By Georgina Langford

Backstage in the graffitied dressing room of The Lexington, Punktastic had a fascinating conversation with Kevin Devine before the first of his recent UK shows. Kevin is touring in support of his dual records ‘Bubblegum’ (produced by Jesse Lacey) and ‘Bulldozer’ (produced by Rob Schnapf) which came out on Big Scary Monsters late last year. Those albums were funded by a Kickstarter originally aimed to raise $50,000, but had hit that target within a day and went on to reach nearly $115,000. This guy has seen his fair share of ups and downs; he’s spent time on a major label,  left that major label, battled addiction and worked on all kinds of different musical projects with his circle of creative friends in Manchester Orchestra and Brand New, as well as recently covering Elliott Smith’s ‘King’s Crossing’ for the first Fadeaway Records compilation in 10 years.

Kevin spoke to us about his deep love for Smith and working with his producer, Rob Schnapf, the Kickstarter experience and being in the studio with Jesse Lacey, whilst the now clean-living Mr Devine ate a pre-show apple and drank a black coffee. We recommend you too grab a hot beverage and get comfortable, because Kevin has a lot of interesting things to say. Especially about Morrissey.

Slightly off topic before we start: you keep posting on Instagram about the Morrissey book. Do you actually like it? We’ve tried a couple of times and just can’t get along with it.

You hate it? Here’s the thing: I think I have a very high tolerance for Morrissey’s antics. I don’t know how far you’ve got, but there’s a section in that book where he talks about how, when The Smiths are ‘happening’, Mick Jagger comes to see them in New York. It’s a big deal for Johnny Marr, but not so much for Morrissey, and he’s writing in the tone of someone who now knows that they were wrong about something. I’m a sucker for anyone who can publicly admit changes of heart, that’s why I – and sorry, this is really off-subject – I always found something appealing about people like Malcolm X. He never shied away from saying “My thought process on this was wrong”. If more people were like that, the world would be very different. Because we’re very afraid of being wrong, it’s like, embarrassing. So Morrissey talks about [Jagger] and says that at the time, he doesn’t care, but later he’s realised the brilliance of the Rolling Stones. But at that gig Mick Jagger watches three songs and then leaves, and says something like “He was a bit much for me”. Morrissey says he has never held that [opinion of himself] against people, because he knows it’s true, and knows that the only thing he ever felt he had to offer to the band was his commitment. His commitment to just be this ‘open wound’, even if that was embarrassing and when people said “He’s a bit too much” Morrissey said he thought “If only you knew”.

He writes with great humour, wry humour. There’s parts of the book that my wife has zero tolerance for. She bought me the book, but she has no time for him. I read her a passage of it and she was like “There’s no fucking way I could do that”. But this is a book written by a guy who gives off the impression of being really arrogant, but so much of that arrogance comes from being insecure and aloof and not knowing how to deal with being a person. Also, he was and is an encyclopaedic, passionate fan of popular music and film, and you see from that obsessiveness that he was basically unemployable. If he hadn’t become ‘Morrissey from The Smiths’ he probably would have just died when he was 25 years old.

All he could ever be was Morrissey.

Yeah. He is a lot to deal with, but for what it’s worth, I totally believe him. I think he really is that guy. For better, and for often, way way way way worse.

Did you know he made them publish it as a Penguin ‘Classic’? There it is: you don’t even need to read the book. Everything you need to know about Morrissey is right there on the cover.

Everything you need to know is in that gesture. Anyway, yes I am really enjoying it – but that might be because I’m a huge Smiths fan too. But you should persevere.

Bringing this conversation back to you –

I don’t mind. I could talk about Morrissey all day.

Let’s rewind to almost exactly a year ago, when you were doing your Kickstarter to fund the two albums, ‘Bubblegum’ and ‘Bulldozer’. Can we talk about that first day that you set the Kickstarter live and it all basically blew up? How did that feel when you looked at your computer and saw what had just happened?

When I realised that we had already hit the goal?

That you had hit it and that the pledged amount was continuing to go up and up.

That day was really crazy. The honest truth was that I really thought we had an outside chance at reaching the $50,000 over the 45 days. I had no idea how to compare what we were doing to other people’s Kickstarters. In a weird way, I was thinking about it in the way that ‘Brother’s Blood’ and ‘Between the Concrete and Clouds’ were both made, all in, for between $25-30,000. That was inclusive of marketing, everything. So I thought that $50,000 was basically two ‘Between the Concrete and Clouds’. What was shocking and illuminating for me was realising that this wasn’t going to work like a record label; this is your fans, so whichever way this ends up, it’s doubly damning.

