In early 2013, after much internal debate, Kevin Devine started a Kickstarter project to fund the recording of his seventh solo album. The project vastly exceeded its $50,000 goal, raising a robust $115,000 due to the support and good faith of his fans and fellow admirers.
In early 2013, after much internal debate, Kevin Devine started a Kickstarter project to fund the recording of his seventh solo album. The project vastly exceeded its $50,000 goal, raising a robust $115,000 due to the support and good faith of his fans and fellow admirers. That album eventually became two, and seemed to give Devine’s career a good thrust in the right direction.
Having been in the music business for nearly 15 years–first as frontman for Staten Island band Miracle Of 86, then as a solo act–Devine has seen the ups and downs and the ambiguous nature of said industry. Constantly throwing out music seems to be a winning formula for Devine, as he’s preparing to release a series of split EPs this year, after spending last year touring behind his twin Kickstarter albums, Bulldozer (recorded as a solo project) and Bubblegum (which features backing by The Goddamn Band).
Devine is not an enigmatic presence or larger than life guy. He’s simply a thoughtful man who loves music and puts his own spin on it–even the overtly political songs in his catalog. He’s currently getting deep into a winter tour with Chicago’s Into It, Over It (aka Evan Thomas Weiss) and Long Island’s Laura Stevenson, all of whom are performing as solo acts.
Devine is no stranger to Richmond. He’s played everywhere (we counted) and there’s no end in sight for the itinerant songwriter. Kevin spoke to RVAmag outside of The Broadberry last Sunday when his current tour arrived in Richmond. We got his thoughts about the tour, Kickstarter, his love for Nada Surf, and the entertainment value of the Grammys.
How exactly did this tour come about?
Evan and I have known each other on and off for close to nine years. His old band, The Progress, and I played shows together back in Jersey. In the last three years I’d say we’ve gotten to know each other… better. I’ve been aware of [his] Into It, Over It thing, and he’s been aware of me since then, so almost a decade. I have a lot of respect for what he does and I think that’s mutual. So we were talking about it; we’ve threatened to do shows together for a while. We were trying to get something together last fall but for a number of reasons we ended up doing other things, so it just kind of worked out. Evan has more history with Laura, but I’ve actually known her for a few years too. We’ve been kind of text, email, twitter friends. The internet does that now, you can know people before you “know” them, and she’s great. We had a short list of people we wanted to open, and she was actually, like the first person we talked about.
I think all three of us come from slightly different places but the commonality is that we’re all songwriters who are all from some variant of punk culture, DIY culture, or underground independent music culture. It wouldn’t be crazy to hear some of this music played particularly in this way in like a coffee house environment, but we all have played with indie-rock bands or punk bands. I don’t necessarily think of myself as punk rock, but I have history in that. I come from that. There’s an element of that in the ethical approach to the way I do things. I think all of us have that shared germ.
I’ve always described you in my head as a guy who loves punk rock but also really loves Elliot Smith.
Yeah, and I just like songs. I like melody. Our band was the band that always played with punk and hardcore bands that was really tuneful. And even when I think I’m being abrasive, I think truly abrasive music [fans] think, “Oh that’s cute.”
Yeah I noticed that on Bubblegum, you have these really poppy songs but with an almost Steve Albini vibe to them.
Yeah if you listen to The Breeders, or The Pixies, or those Nirvana records, they are abrasive pop. They are totally pop songs. They are totally verse, chorus, verse, and super hooky and shout-y sometimes. The guitars sound nasty and the drums are loud, but the structures are essentially pop. I think that was a reflection of growing up with those bands.
Whenever somebody releases two albums or a double album, I’m usually thinking this is going to be homework in a way. But I was glad you put them out there like that. Each one had a different category of what to expect.
Good. That was the hope. [Laughs]
They were like weird brother-sister records and you can go back and forth, or just listen to one and get it.
