It's been almost three years since The National released their acclaimed album High Violet and went on a triumphant world tour with several stopovers in NYC. The band are finally back with their sixth full-length album, Trouble Will Find Me, due out on 4AD on May 21st. We spoke to drummer Bryan Devendorf yesterday to get a sneak peek at the new album.
Before your last record, High Violet, came out, it sounded in interviews like there was a lot of stress involved with making the record, a lot of "pain." What was the process like making this album? We're the same people, but we're older now and we're more set in our ways. So this time it seemed a little bit more laid back in terms of pain.
However, I suffered some physical pain while playing some of the beats because I wasn't entirely in shape, and we'd decided to track some of the more rockin' songs at the beginning of the basic tracking session—that was at the Clubhouse in Rhinebeck, New York. But it was actually quite fun and it was a very relaxing basic tracking session because we were out in the woods. Besides a power outage we had during the hurricane, it was a great time.
How do you get yourself physically prepared for the sessions? How should I? [Laughter] Basically, I think the thing is I practice drums here and there, like an hour or two a day, but I don't practice drums eight hours a day—so I think the thing to do is to realize that when we're doing the first attempt.
But I guess the usual stuff: crunches, hot showers, epsom salt baths, and like, wristbands for compression, to tighten up the surrounding tissue. I'm kind of an amateur sports therapist for myself. Mainly it's like: practice but don't over-practice, or it'll ruin the spontaneity of it and it'll actually maybe be more detrimental if you overdo it. Don't overdo it.
In the press release for Trouble Will Find Me, there's a quote from [lead singer] Matt Berninger about "trying to disprove our own insecurities," and now feeling like you've achieved that. Can you expand on that? What does that mean? Well, I can't speak for Matt, but I want to interpret it to mean you're putting yourself out there, especially as a singer. I'm kind of in the background, I get to sit down onstage, while he's in front—it's like, be careful what you wish for. 'I want to be in a rock band!' But the attendant pressures and anxieties of performing and being a front man are very stressful at times.
At this point, we're much more confident. I think Matt's definitely more confident and this is his strongest lyric writing, and his strongest range. He quit smoking a couple years ago, and I guess in that time he gained a lot more control over his voice.
So what's the mood of the new album? Let me think about it. There's some songs that remind me of styles we've done in the past. One song in particular makes me think, "oh, it could be on Cherry Tree." And there are some uptempo songs that are unlike anything we've done.
I couldn't say what the mood is. I would say it ranges from upbeat to introspective, and it's kind of funny at times. The tone will sound super serious but what he's singing is actually funny.
I've always thought that was one of the most under-appreciated qualities of your music—it's easy to overlook it in a song like "Karen." Yeah, there's definitely some humor that's sort of tucked inside of one movie-sounding number.
Are there any new musical textures or instruments that you guys haven't explored as much in the past?: There are. There's new and old. There are some drum machines provided by Sufjan Stevens—he did some other things too, but he had this drum machine and he did some cool little parts on that. It's on a bunch [of songs], it's definitely on "Demons," there's some subtle stuff on "Pink Rabbits," and definitely on "I Need My Girl." But it's not like Daft Punk or anything.
He also did some synths. There are some synthy textures. [Guitarists] Aaron and Bryce [Dessner] acquired this pretty awesome keyboard, the Korg DMS-20, that's probably the most go-to synth on the record.
There were a good amount of synths of Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. Is it that sort of feel? Yeah, I guess it's harking back to that in some ways... but this is definitely more refined and a little better.
Well, you always want to be getting better. Yeah it's true, continuous improvement is our goal.
Are there any other guest stars on the album, besides Sufjan? There are several. I know [Arcade Fire's] Richard Reed Parry did a lot of great stuff. [Doveman] Thomas Bartlett was all over it. There were a lot of great musicians playing interesting instruments: there was a bass clarinet, regular clarinet, there's strings, violin, viola, cello, there's brass…it's all used in these textual shifts rather than like, 'here's the brass!' It's subtle shifts.
There are some great guest vocalists that did really awesome parts: [St. Vincent] Annie Clark, Sharon Van Etten, and Nona Marie Invie, from the band Dark Dark Dark.
Are there any songs that National fans will be surprised by on the new album? It's hard to say. It very much sounds like the same band, but I think we've definitely made some moves that we haven't made in the past. I guess time will tell.
