Since 1999 The National have subtly but determinedly secured themselves as one of the world’s most adored indie rock bands. But before the Cincinnati natives sold thousands of records and packed out venues, bassist Scott Devendorf and singer Matt Berninger were designers in New York. Their taste for graphic design is most evident in The National’s latest record Sleep Well Beast designed by Pentagram and released this Friday via 4AD.
“Matt and I have worked on all the records until the most recent one where we were able to hire a former colleague of mine,” bassist Scott tells It’s Nice That. His former colleague is Luke Hayman, a Pentagram partner since 2006. “We had the idea to see if he would help us out, and he agreed! In my first design job in New York he was one of the senior guys and I was the junior. I’ve always liked his work and style, he’s English and went to Central Saint Martins, does great editorial work. It was great to convince him to work with us.”
Scott and Matt’s own design background stemmed from going to the University of Cincinnati, studying a programme on design architecture and art planning. “We played music for fun during school but The National started in New York a few years later, just an after work thing,” says Scott. “We were working at design companies of varying sizes from 1996 to the mid 2000s I’d say. We’re familiar with design work a little bit, it’s one of our recent pasts.”
Each release by The National has followed a similar theme. “A lot of the records are kind of simple, photography based stuff with understated typography. That was our method for our first six records, and now we have even less typography.”
Scott’s mention of less typography leads to Sleep Well Beast where The National have abbreviated their name to Ntl. “The name of the band was originally intended to be kind of non meaningful, but obviously it’s taken on whatever meaning people attach to it,” says Scott. A possible interpretation of The National is one the band are understandably keen to stamp out. “It’s not meant to be nationalistic at all, and abbreviating it, not that we’re renaming the band or anything, it’s just to kinda get away from that. Especially with everything that’s going on with politics — it’s just like no way, no.”
The consequence of the abbreviation means the band name resembles a logo. “We haven’t tried to be a corporation in an all caps sort of way, but it’s a nod,” explains Scott. “We had this idea that we’re this small little company up in the mountains that makes pamphlets and leaflets. Not like a cult, but a weird hybrid of corporate identities and utilitarian sort of thing. We kind of went down a rabbit hole a little bit, like let’s make staplers, standard issue office equipment.”
Working with Luke rather than on their own means that many of The National’s office supplies ideas have even been put in motion: “It’s funny, we’ve been talking – I don’t know if it’s really going to happen – about making tape dispensers and Pentagram did actually design these items for us,” the bassist laughs. “But the design direction is all about showing process, within this architecture of a standard issue sort of thing, they went with that but expanded it beyond rubber stamps or whatever. We worked with them, but we also let them get on with it because we knew they would do something awesome."
The result is a “controlled and thoughtful” record sleeve, centred around a photograph shot by Graham MacIndoe of The National’s newly built studio in upstate New York. Again, process was the key message the band wanted to convey: “The idea of putting it on the cover was that the process of making the record was so important. All the videos thus far have been various versions of the record, documenting what we’re doing at that space in time, as opposed to being some otherworldly thing. It’s just people doing things.” The shape of the building is also reinterpreted by Luke at Pentagram into a shifting triangular logo present as The National’s website loads, and is divided and placed around the sleeve and collateral.
As a band, the understated temperament of The National is often one of their most affable qualities, and their fans are in awe of them. The Sleep Well Beast sleeve solidifies this; for them, “the cover is just a picture of us milling around the studio” but to their audience it shows the artistic mentality of the band. Having a highly respected designer such as Luke design the sleeve is fitting for a band still on the up seven records in.
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