Our co-music director, Kirk Windus, sat down with Kevin Devine to talk about his latest albums, the music industry and politics.
As far as these last two records, [Bubblegum and Bulldozer] are you a little more proud of them just because you did so much work by yourself?
I think I’m differently proud. I don’t know if I’m more proud, but I think that in the last 4 records, from the Brother’s Blood record in 2009, I feel like there was a reset button that got hit on that record after the whole Capitol Records thing happened that was like, “Now I’m going to really just do exactly what I want,” and I think before I was maybe the same way, for better or for worse. Even with the label system I was still doing whatever I wanted. But I just wasn’t entirely sure yet what I wanted to do musically. I mean I knew how to write songs, but I didn’t always know how to present them in their best form. Sometime around Brother’s Blood there was a break from the whole folk-rock thing, so exploring different corners of presentation where things were a lot more expansive and heavy in places and still being pretty in places but stretching out the definition of what that meant.
And I think with these last two records, to me, aesthetically, they’re both really fine encapsulations of the progress that’s been made on a musical front. With the Bubblegum thing, I think we’ve had patches of songs that sounded that way. Like a song here, three songs here, but we haven’t had 40 minutes of songs that sounded that aggressive. It’s not like a metal record, but, for me, it’s the most punk rock music we’ve ever made for a full record. And I think with the Bulldozer thing, if I’d have made that record 10 years ago it would have been much more there. I mean those songs are all acoustic rock songs that got pulled apart and made into something more spacious and dynamic. So, musically I mean I’m proud of them because I don’t think I could have made them the way that they were made if I was making them 10 years ago. But obviously there’s a story in how it got there and got literally made and I’m hugely proud of that. I don’t know if I’m more proud of it, but there’s a more clear line of ownership because there’s no one in the middle. You always feel proud when you’re making it, but then other promotional entities get involved, and that’s their job. That’s what you’re asking them to do. But you can start to get a little alienated from your own thing based on what they’re doing or not doing. So it’s kind of nice not having that with these records. I can say that things went a lot smoother this time around than the last time, which is not necessarily what you expect when you’re like, “I’m just basically going to do it all by myself, meaning like myself, six other people and the entire world are going to do this thing.” So the prize is maybe the same, but the clarity of thought and the level of difficulty and the actual execution, even though we had a lot more to do, it was easier to do it.
It seems like you’ve been able to do all of the same things you’d do with label support, as far as booking pretty big tours, making music videos and promoting the records, without a label. Are you finding it’s really possible to do that in today’s music world or do you think that labels really still have a place?
I think that both are true. I think I would definitely never swear off having a record label. But there’s about ten of them that I would consider, [laughs] and they’re not knocking on my door. But I mean there are really good labels that do really well by artists and have realistic goals and work really hard. And then there are labels that aren’t bad people, and they’re doing their job. It’s just that their job is changing so dramatically every 18 months or 12 months. Sometimes they’re like literally losing their jobs. But in other senses, just the dynamics of the business are changing so much that they’re not sure how to stay on top of it. And I think when you’re someone who’s in my position, like I’m not attached to any sort of trend stylistically or musically. I just kind of write songs. Sometimes they’re loud. Sometimes they’re quiet. Sometimes they’re something else. But they’re not directly pop punk or emo. They’re not folk or whatever you could peg them to market them. They’re somewhere in the middle of all of those things, and I think that makes their job hard. I think right now is not the time for somebody in the music industry’s job to be hard. What sells is what’s easy. There used to be more room for that, and there’s less of it now just because people buy less music.
So I think that this experiment has proved to me that someone of my size can hold firm without a label’s help and even grow a little bit. I mean this is going to sound a little weird, but I’m bigger now than I was two years ago. I’m not exponentially bigger. I’m not like selling out 2,000 seat theaters when I was only selling 200 tickets before, but more people know it than they did two years ago. You know? And that’s happened through making that Bad Books record and then doing what we always do every record, just without a label. So, to me, that proves you can do it. But we also had an influx of $10,000 from our audience to do it. That being said, in music industry terms, that’s not a whole lot of money to pull off a two year project with two albums and tour them, make videos, go to radio, handle press and do all of that, even on a small level. $10,000 to do all of that and make the records, I’ll tell you it goes much faster than most people would think.
