They say, “Don’t meet your heroes.” Well, clearly they have never spent any time with Kevin Devine. The musician, singer and songwriter Kevin Devine was gracious enough to sit down with me for an interview after he played WRBB’s Spring Bliss on April 4, despite his difficulties with snow and air travel that day. We discussed his new record, the Deviynl Splits, our admiration of David Bazan, and politics. And when a custodian tried to kick us out midway through the interview, it was Kevin, not me, who said, “We’re going to need this room for at least ten more minutes.” Despite being at least ten years my senior, Kevin treated me like an equal, not just the K-Dev fanatic I am.
What follows here is a transcription of that chat with Kevin Devine. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
EF: So we’ve actually met before, last year at the Sinclair. I was slightly inebriated and tried to slip three dollar bills into your pocket.
KD: (Laughing) Yes, I remember you. Don’t worry, that’s not the worst thing someone has done at a show.
EF: Tonight is the ninth time I’ve seen you play live. And the reason I keep coming back is the energy and intensity you bring to every performance. Like how your shirt is always a different color by the second song because it’s soaked through with sweat. Is it difficult to keep that up every night, and to bring that to every show?
KD: I think it’s probably more difficult, the physical mechanics of that. And the vocal stuff too. Because I’m not an athlete, I’m not somebody taking exceptional care of [myself]. I’m not in awful shape, but that is actually a lot of exertion. That’s with the band. The solo acoustic thing is a different kind of exertion, because it’s a focus thing.
EF: Also intense, though.
KD: Yeah, I want it to be intense. I don’t want it to be the B performance. I want them to both be A. I actually almost feel like I’ve been straining my voice, or using its fullness more in a solo context. Because I’m trying to fill the whole room with just the voice and the guitar. So, that’s the stuff I notice if I do a long tour. There’s nights where I notice there’s more music in your voice than other nights. There’s nights where there’s more bounce back in your physicality, if you’re doing the jumping around, freaking out thing than other nights. But, no. The thing itself, that’s what we’re doing here. That’s what you’re there, and we’re there to do, and I feel like if I’m going to shortchange that, then what am I doing? Until the day comes where I rip some part of my throat, or throw my back out or hurt my knee, and I’m like, “F**k, I need to figure out another way to do this.” But I’m not an Iggy Pop or something. There’s just some boundaries to it. But I like to be excitable when I play because it’s exciting. It should be. I don’t like watching bands when they don’t care.
EF: Yeah, it’s not enjoyable that way. It’s like they’re phoning it in.
EF: So, LP 9? Mixed? Mastered? What can you tell me about it?
KD: I almost never know what’s going on with the records while I’m making them. But later, I can kind of see. I think all my records are documents of what it’s like to be a person. A person [who is looking through the prism] sees me. I’m the one writing it. They’re not always all about me.
I think that when I look back at certain records, I think, that’s a record that’s largely about “this.” They’re all transitional. Between the Concrete And Clouds, I see in retrospect, is a record about making sense of shifting opinions in you about spirituality or lack thereof. Or about how to connect, trying to have a peaceful inner life, with living in a really complicated and frustrating world. You know, I can see themes. Bubblegum and Bulldozer, seem to me now, are like marriage records. I see now that there is so much in those songs that is about this level up that was happening in my relationship, even if the songs aren’t about that. My wife, in specific, with me. So I think that songs on this record, two explicitly, are very clearly “guy preparing to have a kid” songs. But there’s also some social justice stuff, that’s a bit more plainspoken and biting, than anything. There’s a song about police brutality that’s very plainspoken. There’s a song about U.S. militarism and Evangelical Christianity that’s very plainspoken. For me. So, maybe that’s even part of the record. It’s part of the clearing out space, streamlining. I feel like the songs themselves are like that. Structurally, there’s 11 songs, and 8 of them are fuzzy guitar, power pop songs. They’re kind of in the spirit or energy of the Bubblegum record. But I think the songs are neater, less punk inflected, and more sort of sunny in places. Then there are 3 guy and a guitar breaths, moments, like folk-singer moments. I love it. John Angello, who produced it, he’s done Dinosaur Jr., Kurt Vile, the Hop Along record, that was great. So, I love the way it sounds. It’s very direct. And I think it’s very likable. But I never have any idea what people are going to like or not like. Any time I think I know, I’m wrong. I can’t wait for people to hear it. Later this year, probably in the fall.
EF: The Deviynl Splits, are you going to continue doing that?
KD: Not immediately. Because it’s a little more spread out than doing a proper album, but it’s almost the same amount of work. What I think is, I’m going to do this record, then maybe Bad Books is going to do a record. We have to kind of figure how that works with Manchester’s schedule, too. And, I think if we do a third Bad Books record, we’re going to do it as though it were a proper Manchester release, or me release [it] and go tour it for real. Because the second record we kind of did way more than with the first one. And we were happy with how it felt, and how people connected to it. It really got some traction. So maybe, my next record, Manchester’s next record, then a Bad Books record, and then maybe I would do another series of the splits after that.
EF: More shows with them?
KD: I would love to. You have to have willing participants, because that was not an easy thing. And nobody made a lot of money doing that. I was shocked they were all so interested in doing it. Really surprised, and it was great. So I would love to do more shows if I get six partners who are as interested in traveling in a van for the weekend and making next to no money. (Laughing) But that is not every professional musician’s modus operandi. But everyone was really stoked to do it. It felt really communal.
EF: I liked that you were playing bass, or whatever, on other people’s songs. It was cool.
