“I didn’t want to make a new record; I didn’t want to rush that or do it from a reactionary place. 'I need to make a record because I’m going to go broke’ is not a good reason to make a record.”
Speaking backstage at a sold-out show at Camden Assembly, Brooklyn singer-songwriter Kevin Devine is reflecting on a challenging eighteen months, both personally and professionally. Having announced a temporary hiatus from solo recordings in mid-2017, a planned world tour playing guitar for Brand New collapsed due to events outside of his control.
“In my immediate world and life, your plans change dramatically and immediately, and then you’re trying to figure out how to react to that,” Kevin admits, “...on every level.”
Having released nine solo albums and numerous collaborations, for maybe the first time in his career Kevin had nothing concrete ahead of him. With a family to provide for and a suddenly empty calendar, he quickly booked in some acoustic shows and got to work on the second series of his Devinyl Splits, a collection of 7” singles where another artist joins Kevin for a double A-side. The second series has so far taken in collaborations with The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, Petal, Worriers and Cavetown, with one instalment still to be announced.
The first in the series, featuring The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, finds Devine daydreaming on the woozy ‘Kuala Lumpur’, the first time he’s played every instrument on a ‘full band’ recording.
“[Craig] said, ‘Let’s write a song about a place that you imagine what it’s like’,” Devine explains. “And his song was about what you imagine a place is like compared to what it’s like once you get there.
“My song was about what a place might be like, that you can kind of walk yourself back from in your mind before you even have to go and find out. Like, it won’t be like that, because nowhere is like that. If you’re trying to escape to places without knowing what it is in you that you’re escaping from, you’ll likely bring the thing with you.”
The Splits provided a convenient starting point to get the wheels turning after 2017’s setback.
“I didn’t think that anybody was sitting out there being like ‘He said he wasn’t gonna do anything!’” Kevin jokes, in regard to his extremely brief ‘hiatus’. “I’m a niche public figure, but it’s not as though the news cycle starts and stops based on what I do or don’t do. So it’s a fairly low impact situation.
“It wasn’t the plan to [jump back in], but I’m fortunate to work with people that are good under pressure and have good relationships. I was able to do enough shows and stuff to make it make sense.”
Those shows took in support slots for Manchester Orchestra, Saves the Day and The Front Bottoms, who Devine helped out on bass for part of the run.
“With The Front Bottoms, I love the music, I love the people, and it’s really fun to play in other contexts. I like playing bass, learning music, being able to step off to the side. I like standing [centre stage] too, but I just like playing. And also their music is so caffeinated and fun, to get to play bass in a band like that is fun.”
Collaborating with tourmates is something Devine has always indulged in, with his ‘other band’ Bad Books emerging from the back of Manchester Orchestra’s tour bus in 2009. “I feel like by the end of the tour you’re playing on somebody’s stuff or whatever. It stretches your brain out, and it also keeps your interest in your primary thing sharp too."
Devine’s ‘primary thing’ is as razor sharp as the last time he played on these shores, opening with a spine-tingling by-request rendition of 2003’s ‘Tapdance’ before pivoting to the call-to-arms of recent cut ‘Instigator’. ‘All of Everything Erased’ and ‘Carnival’ provide the first of multiple jaw-dropping displays of Dylan-esque lyricism (“I spread into a distant hum, I droned along with everyone, and the earth grew green and nursed herself to what she used to be”).
Deciding not to head straight to the studio, Kevin has the benefit of a wealth of material, which he delves into with consummate ease during a ninety minute set on a wet and windy January night. Armed with an acoustic guitar and greeted by a packed Assembly crowd, he meanders through a masterful set that draws from all his albums and includes a generous request section.
There’s a warmth and humanity to Kevin's songwriting that, even for those familiar with his music, can still punch you in the gut. Even where songs carry a political bent, the Brooklyn native manages to conjure human empathy rather than empty sloganeering. A fragile run through ‘Geißen’, a touching tribute to his late drummer Mike Skinner, is a highlight tonight. Touching in its honesty about the pair’s past debauchery it also drives home the acute hole his passing left in Kevin’s life.
