In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
It’s not uncommon to catch a song by The National in the background of a film or TV show. The band’s brooding rock sound has lent emotional gravitas to scenes in everything from Gossip Girl to Game of Thrones. But their new album, I Am Easy to Find, is practically an entire soundtrack on its own.
The National’s eighth full-length is the product of a creative partnership between the band members and director Mike Mills. The band gifted Mills with song stems and their blessing to do with them what he saw fit. After he created a film around these fragments and pieces, the band added and rewrote material. The two went back and forth like this for months and the result is twofold: A 24-minute film starring Alicia Vikander and a beast of an album that clocks in at 68 minutes long.
“I guess they’re companion pieces but they’re also totally separate things, though they come from the same place in a way,” says bassist Scott Devendorf.
Mills, who counts himself as a huge fan of the band, acted almost as an additional member by giving creative input in the studio and helping to shape lyrics. “We weren’t super precious about this one, as we’ve tended to be with our albums,” says Devendorf. “We also tend to focus on the negatives sometimes, so it was nice to have him as almost a cheerleader for the band.”
It’s a fitting addition to The National’s intrepid catalog. Now 20 years in, the band has amassed a dense and intricate discography, with each release seemingly trying to outdo the lofty ambitions of its predecessor. What started as knock-around project between two pairs of brothers and their friend has morphed into one of rock’s preeminent powerhouses. Ahead of the release of I Am Easy to Find, we had Devendorf play favorites with The National’s previous seven albums. Here’s the order he came up with.
Noisey: How do you look back at your first album in hindsight?
Scott Devendorf: A small caveat: I really like the first album. I put it last because it was a formative record and we didn’t know what we were doing at all. We knew how to play music, ostensibly, but there was no sound for the band, no idea for it. It was just us getting together and making music we thought we liked. It was heavily influenced by things from the 90s— Pavement, Breeders, all kinds of stuff we were listening to then. But it was one of the most exciting and fun things for us to do because we had all been in other bands and this was an after-work kind of thing.
What did you learn from the album about what you did and didn’t want to be as a band?
Stylistically, it’s kind of all over the place in that we tried on many different jackets. We didn’t really have a vision of what it could be, it was just where we ended up, but I like it because of that. At the time, we were surrounded by megastars like the Strokes, and Interpol, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs that exploded literally right around us in New York in 2001. We just tried to focus on things that were working for us. We realized the band needed something that we didn’t really get to until Alligator.
Is there anything off this first record that makes you cringe?
I probably have a hard time playing a song in the style of “Pay for Me” which was sort of our attempt at being Rolling Stones Lite. The songs are funny, too. I think Matt [Berninger, singer] was working in an office and the songs are about working in an office and being sad. So I think we expanded the palate a bit. But we meant what we played then, so I’m not embarrassed. It was a document of the time.
Do you feel like you made an improvement from your first record here?
[Laughs] That’s a good question. I like to think that we did improve a little with Sad Songs. We did try to up our game by recording at a studio, and we did that with our buddy Nick Lloyd. We recorded the first one at his place too, in part. There’s a couple songs on there that Matt probably doesn’t feel the same way as when he wrote them, so they’re hard for us to play, like “Slipping Husband.” But there are songs we play on there and I still love a lot, like “90-Mile Water Wall.” We’ve played “Cardinal Song,” believe it or not, a few times over the years. I know we’re not talking about EPs [in the rankings], but Cherry Tree, the EP that came in between Alligator and Sad Songs, was probably the stepping stone between those first two records and Alligator.
Why did that come out as an EP?
We did end up using “All the Wine” on Alligator and maybe one other. “About Today” is on the EP and people like that song. I like it too. It’s one of our most beloved songs. We were in the middle of trying to start touring. We had a French label called Talitres, out of Bordeaux, that picked up the Cherry Tree EP, and we toured all over France with that, to towns and fairs and all kinds of funny French countryside places.
