The following questions were composed with much help from the forum members:
*~Kevin Devine Interview - 2.13.06~*
Garett: First off congratulations on your signing to Capitol. Let's start with what everyone is dying to hear about, the next album! So about the record, what is your direction or inspiration this time around, in other words what is fueling your creative fire for molding these songs?
Kevin: Well, I write all the time, bits and pieces. Mess around on the guitar just sitting around at home, write things in notebooks, on napkins, in backs of books I'm reading, and a lot of time those things become songs. So alot of the stuff that's going to wind up on this record is culled from all that kind of almost unconscious writing. A few songs just kind of stood up and wrote themselves from start to finish.
That being said, I always realize after there are thematic ties from song to song when you're drawing from your experiences over a given time period. The stuff I kind of sat down and wrote with focus this time around deals a lot with the past year or so in my life, my relationships, the massive shift that comes with with admitting you're an alcoholic and addict and cutting that shit out and trying to live a sober life, and reconciling my own confused feelings inside with the heavily confusing state of affairs taking shape around me on the outside.
I think there's a song in every street sign or conversation or piece of stimulus you take in. I've taken a lot in in the past year and gone through a lot of change and a lot of processing and I guess the record reflects all that.
Garett: With every record, your songs seem to become a little bit more decorated (in instrumentation, guest appearances, track diversity, production etc.). Can we expect a continuation of this pattern?
Kevin: I get really excited about what you can do to a good song. The goal in my eyes with every record is to write songs good enough to stand up no matter how you play them - alone, with two people, with six people, whatever. Songs that can breathe on their own regardless of arrangement and can work several different ways.
The Goddamn Band is a versatile one, and we've worked at that really hard with our live show. The folks I play with, the core group, we've done a couple of tours together and have to varying degrees worked together since "Make the Clocks Move," so we're in a place where we get each other real well, and it's really gotten to this fun and instinctive place where ideas get generated and that give and take is there.
I come to the songs generally with a pretty developed idea of where I want them to go, how full I want them to be instrumentally, when I want this instrument to come in, that one to come in, this piece to drop out, etc., and the times I don't, the band and I can mess with it until it makes sense. I'd love for us to keep stepping forward and suprising ourselves. I think there's some arrangement stuff on this record that's really adult and complex and beautiful. Plus, we've never worked with an outside producer before (Mike Skinner, our drummer, and Chris Bracco, who plays bass, produced the last two albums). We're recording this record with Rob Schnapf, who worked on a lot of Elliott Smith's music, worked with Beck, and I'm open and eager as hell to see what he does with the
foundation we've built.
Some songs I'll always like best with just a voice and a guitar. Some sound best with three guitars, organ, pedal steel, mellotron, glockenspiel, piano, bass, drums, strings, and backing vocals. I'm psyched to keep pushing both sides of that coin and see where it winds up.
Garett: Now that you're on Capitol records, does your label status along with the expansion of your fanbase add any new pressures to the writing process?
Kevin: Not really. I'm probably the least expectant person to have ever signed with a major label. I feel like there's really only a few thousand people who really know or care about my career at this point, and I feel really grateful for that amount. If I can get some financial stability and some life experience out of operating at this level for at least one record, get to do some worthwhile touring, get to make an album with someone I admire a great deal, and get to pay my friends more than a slice of pizza and a beer to come down and devote their time and talent to my songs, then I'm a happy, content person.
I write the way I write. Capitol knows they didn't sign Maroon 5 or John Mayer with me. I can't speak on their expectations but I can say to this point, they've been amazingly supportive and receptive to the new material, which is a huge plus. If I start worrying about what anyone else thinks, it's changing what I've done to get me to this point. It denegrates the songs and insults the fans. I'll write how I write and worry about all the potential pitfalls of "the indie guy at the major label" thing if and when it happens.
Garett: Your lyrics are often laced with deeper social and even political commentary than meets the ear. With your rise in popularity are you finding a more superficial fanbase, or are most people aware of the true messages woven into your songs?