Sadly, processing grief is something he had to deal with once again, with a planned Devinyl Split with Frightened Rabbit put on hold after Scott Hutchison’s passing last year.
“I never got a song from him, it didn’t get there,” Kevin admits. “We were in touch until three or four days before what happened. And I looked recently, and the last thing we talked about was he had to triple confirm with their label and get back to me. And I was pestering him; we were coming up against a deadline... I was trying to be gentle but that’s the thing with these splits, you’re wearing a couple of hats. If I’m half A&R guy I do have to be the asshole guy going ‘can you send me your fucking shit?’”
Although that collaboration didn’t ever come to fruition, Kevin did join up with Julien Baker, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, Craig Finn and The National’s Aaron Dessner for a charity tribute show in Scott’s memory late last year.
“It was great, and it was sad, and it was also affirming in some ways,” Kevin remembers. “The crowd was wonderful at that show. It was affirming to hear his music played by all these people, and to hear the audience- it was the most generous audience you’re ever going to play for, you know? Little mistakes here and there, everyone just wanted to be in the room for some cheesy-” Kevin stops and corrects himself. “You know it’s not cheesy; it’s someone’s life, they were in the room for something cathartic and healing.
“The most cathartic and healing thing was nothing to do with us, when the show was over,” Devine confides. “After that, we all went upstairs, and they played ‘The Modern Leper’ over the PA, and the whole crowd sang the whole song, no one left, they shouted the whole song. That was the best thing that happened the whole night, better than anything any of us did on stage.”
Watching Devine effortlessly glide through his back catalogue, nerves aren’t something you associate with the 39-year-old, but he admits feeling some pressure delivering Hutchison’s songs that night.
“I’m fairly hard on myself; I made two or three mistakes that drove me fucking crazy because I didn’t make them ever during rehearsals. But when I got up there, I sort of froze at certain points, because I felt like I really wanted to nail it, to honour him. Nobody gave a shit, and Scott would have laughed about it and bust my balls about it, been the most generous person in the room about it. But when I got off the stage I was hot; the Irish came out in me.”
That Irish Catholic heritage is due to be showcased more explicitly when Devine puts on three special St Patrick’s Day shows playing as ‘Kenny O’Brien and the O’Douls’, with a cover of The Pogues ‘Body of an American’ providing a teaser.
“These bands I’m friends with, Manchester Orchestra and The Front Bottoms, have these annual shows, The Stuffing and Champagne Jam,” Kevin explains. “So like ‘we should try and develop something like that for you, and it’d be fun if it was around St Patrick’s Day. And if instead of it being Kevin Devine, we could put it under a different name’… All of which sounded horrifying to me initially, like how do you do that and then be authentic?
“There were parts of me that were very staunch in rejection of the idea. Then as we got closer, the shows are booked - you’d better come up with a name. Fuck, it was almost like a homework assignment!” Kevin laughs. “But I realised I can do this, you don’t have to do some cheesy Irish cover band thing, you can do your thing but still be authentic. There’s a pipeline between folk-inflected and punk-inflected Irish music and Irish culture.
“And also Irish storytelling, it’s about exaggeration, but it’s also about family and bittersweetness and wry humour. God, lack of God, and oppression. There’s a lot that makes sense to me in how I tell stories. And the shows will be fun; it’ll be like a party, seven people on stage banging things and yelling.”
Also on the horizon is the long-awaited Bad Books III, the next record by Kevin and members of Manchester Orchestra, which saw its last instalment in 2012. Recorded in five sessions across the past two years, Kevin is coy on the sound of the new songs.
“I don’t wanna be cute; there’s a part of me that wants people to hear it first. It’s different; I know everyone says that. It sounds like Andy [Hull] and I wrote the songs, you’re not going to hear it and be like ‘What the fuck is this?’ But it's a certain colour of what he, and I do, which has not been a primary colour in Bad Books music.”
