For years, the five members of The National were all living around Brooklyn as they developed and honed their sound—in recent years, however, they've been scattered across the country, with only bassist Scott Devendorf still living nearby on Long Island. But Devendorf thinks that space has been good for the band, who are releasing their eighth studio album, I Am Easy To Find, today, on the heels of one of their most prolific and fruitful periods together.

"We would tour a lot and then we would come home and then we'd see each other every day," he said while laughing. "In some ways, now we focus more when we get together to record or work on projects. And it strengthens our socialness while on tour. Because that's really the only time we get to spend together."

The National have mastered a certain brooding, complex, wine-drunk rock sound, one more focused on time signatures and textures than power chords. Their music has always been particularly synonymous with singer Matt Berninger's crisp baritone, as he throws out witty one-liners and devastating confessions. The new album is the most radically different they've ever produced, largely because Berninger's voice is just one of many featured on the album—instead, it's filled with guest female vocalists who help bring a new perspective to the songs and band.

We spoke with Devendorf about the genesis for the new songs, how the band's collaboration with filmmaker Mike Mills (20th Century Women, Beginners) inspired the new album, and why it's easier being in The National in 2019 compared to 2009.

(The band will also perform tonight in Manhattan at the “iHeartRadio Album Release Party with The National." The intimate event will feature a Q&A and live performance, which will broadcast live on iHeartMedia’s Alternative and Adult Album Alternative radio stations at 7 p.m.—fans can also tune into a 60-minute livestream on at 7 p.m.)

Two of the whiteboards put on social media by The National

For years, you guys have talked about or hinted that you wanted to release a companion record immediately after one of your albums, and this seems to be the first time you've actually pulled it off. Congrats on that. Thank you. Yes, our great, great endeavor has finally worked out. These records [2017's Sleep Well Beast and 2019's I Am Easy To Find] are companion pieces in a lot of ways, partly because some of the songs were at least born in the Sleep Well Beast sessions and then toured for a year or so. Songs like "Light Years" and "The Pull of You" and "Deluged"—or what it's now called, "Quiet Light." There's about five or six that we played here and there on tour during the last record cycle and had started to work on before then, but never really gelled until after. I'm happy that we were able to keep things still alive.

I want to go back quickly to 2015, 2016. If I'm not mistaken, that is when you guys were holed up in your studio in Long Pond working on what would become Sleep Well Beast, right? That's right, yes.

Around that time, there were a couple of photos that you guys put on Instagram (see above) that showed the white boards where you had listed all the working song titles in progress, and there were dozens of songs on them. Only 11 came out on that album. So as you're working on the songs, what kind of discussions are you having to figure out which ones will be released when, and which ones fit together? It depends. Some of them we feel strong about musically and kind of push for them, sometimes that doesn't work. Sometimes it's mostly—or at least it was at that time—things that Matt was gravitating towards working on sketch-wise, and then we would adjust our route accordingly and focus on whatever those songs are and then rally around whatever the strongest batch turns out to be.

So there's a lot of things that have sat on the backburner or have continued to sit on the backburner for awhile. I know there was a bunch from even from like Trouble Will Find Me era, things that we almost fully-recorded and then never really used. And some of it's trash and then some of it's...who knows? Could be something. Things have lingered around for many years at a time and then become songs, and then sometimes things just sort of like fade away or become something else, you know?

Is there any example of this in particular? "Rylan" on the new record, we played like 10 years ago for the first time. Then we finally got around to recording it 10 years later. I have a recording of it from the Beacon Theater in like 2011, which is funny. Hasn't changed that much, but in some ways it's changed a lot so that's probably the most recent example of that.

I remember seeing you guys perform it at the Beacon back then. It became a real fan favorite and then seemed to disappear. We'd play it every once in awhile and we never really got around to properly recording it. And we finally decided that today's the day.

Was it recorded for Sleep Well Beast? Were we working on it then? I can't even remember. I think we did do some work on it and then tabled it, and then brought it back out when we started to work in the studio last winter, and I think what we ended up doing was combining some stuff we did in like 2013 and maybe even 2009 that kind of fused it. We brought out some parts like the bass part, and some synth stuff, and some weird stuff we tried when we were doing Trouble Will Find Me too. And then we combined it with new ideas.