I was reading some older interviews with you from around High Violet—do you still worry that the band is pigeonholed into this 'sad-guy rock' category? I don't know. I don't keep up with Googling the band much. I think when you hear a guy singing in a lower register, it's instantly registered as something downcast. But just to get written about at all is a truth in itself. That someone even thinks to pigeonhole us is cool with me.
I was curious about the title of the album—it's got a very different tone than the more opaque titles on the last couple of albums (Alligator, Boxer, High Violet). Well, the phrase "trouble will find me" is in the lyrics of one of the songs ["Sea Of Love"]. It's this really cool part. There are elements on the album that are sort of classic National, but then there are other elements that are new for us. That is one of the new ones.
But I think it evokes lots of things. For me it's sort of fatalistic in a way, and maybe a bit paranoid. There's a wryness to it as well, like "oh, well," but when you're hearing the record, there's some triumph and confidence that belies what one's initial reaction to the title might be.
Are there any songs you're particularly excited about playing live? Pretty much all of them, because some of them seem like they're ready to go and we can do what we do—others will require a bit of arranging and adaptation to be showcased live.
You've already played a couple of them live in December at All Tomorrow's Parties. All those songs are really fun to play. There's a track called "I Should Live In Salt" [formerly known as "Lola"], a track called "Humiliation" [formerly known as "Sullivan"], and "Graceless" [formerly known as "Prime"] that we played. At least from the drummer's standpoint, they're pretty interesting—they're a lot of fun.
Are they typical of the album's sound? Yeah, in the sonics, obviously. But there are several songs that are quite different from those, they're stripped down, barer, minus the insistent, unrelenting drumming that characterizes a lot of our work. There's a fair amount of that kind of drumming, too! But there's some really beautiful tracks, like the last one, "Hard To Find." That one has a really, really strong vocal part. There's this beautiful piece of music around this odd fixed-meter thing—it's very natural and, for lack of a better term, human, which I generally find appealing.
I really love your drumming, and am always impressed by the way you can fix on a hypnotic pattern—and yet there are all these subtleties and a lot of small changes along the way. Were you influenced by the Krautrock bands? Definitely—Can, Neu. I was talking to—this sounds so pretentious—I was talking after one of our shows to the filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, and he made this comment: "I really like your drumming, it reminds me of rain falling through the leaves on a tree," all the details. But i think a lot of that is kind of miking? Like the way our engineer Brandon uses like overheads and pitch mics to bring that out.
There's definitely some hypnotic beats on this record, definitely on the track "Don't Swallow the Cap."
That's a weird title. It is.
Didn't a very famous writer die from swallowing a cap...like a beer bottle or something? [Editor's Note: We looked it up later, and it was Tennessee Williams; he choked to death on the cap of a bottle of eyedrops he was applying] Oh. I haven't heard that but that but that sounds like a freakishly awful way to go. It's definitely a hypnotic, repetitive beat on that track for sure.
My goal, really, is not to think when we play. Just to sort of zone out, or enter into some…not a mystical state, but just not really think about what I'm gonna do next, just exist in that zen plane. Some French philosopher talks about the old man with a cane—if you ask him how he was able to walk with the cane he couldn't take a step, because thinking about it gets in the way of the body's natural ability to do its own thing.
There was one song you guys played live that I didn't see in the tracklisting—"Rylan." Did that not make the cut? No, that's not on the record. Didn't make it.
Was there any reason? I know a lot of fans seemed to like that one. Oh, well, there was no real conversation like, 'You know what guys? We gotta kill Rylan.' I think it just sorta happened that other songs took priority and attention, and I think it just didn't really suit the mood of the collection.
By the way, I looked up that thing on the cap, and it was Tennessee Williams who died. Oh, that's so sad. Well, yeah, that's interesting, because in the very first, like National 1.0, there was a Tennessee Williams reference in an old, old song…I forget what it was called.
"City Middle"? [Which has the line, "I think I'm like Tennessee Williams/I wait for the click/I wait, but it doesn't kick in"] Well, I guess it's in that too, but I'm thinking of this unrecorded, unreleased song called…"To Be Wanted" or something? Perhaps there was a Tennessee Williams thing back then or something.