I caught up with Kevin Devine on the same morning that his new album, Instigator, launched for stream onto the internet — a fact he seemed almost as relieved as he was excited about. Over the next hour, we talked all kinds of things from the connection between the album’s title and its artwork, how his song “No Time Flat” has aged over the past decade, and what full-length album he might want to cover next.
Happy album stream day! How does it feel to have the record finally out there?
[Laughs] And what a joyous holiday that is for the music industry in 2016.
I feel…level. Grounded, I guess. I’ve been living with the completed versions of these songs for three months now, so they still feel fresh to me, but a record cycle is a marathon, you know? You’re talking about playing these songs for up to a year or two, actually about 18 months with this album cycle, so I’m trying to…conserve energy. [Laughs] But I truly believe Instigator is my best, most concise, dynamic collection of songs. I have no fucking idea if it will be received that way, but that’s where I’m at now.
As you said, the new album is titled Instigator and I was wondering what the significance of that title is to you and how it connects to the album’s artwork.
Oh! Well the artwork is kind of a stroke of dumb luck. I had a kid – well, my wife had a kid, I was there [Laughs] and we were going to do this little announcement thing where we put two of our baby pictures together and say, you know, “What will a baby made by these two babies look like?” So I went to my mom’s apartment, flipping through these hundreds of old photographs, and I flipped past that one and said, “Oh my God…this picture is amazing.” I could remember exactly when and where I was when I had that feeling. I remember that it was Christmas eve, my brother and I were wrestling obsessed kids and we got that belt. I got an Ultimate Warrior t-shirt that was a gift from my dad, probably. And we were just freaking out.
To me, probably, my favorite part of that picture — you know, you have the nativity scene, you have the artificial Christmas tree — but my eyes are drawn to two things every time I see that picture. The first thing I see is my brother’s face. My brother’s face is the best fucking part of that picture. My brother is so stoic as he’s holding that belt; his arms are extended as high as they can go above him and he’s making this face, like, “I’m the shit, I’m a champion.” I truly can’t love that more. And then, I love that you can see my dad – you can only see his legs and his hand – and in his hand, he is cradling a tumbler of scotch, and he’s gotta be thinking, like, “Oh my god, these fucking kids gotta calm down.” [Laughs] It’s just this perfect little scene of a family and it’s so chaotic, but it’s crystallized in this picture.
I don’t know if I had written the song “Instigator” yet and I definitely don’t know if I had the title [for the record] yet, but there was this moment that coalesced around the song and the title and the picture and it was like, “Come on, that’s gotta be it.” I am screaming and look like I am going to launch into a clothesline against an invisible villain. [The title] Instigator definitely comes into play there. And the scene in that picture makes it on the last track on the record, the second verse of “I Was Alive Back Then.” “Instigator” is an exercise in songwriting that became this kind of half self-motivational song, like this challenge to write a pop song. There’s a bit of a love song happening in there. The chorus has direct references to leftist politics with the “clenched left hand” instead of the right hand, the left hand being radicalism. “Your dynamite, your Weathermen,” that’s not a lowercase “w,” that’s a reference to these radical American…well, whether they’re freedom-fighters or terrorists I guess depends on which side of the fence you fall on, but they were this radical leftist group in the 60s and they were certainly instigators. So it was kind of like, what if I write the poppiest song I can write and in it, try to fit all of the things that I am as a songwriter into two and a half minutes? Radical leftist, confused, stumbling into love, and talking to myself in a mirror, which is what I think most of my songs end up being. And then combine that with that picture that has such a history, and such a presence to it, it just felt like the right marriage of things more than I could ever articulate. It just felt right.
And what’s interesting about that picture is that my brother and I also grew up obsessed with wrestling, and I know we have some crazy, chaotic photos from family parties when we were growing up, so even though that photograph is personal to you, there’s definitely this sort of resonance and familiarity that comes along with it.
What you hope for is a metaphor for, not only this record, but all music in general. All music in general, the reason we’re on the phone, the reason there even is a music industry, is that someone hears something that someone else made and goes, “Oh, I feel like that.” You know what I mean? You make something personal, and it becomes universal because we all have the same set of feelings. We’re all painting with the same set of colors. So I’m glad the album cover did that, and I hope that becomes a metaphor for the album itself.
