Bryan Devendorf’s drumming is deceptively simple. A brilliant accompanist to the National’s diverse, moody, and propulsive oeuvre, Devendorf provides vital rhythmic hooks to some of the group’s best-known songs. If you seek out a live performance of “Bloodbuzz Ohio” or “Squalor Victoria,” you can hear an audible audience roar when Devendorf introduces the signature drum patterns for these fan favorites. But what’s more fascinating than his deep pocket and creativity is his contribution to the craft of the band’s songwriting. Bryce Dessner, guitarist with the National, says, “Bryan often has the hardest and earliest job in the studio, and he spends weeks and weeks getting his drum parts down. He also has to deal with the [rest of the band] constantly commenting on direction and his parts.”
But Devendorf can be a taskmaster himself in the studio. “If you’re looking to get your feathers fluffed,” National singer Matt Berninger says, “he’s not the guy.” But thankfully for the band’s productivity, Devendorf is not a source of negativity, he’s about solutions. “He’s an astute student of songwriting,” Dessner shares, “and often has amazing ideas for finishing songs in the studio. He can be a harsh critic of things that are not good, but he’s really skilled at bringing a song across the finish line.”
Ben Lanz, a touring member of the National and principal member of Devendorf’s other, more Krautrock-influenced band, LNZNDRF, says, “It’s as if every sound, every articulation, is equally important to him, and from this, all is thought out and considered and reconsidered.”
You can hear this attention to craft in Devendorf’s parts on the National’s new album, Sleep Well Beast. The release represents the band’s first deep dive into combining electronic beats with the drummer’s acoustic playing. Songs often start with a stern electronic pattern that Devendorf elaborates on with his signature kit playing as the track progresses. The results are effective and open up the songs to wider emotional vistas. An example of this strategy can be heard on the album’s second single, “Guilty Party,” wherein a high-pitched, crisp electronic beat gets fleshed out after a minute and a half by Devendorf’s stuttering, syncopated playing. According to Dessner, Bryan wrote out fifteen different break patterns for the song, which gave the guitarist material to create the evolving electronic pulses.
It’s odd that it’s taken the band this long to explore these kinds of timbral juxtapositions, but maybe that’s simply because Devendorf was already such a rock-solid, metronomic presence. National bassist Scott Devendorf describes his brother’s drumming in two contrasting words, “machine organic,” and engineer and producer Peter Katis says, “Bryan is one of my favorite drummers in the world—his sound has an almost aggressive precision, but without sacrificing feel.” On Sleep Well Beast these two aspects of Devendorf’s style find their explicit expression.
In person, Devendorf’s modesty stands in stark contrast to his towering 6’5″ physical presence. He’s not one to oversell himself—I was not aware until very late in this interview process that he’s scored out all his drum parts for the National’s albums. He’s a relentless perfectionist, as hard on himself as he is on the rest of the band. But it’s definitely for the best. Devendorf is the anchor and core of the National. “Bryan is by far the loudest thing I have in my monitors when we play live,” singer Berninger says. “His drumming is what I attach myself to and what I retreat to.” “He’s one of the best musicians I have ever played with,” Dessner adds, “and definitely the most talented drummer that I know.”
“Bryan warms up every night backstage playing Steve Reich’s ‘Clapping Music’ on his drum pad,” Bryce Dessner tells Modern Drummer. The piece by the famous minimalist composer is constructed of two clave patterns progressively offset by an 8th note until they’re back in unison—“easy to do by two people, but quite difficult by one,” Dessner explains. “I work with Steve Reich a lot, and he was amazed that this is Bryan’s warm-up routine. These elaborate shifting patterns are the soundtrack to our preparation to go on stage.”
MD: I feel like you’re the contemporary rock scene’s Mick Fleetwood: Your playing is tasteful and creative and adds a great arrangement atmosphere. Do you have any musical influences that loom large for you?
Bryan: That’s a big compliment. Thank you. Mick Fleetwood’s playing has certainly influenced mine. Those tom fills he does into the choruses of “Dreams” with the ride hits? Amazing. And Tusk?
