylan’ ever see the light of day?
SCOTT: Good question! That was one of the songs that I was thinking of when I said that I think some songs die on the operating table. I don't know, maybe? I think we tried to record that song and then we went and played it and we kind of threw it away, but it is one of those ones that you wonder, 'Oh, what happened to that one?' It could be a nugget to revive in the future - it depends. Fingers crossed on that one, the verdict is out.
CDM: Is there any song in particular on ‘Sleep Well Beast’ that you feel best represents the band at this stage of their career?
SCOTT: I don't know if there is one that best represents it, but I'll pick three that kind of have the aspects of everything on the record. I think the last title-track, the last song 'Sleep Well Beast' it was a merging of two songs into one and the process was kind of lengthy, but there's always something in the music that spaceships kind of whatever journey we're continuing to, and I think it sort of ended up informing a lot of what we liked about the mixes and the aesthetic in the other songs. It's more like a mantra or a drone or an endless loop of beat, so in that song because it wasn't really intended to be like a 'song'-song with a first chorus and a bridge, you know, that structure - it was this like open-ended thing. That one and then 'Guilty Party' I think is a nice amalgam of the electronic element of drumming plus real drumming/human-drumming next to it, and also the way everything fits together in 'Guilty Party' is important, and for that song but also for the way that the record fits together and uses all of these patchwork puzzle pieces and everything is kind of happening in that kind of pointillistic way with layers, layers, layers of chords and orchestration and that kind of thing. I feel like in this one everything is a little more separated, where you can listen to the mix and you can be like, 'Oh yeah, I hear all those parts.' So 'Guilty Party' and then the first song, 'Nobody Else Will Be There', it’s sort of dreamy and in the structure of the song too with verse then chorus kind of, but there are builds in the song and then it sort of drops away, and I think that kind of happens a lot in the record, that is the connective tissue - dreamy spaces between the moments of the song.
CDM: As well as The National, you also have LNZNDRF - who actually formed in New Zealand. How did it come about / why did you decide to form this project?
SCOTT: It's a project that Ben Lanz, Bryan, and myself had been talking about doing for way more time than we have actually been doing it. We all share a love for jammy Krautrock music. We wanted to make a project in that sort of direction and that kind of feeling where it's not to focus on making a giant song per say, it's more like a ride down a desert highway or something, so it's sort of a shared love. Also, not worrying about whatever expectations, it's just this weird thing that sort of came out of nowhere and we had this feeling about it, so that was the inspiration. It's like a dedication to Krautrock but also just fun playing together because we're all obviously really comfortable playing together. Ben is a great songwriter and song-crafter, engineer, musician, everything, and so I think it was just fun for him to take all this stuff that we generated in two days of jam and structure it into something. It was pretty much the same thing but was shorter and more concise, and then we would get together again to play on it and finish it, basically a week of studio. We're hoping to do another one of those sometime, when I have the time. We are a little booked right now looking at the calendar, it seems hard.
CDM: You guys have done so much benefit work over the years - most recently playing a presidential candidate benefit for Hillary Clinton in 2016. What’s it been like, making an album, and living throughout all this political turmoil?
SCOTT: It has been interesting and difficult. I think that for us, every record we have made seems to fall-- because we make a record every 3-4 years, these records fall and somehow align exactly with the United States Election process and the voting, so it seems like every time we're making or mixing a record, there is a new president or the same president being up for election. So it's not that different from every album we've ever made, but I think particularly this election was way more contentious and divided, and so I think we definitely felt that. We were working on the record before the election and then finishing it after it happened, so it's a strange bit of tension. A lot of excitement heading up to November 8th, but after, it was a little bit, you know… Regrouping... A little escapism after it happened... We were just like... We had a hope and idea that it might have been different, but it wasn't.