Kevin: I can't worry about that, either. I don't first and foremost consider myself a political songwriter. I write about humanity. I'm fascinated with people and why they do the things they do, starting with myself and then moving outwardly. Sometimes that fascination turns to fear and anger when I think people lose contact with the greater good that makes them human in the first place. And when that happens on the global sociopolitical stage, it scares the shit out of me and makes me want to make sense of it for myself.
The songs I write like that are just as personal to me as the most specific song I'll ever write about a woman I love, or a family member I've lost, or a bout of self-doubt I'm struggling through. You always hope people hear what you're saying in your songs and that it resonates with them, but all you can do is write it and play it and stick up for it, stand next to it, and hope people get it and understand it, because hope is all you have in that situation.
You can't control how people receive anything. I think my fans are by and large smart, compassionate, and open-minded people and even if they don't always agree with me I think, I hope, the things I say make them think a little bit. If I'm lucky enough to connect with a larger audience, history dictates that some of them will get it and some more of them won't, but I can't let that bother me. I write this stuff for me. I'm not up on the pulpit trying to shame people into changing something. I'm just trying to write about what it is to BE a person, and how complicated that can get. And part of that equation for me is figuring out what scares me so much about the people running massive institutions like government and big business and media and where the humanity went, what happened. I think most people on some level somewhere can relate to that, anarchist, Mormon, senator, socialist, soldier, nun, stockbroker, poet, whoever. If I'm wrong, I'll find out.
Garett: How will signing to Capitol improve your exposure as an artist? Are you going to make a music video? Perform on late night television?
Kevin: I'm not totally sure about those things yet. I think it'll afford a little bit more access right now, the climate of music being what it is. I feel like there's a sliver more space for someone like me today than in 2000. We'll find out.
Garett: Have you ever thought about what you might want to do for a music video?
Kevin: I've had some ideas, but I am seriously retarded in terms of visual thinking. So I'd probably swallow my pride and ask for some help there before I took that jump.
Garett: These days, it isn't all too often that we find a sincere self-made singer/songwriter making it all the way to a major label. How do you think your singing to Capitol reflects upon the scheme of the current music scene and on you as a musician?
Kevin: I'm not totally sure. I mean, you have this really blurred line now where bands like Arcade Fire and Bright Eyes and in the emo world all the Vagrant bands are selling hundreds of thousands of records on indies. Bands like Death Cab and The Decemberists and Jimmy Eat World and Brand New earning their stripes on tour, slugging it out on indies, and then opeating successfully at the major level. Even straight up rock n' roll like The Strokes, White Stripes, Franz Ferdinand, all that stuff taking cues from indie-rock and crossing over and selling big numbers. Modest Mouse selling a million records. So it feels like the culture is slightly more receptive right now to guitar-based music that takes risks or wears its intentions and heart on its sleeve than it was when say Creed and Limp Bizkit and teen pop were peaking. The pie chart's gotten a little wider to fit some more of us fringe people in.
So that's how I've justified to myself that they signed me. It's not as crazy for them as it would've been five years ago. THere's some success story precedent that says, 'Well, what's the worst thing that could happen here? We do a record, spend some money and no one buys it. We drop him and move in, experiment failed. BUT, if it strikes a chord on a fluke...' They look like geniuses.
So far it hasn't been very different at all, the process leading up to the record. So I'm not totally sure what comes next, or if it'll change. For now, I see my signing as a very cool opportunity, and realize it happened right now because of the culture and the climate caused by the surge of (semi-successful indie-rock bands that preceded me. Again, my expectations beyond putting out an album and seeing what happens are pretty low. I'm happy good music is getting a bigger push and platform again, and know it all goes in cycles, so enjoy it while it lasts.
Garett: Concept albums seem to be a current hot trend, evidenced especially by this past year. Could you ever conceive of a Kevin Devine concept album?