There are so, so many drummers and musicians over the years who I’ve been wowed by and therefore driven to imitate or even steal from. I’m like a butterfly flitting from flower to flower in that regard. Some contemporaries whose playing has been hugely influential on mine are Glenn Kotche [Wilco], Matt Barrick [the Walkmen], Sam Fogarino [Interpol], and Georgia Hubley [Yo La Tengo]. Of all the twentieth-century greats, I’d say I most emulate Ringo, John Bonham [Led Zeppelin], Tony Allen [Fela Kuti], Jim Keltner, Jim Capaldi [Traffic], Moe Tucker [Velvet Underground], Klaus Dinger [Neu!], Jack DeJohnette, Elvin Jones, and of course Stephen Morris [Joy Division, New Order].
MD: You grew up in Cincinnati, correct? How did you find your way to the drums?
Bryan: That’s right. My dad got a job there in early ’79 and moved the family down soon after. My mom put me and my brother Scott in the Suzuki violin program at CCM [College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati] that same year. We lived in the suburbs, so it was a thirty-minute drive to the conservatory, and on those drives I got my first exposure to really listening closely to recorded music on my mom’s tapes. She had a lot of classical tapes but also some contemporary pop like Neil Diamond and Linda Ronstadt. However, my favorite was The Supremes’ Greatest Hits. I still remember staring out the car window and quietly singing along with Diana Ross.
After about a decade, I had burned out on the violin and was more into skateboarding than practicing. I forget which came first, but sometime in the seventh grade I acquired a Yamaha DD-5, and this kid named Mike Hunting permanently set up his drums in a small room at our school and let me play them during lunch. So I was playing every day, either on Mike’s kit or on that little four-pad drum machine. By eighth grade I’d convinced my parents to let me quit violin and focus on the drums, so they sold my violin and with the proceeds bought me a drumset.
MD: How would you describe the early days playing with your brother? Were you a rhythm section from the start?
Bryan: In the beginning Scott and I were a violin duo of sorts. We played school events, parties, etc. He got out of the violin thing long before me and started playing guitar. Once he joined a band, I wanted to be their drummer, but I didn’t manage that at the time. We played together eventually in other bands, but he was always on guitar. We became a bass-drum team in the early 2000s, when he and [National guitarist] Aaron Dessner switched instruments.
MD: You used to take lessons with Steve Earle from the Afghan Whigs. Their Sub Pop album Congregation made a huge impact on college radio when it was released. Can you talk about the scene in Cincinnati at this time, how you were able to get in touch with Steve and what he taught you?
Bryan: I wasn’t part of any scene, just some clueless kid from the suburbs who had a nice big brother with a great collection of records and tapes. Scott was more into the local band scene, seeing bands like Lizard 99, Brainiac, the Tigerlilies, Over the Rhine, and of course the Afghan Whigs. My studies with their drummer, Steve, occurred completely at random. He happened to be teaching lessons at a music shop in my part of town. He was also painting houses at the time; I remember him coming to lessons covered in paint.
Steve was a great teacher, always patient and very kind. He stressed the basics from the start: snare-only in the beginning, lots of rudiments and exercises from method books like Stick Control. After a month or so of focusing on the snare, we started on the kit with Realistic Rock by Carmine Appice. We worked together for somewhere between six months and a year before he quit teaching to go on tour.
MD: I revisited those ’90s Whigs records a bit recently, and I definitely heard a continuum between Earle’s drumming and your own.
Bryan: I hear you. I think the way Steve divided a drum part up into discrete sections, his clearly punctuated accents, his style of syncopation, his referencing of Motown beats, and his slight swing definitely informed my playing.
MD: I hear that swing in your playing for sure. How would you say you were able to cultivate this?
Bryan: That was something that might have developed from lesson times, or [maybe] being in a small room together. He never said, “Hey man, try playing like this….” He emphasized technique and reading and also straight-up kick-snare-hat beats. Maybe I internalized his feel early on because I listened to that record Congregation a lot when I was first playing with other people, and there’s a lot of that kind of work on there.
