"Out of the Conflict Comes Great Art": An Interview with Bryan Devendorf of the National
Bryan Devendorf, drummer for the National, discusses High Violet, questionable lyrics, and how to rob Interpol.
Don't let him fool you -- Bryan Devendorf is a rock star. As the drummer for the National, he exudes a quiet command of his craft, both on stage and in studio, creating powerful and creative beats that truly anchor his band's trademark brand of dark, swelling indie rock. Riding a monumental wave of surprise success from this year's High Violet (which landed at #3 on the Billboard charts), The National find themselves headlining festivals like Bonnaroo and booking gigs at Radio City Music Hall. On the phone, though, Devendorf comes across like an Average Joe you might meet in the audience of one of his band's expansive shows.
PopMatters chatted with a the humble Devendorf as the band chilled between tour dates at guitarist Aaron Dessner's parent's house in Cincinnati. Battling static-y cordless phones and the intrusive sounds of the Grateful Dead, Bryan discussed how they achieved High Violet's varied drum sounds, having to veto some of vocalist Matt Berninger's most questionable lyrics, ripping off Interpol, and what it's like to get a hole-in-one.
OK, so now that High Violet has been out for awhile now, and you guys have been touring a little bit. Are you sick of the songs yet?
No. No, not yet! (laughs) Actually, I've gotten to like them more. When we record, being the drummer, we record the drums and then everything else generally comes after that. So now, playing them live, I'm finding I can get "inside the material" a little more. They're really fun songs, actually.
Do you have any particularly weird or interesting tour stories to share with the world?
I don't know; we're having a good time. There's a lot of camaraderie on the buses. We're rolling deep now -- I've got a drum tech! But you know, nothing concise and anecdotal, just a lot of fun times.
You're known for doing some pretty intricate things behind the kit, but on High Violet, it sounds like you guys played around a little more with drum sounds. The soft, quiet hi-hat on "England", the deep, milky toms on "Runaway". Did you have a lot of input into the way your drums were produced, or was that more of Peter's (Katis) forte?
It was actually another Peter; he's on the credit -- his name is Peter Mavrogeorgis. He's a partner of the studio with Jim Sclavunos, who’s actually the drummer for the Bad Seeds. But since none of us are really that skilled with engineering, especially with drum sounds, we hired him [Mavrogeorgis] to help us out. He had a lot of input and, basically, we were a really good team. I told him what I was looking for, and he kind of dialed it in on our effects racks. And he had a lot of really creative miking techniques, stuff like putting mikes inside pianos for the vibration of the strings. But he's a really, really good drum engineer.
Are there any drum sounds on High Violet that you are most pleased with?
I am most pleased with the drum sounds on "Vanderlyle". We actually recorded those with Peter Katis up in Connecticut. There's just a lot of air because it's a very spare part, and there's a really nice tone on the floor tom, I think. I like a lot of the snare sounds we got. "Anyone's Ghost" is one that has a really good snare sound.
This has been talked about to death in interviews, so I won't dwell on it, but there has been a lot of talk about the struggle that goes along with the National when you guys are recording the songs. For one, where are you during these confrontations, and also, how often are you voicing your opinion?
Typically, I'm right in the middle of it. Unless it's something I don't have an opinion about, but generally, I'm a very opinionated person, so I put myself right in the middle of it. And you know, I think that, out of the conflict comes great art. But there's nothing personal about it -- if there are any disputes, it's about parts, sounds -- you know, the push and pull.
Definitely. In terms of recording, you guys do a lot of it in living rooms, producing on your own. When does Peter (Katis) usually enter the process from a production standpoint, and what, specifically, would you say he brings to the band's sound?
Well, he brings a great deal. He's kind of "The Ringmaster". We basically roll into his studio with huge files, tons of stuff, and we throw everything out there, and he distills all our individual tracks into some sort of cohesive, refined "song". (laughs) Often, we'll re-track or do additional tracking while we mix with him, and he'll say things like, "Oh, we need some sort of harmonic development here; let's throw in an organ!" But he's a musician, too -- he just finished a record with his band Philistines Jr. - so he knows what he's doing both scientifically and creatively.
For this album, Matt talked about working really hard on the vocal melodies before considering the lyrics. Do you think the process worked and that you guys have made an album with a stronger melodic presence?
Oh, well, let me qualify this: for us, this is a very melodic record in view of our previous releases like Boxer and Alligator. And Matt, like you say, kind of pushed himself and his register a little more. He sings higher than on previous albums. I'd say it's been successful in many cases, and hopefully, in the future, we can get even better.
