GFP meets… | Kevin Devine
by Tom Johnson
When you think of everything Kevin Devine has done over the last decade or so, it’s not really surprising that our interview with him turned in to something rather huge. In October he releases what will be his seventh and eighth studio albums. Then there is the work with his early band Miracle Of 86 and on-going records and tours with Bad Books. In short; he’s a creative, driven and incredibly busy personality.
But, woah there, we here you say! Seventh AND eighth albums? In the same month? That’s right. Following a ridiculously successfully Kickstarter project, Kevin made the decision to record and release two albums at the same time. Partly as a creative experiment and partly to calm his own nerves about the value in using such a model. The culmination of which is Bubblegum – a sloppy, in-your-face, punk-rock record made with Jesse Lacey of Brand New – and Bulldozer; a more refined album, recorded with long-term cohort Rob Schnapf.
After speaking to Kevin for over an hour about many things (both album-related and completely un) we felt both inspired and inclined to publish the entire thing. So here’s Part One; do make yourself at home…
Hey Kevin, how was your Summer?
It was nice. I got to be home for most of the Summer which is not usually the case! I did a tour in May that was predominantly Europe. I got home at the start of June and I’ve been here since. Bad Books did a few shows and my old band, Miracle Of 86, got together and did two shows in the New York area, and I did a few solo shows too, but in all I probably played 6/7 shows and the rest of the time I’ve been home and I’m really grateful for that. Four or five months is probably the longest stretch I’ve had at home for some time.
How were those Miracle Of 86 shows? It sounds like a fun thing to do…
They were really fun. I would imagine that most bands that break up think this way, but I never thought we’d play together again. I thought the relationships were too far gone in some places. It’s a tricky thing, because it’s not as if it was the Pixies, that had this fan huge base. We were a band that was a pretty regional phenomenon. I can’t really see us becoming a proper band again, but there were a bunch of people who missed it and we certainly missed it and it’s nice to get to write another ending to the story because first time around it was pretty unsatisfying. We got to play two sold out shows for the core people who really loved it. It was a really cool thing and not something I thought would ever happen.
Nostalgia can be great in small doses, right?
Exactly. It’s that whole ‘nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there’ situation. So there was a bit of nostalgia to it, but I actually think we played better than we ever had. We were more together and focused. I mean, I was pretty much drunk the whole time that band was playing live shows. Some of those nights were really wild and fun and had a special electricity but other nights, speaking for myself here, I was really awful.
Are you a particularly nostalgic person?
Well, I try not to be. I think that maybe earlier in my career, or maybe adult life, I was probably prone to it more. I think it’s healthy to be able to look back on your life with honest and clear eyes and have the associated feelings with certain relationships or passages or times. Basically to be able to look back at the past and be neither afraid of it or regretful of it – or to paint angels wings on peoples back and make it in to something it never was. I’m certainly not adverse to looking back because I think it informs what you’re doing here but I do try to be mindful of not being a revisionist historian and nostalgia allows you to be that; either for better or worse.
I think in particular, in the second to fourth records, there’s probably more backward looking on those records which I’ve hopefully worked out now so that’s it not such a prominent feature anymore.
I think that just comes with age though. Regardless of whether you’re a songwriter or not…
I’m thirty-three now. In the rest of the world a forty year-old is a young dude. If you’re a pitcher in baseball at that age then you’re like Moses or something. It’s similar in music. If you stay around long enough, and you don’t stop playing, all of a sudden you’re meeting people who are ten or twelve years younger than you, and you’re like ‘oh I guess this is what happens when you don’t die!’
But I do know plenty of people of my age who are stuck in the past and it’s sad to see. “To not regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on it” is something I’ve heard and that’s a nice place to be.
So I guess we should talk about the new records…
Yes. I believe we get CD’s this week. They’re ready to go.
Why choose to release them both at the same time? It’s not usually the done thing.
Well it’s a rare thing but there is a precedent for it. There have been a handful of prominent bands that have done it. I know Tom Waits did it, Bright Eyes did it, I know Guns N Roses did it (Laughs). Costello, Springsteen…
When did Springsteen do it?