MD: Are you still in touch with him?
Bryan: Unfortunately, no. The last time I saw Steve was in ’95 or ’96. The Afghan Whigs were playing in Cleveland, where I was going to school. He was really cool—said hello to me and my friend after the show. I know he’s been pretty active in the local music scene here, playing drums and also fronting a band on guitar. I hope I run into him again someday.
MD: Did the fact that your teacher was working in a professional band with gigs make an impression on you and the other people who ended up in the National?
Bryan: Looking back, having a teacher that was actually engaged in what I wanted to do was certainly a huge piece of my musical upbringing, though it was never spoken of or reflected upon at the time. Then I was more focused on dissecting Bonham drum parts or collecting Dead tapes. But seeing Whigs shows at the local rock venue opened my eyes to the possibilities of being in a band.
MD: How did you guys end up connecting with the Dessners and Matt Berninger?
Bryan: I first met Aaron and Bryce when I was in sixth grade. They were one year younger. We didn’t actually end up playing in a band together until a few years later—I must have been fifteen at the time. Their mom drove them to my house for our first jam session. This was when I was really getting into the Grateful Dead. They knew “Eyes of the World,” so we ended up playing that for a while.
Scott met Matt at the University of Cincinnati, where they studied design. They bonded over a mutual love of Guided by Voices, the Smiths, et al., and started a band called Nancy. I first met Matt sometime in the early ’90s, probably over at Scott’s house or at a party or something.
After college the [Dessner] twins and I played in a five-piece band, which ended in the early summer of 1999. It was then that Aaron and I started taking trips into Brooklyn to record songs in Matt’s apartment for what would be the first version of the National. Aaron and I both lived in New Haven at the time. Bryce did too—he joined the band soon after Aaron and I did. The as-yet-unnamed band/recording project was an extension of Nancy, Scott and Matt’s college band.
MD: When do you feel that the band really came into its own?
Bryan: Probably during the writing and recording of the Alligator album.
MD: What went into that process?
Bryan: We rehearsed a lot and recorded basic tracks in the same studio where we’d been rehearsing in Red Hook [Brooklyn]. Also, we had just signed with Beggars Banquet and were definitely feeling the pressure to make something good. Maybe it’s the haze of nostalgia—this was thirteen years ago—but I remember playing for hours and doing whatever I felt like doing and it all seeming good and coming together organically. I know for sure one of the guitar/drum jams Aaron and I made up on the spot became the song “Mr. November.”
The overdubs for the record were done in the upstairs apartment at Aaron and Bryce’s sister’s house in Ditmas Park [Brooklyn]. So I think our physical proximity was definitely influential in bringing the band together creatively. And something about that era, performing and recording rock music in New York City, was edifying and cool. The making of Sleep Well Beast was sort of a throwback to the Alligator days in that we spent a lot of time together, not just working but also hanging out.
MD: There’s a lot of electronic/acoustic interplay on Sleep Well Beast. You mentioned the great Stephen Morris as an influence. Was his electronic/acoustic fusion at play for these sessions?
Bryan: Stephen Morris’s drumming has been quite influential on me. His beats are unique and very satisfying to play and notate. “Heart and Soul,” “Atmosphere,” “Transmission,” “Ceremony,” “She’s Lost Control,” “Disorder,” “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” “Everything’s Gone Green,” “Age of Consent,” “Love Vigilantes,” “Thieves Like Us,” “Bizarre Love Triangle”…too many to name. [They were] in play here for sure.
MD: On the new album, the song “I’ll Still Destroy You” has an arrangement that begins with electronic beats and marimba. How much input did you have on the arrangements that include electronics? And what about the percussion on this track, the marimba and metal percussion elements?
Bryan: Creating the beats on this recording—electronic and drumset—was for the most part a three-way collaboration with Jon Low, who engineered the sessions, and Aaron, who produced the sessions. I would come up with some ideas and then Aaron would essentially choose the ones he thought fit best, and Jon would get sounds that suited the parts. On a few others, Bryce provided the electronic beats and I just played along on the kit.