Kevin: I kind of think in a sense, thematically, they all are. This one is about the movement from a really dark place into a place of more cautious optimism. About taking back your own agency to live a good life. About coming to peace with toxic relationships, owning your role in them, and moving forward. But if you mean, like, "Operation: Mindcrime" or something like that - I don't see it happening any time soon. Unfortunately, because I can really fucking riff verbally with the best of them and I'm sure there's some amazing record in there somewhere about a battledwarf who must fly through the space-time continuum to wage war on his evil mutant stepchildren three thousand years into the future.
Garett: Your lyrics sometimes have a sensational nature. Are they generally based on fiction or experience?
Kevin: A lot of both. I like taking normal situations and explaining them in surreal images or vice versa. It all comes from a place of experience, sometimes personal, sometimes things I've watched.
Garett: There are many minions anxious to come out and support your live show. Got any tour plans for the year?
Kevin: I'm making the record for most of the early year and then will play at SXSW in Austin in March. Hopefully, touring will kick up this spring and summer and keep up for the forseeable future after that.
Garett: Apparently there is a remix of Buried by the Buzz floating around. Is that ever going to see official release?
Kevin: I think so. Chris Bracco is going to put out a single with his remix of that song and another one from "Split the Country, Split the Street" this spring. Keep checking out our myspace page for more info on that.
Garett: What's your favorite song to play live?
Kevin: Oh man, this changes all the time. I really love playing "Shift Change Splits the Street" with the full band. Something about the ending, I always get real excited to play that part. I love playing this new song called "You'll Only End Up Joining Them" at solo shows right now. As far as covers go, I love doing "The Biggest Lie" by Elliott Smith, and the band did "Holland, 1945" by Neutral Milk Hotel on tour in Europe this past fall and it was super fun to play.
Garett: What have you been rocking on your iPod or stereo as of late?
Kevin: A band from NY called Pablo that I absolutely love and play with all the time. Great stuff. Johnny Cash, the Folsom Prison show and his last records on American. Wilco's live record. The last Kanye West record spent some uninterrupted time in the car stereo. The unreleased Elliott Smith "Basement on the Hill" stuff. M. Ward, quite a bit. He's unreal.
Garett: How do you feel about comparisons to Conor Oberst?
Kevin: Ha - maybe if I answer this in depth I won't ever have to answer it again. I don't mind it at all anymore. I like Conor a lot. I think he's a gifted songwriter and he's saying and doing really important stuff. I also know I've been writing and playing music like this since before I knew of him or heard Bright Eyes. I see where it comes from, and why people make the comparison: similar pool of influences, similar outlook at the world, two 20something white kids with shaky voices who write lyric-heavy music with some folk overtones. I also think we're different in enough ways that a truly nuanced music fan won't just default to that comparison, and will call superficial bullshit on those that do.
I used to get a little bent of shape about it, because it was frustrating to always hear that come back at you in a dismissive fashion. I'd think, "This is me, this is how I write, and I have no idea what I'm supposed to do." Then one day I realized, "It's a compliment. They're comparing me to this guy because they have no idea who else to compare it to." People need a box to put things in and that's the box they feel comfortable putting me in. Those people have the choice not to listen to me. I'm confident in who I am and what I do, and feel I can put that behind me. It's for other people to fuss over and worry about.
I know I respect and like Conor as a person and as a musician, and I think he feels similarly, and ultimately, that's all that matters anyway. I've played with him a few times and it's been great. I root for him to do well and I'm glad as hell that he's around.
Garett: This is something you probably get all the time, but the fans are relentlessly wondering, so maybe we can put the matter to sleep. Is there any future for Miracle of 86?
Kevin: No. Sorry guys. That's a long and complicated story that's not up to me anymore. Enjoy the records.
Garett: And lastly, what is a "cotton crush"?
Kevin: Whatever you want it to be. The weight of history, tied to a place, dragging it down. The soft choke of inevitability. A cool alliteration. Something fun to yell. Fill in the blank here:________
Garett: Thanks again Kevin, AbsolutePunk.net <3's you!
Kevin: Thanks to you guys for the genuine support. You've been great to me and I appreciate it.
Thanks again to the amazing Kevin Devine, as well as to the generous forum members who contributed great questions!