State of The National
The National have returned after the pandemic and personal struggles with two new albums in 2023, as well a renewed engagement with their backlist. Ahead of their New Zealand tour, Emily Perkins talks to bass player Scott Devendorf.
By Emily Perkins
Formed in New York in 1999, the National broke through with their 2007 album Boxer, and locked in that success with 2010’s High Violet. Those albums, and the Red Hot Organisation fundraiser Dark Was the Night that featured the band alongside contemporaries like the Decemberists and Sufan Stevens, had me in a kind of emotional chokehold through those years. The songs were so real, dark and funny, full of longing and absurdity. I loved the way Matt Berninger’s deceptively casual delivery made its way through the lush guitar landscapes created by Aaron and Bryce Dessner, all of it underpinned and driven on by Bryan Devendorf’s drumming and Scott Devendorf’s bass. I hardly ever listen to music while I write, but I listened to them. The lyrics work like my favourite kind of fiction — striking details, weird moments, buried questions building with the sound to unlock feeling. “Slow Show” ran in my mind on repeat.
The next decade saw the National go from strength to strength — topping charts, winning a Grammy, collaborating with fellow musicians from Justin Vernon to Taylor Swift — until the pandemic, and the long period of depression and writer’s block that Matt Berninger has discussed in recent press, froze them in place. Berninger and the Dessner brothers are most commonly credited with the National’s songwriting, with lyrics often also written by Berninger’s wife Carin Besser. No playing live, no pleasure in writing — despite their past success, the future of the band looked uncertain.
But now they’ve come out with not one but two 2023 albums, The First Two Pages of Frankenstein and Laugh Track, full of instant classics like “Tropic Morning News”, that brims with insouciant pain, or “Space Invader”, with its what-ifs floating on an undertow that finally swells up to take over. Yes, I feel when that song turns its corner — this is what I want music to do.
I can’t think why, but I love a good mid-life returnto-mojo story. These narratives (say, movies like Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory, or Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round) often involve a crash after success, a rock-bottom period, then a hard-won return to creative joy, found through new approaches, new priorities. So when I talk to Scott Devendorf in the lead-up to their first New Zealand shows in six years, I’m curious about how the band, as a group, have managed to turn their own corner, and if playing together, touring and songwriting feel different now.
“There’s an element of embracing each other’s personality more and respecting those things more,” he says of band dynamics since the pandemic. “‘You’re like this and we’ll work it out.’ Trying to be respectful of people’s worlds because we’re all separate individuals. Everyone has families, but we love the music and we love the songs and we love each other. The pandemic gave everyone a sense of what it’s all about… ‘This is actually fun and people like this — remember that?’”
In February they’re playing first in Auckland and then in Wellington as part of the Aotearoa New Zealand Festival of the Arts. Devendorf says the two shows are likely to be different, in a new practice developed on this tour: “We change up the set list from night to night. It’s fun for the band and I think people enjoy it.”
How do they decide what to play when? Devendorf laughs. “We use a little white board and magnets. We have all the songs and it’s kind of like refrigerator poetry or something. We mix it up, everyone has some input.”
This sounds almost like an Eno-esque intervention — the kind of change-it-up move that’s earned after recent struggles, but also after 10 studio albums and more than two decades together, when the backlist, and the relationships, are deep. Keeping it loose and embracing the unknown extends to the performances too. I want to know what it feels like from the stage — what makes a great show? But there’s no formula here either, Devendorf tells me, beyond a thorough soundcheck “…and then see what happens after that. It keeps us on our toes. When you put things out of order or change it around, it changes your perspective.”
The soundcheck has also become a place where new song ideas are tested. “We’re actively writing new stuff on the road. We’re trying to have longer soundchecks and take advantage of being together to make new stuff, as well as being with the old stuff too. On the last record at least one song came out of that process, so now we’re sails to the wind on that one.”
As well as collaborating with Swift and Vernon, the band has worked with a range of musicians including Phoebe Bridgers and Sharon Van Etten. Filmmaker Mike Mills directed a short film for the 2019 album I Am Easy to Find. As individuals, the members all have other bands and creative outlets. It’s clear that working with others feeds back into the band, and I wonder if there are any dream collaborators they are yet to work with. But, “I think there’s a return to the group being simple,” Devendorf says. “We’ve done a lot of collaborations, worked with a lot of people and probably will do again, but I think there’s a general sense of wanting to regroup and re-identify with what is cool for us about the band.”