KEVIN DEVINE’s got friends in all the right places. The Brooklyn, New York, singer/songwriter has endured his share of bumps in the road–he was dropped from Capitol Records only four months after he released his 2006 label debut, Put Your Ghost To Rest thanks to the merging of Capitol and Virgin Records. But Devine has seen a steady scene ascent thanks largely to a dedicated following and at least partially thanks to help from friends like Brand New and Manchester Orchestra. In fact, Devine’s latest full-length, Brother’s Blood was released on Manchester Orchestra’s label, Favorite Gentlemen Records. BRIAN SHULTZ caught up with Devine for an In-Store Session in AP 251, but only a miniscule fraction of that interview fit in print. Luckily, there’s no end to the internet…
When did you first realize there’s a really closely-knit collective with you, Brand New, Manchester Orchestra and Colour Revolt?
I’ve always known the Brand New guys. I’m 29; Jesse [Lacey]’s around that age. I’ve been aware of them since I was playing in Miracle Of 86; that was a long time ago. I always liked them. I always got along real well with Jesse. I didn’t really know the rest of the guys too well until ’05.
I think the commonality amongst those bands is it’s a group of people who don’t necessarily fit anywhere. The pithy, shorthand thing that I’ve come up with for it is that they’re not cool enough for Pitchfork, but aren’t exactly in the wheelhouse of what Absolutepunk is–which is that elements of both like us a lot.
On the Manchester/Brand New tour it was just so synergistic. It was the only experience I’ve ever had on a tour where I’ve had mostly really great experiences: That was the only one where it felt like any two people on the tour could go out for a meal at any time. And I think that’s the crew, sound guys, the merch people–any two could’ve and did hang out at some point and it was be totally cool. There was just such a sense of community. Touring is just a different animal than any other social interaction I’ve ever had in my life. It’s so weird.
For me, all of it goes through Brand New. I met [Manchester Orchestra frontman] Andy [Hull] through Brand New. I met Colour Revolt through Brand New. I mean, I know Colour Revolt introduced Manchester to Brand New, but I know Anathallo through Brand New. I met mewithoutYou indirectly through Brand New. But now these are all people I consider not just people who I love very much, but some of my favorite bands out right now. I think the commonality among all those bands is that they make really interesting music. They’re all really different from one another, but their attitude connects them. Our attitudes connect us, I guess.
Why did this album take longer to release than any of your others?
Well, there are a lot of reasons why that happened. Put Your Ghost To Rest came out October of 2006, but it was what they called a “soft release,” which meant they pressed 2,100 copies of it and didn’t do any promotion around it except for one or two reviews. [It was] very soft. [Laughs.] I did a couple of in-stores and stuff like that, but it wasn’t in any way a formal release. It certainly wasn’t a release indicative of a major record label release anyway.
So the record was supposed to get the official treatment in January or February of 2007. We made a video for "Brooklyn Boy." I’d been on tour already at that point for six months behind the record, and was planning to be on tour for the rest of the year in support of it. Then I got dropped. When they merged with Virgin, we were about to do the Brand New/Manchester [Orchestra] tour. When that happened, I kinda had to scramble and go into a defensive [mode]. It was a "How are we gonna make the most of this situation?" mode. What that wound up entailing for me was that I pretty much spent the next two years on tour to find the audience.
So while it might feel like awhile in between records, I wish the story was that I was on a beach somewhere, contemplating the next move. I’ve just spent the last two-and-a-half years making it feasible that I could release a next record and that there’d be a reason for there to be one in any sort of professional context.
I always write songs. I’ve had most of the record written for a while, but it didn’t make sense to put it out. It felt like the story of Put Your Ghost To Rest wasn’t done and we wanted to make sure that record got to as many people as possible. We built up a lot of momentum touring as much as we did with as many different kinds of people as we did. It just seemed like the thing was to stay on tour. We went to Europe and Australia and Japan [to] try to help build a kind of international presence, too, and try to do it pretty much in the absence of any help from the music industry. [Laughs.] So to me, while it might feel like a long time-and it certainly was–the irony is that it’s been the most active time in my musical career, without question.
It’s pretty obvious that this is your most experimental album.
It’s cool that it’s obvious, because I wasn’t self-conscious at all, but when it was done we were like, "Welp, this is different." But every band always say their new record’s different and their new record’s their favorite. I don’t wanna be the one to say it, so if other people do that’s great.