What started as a bit of fun between friends trapped on a tour bus has evolved into an important weapon in Kevin's arsenal, and the band have come to appreciate the project more with each release. Kevin makes sure to drop in a Bad Books song or two at every solo show, and tonight is no exception, ‘You Wouldn’t Have to Ask’ prompting a whistle-along. With both Devine and Hull often singing about heavy subject matter, Bad Books sees them show off their quirks and you can tell from listening to the likes of ‘No Sides’ and ‘Forest Whitaker’ that they’re having a lot of fun writing these songs.
“I have no idea what people will think, but we’re excited about it and proud of it. I’m 39 so I should be mature, but it feels like a mature record, more intentional. Each record has got more intentional; the first time we didn’t even know we were making a record. The second time we did, but still there’s a little bit of kitchen sink in there, trying to figure out what it was. And I love both those records for different reasons, but this one is really of a piece and formed and evolved.”
Andy and Kevin are going to take some consideration over how they tour the new record, after a fairly surreal joint Manchester-Kevin-Bad Books UK tour in 2014 which saw bassist Andy Prince play for three hours straight as he helped out in Devine’s revolving ‘Goddamn Band’.
“There was a percentage of the crowd that knew what Bad Books was, and there was a percentage that didn’t know and didn’t understand what was happening,” Devine remembers, smiling. “You could feel that every night. Sometimes we’d get up, and it’d take three songs before people got it.”
“But I could tell with that there were times where people were unclear. For Manchester especially there was an aspect of opening your own show, ‘What the fuck are you doing onstage at 7 o’clock?’ It was fun though, an easy tour to travel.”
While Bad Books is pretty much in the bag, a new Kevin Devine solo release is still quite far off in the horizon for the time being.
“I essentially put out a record every two years, for ten years. That’s a lot, and [a break] might be good for me and everyone else too. You know, people can’t miss you if you’re there all the time can they?” Kevin remarks. “But also it’s nice to be somebody that’s thought of being consistent and present, and I don’t want to bail on that.
“When a record’s ready it’ll show up, and the song I’m working on right now is not for a split, so it’s probably the first song towards whatever the next record is,” Kevin reveals. “‘Outstretched and Neverending’ from the splits, I like that song and feel it could benefit from another treatment and a wider release. So I’m one and a half songs towards a new record, but I have no idea if either of them will end up on it, and I have to put the other twelve or fifteen in the pool.” For such a prolific producer of music, it’s set to be his longest break between solo records in his career, but at this stage, he’s more than earnt that breathing space.
Space that tonight is occupied by a tour de force of his most powerful songs, with a final salvo of the visceral and tortured ‘Cotton Crush’ and still-career-defining existential angst of 2003’s ‘Ballgame’ closing the set in fine fashion. That song has evolved over time, and Devine reflects this by ad-libbing new sections and revising lyrics. The aggressive strum and handclaps of the recording replaced by a contemplative fingerpick and softer vocal, it’s one of a number of Devine’s songs that stand the test of time in their personal, emotional and all too often political clarity.
Having made two recent albums of broadly fuzzed-up power pop, there’s an appetite for a change of style, although Kevin admits he’s still in the early stages of figuring that out.
“I thought what I was going to do was make a record with no guitars on it at all. Or then what I thought I could do is make a record completely at home and then send it different collaborators to build on.” Kevin pauses, but there’s more to come. “Then I thought I’d make a bedroom folk record that was sparse but with weird arrangements.”
Wherever he decides his take his music, Kev has the benefit of one of the most well-honed songwriting brains in the game and, as he bellows an acapella ‘Brothers Blood’ over a reverent crowd, a loyal band of followers. “I want to write something with a bit more atmosphere and intimacy this time round.”
As a masterful show reaches its finale, you could hear a pin drop in the Assembly. The crowd in the palm of his hand, songs and side projects to spate, Kevin Devine is ready for whatever comes next.
Taken from the March issue of Upset, out now.
Featuring Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes, While She Sleeps, One OK Rock and more.