Generally speaking, do you guys finish much of the music—the instrumentals—and then let Matt sort of run wild with it? Or is it sort of happening in sync with each other, in conjunction with each other? It's usually in conjunction. It's been more and more like that, because we don't want it to be too rigid or too formed sometimes, so we kind of build around what he does react to, and then we'll change things. And particularly this time, working with [filmmaker] Mike Mills who helped us produce the record, he was very involved in isolating things and pulling out things and simplifying things sometimes. Or focusing on one very complex thing and deleting everything else. I think that process is pretty fluid. Some of the songs are basically formed, the parts and the kind of general feel, but then the songs can really turn around completely and become a rock song, or a very quiet song instead.

Usually at the beginning they're in that nascent stage, they're usually a very simple thing like a guitar and a piano, or a couple bass parts and a drum. Just very simple things that Matt can figure out pieces to and then we sort of try and make it more interesting than just what it is.

When you finished working on Sleep Well Beast, there were a ton of leftover tracks and stuff that you were working on that didn't end up a part of that. At that point, were you guys thinking that you might try to put this together into a new record, or did that only happen when Mike Mills got involved? It's a little of both. There were still a bunch of tracks that, probably half of what was on the board, we felt could be great, where we liked a lot of things about them, but they just didn't really fit on Sleep Well Beast or Matt hadn't really gravitated to them yet. Or he had the lyrics but wasn't finished with them, or didn't feel like the theme was working with what was happening on Sleep Well Beast. So a lot of that stuff was tabled or completely discarded.

And then Mike came along, and he was working on things about a year ahead of us actually going back in the studio last winter for sessions. We weren't really planning on it. But then he approached us saying, "I want to make a video with you guys," and we were like, we love everything you do, why don't you make something here if you want to, or do whatever you want. "Here's a bunch of ideas that we have." And that was song parts or fragments and lyrics—partially recorded things. And then he kind of took all that and further fragmented it and started to mix the sounds himself with his film team, to make sense with what he was making as sort of what started out as an idea for a video and then became this short film thing.

So he was definitely instrumental in saying like, "Oh, you could do this with this, or you could do that..." and we really liked hearing everything abstracted and sort of broken apart and reconfigured in a way that wasn't how we would typically do it in the past. So Mike kind of doing that fragmentation of our songs helped us re-figure them out.

So that really squared us on to start a bunch of new songs. Matt and his wife Carin Besser, she writes lyrics with Matt a lot, so they work together really well. Obviously they're married, but while we were finishing touring they were trying to pull out some ideas in the lyrics that kind of made sense with the new themes on the new record. So that was all happening pre-October last year. When we finished with touring the last album around then, we realized there were at least seven tunes that were strong that we had been playing on tour. So we went back and started to reconfigure them a bit, and it just started building from there.

It sounds like you guys really opened up a creative collaboration with him in a way that was unusual and different from what you'd done in the past. Yeah, I would say so. I think it's helpful because obviously we respected what he has done in his films and stuff, but he was very personable. He's just a little bit older than us, so he's somehow full of wisdom. But he's also very friendly, very down to earth, very easy to get along with. I think because he's a film director he's able to manage these big projects with all these personalities, and so working with a band for him is probably way simpler than working with a bunch of actors on a film set and all the technology and all the crews. There's so much more involved in making a movie just in terms of the amount of people. We were a relatively small amount of people.

And we were all kind of just working together on like an art project, you know? He had made the film on his own volition and skill and then we kind of like, jumped in and tried to do our part, basically.

I wasn't sure what to expect when I heard there was a companion film. Obviously, visual albums and visual accompaniments to musical projects are pretty trendy these days. "Is this an extended promotional video, a film in its own right, something else?" But when I saw it at the Beacon, I found it incredibly moving actually Yeah, I did too. We saw it in its early stages, but probably still months away from being finished, and it really, really affected us when we were still working on the album—the themes of it, the life story thing. It's super moving.

