Photo by Stuart Levine
Scott Devendorf has long been known as The National’s de facto Deadhead and record collector, and this fall he’s secured his place in the Grateful Dead storybook by playing bass on Bob Weir’s intimate Campfire Tour. The National co-founder and Cincinnati native first discovered the Dead’s music in the late ’80s, long before his band helped define early 21st-century New York indie-rock. A few Steal Your Face shirts aside, Devendorf first publicly crossed into the Dead’s orbit in 2012 when he curated the HeadCount Bridge Session benefit at Weir’s TRI Studios along with his brother and National drummer Bryan Devendorf. That one-off event brought Weir in touch with a new generation of Brooklyn, N.Y., musicians and helped seed both The National’s massive Day of the Dead tribute and Weir’s first album in a decade, the cowboy song collection Blue Mountain (which was produced by Bridge Session musical director and Yellowbirds member Josh Kaufman). Scott and The National guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner contributed to Blue Mountain, and the Devendorfs will spend their downtime between sessions for the next National album backing Weir on the road. (Aaron Dessner was also slated to participate in the tour but had to pull out at the last minute due to a family emergency. Steve Kimock and Wolf!’s Jon Shaw have signed on as his replacements.) Shortly before Day of the Dead’s release, Scott spoke with Relix and Jambands.com about the new Dead tribute, playing with Weir and his long, strange trip from Shakedown Street to indie-rock royalty.
Let’s start by talking about Day of the Dead, Aaron and Bryce’s Grateful Dead tribute. How did the initial concept come to fruition?
This whole thing started several years ago now, the concept of it. We were like, “Oh, it’d be awesome and super fun to do,” ‘cause we’re fans and whatever. I remember talking about this at Coachella in like 2011 or something. That was sort of the beginning. It could’ve been even earlier than that. Just three or four of us—like Bryan and I and Bryce—were just sort of batting around ideas. It kind of remained dormant for a while, because we were touring, then making a record, then touring, and then I think we got excited about it again when we did the HeadCount thing.
Then we were off after all the touring, and we were like, “Let’s get it going,” because that’s what we do when we’re not touring—work on other stuff. My involvement has been playing bass on like 25 songs—“Terrapin” and all that stuff that was super fun. Then sort of generally rallying around ideas or suggesting things and batting stuff back and forth, listening to other stuff that other bands have done and expanding on it, which is always positive. It’s been a really fun thing to do, because almost everything someone turned in has been like, “That’s amazing!”
It’s interesting, the mixture of stuff. Some of the stuff definitely pays tribute to the ethos of The Dead, some of their jams and “Wharf Rat” with Ira Kaplan.
Yeah, I played on that, too—really fun. All the stuff that we did with Aaron, me, Josh, Bryan, Conrad, our sort of house band stuff—basically the HeadCount band with various people coming in—all of that stuff is more in the sort of traditional Grateful Dead world, with whatever addition the singer puts to it, you know? Ira really wanted something that was way more different and very Yo La Tengo in a way, in the end, which we were totally cool with, because we’re a big fan of that, too. Lee Ranaldo is a huge Dead fan; he’s been to tons of shows and has a vast knowledge of the catalog and the live shows, too. But also he’s obviously in Sonic Youth and doing his whole thing. Basically the house band stuff with each collaborator was a cool thing, especially when people were able to come and be there and work on the song as we were doing it. That was really special.
Over how long a period was that material with the house band recorded?
In April 2015, we spent about a week or 10 days up in Woodstock at Dreamland, and we had four or five days where people were scheduled to come in. So Will [Oldham of Bonnie “Prince” Billy] came in, Lee Ranaldo, Ira from Yo La Tengo. A lot of stuff we just did basic tracks for people to sing on. Then we did another section in February, and then in April we did another session in Hudson at a different studio called Future Past. That was with the guys from Grizzly Bear, and then also Lone Bellow came in and Otto Hauser did some drumming. It’s always a funny thing, people’s relationship with the [Dead], how big a fan [they are]. I know the Grizzly Bear guys are very respectful of the band, but it varies in people’s interest, and then you have someone like Charles Bradley who is not a Deadhead.
But he interpreted that song in a great way.
I’m a huge fan of all the interpretations. It was tough for me, because I’m a big fan and it’s hard to get outside of what the band sounds like. But also, I’m not a huge cover fan sometimes, so I’m just like, “Ahh!” Taking this stuff and kind of squeezing it into a new dimension is kind of a tricky thing.
The closest relative to _ Day of the Dead_ is the ‘90s tribute Deadicated, but that album was limited to a single disc.
