I sat down with Kevin Devine
to talk about his album Between the Concrete and Clouds
. The collection is the culmination of what's been "bouncing around" in his day to day life. It was his opportunity to and write what he called a "concise album." Since the release Kevin has been touring with Mewithoutyou as both a solo act and with his band. This can get tricky when it comes to honoring and re-representing songs in a live setting. Here's what he had to say about recording the album and life since.
Little Ol' Me: Your most recent album is entitled Between the Concrete and Clouds, which is also the name of a song on the album. I was wondering if you picked that song because it embodied a certain aspect of the album that you wanted to reflect in the title or was it just you know a pretty phrase?
Kevin Devine: I was a little bit of both. I do like the phrase a lot; I like the kind of astethic quality of it, I like the consonance of it. I like the alliteration -- I'm kind of a sucker for that. It's a really symmetrical phrase in terms of just the construction of the phrase. I think much of the record is about transition and people -- kind of in their personal lives, in their spiritual lives, in their romantic lives -- their self-understanding kind of moving from one pase to another and I thought that title even though it was the title of a specific song on the record, I thought in a broader sense it's what the record sort of felt like what it was about to me. So that's why I decided to make it the name of the whole thing.
On the album there's a more political side with songs like, "Awake in the Dirt" and then a more personal side with songs like "A Story, A Sneak". When you're writing an album, how do you reconcile those two sides?
I generally write -- I guess it all comes from the same place, you know? I don't really compartmentalize like 'I'm going to write a love song, 'I'm going to write a about a story that happened in my life, 'I'm going to write a song about family or some sort of more...oh what's the word I'm looking for...sort of kind of like a little story from your life and then now say 'It's time to write a political song. I just kind of write songs and whatever is there that day is what's there that day. So it's not like -- I've never sat down and said -- not with "Another Bag of Bones" or "In No Time Flat" or "Awake in the Dirt" -- said like 'now it's time to write a political and fill the quota. Sometimes it just comes out that way and "Awake in the Dirt" is sort of a number of things. That's a story song, that's a song that very outside my life that's about a book I read and a song about a character in the book that take certain actions that through one lense could be viewed as revolutionary and freedom fighting and through another lense be viewed as terrorism. And I'm kind of fascinated by that. The way that things can be framed diametrically oppositional ideas, but they're actually the same act, you know what I mean? Depending on the lense? So that song was inspired by a fictional book by Philip Roth called American Pastoral
so I guess it's political in the sense, but it's also about a family and about kind of filtering somebody else's work into your own. I just kind of write whats there. Whatever it is. Whether it's a loud song, a soft song, a fast song, a slow song, a love song, a social song or whatever, I just try to honor the song and follow it to its logical conclusion and try and make it the best it can be.
So besides books and the political climate, what are some of the things that contributed to building the album? Influentially I mean.
I think I wanted to make something tight, something concise. I felt kind of like Brother's Blood
I really loved that record, but it was kind of ungainly. You know it was over fifty minutes long and kind of all over the place stylistically which I love and which was a choice too, but this...I think maybe it was coming off the Bad Books
record or maybe it was listening to a lot of Nada Surf, Teenage Fan Club and The Stokes and the Ramones -- these bands that wrote these sort of tight thirty-five, forty minute records. Sort of you're in and you're out, you know? So there was a mindfulness. It's not like pop music, not like a Katy Perry record or something, but my version of that. Like pop is concise. More traditional structure like verse-chorus-verse songs. That ended up changing the instrumentation. Changing the risks your willing to take with some of the content or changing the message you want to get across lyrically, but just sort of making something listenable I guess. That was the biggest thing -- when the last song is over you're almost surprised and you want to start it again. Whether or not I succeeded at that is obviously super subjective, but I feel good about it.
Instrumentally this record did feel sort of different -- how would you define or differentiate this record as far as instruments and that kind of thing goes?
The most obvious difference is this record I didn't have a solo acoustic song on it before. I guess for lack of a better phrase, I'm sure there is one I haven't figured out one, but I've always made records where there were more fully fleshed-out songs. On this album there's electric guitars or bass or multitrack harmonies or piano or violin or glockenspiel, whatever. And then made songs on this record where it's just me and a guitar. This record I made a conscious choice to not do that. I feel like it fit with what we were doing in the studio. In terms of instrumentation, one thing we did differently on this album is we used a lot more synths, lot of melotron and kind of exploring a lot of different keyboard sounds, using a lot of midis things inside of the actual recording software, that was a different experience. I don't think we'd done...we dabbled in that prior, but songs like "11-17" or "The City Has Left You Alone" -- doing like layers of those kind of synths, which is also different to what we had done prior. But the rest of it, I think there may have been a mandoline played on this record and that was the first time we had had that, but most of the rest of it is you know guitar, bass, drums. We only took some jumping off points from the keyboard stuff for sure.