You’re obviously quite familiar with Jesse Lacey and you’ve worked with him before. Did it make it easier or harder to work with a good friend as a producer and what did he bring the table as a producer?
I thought he was super professional. He was prompt, punctual and present. Jesse’s a lot of things. He’s a friend of 15 years, so my relationship to him and my thoughts about him are a little different than his fans’ are. I love him for different reasons than his fans do, [laughs] which is good. But he’s not exactly known as being the most prompt and punctual dude, so that was refreshing. And that was really the only concern I had. Jesse’s talents speak for themselves. His enthusiasm for my songs and for my band speak for itself. Our friendship, I knew, wasn’t in any danger. We’re the type of people that I knew if we were a week in and it wasn’t working we’d be like, “This isn’t working. Let’s not do this.” But it did work, and to my ears and to my taste it worked remarkably well.
The one thing that I will say is that Jesse did Bubblegum and Rob Schnapf did Bulldozer. He worked with us on Put Your Ghost To Rest and mixed the Bad Books album. And he did a bunch of Elliot Smith, Beck and The Vines, Guided By Voices. I mean Rob is a monster.
But it wasn’t like I brought Jesse a lot of folk songs and then he turned it into Bubblegum. Like we had, [Mike] Fadem (drums), [Mike] Strandberg (guitar) and I, even over the tour for Between the Concrete and Clouds, those songs had gotten nastier live. And the more we opened for these loud bands, like Say Anything or Thrice or Brand New, those songs just got kind of uglier, in a good way, and dirtier, and I got more confident. I used to be in a band that was like a super fast, loud, Replacements-ish kind of pop-punk band called Miracle of ’86. And growing up, the things that made me play music were things like Nirvana. So that’s always been in there, and we’ve had parts of it, but then I got way into the great songwriters like Bob Dylan and Neil Young, Leonard Cohen and Elliot Smith, Sinead O’Connor and Hank Williams, and then I got into Cat Power and stuff that was more subdued. And so I made a bunch of records that were like that. But I’ve been getting back into the louder thing, so I thought I wanted to make one record that was like a punk record and one that was like a folk record. Jesse had wanted to make one of our records with me for years, so it was like, “Well, there’s no label. We’re doing whatever we want. So why don’t you make this one?” So in other words, it was the perfect meeting of the right time for our band and the right guy to do it because he obviously knows his way around loud rock music and also knows his way around songwriting and knows his way around melody and knows his way around layering a studio.
And a big asterisk that needs to be attached to Bubblegum, too, is that Jesse was the producer in a very old school, Phil Spector kind of way. Not in that he had a gun to us in the studio or anything like that, but he would recommend sounds, and he was very idea oriented, very song oriented. But he wasn’t like placing mics or handling the technical side of things. That was a guy named Claudius Mittdenorfer who’s a friend of all of ours. The reason that the record sounds as good as it does is Claudius, too. He’s just not like a famous singer from a famous rock band, so people won’t talk about him as much, but he’s as much the reason that record sounds the way it does as anyone else is. So it’s worth noting that.
What was it like putting out two records at one time? Most people put so much many and everything into just one. Did you worry that that they’d be unbalanced or one would have a better reception than the other?
No, I mean, I knew that, at least in the immediate, that Bubblegum would get a better reception just because it’s a bigger sound and because there’s the Jesse association. And I thought just between the two records there would be more initial excitement about that. And I really understood that, and I had to kind of let go early on because I really loved Bulldozer too. I had to be patient. I knewBulldozer would find its audience too, and I actually think that it helps Bulldozer that we focused on Bubblegum first and it got such a warm reception because we just released the “Little Bulldozer” video and people love it, and there’s a Bulldozer tour in the fall, so I think that it will be helped by all the focus that Bubblegum got.
Yeah, I hear exactly what you mean. It’s really beautiful and it’s a great record. It’s just very different.
