The Grammy-nominated music veterans The National have been touring the world for more than a decade, mastering their paradoxical, beautifully bruised sonic adventures, capturing the hearts and imaginations of a generation.
Indulging my love of bassists, I recently spoke to Scott Devendorf as he prepared for his Bluesfest debut appearance.
Where are you and what time is it?
I’m at home here in New York and it’s evening here, about 7pm.
I love bass players (in the musical sense). I am making a doco about them so first I am going to pick your brains: Why bass?
That’s a good question. I actually originally played guitar in the band, then several years ago switched to mainly playing bass, though I still play some guitar. I’ve found bass playing to be more satisfying. Also my brother’s a drummer, so that’s a nice connection to have. I like bass players…
What basses do you play?
Mainly P Basses we have in the band, that’s my favourite bass, and it suits me and it’s a good basic sound. Sounds like the 70s which I like.
Which bass players are your inspiration?
Good question, across the board. Peter Hook from New Order and Joy Division, Phil Lesh, some of the classic players such as John Paul Jones, Rick Danko from The Band, Neil Young’s bass player. Stanley Clarke is super impressive, really hot. Andy Rourke from the Smiths.
The National have been playing together for 15 years. Are you sick of each other yet?
Absolutely not! It’s always fun to go in and dream together, especially if you’re friends and family. Touring can be hard but what we do makes us happy, and we love to do it!
Was it hard to give up your day job to become a full-time muso? Did it feel risky?
Yeah, but I guess we did it in such a way that we weren’t immediately touring the world; we were doing it in between other things we were doing. We started doing it at a later time in our life than most bands, touring and that kind of thing. Little things kept us going along the way. Doing it has always been fun, hard, but it’s what we wanted to do.
Does the entire band have a hand in writing and composing?
We do, yeah, mainly our process is we write from a distance. Mainly Matt writes the raw material then we pass it round as a band, and contribute our individual stuff. In the old days we used to get together a lot but now people have moved and don’t live next door to each other, so we get together to do writing sessions now, and that works for us pretty well.
It’s almost three years since the release of your last record. Rumour has it you are working on a new one. How’s it going? And will we hear those songs at Easter at Bluesfest?
Perhaps! We have been working on a new record and we have done a couple of writing sessions and recorded a bunch of ideas. There are some new songs we’ve been playing here and there – a couple in San Francisco and Los Angeles in October – but we want to keep our cards a little bit close to our chest as far as that goes. We’re not really afraid to have some of the songs fall on their face a little bit. I think there’s a sense of adventure in ‘oh, let’s try that!’ It’s good to see how people react. It’s always part of a process and we’re hoping to make that a little more public this time. It’s fun and gives us a bit of energy. We’ve found our process over the years changes with every record. We try something new each time. This time we’re going to record more together and trial the songs a bit more live.
What do you love about Australia ?
I think it will be our fourth trip, if I’m counting right. For us it’s like quasi-California! People are always really nice, it’s fun. It’s such a huge country too; we only ever get to see small bits of it. We were on the coast, we went to Perth and Brisbane and Sydney and Melbourne and Hobart, that kind of thing, but we never got to see the whole thing. It’s like this vast exciting place to be, but it has things like the US and UK that we’re familiar with, and other things that are kind of strange.
How do you see The National fitting into a festival of blues?
I think all American music in a way owes a huge debt to the blues, its structure and its history in America. Whatever it is, it comes out in so many things; rock and roll came out of the blues, everyone owes a debt to that. I think even us, with our post-punk and new wave references, alternative music bands, even that has basic roots in blues music. I don’t think of it as a blues festival, not strictly in the style or tradition of that music, but it all comes back to that.
If people haven’t seen you before, what do you plan to give them at Bluesfest?
Something a bit more energetic and electric in person than on the records. We can be a bit mellow on the records. The live show surprises people who haven’t seen us before; it’s a little more loud and rocking!
You’re the only member of the band who doesn’t have your own Wikipedia page – are you hiding from us?
Yes, that must be it! It’s nice to have a private persona I guess. I don’t know. Perhaps I should get on that…
The National headline Mojo on Friday