KD: It was cool for me, and it was cool for my band. We learned like 30 songs. Between my set and the other performers every night, I think we were on stage for like 3 ½ hours a night. So you can’t do much more than three of the shows.
EF: I’m sure a full tour would be a logistical nightmare.
KD: You couldn’t tour that for a number of reasons. But, yes. There’ll be more.
EF: Were the splits inspired in some way by the Bazan Monthly series? I see you guys interact a bit online.
KD: No, they weren’t inspired by that. I didn’t know he was doing that. And I asked him if he wanted to do a split. David and Bob (his manager), were both like, “Yeah, of course, it would be cool. But let’s figure it out.” And it was back and forth, and back and forth, and he was like, “I don’t think I have time, if I’m trying to do this other thing, to do that too.” So, he would be at the top of my list for the second series, for sure. But, no, it was not directly inspired by that, it was coincidental. But, also, that’s not to say there isn’t any number of things he’s done, or the way he does what he does, or the kind of philosophical approach he has. It’s totally inspiring.
EF: I read your review of his album with the Passenger String Quartet, and it was really good.
KD: Oh yeah. Well, Thank you.
EF: I saw them play that live.
KD: Where was that? At the Sinclair?
EF: Arlington Theatre in Arlington, MA. It’s a movie theatre, and they set up a stage.
KD: How many people were there?
EF: It was not full. Which surprised me.
KD: I ask out of curiosity. Because he’s one of those people, we talk but I don’t ask him, “Hey do you care that you’re not more popular?” But I think he’s so good.
EF: But you’re on that level too. I feel you should be way more popular, not to say that you’re not popular.
KD: Well, thank you. No, I have an awareness of where I do and don’t sit. And sometimes I would like to be, I go back and forth about this. Because I’m like, “You know what, dude, you get to do things like today. Where you fly to another city, to play your songs, and you’re given money for it. And that’s a very far cry from, “I wish I could write a song that anyone would listen to. I wish I could play an open mic and have anyone pay attention to it.” I understand that I’ve developed a career and that’s something to be grateful for, and not taken for granted. And also, there’s times where you look in your neighbor’s yard and say, “Why aren’t I as popular as so and so? Why don’t as many people talk critically about my music? As much as so and so?” We all have egos. But most of the time, I’m happy where I am. Or try to be. And worry about my own grass. I feel that way about Bazan. I think he’s the f**ing best. I really mean that. Talent-wise, and consistency-wise, he’s at the very top of living songwriters for me. A very short list.
EF: A lot of your songs are politically influenced. Has this current election, and the circus it’s become, been a source of inspiration?
KD: I wrote the record in October 2015. So there was no reacting to Trump, and Cruz specifically. And there’s no pro-Bernie song on the record. But there’s a song on the record that’s about the American political cultural climate, that I think the closer we get to the election, feels like it was a reaction to that stuff. But there’s a little bit more “camera pulled back.” It’s not specifically about that.
Interruption by the custodian knocking on the door
But Bernie’s not perfect. None of them ever are. But he’s [the] closest thing to a major party candidate that I’m full-throated in my endorsement of. Because he’s kind of a third-party candidate that happens to be a Democrat. He’s not quite Ralph Nader, but he’s not too far off. I think his is a campaign of ideas, anyways. It’s not as much about him, as it is about everyone who has become inspired by it. But I’m rooting for him.
EF: Songs like “No Time Flat,” that came out ten years ago are still very relevant today. Does that concern you at all? It’s like you wrote it yesterday.
KD: It’s scary. (At this point the custodian is kicking us out. Kevin is offering me the extra food from the dressing room while we put it in a bag for him to take to the hotel with him. I took a couple of apples). I definitely think they’re still relevant. I remember when “No Time Flat” came out, talking to Fred Feldman (of Triple Crown Records) about, “Do you think it’s too topical, this song? And that it’s not going to be relevant by the time the record comes out?” And that was 11 years ago. But I would prefer that it wasn’t relevant. But it does concern me. I’m not thrilled that the climate is still f**king awful. I mean, not awful, scary. It’s scary to see how degraded political dialogue has become. Trump is just what they made him. The climate they have fostered for the past 15 years made a clear path for a guy like him to resonate with people, and bring people out of the woodwork, that are really scary. I’m less scared of Trump than I am of the people who support him. He’s giving them a mainstream voice. And you can’t put that back in the box once it’s out. So I’m more curious about what happens next with his supporters than I am with him and this election. I have a hard time thinking he’s going to win a general election. But even if he doesn’t, those people are just going to go away? Now they’re out. The fact that they think Paul Ryan could be the nominee when he hasn’t even declared himself a candidate for that role is scary.
EF: Congrats on your new daughter. Are you afraid some day she’s going to stumble upon the “Let’s Dance” video?
(Now we’re trying to get on the elevator, and some guy, who Kevin thinks might be drunk, is talking to us. Kevin offers him some of the food in the bag and he takes the loaf of bread. He couldn’t figure out how to unwrap it, so bites through the bag with his teeth, takes a bite of the bread and says, “Yummy.” Then puts the rest of the loaf back in the bag. Super awkward exit.)
KD: That was awesome. I think he’s drunk. That is the least of what I worry about, that I’m in on the internet.
EF: I like the Manchester podcast, when you’re in the batting cages letting yourselves get hit with the ball.
KD: I feel like there is a whole lot of embarrassing sh*t that her father’s done. We will see the extent to which it surfaces. But it’s there.
And that’s it. I’m super glad he was willing to sit down and talk with me and I hope I get to do it again in the future. Kevin, you’re Devine.
By Evan Frye