This album follows the wildly ambitious release of Bulldozer and Bubblegum. Following a project like that, did you go into writing Instigator wanting to build on either of those sounds, a little of each, or something entirely new?
So this should be no indication of which record I like more, but I feel Bubblegum was executed more faithfully in what it was originally envisioned to be. I think originally I wanted Bulldozer to be more of this singer-songwriter album, something like Nebraska or even Either/Or. But Rob [Schnapf] heard things that I didn’t, and by the way – that’s what a fucking producer is for. [Laughs] Rob is so good at what he does, and he’s so tasteful. But eventually, it moved away from that and into something…fuller.
But with Instigator, I wanted to write something that combined the thrust and energy of Bubblegum without all of the abrasive stuff and the sort of “skeletal power-pop” of Bulldozer. I wanted to blend those two things and pull away from writing ballads a bit; I think the closest thing to that here is “Guard Your Gates,” but that’s more of a midtempo psychedelic thing and definitely an outlier on the album.
This album was produced by John Agnello, who has worked with bands like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. How was this experience different from working with other producers like Chris Brocco and Rob Schnaff, and do you think those musical influences impacted the recording of Instigator?
John was great, as is Rob and as is Chris. All specific, different ways of making the sausage [Laughs] but all very good. Rob and John have a little more storied careers than Chris, but that doesn’t make Chris any less deserving of a seat at that table. I think I’ve been very fortunate to work with three wonderful producers over the span of my album-making career. John is a really fun personality to work with. He’s a really great guy, and he’s really…reactionary, like he hears things and he’s got kind of this mad scientist vibe about him. [Laughs] At times, he’s on his knees with like, four effects pedals hooked together, and he looks like Doc Brown from Back to the Future, saying, “Press this one! No, that one!” [Laughs]
I will say that I knew the kind of record I wanted to make sonically and I knew that John had made a lot of records that were like that. He’s also made a lot of records that aren’t like that, like Hop Along’s last album or Kurt Vile’s stuff. And there’s a song on this record called “Guard Your Gates” that, I’m not saying it sounds like Kurt Vile, but it sounds like it could live in the same spacey, psychedelic, singer-songwriter ballpark. And then there’s Hop Along, which is just really lyrical, vocal filled music that is tuneful, but also has one foot set in indie-rock and another in emo, to some extent. So I knew [John] knew all of the vocabulary. And he’s a Brooklyn guy, which is rare; I grew up in the Bay Ridge area. We met to talk about making the album at a pizza place. [Laughs] I had a lot of fun, and I also felt challenged, and I also felt comfortable to fuck up and explore new things and make mistakes, and to have all of those things is rare.
Sometimes, someone pushes you to be really fucking great but it’s a miserable experience, or sometimes you have so much fun but you’re not challenged. That song, “Guard Your Gates,” is like an outlier energetically on the album because it’s not a folk song, it’s not a power-pop song…but I think we did “Guard Your Gates” 27 times. Sometimes the chorus would be there but the verses weren’t, or that would be reversed, or the bridge would be great but everything else lagged, and [John] would be like, “Do it again.” And I like that shit. Even in the moment, if your back hurts, or you’re like, “What did we miss that time?” It pushes you to be better. Even if it doesn’t pay off right away, it does six months or six years later, when you’re better because you were pushed to play some challenging piece of music 30 times in a row.
So [John] was great. He was like, the perfect combination of a cheerleader, a teacher, a member of the band, and someone who wasn’t afraid to tell you when something was fucking awesome or when something needed to be done again. But Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, fucking Guided By Voices…these bands are the reason you’re even remotely interested in having a conversation with me over the phone.
For what it’s worth, in real time as I was checking the album thread this morning, a few users mentioned “Guard Your Gates” being the stand out track for them from the album.