We had tried to get the Kickstarter launched two weeks earlier, but we had some administrative problems. But by the time we had sorted all that and it actually went live, I’d already gone through the inner turmoil and had more or less made peace with the whole idea. I kept telling myself “I’m not in the results business, I’m in the effort business”. You have no hand in results ever, and you have to let them go. Sometimes you do everything right and you get the wrong result, sometimes you fuck up every step of the way and the best thing happens.

So that day, when it finally went live, I pressed the button, I shut my computer down. I left the house, saw friends for about two hours. When I finally turned my phone back on, it was like…

Exploding with notifications?

Not just from the Kickstarter, so many emails too. I opened the computer again and say we put the project up at noon, it was now 2:30pm and we were at $18,000. But the way I’m wired – and this isn’t faux-humility – I don’t know if it’s a protective, defence mechanism or something, but I thought, “Ok, that’s it. They’re the last people who are going to donate to this”.

Then I was on the phone with Andy from Manchester (Manchester Orchestra and Bad Books, not Manchester: Morrissey’s domain) and while were were talking for about an hour, he was freaking out. Every twenty minutes he’d be like “$21,000’…’$22,500” and I was like “Let’s just talk about ANYTHING else”.

Like that scene in Breaking Bad, where Walter Junior keeps watching the total of the donations for Walter’s surgery going up.

Yeah! It was exactly like that. I had my wife, my mom, my manager calling me. People were freaking out. We got to $40,000 by about 7pm. I thought “Woah, we are within shouting distance of doing this”. Then we hit $50,000 in nine hours. In the first day we did $61,000. I swear to god, no bullshit: I was the last person who thought that was what was going to happen. There were a lot of people around me who were like “Oh, dude, you are gonna do that” but that was not what I thought. So that day was – an overused word is – surreal. But it was. And the outpouring of goodwill too; seeing how many people who were not just literally invested financially, but also just so happy for me to see this moment. I was kind of trapped in that moment; at that point there was no concept of “Oh wow, this is going to be a lot of work”.

“All these people have pledged money, what the hell do we do now…”

I asked Kickstarter after the first day if we could unplug it! We’d hit our goal, but you’re actually not allowed to do that. Seeing how it all shook out, and what that extra money enabled us to do…we probably ended up spending $30-40,000 on each record, which is not something we would have done. When that money was there, we prioritised the experience of actually making the records over everything else.

What was your reasoning for doing two albums at once?

I wanted to justify doing the Kickstarter to myself. There’s an interview I read with Jack White, who’s great, but also someone, like Morrissey, who people can think is a dick, but he talked about how he’ll come offstage, and his friends will be like “Did you have fun?” He said something like “I don’t know how to tell them this without sounding like a self-involved, art-damaged prick, but I don’t have ‘fun’ doing that on stage. I intentionally set myself challenges, that’s why I play shitty old guitars or I try to do two things at once, because I want to push myself. And that, in a way, is my version of fun.” That’s something I relate to; obviously he’s an enormously successful, popular musician but a bit like him, I have never taken the easier road because I think it’s kind of cool to see “Can I do this?” and sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. The two records came from that idea.

I was also uniquely positioned to do something like that since half of my brain plays acoustic, pop, folk, whatever, gentler, more thoughtful music, then the other half of my brain wants to be in the loudest parts of the Pixies or Nirvana. Instead of all of my records up to this point being kind of musically schizo, I decided to split it into two albums. I didn’t think ‘Bulldozer’ would end up being the bright, shimmery, pop record it is. I thought that was going to be more like ‘Nebraska’ by Bruce Springsteen and Schnapf didn’t hear it that way, which I’m grateful for because I think we made a really pretty record. And that also means that my original idea for that record is still waiting to be made.

Exactly, if you still have that creative idea in you, it’s got to come out at some point. Obviously the records have completely different sounds, but considering you were writing and recording them at exactly the same time, was there any moment where there was any kind of crossover, in so much as you didn’t know which album each new song would end up on?

It’s weird because I always knew. A song like ‘Now Navigate’, once it started taking shape with the guys from Everest playing bass and drums, that song I knew exactly how I wanted it to sound; full. But I also knew that that doesn’t sound like the ‘Bubblegum’ songs. Even if there were distorted guitars sometimes, or the drums are loud, this was still a folk song that you are dressing up. Whereas a song like ‘Fiscal Cliff’, or one of the slower songs like ‘I Can’t Believe You’ on ‘Bubblegum’, I knew that was not a ‘Bulldozer’ song somehow. Its mood and its tone, its chord progressions, it just fit more on that record. The mellower moments on ‘Bubblegum’, like ‘I Don’t Care About Your Band’; that’s quieter, and pretty, and maybe would have made sense dynamically on ‘Bulldozer’, but it felt like a punk rock song, to me. It’s simplicity and what it’s saying felt more in line with the tone of ‘Bubblegum’. It was more about the tone of each record, and the lyrical approaches. ‘Bulldozer’ feels a little more ‘in’, whereas ‘Bubblegum’ is a little more ‘out’.