On this album, particularly with “Start a War,” you got a lot of placement in movies and TV like Friday Night Lights and Gossip Girl and things. Do you like having your music used in that way?
Yeah, I have no problem with it at all, as long as it’s within reason. I hope it’s not used in a Presidential campaign or by the current one.
That’d be something, if Trump came out to a National song at a rally. I don’t think anybody would’ve seen that coming.
Woo, yeah, there’d be trouble. Hopefully, that doesn’t happen.
It’s a long shot.
A long shot at best, yeah. But I am interested in how pop culture music can permeate weird places, like Gossip Girl. So yeah, people watch the show, maybe they become fans, maybe they don’t care at all. It’s never really bothered me when music is in movies. Sometimes when it’s a weird placement, and I’m like, “huh.”
On that note, you mentioned “About Today” before, which was used in Warrior. I thought that movie was way better than it had any right to be, but were you at all worried about your song being used in an MMA movie?
It didn’t really line up for me, logically. But then I saw the film and there’s this brother thing and a family battle and addiction struggles and all these layers to it. I’d say it’s an odd placement but we’ve actually had a lot of people react positively to it. It’s strange, for sure. MMA is not my forte but I liked it.
I read somewhere that the writers of the movie wrote that ending specifically with the song in mind.
Yeah, Matt knows the writer and director of that film so I think they had an intimate thing, like, “Oh this would be perfect!” And we were all like, “Really? OK, let’s see it.” And it really did make sense in the end.
Do you have a personal favorite use of your songs in movies or TV?
We did actually write a song for a movie with Paul Giamatti about wrestling, oddly. Not MMA wrestling, but high school wrestling. I’m totally spacing on the name right now.
Win Win! Thank you. That was fun because the song was written for the film versus synced into a film. I like that kind of film, that small-town drama film. That was particularly fun.
The National has got to be the only band that I can think of that has lent music to both Game of Thrones and Bob’s Burgers.
[Laughs] Yeah, Bob’s Burgers was probably my favorite visual rendition of the band. The songs are ridiculous, obviously, because they’re about turkeys and toilets or whatever. But yeah, Bob’s Burgers is freaking hilarious and I loved their version of the band.
So what is it you like about Boxer ?
I know it’s a fan-favorite. It was a hard record to make. I remember we left the studio at some point because it just wasn’t happening. We were wasting money. So we had to go back and that was not fun. So it was a hard-fought battle. Alligator had come out, it was well received, it was our first record on a real label. So Boxer was the follow-up to Alligator. It’s a very different record in how it was made, being more orchestral and lush-sounding. But it was challenging to follow up a rock-ier record.
Do you think the previous record informs the one you’re currently making?
Yeah, we don’t want to make two of the same record ever, or at least we try really hard not to. At this point, we have sort of an established sound, but that didn’t always exist. It kind of came into formation with those two records, Alligator and Boxer.
This album leaked before its release. Do you remember that?
I do remember that, yeah. That was hilarious, the leak situation. It was previewed by the New York Times. They did a nice write-up on it and there was a piece in the magazine, and they were like, “Oh, and we’ll stream the record for you on the New York Times website but we’ll make it so you can right-click it and download it.” So we were so excited but then realized halfway through the day that people were just downloading the record and we were like, “Oh right, we should probably fix that loophole.” But it was early days of that kind of stuff—exclusive features on websites, so I don’t blame anyone. It was probably our fault somehow. It usually is.
I’m not sure if High Violet is the clear fan-favorite, but I certainly know a lot of people who love this album. Do fans’ perception change how you view an album?
Yeah, a little bit, because if no one wants to hear something, we probably aren’t gonna play it that much. At the same time, I don’t hate any of our records. We try to mix it up live just because there’s more music and more variety.
This one got you your first Grammy nomination. Do you remember finding out you were nominated?
