Kevin Devine speaks about his latest record Between the Concrete & Clouds, his fascination with religion, and always writing about life experience.
So the new album officially comes out today.
That’s correct. Yes, it does.
Are you going to be doing anything to celebrate?
Laundry. I’m in Denver. We’ve been on tour for a week. It’s the sixth record. I guess in that sense it’s not like when you put out your first demo with your first band when you’re 15. You’re like, “Let’s go to the diner, and stay up really late, and hang out and be crazy.” I’m excited, but I’m not throwing a party or anything. It’s not like a Puff Daddy record or something. I’m really happy that it’s finally here and people get to actually hear it, because it’s been living with me for a while. I’m really enamored of it and think it’s my favorite one we’ve done so far.
I don’t know what anyone else will think, and I realize that’s not my job. My job is to make something I like and hope that other people feel the same. If they don’t, if you can go down with the feeling that you’ve made something worthwhile, then that’s the best you can do. You’re responsible for the effort and not for the result. But, yeah, I’m excited. To celebrate we’re doing laundry, running errands and enjoying a day in Denver before we go play our show tonight.
I see the album’s been doing really well on Amazon, so that’s pretty cool.
Yeah, I don’t think it could do better. Isn’t No. 1 the best it could do? So I guess it’s doing pretty well. It’s really exciting. That’s something that is obviously totally the result of our fans being so mobilized. I think they have an understanding that there’s an ownership of it, which is not kind of normal for a band in most circumstances to have that experience of having the top-selling album on something as massive as Amazon for even a day is pretty amazing. It’s been super exciting and having your family so thrilled, and within the band we were all really psyched, too.
We were getting all these reports, seeing the record move up. The surreal reality of seeing your record above Lil Wayne and Adele, and all these people on a chart that monitors album sales, was crazy and funny and totally unexpected. The coolest thing has been seeing the fans so far. They genuinely feel proud. They feel an ownership of it. It’s like their band almost, and I think that’s rare and special. That’s the coolest part about it, getting that feedback so far. It’s been great.
It seems with your career you’ve gotten a little bit more band-oriented with each record. Do you consider this album your most fully realized band record?
I do. Even from just a literal sense, there’s no song on it that’s just me and an acoustic guitar. So in some sense that’s a stylistic break from Brother’s Blood, where there were three of those on the record. I definitely think that Brother’s Blood was the record where we took a turn where it’s more of a band than it ever has been. That record was the start of that sensibility.
There have always been different people around me playing, and it’s not intended as a disintegration to that. There’s always other people playing on the records with me, but it was a little bit less collaborative, I guess is the right word. I feel like we’re in a place now where if I wasn’t 10 years into a career establishing a name, I would strongly consider renaming our band like the Tablemats, or the Coffee Cups, or the Buzzards, or whatever a band would be called, not Kevin Devine & the Goddamn Band.
The division of labor is still as such that I’m doing most of this kind of stuff, interacting with most of the administrative aspects of running a band, kind of like a small business, and with press and stuff. From a creative side, I’m still writing all the songs. Even on this record I play a lot more than just an acoustic guitar and sing, so it’s definitely my project in that sense, but I’ve kind of flipped from going on tour almost always as a solo artist with band shows sprinkled in to now almost always going on tour as a band with solo shows sprinkled in. It feels a lot more like that’s where we’re at now. It feels a lot more like a band than me alone.
Musically speaking, this record is not as raucous as some of the aspects of some of the songs on Brother’s Blood were. Some of those songs were six and seven minutes long, a lot more sprawling and went for the jugular at points. This record still has rock songs on it, for sure, but they’re more tight. In a sense, the last record was a lot more all over the place. It really developed the band’s style and sound in these interesting directions, but this record is a more solid and complete record in my mind. It’s the fullest realization of our band’s sound I think that we have had at this point.