The hope was that they each had a reason to exist. With a double album sometimes for me, you hear a really excellent single album in there, some strong B-sides, and a bunch of bullshit. I didn’t want to do that. I thought if you gave the two records independent personalities, it would show. While I wrote them together, I pre-produced them separately, made them with different people, had different musicians on them, different studios, different producers… Everything about the two is different. It would give them an independent spirit from one another that would hopefully give them a reason to exist.
It didn’t feel like it was all from the same session.
That’s great. It wasn’t even the same coast, so that’s good.
I was really ecstatic that whole Kickstarter thing worked out, because you got to make this. It’s such a win-win.
I had no idea how any of that was going to shake out. The fear is that you actually squander the good will of your audience, and it doesn’t seem to be infrastructurally set up for you to grow through something like that. And I actually think we did–not only did it deepen the connection with people who were already there, but it made other people curious and got them in, which I think is great.
How many times have you played Richmond?
A lot. I would put it around ten. It might be more like twelve, it’s a lot. We’ve played The Camel, opened for a couple of bands at The National, played a really weird placed called… The Capital City Ale House?
Oh Capital Ale House, I work across the street from that actually.
Yup, played there. The Broadberry. Played Alley Katz? Is that a place?
It was, it became Kingdom and now I don’t think it’s anything.
Is there a place called Canal Club?
There is a Canal Club. I think I saw you there opening for Manchester Orchestra.
Yeah, or mewithoutyou? Oh yeah, Manchester in 2008 and then mewithoutyou in 2012. Then there was another place that we played that I don’t know if it’s still there, it was a cafe. I played there with Jesse [Lacey] and I played there with Owen and Andy Hull.
That place! So at least seven venues.
I think tonight is the Grammys…
It is. It’s not really my…
Is it anyone’s, really?
Somebody. Millions of people watch it and millions of people get them. When I watch that stuff I feel like I’m a country doctor watching a super corporate medical convention or something like that. We kind of do the same thing, but not really.
It’s interesting. It’s always a weird encapsulation of what pop music is or what the moment is. Do you have any thoughts? Find it weirdly fascinating, or perplexing?
I’m 35, you know. What I realized slowly, and some days I un-realize it, is that I’m no longer remotely the target demographic for popular music. They’re not trying to sell records to me anymore. They’re trying to sell records to my nieces and nephews who are 13, 15, and 18. The way the industry has moved it can be challenging for artists like us, but I can watch stuff like that for the entertainment value of it. Or I can eavesdrop on the culture, but I don’t know if it has any direct impact on my existence as a working musician.
I was weirded out about how much I had actually listen to what was nominated, or was at least aware of it. Do you think that’s indicative of it becoming a good thing?
I think anybody who’s giving it too much serious thought probably is overthinking it. Especially if you have a pipeline to independent culture or independent music. It doesn’t matter if the rest of the culture likes that stuff or not, if you have it. What I sometimes think is dangerous now with the way the culture is moving is that it’s harder for smaller and independent bands to exist and to make a living. Music has been greatly democratized, which I think is a great thing, but it’s really challenging to be a career musician with no connection anymore to that world. Because in that world there’s less money in it, so they take less risks. So what you end up getting is a very mono-color culture, and I think that’s dangerous because of the ramifications of that. You’re going to get a lot of voices that never get out, because they can’t afford to get out. In that sense I guess the Grammys are apart of that, but really not the guts of that problem. You know, if I was home tonight I would probably be on the couch flicking back and forth between the Grammys and something else. I would be like 30% invested in that, and waiting for one of two of those performances where I can go, “Oh, she’s good, he’s good.”
Will you do a Kickstarter again?
I don’t know. I’m not going to do it for the next record. I’m talking to a few people about potentially partnering with them. As much as anyone can have this–which, none of us actually have this–I have as close to actual autonomy in my career right now as you can have. For better or for worse, there’s ceilings for that, because there’s very limited infrastructure. But you have total ownership of everything, and I really like that. Even the record label that you like, even the cool ones, they won’t be like, “Sure, do whatever you want.” There’s still some give and take with that. I think I’m going to have a new record and make a new Bad Books record in 2016. We’re going to do one and it’s probably going to come out, which is insane to say, in 2017. We’ll probably make it next year. I’m doing the split single series for the rest of this year; the first three are with Matthew Caws from Nada Surf, Meredith Graves from Perfect Pussy, and Tigers Jaw. Those come out February, April, and June. There are three more partners in August, October, and December. Then I’ll probably be ready. We’re reissuing Brother’s Blood and two other things before the end of the year. So this year will be about that stuff. I think they’ll be another Kevin Devine record next year and a new Bad Books record a year after that.
