Kevin Devine is 15 years and 9 albums into the industry. That's an impressively long, productive time in the context of today's indie rock scene. With Instigator
, his studio album out today, Devine continues to put his heart into evolving and communicating in his songs. He's also remaining anchored by the diverse influences that sparked his initial musical involvement, and looking at the new crop of indie kids with experienced eyes. We got to catch up with Kevin and hear him talk about all these things to coincide with the release of Instigator
. Read on and listen below.
BEN FEIT: Instigator
will be your first solo studio album in three years. Was there a specific reason for taking a break from full-length studio efforts for a while?
I kind of was on tour for those records (Bulldozer
) for what feels like almost two and a half years intermittently. And in the interim we did the Devinyl splits project. So I felt very active in that time. I went out [touring] 3 years ago like right now, when those records came out, I think their 3 year birthday is tomorrow. And that was kind of all very loosely pegged to those two albums, so I think by the very end people were asking us to go on tour and we were going, but we didnt have a new record. I think when you're doing that much touring, my mind was not necessarily on making another record, because there was so much work to be done. We wrote the record last summer, wrote and demoed, and then I recorded it about a year ago now, and mixed and mastered it this January. So the record has been done for a while, but I didnt think it needed to be rushed out, for personal and professional reasons. I just felt like we could sit with it, and its funny, it has been 3 years, but I feel like I've been working that whole time.
How did the Devinyl splits series come about? And what do you think you were able to do with those that was different from what youre able to do with an album?
Well, it came about conceptually because theres a lot of bands or artists or songwriters or personalities I like that I wouldn't necessarily get to go on tour with. But I thought that it would be kind of cool if there was some way to arrange a project where I could kind of show that I think I've built this unique career in the sense that I can and do play with a lot of different kinds of bands. I've had a weird career, and I think it's because I write songs that can fit a lot of different places. And I wanted to figure out a way to make a project that illustrated that hinge quality. The splits thing kind of reminded me of growing up around punk music and hardcore music, like the first releases I had were split singles with bands from other places. It was a real way of building community and illustrating that community. So to update that idea and professionalize it a bit, that was the guts of the thing. And it was really dependent at the time on when I approached Matthew [Caws] from Nada Surf first. I'm a big fan of what he does and a big fan of him as a person. I asked him first, and if he had said no, it might have been very deflating and I might have just let the whole thing slide. But he was like, 'yeah, totally, thats fantastic, I'd love to.' When he said yes, I was emboldened, like, 'fuck, if he'll do it, maybe other people will do it. It kind of grew from there, the Tigers Jaw kids, we have a mutual friend who played in their band for a while, Cymbals [Eat Guitars] I'd known forever without knowing them well, Mike Kinsella [a.k.a. Owen] is one of my favorite musicians and people around, and Jesse [Lacy] is Jesse, I've been working with him since we were both kids. So it just seemed like a very disparate collection of people all kind of making sense via that hinge which is my facility with different kinds of music. That was what I was able to do with it. It was not a proper record in the sense that each thing had its own personality, and I think that as an individual record it would have been kind of schizophrenic. Like, here are 6 compositions of mine, 3 are covers, and then here are 6 compositions by these other people, 3 of those are covers, and the other 3 are all really different. But what was really cool about that experience beyond just it happening at all and being well-received and its execution was that we got to do those shows. That was like a fucking Hail Mary that actually landed and became some of the coolest shit I've ever been involved with in my career. We did Bell House in New York, TLA in Philly, and Sinclair in Boston, sold out shows that were like a variety thing. Every night was a round robin, all of those people were there, and it would be like, I'd introduce Mike Kinsella and he'd get up and play three songs, then we'd play some songs, I'd introduce Meredith, and then Meredith, me, and Mike, and Joe from Cymbals Eat Guitars would be Meredith's band. We had other guests, like Laura Stevenson came in Brooklyn, and Brian from Front Bottoms came in Boston. It just was this thing like the Rolling Thunder Revue or The Last Waltz or something, and I think people totally got it. It was this real event last December, super special, all those people traveled together in a van. The fact that that happened is the craziest thing to me, that all these touring musicians were just like let's have summer camp for three days in December.
So you just did a Reddit AMA a couple days ago and I actually figured out there's a subreddit devoted just to you.
Is there? Yeah, I thought I saw someone say like 'shoutout to *that link.*
Yeah, I decided in that moment to never go there. Because I'd probably find things that inflate and deflate my ego there. But yeah, that's cool that that exists.