I’ve always liked a lot of things. I like a lot of things. I like punk-rock music, and I like lazy stuff; I like pristine, beautiful pop music; and I like folk music; and I like lo-fi and I like all things in between. And I think everything’s always kind of a reaction to what comes before it. I love Put Your Ghost To Rest and I love the songs. I loved playing them for a year-and-a-half…or two years, two-and-a-half years. I love the way [producer] Rob [Schnapf] made that record [sound]. But we made it with an eye on trying to see… I made, like, a schizophrenic record with [2005’s Split The Country, Split The Street] [with] like "Cotton Crush" and then whispered folk songs, and then songs of violence and pianos and stuff–some of that came together well and some probably didn’t. But I made a record that was all these different things. And Put Your Ghost To Rest kind of presented itself as a song cycle that was pretty much songs built around acoustic guitars and vocals. [It’s] not a folk record by any means–I don’t know how to make a traditional folk record–but Put Your Ghost To Rest was the closest to like a singer-songwriter record to me–what that means to me, anyway. There was a lot of uniformity in approach–pretty straightforward acoustic guitar. I think that’s a beautiful sounding record, and the songs I wrote for that record are meant to sound that way. It was also the most hi-fi and produced and pristine album we’ve made. I wanted to make that record then, and I didn’t want to make it again. And that doesn’t mean I won’t ever make one like it down the road, but that wasn’t…I wasn’t trying to make something that was hi-fidelity this time around. At the same time, I wanted to make something that had quality of sound and wasn’t, like, super lo-fi in a basement like [2003’s Make The Clocks Move.]
When I did all the acoustic demos, some were folk songs, some were pop songs, some were heavy songs and some could’ve been all three. "Another Bag Of Bones," there were three versions of that song: one that came out on a 7-inch that we did, which was acoustic with some overdubby, lazy, stuff and pianos and harmonies; and the one that’s on this album has that kind of Modest Mouse rock/hip-hop, groovy thing that Isaac Brock does where it’s got that almost chanty vocal quality to it; and then one that was like a straight screaming version that never really made it.
So what we tried to do with this record was just be honest to the song, and if the song required nothing more than me double-tracked with acoustic guitars and vocals, then that’s what we did. And if the song required really shimmery, atmospheric, broader instrumentation and an eye on being a bit more moody or something, that’s what we did. We did a lot of tracking for it. We just tried to make a record that wasn’t as concerned with uniformity and that was a lot more open. If we make a record that has a little bit different of a sound, then it’s a record with a lot of different sounding songs on it.
And [I wanted to] give people some credit: I think that I’ve had a lot of issues [in] my career with people not knowing where to put me. “Is it indie rock? Is it emo? Is it alt-country? Is he a singer/songwriter? Is it a band?” I’ve never understood what the problem was or what was so confusing. They’re just songs. Good songs should be good whether it’s me and a guitar, or it’s me with seven people playing glockenspiels and violins and singing harmonies or a three-piece punk-rock band playing. Maybe that’s what keeps me from breaking through in a certain way, [because I’m] a little harder to classify? But it keeps it interesting for me; and in my mind, this record’s the most interesting. [Laughs]. Everything I want someone to see as what I do is on there.
So I hope that makes sense. I don’t know a better way to say it.
Was it a conscious decision to do something as risky as placing an eight-minute song, “Brother’s Blood,” in the middle of the album?
Well, I mean… There’s nowhere else to put it, because if you put it at the end, that’s what everybody would do. I also don’t know what I think about it being the last song on the record. I’ve never done a record that had like a title track. I’ve had songs that had the title [from a lyric], but I’ve never done a record that had, like, the title track, except for one of the Miracle records. And there’s a reason why.
We all feel really strongly about that song. And when I keep saying we, by the way, I don’t mean to be misleading to the reader. I have the producers that made [it], the Goddamn Band–the guys in that band, our manager and the label.
I definitely want to give people the credit. "Like A Rolling Stone" was six-and-a-half minutes long. "Stairway To Heaven" is seven-some minutes long. Am I saying that what I wrote is as good as that? No. To me, it’s one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever written and one of my favorite songs to have ever recorded, and the reception so far seems to validate that.
So we were conscious of making a record that flowed, and I think the record flows best in that order. We went back and forth on it for quite a while. That was the tracklisting that worked best for the songs that we liked, just as much as other songs on the record that didn’t make it on at all. They’ll come out as B-sides or something. We did, like, 15 or 16 songs for the record.
