In the following phone interview Kevin Devine speaks about his latest record Between the Concrete & Clouds, his fascination with religion and why he always writes about life experience.
So the new album officially comes out today.
Thatís correct. Yes, it does.
Are you going to be doing anything to celebrate?
Laundry. Iím in Denver. Weíve been on tour for a week. Itís the sixth record. I guess in that sense itís not like when you put out your first demo with your first band when youíre 15. Youíre like, ďLetís go to the diner, and stay up really late, and hang out and be crazy.Ē Iím excited, but Iím not throwing a party or anything. Itís not like a Puff Daddy record or something. Iím really happy that itís finally here and people get to actually hear it because itís been living with me for a while. Iím really enamored of it and think itís my favorite one weíve done so far.
I donít know what anyone else will think, and I realize thatís not my job. My job is to make something I like and hope that other people feel the same. If they donít, if you can go down with the feeling that youíve made something worthwhile, then thatís the best you can do. Youíre responsible for the effort and not for the result. But, yeah, Iím excited. To celebrate weíre doing laundry, running errands and enjoying a day in Denver before we go play our show tonight.
I see the albumís been doing really well on Amazon, so thatís pretty cool.
Yeah, I donít think it could do better. Isnít No. 1 the best it could do? So I guess itís doing pretty well. Itís really exciting. Thatís something that is obviously totally the result of our fans being so mobilized. I think they have an understanding that thereís an ownership of it, which is not kind of normal for a band in most circumstances to have that experience of having the top-selling album on something as massive as Amazon for even a day is pretty amazing. Itís been super exciting and having your family so thrilled, and within the band we were all really psyched too.
We were getting all these reports, seeing the record move up. The surreal reality of seeing your record above Lil Wayne and Adele and all these people on a chart that monitors album sales was crazy and funny and totally unexpected. The coolest thing has been seeing the fans so far. They genuinely feel proud. They feel an ownership of it. Itís like their band, almost, and I think thatís rare and special. Thatís the coolest part about it, getting that feedback so far. Itís been great.
It seems with your career youíve gotten a little bit more band oriented with each record. Do you consider this album your most fully realized band record?
I do. Even from just a literal sense, thereís no song on it thatís just me and an acoustic guitar. So in some sense thatís a stylistic break from Brotherís Blood, where there were three of those on the record. I definitely think that Brotherís Blood was the record where we took a turn where itís more of a band than it ever has been. That record was the start of that sensibility. There have always been different people around me playing, and itís not intended as a disintegration to that. Thereís always other people playing on the records with me, but it was a little bit less collaborative I guess is the right word. I feel like weíre in a place now where if I wasnít 10 years into a career establishing a name I would strongly consider renaming our band, like the Tablemats, or the Coffee Cups, or the Buzzards or whatever a band would be called, not Kevin Devine & the Goddamn Band.
The division of labor is still as such that Iím doing most of this kind of stuff, interacting with most of the administrative aspects of running a band, kind of a like a small business, and with press and stuff. From a creative side, Iím still writing all the songs. Even on this record I play a lot more than just an acoustic guitar and sing, so itís definitely my project in that sense, but Iíve kind of flipped from going on tour almost always as a solo artist with band shows sprinkled in to now almost always going on tour as a band with solo shows sprinkled in. It feels a lot more like thatís where weíre at now. It feels a lot more like a band than me alone.
Musically speaking this record is not as raucous as some of the aspects of some of the songs on Brotherís Blood were. Some of those songs were six and seven minutes long, a lot more sprawling and went for the jugular at points. This record still has rock songs on it, for sure, but theyíre more tight. In a sense, the last record was a lot more all over the place. It really developed the bandís style and sound in these interesting directions, but this record is a more solid and complete record in my mind. Itís the fullest realization of our bandís sound I think that we have had at this point.
A tough thing with my career has also been that the band has always changed every time. I think every record thereís been slight differences in the performers. Our drummer on this record, Mike Fadem, itís the first record heís drummed on. Heís toured with the band for two and a half years but heís never drummed on one of our records before. Itís definitely a snapshot of the band as it is now, and I think itís the strongest representation of it so far.