That’s a fair way to sum them up! It’s interesting the way you work with some idea of the finished product already in your mind.

That actually develops song by song. Also, while with some of the songs, even when I was just writing them on my acoustic guitar, I knew how they were going to sound, there were others, like ‘Safe’, my favourite song from either record, Rob heard something entirely different to me. He helped me try opening things up. He was like “Think like, Neil Young…on the beach…kind of like…stoned”.

We need to talk about your two different producers; first, the excellently named Rob Schnapf.

Yes, sadly the ‘p’ is silent. Rob ‘Schnaff’.

We’ll trust you on that pronunciation. He’s previously worked with Elliott Smith, who’s something of a hero of yours?

Musically, he’s one of my biggest influences. In terms of how he demonstrated how to be a really dynamic and powerful performer just by yourself. And never doing the easy thing. He is one of the most deeply understood artists of our time (which sounds like a very dramatic thing to say) but people hear him and they just think “Oh it’s sad” or “Oh it’s pretty” or “soft”, and when people try to sound like him, they sing [starts whispering] in a whisper, while finger-picking on the guitar. He was, hands down, the best musician of his generation. He could do anything he wanted on any instrument, but he reined that in to fit the song. His lyrics are deeper, more thoughtful, mysterious, layered than anyone else’s…I’m not a huge fan of how he played out the last two years of his life, it sounds like he hurt a lot of people. I think he was a very beautiful soul who was probably very sick. He’s just another tragic, awful example, like Philip Seymour Hoffman, of how no-one is made exempt by their intellect or talent from the ramifications of untreated addiction. I don’t mean that as a judgement, I mean that as someone who understands that we all have dark and fucked up – not even fucked up, that’s a judgement too – we all have parts of ourselves that are sick. He was a really sick guy who could never let anyone in to help him.

The anniversary of his death last year gave a lot of people the impetus to start delving into his back catalogue, which is nothing but a good thing. Moving on to Mr Jesse Lacey, who as well as being a good friend of yours, also did his first official producing outside of Brand New for ‘Bubblegum’. It’s a brave thing to work with a close friend, let alone one who’s had considerable success in their own right.

[Raised-eyebrow smile from Kevin] Yeah, a fair amount of success.

That must have been a learning experience for both of you.

We’re very close. I think that made us even closer, if that’s possible. When he is creatively turned on, he is so enthusiastic and imaginative, he’s really smart, he’s an excellent songwriter and he has keen instincts. Case in point: when he sang with me on ‘Cotton Crush’ from ‘Split The Country, Split The Street’ [in 2005] he said “You’ve got to do this vocal part like this [starts singing] “that’s when you’re do-ne / that’s when your do-ne”. It was this chanting thing, and I was like “Dude, that’s cheesy”. But he insisted: “I know you think it’s cheesy, I know why you think it’s cheesy, but I promise you that will be the part that every kid sings back to you at every one of your shows.” I said, :I don’t know if I want that” and he was like “Just do it”. Of course, ten years later, that is still the part that every kid sings at the show.

My friend Matthew, the singer of Nada Surf, he tilts his head to one side and a perfectly formed pop song falls out of his ear. I’m like “You motherfucker, how do you do that?” Jesse has that too. Also with ‘Bubblegum’, I knew I wanted to make a noisy, punk rock record, and Jesse is a great guy to have around when you want to make a lot of noise and yell. He knows what to do there. So for me it was just trusting him, letting him get in there. And for him it was learning about how another band works. Our band works a lot faster than [Brand New], and because he was working on something that wasn’t his, he had to sometimes just make a decision [snaps his fingers] instead of waiting six months to decide a guitar tone.

Ultimately, both records benefitted from the involvement of each different producer. And the number one beneficiary of that is me, because I get to learn from them. While Rob is like “Try this chord version, try this tempo”, working with Jesse was a little more intuitive and so I got to become a better musician but in two totally opposite directions which was pretty cool.






Try these three interviews

Interview: Greywind [Reading 2016]

Interview: Arcane Roots [Reading 2016]

Interview: Trash Boat [Reading 2016]