A tough thing with my career has also been that the band has always changed every time. I think every record there’s been slight differences in the performers. Our drummer on this record, Mike Fadem, it’s the first record he’s drummed on. He’s toured with the band for two and a half years, but he’s never drummed on one of our records before. It’s definitely a snapshot of the band as it is now, and I think it’s the strongest representation of it so far.
The last album you recorded most of it live. Is that how you worked with this one?
No, this one we did more pasted together. We made it at Chris Bracco’s house, who plays bass on the record and produced it. He’s produced every record I’ve put out since the last Miracle of 86 record, which is 10 years of music, with the exception of the Capitol Records one, Put Your Ghost to Rest, which we did with Rob Schnapf, who mixed this one. This one was kind of great in that sense because we got to have the best of both experiences. Chris and Rob are the two people that I always want to make music with, so to have the opportunity to make it with Chris and have Rob mix it with his ears from outside was a gift, and I think it played itself out on the final product.
We did a few live recordings for this. We did drums in Chris’ living room, and then did guitars and bass and most of the in-computer tracking, like the keyboard stuff and the vocal stuff, in his basement. We did that for the demos for Brother’s Blood, all played live in his living room, but then we did that record in a proper studio. There’s more separation sonically and you’re enabled to do more of that live recording at a higher quality than you would if you’re in someone’s living room with the amps bleeding into the drum mic bleeding into the vocal mic. Do you know what I mean?
This one we did it more traditional. We did drums first to a click track and then did a lot of the layering of things on top from there. The three of us, Chris, Fadem and myself, I had been working out the songs by myself for two months, and then we spent about a month prior playing as a three-piece band in our rehearsal space in Brooklyn getting the songs in shape. The recording we went back and did it more brick by brick for that.
Since there’s not a lot of featured acoustic on the record did that affect how you ended up writing?
I pretty much write all the songs on acoustic guitar. Something like, for example, “Between the Concrete & Clouds,” the title song, that song when I wrote it was more of a folk song in my head. Then when I was thinking of the movement of the chords, I was thinking of that song “Verse Chorus Verse” by Nirvana. I was thinking about how that basically could be a folk song if you played it on an acoustic guitar, but if you play it with a band and step on a distortion pedal when the verse starts, the drums are being beat up, but you’re still singing this song. It has a different effect. I wanted to hear that song in that kind of treatment, and that’s why we went that way with it on the record. I really love that, but I didn’t write it like that. You don’t need those elements there to write a song that’s going to sound that way. You just need to hear it in your head.
“Off-Screen,” I wrote that circular guitar thing on my acoustic guitar. I played that riff and came up with that chord progression, but I knew that probably would not be the most compelling song to play alone on an acoustic guitar. I then found this old chorus pedal that I had in high school that I hadn’t used in 15 years. I threw it on for “The First Hit,” and it had this quality that I really liked that helped the song arrange itself, too.
When I’m writing something I can pretty much tell how I can hear it in my head, if it’s a band song or one that you’d rather keep as a folk song. Then there’s also the opportunity to do several versions of songs, too. We put the acoustic version of “Between the Concrete & Clouds” out earlier this year on a split 7” we did with River City Extension on that tour and SXSW. I really love the way that song feels that way too, and you want it to see the light of day, but I felt for the proper album that one should definitely have that rock band feel to it.
It doesn’t necessarily impact the way I write the song, like that song’s going to be loud so I need to write it on an electric guitar. That process is more for me about mapping out the melodic map for the song, figuring out the chord progression, thinking about tempo and obviously the lyrics, too. I feel like that’s the writing, and then the arranging is when you get in a room with the guys and figure out what goes where and how it gets there.
In between these last two records you did Bad Books. Do you think that experience had any influence on this record?
I think it does. I think it always does. I think every time you do something, it has some kind of influence on what you’re going to do next. I think both Brother’s Blood and the touring for Brother’s Blood, and then the Bad Books record, had a lot of influence. In one respect with Brother’s Blood, I think there was a little block in my mind before we started working on this record. I was really proud of that record, especially some of the songs like “Brother’s Blood,” “Carnival” and “Bag of Bones.” It was a little bit riskier, in terms of form, for what I had done prior.
