The National returns to Aspen for two sold out nights at Belly Up
If You Go …
What: The National
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Tuesday, Dec. 29 and Wednesday, Dec. 30, 9 p.m.
Tickets: Sold out, but a few tickets were still available as of Monday through sites like Stubhub and Craigslist.
They aren’t on tour, they’re not promoting anything, but The National is in town to perform a two-night stand at Belly Up. The concerts are among just a few shows on the books for the beloved Brooklyn-based rock band, which is in the midst of working on a new album.
“Every time you’re in a period between records and touring, you’re sort of reflective, you’re asking, ‘What do we do next? How do we make it interesting for us and for everyone?’” bassist Scott Devendorf said recently from his home in Long Island.
Expect a test run of a song-in-progress or two at the Belly Up shows, as the band plugs along on its follow-up to 2013’s “Trouble Will Find Me.”
“We have 30 or 40 things cooking,” he said. “But anything could stay or go at any time. We try to generate a lot of new material and then work through it. In general, before, we’ve done all that before we play anything live, but this time we’re trying to play them live and see how they pan out.”
Many of the new songs are still in what Devendorf calls the “ragged glory” stage. They’ve showcased one so far, “Roman Candle,” at a benefit this fall at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. That song is further along than most others.
“It’s the opposite of ragged glory,” Devendorf said. “It’s kind of precious right now. Our general idea right now is to investigate the process more, play stuff live and see how it goes.”
Aiming for perfection and scrapping dozens of songs during studio sessions suggests that The National has an enormous trove of material we’ve never heard, and that one day might make its way to fans “Basement Tapes”-style. But they’re hard to figure out that way – one of their most popular songs among fans, the spare “Rylan,” has never made it onto an official recording.
The band may be loosening up a bit in the studio process after crafting the moody and literate songs on “Trouble Will Find Me” during painstaking, interminable studio sessions.
“Working things out in a less sterile environment is quite appealing at this point,” Devendorf explained. “Having gone deep down the rabbit hole of orchestration and layering and collage, it’s fun to get away from that a little bit.”
This year, the band did two extended writing and recording sessions – in California in the fall and in upstate New York in the spring. Another is planned for early 2016, but no release date is set for the new album.
While they’re taking their time on the new record, the members of The National have all stayed busy with a slate of side projects. The band has an open-door policy as to creative moonlighting, which might be one of the reasons why their last five albums have been so start-to-finish good, and why The National remains creatively alive and arguably still improving after 15 years together. Among the recent side gigs: front man Matt Berninger has been touring and recording with EL VY, guitarist Bryce Dressner contributed to the film score for “The Revenant,” members had hands in launching the Eaux Claires Festival and programming this year’s Barbican festival.
All five band members have also long been at work on a Grateful Dead tribute album. A fundraiser for the AIDS nonprofit Red Hot, it’s due out next year with Dead covers by The National, Bon Iver, Stephen Malkmus, the Walkmen, Sharon Van Etten and others.
“All of us working on that has been instructive, educational, totally fun and different from what we normally do,” said Devendorf.
Another National side project, the experimental outfit Lanzenforf, gave one of its few live performances at Colorado College in March. Consisting of Devendorf, his brother Bryan (drummer for The National, whose wife teaches at the Colorado Springs school) and Ben Lanz (who has toured and recorded playing trombone with The National), Lanzendorf is planning to release its debut album in the new year.
“Everything we all do outside of The National is pretty different from the band, so we’re always learning new lessons and ways of operating and playing music,” Devendorf said. “You learn different colors and shapes that we can all bring back to what we do as a band.”
Even when they’re all together, experimentation is a key ingredient in the creative process. In the 2013 MoMA PS1 art installation, the band performed its song “Sorrow” repeatedly for six hours straight.
“It seemed like one of those things where it seemed like a great idea to agree to, then a terrible idea when it was about to happen, then when we actually did it, I found it quite liberating,” Devendorf said, comparing it to a long band practice and meditation. “People ask, ‘Do you never want to play that song again?’ And we’re like, ‘No, actually it opened up the song for us.’”
So how did a band that’s decidedly off the road end up playing two nights at a small club in Aspen this week? The National played a two-night run at Belly Up in early January 2014. They enjoyed the shows and their time here in the mountains enough that when they all had a brief window of free time between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, they wanted to come back.
“It’s a great club and we like to do these small shows,” Devendorf said. “We don’t often get to do them these days, so it’s nice to return to our roots as a band.”
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