Were you personally a fan of his work before that? Oh yeah. I love 20th Century Women, Beginners, and his early film Thumbsucker. He was, I guess, teasing himself, like, "That was a career-ender." I'm like, "I don't know man, it's pretty good." I just love the personal storytelling aspect of his movies. That's my favorite kind of movie. Small, focused on a family or focused on an encounter, where it's a personal drama. They're stories about his mom and dad. I guess we could relate to his type of storytelling, and he was also very connected with us. He is a self-professed fan of the band for a few years before he even contacted us. So, we're like, "Oh, really? Cool! Do anything you want."

The other obvious, huge textural change with the album is the fact that there are so many other voices that aren't Matt's on it, a lot of female voices. What was the idea behind that? Because it's the biggest change compared to all the other records. Yeah definitely, and it was intentional. When we entered the studio in October to start working on stuff again after touring, I think so much had gone on. And everyone who performs on the record is a friend in one way or another. These are longtime friends who happen to also be talented singers and performers. Or were friends that we toured with or people that Aaron [Dessner] has produced records with.

So it was kind of like we already had this group of people that we always wanted to work with, but the best we have done in the past is, "Hey, do you guys want to go on tour with us, please?" And sometimes they could, like Lisa Hannigan or Sharon Van Etten. Then someone new to us was Gail Ann Dorsey, who we met through doing some Planned Parenthood benefit up in Hudson Valley. And she's known obviously for being David Bowie's bassist and singer. No big deal. She lives up there and Aaron befriended her through these events that we work on.

As far as how that all came to pass, we knew all these people, and the themes of the movie started to inform the lyrics a lot. And Matt and Carin and Mike really focused on: here's the story arc of this woman's life and all the normal things that happen in someone's life, but they're lended a certain intensity by being compressed into 20 minutes.

You get this big picture of what it's like. That definitely informed half of the songs that came out of it. The choral features and everything started to become melodies: "Wouldn't it be great if we did this and had this person sing this, and have these guys do this here?" And Matt was totally up for that because, like I said, with the themes of the record it just didn't make sense to have this movie about a woman's life be totally sung by this baritone dude narrating it. It seemed like, "There's got to be a way to make this make more sense." He and Carin and Mike were all like, "We need to really think about how we work on this in some way."

We were also all excited about trying something different because we know what our band sounds like, more or less. It's just fun to mix things up and try and get outside of your normal perspective. You know how to write a song about this and you've done it five, ten times for each type of song. This was a way to change our whole perspective on songwriting, on the themes of the music. Things in the news, things we're concerned about ourselves. Reproductive life. All kinds of stuff. All these themes popped up that we would get involved with. But we're a band of dudes, and how do you meet in the middle and put something together that you feel is illustrative and, hopeful, and hopefully bringing people together somehow.

I saw that Matt had said of the new album that "it felt like a break from The National," and I was wondering if it felt like that for you as well. Yeah, it did in a way. I don't know exactly what he means there, but I think that it feels like a break in the sense of how we were used to working and how we work. We made a conscious effort on Sleep Well Beast to try and change the way we were making music and thinking about making music, and things that actually changed about making music with everyone moving everywhere and the fact that we had to come back together and work together after living separately for nine months. And that has its own thing. I think especially for him, he consciously didn't get so involved in every little detail at the end, like maybe he had done in the past.

I think part of it was having Mike there as our buffer between everyone and everything, and also a fresh voice to be like, "You guys have made that song a hundred times, let's not do that." And we're like, "Oh right, yeah, you're right," but if he hadn't been there we'd be making that song. Someone to shake it up and disrupt the normal flow of things, which can be not a great flow sometimes, when you're just banging your head. Not to say that it was super easy or anything, it always is challenging, but I think there was definitely a levity that was lent by having him there to suggest new ideas. He wasn't ever like, "You guys need to write a song and use these chords." That's not his way. He was like, "That's a cool keyboard thing. Just play that. Get rid of all the guitars." Like with "Where Is Her Head?" we got rid of all the guitars, and then we brought them all back. That's just one little tidbit.

