A Conversation With Kevin Devine: A Worker Amongst Workers
    • FRIDAY, APRIL 10, 2015

    • Posted by: Don Saas

    One of the things you learn after doing this job for a while is that a lot of interviews come off as interchangeable and utterly replaceable. Many artists hate talking about themselves and their music, and there's a tendency among musicians to talk about their craft as if its some skill that magically appeared to them rather than something that's a job that they have to work towards. And even the most sincere and authentic artists do so many interviews that their answers feel canned and hyper-prepared. Kevin Devine is not your typical musician, and he's not your typical interview.

    We had a chance to sit down and chat with Kevin Devine before his show with the God Damn Band at Le Poisson Rouge. I've interviewed a lot of artists for Baeble over the years, but I've never had a conversation like this. Kevin is one of the most articulate and genuine artists I've ever talked to, and each answer felt like a spontaneous miniature essay as Kevin talked about his world view and what it means for him to have a life working in music. And above all, Kevin Devine makes it clear that he takes his work seriously. This interview is a long read, but it felt wrong to pare any of Kevin's passion and love out of our chat.

    Bubblegum had a lot more of a post-hardcore meets pop-punk feel than some of your earlier, more acoustic records. How exactly did that wind up happening?

    Kevin Devine: I always had bits of that. There are songs on Brother's Blood that are like that. There are songs on Split the Country, Split the Street that are like that. And there's always been -- since Split the Country -- louder rock songs. There are a few on Between the Concrete and Clouds that get pretty loud/noisy...maybe a little more Nirvana-y than pop-punk or punk-pop. I grew up with Superchunk. Superchunk, to me, is like a punk-pop band. When I think of pop-punk, I think of Blink 182, and I don't think quite that's what our record sounds like.

    *laughs* No, I meant pop-punk bands like Superchunk.

    KD: No, I knew what you meant. It's kind of a fine distinction, but I know it when I hear it. It's like...I really like the Thermals; I don't as much like "insert band here that sounds like the other side of that divide." I wanted to make music that had that kind of energy and that kind of bracing immediacy. But, I also wanted it to be written by a 33 year old man at the time and not a 21 year old kid. The abiding principle was to try and get the energy of the poppier Nirvana stuff or Pixies or Superchunk...bands that had punk influence but wrote pop songs. Weezer records...the first two. Superchunk was a big one...Archers of Loaf, a little bit. Stuff like that. It just came from leaning heavier into that wing of the brain and less into the one that loves Elliot Smith and the Beatles and R.E.M. That guy got to hang out on Bulldozer more. And, obviously Jesse [ed. note: Jesse Lacey of Brand New] is really good at that. He's really good at a lot of things, but that's one thing he's really good at. It definitely didn't hurt to have him around for that. He didn't inform the songwriting in that way. That [record] was almost like a genre piece. I'm going to write a record that sounds like these bands.

    By bringing him up, you already lean into my next question. What was it like working with Jesse Lacey of Brand New on the new album?

    KD: It was great. I've known him since I was 20 or 19 or something. It's been a long time...15, 16 years. And he's known every iteration of the God Damn Band and me solo and the Miracle of '86 played with them. So, he's kind of seen it all. His opinion has some weight and validity because he knows the totality of my musical life which is pretty rare and vice versa. We've literally been around with each other since the very beginning. I've played on Brand New stuff and he's recorded backing vocals on records of mine so this was just an escalation of what was already there. But he was great; he was really present. He had good ideas. I have nothing but positive stuff to say about that experience. He's a pretty good song doctor to have around too. He's a guy that knows his way around good, loud rock music that's also accessible. If there were questions about things, he was a good person to bounce stuff off of. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

    For Bubblegum and Bulldozer, you Kickstarter-ed those records. What was your experience crowd-sourcing an album?

    KD: Very positive...a lot of work...but rewarding work cause basically you remove the middleman between yourself and your audience and we're the label. We hired a distributor. We licensed the record overseas and stuff but to people we'd known and worked with for a long time like small, indie punk rock labels in Europe and the U.K. and Australia...people that the relationships were very personal and manageable directly. Here, we just went through a distributor. I had a lot of trepidation about doing it for a number of reasons -- all of which I've either spoken about or written about extensively -- but I didn't know if it was possible to make records that way and still grow.

    My thought process was, "Even an ineffective record label was still better than no record label." Cause there's infrastructure; there's people. But this experience really showed me that's not true. And if I want to do it this way forever, I can, and it's there, and the audience is there. But if I was going to work with a record label, it would have to be with someone that was...for lack of a less gross way of saying this...value-added. Somebody that was actually going to help...not just like blow a bunch of smoke up your ass and disappear when the record comes out. That's something I learned throughout that whole experience. I accurately assessed my value. All the work on the other side of it was just making sure that we could fulfill everything in a timely fashion in a way to get everything actually done and not have people bummed out from a customer service perspective too. And we did, mostly. I think we were right on top of that stuff.

    Are there any plans for more Bad Books records in the future?