(Laughs) Well, the only unfortunate asterisk to that story is that they’re not the best records he put out. He was casting about for definition in the early 90’s, probably because of grunge. This is a total aside by the way, but there are a lot of people who WERE and ARE cool, but when grunge happened there was a five year window when it was really not cool to like them, and Springsteen was one of them. Neil Young got cooler during grunge, because he was a formative influence on the music that was being made, but Springsteen, during that time that Kurt was the coolest guy in the world, was very different.
He was. He even had a different band, right?
Yeah that’s it. He was doing solo stuff, and not playing with the E-Street band. Also it became cool to be disaffected and apathetic and to look depressive and angry, and while there’s a righteousness to Springsteen’s music, it’s not those things. And then suddenly Springsteen was lame.
So anyway, there is a precedent for releasing two records at once. For me it was something of an experiment on several layers. I had the idea because I tend to write a lot and also I tend to write a lot of different songs. I’ve always just put those on the same record and thought that it was fine. I don’t mind if the records are schizophrenic. If folk songs sit next to screaming guitars, that’s fine! I think it’s the song-writing voice that unifies it all. But it was pointed out to me that whether I mind it or not, it might be interesting to make two records that are streamlined in their focus. To split the musical brain in two.
I thought it was an interesting challenge to make two separate records, but not in a way that was catering to anything. I really like loud rock music;. Bubblegum was me writing a punk-rock record. Bulldozer was me writing a folk-rock record. The point was to try to make two things that spoke for themselves, but that spoke differently, while both coming from me. The other point was that I wanted to make something that would justify, to me, using the Kickstarter model, which I was very tentative about.
Before we get in to Kickstarter, I wanted to ask you about Bulldozer. I was expecting a quiet acoustic record, but it’s not that at all, which I think will surprise a lot of people. Was it ever the plan for it to be totally stripped-back?
Absolutely, yeah! Not to keep talking about Springsteen but when I went out to record Bulldozer I thought I was basically going to make Nebraska. Really austere, spare, folk performances with some embellishments; a light drum kick, some soft piano, that kind of thing. Then I played the songs for Rob and he didn’t hear it that way. He said they were great and it would work, but he was more interested in exploring something in the middle. Bubblegum is squeaky, full of feedback, nastier in places but I actually think that Bulldozer is a little bit more dynamic, almost, in the sense that the range of styles being covered is broader. But it’s all under the folk-rock umbrella; albeit one that sometimes has a distorted guitar line. There are moments in it that remind me of Neutral Milk Hotel, or maybe Automatic For The People-era REM.
I had to let go of what I thought it was going to be on about the second day. There are still some solo tracks on there, and I think they’re still folk songs, but there just happens to be an electric guitar solo in the middle. I think ‘Safe‘ is my favourite track on either record. I heard it as being really small. Not a guy on his own in a room exactly, but a guy in the corner of the room while everything else is going on around him. But Rob heard it as something like Zuma-era Neil Young, and I’m really happy that he talked me out of being quite so structured because, while the Jesse thing is a blunt instrument and I think it will get a more immediate response, I think Bulldozer is a record of really subtle pleasures that I think overtime people will maybe get more out of. My mom said it’s her favourite record of mine. So there we go. Moms will like it.
How did you find working with Jesse?
It was incredibly fun, and Jesse killed it. He was enthusiastic, he was present, he was communicative, he was excited… It is really powerful when you’re making music with people who are excited. The mistakes are fun, the successes are super fun. The process and the work is fun. I thought Jesse really showed up and applied his talent in a way that was really impressive. It’s an interesting thing to talk about because Jesse has had a front row seat to my career since 1999 and I have to his as well. As big as their band is and as much as, in a certain corner of the world and in a certain genre, they’re arguably the most respected band, there’s also a whole other corner that doesn’t get it and maybe thinks they’re a kiddy band. I think – not that Brand New needs my advocacy, theyre doing just fine, thank you – that they’re a stellar band and I think Jesse is a guy who’s REALLY GOOD (Laughs). I know lots of people think that in a way that has created an almost cultish personality around him, but I’m not speaking to that. Jesse is a really good songwriter; he has really good instincts about harmonies and arrangements and guitar tones and I think that, outside of performing, this is something he could absolutely do.
