Interview: Kevin Devine

@Jacqueline DiMilia

Kevin Devine is currently touring across Europe – without the Goddamn Band, but with songs from his most recent two studio records ‚Bubblegum‚ and ‚Bulldozer‚. Right before the concert at the B72 in Vienna he speaks about his his experiences with crowdfunding, future plans and the music industry among other things.

HeavyPop: Hey, how are you?
Kevin Devine: I’m good, I’m alright, thank you!

You come around a lot, how many times have you already been in Vienna, or Austria in general?
I think I’ve been in Vienna since 2003 almost once a year, at least. I think about 9 times, mostly in Vienna. I’ve been in Innsbruck, Hollabrunn and St. Pölten, but mostly Vienna.

The next shows are Graz and Innsbruck, right?
Yeah, right. We were gonna do Salzburg, but when I had to switch to a solo tour it wasn’t gonna work, so I had to change it and now I’m playing Italy that day.

Alright, that’s already my next question – why are you playing the Europe/UK tour solo, without your Goddamn Band?
Unfortunately it’s because of money, which is never the reason you wanna have to do anything like that. We did a budget – it’s boring, and it’s not a punk-rock or rock’n’roll answer, but we wanted to come with the band, and then we found out that we were gonna lose a lot of money if we did, and if I come by myself it’s almost the exact opposite. It would be awesome to have them, but I also can’t make decisions exclusively based on what I wish it would be when we’re gonna self-finance the next two years of this project. One thing needs to lead into the next thing, into the next thing, and that was not gonna happen if we did it that way. Luckily most of the promoters were very accepting and cool, and so far the shows have been great and nobody’s been complaining, so yeah.

And how is this going to affect your setlist for tonight?
Well, I play the songs and I just try to figure out how to make them work. I even played ‚Fiscal Cliff‚ in Cologne, and people seemed to like it. It changes the feeling obviously, but I think all the songs are always written that way to start for me anyway. It’s kinda like when you write them, they’re very bare, and then you dress them up however you wanna dress them up to record them and then when you play and especially when you play alone you get to take their clothes off again and you see how they look. Especially the ‚Bubblegum‚ stuff is really fun, it’s a challenge – how do you make this work without this swirling chaos around this? But I haven’t shied away from anything. I’m playing probably 4 or 5 songs from both new records and then 1 or 2 songs or so from every other one too, it’s a lot.

Around this time last year, you hesitantly started an incredibly successful Kickstarter-campaign to finance your 2 recent albums and the following tour – what made you abandon the music industry to do things your way?
Well, I’ve been saying that sorta stuff, and I’m trying to be mindful – I guess I didn’t really abandon the music industry. I still have a booking agent, I still have a press person, I still play shows and someone pays me, so technically, I’m in the music industry. But the record business, for someone in my position at this point, being on a record label…I would still work with like Merge records in America, if they called tomorrow and said “Hey, we wanna put your records out” I’d be like “Ok, that’s cool”.
You know, there’s very few labels like Subpop or something, but those labels aren’t super-interested in me, or have not seemed to be. So, being on like a punk-rock label, or trying to be on a major label, or being on even something in the middle, which is what that label, Razor and Tie was, on which we did the ‚Between Concrete and Clouds‚ in America, it just wasn’t…I don’t think it works for someone like me anymore.
Maybe the best way to say it is this: If I had gone to any record label, including the ones I would be on, like Barsuk or whatever, and said “I need a $ 115.000,- to make two records, exactly the way I wanna make it, and to live for a year, making them, and paying bands and you have no say in how I mix it or master it etc.” they’d be like “No. Absolutely not.” And so I wanted to try something different because I wasn’t satisfied with the results I was getting. And I wanna be clear that that’s as much because of me as it is because of the labels. I want a life in music and I think I’m building that, and I think I have like a really deep fanbase, people that are passionate about it, but I’m not someone who makes a record label a lot of money. I probably sell between like 6- and 10,000 records, you know, and in an industry in which 95% of the music that gets put out doesn’t sell 1,000 copies, that’s still noteworthy, but it’s not even like Jay-Z or Beyonce, it’s not even like Vampire Weekend or Arcade Fire, and actually it’s not even like Ben Gibbard or Conor Oberst, you know what I mean? It’s a very strange industry where you can be like “If you look at it this way, you’re a success, but if you look at it this way, you’re a failure, etc.”.
So I just wanted to try something different and get outside that whole thing, because I don’t want to have that debate in my head all the time. I just wanna to make stuff, and make it for the people who ultimately are the reason it’s all there. I just was kinda nervous – it seems like so many people have tried it and done it poorly, it seems like there is a lot of bad energy around that, if someone doesn’t honor the kickstarter incentives, or is slow getting people their stuff, or just disappears with the money, and also I was mindful that even if you did it right, it’s oughta work. And doing all this work directly for our audience, without this middleman, felt like it made more sense to me.

