Bryan Devendorf of The National Talks SB1070, Sounding British and Chick-fil-A

Few bands are better suited to soundtrack a stiff drink and a contemplative stare than The National, who have been issuing literate, dark records for the past decade. High Violet, their latest, is another notch on their belt, full of powerful songs that combine their Midwest gravitas with New York grit. 

The band plays the Marquee Theater on Thursday, marking their second stop in Phoenix.

I spoke with drummer Bryan Devendorf about politics, British drummers and chicken sandwiches.

Up on the Sun: Hello Bryan. What are you up to today?

Bryan Devendorf: Today? Uh, well, I woke up very late. We're in Houston, first of all, downtown, and it's a downtown, not much going on at all. My friend Ceciley was on a bus, and I know her from years ago. Since high school, well, she was in high school and I was in college, but we went to Chick-fi-A. Which I have a thing for.

UOTS: Sounds great.

BD: Yeah, and that's all I've done today. Sound check is at, I think, six tonight or something. There's a day sheet on the bus, so it's all very regimented. Like, you do this, and then you do this, and then you get back on the bus. It's all very laid out.

UOTS: I imagine that's an interesting way to pass the days, to have everything so segmented.

BD: Mmm, hmm.

UOTS: So how is this tour going?

BD: Tour is going very well. We've been all over the place, kind of far flung places, like Pittsburgh, but it's going very well. I think this is the tenth show. We had a day off yesterday.

UOTS: How has this tour differed from tours in the past? Has it?

BD: Oh yeah. We haven't placed some of this places in a really long time. Like, Kansas City. We haven't played there since 2006 or 2007, and then we played a smaller rock club, and now we're playing theaters. Some of the venue sizes have bumped up a couple of levels. It's been interesting to see the opening band, do you know Owen Pallett?

UOTS: Yeah, formerly Final Fantasy.

BD: Exactly, formerly Final Fantasy. He's traveling with two people [they are all from Canada] and they are loving it, just everything here, the record stores, it's kind of like an anthropological experiment. Touring in the U.S. is much easier than in Europe for some reason.

UOTS: In the band's early years, you guys seemed to have a bigger follow in Europe than you did here. Has that changed?

BD: I don't know. Certainly the American market is the big one. I think we've sort of evened out. Proportionally their market is like one fifth of the US market in size. Comparably we're doing about the same. I don't know. I think we might be doing slightly better in the UK, for some reason, I don't know why.

UOTS: That's interesting. They seem to like American stuff over there, stuff like Springsteen, the Hold Steady.

BD: I guess so. We've been told, actually, that we sound like a British band, which I don't think is true. But I definitely borrow, or steal, a lot of drum beats from British artists.

UOTS: Who, specifically?

BD: The most? Stephen Morris, the drummer in New Order/Joy Division.

UOTS: That's one thing I really like about the National. I can see some British pop elements, but you guys sound very American to me. There's a sensibility to the lyrics that feels very American in origin, but maybe I'm reading a lot into it.

BD: I agree, and Matt (Berninger, National vocalist) would definitely agree as well.

UOTS: You mentioned the difference in venue size. The last time you guys played here you played Modified, and now you are playing the Marquee. I think that should illustrate the kind of upward climb you guys are experiencing for your Phoenix fans.

BD: That was our only show ever in Arizona.

UOTS: I don't know how much you guys talked about this as a band, but you guys issued a statement about your decision to not boycott Arizona in the wake of SB1070.

BD: It's being held up in the courts, though, right? It's been modified so some of the more abhorrent parts have been stricken.

UOTS: Right, for now. So how was that discussed among the band?

BD: I'm in the camp that's like, who gives a shit if some band that doesn't even tour [starts organizing something]. It's hurting the people at the venues, people in bands, and that seems like a whole different sphere. I hate boycotts, and it's silly. It's business. I think the best thing to do is give money to people who provide legal defense, and that's what we're doing, giving money to Latino Justice. There's nothing political about the band, first of all. We're not going to make political statements, even if we are engaged individually.

I feel like that could be taken really wrong. I mean, does anyone even give a shit in Arizona? Is everyone apathetic?

UOTS: Does anybody care about the law itself?

BD: Yeah.

UOTS: Well of course. I mean, there's obviously people who are against it and a lot of people who are very adamant in their support of it.

BD: I mean, are they profiling? Isn't that what police do anyway?

UOTS: Sure. It's a decisive bill, for sure. I'm against it, and most of the folks I know are, but I think there are intelligent, well meaning people on both sides. At least I hope so, giving everyone the benefit of the doubt. But yeah, people care. I know people appreciate the fact that you guys are playing here.

BD: That's good. I love it there. I love the desert climate.

UOTS: Oh man, and our weather just got nice, too. 

I read something you wrote in reference to your first record. You said, "I think our sound is placeless, suburban. Picture a keg party on the deck, overlooking a stand of buckeyes, oaks and maples, beer flows, cigarettes butts are jammed between in the spaces between the planks of the deck. Over the white noise of the keg sounds, lighters lighting and voices, music peels from a ghetto blaster. That's the music we hear."

BD: (laughs) That's some literary license, right there.

UOTS: I'm curious if you would use the same imagery to describe the band now.

BD: I think now the difference is (pauses). I was writing that specifically for the people of Cincinnati, Ohio. Now I think we're more sleek and refined. I didn't even listen to Joy Division and New Order when I wrote that, you know before 2003. That's really changed my approach to playing drums, wanting to sound like a drum machine. Do you know who Greg Dulli is?

UOTS: Of the Afghan Whigs, Twilight Singers, right?

BD: We were eating dinner last night, in New Orleans, actually, and randomly we saw him sitting at the front, near the window, sitting distinctively. And that's the music at the party, the Afghan Whigs. That's what we were emulating in the past, Ohio valley records: Afghan Whigs, Guided By Voices, the Breeders. Pixies aren't from Ohio, but somehow, you know, they are.

UOTS: The sound was placeless and suburban. Would you say the sound has moved into the city?

BD: I guess we had to. It's funny to hear it read back like that. Sometimes you just say things because they sound good. We've been living in the city now for awhile, I guess it's rubbed off on us.

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.