Kevin Devine - Spirited Interests

From experience, I can tell you that becoming a parent changes things. The proverbial “things” covers it - because it’s not just something, or any one thing, or everything. It just changes… things

Things have changed for Kevin Devine. We speak 6 days after the birth of his first child, his daughter. “It’s very, very exciting. Very recent, very immersive experience,” he chuckles as we discuss the sheer awesomeness (in every sense of the word) of being dad’s. “It’s really… outside of words. I don’t really have a good description for it yet. It feels pretty amazing to be living on this level. It’s something I didn’t know I could do until you are doing it.”

But he manages to find a few.

“She is this... perfect little animal.” There’s a lot of, well, awe in his voice. Tired, sure. But excited and a different kind of energized. He admits he felt like he would be “mildly, mildly more prepared because of the ways time is elongated and weird for touring musicians. We have this really strange relationship with time.” It seems parenthood, though, is slightly different.

“This is the soberest, psychedelic experience… It’s like being on drugs. But it’s not. It’s the polar opposite. So that’s where I’m at.” We laugh. “This is just some different level shit going on.”

As much as he’s an artist on his own, sans persona, just simply Kevin Devine, he’s also been part of a much bigger entity during his surprisingly expansive amount of time in the independent music scene. That entity manifests itself in the form of constant collaboration. “The best thing you can do is learn out to respond to circumstance, rather than try to dictate it,” he says of a career that’s been just as much his own as it is a series of those collaborations. “I’m not a super commercially successful musician, but I’m somebody that seems to be, at this point - and I’m aware and grateful for this - a super… it’s both dynamic and reliable, my career.”

“With collaboration, I mean, I grew up in Staten Island and in Brooklyn. It was just a very collaborative thing. Everything about that world was very like... you play in each other’s band, and you put out each other’s records, and you did the part for each other’s records, and you sang on each other’s song on the records. Three or four bands would bundle up and play the same shows on every two months Staten Island, or they would go play on Long Island or New Jersey,” he explains.

“A lot of the stuff that was present in that scene, kind of… philosophically is still in my brain, and still part of my actions. And I think that something like the split series, or Bad Books or any of that. That’s totally down to: I’m super precious about what I write in the sense that I want everything I write to be something I like and am proud of, and sometimes I might even overcook the turkey, because of that, you know? Or undercook [the turkey]. Sometimes I want it to raw, or sometimes it’s probably like, you left this in too long. But one of the things I’m not precious about is playing with others.” 

“You pick things up,” he says, almost definitively.

He’s just recently released the last of his Devinyl Split series, which saw him collaborate with a wide range of artists from across the spectrum of independent music. Matthew Cawes of Nada Surf, Jesse Lacey of Brand New, and Indie darlings Tigers Jaw are just half of those involved. “None of them were difficult in any real way. Some of them might have been a little easier to put together logistically, or some of them more like a personal relationship. Or some of them the personal relationship grew out of kind of… cold calls about the splits,” he says of the experience. The sixth, final release with Jesse Lacey, arrived the same day his daughter was born. “That was the second coolest thing my family released that day.”

Before that he released not one, but two full-length albums - a quieter solo record titled Bulldozer and a full-band effort titled Bubblegum. Those albums, as two sides of the same coin, highlight all of Devine’s strengths as both a musician and songwriter: mostly straightforward, guitar-driven structures that sometimes threaten to drive off the rails but never quite do, and always introspective, sometimes politically charged lyrics that become richer with every listen. It’s that same lyricism, and a fair amount of good timing, that lead to Devine touring with such an unlikely group as Murder By Death. “If we have anything that bridges us, we like words, and we write songs that are kind of… damaged at the corners.” 