It sounds like it was a really fun record to make.
It was incredibly fun. It was like being fifteen again. I grew up in the hardcore scene in Staten island and we weren’t a hardcore band! Our first club show, I was fourteen. The Rock Palace in Staten Island. There were all these hardcore bands. It was less than a month after Kurt Cobain died and we played four Nirvana covers in a nine-song set, and all the hardcore kids stood there with their arms crossed shaking their heads! Hardcore kids are good at letting you know what works and what doesn’t. I remember one of them pulled me aside and said “you’re pretty good man, but you need to drop the Nirvana songs right away.” But that music, man! Growing up with Nirvana, Pixies, Pavement, Sonic Youth, Smashing Pumpkins… All of this music that wasn’t quite punk rock but was fast, melodic, adrenalised. It’s what indie rock music used to be. Something between rock and roll and punk rock, and to me Bubblegum is that kind of record. A fifteen year old kid in a garage playing as loud as he can but trying to write pop songs at the same time.
There is a part of me that want’s to be non-traditional but I also really like songs! I love The White Album, but I also really love I Want To Hold Your Hand. I think it’s cool to write those kind of songs. There is a part of my brain that wants to write weird structures and choruses that never repeat themself and things like that, but there’s also a part of me that wants to write I Want To Hold Your Hand…with distortion pedals…
So getting back to the Kickstarter stuff; how do you feel about the whole thing now?
Well, NOW, I feel grateful that I didn’t get my own way about it because it certainly blew my hair back and it, I mean, it worked. That’s something of an understatement; it was obviously insane. I didn’t expect it to be anything like what it was. A lot of my hesitations were outlined in the essay that went out with the campaign, but I was apprehensive about a number of things. There was a perceptual apprehension about the use of the model by someone who might be considered… (Long pause) Ok, I’m not in any way a famous person. Even in our world, I’m niche popular, at best! But there’s always that voice in your head that tells you you’re an asshole and tells you not to do something that’s good for you. Most of our life is spent building up an equally powerful voice that can tell that other voice to go sit in the corner and not talk so loud. I thought people were going to think that I was taking advantage of my stature, quote un-quote. That they would say you’re a person who’s had a record on a major label, you’ve been on indie labels of some merit, you’ve toured all over the world, you’re in magazines sometimes, you play festivals, so as a result you shouldn’t be using Kickstarter. That’s for the guy who’s trying to start their career. In retrospect, that was a foolish outlook. I didn’t realise how many people who are much bigger stars than me had done it, or that, in the wake of me doing it, you would see people like Zach Braff and Spike Lee use it, people who are legitimate celebrities! I do have something of an ethical issue around that, but their career is not my career and I can say from experience that the willingness of the corporate media to sponsor those things has waned a lot. You don’t need to leave your sofa to go to the cinema, or buy a record, or even watch a live show anymore. So I can see, in a weird way, why someone like Spike Lee, who would’ve been given $20m in 1990 to make a movie, would go to Kickstarter.
In my case, I was basically waiting for this internet wave to hit me, regarding me taking advantage. But look, I’ve been someone who’s tried to distance himself from the music industry, even though that’s a kind of ridiculous thing to say. I mean, I have a booking agent, and I play shows and I have someone who handles publicity, but even within that, there are certain things about being a working musician that I’m at peace with and certain things that I’m not; and it’s those things I’m trying to cut out of the diet. So, in the end, I thought as long as I was transparent and open about why I didn’t want to work with a record label any more then people would respond positively to that. Which turned out to be the case…
Read Part 2 of the interview here
Bulldozer and Bubblegum are released on October 15th
Pre-order via Big Scary Monsters here