On “I’ll Still Destroy You,” I think the electronic beat is something I programmed on a Korg Volca Beats [drum machine] that was then run through Ableton by Bryce. The marimba and metal were played by Jason Treuting and Eric Cha-Beach of So Percussion.
MD: I hear a lot of creativity in your beats. They often include a signature syncopated tom phrasing. What is your process of coming up with drum arrangements, and how do you approach songwriting within the group?
Bryan: I don’t know why, but I always seem to end up pounding the toms. They seem to work well with the dark timbre of Matt’s voice.
I don’t really have a specific process for the beats and arrangements. It’s trial and error usually. For this record I was “composing” a lot on two very approachable drum machines, the Roland TR-8 and the Korg Volca Beats. Sometimes we ended up just keeping those parts and I would layer real drums on top.
In our group, the songwriting occurs over the span of many months—years sometimes. Usually the twins will record dozens of sketches for Matt to check out. The ones he finds stuff for make it to the next round, where another winnowing down occurs that’s more group oriented.
MD: I found a quote from 2010 where you said, “We record the drums, and then everything else generally comes after that.” Can you elaborate a bit more?
Bryan: Let me clarify this statement. It’s not just me alone in a room playing to nothing but a click track; there’s always preexisting scratch tracks of some kind or another. Usually the singing is one of the very last things to be recorded. If there are vocals on when I’m tracking, they’re either scratch vocals or wordless melodies. So usually everything I play to eventually gets muted or replaced by something else, so a whole new track emerges. That’s kind of how things have gone for the past ten years.
MD: What advice do you have in terms of creating effective drum arrangements for vocal rock music?
Bryan: Listen to the singer and shape things around the voice. Keep it simple, but look for unusual ways to articulate the rhythm.
MD: It’s very hard to have a busy beat sit within a song with vocals. On the new album, “Empire Line” has all this, but it works so well. Was there a story behind that one?
Bryan: It is a busy beat, and it’s hard to sing over busy drumming. Somehow Matt made it work here. I had engineer Jon Low chop up the busy section of the song in Pro Tools with a view to making it more machinelike and even under the vocals. Thankfully, Aaron heard what we were up to and was not into it—the lack of human feel—so we undid all the edits and kept it au naturel.
MD: You’ve ended up in Cincinnati again. What’s special about the place?
Bryan: It’s just really easy to live where we live day to day. And it’s especially kid-friendly—my wife and I have three kids now, and having the first two in Brooklyn, for me, was enough. l wanted out of the apartment. Also, basements are the norm here, so I’m able to work at home in a soundproofed room. It’s really great.
I think there’s a fair amount of local pride for the bands that have come out of here, and the history of King Records is something that people should look into. Also Bootsy Collins is from here—that’s pretty freakin’ special!
Devendorf’s Tour Kit
Bryan plays a C&C kit featuring a 13″ tom, a 16″ floor tom, and a 20″ bass drum, along with a 6.5×14 Ludwig main snare and a ’70s-era 5×14 Slingerland auxiliary snare. His Istanbul Agop cymbals include a pair of hi-hats made up of two 16″ OM crashes, a 20″ Signature ride/18″ Signature stack, and a 17″ Traditional Dark crash/14″ Traditional Medium stack (he’ll take the top cymbals off in real time, depending on the song), and 12″ 30th Anniversary auxiliary hi-hats. His electronics comprise a Roland SPD-SX multipad, two Roland PD-85BK 8″ mesh pads, and two Roland BT-1 Bar pads. He uses Regal Tip 5A sticks, Vic Firth T1 General mallets, and Lewis custom shaker sticks. His hardware is made by Yamaha, and his drumheads include an Aquarian Super-Kick II bass drum batter and Remo Coated Ambassador tom batters and Coated Emperor snare batters. For percussion Devendorf plays various shakers and tambourines, and his accessories include a Boss DB-90 Dr. Beat metronome, a Reflexx Conditioning Pad, and Radial ProD2 direct boxes.