Okay, well how about Brand New? How about them?
I can’t speak on that. [laughs] I can’t speak on them. I’m not my brother’s keeper. They are working on something.
I’m forever fascinated on the mystery of Brand New in that they don’t ever say anything… seemingly.
They’re smart. They’ve been afforded that opportunity. It’s nice to be afforded that opportunity.
You recently did a Nada Surf cover, “Inside Of Love” [released on a split EP with Matthew Caws of Nada Surf]. I know you’re friends with the band but why that song?
I’m a big fan of that band and I’ve become friends with that band in the last couple of years. Matthew in particular I’ve become pretty close [with]. We’ve talked about writing and I think we’ll do that at some point. We’ve talked about a bunch of this kind of stuff but we definitely will. That song is a handful of songs where I can tell you where I was when I heard it the first time. I think it’s a perfect song–lyrically, melodically, the vocal performance, it’s a beautiful song and a bittersweet song.
It’s cinematic almost.
It is. Everybody’s been there. That’s what makes it a great song. I thought it would be nice for this series to have some stuff that was people I listen to, some stuff that is peers, and [some] people who have somehow grown up listening to me. [laughs] I like to represent the generations of being into music. And since I sit at this weird, kind of indie rock, kind of folky, kind of singer-songwriter, kind of emo, kind of punk, kind of pop… all of these things, I get to meet lots of different people. So I thought it would be cool. It’s kind of awesome that Tigers Jaw, Meredith, and Matthew might not be able to make sense but I can split singles with each of them and have it can make sense. The other three partners continue that trend.
It reminds me the 90’s heyday of emo.
That’s what I got it from. Growing up with that stuff it was always bands doing splits with each other.
Has anyone given you guff about your political songs?
Yeah. Sure. I was talking to somebody about this last night; probably 10% of the songs I write are about social justice.
Which is a lot considering that many don’t ever…
It is, but only considering that. Because if you look at the context, I’ve probably written… between Bad Books, Miracle, and my own records, 150 songs have been released. A lot of them thematically deal with allusions to that stuff, but I’m talking about the ones that are right on the nose. And people don’t like the music because of that. I’ve had people tell me they won’t listen to my music because of that, or write it to me, or tweet it to me. “Shut the fuck up about this or that.” To me that says more about the state of content in music than it does about me being anything like bold or brave for writing those songs.
I say to those people that’s perfectly fine, and they will have no problem with finding a myriad of musicians who will never touch the content of that with a ten foot pole. And they don’t have to listen to my music, and that’s fine. So I have gotten guff for it and I think it’s bizarre, but I’m not the boss, I just work here.
Any thoughts on ghostwriting songs? Are you ever around that or is it at all prevalent?
It really depends on the kind of artist you are. I’ve never had anybody write a song for me, and I’ve tried to do co-writes when I have publishing deals which would eventually be on somebody else’s album–one of which worked, but it was a co-write with the artist. It was with Garrison Starr, who put it on her record, which is just collaborating together on a song. Look, people have been writing songs for forever. That’s a part of how music is, and you don’t know those people’s names 90% of the time. Like, Frank Sinatra never wrote a song in his life.
Is that something you would ever go into?
If somebody asked, potentially. It would be a way to supplement your income. I’m not morally opposed to it. I think a song is a song is a song is a song. I think you would be able to like, do something you wouldn’t normally do and be able to turn your brain off.
Like tailoring a suit for somebody else?
Yeah, that’s a perfect way to put it.
Kevin Devine’s split EP with Matthew Caws is out now. To order it, or to subscribe to the DeVinyl Splits series (of which this split is Vol. 1), click here.