THE MAC DILLY DOZEN WITH: KEVIN DEVINE – BROOKLYN, NY
OCCUPATIONS: SINGER/ SONGWRITER/ MUSICIAN/ CREATIVE CURATOR
REPERTOIRE: MIRACLE OF ’86/ KEVIN DEVINE/ KEVIN DEVINE AND THE GODDAMN BAND/ BAD BOOKS/ DEVINYL RECORDS/ THE DEVINYL SPLIT SERIES
A BIG NAME ON A SMALL STAGE AT THIS YEAR’S ANNUAL BLED FEST /// MARCH 2016
1.) Your last show on your current run of shows is in Howell, Michigan at Bled Fest.
How does the last show of a tour differ from the rest and what can Bled Festers expect from your set there?
Good question. Last show of a tour… Well, first thing, this is kind of different because I’ll have a week at home between the end of the dates with Andy [Hull] and Bled Fest so it won’t be like I’ll be coming directly from those west coast shows. There will be a little bit of a breath, which is always nice. The other thing is, I’ve gotten so used to tours that are like three to seven weeks in length and I’m probably moving away from the further end of that for a while. I’ve got ten days with Murder By Death in April, I have a week with Andy in May and I have the one off at Bled Fest. That doesn’t feel the same way as a six-week, full U.S., thirty-five shows kind of a tour.
But what I will tell you about how the end of a tour like that feels; usually you’re playing great. Your muscles are exercised, you’re stretched out, you’re comfortable and you’re rehearsed. You’ve been doing it every night so you’re in shape so to speak. But mentally you’re a little fried at the end of that (laughs). A different gear kind of gets switched on during tour and when you come home it’s a little weird switching back. So I feel like at the end of tour you’re sounding awesome though sometimes your voice is a little ragged or mine is because I’ve been singing ninety minutes a night for a month and a half but you’re just looser than you were at the beginning and your band is probably better… But you’re also a little crazier.
Bled fest, I think I’m probably something of a stark contrast to most of what’s going to happen that day. There is some really good music that day but I don’t think there’s any other like… I’m playing a solo acoustic set. That was by design. I think it’s kind of cool to be something super different at a show that’s not that. As for what people can expect, my songs and the way that I deliver them, I try to make sure that whether I’m playing punk show, indie-rock show, singer-songwriter show, folk, emo, whatever you want to call it, that I just present myself as I am and the songs as they are and let people come along or not. And I feel like enough people come along to always make it worth doing and I think Bled Fest will be no exception. I’ve had great Michigan shows and an awesome Howell show forever ago too so I think it’s going to be great!
2.) As a first timer at Bled Fest, what have you heard about the event from bands that you know who have played there in the past?
To be completely honest very little. That’s not what led me to it. I know Nate Dorough [Fusion Shows] pretty well. He booked probably ten of the last twelve shows I’ve played in Michigan going back to about 2008 so that’s a long-standing relationship. I like him a lot and I like the way he does what he does and I know he’s heavily involved with the festival and that’s good enough for me.
I have heard good things about it. I like that it’s a different line up than most festivals you usually see. It’s a little more earth punk leaning and I definitely have a wing of my brain that fits there. And it’s cool to see bands like The World Is [A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die] guys, I know them and bands like The Menzingers. I’m pretty sure The Front Bottoms have played there, not sure, but it was a little less about other bands and a little more about Nate. Nate’s a big part of the draw there for me.
3.) Speaking of Fusion Shows, in 2014, you played Fusion’s sixth annual birthday bash at The Crofoot in Pontiac. What is your favorite memory from that night?
That was another thing were I was the only folk dude. The Front Bottoms headlined, I played right before Front Bottoms, You Blew It opened and there were some other bands. Everyone hung out and got along really well. I remember that was a show that went really well for me and the crowd was great.