Wow – that is so weird and funny to hear. John said I was fucking crazy, but I almost left it off the album because it doesn’t feel like the rest of the record…for aesthetic reasons, to tie the room together. The band said I was crazy, and [John] was like, “It’s going on the record, this isn’t even a conversation.” So I got outvoted, and sometimes that’s a good thing. Sometimes you need those people. I just finished that Replacements book where Paul Westerberger says, “I can’t tell my best shit from my worst shit.” And having Tommy Stinson and Bob Stinson in that band – for all the craziness that man embodied, those guys kind of kept him honest. So to have the Johns and the Robs and the guys and girls in the Goddamn Band, the people that I trust, they do that for me too. “Cotton Crush?” “Another Bag of Bones?” Those were literally things I wrote and showed Chris Brocco and said, “Is that even a song?” And he said, “That’s the best song on the record.” I think anytime something feels easy or straightforward to me, it feels not good. And sometimes I need someone to say, “You’re nuts.” And that was definitely “Guard Your Gates.”
The first song you released from the album was “No History,” which has been named by a few of our users as the best song you’ve ever written. How does that make you feel and why did you choose to release that song first?
It makes me feel great that someone thinks I can still be improving this far in, and I think I’m improving this far in, but I also understand that I am a music fan. I saw Radiohead on my 18th birthday touring on OK Computer. Even Radiohead should think The King of Limbs is their best record, and then that A Moon Shaped Pool is their best record, and that each time they were able to tweak something arrangement-wise that they hadn’t been able to accomplish before. And I respect that, while still going back to OK Computer and Kid A as a fan because the moment they struck me by lighting was through [those records]. I say all this to say…if you are even lucky enough to have an audience, you are often to your audience whatever was on the first time they kissed their partner, or the thing they were listening to when they found out their father was sick, or the thing they put on when they were trying to drink less. You could and should continue to try to improve, but most people don’t listen to you that way. And that’s okay. At some point, they honor you by sticking around and saying, “Thank you for what you did for me when I was a younger and more vulnerable person.” But they’re usually not listening to your eighth and ninth records and saying, “I can tell he’s improved as a harmony singer,” or, I can see he’s more adept at using his pedals.” [Laughs] Which is the kind of shit you’re thinking about as a musician.
The fact that any number of people would listen to a song like “No History” and think that it’s the best song I’ve ever written indicates to me that I’m not completely delusional. [Laughs] We decided to release that song first because, dynamically, I think that it’s the centerpiece of the record. I think it both embodies a certain kind of singer-songwriter tradition I’ve tried to build into my career at this point and a certain stylistic approach that has represented the past four or five years of my career, while also nodding towards something else, something very “of this time and record.” It wasn’t like a rehash, but it did feel like a moment that was this total nexus point of past, present and future.
In terms of content and what the song is, it felt substantial – not that a song like “Instigator” or “Both Ways” or “I Was Alive Back Then” isn’t substantial, but those are almost like genre exercises. “Instigator” is a power-pop song, “Both Ways” is sort of this political punk rock song, and “I Was Alive Back Then” is this 36-year-old talking to the 22-year-old who wrote “Ballgame,” and writing his own version of that song. Those are all so specific, and [“No History”] felt like some of all of that, you know?
Many of our users (including myself) are excited for your upcoming tour with Julien Baker, Pinegrove and Petal. What attracted you to these artists and are there any other up and coming artists you think we should be paying attention to?
I’ll do that second part first before I forget, because there are a ton. [Laughs] Mitski’s Puberty 2 and Angel Olsen’s new record, which I’m sure most of your readers are familiar with and like. I generally think, and I don’t mean anything weird by this, that in indie-rock, underground or folk-tinged rock music, whatever you want to call it, there is just an overwhelming amount of really powerful music being made by women right now and with way more versatility and depth than their male counterparts. All of these interesting [artists], Julien, Mitski, Hop Along, Speedy Ortiz, Field Mouse, Kayatanna…there’s just so much shit out there right now being made by women that is just like, ”Fuck, this is really good.” [Laughs] I listen to Pinegrove’s record a lot. [David] Bazan, who is untouchable and I think the most reliable and consistent songwriter in indie-rock right now. He makes us all better just by listening to him. I know Julien’s and Hop Along’s albums came out last year, but I’ve listened to those a lot too.
