10 of 2010 (#2): The National – High Violet

From humble beginnings, <b>The National</b> have become one of the most celebrated acts around. And with <i>High Violet</i>, they've taken their art to a new level, as The Skinny found out from Scott Devendorf

Feature by Finbarr Bermingham | 02 Dec 2010

The National are no strangers to these pages, nor indeed to these yearly charts of ours. Both Boxer (2007) and Alligator (2005) featured highly in their respective end of year polls. Looking back at the release of High Violet in May, then, it’s hard to assess what exactly the expectation might have been, but even the most optimistic speculators would have struggled to call this one. The National are not populists. They are a band one hundred percent committed to attaining musical excellence, on their terms. And yet, here they are, with a UK number 5 album (Billboard number 3) under their belt and five albums in, the world at their feet.

Reflecting on 2010, bassist, guitarist and pianist Scott Devendorf admits being “surprised, given the long road the band has taken.” For him, High Violet is “the culmination of a lot of work, over a lot of years.” As is seemingly the band’s wont, Devendorf speaks humbly and modestly of their achievements. “All we ever wanted was for people to enjoy our records and come to our shows,” he says. But there is no doubt in his mind that the band’s recent success has been a key factor in making High Violet the record it is.

“A key thing for us was being able to afford our own studio. We built one at the end of the Boxer tour and were able to work at our own, often glacial pace. It gave us more opportunity to experiment with different types of recording, without feeling the pressure of the commercial studios. We had a lot of people help out on the record, too: Régine (Chassagne) from Arcade Fire, Justin (Vernon) from Bon Iver, Sufjan (Stevens)… to name just a few. That was also a product of having the studio. People could just come in when they were available.”

For many music fans, it’s refreshing to see a band as hardworking as The National become successful, particularly without compromising their values. And whilst there are certainly audible experiments on High Violet, there’s a discernable lineage from its predecessors. They didn’t reinvent the wheel, and Devendorf was happy to explain how exactly they arrived at the sound:

Alligator is a rougher record; it came with lyrics that were about an independent guy out on the street at night. Boxer was a statelier, orchestral piece. The lyrics were more about relationships with others. High Violet is a little in between, sonically. It’s a little rougher than Boxer as far as the type of song and the texture of the sound. The lyrics are more about the relationship that began with Boxer, now beyond its infant stage and it’s about dealing with that. I think it’s certainly more about tones and layers. It’s a lot like archaeology. Or maybe sculpture.”

The analogy flourishes, as we finally get around to asking what the band had hoped for back in Spring. “Well, we were just happy with the album. We’re mostly focused on producing the best music we can.” Art, then, the only way it should be.

An expanded version of High Violet is now available on 4AD