That was a show where, I’ve known The Front Bottoms now for about five years and that was one of the first shows where I really was like, “Oh this is happening.” I don’t remember how it went down but the security was not adequate for what ended up happening because I don’t think there were barricades and I don’t think they understood that The Front Bottoms’ fans, and that was when I started to notice how young their audience was, would be about seventy minutes of stage diving. Kids just climbing up and jumping. And I remember watching it from up above, the kind of chaos of it and as a guy who met them when they were really young and took them out on tour, there’s a kind of weird familial pride I have watching them. They have far outpaced me in terms of commercial success and so there is no student teacher relationship but if you’d like to think of it that way then the student has outpaced the teacher at least in terms of how many people like the band. But I like that. I liked watching them that night. I was moved. I was like, “this is killer, this is happening!”
But for my own show that night I remember being pleasantly surprised. I had a bunch of people there to see me. But also, it’s a big room and playing that room solo acoustic is not a slam-dunk necessarily and I remember being really pleasantly surprised with how it all went down.
4.) How is the production of LP9 coming along and what are the central themes of it?
It’s done. It’s mastered, it’s approved, the cover art’s approved, I sent the lyrics in, I just have to do the credits and stuff and soon it will get sent to the pressing plant for test pressing to approve the vinyl. But it’s done. It’s named and it’s ready. And I love it. I think it’s really lean and focused. I like the songs and the dynamic. I like the arrangement of songs. It’s like an 11 song, thirty-five, thirty-six minute record. Like I said it’s not some rangey, twenty-five song double record. I just wanted to write a really straight, good album and make it a certain way. I was thinking a lot about the guitar rock music I was listening to in the 90s but a little bit less punk and a little more of the power, pop side of that and a lot of music where the melodies are strong and the choruses are big and you reinforce the melody in the verses by playing that melody as the guitar solo in the song, which is a big Nirvana trick and Strokes trick where the vocals and the lead guitar kind of mimic each other.
And then there’s some really nice guy with a guitar moments on it. One of my favorite songs I’ve ever written is the last song but I really love the batch of songs. Thematically, I feel like I’m not really a conceptual songwriter. I write certain songs that are complete fiction and completely conceptual but I don’t write story records like The Who’s Tommy or something, I just write about what it’s like to be a person and the thing that I hope comes through my music is that every record comes out when I’m a different age so what you get is a reflection of what it’s like to be a person at that time.
And there are definitely some songs on this record about knowing I’m going to be a dad and some of the shifts that have happened to me in the last couple years about how I want to spend my time and with whom and certainly there are some social justice leaning songs on there about the world. I guess political songs, I don’t really like that phrase but you know what I mean. But it’s more of a snapshot about two certain styles, folk singer and that power pop and guitar rock and the delivery is like a picture of a moment. I think it’s a compelling one. It’s one of my favorites. Right now it’s my favorite but who knows if it will be everybody else’s. John Agnello produced it and he’s done Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. and Kurt Vile and Nada Surf. John’s awesome. I love how the music sounds. It’s crisp and it jumps out. I think it’s an exciting record and I’m hopeful people feel the same but even if they don’t I’m thrilled.
5.) This record will be your ninth studio record. That is a lot of material for a musician at thirty-six years old. Your older songs and what they meant to you when you wrote them must change as you grow and continue to play them live. You often substitute certain lyrical phrases. For example, in recent live recordings of the song, “No Time Flat” you substitute, “I knew how I’d vote,” instead of the album version, “I’m not sure why I vote.” How do your past feelings evolve through your music?
Well, you can’t predict that. I think you just have to feel that and then react accordingly. And sometimes they don’t. Like I play a certain song at twenty two years old and I’m thinking about those things, or I’m thirty six years old and remembering what it was like to be twenty two and thinking those things or twenty nine, or eighteen or thirty one or whatever. But more often than not, the songs move around because you do. You move around. And I never wanted to be the kind of musician that played everything the same exact way every night. Not that I take it for radical… I’m not a jazz musician or some free form interpretive dancer or something like that. They’re structured songs but you can move pieces around inside the structure. It doesn’t all have to be perfectly super glued in place.
