It’s the song ‘Sea of Love’ that provides the title of The National’s sixth record; during a sudden lull in the music, Matt Berninger rumbles “If I stay here / Trouble will find me” – a classic National-esque line full of worry and dread.
Yet Trouble Will Find Me often comes across as the least worry-heavy album the band’s produced so far. It’d be quite a stretch to say it’s The National reborn as a carefree act full of the joys of spring, but there’s a lightness of touch – lyrically and sonically – and a variety and depth that make it possibly their best work, alongside 2005’s Alligator (my all-time favourite record, probably. Should that sort of thing matter to you). Trouble Will Find Me is a record that mixes the typically gnomic lyrics of Berninger with much more direct and personal writing, and finds the brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner (along with the other set of brothers, Bryan and Scott Devendorf, the best rhythm section at work in music today) at the height of their musical powers, crafting complex melodies that have both depth and directness across thirteen excellent tracks. It’s the sound of a band, as Aaron Dessner put it, “freewheeling” again.
The Line of Best Fit recently had the opportunity to chat to bassist Scott Devendorf – a man who has been part of The National’s DNA right from the point he and Berninger first formed a band together back in 1991 – about the writing and recording of Trouble Will Find Me, about how the band finds it difficult to part with some songs, and always being tempted to take things that little bit darker.
At the end of the High Violet tour, I saw The National play a show at Edinburgh’s Corn Exchange, a performance that saw the band free of the last of their promotional shackles and delving into some rarely-played tracks from their back catalogue. It looked like they were having fun doing what they wanted to after close to two years of playing the songs from that claustrophobic album. So, it came as no surprise to read that there was no immediate intention to write a follow-up record – but then something changed. Well, not changed exactly; more that The National couldn’t stay away from what they seem to enjoy doing most. Scott explains more: “Basically we wanted to take some time off, because we’d done a lot of touring for two years or so… but we’re also kinda workaholics, I guess.”
“We don’t like sitting around so sometimes our ‘leisure’ is to work on other projects, so Aaron and Bryce are always doing something either with the band or other projects, or producing records so I think Aaron just started writing sketches for Matt…” Many bands might partake in such practices, but it’s often nothing more than throwing ideas around, ideas that might not make it to the demo stage, but for The National, it yielded some surprising results. “Y’know, we weren’t really expecting anything because we know our recording process always takes a long time,” says Scott, “and our writing process longer still! But Aaron was home a lot, he just had a new baby who was born in September 2011, so he was home and up really early, and up all night sometimes, so he was writing but not really expecting anything to happen right away. Then he sent different things to Matt, and Matt started to react and find some good ideas really quickly”. The exchanges between Dessner and Berninger led to the opening track on Trouble Will Find Me: “The first song on the record came out really quick, and soon as that came together we realised we were right in the process of writing a new record.”
It seems that out of all the inter-band relationships, it’s the connection between the Dessners and Berninger that drives The National forward, and it was the surprising reserves of energy found by the singer post-tour that led to the creation of the new album. “Matt was really just so focused; I think he had a lot of energy,” notes Devendorf. “The end of High Violet touring had given us a fresh perspective – we all felt good about how it ended up. We played six shows in New York and the band was playing really well. Things were going – I mean, we were happy to be done touring – well and we had ended in a good place. The record had done well, Matt was energised and thought about starting on new stuff… and so we did!” Is it the case, then, that with Trouble Will Find Me the band finds itself a little bit ahead of schedule? Scott disagrees. “In the end we’re kind of on the same schedule we’ve always been on, like three years between every record, two years or a year and a half or so of touring. I guess we’re on schedule but I don’t think we expected to be here, we probably thought we’d take another half a year or so off to get ready, but things progressed.”
What stands out most about Trouble…, certainly compared to the dense and sonically similar tracks on High Violet, is the variety on show. There’s never any doubt that you’re listening to The National, but at the same time the record goes places the band’s not really visited in the past; from the finger-picking quasi-folk of ’Fireproof’ to the motorik drive of ‘Don’t Swallow the Cap’, to the piano-and-trumpet woozy waltz of ‘Pink Rabbits’, it’s the sound of The National freeing up and being willing to experiment a little with their trademark sound. I ask Scott if he agrees with this take, and whether or not this was the intention: “Yeah I think that was definitely a conscious-slash-subconscious idea; basically when we write we try and write a lot of songs knowing that probably only a third will make it to the final record.” So how many songs would the band write and then discard before getting to the final track listing? “I think we started with about 30 different ideas or so, and then got it down to 20, then to 15, then to what’s on the record,” says Scott. “Through that process we’re always really bad about throwing songs away; we get really attached to certain aspects of them… almost to an unhealthy degree sometimes.”
“We try and ‘leave no song behind’ and focus on that whole group of songs in the recording process and sometimes that leaves us with a lot of variety,” Scott continues. ‘There’s really quiet songs like ‘Slipped’, which is basically the demo version of the song, and this time around there were a lot of songs like that, where there was something about the initial idea or initial sound was recorded in such a way that we really liked it and kept that.” Is there any song that particularly stands out for the band and shows how successful the original version was? “The synthesiser sounds on ‘I Should Live In Salt’ that you can hear doing their little dance in the background,” he begins, “that was there in the original recording. It was hard to recapture, so we kept that aspect. So things like that, from our perspective, give some variety but also some lift… or lilt… a quality.”