The last album you recorded most of it live. Is that how you worked with this one?
No, this one we did more pasted together. We made it at Chris Braccoís house, who plays bass on the record and produced it. Heís produced every record Iíve put out since the last Miracle of 86 record, which is 10 years of music, with the exception of the Capitol Records one Put Your Ghost to Rest, which we did with Rob Schnapf, who mixed this one. This one was kind of great in that sense because we got to have the best of both experiences. Chris and Rob are the two people that I always want to make music with, so to have the opportunity to make it with Chris and have Rob mix it with his ears from outside was a gift, and I think it played itself out on the final product.
We did a few live recordings for this. We did drums in Chrisí living room, and then did guitars and bass and most of the in-computer tracking, like the keyboard stuff and the vocal stuff, in his basement. We did that for the demos for Brotherís Blood, all played live in his living room, but then we did that record in a proper studio. Thereís more separation sonically and youíre enabled to do more of that live recording at a higher quality than you would if youíre in someoneís living room with the amps bleeding into the drum mic bleeding into the vocal mic. Do you know what I mean?
This one we did it more traditional. We did drums first to a click track and then did a lot of the layering of things on top from there. The three of us, Chris, Fadem and myself, I had been working out the songs by myself for two months, and then we spent about a month prior playing as a three-piece band in our rehearsal space in Brooklyn getting the songs in shape. The recording we went back and did it more brick by brick for that.
Since thereís not a lot of featured acoustic on the record did that affect how you ended up writing?
I pretty much write all the songs on acoustic guitar. Something like, for example, ďBetween the Concrete & Clouds,Ē the title song, that song when I wrote it was more of a folk song in my head. Then when I was thinking of the movement of the chords, I was thinking of that song ďVerse Chorus VerseĒ by Nirvana. I was thinking about how that basically could be a folk song if you played it on an acoustic guitar, but if you play it with a band and step on a distortion pedal when the verse starts, the drums are being beat up, but youíre still singing this song. It has a different effect. I wanted to hear that song in that kind of treatment and thatís why we went that way with it on the record. I really love that, but I didnít write it like that. You donít need those elements there to write a song thatís going to sound that way, you just need to hear it in your head.
ďOff-Screen,Ē I wrote that circular guitar thing on my acoustic guitar. I played that riff and came up with that chord progression, but I knew that probably would not be the most compelling song to play alone on an acoustic guitar. I then found this old chorus pedal that I had in high school that I hadnít used in 15 years. I threw it on for ďThe First Hit,Ē and it had this quality that I really liked that helped the song arrange itself too.
When Iím writing something I can pretty much tell how I can hear it in my head, if itís a band song or one that youíd rather keep as a folk song. Then thereís also the opportunity to do several versions of songs too. We put the acoustic version of ďBetween the Concrete & CloudsĒ out earlier this year on a split 7Ē we did with River City Extension on that tour and SXSW. I really love the way that song feels that way too, and you want it to see the light of day, but I felt for the proper album that one should definitely have that rock band feel to it.
It doesnít necessarily impact the way I write the song, like that songís going to be loud so I need to write it on an electric guitar. That process is more for me about mapping out the melodic map for the song, figuring out the chord progression, thinking about tempo and obviously the lyrics too. I feel like thatís the writing, and then the arranging is when you get in a room with the guys and figure out what goes where and how it gets there.
In between these last two records you did Bad Books. Do you think that experience had any influence on this record?
I think it does. I think it always does. I think every time you do something it has some kind of influence on what youíre going to do next. I think both Brotherís Blood and the touring for Brotherís Blood, and then the Bad Books record, had a lot of influence. In one respect with Brotherís Blood, I think there was a little block in my mind before we started working on this record. I was really proud of that record, especially some of the songs like ďBrotherís Blood,Ē ďCarnivalĒ and ďBag of Bones.Ē It was a little bit riskier, in terms of form, for what I had done prior.