But I like to think it’s also the sense of adventure, the feeling of something never quite being finished, that means he can - and wants to - play along with just about anyone. He routinely calls upon different musicians to play in The Goddamn Band, a “really awesome, sort of… rangy collective with like 20 people now you can like, cull from and cobble together and have a really awesome band for the tour or recording. And sometimes you stick with certain lineups for longer, so as people’s lives or circumstances dictate that they have to go do other things. But that’s also made me more flexible, and it’s made the songs more flexible, too. Because they kind of get to be like, 6 different versions of the song depending on who you’re playing it with.”

His career both on and off the stage is filled with collaborations of all shapes and sizes. Perhaps most notably, his work with Andy Hull of Manchester Orchestra, in the form of their duo, Bad Books. “That’s a band that if we weren’t in Manchester or… me, particularly so with the second record, that could be a real thing. It is a real thing. But it could be just our primary thing - if we didn’t get to it late,” he says, no real anger or disappointment evident. Merely in the way one makes an off-handed, matter-of-fact observation.

“We definitely have every intention of making a new Bad Books record, we recorded a new Bad Books song. It’s just figuring when the hell we’re going to properly get in there and make one is like… ridiculous.” There’s amusement in his voice, and admiration and appreciation when he says, “If there’s any work, it’s just work philosophically sometimes. I think we naturally know what to do - like, Andy knows what to do to a Kevin song to make it cooler, and vice versa. And that gets better every time.”

Are there any collaborations he hasn’t had the chance to take part in yet, that he’d like to? Of course there are.

“David Bazan. We’re friendly, and I’m a huge fan and have been for a really long time,” he says. “He and I have spoken a bunch, and I told him I that intend to harangue every time we do one until he says yes.” But that’s not the only one.

“The big, pie in the sky one for me - which is a weird one, because it’s not… it might not be intuitive - but, I would love more than anything to do something, at some point in my life with Sinead O’Connor. A split single, write a song for her, have her sing on a record, or something…” 

In fact, collaboration runs deeply through so many aspects of Kevin Devine’s career, that it is, admittedly, how I have become familiar with his work. And that doesn’t really surprise him. “I kinda think that’s fair and true probably of a bunch of people. And if I have any egotistical thought - which we all do - but the one that I’ve had the most frequently is that I kind of think that I’ve never had a place. I was always a little too indie rock for emo, too emo for indie rock, a little too singer-songwriter for either, a little too either for singer-songwriter, a little too punk for folk, too folk for punk,” he says good-naturedly. 

“I was never really anything enough to be part of a “scene” scene until I was embraced so fully by the Brand New guys. And that was not a slam dunk musically, necessarily. Philosophically, yes.”

While “hopeful” isn’t necessarily the right word, he’s aware of what his music has done, and, really, can still do. “I’ve just always kind of felt like some people might grow up and at some point might go, “You know, this guy’s really good.” You can hear the self-aware amusement in his voice as he says this. I laugh.

“It seems like if you don’t die, or break up, and you stick around long enough and you keep challenging yourself, people will find it. I realize it’s a hard fought thing, and it’s worth being proud of.”

And you can hear that pride in his voice. “I feel like it’s happening, which is kinda cool.”

Most recently, Devine was at the very same Southgate House Revival just over a year ago with tourmates Into It. Over It. and Laura Stevenson. It was a moving night of music, as each performer took the stage on their own, just their voices and their guitars. This time, however, he’ll be backed by the current incarnation of The Goddamn Band.

When it came to this tour, though, Life wanted to keep things interesting.

“I knew it was going to be really close to our due date, but it was also like, 5 days, 2 days home, 5 days, that’s it. And, in terms of a touring musician’s life, that’s about as low-impact as it gets. It’s not like 6 weeks away, or 3 weeks away,” he explains, with what I imagine is a bit of relief. “And it kind of rips the band-aid off of figuring out how to be a guy who’s gonna tour with a kid. Because that’s my job.”

His next record will be out in the fall. 

Kevin Devine and The Goddamn Band will act as direct support for the always lively and entertaining Murder By Death this Wednesday, April 13th at The Southgate House Revival.