This Ohio band’s 20-year career has seen them rise from a cult indie concern into an arena-filling one, and that’s where you’ll find them in Cardiff this December. Helen Payne gets an audience ahead of time.
“Shoomae? Nos ta?” Welsh is, visually, a very confusing language for Scott Devendorf, bassist of Ohio-originating rock band The National. “The only Welsh I know is from Super Furry Animals records,” he says over the phone from his home in New York, adding that his singular experience of Wales was a spooky night drive through thick fog somewhere up North, listening to Echoes by Pink Floyd and getting creeped out by the amount of consonants on the signage. [They also played the Green Man festival in Brecon in 2008 – pedantry ed]
The National will tour the UK at the beginning of December, including a hopefully less eerie stop in Cardiff, to support their conceptually divergent new album. I Am Easy To Find saw The National step away from their anxiety-fuelled vignettes of middle-aged ennui and into a more visceral realm, accompanied by a silent film.
Director Mike Mills initially reached out to the band to create a music video, but ended up utilising their vague sketches of songs to bring frontman Matt Berninger’s vision of a much more complex project to fruition. The film depicts a woman’s entire life story, each step played brilliantly by Alicia Vikander without any prosthetics or camera trickery, to the sound of The National’s most ambitious songs yet.
“It didn’t make sense for Matt to be singing,” Devendorf admits. A large percentage of The National’s back catalogue has been performed and written by men. “It seemed weird and out of place, so we experimented.” Building on the hordes of collaborative projects each member has been a part of in recent years — various orchestral and classical projects, a festival in Berlin and even a folktronica-tinged full-length with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver — their latest work sees a departure from the usual lead vocals of well-loved baritone Matt Berninger, and more into the community feel by introducing a weaving network of new singers.
“It sounded really good. We knew we liked it, and we knew we liked what it did to the sound of the band,” Scott says. “It was liberating, in some ways, for Matt not to present all the lyrics,” he explains. “It gave it a new dynamic.” The all-female team of new lead vocalists includes long-term Bowie bandmate Gail Ann Dorsey, This Is The Kit’s Kate Stables, Mina Tindle, Sharon Van Etten, Lisa Hannigan and the Brooklyn Youth Choir. By introducing this array of female voices, The National have taken their already luxurious brand of indie rock and pushed it to an even more heavenly dimension.
Logistically, however, it’s not easy to take everyone on tour, Scott laughs: “It’s more fun for us, but probably more difficult for the crew!” Continuing, he notes everyone who has sang on the record has joined in for live shows at one point or another. “It’s been a great dynamic to have that change. It’s a great family affair.”
Usually, Devendorf reveals, the writing process for The National involves Aaron or Bryce Dessner sending Berninger ideas. “He’ll sit with them for a while, write to them or cut them apart, then send them back. At some point we’ll get together and bash it out, throw some ideas around.” The band usually produce the bulk of their work themselves, but Mills played an active role in production for this project. “He picked out the weirder elements that we might normally discard or forget about.”
Scott suggests I Am Easy To Find is more of a continuum than a landmark in their career like 2007 album Boxer. “I don’t find it that different in a lot of ways. I’m inside it, so it’s hard to say.” Even without a fan’s perspective, the bassist tells me this is one of his favourite records because the process has involved more band interaction than its predecessors. It’s been fun, but the main thing for The National is that each record needs to be distinct in itself. He states firmly, and rightly so: “Mission accomplished.”
The National, Motorpoint Arena Cardiff, Mon 9 Dec. Tickets: £39. Info: 029 2022 4488 / www.motorpointarenacardiff.co.uk