    KD: Yeah, I think we're going to do one, but I think it would be 2016 or 2017. But, yes, we are definitely going to make another one.

    How's your Devinyl Splits project been going so far?

    KD: I'm thrilled with it so far. The first one was with Matthew [Caws] from Nada Surf. I'm a big fan. He's a friend, but I'm also a huge fan of his songwriting. So to have him be the inaugural split and to have him cover one of my songs is like...he's legitimately a friend and a peer but there's a part of my brain that's the 23 year old kid who's listening to Let Go and being like "Oh my god. This guy's amazing and these guys are amazing." And I still think that as one of their friends that's just a geek about it. When I heard his voice singing the words to "Fiscal Cliff," I was like, "Holy shit. This is awesome." If you can't geek out about stuff like that, I feel like...you're too cool. You have to be able to be excited by that stuff.

    And, they [the Devinyl Splits project] look beautiful and the label we work with is so on top of everything. Bad Timing is just a really driven group of young, smart, really active, really creative people. It's Devinyl in conjunction with them and I couldn't be happier about that partnership. And I'm stoked about the Meredith [Graves] one...Meredith from Perfect Pussy. I think independent music culture is a lot richer for her presence and for her willingness to throw herself under buses and to say things that aren't popular and to challenge patriarchal normative thought-processes. She's great, and I like the song that she contributed a lot. We're on our way. The Tigers Jaw one is shaping up to be great. I think it's an ambitious series, but I think it's going to be executed well, and I really love all of the partners we have lined up...including the ones we haven't been able to announce yet. Also, it's nice to have help. It's also nice to have that be in lieu of a new album...have that be the way you present yourself for a year.

    It's been 13 years since you released your first LP, Circle Gets the Square. How has it felt to have this very serious longevity to your touring career and to your recording career?

    KD: I do very much think of it as a life in music. But, in thinking of it that way, everything's really one step at a time for lack of a less cheesy thing to say. There have been jumps or things that felt like twenty steps at a time but it's never been a thousand steps at once. It's been very, very, very gradual. Maybe it's a hackneyed analogy but it's the one that makes the most sense to me...taking the local train. I'm definitely thousands of miles from where I was when I first started but I've gone ten at a time. The thing that's cool is the train is still going that way. It never came back.

    This is the third US tour on those records [Bubblegum and Bulldozer]...the last one probably. The fact that there's still 150-200 people in most of these places -- in New York, it will be more like 5-600 people -- that actually still come eight records in plus Bad Books plus Miracle [of '86]...A lot of things go up real fast, down real fast -- very present and visible. And I feel like I've been able to keep clawing my way up the side of that mountain. So, how do I feel? I feel like I'm a worker amongst workers. And I feel like that's cool cause life in music to me doesn't necessarily mean the cover of a magazine. It means being able to live a passion for a living for as long as possible. And I feel like I'm in that experience. And that's something to be grateful for and I wouldn't have that experience if it wasn't for the audience I have.

    Tonight's the last show on the tour. What's this tour been like?

    KD: Long...and positive. It's two separate tours for me that got sort of wedged together. I did three weeks solo with Evan Weiss from Into It. Over It and Laura Stevenson. That ended in Indiana. Day off, got to Wisconsin, and started this full-band tour with Dads & Field Mouse. We've been out 5 weeks with that. It's a two month tour. That's the longest consecutive U.S. tour that I've ever done, and that's saying something. I've done a lot of them. I feel pretty sane. I feel like "good tired." Like that sense of tiredness you feel that has a sense of accomplishment attached to it...like the work was gratifying. I probably played 50 shows including SXSW which we were playing three a day sometimes. I never lost my voice which is cool. And I really enjoyed it. We did a lot of America on this tour. I mean...we didn't play in the Dakotas. I don't think there was a South Carolina show. But we might have played every other state in the contiguous 48.


    KD: And that's cool. I saw four seasons in the past seven weeks. I got to play as the folky acoustic guy, and then I got to play as the step on your pedal and scream loud guy, and I really like both. And I think the differentiation made it feel less like one long tour and more like two shorties. I'm also happy to come home.

    Have there been any new records lately that you've been sort of digging into?

    KD: I really like the records by the bands we're on tour with. I really like the last Field Mouse record and the last Dads record. Seeing Field Mouse live at CMJ and seeing Dads live at CMJ was why this tour got put together the way it did. I would encourage people to check those out. I'm very curious to hear the new Kendrick Lamar...that Waxahatchee record. I'm looking forward to that Speedy Ortiz record. My friend Brian Bonz is putting out a record soon that I've heard some of and think is great.

    Recently, I've been going backwards a lot. I tend to do that. I listened a lot to Automatic for the People on this tour...Let Go, Nada Surf's record. We listened to In Utero the other night. Sometimes I need to go back before I can go forward. The most recent Cass McCombs record I listened to and I thought had some really wonderful songs on it. It's intentionally a challenge; it's like a two hour record that he wants you to digest on his terms. I listened to it once and I don't know when I'll go back to it, but it's really good. I'm sure there's stuff I'm forgetting. That's the stuff off the top of my head. I'm curious to hear that Title Fight record. Oh! Jessica Lee Mayfield's new record...Damon [Cox] played it for us in the car the other day. I thought that was really cool.

