Kevin Devine Interview
Alternative, indie rock musician, Kevin Devine & The Goddamn Band visited the Hi-Dive in Denver earlier this month. This Brooklyn songwriter combines melodic tunes with perpetually insightful and political lyrics. Knowing how to harbor his acoustic talent, Kevin Devine manages to have a huge range of genres and sounds in his music from sweet acoustic love songs to psychedelic, hard-hitting rock. He is on the last leg of supporting his newest albums Bubblegum and Bulldozer. Traveling the country with Dads and Field Mouse, he was more than happy to sit down and talk about his career.
How’s your tour been going so far?
It’s been great! This tour’s been about a week with The Goddamn Band and with Field Mouse and Dads. I’ve been out for about a month now cause I did three weeks with Into It Over It and Laura Stevenson. But I feel fairly sane and present. The shows have been awesome, travels have been smooth, and all the people have been easy. As far as these things go, this is nice. It’s chill.
You said on Facebook that this is your last US tour for a while. What plans do you have after this?
We put up the Kickstarter for these two records in January of 2013. So we’re, kind of, over two years into this process at this point. I’ve done three US tours, festival stuff, UK, Europe, Australia. So it feels like it’s a lot of touring on these two records. I feel like it’s time to transition into the next thing. I know already there’s some other stuff happening with festivals and other things, but I think it’s time too figure out writing the next thing. Or if Bad Books is going to do something. You know, it’s time to turn the page on these records. It’s not like I’m going to disappear but I don’t think I’m going to do any long touring for a while.
Speaking of Bad Books, how has working with Andy Hull [of Manchester Orchestra] in Bad Books influenced your writing and music styles?
I think that the looseness of that project made me looser in my approach to recording. Also, my approach to finishing songs. Like I would sometimes be too perfectionist… And perfectionism is very subjective, so I might think I’m being a perfectionist about something and someone else might hear it and be like that sucks. But in my own head there would be stuff I would like but I would get in my own way a lot and those [Bad Books] records you have to make them in like eight days. Bad Books records, its, “When do we have time? Alright we have ten days. Eight days. Five days. Let’s go in and do it.” So I think it kind of formed these last two records and for Manchester too. And for me personally I think singing wise, I had always been a little tentative with harmony. That was the last frontier for me. I knew I could write, I knew I could play guitar… You know, when you learn those things and you try to grow on them but sometimes I couldn’t hear the harmonies. And with Bad Books that’s such a big part of what that band is. Then you come back to your own records and realize, “Oh, I can hear them now.” I feel like I learned a lot about that and about confidence in that process.
What is it like collaborating with other artists such as Brand New or Manchester Orchestra, where you aren’t necessarily at the reigns but you are still influencing the process?
It’s great because I like both of those bands a lot and I like the people. Bad Books is a proper band where it is pretty much 50-50 Andy and I in terms of the songs. And everybody is making contributions towards the arrangements. So it’s very collaborative and equivalent. With Brand New we never really had a band or recording project together. I worked out a sort of countryish cover of a song of theirs called “Jesus.” So they asked me to record that with them and they built a country version of it with me. So that was cool and Jesse [Lacey] helped produce Bubblegum and he sang on some of our songs. So in that context, I guess the most collaborative thing he and I have done is Bubblegum. People have an awesome misconception that I am part of the actual produced song and some people think that I wrote that song. I wish I could take that honor because it’s an amazing song and I bet it’s because of the cover that people think that. But with Bubblegum, Jesse was essentially the fourth member of the band and that was very exciting because he was very present in all of that. And he was very engaged and his ideas were great and was really enthusiastic about it. We had a ball making that record. I think it’s reflected in the sound of the record.
Explain why you decided to produce and release Bulldozer and Bubblegum at the same time.
Initially it was because I wanted something that was a justification to me for doing the Kickstarter. It was a long process of self-debate. I wanted to do something that was a little different than other things that I’ve seen. And I thought, “Well, if I were an audience member what would make me feel less creepy about contributing to this thing?” One thing was having two albums get made instead of one. And with this idea was making one that was more of the noisy, rock side of the brain and then making one that was more in the folk rock side of the brain. Or just at that point I wanted to make a very bare, acoustic record. But when Rob, who made Bulldozer, heard the songs. He heard it more like Big Star or something like that. I thought it was going to be like “Nebraska” by Bruce Springsteen, like very bare. Just guitar and vocals. And he didn’t think that’s what those songs were. So we built them into something else. But that was the initial idea and also it’s a nice story and a creative challenge to make two records that I thought were deserving of being released. It wasn’t like one was the muscular arm and one is some withered branch. I wanted both to be really good but in different ways. That is again subjective but to my taste I was happy with how they came out. In retrospect, it might have made a bit more sense… I can have an argument with myself if I should have put Bulldozer out like a year later. Just to give it a bit more visibility but I can’t go back. A big part of the story in the beginning of why people were interested was because there were two records at once. So it is what it is.
Why did you decide to put “She Can See Me” on each of the albums in the different style that each record brings?