So with certain songs like “No Time Flat” or “Ballgame” and there are a bunch of others where I’ll change little lyrics here and there to reflect a thought or shift in perspective that I have now, but it’s not planned. If it were planned, honestly, I would totally rewrite most of my old songs (laughs loudly) because at thirty-six you’re not twenty anymore. You’re not. But I also think songs and records are literally a record of who you were and what you were doing, what you were making and what you were thinking. I like the idea of making it a conversation between me and that guy, me and that kid but I don’t want to take that kid’s voice away either because he wrote those songs. I’m just kind of inheriting them.
In “No Time Flat” that whole second verse into second chorus, I would rewrite the whole thing. Not because I don’t still think a lot of that stuff but because some of the things I’m talking about are very specific. That is about the Bush/Kerry election, after people were dogging Ralph Nader for having the audacity to run an honest campaign against two major party candidates, which I thought was totally great and right and part of what democracy is supposed to be and seeing what felt like two very, very similar choices that didn’t feel like much of a choice. And frankly, there are aspects of that that I do still think are true. There are also aspects that as a thirty-six year old I see differently today.
I would not with a straight face tell you that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are the same person. There are big differences, but with respect to certain things about how they would run American foreign policy and with respect to certain things about how they would interact with big business and finance they are very similar. Not in how they speak, not in who they are as people or what they might be like if you were to hangout with them and have a beer. But in terms of how they would run the American empire they are. And so I do still think some of those things, but I also know who I would vote for.
6.) While we’re on politics, plenty of bands are becoming socially conscious about the Flint water crisis here in Michigan. For example, seventy plus artists including Taking Back Sunday, The Suicide Machines and Propagandhi contributed songs to a charitable collaboration effort called, Not Safe To Drink: Music For Flint Water Crisis Relief. What are your thoughts about what is happening in Flint?
It’s profoundly messed up. It sort of goes right to the heart of a lot of what is wrong more broadly, which is that people don’t feel like they can trust the institutions that are there to help take care of them and make their lives safer and easier and when that distrust is proven to be sound it’s scary, it’s frustrating, it’s alienating, it’s infuriating and it pushes people either towards positive, either reform through a candidate like Bernie Sanders for example or something more radical through a movement like occupy Wall Street or something like that that really questions a lot of deeply held assumptions about why we do the things we do as a people, as a government, as a culture, or it pushes people in the opposite direction toward the radical fringe and candidates like Donald Trump and movements like the Tea Party where people think, “why would I ever trust government? Look what they did.”
They essentially made a series of negligent decisions, or worse, poisoned the water and put the lives of and health of a lot of people and children at risk. You can understand the fear and frustration and anger and distrust when government acts in a way that is not trustworthy right? I totally get it.
How do I feel about the people there? I feel horrible. I think it’s taken a lot of courage. I think the people broke that story. The people made the media pay attention to that story. The people there made the politicians pay attention to that story. The people there aren’t dumb. They know the politicians are going to pay attention to it and they’re going to utilize it to the best of their political gain and then they’ll probably go away, but if in the interim that media attention and that political attention helps people there, that’s a useful thing. Regardless of all that, it seems from what I’ve read that as awful as it’s been for the people it’s also been a rallying point for the community. People there are taking care of each other. Hopefully it gets a conversation moving in a serious way about abuse of power and neglect of constituencies and why this is happening in low income areas and how demographics break down and I think those are very uncomfortable questions but maybe true progress is on the other side of those questions.
But that’s all theoretical and I’m not there bathing and drinking the water and watching my kids get sick. Emotionally you feel terrible watching it. You feel the same way you do watching Hurricane Katrina tear apart New Orleans or how people must have felt watching us in New York when September 11 happened. You feel sick for people and your empathy is on fire but you try to look for good in it and the good is always in the people. The good is never in systems or institutions and the people there are doing the right thing.
