Kevin Devine on his long career: “There are days in which I realize I won the lottery”
Outside of my Columbus, Ohio, house, a team of road workers are replacing septic lines across the street when I ring Kevin Devine to talk about his new record, Nothing’s Real, So Nothing’s Wrong, out today. “I did this show last Saturday [Feb. 12] in Central Pennsylvania, Harrisburg,” Devine tells me from the other end of a New York phone number. “It was just a random one-off supporting the Menzingers, but when I was driving home, I said, out loud to my girlfriend, that I’ve driven home to Brooklyn from Central PA, on some combination of [Interstate] 80-78-76 and then 81 or 83 going north and south, for 16 years, and I feel like those roads have been under construction the entire time I’ve been doing that drive,” he says.
“There’s always some kind of buttressing lane closure or sitting-at-the-side-of-the-road giant construction vehicles. This has been a 16-year, statewide project, and I can’t see any discernible progress. This is where your tax dollars go,” he adds.
By day, Devine is a dad to his daughter, Edie, who was a newborn when his last record, Instigator, came out. By night, he takes to his couch, beneath a Style Wars print, and livestreams performances of him crooning his own tunes, or covering others’. The last time we spoke, over six months ago, Devine had cultivated an immense Patreon following, offering special merch, demos and even handwritten lyrics to members of his fanbase who kept his livelihood afloat during COVID while touring was impossible. “I think there’s been a real serious benefit to seeing that there was an opportunity to do different things with music, besides having touring be central to its definition and to be able to hang out and actually be with [my daughter] in an uninterrupted way,” he says.
I’d first met Devine five years ago, the day after I finished my freshman year of college, when my best friend and I road-tripped along the construction zone Lake Erie coastline, across all of Pennsylvania, to see him play a show in Buffalo. The gig was at Babeville’s 9th Ward, a dimly lit, Gothic Revival-style church basement renovated by Ani DiFranco.
We didn’t have enough money to eat someplace nice, so we settled for gas station hors d’oeuvres and a Domino’s dinner. Devine’s set was intimate. He turned “Gießen” into a verb; momentarily choked on his chewing gum; changed the lyrics to “I Was Alive Back Then” to reflect Edie’s birth; slung his own merch after the set and greeted every fan who said hello. It’s one thing to travel across states to see your hero sing in a dank, stone-covered hole in the wall; it’s another to get to tell him that afterward and have him remember it years later.
I imagine someone arrives at Devine’s music in the same way as a religious denomination. There’s a familiarity, a safeness and, often, his work finds you, not the inverse. He’s one of the last musicians standing from a queue of emo-leaning, indie-folk pickers who changed the landscape of rock in the early 2000s. His debut record, Circle Gets The Square, was the first draft of a lyrical blueprint he still uses, in which he unfurls and intertwines political critiques and introspective reckonings with a sharp, gothy tongue, punishing NYC guitar licks and hooks that teeter on an unequivocal power-pop sound.
After Circle, the only goals he had were to get more expressive as a lyricist and become the performer he wanted to be on the next record, Make The Clocks Move, a powerful document of addiction, revolutionary unrest and young naivety. “[Looking back], it’s not like I’m literally reading a diary of those years, and I can hear who I was and where I was in those songs, but what’s interesting is there are certain things, from as early as Circle, where I can see the seeds of things I’m still dealing with 23 years later, but then there’s other things that I’m feel very, thankfully, removed from and moved on from.”
By Clocks, Devine’s dad passed away, and he was struggling with sobriety while hustling through the work-to-live grind that so many DIY musicians are familiar with: doing odd jobs, like demolition, clerical work, shifts at GAP, delivering for a vegan fast-food restaurant and being a personal assistant to an aging textile matriarch in her apartment.
“I was doing [music] all the time, but I wasn’t being paid to do it all the time. And I was 23 years old — I was just trying to do it all as well as I could in the context of also being fucked up almost all the time and also having these personal traumas floating around,” Devine says. “I always knew, since I was 12, that I wanted to make music, and, this might sound like bullshit, [but] I didn’t know or even care that I could or would do it for a living.”
Though he’s toured with bands Alternative Press readers know and love, he’s also played with people nobody's ever heard of. Devine, however, speaks of contemporaries not like competition, but like community. “There’s the part of all of this where you can compare your lawn to somebody else’s and be like, ‘Well, I think I fertilize my lawn just as credibly, if not more credibly than they do, and I think it looks quite nice, so why isn’t it bigger?’” Devine explains. “Or you could just be like, ‘How amazing to have a fucking lawn for 20 years that didn’t die. And it keeps growing green and has weird, interesting new plants.’”
Teenagers are still discovering Devine’s music in 2022, falling in love with the way he sees the world. Whether it’s because he’s toured extensively with the Front Bottoms or founded Bad Books with Manchester Orchestra frontman Andy Hull, Devine’s influence stretches far across emo and alt-rock. He’s one of the only active musicians who’s amassed numerous headlining tours but has no issue working as an opener.
“I have a strange career, in that I can play with, in a given month, an indie-rock band that gets written about in cool, credible adult spaces, punk-rock or emo bands that have a different kind of cultural capital, and then singer-songwriter people that play bougie city wineries,” he adds. “Those are three really different worlds, and I can play in all of them because I make music that makes sense with all of them but also doesn’t fully make sense with any of them.”
