Kevin Devine On New Record Features & Celebrating Kerouac

It’s been an interesting few months for Brooklyn musician Kevin Devine.

He released a new album in We Are Who We’ve Always Been on Oct. 20 via Procrastinate! Music Traitors, which features some notable guests, then spent October, November, and December on the road to support the record. He also briefly joined fellow New York act Brand New’s touring lineup, then quickly dropped off the tour after accusations of sexual misconduct were made against the band’s frontman Jesse Lacey.

Through the ups and downs, Devine has been going through an evolution that consists of a few changes and a step in a different direction. He recently took a moment to chat about the stylings behind the new album, his appreciation for the Beat Generation, and much more.

We Are Who We’ve Always Been is pretty much an acoustic version of your most recent album, Instigator, which came out in October of 2016. The new album features collaborations with Swivs, The Mynabirds, and Half Waif. What made you want to do reimagined versions of these songs?

I think that it’s always there with me. There’s definitely two ways I can express my songs. One is live with a rock band, stepping on a pedal, shouting, having loud drums, and getting crazy. It’s the kind of Pixies, Nirvana side of your brain. The other is definitely a communicator with words and guitar and stripped-down. That’s how all the songs start.

I do a lot of stuff in the middle of those two things too, and I haven’t quite figured that out. Half of my catalog is kind of mid-tempo, and I don’t always know where to put [those songs] in a live set. I feel like I usually go one way or the other. When I was touring with Instigator, I was doing—especially in the back half of the support cycle for that record—as many solo shows as I was doing full band shows. With that record, it was very much a full band power-pop record.

The challenge kind of became a backwards one for me. Instead of writing them acoustic and figuring out how to play them with the band, this time, I wrote them with the band in mind, made the record with the band in mind, and I had to figure out how to play them acoustically. I didn’t want to just get up and play it exactly how it sounds; I wanted to make it stand on its own legs and make it Instigator minus drums and bass. It was pretty much trying to figure out another compelling presentation.

That’s where I got there. I did a 10-day thing on the East Coast in May, and I did another 10-day thing on the West Coast in June, and I did a weeklong festival in Europe, all solo, in July. For each month, I was doing these solo shows, and by the end of them, in some respects, I was almost preferring the versions of some of the songs that I was playing solo versus how they were existing on the rock record. We had spoken about it for a while with the people at Procrastinate! Music Traitors, doing something along the lines of being a boutique reimagining of the record and what that would look like.

It naturally became a thing where we would go into the studio with Chris Bracco—who I’ve worked with ever since the last Miracle Of 86 record—and get a great sound and do live solo versions of the songs. For the three songs on Instigator that were already acoustic, we’d make those something different by having other people involved. We’d build them around piano, and we’d have different voices rather than just have me perform them again acoustically. That’s how “Freddie Gray Blues” with Swivs happened.

Swivs is a guy named Will Schalda who was around when I was in Miracle of 86. I was starting to do solo stuff that was in a band called The Reholistics in New York City, and he came in to play piano. He played with Charles Bradley, and now, he’s in The Budos Band.

Laura Burhenn from The Mynabirds is just somebody that I’ve been friends with for a while, and I love what she does. I sent her a message about being part of “No One Says That You Have To,” and she sent back this really beautiful, soulful Rhodes piano arrangement that became like a vocal duet between she and I.

Half Waif is Nandi Rose Plunkett from Pinegrove, who I met while we were on tour last year. They really loved “I Was Alive Back Then,” and it was song that we talked about and they really connected to, so I thought of her and gave her the original recording, and she chopped it up and added all of this amazing keyboard stuff.

Suddenly, you have this record that feels more like a document of its own thing and like a photo negative of another thing. In a weird way, I actually feel like they’re the same songs, but they feel like two totally different things to me. That’s the best-case scenario; that’s what you want it to feel like. That’s how it all came about.

Especially with the Bulldozer and Bubblegum project in 2013, doing acoustic versions on the former and electric versions on the latter added a lot of variety. You notice things while listening to both versions of a song that you wouldn’t if it was constricted to just one style.

I hope so.

Were the collaborations on this album a learning experience for you? Did you take anything from each session that you’ll have in the back of your mind when you start writing music again?

Yeah, but in a way that I’m not sure is totally useful. What it made me want to do is play piano. Hearing all of them play key instruments and piano instruments so fluidly, effortlessly, and stylistically differently from each other, but with such color, made me want to play piano. I don’t have any immediate plans to make another solo record right now, but it certainly made me want to take on a project that I don’t have time to take on. I would have to learn to play piano, while also learning how to write songs on it. Maybe it’s something I can get to, and it’s a little pipe dream right now, but it made me want to include piano in a more prominent way in my compositions.

It would probably be another collaboration with Will, Laura, or someone I don’t know yet. I think the color aspect is used sparingly in my catalog, but I’ve never had a proper presence of a piano being in the middle of a song. It made me curious to see if I could have the piano be part of the nucleus of a song, while adding guitar to it. I think it would sound really different than the rest of my catalog does.

It would add something different sonically along with incorporating the female voice, and I’m always into that. Carrie Brandenburg has sung on a bunch of my albums, and Isobel Campbell from Belle & Sebastian sang on Bulldozer. It also made me think of having an album’s worth of female vocal collaborations, just because I think that the texture is so great.

Those are two structural things, but we’ll see how well I can implement them.

As a fan, I would like to see both things happen.

I’ll work on it.

On Oct. 7, you got to be a part of a very cool event: a celebration of the 60th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s influential novel “On the Road” in his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts. How much has Kerouac and the Beat Generation as a whole influenced your lyrics?

I would say that the influence is somewhat third-hand and indirect. I’ve read “On the Road,” and I reread it before the event in Lowell. I’ve also read “Naked Lunch” by William S. Burroughs, “Howl” by Allen Ginsburg, and random and assorted poetry by all those guys. I don’t think I’ve read Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who is kind of the fourth one, but someday I’ll get there. I am an enormous [Bob] Dylan guy.

I think that one of the major pillars of Dylan and the DNA strands of what made him who he is was incorporating that rambling, almost psychedelic language that the Beats used—much like how the Beats fused the restless traveler spirit of Woody Guthrie and the social consciousness of a guy like Ginsburg. “Howl,” in particular, there’s a real mindfulness of the underdog in society. For a certain kind of songwriter, if you’re a words person, Dylan is a person who you have to reckon. You’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t at some point, and I think Dylan is not possible without the Beats.

For me, the influence is felt more explicitly through that prism. I think anyone who has ever sort of had that wanderlust, that traveler’s spirit, that interest in finding out what America is through traveling through its arteries, watching its people and leaving its people, seeing its land—and seeing America as such an imposing place that way, because there’s so much of it—can identify with that. Our landscape is part of what makes us American, and that pursuit is very much what “On the Road” is about. It’s self-exploration through a vast, endless, changing place that is so many things topographically and culturally. There are also things that are really complicated and not always great politically and interactively, so I think that spirit and that kind of reckoning with humanity and the American identity is part of my writing.

I also get that indirectly from writers like Kerouac. With “On the Road,” right from the beginning, you can tell that he painted such effortless and small characterizations of all of these fascinating weirdos. I think that’s part of writing about people, trying to be in tune to what they are. I won’t lay claim to being the most knowledgeable guy about Kerouac or any of that stuff. I’m a fan, but I consider my work to be a bit more spiritual and more through the Dylan prism.

Purchase We Are Who We’ve Always Been here

Photo by Shervin Lainez

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