THE NATIONAL, the greatest band in the world right now, take to the stage in Galway in July. The centre of attention will be vocalist Matt Berninger, a charismatic storm of passion and masculine existential angst, his lyrics matched by the intensity of guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner, and the imaginative rhythms of drummer Bryan Devendorf, while calmly, authoritatively anchoring all this tension and release will be bassist Scott Devendorf.
Over the last decade, The National have enjoyed a slow, but steady, ascent to international commercial and critical success. Then came the release of the band’s masterpiece, Trouble Will Find Me in May 2013, which earned a Grammy Award nomination, and went Top 5 in Ireland, Britain, the US, Canada, Portugal, and Denmark. Now the New York by way of Ohio quintet find themselves on a pinnacle, commanding huge audiences across the world at their own shows and at festival appearances.
“We’re very proud of it,” Scott Devendorf says about Trouble Will Find Me, which made this possible. “Each of our albums I have a fondness for but we’re happy with how people are receiving it.”
Yet the album almost did not happen, as a freak tornado caused havoc around the band’s converted barn studio in upstate New York.
“It was classic of our luck,” Scott tells me. “We spent the whole day making adjustments, were ready to go, and as soon as we struck the first note, this tornado, twister, high winds, touched down and blasted out the power for a good few days. We had all the equipment so we did acoustic, ‘round the campfire, versions of the songs. That was fun for about a day, but we eventually moved studios and as soon as we did, the power came back at the main studios! We started late and it was stressful, but it didn’t kill the recording process. A lot of our situations have over the years been affected by weather. At this stage it’s par for the course.”
Despite this inauspicious beginning, “our other records have been hard to make, but this was little less harder than the others,” Scott declares. Once the electricity was restored and the band got to work, the “process was more relaxed and some of that shows in the production. It’s a little breezier, less claustrophobic.”
From a country they call the mid-west
Although based in Brooklyn, The National’s five members are Ohio natives, and Scott says their home state “has shaped how we live and interact”.
“We grew up in the mid-west which is very different from New York, but we’ve been in New York now for 16, 17 years, and we started the band in New York,” he says. “We all knew each other in Ohio and are long time friends. All through the experience of the first couple of records we were trying to figure out how to write songs, putting all our influences into it. They were reflective of the Americana vibe, and figuring out different sounds.
Those early albums - The National, Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers - are all but forgotten. It is the superb run from Alligator (2005 ) to Boxer (2007 ) to High Violet (2010 ) to Trouble... upon which their reputation rests. This is all the more impressive given these were made as the band collectively reached their 40s, a period when (unlike artists and writers ) musicians often find their best work is well behind them.
“To be fair, we started later,” Scott says. “We were in bands before The National, and it started as a hobby, something to do with friends. It took us a long time to figure out what we were doing. We’ve been doing it now for 15 years. We aren’t one of these bands that ‘break out of the gates’ and have an image worked out. We have just taken a slower road, not totally intentionally, but it’s just the way things are.”
In numerous interviews, The National show a keen sense of not taking their deserved success for granted. Underlying many of their comments is an anxiety it could all end just as quickly.
“For us, it is difficult to make records,” says Scott. “You go in with songs written, and perform them, and then tour them, and you have to repeat that every time. We are confident in our songwriting now and we have a fanbase who love what the band is doing, but it’s a moving target, people change over time. We’re not 20-years-old, we’re getting to, or are in, our forties. We have families. We are conscious of that when we tour, and build these factors into that, and try to have everyone happy. You never know what’s going to happen, so let’s just keep at it, go out there, and do it again.”
Brothers in arms
The National are a ‘band of brothers’ with Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Scott and Bryan Devendorf. Even Matt Berninger’s brother Tom got in on the act with Mistaken for Strangers, his poignant and revealing documentary on both the band and his relationship with Matt.
Rock bands involving brothers are either harmonious (musically and personally ) like The Bee Gees or fractious like Oasis and The Kinks. Where do The National fit on this spectrum?
“We are definitely more on The Bee Gees, calm side of things,” says Scott, “less on the Oasis side, we’re not as caustic and explosive. We have battles over little things. Matt, Aaron, and Bryce are really strong characters and things can come to a head over this and that musical stuff, but it never gets too crazy. We learn stuff over time, learn to say ‘Let’s not do that again’. We recognise the signs and can diffuse it before it happens. If we didn’t learn these things we would not have lasted as long. We fight with each other, but we defend each other as well. We don’t know any other way.”
Scott and Bryan always enjoyed being a rhythm section, even from their teens.
“Growing up, we were always in bands,” he says. “We just liked playing together. Bryan always played drums but I started out playing rhythm guitar. We had a three piece band with a friend in high school. When I switched to bass, it was ‘Here’s something that’s just like playing rhythm guitar’. It clicks for us and I like having a relative on another instrument. It’s like that strange thing twins have, that mind meld, where you can predict each other’s chords. It’s part of the alchemy of the band.”
Once the summer’s live duties are completed (Scott is speaking from Cologne, “Things are good. We’re excited to be coming back to Ireland,” he says ), the band returns to the studio, not to record the follow-up to Trouble Will Find Me, but a Grateful Dead covers album!
“It is true,” says Scott. “It will be something completely different.”
The album is the sequel to Dark Was The Night, the 2009 compilation, produced by Aaron and Bryce Dessner, to raise funds for the AIDS awareness charity Red Hot Organisation.
“It’s not so much a sequel,” says Scott. “It will be Grateful Dead and covers and renditions, and versions of songs in their catalogue, by different artists and collaborations of different artists. We’ve got it under way. There’s a few things done, we’re having a good time with it but we have to finish touring first before we get back into the studio.”
The National play a ‘Galway International Arts Festival and Róisín Dubh presents...’ concert in the Big Top, Fisheries Field, on Wednesday July 16, 7.30pm. Tickets are available through www.giaf.com To listen to songs by The National see www.advertiser.ie/galway/entertainment/music