Devine’s new record, Nothing’s Real, So Nothing’s Wrong, is his 10th in 20 years. It’s a work of immense curiosity; it’s gritty and overwhelmingly uncategorical. Gone are the power-pop riffs and raised voices in favor of industrial tones and calculated vocal runs. Devine calls the record “gentle, psychedelic, swirly, weird, pretty with teeth, cinematic, widescreen, horizontal music with atmosphere and texture,” an aesthetic inspired by the Flaming Lips’ Soft Bulletin and a tonal shift from Instigator that feels much more acute than it is, given Devine’s patient approach to the record and resistance to touring during COVID-19. “This particular group of songs wanted to have some freaked-out, weird, open space to express themselves in, so I’m glad they were able to,” Devine says. “But I’ve never been somebody who was like, ‘Man, the minute fucking shit opens up, I’m back out on the road.’”
It’s been almost six years since Instigator came out, which is the longest time Devine has ever spent away from new, full-length material. During the first half of his career, he put out a new record almost yearly but has slowed down over the last decade, reworking old tunes, making cover albums and placing an aim on collaborations with folks such as David Bazan, Petal and John K. Samson. “I’ve always done the absolute best I could, and I’ve never felt like I’ve compromised anything, but I’ve also never taken two years to make a record before,” Devine says. “That’s been kind of wonderful. I don’t know if I want to do it every time, but this record certainly benefited from that.”
Read more: Courtney Barnett announces ‘Here And There’ festival with Snail Mail, Wet Leg, Sleater-Kinney and more
Nothing’s Real, So Nothing’s Wrong marks another successful collaboration between Devine and NYC label Triple Crown Records, who released Make the Clocks Move 19 years ago, as well as Instigator in 2016. The label’s founder, Fred Feldman, one of Devine’s longtime confidants, also had a hand in the production and release of Bubblegum and Bulldozer, two records that Devine put out solely on funds raised through Kickstarter in 2013. “If you can pick your head up 20-something years later and say, ‘Shit, we’re both here,’ that seems like something to celebrate. I don’t know if [Fred and I] will make one record together or 10 records together, but I definitely think this was the right place for this one.”
Devine’s been around, making music professionally, almost as long as I’ve been alive, but his work transcends the touchstones of popular culture that have succeeded his early beginnings: iPhones, Facebook, the MCU. Yet, he remains one of rock’s biggest champions of confessional storytelling. “I’m not really somebody who’s like, ‘And here’s a song cycle about a 17th-century Japanese poet who struggles with Christianity and falling in love with a member of the imperial court.’” he adds. “I’m really fascinated by the quotidian lived experience of people in a way that’s a bit more lowercase letter.” He’s cultivated a fanbase that still stumps for him on tours, driving cross-country to catch him play “Brother’s Blood” or “Cotton Crush” in a packed, sweaty locker room converted into a performance space.
Nothing’s Real, So Nothing’s Wrong is very much a pandemic record, but its ruminations are not bound to the specific moment in time we are living in. The crumbling architecture Devine sings about transcends setting and, for the first time in his career, his translations of the world are broad and accessible, not just built off precise defenses, defects, survival traits and soft spaces. Though topics on the album are much more rigid and earthly, nothing’s conflated, and the lyrics emphasize our own uncertainties.
Devine has a magical way of talking about himself in familiar ways, in ways we can pick and choose parts to wrap around our own collective truths. “I’ve always been inclined to apply the magnifying glass to myself as a specimen who stands in as a non-terminally unique member of the human race,” he says. “I have no greater access to anyone but myself and I’m most mystified by myself, at times, because you’re closest to and least able to fully understand yourself. I’m the closest specimen I have to run the autopsy on.”
Read more: 15 years of defying the odds: The Maine on building community and never asking for permission
For two decades, Devine has written poignantly about addiction, HIV, heartbreak and other tender, focal cornerstones of the human condition. When he plays “Not Over You Yet,” he sometimes speaks of how he told the song’s subject that it was about her while high on ecstasy and in front of his then-girlfriend. He gets onstage and sings of his drug misuse in retrospect with a candidness that matches his long-standing reputation as one of alt rock’s most empathetic and kindest acts. Besides being a curator of his own, sometimes tragic, lifetime on tape, Devine manifests an unparalleled breadth, in which he lives to continue finding new ways to articulate his own navigation of the world.
“There are days in which I want somebody else’s patch of grass,” Devine says. “But then, there are days in which I realize I kind of won the fucking lottery. I’m sort of super fucking lucky, because I just do what I want. The goal was less like, ‘I need to make a million dollars and transition from songwriting into being a sneaker impresario.’ The goal was like, ‘Maybe I’ll make enough money to pay my rent and my bills and just make the songs I want to make.’ And today, that’s true.”
At a show, with his longtime touring outfit the Goddamn Band, in Lakewood, Ohio, some years ago, a drunk couple got up onstage and crashed his set, asking him to play “Billion Bees” because it was their wedding song. Instead of kicking them out, Devine obliged and played the track. Afterward, when the couple left, he recited stories of similar occurrences, in which intoxicated, or even sober, audience members wanted to get closer and make requests.
He spoke of them tenderly, as if they were never nuisances or showstoppers, but just more people that are a part of his long, chronicled career. What makes me grateful for a world with Devine in it is how gentle he walks alongside us, how each fan is a person to him first and an admirer second. He’s never jaded about not being as famous as some of his contemporaries, only grateful that he shares the same landscape with them in the first place.
“I live in a one-bedroom apartment in Decker Heights. I’m not going to win any Forbes 500, most-influential musicians awards, at least from a material perspective, but fuck if that’s not a life beyond the wildest imagination of an Irish Catholic kid from Brooklyn and Staten Island whose parents were a cop and a nurse. That’s not what the plan was. It was to make what you want to make and hopefully you can still do it in 20 years. And I think in that respect, foibles and failures and fumblings accepted, we did OK.”