It's been quite a year for Brooklyn's singer-songwriter Kevin Devine. After his major label departure, he released Brother's Blood on Favorite Gentleman Records, an album that contends to not only be one of the best of the year, but the best of his career. Unfortunately the album leaked too soon, but that wouldn't keep Devine down as he went on a nationwide solo tour and is now out as direct support for The Get Up Kids reunion tour. Devine took some time out to answer a few questions by e-mail before departing on the road.
It's been quite a year for you. While you're sitting in front of your computer about to answer these questions, what are your initial thoughts of this year in music for you, music in general, and the state of this country? Too much in one question?
Ha. Hmm. Wow. Well, I'll go in sections. My year's been full and fast-moving. I kind of can't believe it's already October; I remember getting back from Japan (I went with Rachael Yamagata in February, opening and playing guitar in her band) and knowing SXSW was coming up, the record's release and the Miniature Tigers/Brian Bonz tour was after that...basically knowing that once March 1st hit the next 6, 7 months would blink past, and they did.
If I rattled it off in bullet points, the year was my most accomplished to date as a musician. Five years into touring and nine years into putting out records, a year of many firsts for me - proof that in lieu of a rocket ride, there is validation in my stubborn, deliberate, rung-by-rung trip up the ladder.
I went to Japan for the first time, put out the most broadly and best reviewed record of my career (which will also probably be my best-selling to date when those things are finally tabulated) through my friends' independent record label and felt rejuvenated by the process, did my first full US headline tour, had one of my records properly released in the UK for the first time, went over there with Brand New and Manchester Orchestra for the first time(s) separately this summer (which I think was important as, during my prior visits there, kids seemed real aware of our connection back home and were excited to see it partially recreated), and did a really successful and fun short run where I took a setlist direction from the fans, something totally different for me that turned out to be real rewarding. Oh, and we played Lollapalooza, which is totally absurd and awesome for someone with my background and in my position.
And there's still the Get Up Kids tour, the record's release on vinyl, the European release in November, and a short UK/German/Austrian run in December to speak of. My year's still got a lot to say for itself.
It seems like more people like, or are at least familiar with, my music than ever before. More people turn up at the shows, more people know the songs, more people seem to have a sense of who I am and what I do. I feel grateful for that and hope that uptick, however slight in its slope, continues. We have a lot in store for people in the next 8 or 10 months and I intend to continue to do what I do until it's not fun or feasible, and luckily, neither of those realities seems especially close right now.
I'm not as successful in certain traditional definitions of that word as many of my peers, but I'm making a living doing what I love THE WAY I WANT TO DO IT (which is a hugely important qualifier for me) and I feel very lucky to keep seeing it grow incrementally year by year, record by record. There are always people you can look up at and envy their position; there are also a lot of kids all over the place who, I've realized, would really love to be where I am, and that's been a big realization for me this year. That it's good to have goals and it's good to push yourself but it's also good to acknowledge the distance that's already been traveled, I guess.
The year in music, I'd probably give a more boring and under-informed answer about. I can tell you I went backwards and caught up on a lot of great older stuff this year - "Graceland," "After The Gold Rush," Leonard Cohen, "Plastic Ono Band," Creedence Clearwater Revival. More of-the-moment, I loved David Bazan's record more than I've loved a record in a while, loved touring with Bonz and the Tigers and think they both made really exciting records, and thought Yeah Yeah Yeahs at Glastonbury narrowly eeked out Sunny Day Real Estate at Terminal 5 in NYC, Cass McCombs at Union Hall in Brooklyn, and Bazan at his East Coast house shows for my favorite show I've seen so far this year. So I think music's doing great and will continue to; pop culture's another story, but I'm underqualified there, too. I watched the 2009 VMA's and felt very old. For the first time I had to ask my date who people were. I felt like my dad.
As for this country, I think a lot of people are in very real pain. I also think we're, hopefully, slowly coming to grips with the notion that the change we truly need will not and, perhaps, cannot come from representatives of a corporate-owned and operated two-party system of government so deeply invested in maintaining the status quo, no matter how articulate and charismatic those representatives might be. Hope is a wonderful thing to market, but if it's got nothing legitimate backing it, it's just another bounced check straining the public's goodwill. People are falling apart and need real help. I'm not so sure it's coming.