I thought I don’t want to subconsciously write that again, not that there’s half a million people sitting there pouring over my every decision, because there’s not. There are people who like and follow our band, and you can tell when someone’s trying to recreate something. It comes across as dishonest and not good most of the time. I realized you don’t have to write those songs again. You already wrote those songs. You have to write new songs and they don’t have to be that. In a weird way, it was an influence through realizing you don’t have to follow the same blueprint every time.
The Bad Books record was great because it was so breezy to make. The songs came together so quick that it reminded me that you don’t need to torture the shit out of every song you’re trying to write. Sometimes a song is something that happens in 10 minutes, and sometimes those are great. Sometimes it takes two years to get there. Sometimes it takes an afternoon. I tried to really remember that with this record.
Also, the concision of the Bad Books record, the kind of pop friendliness. I was listening to a lot of the first Strokes record, and even things like Vampire Weekend. I don’t really write that kind of music at all, but I was thinking about the concision and the tunefulness of it, trying to marry that concept to writing the kind of songs that I write and the music that we play. I definitely think on some level those things were influenced by making that Bad Books record and definitely spending a year and a half with those Brother’s Blood songs that were big and a lot to digest, trying to figure out a way to keep those themes present while writing pop songs, or writing my version of a pop song anyway.
One thing you said you wanted to be on this album was less wordy and a little more succinct. Can you talk about that and why you wanted to do that with this one?
I think it’s probably self-evident in this conversation that I’m a fairly wordy person. I love a lot of songs that are like that. I love Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. Those are the two guys that rise above in my mind when I think of people who are really verbose. They could stream and stream and stream, but then they could also knock you on your ass with a couplet or five words. The polar opposite of the pole for that are people like Kurt Cobain, where there’s a song like “School” from Bleach that’s super impactful and revealing and insightful, and it’s literally 16 words, the whole song, and it says a ton.
I wanted to see if I could get to a more economical place with the lyrics, but it’s not like I got to that level of what you would call concision. I don’t really write that way. We just did this thing where we offered a presale bundle where people could order a copy of the vinyl and then a handwritten lyrics sheet. In doing that I found out that I didn’t get as economical as I might have liked to because there are lot of words to write out a hundred times for this record.
I repeated the melodies in choruses and I repeated lines and words, but then there’s songs like “The City Has Left You Alone.” The chorus is the same melody, and that line is in every one of them, but then every other lyric is totally different. It was a mindfulness of just wanting to get the impact across without rambling. I do think in that sense it’s more effective than the prior records in that respect. I don’t know how other people will or won’t feel about that, but that’s what I was trying to do with that.
Another thing I found interesting about the record is it probably has the most religious references that you have had on an album before. Was there any particular reason for that?
No. I think that I am someone who has always had that conversation in his head. Where I’ve landed on it has moved around so much in my life. I’m just fascinated by it. I’m fascinated by what a central role it plays and how different it is for each person. It just seems so unknowable to me. There were different points in my life where it felt very certain, and I was sure that was real and that there was some overarching architect keeping track of what we were up to. Then there was this time in my life where I was very intellectually certain that was not true. It was a shell game and we were blowing each other up in the name of the Easter Bunny or something. Now I don’t know.
I feel a little bit more like when you’re having those conversations you’re talking about men, you’re not talking about whatever that would be. I don’t know, God or energy or something like that. People are activating agents and we do what we do. I don’t believe in that kind of architect. It’s not what I see, but I also can’t say. Just for the record, it may be hurtful. There’s been more of a movement in my mind in the last couple years towards feeling like I can’t know the answer to that. That doesn’t mean I don’t have thoughts about it, or lean one way or the other.
I was also very lucky in the last couple years of my life to have been on tour with a bunch of people who have really different definitions of religion or spirituality. People who identified as agnostics or atheist but also had these really open and nonaggressive, inclusive pictures of what those words mean, and Christians and Jews and Muslims and Buddhists. I’ve let myself open up more to have those conversations with a straight face and not walk into it with this preordained, intellectual bias that I know what’s right and these people don’t.