I thought I donít want to subconsciously write that again, not that thereís half a million people sitting there pouring over my every decision, because thereís not. There are people who like and follow our band, and you can tell when someoneís trying to recreate something. It comes across as dishonest and not good most of the time. I realized you donít have to write those songs again, you already wrote those songs. You have to write new songs and they donít have to be that. In a weird way it was an influence through realizing you donít have to follow the same blueprint every time.
The Bad Books record was great because it was so breezy to make. The songs came together so quick that it reminded me that you donít need to torture the shit out of every song youíre trying to write. Sometimes a song is something that happens in 10 minutes, and sometimes those are great. Sometimes it takes two years to get there, sometimes it takes an afternoon. I tried to really remember that with this record.
Also the concision of the Bad Books record, the kind of pop friendliness. I was listening to a lot of the first Strokes record and even things like Vampire Weekend. I donít really write that kind of music at all, but I was thinking about the concision and the tunefulness of it, trying to marry that concept to writing the kind of songs that I write and the music that we play. I definitely think on some level those things were influenced by making that Bad Books record and definitely spending a year and a half with those Brotherís Blood songs that were big and a lot to digest, trying to figure out a way to keep those themes present while writing pop songs, or writing my version of a pop song anyway.
One thing you said you wanted to be on this album was less wordy and a little more succinct. Can you talk about that and why you wanted to do that with this one?
I think itís probably self-evident in this conversation that Iím a fairly wordy person. I love a lot of songs that are like that. I love Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. Those are the two guys that rise above in my mind when I think of people who are really verbose. They could stream and stream and stream, but then they could also knock you on your ass with a couplet or five words. The polar opposite of the pole for that are people like Kurt Cobain, where thereís a song like ďSchoolĒ from Bleach thatís super impactful, and revealing, and insightful, and itís literally 16 words, the whole song, and it says a ton.
I wanted to see if I could get to a more economical place with the lyrics, but itís not like I got to that level of what you would call concision. I donít really write that way. We just did this thing where we offered a presale bundle where people could order a copy of the vinyl and then a handwritten lyrics sheet. In doing that I found out that I didnít get as economical as I might have liked to because there are lot of words to write out a hundred times for this record.
I repeated the melodies in choruses and I repeated lines and words, but then thereís songs like ďThe City Has Left You Alone.Ē The chorus is the same melody and that line is in every one of them, but then every other lyric is totally different. It was a mindfulness of just wanting to get the impact across without rambling. I do think in that sense itís more effective than the prior records in that respect. I donít know how other people will or wonít feel about that, but thatís what I was trying to do with that.
Another thing I found interesting about the record is it probably has the most religious references that you have had on an album before. Was there any particular reason for that?
No. I think that I am someone who has always had that conversation in his head. Where Iíve landed on it has moved around so much in my life. Iím just fascinated by it. Iím fascinated by what a central role it plays and how different it is for each person. It just seems so unknowable to me. There were different points in my life where it felt very certain, and I was sure that was real and that there was some overarching architect keeping track of what we were up to. Then there was this time in my life where I was very intellectually certain that was not true. It was a shell game and we were blowing each other up in the name of the Easter bunny or something. Now I donít know.
I feel a little bit more like when youíre having those conversations youíre talking about men, youíre not talking about whatever that would be. I donít know, God or energy or something like that. People are activating agents and we do what we do. I donít believe in that kind of architect. Itís not what I see, but I also canít say. Just for the record, it may be hurtful. Thereís been more of a movement in my mind in the last couple years towards feeling like I canít know the answer to that. That doesnít mean I donít have thoughts about it or lean one way or the other.
I was also very lucky in the last couple years of my life to have been on tour with a bunch of people who have really different definitions of religion or spirituality. People who identified as agnostics or atheist but also had these really open and nonaggressive, inclusive pictures of what those words mean. And Christians and Jews and Muslims and Buddhists. Iíve let myself open up more to have those conversations with a straight face and not walk into it with this preordained, intellectual bias that I know whatís right and these people donít.