I heard of Julien through that band Dads last March when we were on tour together. If I’m not mistaken, Ryan from Dads may have actually brought her to our show in Little Rock Arkansas, and I may have met her briefly then. And then he sent me her record last Fall, and I finally listened to it. What attracts me to Julien, what attracts me to Kylie from Petal, what attracts me to Evan from Pinegrove is this very specific iteration of what I think a song is. That doesn’t mean anything about experimental or abstract or formally challenging [music], but the thing I always react to is something someone could sit down and sing me, take the form of something that has been worn out to death and make it seem fresh, and all of those songwriters are able to do that. They’re all communicating something, which felt familiar to me. I really liked the idea of having this tour that felt like a generational bridge between me and all of these artists that are 10, 15 years younger than me and that we’re all connected by that kind of reverence of song, reverence of communication. And I think there’s this kind of “mirror” thing with all of us where the people that like our music see themselves in our songs.
And so with Julien, I reached out and we became friendly and I threw it out there. Her schedule only allowed her to be on the first 10 shows, but I just said, “Fuck it, we’d have her play one show as long as she’s into it.” Those first 10 shows, by the way, I feel like it’s some fuckin’ emotive singer-songwriter Lollapalooza or something. [Laughs] I just feel like it’s this really stacked thing and Pinegrove being second of four on those shows just means we have the most ridiculous tour of the fall. And then with Pinegrove, I played bass for The Front Bottoms for a couple of shows at Lollapalooza, and Pinegrove was playing a club show [there] in Chicago. I had heard the record, but it really happened for me at that show. And then we just walked around Chicago at 2 a.m. and talked for about an hour and a half. Kylie, I met after we did a show together at a Boston college during a freak snow storm in April. It was her, The Hotelier and I. We talked then and I really liked her band. Thankfully, they all just wanted to do [the tour]. [Laughs] I think we’re going to have something really, really special with this tour. I really do.
In the past, you’ve referred to some of your older political songs as “clumsy.” What makes a political song clumsy to you, and what separates your older protest songs from a song like “Freddie Gray Blues” or even “No History?”
I think sometimes when I say “clumsy,” I mean more formally clumsy, like there’s no bridge, or maybe it’s something with the arrangement. But other times I do mean politics, because times change. A song like “No Time Flat,” for example…I really love that song. And in some respects, when you pull the camera back a bit and look at it from the perspective of basically corporations [being] the world, and now nation states are a step below corporations, and until we find a way to adequately combat that, no matter what happens in terms of political will or government, that is going to be the great battle of the 21st and 22nd century because you’re not going to get any change in climate change, wealth and equality because [of] the corporations that make money off of them or buy politicians’ interest. A song like “No Time Flat,” I think all of that stuff is still true about the two parties not really representing how the world works in a macro sense. There are real answers being propagated by these people. Down on the ground, is there a difference between voting for Hillary Clinton and domestically sending a message to the world about what it means to be a woman, or a person of color, or a Muslim, and voting for Donald Trump? Of course there fucking is. And that’s where the clumsiness of it comes in. I’ll probably play “No Time Flat” every night on this tour, or at least until the election happens, because it’s relevant. Clumsy is okay. I was 24 and drunk; I’m allowed to be clumsy.
A song like “Freddie Gray Blues” doesn’t need emotionalizing. That story, rather, doesn’t need emotionalizing, and I don’t think it needs poetry. What it needs is responsible witnessing. There has to be a reason for a 36-year-old, straight, white, lower-middle class male to think he has any right to a voice in that conversation right now. And to me, the specificity of being the son, grandson, nephew and cousin of police, and someone who has also grown up embracing left-leaning politics and pro-people movements felt like a specific enough nexus to talk about that. I don’t write social justice songs to point fingers; I write social justice songs to try and understand something better and articulate it. “No History” is kind of a lot of songs at once, but if it’s a social justice song, it’s only in the sense that you can draw a thick black line straight from the mess we’re in now to how we reacted as a culture and a country to what happened [on 9/11]. But that’s not the only thing that song’s about. It’s about memories and dreams, and being a 21-year-old New Yorker and processing that thing for the rest of my life, you know? And in a sense, that parallels the thick black line I can draw from myself to what happened that day and how I reacted to it.