Because of that, I think people are a lot more angry and vocal about their feelings of disenfranchisement, which I think could be a really useful tool, an encouraging thing if harnessed properly. People are more mobilized about certain things that were more widely considered 'radical' a few years ago - especially opposing the war in Afghanistan (which was never the 'good' or 'right' war and was/is just as illegal, unwarranted, and chaotic as our actions in Iraq) and pushing for a universal, single-payer health care system. Whether those things get done or not, it's been good to see the middle move slightly to the left to at least make room for the conversation.
It's a weird time: the opportunity for real forward movement on the environment, things like the 10:10 group in the UK, is counterbalanced by some really dire scientific reporting about the realities of global warming and the catastrophes we can start expecting in the next 30, 40 years as a result. The political climate here seemed to take a few steps forward, a lot of rhetoric about inclusiveness and open-mindedness, but the 'right' seems to have further fortified itself around shit-slinging and regressive insanity while the 'left' continues casting about blindly for a message and a spine. So I'm not sure what I think about the state of this country, besides there's a lot of work to do and I hope we're all up to doing it, whether the people in power are going to help us or not. A lot of courage will be required. It's a lot to process.
Brother's Blood has been a great success, and with good merit, personally looking at it as your finest work in an already great catalog. When you first were recording the album, did those initial feelings and musical draw finalize the way you wanted them to -- especially after touring on the record and giving it time to settle in?
I'm really happy with the record. I haven't listened to it in a few months but the last time I did I was satisfied. I know a pretty frequent criticism of the record, insofar as there have been criticisms, is that it's got a weird flow, but I think we did the best we could to make it move on a wave dynamically. It's kind of three records: the stuff like "Brother's Blood," "Carnival," "Another Bag Of Bones," "I Could Be With Anyone," which is electric and sprawling and sort of abrasive, set against the stuff like "All Of Everything, Erased," "Murphy's Song," "It's Only Your Life," "Tomorrow's Just Too Late" and "Fever Moon," which are more subdued, heavy in a way but sonically calmer, less jagged, and "Hand Of God" and "Yr Husband," which sort of bridge the gap. So in that way, I think the record moves around thematically, moves from a group of stormy, more minor-key songs towards a more optimistic, major-key resolve in its last quarter. But that's just me, and I respect the point. I just think it's a record that's proudly all over the place and a bit tough to peg in one genre or whatever and for better or worse, that's how I write. I'm genuinely humbled by how positively its been received and look forward to getting some of the other, previously unreleased music from that session out for people to hear early next year.
A lot of people, including myself, definitely saw a great influence from Elliott Smith in this record. Are you honored by that, or humbling, fearful of your own justice to a personal influence?
I wanted to try and record "All Of Everything, Erased" using an approach I'd heard Elliott Smith used, where he played the song straight through once and then doubled it, so we did that, as it seemed to suit the song. The rest of the record I don't really think sounds like him very much at all, but maybe it's emotionally evocative in a way that reminds people of it, and I think that's great. I think it's cool people hear that. I love his music and have for more than 10 years, and I've spent a lot of time with it, and see him as integral to my development, up there with Nirvana, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Superchunk, and Pavement. The artists that made me want to play music and made me want to play in a certain way, with a certain voice or whatever. I'm honored in the sense that I really like his stuff, and humbled in the sense that I openly consider him an influence, and hopeful that people don't see it as hollow, or a rip-off or whatever, because that's not the goal, and it's definitely not conscious in that way.
The depth of this record with the band was where I saw this album blossom, but I've always liked the intensity and intimacy of your solo shows. Which do you prefer more, or does it just depend on the time and hour?
It depends. There's definitely an immediacy to playing alone, an openness, that's sacrificed when you add the rock element, the band; at the same time, a lot of my songs, especially this record, are way more dynamic and fully-realized when the band's involved. And it's obviously a way more rewarding experience for me socially to have my friends there. For me it depends on the room, the situation (headline v. support, 200 people v. 2000 people, etc.). I'm in a weird position in that it seems both scenarios have vocal champions and critics. Whenever I show up with the band, someone asks why I'm not solo; whenever I turn up solo, someone asks where the band is. I choose to see it as lucky that anyone gives a shit. Pretty much the same amount of people seem to come to see me either way, so I'm lucky in that sense, because switching it up is definitely fun and vital for me.
Following the last question, will we ever see a completely solo/stripped down version of Brother's Blood demos?
