From the first moments of “Beautiful Head,” the opening track on the National’s 2001 self-titled debut album, romance, interpersonal struggles and self-searching have coursed through the Cincinnati-bred band's music. Singer and lyricist Matt Berninger’s deep, intentional, slow and poetic delivery have gelled more and more with Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s lush, haunting music over the course of eight albums, culminating in the ambitious new release I Am Easy to Find, a collaboration with filmmaker Mike Mills and seven female vocalists.
Speaking with Westword over the phone from a hotel room in Italy on August 9, just before a performance at a Sicilian castle, founding member Scott Devendorf — known for his talents as an arranger and multi-instrumentalist — discussed the origins of I Am Easy to Find.
“Mike approached us about making something,” Devendorf explained. “He wanted to make a music video, because he’d liked the band for a few years. He approached us while we were touring Sleep Well Beast, and we didn’t really need another music video. But we really wanted to work with Mike and had some songs we’d been recording while we toured. The movie was kind of its own separate piece, and it was about halfway done; that kind of inspired us to go back and finish the record when we finished touring.”
The movie Mills ended up completing is a stunning black-and-white, 26-minute art film that juxtaposes the National’s music and poetic subtitles with the birth-to-death biography of a woman. I Am Easy to Find includes different versions of the songs that ended up on the National’s album of the same name, as Mills was given permission to edit, transform and use fragments of the music at his whim. What's more, Mills practically became a working member of the National, or at least a producer, as the group completed the album.
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“There are things in the lyrics that kind of came from the movie, and there were things in the music that kind of inspired Mike to do stuff in the film,” Devendorf said, “but we see the film as purely his, with our music in it. We just loved working with him, and how he treated sound and abstracted everything and took out weird parts of songs to really emphasize things that we wouldn’t have done if we weren’t like, ‘Oh, that’s awesome.’
“Then we brought him into the studio with us. It was really awesome. He was there for a couple weeks straight. For him, I think, he likes the band, one, and then two, the collaborative nature of it. He’s a director, and music is a much more direct process than making a film. For us, he wasn’t a music-producer person. There are so many good ones, and we’ve never really done that; it’s not our style. We always self-produce the records or work with engineers and friends we know. Mike was so generous with his time, and also really cool to be around and work with, just mellow, a really good influence, really positive. The band can be so negative and hard on ourselves, but he was so encouraging. He even worked with us on the album artwork. He’s, like, a very chill guy from California — obviously very talented and smart, but easy to deal with.”
Working with additional vocalists was logical on I Am Easy to Find, Devendorf said, because “it came to a point where we’d watched the film, and having the other singers narrate throughout made much more sense instead of just this male voice droning throughout.”
Devendorf’s tasteful musicianship and arrangement skills are widely known in rock music today. He was a major force behind the 2016 Grateful Dead tribute album Day of the Dead, which raised money for the Red Hot charity and surprised much of the music world by revealing the influence and effect the Dead has had beyond the jam-band scene. It included spirited Dead covers by Kurt Vile, Jim James, the War on Drugs, Mumford & Sons, Wilco and more, and the National and Grizzly Bear even teamed up for an epic cover of the sprawling “Terrapin Station.”
The date of our phone conversation was the 24th anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s death, and Devendorf discussed the prospect of covering a Grateful Dead song at one of the National’s two Mission Ballroom shows in early September.
“Being jetlagged, I forgot today’s the day,” he said. “We gotta do something. I’ll talk to the bandmates about that. Every time we’re in Colorado, of course, it’s famously Dead-ville in many ways.
“I think people are surprised, because we’ve been associated more with English music, like Joy Division or this kind of goth-y, dark, melancholic music instead of something like the Grateful Dead," he continued. "And people assume the Dead’s music was just, like, fun. We’re not that [laughs]. I think we’ve been having more fun; we’ve been trying it. On the surface it’s like, 'Oh, the National — isn’t that like this brooding baritone guy and a bunch of depressed…' — you know, whatever. I also think just doing that project, and the [collaboration] with [Bob] Weir and just the way those guys worked together, was all very influential. There’s so many Dead songs that are, for me, eternal. There’s a darkness to it that’s very resonant in the world.”
Just as resonant as Berninger’s delicately morose voice and the National’s beautiful darkness on I Am Easy to Find is the arresting vocal depth of longtime David Bowie collaborator Gail Ann Dorsey, who played bass and sang with Bowie from his 1995 industrial-rock comeback to his passing in 2016. Dorsey sings on six of the album’s sixteen tracks and repeatedly steals the show.
Asked whether it was tough to be around Dorsey and not accost her with questions about her time with Bowie, Devendorf quickly answered, “Oh, yeah; we had to keep ourselves in check.
“She’s the nicest person in the world,” he continued. “We made a point to not ask her specifically, and then one night she just started telling stories, and it was like, ‘Wow.’ It was a half-hour conversation — not really anything crazy that happened, but just how she was hired and all kinds of stuff, and just how special David Bowie was. He just called her up; he saw her someplace and called her. She’s super-talented and amazing, but even she was like, ‘That’s a once-in-a-lifetime call.’”
Performing the songs from I Am Easy to Find — which includes an orchestra, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and over a dozen additional musicians along with the seven female vocalists — is an extremely difficult task, but Devendorf said the band has been employing a second drummer and additional vocalists on the road and teaming up with other collaborators when and where possible. And even though I Am Easy to Find is associated with a film, Devendorf maintained that, as on previous National albums, the repeated references to female first names are enigmatic.
“I feel like they’re never specifically about one thing or person. I think they’re thematic things that occur, unless they’re about Carin [Besser], who is Matt’s actual wife [and songwriting collaborator]. That’s more direct. But, yeah, 'Rosey' is actually him; she wrote that song about [Matt], for example. I’m trying to think of other ones. There was 'Karen,' which was also a reference to Carin.”
And who could forget the repeated references to “Jenny” on Trouble Will Find Me?
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“Ah, yes — Jenny. I did date someone named Jenny at one point," Devendorf said, laughing. "I do think that sometimes it’s just a name or a word that sounds right, like ‘Blackbeard’ or whatever. It just sounds good sonically.”
Some might marvel at Devendorf’s sense of humor, given the brooding mood of so many of the National's songs, but he said that along with having two sets of brothers in the group, being friends for so long has helped the bandmates remain chill.
“Everyone’s pretty happy," he confessed. "The songs might be related to things that happened to us or to friends, but they’re not really linear histories or anything like that. Everyone’s like, ‘You guys are so depressed!' [laughs]. There’s an element of drama to it all.”
The National, with Alvvays, 8 p.m. Friday, September 6, and Saturday, September 7, Mission Ballroom, 4242 Wynkoop Street, $54.45-$90.45, missionballroom.com.