I thought when I wrote the song initially on acoustic guitar… There’s this band from Scotland called The Vaselines. They wrote really sweet, simple pop songs that were a little punk in some of their subject matter and presentation. But some of The Vaselines stuff could sound like Belle & Sebastian. Like really delicate and almost “twee.” And some of it, you could dress it up to sound like Nirvana, like really pop songs but with a bite and snarl. So I thought it will be the one thing that connects the two records and I’ll do the Belle & Sebastian one on Bulldozer and the Nirvana one on Bubblegum. But then the Bulldozer one didn’t end up sounding like Belle & Sebastian at all because Rob heard it more like a power pop, almost Nada Surf song or something like that. And I love how that came out, but that was the difference and why I did it. And with all things you have a very fixed plan but they move.
Who is your favorite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle?
I haven’t thought about that… I’m old enough that my first brush with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was when I was in, like, 4th grade when it was a cartoon. Which was a long time ago, you probably weren’t even born. (Laughs) I liked… Who was the brainy one? (Sings theme song) Donatello was the smart guy. I was into him.
Everybody has said Donatello so far.
That’s because everyone thinks they’re smart. (Laughs) That’s why. I’m no different, I’m not exempt from that self-delusion. But yeah, I would go with Donatello.
What’s your favorite song that you have made?
I’m bad at that. It moves around all the time. It’s different depending on… I’m really enjoying, on this tour, playing a song from Bulldozer, a song that’s called “Safe” and a song from Bulldozer, “You Brushed Her Breath Aside.” We didn’t play a lot of Bulldozer stuff besides “She Can See Me” and “Little Bulldozer” with the band since the albums came out. So we are doing like five or six of those songs with a full band on this tour. I’m honestly loving playing all of them. But sometimes you have a soft spot for a song. I know the people who like my music like the songs like “Cotton Crush” and “Brother’s Blood” and “I Can Be With Anyone” and “Ballgame” and those tend to be the ones that more people know. So I like all those songs too, but sometimes you like the ones… Like “Safe” is a song that I really love. I love how it arrived, lyrically. I love the arrangement. I love the melody. That’s just a song I love. So for now I’ll say that, but it changes all the time.
How have politics driven your song writing and your motives behind it?
The motives is probably a more interesting question that I might even be the right guy to answer. I grew up around punk rock kids and hardcore kids. In Staten Island there was a very radicalized, vegan, straight edge, Malcolm X, Carl Marx, this kind of thing. And I was fourteen and I was exposed to that stuff and in early age that kind of got into the back of my head. And I’m not all of those things now. I’m not a card carrying socialist, although I’m sympathetic to their ideas. I’m not a vegan, I’m a 98% vegetarian. I’m not a guy that’s attracted to the hard line. Or I’m attracted to it, but I’m not it. But the idea in those bands was part of singing about something. Politics I’m not interested in. Politics I’m actually really dreadfully bad at keeping track of what the Senate and the House are doing. Those things seem like such failed institutions that I have a hard time even getting up to pay attention. But, social justice I’m interested in. Equity amongst people I’m really interested in. So something like the Chelsea Manning song, “Private First Class.” That struck me as a very human thing and a very scary thing in terms of how we’re supposed to be this, kind of, standard bearer, globally. Or like the great democratic hope. And we are in many ways and have been in many ways. But we’ve also done a lot of really fucking horrible things. Sort of, in the name of saying we are spreading democracy we’re actually building an empire. One of those things is putting someone in prison who’s trying to let us know what our tax dollars are actually paying for in these war scenarios. To these theaters we’re not privy to. And the bravery that was required of her to do that. That moved me on a very human level. The same way that writing about love or sex or drugs or your family or whatever else does. So I guess that’s how. I write about it the same way I write about anything else. It just so happens, that that day, that’s the thing that moves me to write a song.
Any news on new material?
Yeah, I wrote a song… We have this split singles series happening this year. The second one is with Meredith Graves for Perfect Pussy and we both wrote new, original material for that. That comes out in April. That will be the first original song of mine that gets released since the albums. Then I’ll probably write another two songs for the split series, or the course of it. So, probably, three new songs from me by the end of this year and three or four new, unreleased covers from me this year. Then next year I think I’m going to work on a new record. The second half of this year I think I’ll start writing.
The lyrics that you incorporate with your music are incredibly poetic, what inspires your lyrics?
I’ve liked words since I was a kid. I have always been drawn to them. My mother says that she used to play this Joni Mitchell song, “Michael From Mountains” and one of my first memories from me being a sentient being and not like a house plant, little kids are, was, one time when the song ended, me asking her to play it again. But knowing the words. So I guess words have always been… I like them. (Laughs) Edgar Allen Poe when I was in fourth grade, reading those short stories and trying to write them like him. And just, words, words, words. So reading, listening to music, listening to people whose words I think are great in music. Like Leonard Cohen, Sinéad O’Connor, Bob Dylan, Michael Stipe… Even your boy Brian Sella [from The Front Bottoms] knows how to turn a phrase. And that’s generational. That’s what attracted me to their band. I imagine, and I mean this with total love and respect, that the things that I’m interested in, in their band, are probably different than the things that someone who’s fifteen and are in love with their band. And I think that’s great. But for me I was like, “Oh. This dude’s like a basement punk, whatever this band is going for, but this guy is a sneaky song writer.” I’m twelve years older than them and there was stuff he was saying that I think is so real. I’m reminded of a story where Dylan goes to see Nirvana play and they play “Polly” and he says something like, “Oh yeah that kid’s good.” (Laughs) You know what I mean like that’s a song that even though he’s a fifty year old man but he’s like, “I get it.” It’s not just yelling or noise or whatever. But words. What inspires me is other people’s good words. Life experiences and stuff, reading, listening to music. And then your brain just kind of coughs shit up. Sometimes you have control over it and sometimes you don’t.