7.) The lifestyle of a contemporary musician seems to be moving toward a more mature and family oriented role whereas it used to be more about sex, drugs and rock and roll. Your first child was recently born on March 25. Can you speak to this evolving lifestyle and where you think it comes from?
Not credibly for anybody else but I will say for me, I want to have a life in music. I want to have a life as a songwriter, as a performer and I want to have a life doing those things the way I want to do them. The way I believe is the right thing to do them, however that might change. It has changed and probably will change more. There was a time in my life where I did a lot of drugs and drank a lot and maybe didn’t have as much sex as I could’ve or should’ve (laughs loudly), but there was all of that stuff and the appeal of that stuff and there’s also a time and a place for that stuff. Your sex life is different than abusing drugs and alcohol but there’s a very healthy place for that in everybody’s life and I hope they find it and that’s great. There’s nothing wrong with it and nothing to be ashamed of if you do but at a certain point I looked around and realized if I wanted to be a lifer… I just think it’s a bummer to be around people that are wasted and shiftless. I’m not a prude, I’m not a straight edge kid. I’m pretty easy, but it’s kind of pathetic to hang out with a bunch of people in their forties that are trying to act like they’re twenty or eighteen perpetually.
For me, I don’t care if people have kids or don’t have kids or get married or don’t get married or whatever and I don’t care also if people want to do drugs. I don’t really know how to do those things moderately or responsibly so I don’t do them anymore because there’s not much room for it in my life. And for me, my life has opened up a lot since I’ve not done those things. I’m able to keep having a life in rock music because I’m a grown up, or am trying to be. By the way, comparatively speaking I’m sure there are people who have other markings of being a grown up that think I’m like Peter Pan or something because I am aware of the fact that my work life, as compared to most adults’ work lives, is completely charmed and even though it’s not like I make a crazy living doing it, the relative economy and freedom afforded to be an entertainer or a musician or whatever is obviously different than a lot of peoples’ nine to five lives are. I honor that by taking it seriously because the people that come to see you play and enable you to do this thing are generally people who have more formative work experiences and so the best way to honor their investment in you is to show them how much you care about what you do and that you care about them caring about it. And I wasn’t very good at that or consistent at that when I was on drugs or drinking.
Also it’s kind of sad to see the guy that’s been at the party too long who’s still chasing chicks half his age and trying to score coke and go drink with the college kids. I know those people, I’ve toured with those people, I probably could have become those people and so this is just a more attractive often. Most of the people I talk to that are peers of mine, our frequent conversation is how do you age gracefully in indie-rock because it’s kind of hard not to be a tool. How I was then was fine because that was then, but I’d rather be how I am now than be how I was then, now.
8.) Speaking of musician dads, what’s going on with Andy Hull over at Bad Books headquarters?
It’s louder than it’s been in a little while because Andy and I are doing those shows in May and we’re doing a limited 12-inch of our 2013 Daytrotter session that we put up as part of the pre-sale package for those shows and we’ll have them at that shows and if there’s any left over we’ll have them online afterwards. That’s kind of the first Bad Books noise in a while. We wrote and recorded a song last August when I was down there [Georgia] for Chris Freeman’s wedding and I love it. It’s there and there are other things to pair it with. I don’t know if it’s song one of Bad Books three or if it’s a song that will get released sometime as a stand alone single but it’s there. At these shows I’ll be playing my stuff and a handful of Miracle of ’86 songs, Andy’s going to play some Manchester [Orchestra], some Right Away Great Captain and then Andy and I will play an acoustic Bad Books set together to end the night.
That’s the first Bad Books anything we’ve done in probably a year and a half. I don’t think we’ve played a show since 2014. So that’s what’s going on. There is definitely an intention to make a third Bad Books record, the question is just when and I don’t know the answer to that yet because it isn’t clear. It might be something that happens next year, 2017, but more will be revealed. I’m working on a song that I definitely think is a Bad Books song so that’s something. We’ll see.
