Not-so-sad dads showcase their female side
The National are back in the Portland area Friday, Aug. 30 for a sold-out show at McMenamins Edgefield in Troutdale.
The Sad Dads, as they're sometimes called, have stuck together for two decades, building rock star momentum despite their understated manner. Their modest miserablism may have been fed by a love of Joy Division, Nick Cave and the Strokes, but it has flourished into a sonic world that sounds as good on AirPods in a lecture hall as it does in a crush of bodies on a summer night.
Scott Devendorf talked to the Portland Tribune on July 13 a few hours before a massive gig at London's Hyde Park. (Scott is the bassist, and his brother Bryan Devendorf is The National's drummer.)
He wasn't the slightest bit nervous about the London gig, whose headliner the night before was Neil Young. The National already played Hyde Park two years ago with Florence + The Machine.
So an open space like Edgefield will be no problem.
"At an outdoor show, we make them shut up," Devendorf joked, of the audience. "We play a lot of rocking music, and some quiet stuff. Generally, they listen well."
When bands get bored they often break up, but The National have always found alternate creative outlets. Their May 2019 album "I Am Easy to Find" (two years after "Sleep Well Beast") dropped with a gorgeous 24-minute movie of the same name. With a remixed soundtrack, it is directed by Mike Mills and stars Alicia Vikander, a luminous actress who manages to play her character at several different ages. (The film can be seen on YouTube).
Although they change their set list every night, the Edgefield show should feature scenes from the movie "I Am Easy to Find."
The band has said that when Mills approached them about directing a movie for them, they were not in the mood to work on another movie. So, they just Dropboxed the songs — mostly works in progress — to Mills and let him do what he wanted. The subsequent black and white film, with very little dialogue, was shot at an abandoned summer camp in upstate New York.
The record label 4AD described Mills' script as "an intimate look at one person's life from birth to death, a picaresque succession of subtitled snapshots and fleeting moments big and small that add up to a life."
The film narrative influenced the lyrics as they were writing, which is a radically different way of looking at commercial music.
Devendorf said, "The set list changes every night, but the film sets up a visual narrative, and uses visuals from the film, with a video director to work them in."
Their process is influenced by design thinking, which is the method of collaborating on products by a series of tested iterations, always with a human end-user squarely in mind.
"We work well with others," he said.
The album "I Am Easy to Find" uses a lot of female vocals, artists the band has known for a long time.
One of them is Gail Ann Dorsey, most recently the bass player with Lenny Kravitz.
Dorsey has a magnificent resume, including playing with David Bowie for the last 25 years of his life, even handling the Freddie Mercury vocals on a live version of "Under Pressure." She has worked with Tears for Fears, Bryan Ferry, Boy George and the Indigo Girls. (She may or may not be on stage Friday).
Others female vocalists include Lisa Hannigan, Eve Owen, Sharon Van Etten, Mina Tindle and Kate Stables of This Is the Kit. This female direction is another zag where others have zigged.
Oregon is familiar territory, not just from 20 years of touring but because they have friends in Portland they visit. "I love to visit, and I love the weather, even though I know it rains sometimes," Devendorf deadpanned.
The National has two pairs of brothers and the lead singer Matt Berninger. The latter is an interesting focus for their live shows. He's persona is that of an intelligent friend who is always ready to talk about his feelings. His baritone dominates the sound, but while his stage presence is not theatrical, he does draw fans in with eye contact, and sometimes physical contact. Matt Berninger is fine with walking about through the audience for backpats and selfies, and occasionally will borrow a fan's camera and shoot some special footage.
With their two-tone beards and slight slump that comes with years of standing up, the band has matured from indie rockers to sensible-yet-interesting "creatives."
Two of the band members have backgrounds in graphic design. For "Sleep Well Beast" they hired a branding company, Pentagram, where Devendorf used to work, not just to design the artwork but come up with a corporate standards manual. The house on the cover looks like the kind of Ben Waechter-designed home you see in Portland, radical in its simplicity.
For Devendorf, seeing art while touring is a necessity. "We look for museum and films to see, when time allows. Sometimes we end up in random places," he said.
"I Am Easy to Find" movie
Reporter, The Portland Tribune
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