Meeting Kevin Devine

I met Kevin Devine outside the beautiful St Pancras Old Church, where he’s playing three acoustic shows over four nights to audiences just shy of 200. What sets Kevin Devine apart from typical singer-songwriters is a personality and honesty that looms in each record. He stretches genre, but has managed a distinct sound that delves into issues that span from drugs and the human condition to social justice and a very authentic political narrative of his hometown, Brooklyn. The result has been the emergence of a cult audience. “They’re very committed,” he gleams, “and I feel lucky because the way I feel about music seems to be mirrored in the way my audience feels about my music.” Speaking to Devine outside a church that has existed in some form since 314 AD seems strangely relevant given the beauty and longevity of his career within music. “I’d rather have fifty-thousand people in the world that are incredibly excited by what I make than ten million that are interested for six months. I actually feel I could grow old in music this way, and that’s really what I want.” 

Conversing with Devine is an inspiring experience – his involvement with music has seen him enjoy an unconventional career. His set tonight will be on a complete request basis. As we talk, he informs me that he’ll be scrawling numbers on small pieces of paper that will be handed to fans as they enter the church. Before each song he will call out a number and will then take that persons request. “I’m only reserving the right to decline a song if it’s a cover that I don’t actually know.” Circle Gets The Square, Devine’s first solo record, was released thirteen years ago, so surely there must be some anxiety hanging over the task ahead. “No, I’m actually excited. I guarantee there will be mistakes, but I realise that when you have one hundred and something songs, there’s not really any way to prepare. You just need to hope your brain manages to unlock them.”

The sun reflects from the windows of the church as our conversation turns to Brand New and Jesse Lacey, who after a four-year hiatus from releasing music finally dropped new song ‘Mene’. “To me, it’s like if Your Favorite Weapon and Daisy had a baby.” Lacey worked closely with Devine on one half of his latest two-album effort, making his production debut on the heavier, arguably more experimental Bubblegum. Devine has also enjoyed a tight collaboration with Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull, with their respective side project Bad Books exploring darker, more sparse sides of their song writing.

“As a kid, I didn’t feel like I could play the things Slash played. I couldn’t be like Michael Jackson or whatever, but with Nirvana it was like ‘well, I could do that’.”

It seems Devine took this less conventional approach towards the writing of 2013’s Bubblegum. Released on the same day via an extremely successful Kickstarter project, the folky, more typical Devine infliction of Bulldozer opposed the punk rock aura of Bubblegum. Bulldozer, which Devine recorded without his band, seemed a more fitting destination from 2012’s Between the Concrete and Clouds, whereas Bubblegum – recorded with the members of his live outfit Kevin Devin and the Goddamn Band – offered an exploration into a sound that has only existed in spurts throughout his career. “Well that’s funny, because some of the Bulldozer stuff existed in some form already – there were ideas being thrown around but they weren’t finished, so that had some pieces going into it. Bubblegum had absolutely nothing which was terrifying at first, but now whatever else I go into, I’m not afraid of like ‘what the fuck am I gonna do?’ which is a really cool feeling.”

The majority of both records were written at the same time on a nylon string acoustic guitar, with some parts written just on bass. The entirety of both records written in Devine’s kitchen during the abnormality of days spent at home. “My wife would be at work and I would just sit at the table with these speakers and my laptop, make coffee and it would be, like, 9am. I’d want to be able to hang out with her when she got home at 7, so it was like ‘you’ve got a work day, now work’. And some days, even though I was writing on the same device, I could instantly tell what was a Bulldozer song and what was a Bubblegum song.” Bulldozer also marked another collaboration with Rob Schnapf, renowned for co-producing Elliott Smith’s seminal Either/Or and XO albums. Schnapf first worked with Devine on his only major label effort Put Your Ghost to Rest, before Capitol eventually merged with Virgin in 2007.

Recording two completely contrasting records simultaneously perhaps offered Devine a definitive space to explore two conflicting sounds that have come to exemplify his records. In the past there has been an explicit divide between songs that have appeared on them, most obvious on 2005’s Split the Country, Split the Street where album opener ‘Cotton Crush’ has an anxiety and fervour that stands apart from the velvety ease of songs like ‘Haircut’ and ‘Probably’. “The approach was weird, because it was literally the same, in the sense of physical space, the things I was using and the time which it was written,” he says. “I remember writing ‘Now Navigate’, the first song on Bulldozer and the song ‘Bubblegum’, within the same two days and it was just so obvious which was which. Bubblegum stuff in my head was like Pixies, Breeders, Nirvana and the first two Weezer records. Bulldozer was just kind of whatever I felt. Somehow ‘Little Bulldozer’ just didn’t sound like a Bubblegum song. It sounded like a Wilco song or something.”

There’s a subtlety to Devine’s work that has earned him an extremely loyal, passionate group of fans. His approach isn’t conventional, yet structures are normally kept sharp and simple in his songs. “It’s not very showy, and I think that’s why every person who listens to it is very grateful for it,” he tells me, “I’d like to think its pleasures are subtler. I feel there have always been a few of those Bubblegum songs on our records. Certainly some of the Bad Books stuff I’ve written has little bits of that, but it’s like Bubblegum was the first time it was a sustained album like that, and that was kind of exciting because it was almost like writing in character.” 