But there wasn’t any conscious decision. It was no more conscious than, "That’s where it’s supposed to go." It just felt right in that spot. I think what it does, too, is that personally, for me, a song like ["Hand Of God (When You Breathe, Breathe)"] is one of my favorite songs on the record. But if it’s in the wrong place, it could be one of those ones that’s kinda just sneaking past. But I think when "Another Bag Of Bones" and "Brother’s Blood," which are very clearly two songs that people are probably gonna focus on when hearing that record–it helps highlight it a little bit. It’s the Keith Hernandez between Gary Carter and Daryl Strawberry. Or something like that. [Laughs.]
What does the motif of “brother’s blood” represent?
I think that’s kind of what all my songs are about on some level: The business of being a person, and the beauty of it and the hardship of it. On a certain level, it’s also about the interconnection of people on a broader scale. I was very mindful of the last couple years in an osmosis sort of way because I have my eyes open and you’re a person, but what we’ve done in Iraq, what happened here, the last war in this country, what happens in terms of global warming and how the first world attacks the third world against its will and the exploitation of the less privileged aspects of this globalized society for the benefit of the more privileged. It’s a “profit over people,” dehumanized and cold… It can be a very dispiriting thing, and on some level, "My brother’s blood boils in my arms" is a way to remind me that [in] God’s eyes, there’s nothing to differentiate me and someone in sub-Saharan Africa than the lottery that I won being born where I was born. It’s all people, and [when] we start putting a value on what lives are worth because of the color of the skin or the class structure in society, [it’s] fucked up and upside down. I’m not by any means any kind of revolutionary activist, but I am somebody who’s thoughtful and mindful of that kind of stuff.
How can I say this without sounding ridiculous? That song is about everything. Because to me, that’s what it is. When I sing that song it feels like I’m singing about everything that I could, that I’ve broken up into 80 other songs over the course of five records in some way. [It’s] personal and political and social. It’s also a song that’s very specifically about self-directed rage and misunderstanding and conscience.
Jeremiah [Edmond], from Favorite Gentlemen [Recordings] and Manchester [Orchestra], who had the record, called me up one night and was like, "Do you realize you made a record about people’s consciences? About, like, conscience in general, and every song is about looking at situations, trying to figure out how to exist as a person inside the bundle." I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I think that’s kind of what every song I’ve ever written is about on some level. The label thinks that. [Laughs.] So I don’t know. I don’t know how to blow it down more than that, but that’s what it means to me.
What motivated you to try a more constant full-band approach?
Well, I loved the band I was playing with at the time. My band have always switched out people and there’s probably been 15 or 16 different people in the Goddamn Band over the course of five or six years, since we made Make The Clocks and been touring or whatever. It’s always been sort of like, “Who’s available? What? Okay, he can’t do it. Well, can she do it? Okay, she can’t do it. Well, can he do it?” It’s kind of like putting together a band in a very non-traditional way.
But the group of people I’ve been playing with since May or so, which is Russell Smith on guitar, Mike Strandberg on guitar, Brian Bonz on keys and percussion, Chris Bracco on bass [and] Mike Skinner on drums. Those last two produced the record. The group of people I’ve been playing with, it just jelled in a way that had been missing, and there was a muscularity to it that hadn’t really been part of our dynamic prior. And I loved the band before it, too, but this was something that just felt different, and for this song cycle it just felt more specifically astute. It just felt stronger. And it felt like there was a group of songs, where there were was a couple like "Brother’s Blood" and "I Could Be With Anyone" and "Another Bag Of Bones." It got pushed to this level that was a little heavier than something I’ve been doing. [Devine later called back AP concerned he came off as talking bad about the previous incarnation of the Goddamn Band, and wished to emphasize that they are great people, and he didn’t mean it to come off that way. – ed.] Because I like that stuff, too; Miracle had points that were definitely heavier [and] loud, but I just didn’t really…or "Cotton Crush" and maybe "Buried By The Buzz" and a couple of other songs that weren’t really part of the other records.
So when we went into rehearse and write, I had the record written. But when we went into rehearse and go know the songs, I decided I wanted to cede more control of it to the band. The band had written some of what they played on every record I’ve made, but a lot of the stuff either I wrote or I came up with an idea. And I can’t play piano well, so I’d have [someone else] or maybe Amy Bracco–and she wrote a lot of what she played, but she also played a lot of stuff that I either came up with or had ideas about.
This record was a little bit of that, but a little more like letting the players be the players and sort of getting away from this notion in my head that to be a solo artist means you have to play everything on your record. Leonard Cohen never played everything on his records. Bob Dylan never played everything on his records. It doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone has to be some kind of like Matthew Sweet/Elliott Smith/Brian Wilson or something. It’s not definitively in my contract. What I got back from that is so clearly rewarding and so clear that that was the right decision for this record because the guys killed it. It feels like a band; it was played like it.
