#tbt An Interview with The National

Found in the Margins is a defunct web magazine that Chris DePaul founded in 2006. Chris and his co-writers would interview musicians, writers and activists on one question: What books inspire the work you do? The Brothers DePaul will be reposting these archived interviews every Thursday. #tbt

This week's interview: The National


“I don't really have any favourite books like I have favourite songs, because my favourite songs I replay and I've never been able to reread that many books with pleasure. I know it happens for others but not for me,” laments The National’s drummer, Bryan Devendorf, while on tour with R.E.M. and Modest Mouse in June 2008.

The National began as a five-piece in Cincinnati, Ohio, composed of two sets of brothers on instruments and a lyricist on the mic. The last nine years for The National has seen four full-length releases, a variety of EPs, and a variety of tours in clubs all across the world. The band moved to Brooklyn a number of years ago and in 2005 released Alligator, which was quickly touted in the blogosphere and given praise by critics and celebrities alike. In 2007, The National released Boxer, an album that topped many “albums of the year” lists and eventually caught the ear of Michael Stipe and the R.E.M. team, getting Devendorf and the band invited on an arena-sized tour.

The National reflects on Boxer as “a euphoric disconnection, the lovely delusion that sets in after too much dulling reality, too much time away, and losing touch with friends.”

Devendorf - an editor in a former life - talks with Found in the Margins about his love and hate about books and how a song’s lyrics can be so paramount to a bands sound.

“My most recent reread was The Catcher in the Rye. I found it at my wife's parents' cottage one afternoon last Christmas. I was momentarily bored. I took the book to the bathroom and pretty much read the whole thing there.

“Another book I've been able to reread with some enjoyment is A Sport and a Pastime (James Salter). In the future I hope to reread an English novel about London called The Capital (Maureen Duffy).”

Devendorf isn’t so much a fan of the non-fiction genre. He doesn’t have anything personally against it, but evidently not something he searches out. “I'll read non-fiction about as often as I eat at Wendy's (2 to 4 times per year usually). Overall it sells way more copies than fiction so someone's reading it.” Currently on one of his non-fiction rotations, Bryan is reading an autobiography titled Ball Four by Jim Bouton. “It's the diary of a major league pitcher - a diary written with the help of a sportswriter and with the intent of publishing, though.”

Like the required side salad that balances out a Wendy’s burger, Devendorf is balancing his non-fiction experience with John Steinbeck’s timeless novel, East of Eden. “It's not usually the subject [of the book] that gets me, but the writing,” says Bryan. “I like the way a good writer can string sentences together, hook-like.”

Drawing the reader into the story with well-constructed sentences and inventive phrases, like a hook draws a listener into a song, is a tactic used well within The National’s own song writing. “In the case of the songs we write, I think the lyric is often paramount. Take a song like ‘Cold Wind’ (Arcade Fire). The words and music work beautifully together. Also, Iron and Wine's cover of ‘Love Vigilantes’ (New Order). Personally I prefer the original, but the music in the new version makes the lyric sound more poignant because it's so spare and not at all dance-y.”

Speaking for The National’s lyricist, Matt Berninger, Devendorf says that his writing is influenced by an “assortment of things…which include but are not limited to books.”

The band’s latest release was in May 2008; a compilation of The Virginia EP and a film by Vincent Moon titled A Skin, A Night - a one-hour film that portrays the process of making music in the 21st century. A Skin, A Night is a film that combines raw human interaction with the unique cinematography of Moon, allowing the audience to glimpse into the band’s collaborative, iterative writing process through a beautifully artistic medium.

Written by Chris DePaul