There also seems to be more of a focus on vocal harmonies this time around. Were you guys purposefully trying to work on harmonies more, or did a lot of it just result from friends finding a way to contribute and throwing in overdubs?
A little bit of both. Luckily, we have some amazing collaborators in the form of Sufjan [Stevens] and Richie [Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire]. Their sense of melody is just great, you know? Like Richie, he comes from a family where like, his father is a choirmaster! We aspire to have these great harmonies, but we're not really...umm, that skilled! (laughs) But they were instrumental. You know, Matt actually has a good ear for rhythmic punctuations, but those guys helped us get a little more sophisticated with the harmonic stuff.
Awesome. How did you hook up with these guys? Have you known them for awhile?
Bryce first met [Sufjan] some time in the past five or six years. Bryce played guitar in his touring band. I don't know how they met Richie; I have no idea.
Matt's lyrics are obviously not your standard indie rock fare. They have a tendency to do some weird things, and it's been noted that at one point, you guys considered calling the album Summer Lovin' Torture Party. Have you ever heard or read one of Matt's lyrics and simply said, "No, we're not doing this"?
(laughs) Yes. Well, let me qualify that -- sometimes, he'll have the lyrics finished, and then he'll change it to something else that we all sort of react negatively against, and then he'll typically go back to what he had originally. Some of the stuff he's kept, at first, I was like, "No...", but then the next day, I was like, "Oh, yeah, that's great!" For example, "Conversation 16", the chorus is (sings), "I was afraid I'd eat your brains", and I was like, "This is stupid", but then it grew on me, and I thought, "Ya know, this is awesome!"
I'd say that's a line that sounds a lot better when you hear Matt sing it rather than just reading it on the page.
Yeah, exactly. But he's trying to be a little more -- he's a very funny person; he's not "doom and gloom" like everyone expects listening to what his lyrical output is, so he's been able to stretch his legs a little bit in those songs.
I think his lyrics are funny a lot of the time.
Yeah, a lot of his lyrics are. A lot of dark humor in there -- a little cynical and sarcastic.
Over your last three albums, you've formed a fulfilling creative relationship with Padma Newsome, but for High Violet, you decided to also do some work with Nico Muhly, who has become a fairly trendy choice lately, working with Grizzly Bear and Jonsi. Did you get involved simply to break out of your comfort zone a little bit? Also, how did you guys hook up?
He's friends with Thomas Bartlett, who's a longtime collaborator and friend. They're both from Vermont. I don't know how far they go back, but they have this project they do together called Peter Pears, which is the two of them, programmed electronics, playing piano, often playing the same piano simultaneously, which is really amazing to watch! But I think it was through Thomas that we hooked up with Nico. I'm not sure.
If you had to pick one moment on the album that grabs you the most -- a lyric, a sound, anything -- what would it be?
Initially, the first thing that grabbed me, I wasn't there the day we tracked it; I missed a day in the studio or something. I got the mp3 on the e-mail. It was "Afraid of Everyone". First of all, I didn't know Sufjan was going to sing on it, and I heard that stuff and was like, "Oh, this is badass!" And then, at the end of the song, Matt does this sort of mantra/chant, where he's like, "Your voice is swallowing my soul", and I thought that was really amazing when I first heard it.
One of the coolest things about the National is that the band feels so equally weighted -- even though Matt gets a lot of press for his voice and lyrics, unlike a lot of other bands, there is no real individual star in the group. The rhythm section is just as important as the guitars. The strings and horns are never overpowering. Has this ever been a conscious creative decision, or does it just happen naturally?
I think it just naturally happens because of the way we interact, the kind of dynamic with family members in the band and having all known each other for such a long time. It's just this sort of naturally democratic thing, you know? And I don't think any of us really have it in us to be that kind of -- I mean, Matt's the frontman, but he's not a diva; he's not an egomaniacal cocksucker or anything. But he's like a natural leader in ways; there's something kind of charismatic about him, but he's not like... well, I won't name any names, but he's not like… some other people.
High Violet has obviously been a surprise commercial success. What's the first thing you thought when you heard it debuted at Billboard #3?
My first reaction was, "Why wasn't it #1?" I saw the number, and we were just outside of -- well, we should have been second, I think. Who knows with Soundscan and all that stuff? (laughs) But three is good! But qualify that with the fact that it was the lowest aggregate sales week in music history since the early 90's! (laughs) Yeah, on a whole, record sales were very low that week. But... whatever!
Back to you personally, while recording High Violet, who or what was your biggest musical and non-musical inspiration?