9.) Your particular style of lyricism is a beautiful mix or brutal honesty and diegetic imagery. Where does this style come from?
I’m drawn to both in other peoples’ writing and I think that whatever you write ultimately comes down to whatever you read. The best way to become a better writer is to read a lot. To write a lot too and these days I maybe don’t do either of those things as much as I should but I’ve done a lot of both in my life and there’s something I really like about playing spoken directness that is articulated in a way that doesn’t sound like the way everyone else would articulate it, which is tricky. It’s harder than it sounds. You’re basically trying to speak prose as poetry. And that comes down to word choice a lot. I’ve gotten a lot more economical in my writing. I think I used to write more words and now I think I try to say as much, or more with fewer. I want it to almost feel like a conversation but then in the middle of the conversation you lapsed into a dream and then woke up and were back in the conversation again. I think that’s how life is. I feel like you’re doing what you’re doing and then your brain can kind of manufacture some pretty psychedelic thoughts in the middle of very mundane day to day activities and maybe writing is a place for those two things to make sense of each other.
I think a lot of songwriting is memory and dream. And a lot of songwriting is blending journalism with fiction. Memory and journalism are a little more fixed and dream and fiction are more imaginative but there are actually blurry lines between all of those things. There are some memories you have that are totally fluent and you think you know what happened and then you realize you’ve been misremembering for twenty years and there’s some dreams that feel so real that you could dictate every single point in them to somebody and there’s some journalism that’s super vivid and written with such style and flare and some fiction that’s very bullet point, right to the meat. So I try to tap dance on the lines of those things and that’s because that’s what I get the most excited about in other peoples writing.
10.) Has your degree in journalism had any influence on this writing style?
I think so. If for no other reason because it was another way to write. I wrote short stories when I was a kid, I wrote a lot of poetry and songs when I was a student in high school and then I wrote a lot of feature oriented journalism when I was a college student and all throughout that time I was writing songs and papers and whatever I could write in school, but when I was a kid I was trying to write more Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens and then in high school I was writing more poems. Then as a college kid I was writing profiles on people or music reviews and pieces that were journalism but allowed for a little more subjectivity. I think that writing different styles is informative. Also what journalism does is tease out your intellectual curiosity. It makes you ask questions. The best journalists are the ones that ask a lot of questions and pay attention to detail.
I’ll never forget a journalism teacher once telling me, “Specificity breathes believability.” I always thought that was such a cool thing. The more details, the more you can put people in the seat and the more they can actually see what you’re trying to show them. And how do you do that in detail. You can do that in ten words. You don’t have to do that in one hundred thousand words. It’s harder and I feel like that’s something I’m always trying to get closer to. I still flirt with journalism once in a while and I’ll write an article here and there for things but I never became one. My brother is one and he is really excellent, but I do think it informs how I write songs and how I think about people and how those people end up in those songs. How I represent people is also probably connected to some of the stuff I studied as a journalism student, so I do, I think it’s all kind of connected.
11.) As someone who is a musical chameleon, playing sometimes as indie rocker and others as indie folker, how does the live environment differ for you and which setting do you prefer.
It changes. It moves around. Most songs start with me and an acoustic guitar. A few of them have started with me and an electric guitar, a few of them have started with me and a bass guitar. Maybe one or two have started with me and a keyboard but 95 plus percent started with me and an acoustic guitar. Even if they end up becoming big, noisy, unwieldy, chaotic rock music, they start that way. I really love the immediacy of sitting down with a guitar and telling you a story. That will always be my default setting. I can’t see a day where I’m not going to like that or where I’m not going to respond to someone else who does that well. I’ve been listening to Julien Baker’s record a lot and she does that well. She could sit down in a room with you and a guitar and play and you would have everything you needed. You wouldn’t need a stage design or a lighting show. And that’s what I fell so in love with about Elliott Smith. His records were increasingly ornate and complex and they’re beautiful and he is a genius. That is an overused word that he is qualified for. But I also would have been fine if everything he did was just him with an acoustic guitar. I never don’t like that. I don’t love doing that when I have to do it. It can be tough when you’re supporting someone and their audience doesn’t care about what you’re doing and you’re playing your acoustic guitar in front of hundreds of people that aren’t listening. That is not necessarily a fun exercise and you can feel dwarfed by that but you learn to play for who’s listening.
