Anyone who skimmed yesterday’s Premature Evaluation — which came pretty close to that other “e” word — oughtta know how Stereogum feels about the National. The quintet’s fourth full-length album Boxer, a sumptuous trek into a surrealistic Cheeverian realm (count the times money and darkness come up), is perhaps their best to date. To these ears it’s better than Alligator.
Full-disclosure: As a youngster, I gave the band a good review. It was one of their first write-ups, so as a result we ended up talking and laughing a little along the way (last year I recorded them in an attic for The Believer’s Music Issue compilation). Way back when, in the tiny fan-boy piece that appeared in Buffalo’s Artvoice, I referred to the group as “a working-class Clientele,” among other silly things. A bit off, yes, but pretty convenient for this article … Keeping those salad days and one of the songs that inspired my platitude(s) in mind, we’re including the band’s slow-release 9-5 anthem, “Theory of the Crows.” It appeared on the 2001 self-titled Brassland album, the record that turned me onto the group … and it still gives some queasy recognition chills.
Jumping to the now, on the eve of Boxer’s release, I asked three members of the band what they do for a living outside of making these murky, beautiful songs … songs that should help them ditch the workforce someday soon (if they so choose).
Brian Devendorf, drums
STEREOGUM: “Theory of the Crows” talks pointedly about work. Where were you employed at that time?
BRYAN DEVENDORF: I was at Soho Press, a book publisher. In the midst of the dot-com bubble and all that high-flying what-have-you, I was sifting through piles of manuscripts, looking for gold.
STEREOGUM: Did you find any?
BD: I thought I did, a few times. Turned out it was fool’s gold.
STEREOGUM: You’re not there anymore, right?
BD: Right, I am no longer an employee of the Soho Press. I did get the opportunity to edit a few titles, start to finish. It was an invaluable experience all around.
STEREOGUM: What are you doing to pay the bills?
BD: At the moment, I work as a proofreader at an “interactive” ad agency and I copy-edit and proofread books when I can. My contract here at the ad place is up tomorrow. Here there are long, woolgathering lulls (like the one I’m using to write this) briefly punctuated by proofing activity.
STEREOGUM: Think you’ll ever drop freelance?
BD: I don’t know. I’d like to be able to do copy-editing only or to go back to school or teach drums or something.
STEREOGUM: What jobs did you have growing up?
BD: I mowed lawns growing up — scorched acres of determination and grit and a Who tape. Later, I sold pretzels and Pepsi at Riverbend, the local concert amphitheater, where the seasonal highpoint was a three-night stand by Jimmy Buffet. Picture your parents drunk multiplied by 30,000, staggering around in Hawaiian getups. It was pretty funny.
STEREOGUM: You’re grew up in Cincinnati. What’s the general landscape of that city?
BD: It’s a city of dramatic valleys, all carved by tributaries to the Ohio River. Lying just beyond the southern reach of the last glaciers, which left much of the rest of Ohio considerably flat; Cincinnati, with its sweeping inclines, its seven hills, is the exception.
STEREOGUM: Is that the reason for all the water on the first record?
BD: Matt belongs to a long (and oft-weaponized) line of river-dwellers; his first place in Brooklyn was on the Gowanus Canal. I think that might have had something to do with it.
STEREOGUM: Are you excited by the Bengals’ recent successes? I know a number of players have been getting arrested, but at least they’re winning.
BD: There’s a phrase in the band – “Dad and the Bengals” — referring to a certain band dad and other fair-weather fans of the team. But there are a few diehards there whose blood does run black and orange. I admit that I am not among them, but I am excited to see the team get some wins, finally. Their growing rap sheet and their on-field successes: coincidence or correlation?
STEREOGUM: Do you feel an affinity for other Cincinnati institutions like the Afghan Whigs?
BD: Steve Earle, not the singer-songwriter but the Whigs’ erstwhile (and obviously best) drummer, was my first teacher. Woo! Steve! And I’ve seen the Heartless Bastards’ past two Christmas shows in Cincinnati. The first time I was like, eh, but the last time was utterly transporting. The singer was incredible and had this infectious and toothy, megawatt smile. Rootin’ for ‘em.
STEREOGUM: How is work related to the National’s storytelling? Maybe I’m projecting, but the songs seem soaked in work and those simple, but amazing moments when you get to step outside of that for a while … coming home late, or whatever.
BD: Hmm … Are you also a product of the suburbs and/or a belated coming-of-age?
STEREOGUM: Both, really.
BD: I see. Maybe it’s possible to identify with Matt’s viewpoint because you too have pursued your ambitions outside the prosaic?
STEREOGUM: If you had to describe the universe or place where the National’s songs are situated, what would it look like?
BD: Probably a lot like Matt’s apartment.
STEREOGUM: People often talk about the National’s literariness…
BD: Some of Matt’s lyrics put me in mind of Charles Simic, though I’m not sure what influence, if any, his work has. I do know that Matt writes lyrics like a writer-writer: write, smoke, drink, revise, write, smoke, drink some more, revise some more, etc. But Matt quit smoking recently, so it’s Nicorette instead.