Even with all these other perspectives and voices, there's still songs like "Not in Kansas" that seem more autobiographical than not. Oh yeah, that one is. That song was 12 minutes long at some point. And we were all like "whoa... I don't know."

You weren't tempted to put out the extra long version? I'm sure somebody was. I wasn't. I thought that it could be edited and it was, and I really like how it came out. It's actually quite a beautiful, sad song in some ways. It's sort of like Matt's "Desolation Row," but maybe in a less caustic Dylan way. There's a list of things and events and happenings, and it's really beautiful. It's super fun to play, in a way, because it's such a different type of song. When it was 12 minutes long, it included many other references to his personal life.

I do love how the female choir has a very Leonard Cohen-y, Greek chorus kind of feel to it. Yeah, totally. That was an interesting addition. Mike loved the song from the get-go, even when some of us were skeptical. But he was also like, "This is way too long and it does the same thing," and we said, "Yeah, we know, so what do we do? Do we just give up or..." I know Matt felt strongly about it. It was like trying to make that into a palatable, listenable thing that made sense and wasn't such a slog. And we did that by inserting those, like you said, Greek chorus parts. And that's actually a cover of Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 [the song "Noble Experiment"]. So we asked them if we could cover it in those parts, and it's modified to be in the key of the song. It's intentionally...very different.

Do you foresee the band, after this next tour, taking a pause for a little bit, or are you guys inspired from these recording sessions so that you just want to keep going at it? I think we'll keep going. We have an entire year of sixty-something shows coming up, and we haven't done anything yet. We did five shows, the Beacon show and the other ones, and next week the record comes out and we have a few shows around that. And then we have like 10 days off, and then we actually start touring. So it's like it hasn't even really begun. So, yeah, we're busy through the end of the year, and I don't know what next year really brings in 2020. Hopefully we'll do a little work, right?

I think we did intend to take a break after Sleep Well Beast and then kind of jumped right back in. So, I could see us, you know, finishing this year, maybe doing something next year. Maybe start working on other stuff? I don't know. But it's sort of like a continuum. Everyone always says, "Oh yeah, we're going to take a break," and then something happens or something comes up or someone's like, "You know, we could do this," and then a couple of things get added and then next thing you know you're on tour for six months.

So to answer the question succinctly, I think we would probably go through this year as planned, see what next year holds, maybe we'll do a few things, maybe we'll start working again. But I think we would take some break so everyone can kind of recharge and regroup. I don't know. Maybe we'll make another record with Mike Mills, that would be fun. But he's busy. He has his own, you know. He's gotta make movies. He can't hang out with us all the time, even though he wants to.

I still remember reading a lot of interviews with the band around Boxer and High Violet that made it seem like you guys were really hitting your head against the wall a lot, really grinding yourselves down in the studio to get everything to sound exactly right. Is it easier being in the band now than it was back then? I think in some ways, yes, only because we've done that to ourselves already and know that we don't really love operating that way even though that was effective in some manner. It got us to complete something, it got us to finish those records. But it wasn't fun sometimes. I think we've also just played a lot more together since then and we're now more comfortable with each other and everyone's done other projects and so it's not this, like, very rigid belief system about what it should be.

I think there's more of an open-endedness to see where it goes. I feel like we've grown in that way. Even though I'd also say the band sounds similar, you know? There's signature drumming and signature vocal-type things in the way that we approach making songs. But I think I'm interested in finding either nuance in that or just ways to completely get away from what we think we should sound like. Or what we think we sound like.

I feel like we're in a better place now musically and just generally creatively where everyone's working together maybe a little bit better and also hopefully communicating a little...we're working on communication between each other and just in general. Because it's like, the world's so shitty and we don't need to make our lives shitty, too—in the sense that it helps to get along and helps to work together on something. And what's more fun than making projects with your friends? So I think as long as we continue to approach it that way, then we're okay. But inevitably it's hard to make things together, with anyone, so I think there's always that creative tension that happens. But you need that, I think, to have some conflict to keep you sharp.