Even “Both Ways” is a bit more of a corrective, an examination. “You can’t be the bully, then conveniently say you’re oppressed/Can’t blow peoples’ countries apart and demand that they clean up the mess.” That isn’t saying I’m better, or that I know better, you know? I’m saying that you can’t say you’re a Christian and pro-people when you’re actively oppressing millions and millions of people. That’s all. If we’re going to evolve, we have to tell the truth. And the rest of that lyric is trying to tell the truth about me. And sometimes…I’m trying to tell the truth about us.
Our users basically demanded I ask this: would you like to do another DeVinyl Split Series or full cover album, a la Nevermind?
Yes, to both of those things. My idea of the DeVinyl Split Series is that it will be a thing that happens every X amount of years until I don’t make music anymore. Whether that will actually happen remains to be seen, but that’s my goal. There is an endless number of people I’d like to work with, and the first one was really encouraging in illustrating that people will say yes. Some people said no, and some people said, “Not right now, but come back next time,” and of that crop, one or two people are already lined up for the next one.
In terms of a full cover album, definitely. There’s a weird one I’ve always wanted to do that I don’t think would resonate with my audience as well as Nevermind did, but a top 10 of all-time favorite record of mine is If You’re Feeling Sinister by Belle and Sebastian. I love every song on that record and I can play every song on that record and I’ve spent so much time with that record. It’s certainly not something you can hear in my music since probably Brother’s Blood or some of the earlier stuff, but I think it could be really fun to get some synths and get some people to play flutes [Laughs] and do my bastardized Sufjan [Stevens] cover of a Belle and Sebastian record.
I actually feel like that’s a way more interesting answer than if you were doing an In Utero cover album, or a Modest Mouse or Neautral Milk Hotel album because it’s not as expected in a way.
When Neutral Milk Hotel came back to play new shows, that ended covering them for me because that was such a special circumstance. It’s like, “You don’t need me to cover them, because they’re there.” You don’t need me to cover a Modest Mouse record because they’re around. Plus, some Modest Mouse stuff is so specific, it’s like…I’m not sure anyone could really do it justice in a way. It would have to be an album from before, like, 2002 or so, and I don’t know, those records are fuckin’ weird. [Laughs] You know how sometimes it feels like they were making stuff up as they went along? There’s a jazz component to those records. I have thought about [Elliot Smith’s] Either/Or, though.
Someone mentioned that one as well.
Yeah, that could be a cool thing to do, but I think if I did an Elliot Smith thing, it would more likely be an album-length of different Elliot Smith covers because I’ve done so many of them. That could be fun, but I think Jessica Lea Mayfield and the guy from The Avett Brothers did that, so I’d have to find a reason to make it worth existing.
I wanted to avoid questions about being a new father because it’s a private thing and I’m sure you’ve said as much as you’d like to about the topic, so I guess I just wanted to say that there is something incredibly genuine about your songwriting and that really shines through in “I Was Alive Back Then.” I truly believe it stands next to “I Used to Be Someone” as perhaps the best song you’ve written.
Well that’s a wonderful compliment, thank you, and “I Used to Be Someone” is one of my favorites too. I try to go back to that one whenever I can. Whether or not anyone else agrees with us, I don’t know. [Laughs]
With a song that personal, does you ever feel nervous about just how upfront and honest it is?
I was more nervous with how my family would receive “Freddie Gray Blues,” with how people of color might receive “Freddie Gray Blues” and think, “Who the fuck is this guy?” “I Was Alive Back Then” is about as close to a cliché songwriting story that I can offer. I was with my wife. She was pregnant. We were at Woodstock, it was her birthday, and it was our anniversary. It was like 8:30 in the morning and I was like, “You’re at Woodstock. You should write music. People write music at Woodstock.” [Laughs] And, as always, the other voice in my head was like, “Dude, that’s fucking ridiculous.” [Laughs] I went outside, I had some coffee, the sun was out. My wife was still sleeping. I sat down, and what came out was pieces.
All my lives are coming through
And even though there isn’t room
I save seats for my selves
Invite them in, wish them well
The way I feel and the way I guess I felt.
That came out and it was like, “Woah, that’s worth something.” And then the next part that came to me was:
You never ‘know,’ you’re never ‘ready’
But all your fear is just confetti
So let it blow around your bedroom when it gets too heavy
Don’t let it get too heavy
And I thought, “That’s worth something too. Those are both good.” And then came: “I was alive back then.” [The lyric] was connected to [my] past selves. I was either most or least alive, depending on when I dropped in on the chain. I was either close to death or flying.