Who is your biggest inspiration when it comes to performing music?
Probably when I was a kid, like, Guns N’ Roses or something. I thought that they looked cool and I want to look cool. But, I mean, that changed. Nirvana was a huge…. I was the right age. I was twelve when that record came out. It was on MTV and it was just like, “Holy shit. I just want to do that.” And also, I couldn’t play like Slash. But late you realize how deceptively cool and singular performing was as a guitar player, but at the time I was like, “Oh, I can do that. He’s just making noise and it sounds like he’s kind of fucking up a lot. And just yelling.” But the songs are so good. So they were a big shift towards me wanting to perform like that. Then seeing Superchunk and later Elliot Smith sent me in different directions. Superchunk was, “Oh, I want to perform like that.” Around fourteen I realized that Kurt Cobain was a rock star. He is a cooler version of it and more thoughtful and there’s a lot in there. I saw Superchunk play a show and they looked like they could work at a gas station or something. It was so energetic and the songs were still so melodic. I think Elliot Smith I saw him play on Either/Or. I was eighteen and thought it was the best thing I had ever seen and I’m going to spend, arguably in some avenues of my career, the rest of my life trying to write songs that I think are as worthy of even being in the conversation of what I think that guy could do. It’s great to have somebody that you’ll never think you’ll get to because it keeps you trying. But those are the big three for me.
What advice would you give to aspiring artists?
It’s hard. I don’t know how this happened. That’s the truth. I just feel like I could draw you a straight line from being a twelve year old kid, rehearsing in my friend’s basement on Staten Island, to playing our first show at a dance at my school in ninth grade; to playing a first show in a club a month later; to going and playing for the first time out of Staten Island on Long Island or in Pennsylvania. I could really draw it… First time in Manhattan. First time opening for a band I actually listened to, to going on tour; to having someone put out a record; to having a slightly bigger someone put out a record. There’s a kind of art called pointillism. It’s all these little points that make a big picture. But there are people who would look at my career and say, “Yeah but he’s 35 years old and he’s only playing to a couple hundred people everywhere.” But to me, I’ve been doing it a long time and there’s still people and new people coming in all the time that are interested in it. So the biggest thing is keep doing it and try to find your voice and try to say something authentic. If you don’t act like a dick and you do good work, people will find it. I can’t guarantee everyone who does that is going to make a living playing music. I don’t even know how the hell that happened, honestly. It was just all these little things that all of a sudden one day I was like, “Instead of it being supplemental, I’m making a living wage doing this. I can leave my, one of the fifteen jobs I had between 1993 and 2005.” But that’s it. Try to find your own voice. Believe in it. Stick to it. People will find you. Don’t be afraid to work. No one’s going to do stuff for you. No one’s going to care about your career more than you do. It’s yours. And try to have fun with it too, because that’s ultimately the point. Someone said to me recently, “You work an eighteen hour day so you don’t have to work an eight hour day.” And that’s true. So have fun with it because it’s a lot of hustle and hard work.
What do you want to say to your fans?
Thank you. People giving a shit about the music you make… Like I said, we’re at the end of two years supporting these records and we just played in the very frozen Midwest for ten days. And it was like a 100-175 people at each of those shows that cared. You might not be on the cover of magazines but to get to have that experience is, like, a legitimately humbling thing. That sounds like bullshit probably, but it is. It’s incredible to me. There’s a lot of stuff that people can do to entertain themselves. So if anyone comes and chooses to come spend their night with you or listen to your record or want to come and have a conversation with you… They don’t have to. So I’m appreciative of that.
The concert itself was incredibly remarkable. Field Mouse set the mood with their indie-punk-sounding set with beautiful harmonies between the members. Dads wowed the crowd by creating a hyped up emo/punk combination and intense vocal performances. Next, Kevin came onto the stage and left the audience screaming for him to start. Focusing mainly on songs from Bulldozer and Bubblegum, he also visited almost every other record that he has put out. At the end of his set, his bassist’s amp went out and couldn’t be fixed so he finished the show playing his songs solo. This brought an eerie yet all-around personal touch to the remaining songs. You could tell the passion behind the work he puts into his songs by how they personally affected him. When playing “Cotton Crush” he had to stop the audience from singing the song with him because of how deep he got into the song and he didn’t want it to end.
Kevin Devine is truly one of the most talented rock musicians that is still going today. Although still playing to small audiences in crowded bars, he still makes a living off of doing something that he loves and is outstandingly talented at.
March 30th, 2015