That’s sort of the blessing and the curse with the thing because it can go on for so long—and Day of the Dead has—with the 200 songs or whatever, originals plus covers and traditional stuff that they made their own. It’s been interesting. Also, part of the curating process for us was throwing stuff out to people when we didn’t know if they were interested, and then some people were like, “Hell yeah I’ll do it!” Then others were, like, no response. It’s definitely been a mixed thing there. But people who we didn’t think would do it totally did.
Just the vast number of songs—going back to the Fare Thee Well shows, when they did five shows and only two repeats in five nights—that was just the biggest catalog of hits.
Yeah, it was basically “best of.” It’s funny—there are so many songs we haven’t touched, even huge songs that haven’t been done or may not be done that we’re kind of waiting to see if somebody will do it or whatever. I have a feeling there will be some emergency last-minute session where it’s like, “Oh, we have to do…” whatever. “Scarlet/Fire” or something.
While you were working on Day of the Dead in Upstate New York, Bob Weir was actually in the area working on his cowboy project, Blue Mountain. In certain ways, the two projects seemed to overlap in terms of players and an overall ethos of revisiting the Dead’s songbook in a rootsy way.
I was actually just there in Woodstock late last summer. The week before, we did some stuff back in Woodstock a couple of months ago, and then we went back and did some more stuff, and then Josh Kaufman, who’s part of the house band, is doing [Weir’s] record with Josh Ritter. It’s pretty special as far as hearing him talk about it and actually playing the songs. His voice, it’s a perfect timbre right now for it—it’s seasoned. It’s not as rollicking as, like, “Me and My Uncle” and that sort of thing.
When it came to the tribute album, did performing with Bob change the way you approached the project?
I guess it is inevitably a rabbit hole. That was sort of a given. I think there was enough space between playing with him at the TRI thing in 2012 and then doing it now, and then having our whole touring and everything happen between, it was a good breather to sort of be like, “Okay, we’re rehearsed and playing things, let’s get back in this.” And I think once we got together, and also got that band back together, it was really fun. Also, in a way, the songs are all written, so they’re there to interpret. So that’s easier than a band going like, “Oh, we’ve got to make new music.” But you want to do it justice and make something special out of it and make it new, in a way.
I think, for us, that was the thing. Dreamland’s got a crazy awesome sound—you can clap your hands and it sounds awesome—so it was like, if we play these songs, they automatically have a woody, real sound to them that’s cool without doing a whole lot of shit to them, like production stuff or otherwise. I mean, you heard the rough mixes and that’s pretty much everything. We haven’t done anything other than sing over them and mix them roughly. I don’t think there’s going to be a whole lot of overdubs and the other things involved in other recordings. It’s really cool. I don’t like to overstate that kind of shit, but it is like, “Woah!” You just strike a chord or play a piano or tap on some drums and it’s like, “This sounds awesome.” So if we could just capture that…
When it came down to decide what songs The National as The National were going to record, how did you guys narrow down on that? Was it where Matt’s voice fits?
Basically, yeah—songs that we felt had a certain emotional resonance that we thought would connect with the way he sings and the timbre of his voice. We also love “Peggy O” and “Morning Dew,” and he sang on both. We’re definitely going to use the “Peggy O,” and “Morning Dew” is kind of cool, but it’s a little more out-there. Someone else may do “Morning Dew” with that bass and basic track. Because Tallest Man On Earth actually did “Peggy O” when we were there with him, and he did “Ship Of Fools,” and sometimes you’ve got to try it to see if it works. But I think Matt’s “Peggy O” seemed to sit better with that track.
I thought that Tallest Man On Earth sounded awesome on “Ship Of Fools.” And “Peggy O,” I know it’s a Dead song, but it sounded like a National song, an interpretation. You wouldn’t know that that was known to the rock audience as the Grateful Dead’s.
We played it at the festival at Eau Claire in the summer. Josh was up there and like, “Let’s fuckin’ do it!” It was super fun, just because I love that song so much.
I guess three-fifths of our band was part of the house band, and somehow we channeled a National kind of vibe on that one. It was kind of interesting and educational to record in that way at Dreamland, where we were just doing stuff without intention—well, intention, but not knowing who was gonna sing or whatever. Things kind of came out like, “Oh, we’ve got to do this and we’ve got to do that.” Just kind of bang, bang, bang, do it. And it was fun. It worked out that way. Bryan was drumming, Conrad was drumming, Josh Kaufman was playing guitar and piano and singing sometimes. Conrad was also singing. We had a lot of splash vocals going, because we were like, “Somebody’s got to sing it!” So they were singing and playing. Sam Cohen played and sang. Walt was up there playing keyboards. It was like the whole TRI band again, basically. Bryce is playing on a couple of things, but he’s also doing a whole orchestration thing for “Terrapin.”
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