So between that and the Kickstarter campaign for the double album collection (Bulldozer and Bubblegum), you obviously have a devoted fanbase. How important to you is interacting with your fans? And what comes out of these interactions?
I think it's super important. It's funny though, I always waffle at the word fan. And I know that sounds fucking ridiculous, and it's just a word. But I find myself always fumbling towards the word audience, because that feels a little more right. I grew up in hardcore shows and those shows, there was literally no stage. You were literally on the same level as your audience, like same eye level. That aesthetic, that idea, is very much still embedded in my consciousness even as the circumstances of my life and music have changed. The ideology made an impression. And I think that ideology is based on a mutual respect and an awareness that one can't exist without the other and that both are part of a kind of circle. So for me, interacting with the audience - sometimes, if I'm doing my own shows, Ill be selling my own merch. I think it's a cool thing for someone coming to see the band play to actually be able to have a 3-minute conversation with the band. I think it's falsely democratic now, where you see a lot of interaction on social media, but that is not a real interaction. It's not the same as having a real flesh and blood conversation with someone. I can't go on tour and make records and even talk to you if there isn't some amount of people that give a shit about me doing those things. I want to give people the opportunity to have that experience. Not like I'm so fucking great to talk to, but because I think we all would like to talk to the people that make the things that we connect to. I also recognize that there's probably people who've met me and come away from it like 'well, I wish he was a different person.' But the availability just comes from growing up around hardworking people in my family and hardworking people once I got into the independent music community. Also, I think a certain amount of mystery is cool, but you want people to know that people make these things and people do this job. I think it kind of, hopefully, provides more context for the listening experience.
So you talked about all the different genres that you have connections to. At times, your music still reminds me of early 2000s indie, alt-rock, even some pop punk, emo, all kinds of stuff. I don't hear that with many new indie bands. Is that something you consciously try to keep alive in your sound?
Well, I think that what happens sometimes is you try to take in new things all the time. But you have your tastes and your moods and the things you're drawn towards. Like the radio station in my head is stuck in 1995. So when I make my own music, it's very rare that I've had the audacity to think like 'that's a hit song,' but when I do, I'm thinking of a very specific iteration of pop music that hasnt been pop music for 20 years. Less early 2000s in some respects than like mid to late 90s, probably, or even earlier. But I think your read is accurate, I'm drawn to great songwriting, but most often great songwriting that expresses itself in indie rock, pop music, punk music. Whether its the Beatles, Kinks, Dylan, and then Nirvana, Matthew Sweet, bands that were kind of mining power pop. I also love singer-songwriter expressions, things that are very bare and very direct. I think my stuff is some combination of all of that. And you said pop punk - it's funny because I think there's pop punk and there's punk pop, it's a very subtle difference. I think one is just a little nastier than the other, one has a little bit more teeth than the other. And I hope when I try to mine that it's more on one side of the fence than the other. I think that consciously or unconsciously you gravitate towards the things you love, and so I'm writing stuff that with every record is a little different but I think it all falls into some version of like folk, punk, pop, indie. Whether I'm consciously or unconsciously trying to do it, I would agree that I'm carrying traditions that are the things that got me involved with loving and continuing to love music.
So some of the newer, young musicians often talk about you as an influence an inspiration. Where do you look for new influences and inspiration? And specifically, do you find yourself looking the other way at these new bands and artists?
Absolutely, absolutely. I mean this tour we're doing in the fall is very indicative of that. Julien Baker is on the first leg, and the whole tour is with Pinegrove and Petal. Those bands are all great, those artists are all people that are like 10 to 15 years younger than me. Like an entire generation of music happened between when I started playing and these bands becoming present. And they're all people who are saying something and communicating it in a way that feels very familiar to me, but also in a way that feels like it's their own. I feel like that about Mitski, Angel Olsen, and I'm not saying they even know who I am, I'm just naming younger artists I've heard that are fantastic. But I feel like right now there's so much compelling, cool music being made by people in their early to mid-twenties. And in particular by women, I just think that right now there's a wealth of really excellent women writing songs, Waxahatchee, Laura Stevenson, Field Mouse, Speedy Ortiz, there's just so much good shit. Brian from Front Bottoms was the first one for me, that was younger, that I played with when we brought them on tour before they took over the world. They were like these kids, and he was this hyper-literate, expressive, secret weapon. And he said to me in Seattle on that tour, like 5 or 6 years ago, that I played a show in 2006 at his college and he came and hung around after the show and we talked. He basically was generous enough to say that some amount of what he is came from people like me. I can't tell you what a knee-buckling compliment that is. I take no credit for it - you make what you make and it connects to who it connects to - but the fact that these bands have any space in their development for the things I was making is very validating. That there are people not only hearing it but hearing it and making their own shit partly motivated by it. And it makes this circle, because then you hear their shit, and you're like 'man, theyre really good. I better keep pushing myself because theyre really good. So I think that is a very cool thing, and it's a really good time for songs right now.