You pick up this line between all good people, whether they’re believers in God or not, is that they tend to put other people before them as much as possible and not be dicks. I feel like maybe that’s been in my mind a lot, thinking about whether I know or not I still have to be a responsible person. Whether there’s a God or not a God, whether there’s an afterlife or a judgment. I don’t think there are those things personally, but that doesn’t mean that life is some nihilistic march towards death where that doesn’t mean anything because there’s no reward after. It’s the opposite. It makes every moment invested with more meaning, because this is what you got.
I feel like I’ve been thinking about and writing at the edges of those things for a while. There’s autobiographical references, but then there’s a song where there’s a conversation about God from the perspective of this character from this Philip Roth book who was this atheist revolutionary, maybe terrorist, maybe freedom fighter, depending on where you sit. She becomes a chain Buddhist and has a real hard-line experience inside that faith, so some of that song “Awaken the Dirt” is about her trying to explain the conception of her god and her actions to her father. Some of it’s me, and some of it’s me trying on different clothes.
I do think it’s fascinating. I would probably identity as an agnostic who leans more towards atheism in terms of social applications of religion, whatever that might mean. I am totally fascinated by it and I think about it a lot. I’m not a card carrying Catholic anymore, but I do find I’m drawn towards those kinds of books, or movies, or those colloquial stories about Catholic neighborhoods in places like Brooklyn, or Baltimore or Boston. Those stories are really appealing to me, even if it’s not where I have buttered my bread at this point spiritually. It’s that you grow up in it and the community’s really powerful, so I don’t know. It’s definitely something that’s on my mind a lot, so it would make sense that it would sneak in, or more than sneak into the record, though I haven’t thought about the record as an overly religiously concerned record until right now. This conversation is kind of making me think more about it.
You mentioned writing from the perspective of the character from that book. How often do you write from other character’s perspectives?
Not very often in that sense, where it’s actually trying to embody and speak in the voice of a preexisting character. I don’t really do that. I know there’s other songwriters who do that a lot, where they’re writing as someone else. I think there are times where it’s more like I use pronouns, like “I” and “you,” but I’m not really talking about me. It’s a fictionalized “I,” and it’s more generalized than I have a specific picture in my head.
It’s not like I have a picture of a clerk at the gas station, and he’s in love with the girl who works at the video store, and you’re writing about those two people. It’s much more about the sense of story, or themes, or feelings or ideas that come to mind. You start writing them, and you’re still using those pronouns because I think those pronouns are more effective and they help you slip into the story or the poem or the song more. I think they all collect little shards of experience.
That is an easier way to communicate, but it also gets you into a trap because everyone thinks you’re always talking about you and your friends or your girlfriend or whatever. That’s really more than half the time not true. A lot of times the songs are composites of people, composites of different parts of my own life over a timeline. It’s not like in a moment this is right now, this is exactly how I feel, and I’m talking exactly about this person. So it’s kind of a blend of autobiographical writing and then just writing. I don’t want to write diary entries. I’m not especially interested in people who write diary entries. I want to write songs and write, not catalogue. It kind of goes back and forth, I guess.
One of the themes of the record I picked up on was alienation. Was that something you were feeling as you were writing and are there other themes you see on the record?
I think that most of the songs on the record are about strugglers, people who are trying to figure it out. I didn’t feel especially alienated. I wrote that record while living at home, hanging out with my girlfriend, and rehearsing with the band and seeing my family. I was in a pretty healthy space writing that record. For me, my experience is that even when you’re in a good space, life is complicated. It’s very complicated right now. On a micro-personal level and on a macro-sociopolitical level, it’s really a complicated time to be a person. It probably always is but I’ve only lived now, so I know it is now.