I have no interest in making records at this point in my career, anyway, that are just, like, me and a guitar. I like playing shows that way and I like writing songs that way, but to me, a record–and I probably will make one at some point. I want to have songs that can exist and breathe outside the framework of just how a record captures them or just how a concert captures them. And one way to do that is to make records where you have, you know, trumpet, mandolin, chain-based harmonies–and I probably can’t afford a trumpet or mandolin player on every tour I do, but I’ll figure out a way to make the song work live in absence of those things. For this record, we just said, “Let’s not worry about that. Let’s just make a record now that sounds how we sound playing these songs.” And I think what came across are a lot of things that I’ve ever had on a record.
When you first signed to Capitol Records, did you have an idea of how it would pan out?
Yes and no. I mean, I knew I was gonna get dropped, because the thing is, it only goes two ways. You [either] sell a whole lot of records and you get kept and you have to keep topping that to just keep getting kept, or you sell not a whole lot of records and you get dropped. And I think something like 5 percent of major-label bands make a second record and 95 percent don’t. [Laughs.]
I come from a hardcore scene and a punk-rock scene, even if that’s not totally apparent in the songs I write. That’s how I see things. I thought it was like a freaky occurrence that I even got there. Now, that’s not to say I’m shit-talking the ["failed"] scenario. I would’ve liked to have makd a successful record for me and have that record elevate me to a [certain] leve. In a slow and thoughtful way, it sort of did, but it took me two-and-a-half years and 500 shows or something to get there, which is also great in its own way. It taught me some values: I learned I really love doing this and this is what I want to do, and I’m lucky as shit that people even come to see my band because there are literally thousands of bands people could go see. I didn’t know how it was gonna happen.
But I was a little more surprised when it happened, because it seemed like things were going well and we had champions at the label. But during the merger, all the champions I had were let go. So while the whole [thing] was happening, [I thought], “I’m gonna do it.” You know what I mean? Like, you think you are gonna be one of the 5 percent, your ego allows you to have some fantasies that ultimately wind up being not what’s really in the cards.
Has there been any renewed major label interest since you were dropped by Capitol?
Oh, I don’t know. If there is, I haven’t heard it. [Laughs.] I think what’s interesting about what’s happening with me is that I’ve kind of found a way to exist largely outside of the parameters of all that stuff, which has its drawbacks and has its beautiful, beautiful parts, too. But I was at a friend’s show recently and there were a lot of people from the industry there, and I was like "Oh, right, I forgot about all this." Like, that thing where everyone’s like, "It’s gonna be the biggest thing in the world!" And everyone’s kind of…[adopts narrative voice]…the blue lights from their Blackberrys illuminate the darkened room and there’s a moment when you feel envious because you remember, and then immediately, for me anyway, that envy is replaced by calm relief.
I’m in a really rare spot. I actually have more fans than I’ve ever had in my career. I have passionate, committed fans who tell all their friends about [me]. I make a living off of music where I’m able to pay rent for an apartment in one of the more expensive, cultural cities in the world, in New York. And I’m able to make exactly the kind of music I want without anybody telling me anything about that. So I could be in a much more secure financial place where I could be a lot more visible or popular, or I could’ve been famous, but I don’t know if that’s really my personality. I think that where things are right now suits me really well. You always want to grow and you always want as many people as possible to hear what you’re doing, but I guess to do it in a way that feels really true to me.
I don’t know if there’s been a major label interested, and I can’t tell you that I wouldn’t [sign] if the situation was right. I can’t say I’d dismiss any offer that came in front of me from any label without thinking about it, but I can’t really see myself getting too quick to get in that situation again. I mean, even Favorite Gentlemen are distributed through Canvasback, which is a Sony property, and there are few interactions I’ve had with Sony and they’ve been really good so far. But even those are kind of like…they’re not evil, but it’s a necessary evil.
I’d rather just be able to go on tour and ideally, it would be great to be able to make enough money to not tour 250 days a year so I can have a personal life. I see myself as being extremely grateful and lucky to have the career I have. Things seem to be growing. We sold out the Bowery Ballroom [in New York City] in four days, two months before the show. That’s something if you told me two-and-a-half years ago–when I was on Capitol–I wouldn’t have thought that [would] happen. So that’s a pretty good way to start off the touring cycle, and we’ll see where it goes from there. alt