So to speak on your longevity in indie music, what kind of advice do you think it's important for young musicians to keep in mind if they have goals of a lasting career?
I think the 'marathon not a sprint' thing is very true, very real. Also, I think that there's something to be said for perspective. There are a lot of people that would look at my career and say that it was never successful, and that it never got to where it need to get to commercially or even critically. I feel like every magazine or blog that would have ever wanted to write about my music has written about my music, just not at the same time. So I feel like by some of the metrics by which the proper music industry, even the indie rock industry, measures success, they would say that I have not had a successful career. Then there's this other metric that says I've gotten to do exactly what I wanted all the way through, I've gotten to get better all the way through, and I've gotten to continue to have a slightly growing audience every record Ive made. And that is not always true 15 years and 9 records in. So I would say its about perspective, I would say that if something isn't working now that doesnt mean it wont work later. I would say be open to criticism but also be confident about your mission. Don't be ashamed to call it your life's work, because if you want it to be it can be.
Sometimes I play shows and hundreds of people come, or a thousand plus people come, and sometimes I play shows and theres 60 kids there. Those people that are there, they are there, play for them. Dont play at the 250 other ones that didnt come, because they'll never know. And the people who did come to see you will know, and they'll remember like 'he was a miserable prick. I remember doing a tour for Brothers Blood
, and we went and did Bowery Ballroom for 600 people, Philly 200 people, Baltimore 100 people, Chapel Hill, NC 75 people, and then you get to Sunday night in Charleston, SC. and 46 people paid to come to that show. And I remember being like, from Friday of last week to this Sunday, we've lost 550 people. So I called my brother John and I was just complaining about this, and he was like: 'I hear ya. But those 46 people bought a ticket just like those 600 people because you're the one night they're going out this week. Maybe they got a babysitter, maybe they're taking a break from studying, maybe they just broke up with their boyfriend, maybe they've been looking forward to seeing you play for 5 years. And if you go in there and you treat them like theyre any less worth your energy or effort than the people in New York, then you're an asshole.' That's for real, respect your audience because they're there. I believe that, and that's sustained me well in my career.
As the next step in your career, what does Instigator
mean to you? Do you think it conveys anything specific about this moment in your life and your career?
I do. I think that I feel very free, and I think its a free-sounding record. There's a lot of energy on that record, it's a power pop record, there's a lot of fuzz and a lot of propulsion. There's also a lot of stylistic threads. I think it's very much a snapshot of what I'm like now. If you come see us play, you're either going to get that energized power pop/punk pop performance very much built around songs, or you're going to get this communicator, someone trying to get directly at you. And I think I've honed in on something - how I want to communicate and how I want to play, and how I want the songs to feel. I feel like there's a couple songs on there that definitely are written from the perspective of a person right before they're about to have this big change of fatherhood
come into their life. There's definitely songs addressing very specific social justice issues in the moment were in. I think that's all there, and I feel comfortable and confident communicating all those things in a way that I think I might have been more fitful about when I was younger. So yeah, I've always tried to just have each record be a picture of what it was like to be a person at that time. And I think this record is very much that, and in some respects it's the most accomplished version of that I've put together yet.
Yeah, when you said you felt free, I thought about the end of the last song ("I Was Alive Back Then") on Instigator
, "I was alive back then, now I am again."
I mean that song kind of felt like one of those things where you're like, 'well maybe that's it, because I don't know if Im going to say it better than that. There's certain things you feel like as a writer you're kind of climbing towards, but it's always ahead of you. And every once in awhile you get your arms around it, and you're like 'okay, maybe that's okay, maybe that's enough.' I'm not saying it is, there will be more music from me. But I think that song was as close to an accurate summary of how I feel I am now - and how the world is around me now - as I've ever written to this point. So I really wanted it to be the last thing people heard on this record, and the thing that maybe turns the record over for them and makes that circle. You're a person all those times, I was a person in all those stories, every story in every song on every record I was alive. And you're just kind of drawing a line, and saying I still am, I'm still here.
is available everywhere, including physical forms on Devine's website. Check out the 2016-2017 Instigator
tour dates here