Well, and I think that I like things that hit you in the head, and I like subtler things too. The interesting thing is that they’re [the records] not that far apart in terms of sales. They’re pretty neck and neck. Bubblegum sold more, but not like thousands of copies more. I think that they’re within a thousand copies of one another. And that’s cool to me. Even on tour you can see at the merch table every night, it’s like 55-45 or something like that, and I think that’s cool too. I think there’s a balance there.
What has the reception been like now that you’ve been able to hit the road with the Goddamn Band?
This tour’s specifically been outstanding. And I know it’s a little unusual, considering I have a relationship with Manchester Orchestra. So people coming to the shows have at least heard of me a lot of times. But there are also a lot of them that have heard of me, but never actually heard what I do. They’ve heard Bad Books, you know? Or they’ve heard a song here or there. What I’m seeing on tour is that there are a lot people that had preconceived ideas about what my “thing” was, and then they come see it and basically it’s like, “Oh, I didn’t know you could play like that.” I think people—well—I don’t know what they expect. I don’t know if they expect something like Jason Mraz, like a signer/songwriter thing, or if they expect to see me up there with an acoustic guitar, emoting. And that’s part of “the thing,”— well, not the Jason Mraz thing, that’s not part of the thing— [laughs] but the presentation. Yeah, I really like getting up and playing a song on the acoustic guitar. I always will. I think there’s something very direct about it.
But I also really love getting up, stepping on a peddle and jumping around, making noise and having a drummer beat the heck out of the drums. I really like that too. I think that, to me, we’re making an impression on people who are vaguely aware, but are now kind of joining the fold. And a big part of that is the band. I mean, Ben Hamola from Bad Books is playing drums and he did the Bubblegum tour in the fall too. Mike Strandberg used to work with me for like eight years, playing guitar and singing harmonies, and he also worked on Bubblegum with me. He’s a sort of wizard electric guitar guy who can sort of do anything he wants. And we’re having Andy Prince, who plays bass in Bad Books and Manchester Orchestra, play with us now. Whenever Manchester’s not on tour he’s the go-to guy for me. I sent him 12 songs to learn, since we’re only doing 35 minutes a night, and he showed up to the first rehearsal in Brooklyn and we played through them once and I was like, “Oh, this will be fine.” Like he knew it and not only played the songs, but played them confidently and took risks and moved around. So, for me, I’m like never even thinking about what they’re doing on stage, and that’s like the best possible situation.
Have you been playing any Bad Books songs with Andy since you’re on tour together?
Yeah, we’ve been doing “42,” and I think we did “You’re a Mirror I can not Avoid” one night also. But that’s about all we’ve done so far.
It’s just got to be a lot of fun to collaborate and put those songs in rotation once in a while.
Absolutely! And I mean, since it’s their tour I’m not going to push it. If they want to do stuff for Bad Books I’m happy to. But I’m mindful that there’s a church and state element to it. And it’s a Manchester tour and a Kevin tour, so we’re focusing on Manchester stuff and my stuff, and we both have a lot of new music we just put out, so there’s no shortage of stuff to play.
When you’re writing an album for the entire band, do the songs still start out on just the acoustic usually?
Yeah, they do. I mean there’s a lot of different ways you can play an acoustic guitar. Songs like “Fiscal Cliff” on Bubblegum, that song was written on a nylon string classical guitar. Immediately it became obvious that song was a punk rock song. I mean, you can play a punk rock song on an acoustic guitar and you can play really beautiful, spindly sounding folk music on an electric guitar. You can do a lot with those instruments. But I usually write the structure, the guts of it, on acoustic. But I wrote some of the songs on Bass. I wrote “I Can’t Believe You” and “Sick of Words” on bass guitar and built from there. Maybe “Little Bulldozer,” like the initial riff, was written on an electric. I think I wrote it in our rehearsal space where I have drums and bass, whereas in my apartment I just have my acoustic around usually. So yeah, most of the time it just starts that way and then I hear, “Yeah, this is where the drums could be.” And sometimes that changes and sometimes that ends up being pretty close to the way you imagined it.