STEREOGUM: You’re pretty literary yourself. What are you reading right now?
BD: What Is The What by Dave Eggers and a nonfiction book called Volcano Under Snow by John Colvin.
STEREOGUM: Did Cincinnati have a good library system?
BD: Yes, I think so. Most of my library visits were to a suburban branch of the main library downtown. It was newly renovated at the time and seemed to be patterned after our elementary school, which was all cool and low-slung and terrarium-like.
STEREOGUM: Are you currently working on any writing of your own?
BD: I have trouble getting started. Then I freeze up because I don’t have one single original thought. How do you do it?
Scott Devendorf, bass/guitar
STEREOGUM: What were you doing for employment around the time of the first record?
SCOTT DEVENDORF: I was working first at one design job, then with Matt at an Internet company. Matt actually hired me, though he is not the boss of me. I also remember it as a busy time and the music-making being an exciting escape from working. It was not all bad, though.
STEREOGUM: What kind of jobs did you have growing up?
SD: Pizza prep cook (early shift), worked at a farm, nacho salesman at a few Bengals games (temp job), delivery driver for a travel agency (delivering tickets), sign making company — the boss of which, coincidentally, was married to a “Ben-gal” (cheerleader).
STEREOGUM: Are you excited by the Bengals’ recent successes?
SD: I was psyched when my cousin-in-law, who lives in Queens, came over to our house wearing a Bengals jersey, which solicited a ‘who-dey’ of course, and a look of confusion from my cousin. Matt also owns a pretty sweet WHO DEY shirt that I find endlessly amusing. Perhaps I am a bigger fan of the slogan than the team — I don’t really follow professional sports.
STEREOGUM: Do you feel an affinity for other Cincinnati institutions, like the Afghan Whigs?
SD: I was a fan of Afghan Whigs growing up. We used to see shows at Sudsy Malone’s when that existed, and Bogart’s a few times. There was a pretty happening music scene for a while with Afghan Whigs, Tigerlillies, and others … not sure what it’s like now. My brother and I recently attended a Twilight Singers show in Brooklyn — it was good. I liked their t-shirts too, but they were out of my size.
STEREOGUM: How is work related to the National’s storytelling? The protagonists are often tired, coming home from elsewhere, sleeping in their clothes, etc … especially on Boxer, it’s all sort of dreamlike.
SD: I like that Matt writes from this point of view, filtered through some abstraction — it allows people to give the songs their own meaning. I’ve never been a huge fan of super-direct lyrics, though I am sure I am forgetting something on that point. He and I were both big Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen fans for a while (and still) so some of it comes from that, while other stuff moves in a different direction, which is nice.
STEREOGUM: What are you reading these days?
SD: I am the worst (or at least, most inconsistent/unfinishing) reader of the band. I do a lot of driving, so that cuts into the reading time, though I do enjoy it when I do … Last thing I read was Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. (I still have to finish the last 50 pages — see!) I have a reading list going for June & July touring though … a lot of romances.
STEREOGUM: If you had to describe the universe where the National’s songs are situated, what would that place look like?
SD: Dark and misty, but with a comfortable couch, and some nice mood lighting. There’s probably someone with a good sense of humor at the party, too.
STEREOGUM: Is it getting tougher balancing the sort of rote/zombie aspects of day work with what’s currently happening with the band? You guys have been around a while, but the buzz is getting louder. It must be hard to focus on designing someone else’s website.
SD: We’re excited to get back out playing shows — freelancing is great but it does sometimes have a transient feeling associated with the task. At first this [band] was the “worst decision ever,” but it’s been working better lately.
STEREOGUM: What are you doing to pay the bills right now? Explain a typical day dedicated to work.
SD: I’ve been graphic design freelance under my own company name for about 3 or 4 years, and I try to schedule work with that when we are back for an extended period, or if I know we’ll have a couple of weeks free. I try to explain this to my clients beforehand, with varying results, though they’re usually okay. I either work at my place with a laptop and Internet access, or work onsite at some small or large company. It’s print and website design. I’ve been doing it professionally for like 10 years, and I like it. It’s nice to be able to travel and play the music, plus it’s good to have a break to think about things visual. Both get overwhelming from time to time.
STEREOGUM: Can you give me some more detail about recent projects?
SD: My first projects working in New York were print-based design (books, posters, ephemera) for a lot of arts organizations, museums and literary publications, so my experience wasn’t the same in that regard. Recently I’ve been doing a variety of projects, mostly a lot of brand identity for small companies, some websites, and things like that. Then we also design the album artwork, posters, etc, which is always a great pleasure/pain in the ass.
STEREOGUM: Think you’ll ever stop working?
SD: Hard to say — It helps keep things going (monetarily), and it is a nice break from rock/travel. Sometimes it’s better to help solve other people’s problems. But sure, there are days I wish I owned an island.