"I write about anything; the condition of personality, love, lack of love, figuring out the sort of constant internal navigating we do all day as people, drugs, or even the different mechanisms people have for escaping themselves."

Our conversation soon turns to influences. After a brief infatuation with “absolute cock rock music”, Devine defines Guns n’ Roses as the first band that were his – but it was Nirvana’s Nevermind, released whilst Devine was in seventh grade, that sparked a realisation that music was going to be a fundamental detail in his life. “As a kid, I didn’t feel like I could play the things Slash played. I couldn’t be like Michael Jackson or whatever, but with Nirvana it was like ‘well I could do that’.” Although it was the rawness of Nirvana that connected so potently with Devine, the genius craft behind the songs – often not instantly tangible – has also become a defining feature of his writing. “I promise you, they were a big deal. I could say to this point, that everything I’ve made since, and even everything I’ve listened to since has some connection back to that band.” And in honour of Nevermind’s 20th anniversary, Devine covered the entire album, allowing fans to download it for free via his website.

If there’s a band that has had comparable influence to Nirvana on Devine, it would be The Smiths. “It’s funny, I think they were a very singular band. I don’t think they sounded like anything. I don’t think a lot of things since have even sounded even close to them.” The literary aspects of Morrissey’s writing are also akin to Devine’s fascination with words. “I think to some extent, I’m a freak about words. We’re all dealing with the same feelings, sets of them – and really, everything is some variant of love and fear. So when I hear people that can articulate what it means to be a person in a way that sounds new, I mean that’s what I’m looking for all the time.”

Devine’s latest project is a series of seven inch split releases, felicitously named the Devinyl Splits. The first release features Mathew Caws of the 90’s New York indie band Nada Surf, who as well as a being a close friend of Devine’s, has also been another important influence musically. “That was a thrill for me, because he’s a friend but he’s also made some of my favourite music in the last fifteen years, so to hear him cover one of our songs was a bit of a thrill”. The second release will feature Meredith Graves of the band Perfect Pussy, who Devine describes as having “some Morrissey in her for sure – she’s not afraid to throw herself under busses”. The next instalment will feature Pennsylvanian emo duo Tigers Jaw, and although Devine can’t announce the rest of the contributing bands until the second half of the year, the project perfectly captures the community aspect that has been such a crucial part of his career. With the Kickstarter campaign proving successful in funding the release of Bulldozer and Bubblegum, and the musical landscape immensely different from the one Devine emerged into over a decade ago, it will be intriguing to see how his atypical nature of releasing music will advance over the coming years.  

“I think at this point I’m probably older than a lot of the people who come and see me play,” Devine says, as we touch upon how his experience of coming to London has changed over the past ten years. The experience of touring, especially as a singer-songwriter, can offer extremely distinct involvements with different cities and cultures, and London has been a constant in Devine’s exhaustive touring schedule. With fluctuating commercial success impacting the venues and places he plays, tonight is perhaps the most intimate show he’s played in London and signifies the core audience that he’s merged here. “Coming to London has changed in the sense that I’ve changed. The city has definitely changed too, though. Much like New York, it seems like there’s money in some places where there didn’t used to be money, so it feels like the culture’s changing. The history has always gotten me though – the fact that I’m able to play music in a place that’s sixteen hundred years old.”

Time is also a significant factor in the changing tide for Kevin Devine. “I used to opt for the party, and now I opt for the chill,” he divulges, perhaps a reference to both personal struggles and a shift in the musical environment in which he has existed in for the last ten years. Relatable topics have regularly been a staple in Devine’s music, but songs like ‘Another Bag of Bones’ and ‘No Time Flat’ have often seen his lyrics verge towards a relevant social commentary. I ask whether this socially aware aspect of his lyrics is something he’s conscious of. “Yeah, it’s something I’m definitely aware of, but I try and write about it the same way I write about anything; the condition of personality, love, lack of love, figuring out the sort of constant internal navigating we do all day as people, drugs, or even the different mechanisms people have for escaping themselves. These things I write about the same way I try to write about social justice, but I like that you said that word. I don’t care about politics – because it’s like not even left and right any more, it’s like centre and far right. But sure, when these issues crop up I write about them, and I don’t necessarily think it’s anyone’s responsibility to do that, but I just like having something to say and saying it.”

Talking to Devine gives you an insight into just how involved he is with his music. The intimacy he places into his music makes tonight’s request only show more apt than ever, and there’s a pertinence about the fact that his fans will take their place along a church pew tonight to watch him sing songs about drugs, sex during televised death counts and the blemishes of life and love. As he talks with soft violence about infatuations with Elliott Smith, Neutral Milk Hotel and Bob Dylan in his youth, you realise that rarely has a musician taken such broad influence into their music, making it difficult to nail down one defining album or band that has shaped the sound, but rather offering spurts of all of them. The four sold out shows he’s playing at St Pancras Old Church indicate his importance, but before anything you sen­­se that he’s just grateful to play his music. Before I leave I let Kevin know that my request will be either ‘Billion Bees’ or ‘No Time Flat’, and in my indecision he hands me number 1. During the show, he calls out my number second and I decide on ‘Billion Bees’. He forgets the lyrics half way through, and it’s perfect.

Words by Sean Littlewood