Yeah, it was just kind of cool to see the evolution of the songs, like “Private First Class” in a basic state compared to how it sounds on Bubblegum.
Yeah, and I think the challenge is, and I like doing this, is if you can get up with an acoustic and make those Bubblegum songs be still compelling. I think that’s the biggest stretch musically in my career is the acoustic foundation and what they became. So yeah, I think it’s really neat to try to make a gentle, beautiful version of “Bubblegum.” And “Private First Class” becomes more of like a Pete Seeger song or something like a Woody Guhtrie song. It’s a protest song when you play it that way. It’s folk rock. And I have no real problem with that. Folk and punk rock aren’t that far apart in terms of what forms them, the spirit. It’s just about how they get dressed up.
I remember in Buffalo when you said that you’d been meaning to retire “No Time Flat” but a lot of the song was still relevant. What do you think about that song is still true?
Well, I think we’re literally still involved in both of those entanglements [the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan]. Whether we’ve pulled troops or not, there’s an aspect of that which becomes cosmetic. And also, it’s kind of like if you walked into a room in a neighbor’s house and broke everything in the room and sat there and didn’t let your neighbor in for ten years. Then one day you got up and said, “Alright, I’m out” but didn’t fix anything in the room that you broke. I mean that’s kind of what we did. You know it’s funny that I’m talking to you in the lobby of a hotel and there’s big flagpole with an American flag and a proud eagle on top, while I say all of this [laughs]. But anyways, it’s not clean and resolved. And I still feel the same way I felt, and the thing that’s maybe more true about that song now is the embarrassing lack of real debate and dialogue between what passes as the two polls in American political conversation. I think that’s actually gotten simultaneously more absurd and less substantive in the last ten years. The whole Democrat and Republican thing is so Goddamn embarrassing. That, to me, is the stuff in that song that feels relevant. There may be specific references in that song that are a little dated, but it still feels like it could be written now with some things moved around.
And that’s why I’d change the thing about the drones in Pakistan and the “change we can believe in” because it wasn’t just a Bush/Cheney thing. It’s an American axis power thing; it’s what we do. And we do it whether we have a super gun-slinging, maybe less outwardly intellectual right-wing president or if we have a really considerate and thoughtful, world-class orator, quote unquote leftish president. They want the same thing, which is us being the premiere power in the world. Despite the stuff the two sides argue about domestically, when it comes to our international, foreign policy, particularly our expansion, they’re not even different. Not to be like a conspiracy theorist, and I mean I actually don’t think it’s that crazy, but I think that’s why so much emphasis is put on the domestic stuff like gay marriage, healthcare and tax issues is that it distracts us from what’s really going on over there, which is basically always going places and being like, “Well, that’ll be ours now.” You know? Which is a very oversimplified version of what really goes on.
Yeah, I think the line that sticks with me from that song is “you take abortion away and both sides are just the same.” I think it’s a really smart political commentary, and I definitely think that part is really true today.
Yeah, I mean you could move it to a few other things now. But that’s definitely one of them. I mean, every four years they try to overturn that. And I’m glad that hasn’t happened. And I don’t mean to minimize it. Reproductive health is a huge thing, especially if you’re a woman [laughs]. It’s important to have agency over your body. But there’s a lot of other hugely important things, and I think on those issues the sides are really quite similar.
What’s coming up for Kevin Devine? What should the people look for in the coming year?
Well, we’re going to do three more weeks of this Manchester tour, and that comes through your part of the world in about a week. And then after that I do Bonnaroo June 14th. I do a couple shows around Bonnaroo, which will be fun. Then Bad Books has a show at a festival in Texas the 21st of June. Then from like July 4th to 8th I’m doing some shows in the Mid-west with Brand New and festivals. And then a couple more shows in Northeast in the middle of July. Then I go overseas for a few weeks of acoustic stuff. Then I’ll be home until the end of September or beginning of October. Then there’s something coming up that I can’t announce yet and something else that I can’t announce yet either [laughs]. But we’ll be busy and in the Fall Bulldozer will get its fair shake.