Talking about the Kickstarter incentives, you also had some really cool stuff like house shows in there, right?
Yeah, that was really fun, I actually played a house show right before this tour outside Dallas and it was awesome. It was really cool people. I think they were a little nervous that I was gonna be awkward or something, but I was also nervous that there’s a party and I can’t believe these people spent this much money to have you come play. Almost like, guilty, you know what I mean? But they were so happy, and they had all their friends and I let them pick the setlist and just played whatever they wanted and played for like two hours, and it was cool, it was really good. And I did one of the songwriting things with someone, and recorded that, and that was super-fun. It came out great actually. The kid had like a really good song, and I brought in two people from the band to help. I have one more of those and then some 5-song drop-in shows, where I play for like 25 minutes at someones house. After that, I think it’s done, we’ll see.

Listening to both your new albums, it feels like ‚Bulldozer‚ would be the more appropriate title for the ‚Bubblegum‚ album, how did you come up with the titles?
Yeah, I’ve heard that before, people have said that. I think that wasn’t on purpose, but I think it’s kinda cool actually, that they should be called what the other one’s called. It was a happy accident. ‚Bulldozer‚ was called that because that song ‚Little Bulldozer‚ was just so immediate. It also works as a title, because we really made that record pretty fast. I lived in California for a month, we worked 5 days a week, and at the first day I sat down and played Rob [Schnapf, producer] all the songs, and then we started working. He said “I think these two people should play bass and drums” and he brought in these guys from the band Everest, and I’d never met them before. It was great, very different than how I usually work. There wasn’t a lot of pre-production, the record became a record in the studio, so the idea of a bulldozer knocking everything down seemed to fit the process. ‚Bubblegum‚ just felt perverse, with the kind of music that is on there, it’s kinda noisy and sharp. But also it’s pop music, it’s just loud. And also to have that picture of George Washington, the ultimate american myth, legend, icon, with his face melting and calling it ‚Bubblegum‚, it just felt perverse.

I really liked ‚Bubblegum‚, it also kinda reminded me of Future of the Left at times.
Awesome, that’s fucking great, they’re an excellent band. He’s [Andrew Falkous] sick! That McLusky band was insane. My old band was called Miracle of 86, we did two shows with McLusky in 2003 – they were just a badass band. I think he’s very smart, he uses anger and intelligence and humor in a very cool way in his music. And I know what you mean, maybe that ‚Fiscal Cliff‚ song sounds a little bit like that. I never thought about that, that’s cool!

Maybe ‚Bubblegum‚ sounds the way it sounds because you’ve worked with Jesse Lacey from Brand New – how did that come about and how was it?
It’s part of why it sounds like that for sure. We kind of wanted to make a punk-rock record before Jesse was involved. Jesse and I have been talking about making an album together of my music for probably 10 years, he’s always saying “I wanna produce one of the records, I have all these ideas!” and finally I was like “Ok, this is the right time, we’ll do like this punk-rock record with the touring band and Jesse and then I’ll go and do this like folk-rock kind of record by myself with musicians I don’t know”. Even the way they sound – I feel like ‚Bulldozer‚ is a more ‚California‚ record and ‚Bubblegum‚’s a more New York record. It certainly didn’t hurt that Jesse is such a great loud rock songwriter himself to have him involved and have his ideas and how he thought things should be shaped and everything was awesome. I think that record obviously benefits from his involvement.

And do you plan on working with him again in the future?
I totally would. There’s no plan to, but I absolutely would, yeah. We’re friends, so it would be like “Hey, wanna do that again?” – “Yeah, let’s figure it out!”. Although I suspect they’re about to get pretty busy again, but I’m sure someday we’ll do something like that again.