So when you play live, you tour with the whole "Goddamn Band," which is a lot of people to incorporate. How does that line-up change or affect the recording process?
I guess it's changed every record somewhat since Make the Clocks Move
. There's been a couple of people, like Chris Broco who produced Between the Concrete and Clouds
and has produced most of my records. Put Your Ghost to Rest
and a couple of singles which I did with Rob Schnap. Chris has been there since 2003. Theres a guy named Russel Smith who plays guitar on some of the records and doesn't do a lot of touring, but he's been there since 2003. Mike Stramburg who plays guitar and mandalin on this record has been in the band since 2007 and played on Brothers Blood
. Ryan Bonds, who plays keys and percussion on this record, he also played on Brothers Blood
has been in the band since like '07 I guess. Our drummer Mike Fader, who played on this record and played a song on Brothers Blood
, he's the most recent in that sense. But I mean it sort of figures itself out. You we had a guy, Daniel Spark, who's a great bass, was on tour with us for the last two and a half years, because he could tour and he wanted to tour and his life circumstances sort of allowed for it. It gets tricky when you're in your thirties to keep a touring band together that the club, small theatre level. A band like me, of my size. Because people have lives or children or husbands or full time jobs and it's a little harder to just drop all that and just go get in the van for six weeks. So I've had to be more fluid. With this record the recording stuff, you get a lot more freedom with who you want to use. Everyone whos involved and everyone who wants to be involved- its pretty easy to find a role, because I trust that I want to be playing with them. It's not less labor intensive, because recording is always labor intensive, but a little less time consuming and physically consuming than asking someone to go on tour with you. Like of the guys that played on the record, only two toured the record. Like Bryan, Russel and Chirs didn't. I don't think we've played live together since the record was made. And there's positives and negatives to that obviously, I really love the record, but I don't necessarily need the recorded to line-up with the live performance. I dont mind re-representing songs, in kind of radically different ways, because I think that's fun and I think that stretches the song and I think you get to have like four or five different versions of it then. But obviously if people attached to the documented version and then go see the live version and there aren't a lot of keyboards and you're doing a lot of different stuff with guitar and there are sleighbells -- I mean I dig that stuff, but I know people want to come and hear the record basically exactly as it sounds. It's having faith in your abilities to transform your own material and having faith that the audience will go along for the ride. That's probably a longer and more circuitous answer than what you wanted, but it's complicated.
Now you're on solo tour. How is that dynamic different? Do you approach it different?
For such a long time, solo touring was like the norm for me. And I kind of took my cues with that relationship between solo touring, but then having recordings that were more fleshed out from other singer-songwriters. Bob Dylan or Elliot Smith or Neil Young, who played solo acoustic shows, but their records sounded different. I thought, oh you can do that. And it's ultimately about the song. The actual act of getting up there -- so that's what I did for a long time and about 2008, I probably more often than more I'd say 80% of the time had taken a band on tour and that had become the norm so you get used to that. The solo shows are sort of sprinkled, sort of few and far between. So this is the first full-on solo acoustic tour I've done in four years or something, maybe even more like six. And it's with Mewithoutyou and this band Buried Beds, both of whom were great and both of whom are very dynamic and I play in the middle, so what I kind of had to do for this tour is remind myself that I can be compelling on my own and that I have to get up and not be intimidated by the bands surrounding me, but get up and be sort of focused and comfortable within myself. The biggest thing that I know has improved is these crowds are super respectful and I have my own fans at the shows, but obviously when you're opening for someone, people are going to talk sometimes and I've noticed that the biggest part of preparation for me is not letting that get to me. You feel a little bit like you're at a boxing match, when the crowds real talkative and you're like the solo guy. In general, it's nice to remember that I can do this and I like doing this and the songs work like this too. It's been sort of instructive as to how I'm going to move forward with the next record, I have a bunch of ideas like I feel like for the first time in my career in my head there's a very clear division between what I am and what I am with the Goddamn Band and I want to explore that a lot more on the next couple of records we make.
How has tour been so far?