And that was it. I played that very little amount for [my wife], and she was like, “That was good,” and then we went on with our lives. [Laughs] But then later, in the kitchen of my apartment, I decided it was time to finish that song. I didn’t finish that song for a while because, and I don’t mean this egotistically, I thought it was really good and I was afraid to fuck it up. I was afraid to say something trite, or to not deliver on the promise of those two pieces. And it was after I was at my mom’s and I saw that picture and had a conversation with [her]…I was like, you know, “I can’t imagine what [having a child] will be like,” and she was like, “Oh my God.” She leaned back from the table and said, “You’re going to be crazy in love. You have no idea.” I’m getting emotional talking about because, you know, it was true. I see this kid and I’m like, “Oh my God…whatever you need.” You know?
I had thought about having kids, and for a while it was like this padlocked door at the end of a long, dark hallway in my brain. It was an empty room. And then it wasn’t anymore. The door was open, there were some lights in there, and I was like, “Oh, maybe we should put a kid in that room.” [Laughs] I’m not afraid of intimacy or vulnerability in songwriting, and I think that’s something that connects all of those touring musicians, too. They’ve all discovered that being intimate and vulnerable is really the strongest fucking thing you can do if you mean it and own it. We live in a world that is very ironic, sarcastic, detached, removed, and hey, I have room for all that. I like all that stuff. But a song like “I Was Alive Back Then”…there’s no room for that stuff in that song.
And look – I will say this at the risk of sounding totally fucking ridiculous. That song made me cry. I have very rarely if ever experienced a song I wrote making me feel like that. That song was like, in some respects, and I’m not saying this is going to happen, but there was a moment where I was like, “Maybe you’re done. Maybe that’s as good as it’s gonna get, goodnight, thanks for coming.” [Laughs] So no, it didn’t frighten me, but I felt a responsibility to get it right.
I don’t think that’s ridiculous at all. As someone who’s written songs before, it’s hard to come to a point with anything you write where you feel okay about it and feel like it doesn’t need more work, especially with something that important and momentous. To be able to come to a conclusion with a song like that and feel like, “This is right. This is the way it’s supposed to be”…that’s a really great thing.
And the truth is, there are so many ways it’s supposed to be. You could make any song 10 different ways. For me, it’s like I just gotta pick a way. The record is a document, but if I want to change that, I will have the rest of my life performing it in front of people to change that. That’s what that Matter of Time record was about and that Live at St. Pancras record was about. These things don’t stay fixed; you get to do whatever you want with them. With a song like “I Was Alive Back Then,” there’s a version of that song that’s got, like, easy, breezy country-western instrumentation to it, like it’s a Tom Petty song or a Jackson Browne song with harmonies that I feel would detract from the message. There’s a really thematic version of that song that’s got, like, strings that I can hear.
But that song, in order to feel credible to me, just needed to be exactly what it was. Matt from Nada Surf sang this little harmony on the chorus and sent it to me, and I was like, “That’s all it needs.” It feels like you’re hanging out with somebody and they’re singing you this song, and then they get to the chorus and you’re like, “I’m gonna sing with them.” And that’s perfect. Same thing with “Freddie Gray Blues.” There was this moment where we played it at least once through in this thrashy, almost “Brother’s Blood” sort of way, and it just doesn’t need that. That song doesn’t need help being impactful, it just needs to be presented. That’s all I’m trying to do. is present things and have you tell me what you think of it.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about Instigator?
I’m proud of it and I hope people get something from it. More broadly, I know that AbsolutePunk.net became Chorus.fm more or less and I just wanted to say that well before a lot of other sites paid attention to my music, the people at this site did, and that’s why anytime someone from here asks me to do something, I’m going to do it. Not only because I respect and like the people who run it, but because the people who read it, in a very literal sense, gave me the first part of my career. And the fact that they sustain it is something that is not lost on me. So thank you.
I’m sure they will appreciate that, I appreciate that, and as someone who not only writes for the website but would like to turn music and music journalism into a career, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me. Good luck with the album cycle and I look forward to catching the tour.