You pick up this line between all good people, whether theyíre believers in God or not, is that they tend to put other people before them as much as possible and not be dicks. I feel like maybe thatís been in my mind a lot, thinking about whether I know or not I still have to be a responsible person. Whether thereís a God or not a God, whether thereís an afterlife or a judgment. I donít think there are those things personally, but that doesnít mean that life is some nihilistic march towards death where that doesnít mean anything because thereís no reward after. Itís the opposite. It makes every moment invested with more meaning because this is what you got.
I feel like Iíve been thinking about and writing at the edges of those things for a while. Thereís autobiographical references, but then thereís a song where thereís a conversation about God from the perspective of this character from this Philip Roth book who was this atheist revolutionary, maybe terrorist, maybe freedom fighter, depending on where you sit. She becomes a chain Buddhist and has a real hard-line experience inside that faith, so some of that song ďAwaken the DirtĒ is about her trying to explain the conception of her god and her actions to her father. Some of itís me, and some of itís me trying on different clothes.
I do think itís fascinating. I would probably identity as an agnostic who leans more towards atheism in terms of social applications of religion, whatever that might mean. I am totally fascinated by it and I think about it a lot. Iím not a card carrying Catholic anymore, but I do find Iím drawn towards those kinds of books, or movies, or those colloquial stories about Catholic neighborhoods in places like Brooklyn, or Baltimore, or Boston. Those stories are really appealing to me, even if itís not where I have buttered my bread at this point spiritually. Itís that you grow up in it and the communityís really powerful, so I donít know. Itís definitely something thatís on my mind a lot, so it would make sense that it would sneak in or more than sneak into the record, though I havenít thought about the record as an overly religiously concerned record until right now. This conversation is kind of making me think more about it.
You mentioned writing from the perspective of the character from that book. How often do you write from other characterís perspectives?
Not very often in that sense, where itís actually trying to embody and speak in the voice of a preexisting character. I donít really do that. I know thereís other songwriters who do that a lot, where theyíre writing as someone else. I think there are times where itís more like I use pronouns, like ďIĒ and ďyou,Ē but Iím not really talking about me. Itís a fictionalized ďI,Ē and itís more generalized than I have a specific picture in my head. Itís not like I have a picture of a clerk at the gas station and heís in love with the girl who works at the video store, and youíre writing about those two people. Itís much more about the sense of story, or themes, or feelings or ideas that come to mind. You start writing them and youíre still using those pronouns because I think those pronouns are more effective and they help you slip into the story, or the poem, or the song more. I think they all collect little shards of experience.
That is an easier way to communicate, but it also gets you into a trap because everyone thinks youíre always talking about you and your friends or your girlfriend or whatever. Thatís really more than half the time not true. A lot of times the songs are composites of people, composites of different parts of my own life over a timeline. Itís not like in a moment this is right now, this is exactly how I feel, and Iím talking exactly about this person. So itís kind of a blend of autobiographical writing and then just writing. I donít want to write diary entries and Iím not especially interested in people who write diary entries. I want to write songs and write, not catalogue. It kind of goes back and forth, I guess.
One of the themes of the record I picked up on was alienation. Was that something you were feeling as you were writing and are there other themes you see on the record?
I think that most of the songs on the record are about strugglers, people who are trying to figure it out. I didnít feel especially alienated. I wrote that record while living at home, hanging out with my girlfriend, and rehearsing with the band and seeing my family. I was in a pretty healthy space writing that record. For me, my experience is that even when youíre in a good space life is complicated. Itís very complicated right now. On a micro-personal level and on a macro-sociopolitical level itís really a complicated time to be a person. It probably always is but Iíve only lived now, so I know it is now.
I feel like the people I tend to write about, the people I tend to gravitate towards in my relationships, the people I tend to gravitate towards in music or in art, are people who are honest about that. I would rather have the songs reflect an honesty about that too. Sometimes we do fucked up things, or weíre self-evolved or weíre self-destructive. We make motions toward figuring it out, but then we blow it up. Thatís been my experience. Itís not clean and neat where one day youíre one thing and the next day youíre another. For me, it bounces back and forth all day.
I think that can be alienating. I think that it can be scary. I would even go so far as to say that people in positions of power and influence want people to feel alienated and scared because I think itís better for them. I think that one way to beat that back is being honest about it and communicating that alienation with each other and phasing it out, or letting yourself feel it and letting it pass through you like any other feeling because feelings donít stay, they go.