Great. We're in Phoenix. We're off, we're playing here tomorrow. We just finished the West Coast, which was pretty triumphant. Really beautiful. We drove. We had some adventures. Saw the Redwoods. Went to a fish hatchery in Oregon. The shows have been great. Mewithoutyou are awesome people, really beautiful people, really special. And Buried Beds are really cool. Its really a love fest. Its really been great. And the instruments are all performing great, everyones playing well. A bunch of the people are coming out. Its been a really good one so far.
So you mentioned earlier sort of re-representing your songs in the live setting. Was there a particular sound you aimed for when writing the record or did it fall together naturally?
At this point I sound like -- you hope at this point you sound like -- you've synethsized your influences enough to the point where you sound like you. And what I wanted to do is continue the development of that and in this case write something that was a little more streamlined in terms of the structure of the songs and arrangements. I try not to read anything about myself, but I read something when the record came out about...it was a very 90s record. I dont know what that means, but I'm 32 and I grew up, or was falling in love with music and most of the bands that I really love are from that time frame. Whether its like Nirvana or Neutral Milk Hotel or Super Chunk, or Elliott Smith or REM (which is more 80s into 90s I guess) and the Pixies. Some of the songs I was trying to write my version of power pop songs, like I said. Matthew Sweep or Nada Surf or something. It felt like "The First Hit" is for sure that kind of song to me. But it wasn't like a super conscious thing aesthetically. Those were just the general guidelines and I just sort of painted inside those lines.
Right, so going back to the record -- there's sort of a religious, spiritual element in your lyrics. Was that something, like said, that you've just moved towards naturally and that's just what comes out or if that was something you wanted to address specifically on this record?
I think it's more just a natural movement. I feel like it's something that been on my mind, in my personal life these past couple of years. I'm not religious in the dictionary definition of the word. I am someone whose interested in mercy and forgiveness and redemption and service and usefulness. My life works better when I'm attempting to live in those modes and life works a lot more grindingly when I'm in a lot more self-interest, judgement and acting out and all that. I think the title song of the record is kind of, 'I thought I knew once, I thought I knew again, I don't think either of those were right, but I don't have to know and how could I presume to know? I don't think I'm equipped to know, I don't think any of us are really. But I do think you kind of have to live well and live in some sort of effort to be in harmony. I think those ideas are all sort of bouncing around in the record, cause they're all kind of bouncing around in my day-to-day life.
So you did a side project with Manchester Orcestra (Bad Books) and is that something that youre going to record to in the near future? Do you plan to work with other musicans? Where does that fit in in your career right now
The Bad Books
record is done. It'll come out in October. We're going to do some touring when that happens and play the Austin City Limits festival. We're going to try and make a Bad Books record every two years or something until we don't want to do that anymore. Because we really like it and we like being around each other and working together. We all kind of, Andy and I both kind of workaholic songwriters, we definitely write a lot. And I'm super open to working with all different kind of musicians. There are tons of musicans I'd love to write with and record with and thats something I'm constantly exploring. The Bad Books thing is coming out in a couple months.
So you post a lot on your website and your Facebook -- you know Bad Books lyrics and such. How do you think social media and that kind thing affects your relationship with the band?
I mean I think at this point it's sort of for better or for worse, that's sort of the primary way even if you are a Ke$ha or a Drake.
You mentioned a tour with the second Bad Books record -- that's in the future. What else? Will you be heading back into studio as "Kevin Devine" that side of your career?
After the Bad Books
tour I probably will start writing. The best thing would be one and possibly two...I don't know where I'm going to be. I'm thinking about writing two kind of different albums at once. And sort of dressing one up as a sort of live feeling -- we just put out that live EP through Amazon called "Matter of Time" and that was meant to capture the live band, sort of in the moment. And we just sort of went into the studio and recorded live and I really liked it and it was really different than making the record in the sort of painstaking track-by-track way. So what I want to do is write a bunch of band songs, rehearse the hell out of them and then get in studio and record them live and have the record like that. And then write a record where I go in and sort of act like a band, like I play all the instruments and explore that side of my personality. And find a way to kind of stagger those two records and maybe spend most of 2013 making that music and then most of 2014 touring it. And I'm trying to do both those things without any interaction with the music industry at all, like try and sever ties with record label culture and publishing culture and doing it alone, because I feel like I already do that anyways. And why not reap the rewards of it and have that relationship with your fans. So those things are there. They're more conceptual right now, rather than ready to be executed.