Conversely, I love rock music. My favorite band of all time is Nirvana. More than any other band, that’s the band that inspired me to play. I learned every one of their songs and played them all in my basement and any band I played in when I was in high school, we covered ten Nirvana songs. So there’s always going to be a guy in my head that wants to step on a fuzz pedal, yell, have the drummer beat the hell out of the drums. That’s always going to be something I like too. How those things play together I think is that there’s something about the songs that tells you which way they want to go and I think it’s cool to have the songs go a few different ways. Have them be one way Tuesday and be one way Thursday. Go on tour once and be the guy with the guitar and go on tour a month later playing some of those very same songs but where you’re beating up peoples’ eardrums with volume and intensity. I think where they meet in the middle for me is I try to present them honestly and I try to present them with an intensity and a commitment regardless of how they’re dressed and who’s there with me but I don’t have a fixed preference. It moves around for me.
12.) How is your record label, Devinyl Records going and do you have any creative endeavors like this planned for the near future?
Rob Schnapf who made Bulldozer and Put Your Ghost To Rest, we’ve done a few singles together and he mixed the second Bad Books record. Rob is a friend and a long time collaborator. We were making Bulldozer and I said, “What am I going to call this label that I’m going to put this music out on?” The music being Bubblegum and Bulldozer, the kickstartered records. They were going to go through distributors and licensing but I was going to release them as my thing and he said, “You have to call it Devinyl. It’s in your name! You have to do it.” And I said, “Dude that’s so cheesy,” to which he replied, “It’s the perfect amount of cheesy.” So I thought all right, I trust you with everything else, Ill trust you with this too. But calling it a record label is flattering and maybe a little generous.
The Devinyl Splits Series for example wouldn’t have happened without infrastructural support from Bad Timing records. They actually interfaced with the pressing plants, they handled customer service and they were involved with shipping the records to people when they bought them. Really in name alone and in curation, alone I went out and found all of the partners and I developed the theme of the art for the series and I wrote an essay every time and I made sure everything got taken care of on the A&R side of it but the nuts and bolts really were Bad Timing Records. Similarly the nuts and bolts of Bubblegum and Bulldozer were ADA [Alternative Distribution Alliance] in the U.S. and Big Scary Monsters in the U.K. and Germany and Hobbledehoy Records in Australia are like partners. I was kind of like the guy in the middle. But these people did the grunt work to actually get the records to people. Also U.S. Candy Shop Management. I don’t work with them anymore but they did a great job on that project.
I will do another split series. I’ll probably do it in 2018. If we do a Bad Books record first, I’ll probably do the Devinyl Splits after that. I definitely loved doing it. It was also definitely a labor of love and a lot of work. It’s not going to make anyone a ton of money but I think it had other value. It’s also kind of like an eighth and a half of a record because it’s actually twelve songs if you put the six records together, six by me and six by the other people. That’s a cool thing to have done and to have such a vast spread of artists represented. And it legitimized the label in a sense by having people who weren’t just me put something out through it. But I don’t know if I’m going to step it up and go out and sign an artist and put their record out. I don’t really have designs on that. I might do that in partnership with somebody but I don’t really have funding to do responsibly do that the right way for somebody else but I will keep the name around as a brand that I’m associated with and I will keep putting projects through it but I don’t think Merge Records needs to look over their shoulder for me or anything. I don’t think I’m coming for them anytime soon. But it’s cool to have it in existence and I’m curious to see how it will change and what it will become overtime.