The National's Scott Devendorf Talks 'Sleep Well Beast' and Learning From Bob Weir
This past July indie rock veterans The National invited select fans and press to drive up to a reclaimed glue factory in Hudson, New York where, over two nights, they would perform their unreleased seventh album, Sleep Well Beast, in full for the first time.
Dubbed the "Guilty Party," (also the title of their second single) the event turned out to be equal parts art installation and rock concert. Entering the large space that evening, a pre-industrial barn resembling the skeleton of a temple, visitors encountered an empty 360-degree stage, with small square stages in each corner.
At 6 p.m. sharp, as the summer sun was making its long dramatic trek to the horizon, four unannounced percussionists with unfamiliar homemade instruments began performing on one of the corner stages before a gathering crowd. As their abbreviated set came to a close, two woman on classical string instruments started playing music on the next stage over, and the crowd moved through the open room to meet them. Without pause their performance flowed seamlessly into the next, by Brooklyn indie duo Buke and Gase, which begat the penultimate performer, German electronic duo Mouse on Mars.
Finally, with the sun fully set and each of the corner platforms still occupied by their performers, The National took to the elevated center stage to perform their new album. Beginning with the melancholy opener, "Nobody Else Will Be There," the band played the entirety of Sleep Well Beast to mostly virgin ears. And as they did so, the opening musicians on the ancillary stages—the same musicians, incidentally, who collaborated with the band in the studio—played their respective parts – percussion, strings, backing vocals, electronics – from behind the awestruck fans circled around the main attraction.
The performance was, in essence, a three-dimensional live construction of an album, and the effect was overwhelming. In concept, and in simple terms of execution, the Guilty Party was an extraordinary feat that could only be pulled off by a seasoned band who knows their craft so well they can pull it apart and put it back together again in new forms.
Finally out in the world today, Sleep Well Beast is another darling album from a hardworking band that ages, just like it sounds, like a fine wine. Like every National record, there's something new – jammy guitar solos and twitchy electronics included – while painting a familiar bitter-sweet picture about grown-up themes.
More than 15 years after releasing their first album, they're still two sets of brothers and a singular singer from Ohio – Aaron and Bryce Dessner, Scott and Bryon Devendorf, and Matt Berninger – who have never run out of devastatingly beautiful, elegiac things to say about about love, regret, grief and nostalgia.
TIDAL spoke with The National Scott Devendorf ahead of releasing Sleep Well Beast.
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The National recently earned its first #1 song on a Billboard chart. Was the a big achievement for the band?
I think so yeah. I mean it’s never happened before for us and were not really the type of band that gets a lot of airplay from commercial radio. So yeah, it was sort of shocking [laughs] and exciting. I guess my biggest thought was that if people who have not heard of the band hear us on the radio and end up entering our little world that makes us happy.
I truly think the Sleep Well Beast is as good as anything you guys have made. Where are you guys at on this record?
I’ve been in the band for about 15 or so years. This is our seventh record. Every time we make a record it’s the same challenge. We don’t want to remake Boxer, we don't want to remake Alligator. In a way we’re the same people doing the same things, but we've also learned a lot of things along the way and played more and more together as a band.
We try to approach it with freshness, and not put some time pressure on it in order to stay on this two year album cycle. Removing that [pressure], and the fact that everybody [in the band] has moved to different parts of the world, we have to really plan to get together. So there would be focus session of two weeks or 10 days at a time. Expecting something to come from each one something whether it be experience or hopefully some recorded material.
And then the Berlin experience [a experimental predecessor to the Guilty Party], we brought back audio and a less-perfectionist attitude toward our whole process. We're still perfectionists in the sense that we want to make a good record, but we weren't as concerned about some sort of pristine form. We tend to be picky as individuals and as a group. I can hear the things we did along the way without it getting too layered or murky.
The National curated that massive Grateful Dead tribute project, Day of the Dead, released last year. Some of your new songs, like “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” and “Turtleneck,” seem to find you guys letting loose and jamming out a little.
Yeah, I'd like to think it did loosen up the style of our playing. I mean, [when we play] live, the band has had guitar solos here and there, but for some reason we have avoided them on recordings. Jamming is something we've always liked, and it's an element of Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead and all those classic rock bands we've liked at one point or another, and still do.
Yeah I think doing that project was sort of an eye opener. All those Grateful Dead songs are very structured and organized but they have this weird sort of elasticity to them. Trying to play those songs or make our versions for that record, we couldn't help but apply some of that knowledge on [Sleep Well Beast].
You have become pals with Bob Weir, haven't you?
We have. We played on his record [Blue Mountain] a bit. Our friend Josh Kaufman produced it. Bryce and Aaron and I did a couple one-off shows and tours with Bob in the fall.
What kind of wisdom does working with a legend like that give you?
He goes about his day and his show at a totally different pace than we do as The National, or most bands do I think. There's this long sort of arc to the day, and lots of rehearsal, particularly for us at the beginning. At each show we would learn new songs. We were playing [Bob's] solo record but we were also playing Grateful Dead songs ... and there’s a couple hundred of those. [laughs]
Every day was a learning experience, which was cool. We didn't know what he was going to pick or what he wanted to do. Every set was different, every night was different and every show had this way of constantly keeping you on your toes. It would be a three or four hour rehearsal and then an hour-long sound check and then a two hour show. So it was a lot of playing, more than we're used to in a day, but it was fun to do all that work. And then it would culminate in a cool unique show for a bunch of Dead Heads.
What’s your favorite moment on the album?
I really like the first song, “Nobody Else Will Be There.” I really like “Guilty Party.” I really like "I'll Still Destroy You." I mean I’m really excited about the whole record. We just finished it so it's hard to choose.
All those songs are fun to play on bass. They are fun to hear all those parts work together. Inevitably between recording all the songs and then playing them live, you have to sort of extract all the elements that work live. I think those are kind of preexisting this time, where less so on other records we've worked on where you have to pull things apart and say, how can we rephrase that or change that electronic part into a live drum or synth part.
We’re hoping that some of the people who played on the record will join us for parts of the tour. I don't know that we’ll be able to pull off another Guilty Party, but we’ll have Sō Percussion open some shows and have other people come in and change the live show, which is fun for us.
You guys have always been outspoken about your politics. How are you all faring in the current national situation?
Probably bad. As bad as anyone else. For lack of a better term, it’s sort of unfolding. I feel like this whole thing is a picture of America right now, in a way that's just sort of like, “Here it is, it’s so obvious these are all the problems, and you have to work on them.” I'm excited in the sense that there is work to be done, but all the horrible shit that's been said or done in the last six to eight months, whew, we’ll see. I hope the tide is going to turn.
What new tunes has The National been bonding over?
I really enjoy the new Grizzly Bear record. I just got it today in the mail. It’s fantastic. We worked with them a little bit on the Day of the Dead, or at least with Daniel [Rossen] and Chris [Bear]. It was super fun working with them. Good job Grizzly Bear.
Oh and I love the new LCD Soundsystem. I mean I’m a fan, so I’m super psyched they have a new record and are back.