I do remember that. I don’t pay attention to schedules of these kinds of things, and I got all these text messages saying, “That’s so exciting!” And I was like “What is?” And then I realized, oh right. It was a surprise. That record was fun to make. We made it at Clubhouse Studios in Rhinebeck, New York, mostly. We lived up there together and it was fun to come together and work on it. There was camaraderie and much celebration. That record has stood the test of time, song-wise.
So this one did win you the Grammy. How’d that feel?
It was exciting to be nominated but everyone was dubious. So I ended up going to the awards alone with my wife and our management team, partly because we’d just finished some touring and everyone went home. But I live here so I was like, “Well, I guess I’ll go.” Lo and behold, I had to go up and give a speech all by myself and talk to the press all by myself. It was fun but it was hilarious. I remember I was sandwiched in between Mastodon and Lisa Loeb, a perfect spot for the band.
I saw an article about this album in the Guardian where they called you “America’s Radiohead.” What does that mean to you?
I mean, that’s nice to hear. I don’t really understand what it means. We both make moody songs. I don’t think we’re America’s Radiohead. I’m happy someone thought that but I don’t know what that means. I love that band. I think we’re different in a lot of ways. Brooding, melancholy-kind of rock?
I think maybe it was also getting at the fact that you now have a catalog with lots of twists and turns in it.
Yeah, sure. [Laughs] We’ve been around for a while, they’ve been around longer. I’ll take it. I wouldn’t completely agree with it. They’ve definitely pushed envelopes further in my opinion as far as experimental stuff. So I don’t know. I don’t have a huge reaction to it.
This one really broke you out and got you a lot of acclaim. Was it overwhelming to suddenly be getting that mainstream attention?
It was definitely a surprise, but not overwhelming. We’d been at it for a few years without much traction. So we were happy someone was taking notice. We were happy to be putting it out on a legendary British label. We felt the record was good, and they were really happy with it. It felt like we were doing something right after we’d spent a long time doing things wrong. Not wrong, but chipping away at trying to be a band. It was our first glimmer of hope. I said this before but it was the first one where the identity of the band came out. There was more consistency and more vision for it.
What elements do you think solidified on Alligator that became staples of the National’s identity?
The songwriting matured a bit and became something that was a bit more abstract. I think Matt writes with a nice abstraction that allows you to put on it what you think it’s about. So I feel like that came through.
This came out in 2005 and I remember The National being included in Meet Me in the Bathroom alongside The Strokes and LCD Soundsystem and all these bands. But to me, the National seemed like outliers for that scene. Did you feel like you fit in with that scene at all?
[Laughs] No, not at all. Musically, we were developing our own way at the time. We were certainly impressed by all that. We went and saw the Strokes do their Wednesday night residency at Mercury Lounge and were like, “Holy shit, this is really great.” We were practicing next to Interpol at some point. We were slogging away and then next door you hear… you know, whatever famous Interpol song of the time. Where we recorded, Peter Katis’ studio, they’d been recording there too, so that was a big thing at the time. He would tease us about how great Interpol was. But we felt like outsiders, truly, to that scene. We weren’t friends with any of those people. We thought they were great but yeah, it was inspirational that it was happening around us. Meet Me in the Bathroom, I think we’re quoted in that. I haven’t read the whole book, actually. I probably should. [Laughs] I have a few quotes in there but I’m embarrassed to find out what they are.
What specifically is it about this album that endears you so much to it?
I think it’s just the songs on it and the time making it—the time in our lives where it was a transitional period from a band with nothing going on to a band with a little bit going on. It was an Our Band Could Be Your Life-type of thing, but not as cool. We all sort of had jobs, some more than others. It was a make-it-or-break-it moment, even though it took another five years from that point to having it be our jobs. And the songs, we still play them. They’ve lasted 15 years. Every song on that record, I’m not gonna say they’re timeless songs, but they still work for us and I still find joy in knowing that we made them.