I think the guy I mentioned earlier, Peter Mavrogeorgis, he's just awesome to work with. He really got what I was doing, and he was able to make the sounds we were interested in: basically 1980s New Wave, Love and Rockets kind of drum sounds. And I guess for non-musical, well, it's musically related, but just the space we were working in at Aaron's house, this converted garage. It was a really nice place to work. It's surrounded by a garden; you can smell the fresh cedar. It was really nice.
In doing a little research for this interview, I stumbled upon an article you wrote, documenting some shows you opened for Arcade Fire back in 2007.
I did another one for R.E.M.; it was a little better. I'm supposed to be doing one now, but I've been kind of lazy. But I'm going to start it again, I think, at Glastonbury.
Well, it's great -- really funny. Also, knowing that you worked for Soho Press back in the day, it got me thinking -- if you weren't a drummer, would you have been a writer?
My wife keeps trying to get on me to start writing again, but I'm just too lazy. But I think what I would do is be a copy editor, working on novels. I don't know if I could write a novel; I'm more of a non-fiction guy. Memoirist, I guess.
Would you ever get bold enough to throw out some lyrics one of these days?
Umm, never a complete set. I don't think I have any writing credits, but I will take credit for, not titling the song or putting it in a song, but I think I was the person to bring into the conversation the words "Mr. November". I think I was calling Matt that or something.
The old baseball reference?
Yeah, it's like old Jeter when the Yankees series was postponed because of 9/11, and it was in November, so he was "Mr. November". I obviously didn't coin the phrase. But I've written lyrics in other bands, and they weren't good.
Oh, come on now!
(laughs) They weren't terrible, but they weren't good. But Matt has a very natural, unique thing, and it just really works.
I think we'd all say he's doing a pretty decent job. Who are your biggest influences as a drummer?
Number one, as far as when I'm playing, is probably Steven Morris, who's from New Order and Joy Division. And then, when I was studying, when I took drum lessons as a kid, my first drum teacher was Steve Earle, not the singer/songwriter, but he was in the band The Afghan Whigs. He was with them through Gentleman - all the good Whigs records.
Name an interest of yours that most people would be shocked to hear.
I am a golfer. I don't know if that's "shocking". I don't get to play very often, but my parents just moved down to North Carolina on a golf course, so I golf while I'm down there. Every once in awhile in Brooklyn, I go out to Flatbush, to Reid Park. I actually had a hole-in-one in Brooklyn two years ago. 182 yards, uphill, out at Dyker Beach Golf Club, 17th hole.
It was actually on a mulligan, so it didn't really count. For me, it counts, though. (laughs) It was the best par I've ever had. It was actually my second one. I had one as a kid on a little par-3 course, like a 75-yard hole or something. I'm actually pretty good.
You guys play Bonnaroo tomorrow. You were there in 2007, but it's a lot different this time -- you definitely have a bigger profile this year.
It's so crazy. I hope it's different because, in 2007, the local crew totally botched the snake connection leading from the stage to front house. (laughs) Yeah, there were some serious technical issues. But it was fun; we played fine, and people enjoyed it. It was just kind of... fraught.
Are you pumped? Do you have anything special planned for the night?
Nothing special, but I think we'll try to do what we did at Sasquatch! probably, which I think was a really good show for us. But I think it'll be kinda rockin', none of the slow burners, just the hits.
Once the tour's done, are you guys taking a long break? What's next?
We have intermittent shows. Matt has a baby, actually a year-and-a-half old, but a young child, but this way, he doesn't miss her formative years. We're doing sort of three-week maximums, so basically, we're going to finish up at Radio City on Wednesday and then play Buffalo on Friday, then a couple one-offs, go to Glastonbury, take a week off -- basically, three weeks on, one or two weeks off through the end of the year.
I know it's very early, but has there been any discussion about where to go next musically?
Oh, yeah, totally. The basic idea of what's floating around is that we want to not try a "Departure Record" but just do something different, you know? But we haven't tracked anything. We have some sketches and demos.
One last question: we've already touched on this a little bit referencing your work on the new record, but if you had to pick one moment, one drum part of yours from anything you've recorded, what would it be?
Can it be non-recorded material? Sometimes we do this motorik drum-led outro to "About Today" when we play it live. Basically, what I'll do is play a Krautrock kind of beat that will twist into a variation of Joy Division's "Heart and Soul" drumbeat. But of my own stuff, I would say... uhh...
I would say "Mistaken for Strangers". It's pretty classic.
Yeah, that's actually a beat that's borrowed from Interpol. They have a song called "Take You on a Cruise" on Antics. It's sort of a re-interpretation of that drumbeat, or parts of the beat. The verses of the song are like that song but kind of sped up and refined in a different way.