I feel like the people I tend to write about, the people I tend to gravitate towards in my relationships, the people I tend to gravitate towards in music or in art, are people who are honest about that. I would rather have the songs reflect an honesty about that, too. Sometimes we do fucked up things, or we’re self-evolved or we’re self-destructive. We make motions toward figuring it out, but then we blow it up. That’s been my experience. It’s not clean and neat, where one day you’re one thing and the next day you’re another. For me, it bounces back and forth all day.
I think that can be alienating. I think that it can be scary. I would even go so far as to say that people in positions of power and influence want people to feel alienated and scared because I think it’s better for them. I think that one way to beat that back is being honest about it and communicating that alienation with each other and phasing it out, or letting yourself feel it and letting it pass through you like any other feeling, because feelings don’t stay, they go.
To me, I hear a lot of in this record about people trying to figure it out. People trying to make sense of their experiences. That’s not sexy, and it’s not cinematic in some overarching way. I don’t know. I feel like a lot of what I do is trying to write the best songs that I know how to write at the time I’m writing them about the experience of trying to be a person. I’m fascinated by that.
I feel like if I was to look over the course of all of the records, that’s what they all are to some extent. They’d make one big body of work that I guess would navigate one person’s trip through that experience, while also trying to paint a little bit with other people’s colors, too. It’s not all just about me, those records.
There’s one song I wanted to ask about real quick and it’s the last song “I Used to Be Someone,” which is kind of a different song than you’ve done before but a perfect way to close the album. Can you talk about how that song came about?
That song, like a bunch of songs that ended up being songs on records, came about by I had an idea for that vocal melody. The first three verses came as I was walking around midtown Manhattan down 6th Avenue in January. It was before Brother’s Blood even came out. It was January 30, 2009. I saw these two rich women who looked like they had taken a cab from the Upper East Side. They were older and they had all this intense plastic surgery, almost like grotesque. They had fur, like fez-looking hats on, and fur coats, and they stepped out of this cab. The first verse of the song came out immediately. I looked at them and that immediately came into my head.
Then I looked around the corner and the next thing I saw was the Debt Clock. I don’t know if you’ve seen that in New York. It’s between 44th and 45th Street, I think. It’s this running tab that tells you in LED letters the national debt and then tells you your family’s contribution to that, or what your family would owe if they broke it down by family. They’re really depressing numbers and they’re constantly going up. They never go down. It’s always rising. That kind of struck me as a really rare moment where the universe hands you a perfect snapshot of the duality of what it is to live right now in this country. There’s those two things. It made an impression, so that became the first half of the song.
I like sometimes when I’m writing about stuff that’s more broad to then sink it to a more narrow, personal level. The second half of that song is more about when you get back from a moment like that. Your mind is racing and then you start to mirror that disrepair, that gap, that gulf, to your own experience and where you’ve gone off the rails at points. You’re trying to remind yourself but you can’t sit around for an extended period of time, picking through your past looking for answers, because your life is happening now. I think sometimes I can trap myself, and I think a lot of people can. There’s a false nostalgia that is actually not a reflection of what things were like when they were really happening.
I think the very last line of the song, it’s a little tongue in cheek. There’s moments where you’re in a rut, or in a knot, and you can’t untie yourself. I try to remind myself that at the most basic level your someone’s brother, your someone’s son. There’s some identification and responsibility there, but there’s also some grace there, some connection there. From that place, you can move forward. It’s also a little tongue in cheek, like a washed up, has been kind of thing, that I got a kick out of. But no matter whatever else you are or aren’t, you’re still those things, you’re always those things. I’m always going to be my brother’s brother. I’m always going to be my mother’s son.
The sonics of that song totally came together. That song I didn’t even know if it was a song when I was working on it because the structure was really weird. It was just one chord progression over and over again with a big ending. I liked the lyrics so much and the melody so much that I really wanted it to be a song, but I wasn’t sure if it was as strong as the other things. The arrangement, the way things came together with the band and how that took shape, the pulling the song apart, and the swells, and the orchestration, and the drum break in the middle and how it resolved itself, it not only became a song but it became one of the core songs on the record. It kind of was obviously the last song for a long time.