To me, I hear a lot of in this record about people trying to figure it out. People trying to make sense of their experiences. Thatís not sexy and itís not cinematic in some overarching way. I donít know. I feel like a lot of what I do is trying to write the best songs that I know how to write at the time Iím writing them about the experience of trying to be a person. Iím fascinated by that. I feel like if I was to look over the course of all of the records thatís what they all are to some extent. Theyíd make one big body of work that I guess would navigate one personís trip through that experience, while also trying to paint a little bit with other peopleís colors too. Itís not all just about me, those records.
Thereís one song I wanted to ask about real quick and itís the last song ďI Used To Be Someone,Ē which is kind of a different song than youíve done before but a perfect way to close the album. Can you talk about how that song came about?
That song, like a bunch of songs that ended up being songs on records, came about by I had an idea for that vocal melody. The first three verses came as I was walking around midtown Manhattan down 6th Avenue in January. It was before Brotherís Blood even came out. It was January 30, 2009. I saw these two rich women who looked like they had taken a cab from the Upper East Side. They were older and they had all this intense plastic surgery, almost like grotesque. They had fur, like fez-looking hats on, and fur coats and they stepped out of this cab. The first verse of the song came out immediately. I looked at them and that immediately came into my head.
Then I looked around the corner and the next thing I saw was the Debt Clock. I donít know if youíve seen that in New York. Itís between 44th and 45th Street, I think. Itís this running tab that tells you in LED letters the national debt and then tells you your familyís contribution to that, or what your family would owe if they broke it down by family. Theyíre really depressing numbers and theyíre constantly going up, they never go down. Itís always rising. That kind of struck me as a really rare moment where the universe hands you a perfect snapshot of the duality of what it is to live right now in this country. Thereís those two things. It made an impression, so that became the first half of the song.
I like sometimes when Iím writing about stuff thatís more broad to then sink it to a more narrow, personal level. The second half of that song is more about when you get back from a moment like that. Your mind is racing and then you start to mirror that disrepair, that gap, that gulf, to your own experience and where youíve gone off the rails at points. Youíre trying to remind yourself but you canít sit around for an extended period of time picking through your past looking for answers because your life is happening now. I think sometimes I can trap myself, and I think a lot of people can. Thereís a false nostalgia that is actually not a reflection of what things were like when they were really happening.
I think the very last line of the song, itís a little tongue in cheek. Thereís moments where youíre in a rut, or in a knot, and you canít untie yourself. I try to remind myself that at the most basic level your someoneís brother, your someoneís son. Thereís some identification and responsibility there, but thereís also some grace there, some connection there. From that place, you can move forward. Itís also a little tongue in check, like a washed up, has been kind of thing, that I got a kick out of. But no matter whatever else you are or arenít youíre still those things, youíre always those things. Iím always going to be my brotherís brother. Iím always going to be my motherís son.
The sonics of that song totally came together. That song I didnít even know if it was a song when I was working on it because the structure was really weird. It was just one chord progression over and over again with a big ending. I liked the lyrics so much and the melody so much that I really wanted it to be a song, but I wasnít sure if it was as strong as the other things. The arrangement, the way things came together with the band and how that took shape, the pulling the song apart, and the swells, and the orchestration, and the drum break in the middle, and how it resolved itself, it not only became a song but it became one of the core songs on the record. It kind of was obviously the last song for a long time.
For me, my experience is that even when you’re in a good space life is complicated. It’s very complicated right now. On a micro-personal level and on a macro-sociopolitical level it’s really a complicated time to be a person. It probably always is but I’ve only lived now, so I know it is now.
Loved this bit. Can't wait to get this record in the mail soon.
Love the interview. Don't really dig this album though. It doesn't speak to me or stand out as much as like brothers blood or the tracks on she stayed as steam. It's still a good album, but honestly one of my least favorite KD albums.
I'll be buying this album solely because Kevin is such an awesome, intelligent guy. I feel like a better person just from reading this interview; it's not often that an interview truly makes you think.