The Man Behind the Mic: An Interview with Kevin Devine

You would assume you know Kevin Devine from his first 6 albums. The folk/acoustic rock singer and songwriter made his way telling tales of growth, identity, love, and religion with his unique and personal words and driving instrumentation supplied by his trusty backbone ‘the Goddamn Band.’

After these recent two albums, you might find yourself questioning what you thought you knew.

Bubblegum and Bulldozer, Kevin’s two new LPs, were released simultaneously and are cut from two completely different cloths. Bulldozer is what you’d expect from Kevin Devine at this point in his career: catchy, heartfelt and fresh, and Bubblegum is definitely something else. Together they create the Kevin Devine of here and now, someone that people will definitely sit up and take notice of.

Busy with a national tour for Bubblegum extending throughout the fall, Kevin was gracious enough to sit down with me for Rock On Philly!

Rock On Philly: Hey Kevin, thanks for taking the time out to discuss some stuff with me. First things first and I’ll get right down to it – Bubblegum. This thing from front to back is some of the angriest stuff you’ve ever done. It has an incredibly political message. How much of that factored into your desire to have this album be 100% crowd funded?

Kevin Devine: Zero percent. (laughs) None of it was really written before we made that decision…it just kind of happened that way. I feel like more than the crowd funding or the self releasing, what informed some of the more overt political content this time around is that for me a lot of times the records are a reaction to what happened before. Each record is a response to my previous record. I don’t know if that’s how anyone else would perceive it, but I’ll be like “oh, this was this way, it would be cool to do something this way.” I also just write when I’m moved to write, and sometimes I’m moved to write about social issues and sometimes I’m not, it’s a long cycle. And the economic and the Chelsea Manning stuff, it all felt really present to me, as did a lot of the border content and demonizing illegal immigrants stuff. This time around it all just felt really pressing on my mind.

ROP: It has a really good balance of political rockers and the slower, more emotional songs that feed into Bulldozer. One of the songs, “She Can See Me”, is actually on both albums. How did you go about deciding which songs went on which record?

Kevin: The songs kinda told me. Even though the songs were all written in the same three month window and all on acoustic in my apartment, a lot of stuff that ended up being on the Bubblegum record was stuff that was kind of power chord-y, kind of straight ahead. The Bulldozer stuff was the same guitar, but it was more full chords, a little more melodic fingerpick-y moments inside the chord progression. The dynamics didn’t seem as big to me. Bulldozer was more mid range dynamics, sort of going side to side and staying even and Bubblegum went more up and down, and that’s how we figured out what was gonna go where.

ROP: The fact that you were able to produce two complete LPs and schedule a full tour while staying completely independent is a big achievement. It shows the power of a fan base and shows the scope of what’s possible in this social networking day and age. How important is that to the music industry?

Kevin: I don’t know if it’s important so much as it is intruding and scary for the music industry, because you can make a living now in this way that kind of cuts them out. I mean, as non traditional as the fundraising part of this was, we’re still using a distributor to get the records in stores and we’re still using people independently to help get the record on radio and then a publicist to help us get people like you to be interested in talking about it. We’re still going through those channels but we’re doing it with the money that we were so generously given by the people who helped finance this record and get it into the marketplace competitively, so it’s really important to me because it shows that I can do this stuff and take those operational steps forward without using that sort of middle man financier. Whether or not that’s a viable replacement economy for the music industry going forward for everybody, I don’t know. I don’t even know if I can do it again and be as successful! That might’ve been my lightning in the bottle moment, you know, so more will be revealed there but I’m definitely glad we went that route this time and it’s gonna be a continued experiment for the next two years supporting these records so, I am curious but I feel like it’s gotten off to a pretty excellent start.

ROP: A lot of the piss and vinegar in these songs has to come from working with Jesse (Lacey, of Brand New, producer of the album). How was it working with him in a more official “producer – artist” capacity after being friends for a while? How did that come about? Did you come to him?

Kevin: Really largely from our friendship. We’ve talked about that for years. He’s been interested in doing something with us for a while, but it was really more about the timing. We knew we wanted to do something different with these records than we’d done before and with almost every record I’ve made I’ve worked with Chris Bracco. He’s basically produced or played on every one of my records to this point. He has two young kids and a full time job so I thought this was a really good time for us to try something different. I’ll be making records with Chris on and off until I’m done making records so it wasn’t like a break up, it was more “why don’t you focus on that part of your life and focus on this stuff and see if we can try something different”. Especially working on two albums and knowing we’re gonna use Rob Schnapf for one of them, and I have a history of working with him too…I thought with Bubblegum it would be neat to try something very unique and have Jesse in there and have that experience. He was very stoked about that, he wanted to and he was almost the petitioner and I was the petitioned. It wasn’t like we were like “hey Jesse, please record this record for us,” it was something he’s been talking about since about ’05, but it just happened that the schedules lined up for both of us so it could happen this time around. The circumstances were dead on and I think he did a really excellent job with it. I’m very happy with it. He hit a home run with it.

ROP: You worked with Jesse on Bubblegum. You work with Andy Hull and other members of Manchester Orchestra on Bad Books. Would you say collaboration is a big part of your process?

Kevin: You learn to collaborate better with people. You learn more, you experience different people’s perspectives on songwriting and arrangements. How they dress things up, how they dress them down. I just think it’s simply a way to get better. I’m always interested – I want to be a career musician. I wanna make music for the rest of my life. One way to do that is by continuing to learn different stuff and not write the same record over and over again. Even if that’s sometimes challenging to your audience it’s a great way to keep growing. Like collaborating with Andy Hull made me a better and more confident singer. It was all in there but singing harmonies with someone that confident made me realize “oh, I can do that.” That was the last first step. I’ve taken steps as a lead singer, as a guitar player, as an arranger, as a performer, as all these things but as a harmony singer I was always tentative. Singing with him made me more confident in that and that’s informed how I’ve recorded my own music since Bad Books. Working with Rob Schnapf always teaches me all about chord progressions and chord voicing and dynamics and arrangements and…haste, and you know, I think working with Jesse was about enthusiasm and creativity and trying something even at the risk of sounding stupid doing it, because often you’re wrong and it’ll actually sound cool. He was pretty fearless in that way. So yeah, I think you learn something from everyone you work with. I’ve learned a lot from the guys in the Goddamn Band over the years and other people that I’ve played with or that have played for me. Collaboration is very important to me, because you take on aspects from all of it and bring it back with you.

ROP: Name the one thing you’ve done that has brought you the most gratification as a musician?

Kevin: Right now, I feel that way about this whole experience. I really feel that to have the experience of making these records exactly the way I wanted them made, and then to have them also be the most successful things I’ve ever worked on… I mean, that’s not what I expected to happen at all. I thought, even if you’re working with an ineffective record label, there’s still people and infrastructure. I thought by downsizing that to a team of five running everything would eventually mean having to take a visibility hit or taking operational steps backwards…but it’s been the opposite. People seem to be the most excited about this out of anything I’ve ever made. I also feel like I’ve had a lucky career because there’s been a lot of different kinds of gratification, just as there’s been different kinds of challenges too. I love it exclusively and it’s never been just how I pay my rent. I get to keep writing songs and the fact that people care about it 3,000 miles from where I live and there are gonna be people at the show tonight singing my songs…that’s pretty bonkers. So…I feel the whole thing, actually, has been the most gratifying of any single experience.

ROP: Alright Kevin, that’s all I got for you today, thank you for taking the time out to talk to me! You’ve been great.

Kevin: My pleasure, thanks!


Check out more of Kevin Devine, and definitely check out his two new albums!

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