How come the song ‚She Can See Me‚ made it on both albums?
Well, when I wrote that song, it was initially like really quiet, it sounded like Belle & Sebastian or like The Vaselines, maybe. But I knew, it could also sound like Nirvana if you made it louder. All those Nirvana songs – they’re popsongs, just sang really loud, especially Nevermind. The touchstones for us with the Bubblegum record were like Nirvana, The Pixies, The Breeders, the first two Weezer records, that’s really what we were thinking with those songs. So initially, I thought it would be a perfect example of what this project is – we’ll put the Belle & Sebastian version on Bulldozer and the Nirvana version on Bubblegum. The one on Bulldozer is a little more up than I thought it was gonna be, but it’s tighter, it’s more like a powerpop song. And the one on Bubblegum is noisy and has this weird Black Sabbath intro and ending. And there’s other subtle changes, like harmonies are different…I could sit here and point to you, there’s a lot of subtle differences actually, in between how they got realized. I thought the song was strong, I thought it was kinda cool to have it on both records.

Have you written the song ‘I Don’t Care About Your Band’ on your latest album ‘Bubblegum’ for someone in particular?
I kinda wrote it about the SXSW music festival. It’s a sorta tongue-in-cheek way to talk about more of a change in your life. I don’t necessarily mean shit-talk any other band, because I’m another one. There’s thousands of bands and songwriters, there’s an endless stream of it and the internet is constantly like throwing up more and more and more at you. It’s funny, you make a record and 4 months later people ask “So when are you working on your next record?” and I’m like “Not for 2 years, we just put out 2 records!” That’s crazy.
The culture is like “Our band is super-hot and everyone’s talking about it” and then it’s gone. So that’s more a song about the culture and the shift in a personal way. You know, I’ve seen a lot of music. I like good music, I’m always gonna like good music. I’m not gonna like genuflect at the altar of some super-cool person who’s playing three chords and screaming on a guitar, but there’s a lot of that. I’m more interested in what a person’s like as a person at this point. Cause there’s a lot of bands I love that are populated with shitty people and there’s a lot of bands I don’t like at all who have really wonderful people in it and I’d rather spend time with those people even if I’d rather listen to the band with the bad guy in it. And then the last verse is kind of a way of turning it back on me, I try to be a better guy. It’s just about how all of us are essentially. Everyone’s a hypocrite so you gotta watch your judgements because it’s more about trying to be forgiving than about trying to be cool. But that song also kinda fits what this stream of new/great/new/great/new/great/most fascinating thing ever/the greatest thing ever/the new Nirvana/the new Pearl Jam/the new Pavement/the new Beatles and then six months later – the new Beatles/the new Pavement, you know.
There’s so many things about the music industry that make me feel like I’m at a medical convention and everyone’s like doctors that work in a hospital, and I’m this guy who lives out in the country and has like this one little shack where he helps people, I have like a little bag with my doctors kit in it. We do the same thing, but I don’t relate to it at all. The Grammys, this race for being cool, I actually did chase this – of course, all of us do. You start because you love music and then you start playing in front of people because you want them to like you, but at a certain point it’s also got to be about something else if it’s gonna be sustainable, at least for me. It can’t just be about that pursuit of cool and the fountain of youth or whatever, it’s gotta be about something more. So that song’s about that.

Are you going to rely on crowdfunding in the future, too?
Part of me thinks I’d be crazy not to, because clearly it worked so well, but also part of me wonders if that’s like trying catch lightning in a bottle. So I’m trying to figure out whether or not it’s sustainable to do that more than once. And I think when you’re in my position – I’m not a famous person or something, but I have this deep, intense fanbase. I think you actually can do it more than once, or maybe even continually because the fundraiser is almost like a preorder on your records, and people are like betting that they’ve liked your music before, so they probably will like it again. It’s almost like they’re paying for the record before you make it instead of after it’s in the store. So I’m not sure yet.
I think the next thing I’m gonna end up doing recording-wise on an album level is probably another Bad Books record, this thing I have with Manchester Orchestra, and that’s probably not until next year. I’d be really surprised if I recorded another Kevin Devine record before like the middle of 2015 at the earliest, but we’ll see. And if I do, maybe I’ll putting it out with Merge, but if not, I’d be cool with trying the fundraiser again. I certainly would try it again if I thought it was the thing to do.

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