    Speaking of the new Kendrick Lamar album, it's an explicitly political album, and there's always been kind of a political edge to your music. The 2016 election gets closer every day. Ted Cruz [and as of the time of this writing, Rand Paul] just announced his candidacy. What are your thoughts on the way that race is shaping up?

    KD: I haven't been totally on top of it to be honest. Politics are not interesting to me. Social justice is interesting to me. But I feel like, unfortunately, in society, the way you get to more equitable existence for most people is through the political system which is why it's so frustrating that our political system is so deeply broken.

    How do I feel? I would prefer not to have the choice between another Bush and another Clinton. It's kind of like choosing between McDonalds and Burger King at this point. I definitely know which one of those two -- if there was a gun in my mouth -- I would vote for, but I wouldn't do it joyfully. I definitely think the Republicans now are beyond the pale of insanity conversationally. They're not sound. It's just contrarian politics. The conscientious choice for me is voting for Jill Stein from the Green Party or whoever...someone that's considered a fringe [candidate]. Which to me, fringe politics means that they sound sane when they're talking. I'm like "Oh yeah. I'd vote for her." But, she's a Green Party candidate and she's going to get 0.8% of the vote. That's how I feel early.

    I've voted three or four times in my life for the president, and I think I voted third party three of the four times. The one time I didn't it was a total spasm of conscious of "What if?" fear. I was like "What if?" and I went blue. But we'll see.

    I don't mean to be cynical. I just don't think from these particularly important vantage points to me -- corporations in politics and American military foreign policy -- on those two things, there's really very little difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. Also serious, sane environmental policy. There's not a whole hell of a lot of differentiation there. And as long as that's true, that's a pretty unsatisfying choice you have to make. But are there things from a domestic perspective that are better when a Democrat [is in office]? Yes. No questions asked. They are nominally better for working people. They are better for reproductive rights for women. Both of which are very important. Outside of some of those issues though, they're pretty much mirror images of each other at this point. So we'll see.

    No, I mean, I majored in political science in school and how broken politics are broke me personally, and that's how I winded up segueing into music journalism.

    KD: Yeah, but I also think you can find other ways back in. You can't let them take your peace of mind from you too. They can take whatever else, but you have to try to keep ahold of that. That's our job...to keep ahold of that.

    You're absolutely correct. You released a Nevermind cover album in 2011. Are there any other albums you'd like to release a cover album of someday?

    KD: Yeah. The kind of weird ones...I would do Automatic for the People. I have such reverence for Elliot Smith, but I don't think I would want to cover one of his whole albums. I may one day do a cover album of his music because I've covered so many of his songs although I don't even know about that. His stuff is like Holy Grail stuff to me. I don't really want to mess with it too much. If You're Feeling Sinister by Belle & Sebastian...I've always wanted to do that. And I don't know why. It's not like I necessarily sound like them but that's one of my all time favorite records -- hugely important record to me. So maybe someday that one. Maybe one of those two would be next.

    I've only got two questions left. You're 35 now. You've got a very passionate fan base that has gotten older and matured as your music has and as you have. Where do you see yourself going as an artist with your sound over the next couple years as you start inching closer to 40?

    KD *laughs* As you're nearer and nearer to death.

    That's not what I meant.

    KD: Well, we all are. I think that part of me wants to make, especially with this three-piece version of the band -- Damon Cox from An Horse and he's an auxiliary drummer for Brand New live and J. Russo who's a singer/songwriter who has his own bands (Hopewell, Common Prayer, Guiding Light) and he also played bass in Mercury Rev for a long time -- this group of people together, it's really fiery, fun, spiky rock music. Part of me wants to make more of that. Part of me wants to make like an A.M. Gold country record. I don't know. It really depends on just what songs show up first. But I have a basic idea. I'm not super interested in making a metal record. I'm not super interested in making a techno record but I kind of feel like...songs written on a guitar and whatever directions that goes.

    Sometimes, it's going to be more gentle. Sometimes, it's going to be more abrasive, and I kind of feel like stretching those poles out. I've lived a lot in the middle. I kind of feel like making harder choices in either making like Nebraska or In Utero. That's the kinds of things in my brain right now that I want to make. Like...noisey pop music or make really spare folk songs. I have no idea what the next one will sound like. I don't know if that's going to change too much based on my age. What's weird is that I think in my 20s, I was more into the rambling folk singer thing and I always loved...I came up in hardcore; I came up in punk. But I'm having an inverse, long-winded way back towards that music. So, we'll see.

    My last question's a simple one. Do you have any last message for your fans that have been with you all these years?

    Thank you.

    Be sure to check out our exclusive session with Bad Books below.

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