I'm not sure if they'll be ever formally released as a stand-alone record, but there'll all out there in the ether, available for collection online somewhere. We've put some on places as b-sides and I think they were ripped from MySpace over 2008 as I posted them.
I'm sure another "leak" question is not needed, but in hindsight, have your feelings changed since the initial incident?
Not too much. I mean, it would have been nice for Favorite Gentlemen if we sold more copies the first week, and I imagine we would've if the leak hadn't been so premature; at the same time, the reaction to the record and to, um, my reaction to the leak was overwhelmingly favorable and in some way probably helped drive some early attention our way, maybe even got some extra people out to the show. I don't really think about it as much now. It's flattering people care that much, and understandable they'd get it for free if they could.
The first time I ever interviewed you, you said something along the lines of, "Nirvana didn't change anything, pop music always existed and still does." With all the crunkcore, pop-punk revitalizing, and indie-cred bands boiling over the side of the musical pot, I've been thinking about what this decade had to offer, and what the next decade will offer to the mix. Your thoughts?
Well, I didn't necessarily mean Nirvana didn't change anything; it's all in how you define those words. What I meant is that it's a genius stroke of music industry cooperation to suggest that Nirvana's popularity REVOLUTIONIZED the pop music landscape in any way that signified some victory for the underground, or art above commerce, or whatever. The legacy of Nirvana's selling 10 million copies of "Nevermind" wasn't The Jesus Lizard being embraced with open arms by middle America, or Beat Happening becoming pop stars; it was, for a brief moment, a lot of weird bands getting a slight raise in profile and, over a longer timeline, significantly less-weird bands taking certain stylistic cues and homogenizing them (Bush, Candlebox, etc.), cashing in and selling millions of records. Eventually, the whole "promise" of alternative rock as an above-ground mover and shaker petered out into 10th-generation frat rock bands like Smashmouth or whatever, a faint whiff of a reference to a story somebody heard third-hand about the real thing.
It's awesome that Nirvana got as big as they did; it's awesome Radiohead got as big as it did, or The White Stripes. It's great bands like Arcade Fire and The Shins and Bright Eyes, people like Andrew Bird, have gotten to the level they've gotten to in a much more splintered landscape more recently. And it's totally amazing Brand New keeps growing the more challenging they get, and the more they withdraw from the bullshit side of the business we're in. But all those things didn't eradicate Right Said Fred or "The Bodyguard" soundtrack back then, or Hannah Montana and "LOL :)" now. They exist beside them. It's a marketplace, and its taste-driven, and it takes all kinds, and it should be addressed as such, and that was my initial point.
I think there's a lot of good music out and plenty of people looking to enrich their lives listening to it and seeing it live. I don't think anyone will sell 10 million copies of anything musically ever again, but I do think people have never had more access to music, more ways to find out about bands, and I think people will keep seeking out things to enhance or mirror their experience, or to provide a social context, a way to meet like-minded people, a night out. So I think, I hope, if you keep making things of a certain quality that you like and believe in, people will find you.
You've put a lot of hard work into your career, and if there's ever a thought of giving up and moving to a white collar/blue collar thing, what do you hope to have left behind as an artist, not only as a musician, but in the broadest term of the word artist?
Hmm. Hopefully, I've on some level carried the torch for the idea that there is more than one way to do things. That you can develop as an artist in terms of quality and popularity over time by making decisions that feel true to you and by being yourself, being honest enough to call bullshit on bullshit, especially on yourself when you've been wrong. That success means different things to different people, but what's most important, and what you have to live with, is what it means to you. And that you can be punk rock without being "punk rock."
The soapbox is all yours, final thoughts?
Health care is a basic human right, not a class-based privilege, and should be free and universal. As usual, neither political party is speaking to that in any responsible way, so maybe it's time we really start looking outside that tired framework for a better way forward. Stop lowering our expectations to meet what's being offered. Check out singlepayeraction.org.
"The Autobiography of Malcolm X" is the one book I own that I think everybody should read.
"Ark Farky" is a nonsense phrase I invented that, at last Google search, might be the one truly original thing I've ever said.
I'm not sure the Knicks will ever return to form. I'm more hopeful for the Mets. Wait 'til next year.
Thanks for asking me these questions and thanks to you guys for listening, and for reading. I feel like it might not be my most articulate series of answers, but I did my best.