Matt Berninger, vocals
STEREOGUM: On the first s/t album “Theory of the Crows” talks rather pointedly about work. What were you doing for employment at that time? Also, I’ve always wondered: What exactly is the “theory of the crows”?
MATT BERNINGER: “Theory of the Crows” was one of the first songs we wrote. I had been working for a few years at a design firm here in New York. It was while the dot.com bubble was inflating rapidly and every firm in the country was scrabbling for the clients. We were working 18-hour days and weekends to keep up with the demand and I started to lose it a little. I actually loved the job but my priorities got scrambled. Everyone expected to take their company public and be instant millionaires. A few did but most of us just ended up pale and bewildered. The song’s about the rat race except with crows.
STEREOGUM: Ever wonder what would’ve happened if you’d become that millionaire?
MB: I probably would have taken guitar lessons and tried to start a band. Isn’t Steve Jobs or somebody in a rock band with Russell Crowe or something? I would’ve tried to hook up with those dudes.
STEREOGUM: What are you doing to pay the bills right now? Can you explain a typical day?
MB: Me at my laptop. It’s a PhotoShop world … I’d like to add that two years ago Scott appointed me as Vice President of his company but has yet to invite me to any meetings or deliver my business cards…
STEREOGUM: Can you give me some more detail about recent projects? Where did you learn design?
MB: Scott and I both went through the DAAP (Design, Architecture, Art and Planning) program University of Cincinnati. It was a rigorous five-year program founded on the principles of the the Swiss and Bauhaus schools of thought, where design is more akin to plumbing than art. That’s where we met and formed our dreams of becoming future design heroes like Paul Rand or Saul Bass. Later, we found ourselves spending a significant amount of our lives designing pop-up ads for MasterCard.
STEREOGUM: When I first contact you about this, you mentioned that maybe you burned some freelance bridges in your Pitchfork interview. Is it getting tougher balancing the day job with what’s currently happening with the band?
MB: I sometimes have to hide the band stuff from clients so they won’t think I’m less invested in their project than I should be. I’ve done overseas conference calls with clients backstage before shows. I always say “I’m in Brussels for business.” The truth is I really value the freelance work. Its a welcome distraction from obsessing over The National.
STEREOGUM: Think you’ll ever drop freelance entirely?
MB: Don’t know. I expect I’d need to have something to focus on besides The National for perspective. If I have kids I wouldn’t mind the Mr. Mom lifestyle.
STEREOGUM: There’s work on Boxer, mentions of the middle class, etc.
MB: Boxer has some loose references to work/office life. There are “beloved white shirts” in “Squalor Victoria” and a disillusioned young professional in “Racing Like a Pro”; in this one the shirts are blue. The songs are less about “working for the man” than about getting lost in the sometimes-numbing routines that come along with responsibility. We’re the ones wearing the shirts.
STEREOGUM: What kind of jobs did you have growing up?
MB: I worked at Green Tee driving range. I drove around in one of those caged in golf carts with the combine-esque contraptions picking up balls. I also worked at a Christmas tree farm, a video store, delivered pizzas and was a camp counselor for a few summers.
STEREOGUM: When I asked Scott about the water on the debut, he said “Matt often uses the term ‘river rat’ to describe us/family/himself… he can clarify.” Can you clarify?
MB: There is a turf war in Cincinnati between the east side and west side. It’s like The Outsiders where the west siders are the Greasers, while the east siders are the Socs. The far west side runs along the Ohio River, hence the term River Rats. I was one of those. The rest of the guys come from the east side. Our name for them was the Spoons (for silver spoons).
STEREOGUM: How is work related to the National’s storytelling? Your songs’ protagonists are tired, sleeping in their clothes, etc. The songs seem soaked in work … and the small, amazing moments when you get to step momentarily outside of the rat race.
MB: There must be a need to write about the mundane, less sexy parts of life and turn them into something awesome. It’s a way to get on top of it and assert some control.
STEREOGUM: Last time I ran into you, you were going on about Jonathan Ames. Are you still deep into his work?
MB: I’ve finished everything by Jonathan Ames. I stole “showered and blue-blazered” from his novel Wake Up, Sir! Now I’m dipping into Joan Didion starting with Play It As It Lays. I also just bought The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama, mostly for the cool cover.
STEREOGUM: If you had to describe the universe or place where most of your songs are situated, what would it look like?
MB: That’s tough. I think Boxer is more surreal that the other records. It seems to be set in a bent cartoonish urban/suburban universe. I purposely mixed a lot of whimsical fairytale imagery (diamond slippers, bluebirds, etc.) in with mundane details of ordinary life to give it a peculiar vibe. I picture everyone dressed kinda fancy wandering around in slow-motiion under weird lighting. Lots of sparkles.
STEREOGUM: Bryan mentioned that you quit smoking. Is it tough wandering this world without a cigarette?
MB: I only quit smoking 34 days ago although I feel it sticking this time. I’m determined. I’ll still have my wine.
Boxer is out 5/22 on Beggars Banquet.