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Q&A: Kevin Devine At The Crossroads Of Music And Touring

By Garrett Bower, Copy Editor

Versatile singer-songwriter Kevin Devine is the human embodiment of perpetual motion. Riding the positive reception of his independent double album release in the last quarter of 2013, Devine has hardly stopped to take a breath since. Filling his days with extensive and varied tours, vinyl reissues of old catalogue cornerstones, and a new series of 7” singles called Devinyl Splits, ACRN was lucky enough to grab a spare moment with the prolific musician, in a quiet corner booth in the sunlit front of Skully’s Music Diner on his Columbus, Ohio stop of the tour. How has the tour been generally? You guys are pretty close to the end now, right? Yeah, we’ve got three shows left. It’s been really good. It’s been really long. I left February 3, I haven’t been home since then. I’m good, the shows have all been great--pretty much, in their way, all of them have. Some of them it's like more people than others, some of them sound better than others but I feel like each night’s had a thing. And that’s a hard thing to say for like a 50 show tour.

I’m sure they all kind of blur together.

I’ve felt pretty sane and present for most of these shows. What was really cool was to get to change--not just literally change scenery moving around everyday--but the first half of the tour was that acoustic thing with Evan and Laura and the second half has been a little more like the first-third and the second two-thirds--almost 3 weeks with Evan and 5 weeks with [Dads and Field Mouse]. To switch from the acoustic presentation to the full band thing, to switch the support acts, everything changing, it didn’t feel like one long tour. It also provided some differentiation, which I think was sanity protecting too. So I have no complaints, it’s been really good. Has the setlist changed much with the lineup change?

Not with the band. The band stuff is more like, we learned a certain number of songs. I saw you were doing some acoustic reworkings on the first leg.

Yeah, I had a little bit more freedom in that sense too. I would try to remember things every night and be like, ‘Oh! I should play that song! I haven’t played it in awhile,’ and yeah, reconfigure things that are louder on record. But there’s a different kind of freedom that comes with [the full band performance]. We have a more set setlist but you get to kind of move all over the place and the presentation gets to be more dynamic. And also this is the first time this group of people has played together so it kind of feels like a new band, which is awesome. I’m loving it. You mean the Goddamn Band? Who’s playing with you on this run? I know it’s kind of a revolving door.

Damon Cox, who plays drums in An Horse, which is a band we toured with in 2007. He’s playing drums and singing. And Jason Russo, who’s a musician I’ve known from New York for years, and he plays in these bands--Hopewell, Common Prayer and Guiding Light and he played in a band called Mercury Rev for a long time. It’s the two of them and… I’m playing like lead [guitar] and rhythm, two amps, effects, it’s cool. It’s like a different presentation for me too. It keeps the songs feeling elastic and fresh. And they both sing! They both sing really well which is kind of the first time I’ve had that. Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you with backup singers.

There have been other singers but this is, to my taste, the most realized version of that so I’ve loved it. And that’s helped things move quickly too. It feels, like I said, very fresh. And new! Some of the songs are 13 years old and they feel new. I was listening to “Thanks” on the way here, which is 12 years old at this point. And I was thinking how Sinead O’Connor just said she can’t perform “Nothing Compares 2 U” anymore. Is there anything you do to keep songs fresh after so long?

I kind of cycle them. We’re doing 75 to 90 minutes on this tour... That’s like 20 songs. Even if I do 20 songs, we’re still leaving out 110 songs. We have eight records, plus Bad Books, plus Miracle. I feel like that, by necessity, keeps it fresh, because I’m literally playing 15 percent of our material even if I’m doing an hour and a half. There’s songs like “Cotton Crush” and “Ballgame” and “Brother’s Blood,” those are songs that I kind of end up playing every night, more or less. But then there’s a lot of other stuff that cycles in and out and that keeps it fresh. Like after this tour, there’ll be certain songs that I played every night that I might not play, but I’m also not playing shows for the next six weeks so whatever happens at the next one will feel new and rejuvenated by then too. But there are certain songs topically that I connect to more or less or I don’t connect to for a while then I reconnect to. It moves around.

I understand where [Sinead] is coming from and I think that’s an honest thing to do. I think it’s brave to do that because it’s at some expense to her career because I just went to see her play, she’s one of my favorite musicians, she didn’t play that, and there were people who left disappointed because she didn’t play that. Similar to Modest Mouse with “Float On.” Sure, and that’s sort of like a thing. With Nirvana, with a lot of bands, when it’s like their big single, they sometimes don’t want to play it, they feel hemmed in by it. But I never had that experience of having like a Top 10 Billboard Single so even our more popular songs are--it’s a relative and comparative thing. “Cotton Crush,” “Brother’s Blood,” that’s stuff that I’m still cool to play. When I get tired of something, I just don’t play it for a little while.

You just played at South By Southwest. This is the third or fourth year you’ve played, correct? The eighth. I don’t remember, it’s like 2003, ’05, ’06, ’09, ’10, ’11, ’15 or something like that. Miracle the first time, 2003. What have you seen change in SXSW over your years playing? It’s become a much more corporatized event…

I don’t know if you saw; McDonald’s was under a lot of fire for expecting a showcased artist to play for free food. Yeah, and they have like endless billions of profit, yeah, it’s insane. I saw that, and there’s a bunch of others, like car companies and a couple years ago it was Doritos. But that’s kind of living in a capitalist system. What’s it called? Post NAFTA, free trade, Citizen’s United, corporations are people. So I almost feel like I go down there and I don’t even see that shit anymore. I’m sure I do, it’s insidious. I’m sure I’m internalizing it but that’s a change and I also feel like [SXSW] is Spring Break for the music industry and I’ve seen that kind of get a bit bro-ier over the years. But also, there’s tons of good music still and I enjoy Austin a lot. This was a chiller year. It’s still chaotic on 6th Street at night. I guess this year, we chose our level of engagement and this year our engagement was naught. For me, when it felt creepy or crazy, I just left.

Did you manage to catch anyone else you were impressed by? Yeah! We saw--Angel Olsen was great, Waxahatchee was great, Speedy Ortiz, Best Coast. That’s the stuff that I saw that stood out. So when you get home from this tour, is the plan to just chill out for a bit? I mean, I think that I have to. I think that the records are sort of slowing down. The way that the music industry--even the independent music industry--works now is like, you’re lucky if you get 10 months out of a record. We got almost twice that, and actually, I’m going to end up doing some stuff in May and then I already know of a few things in September, and I won’t have a new record by then. So the records will have a long reach. But I think after I come home from this, I’m going to be home for awhile. Like I said, there’s a couple things in May, a couple things in September, and if anything comes up in the summer, like little short things, I’ll take them. I imagine the vinyl reissues through Bad Timing give you a little bit more longevity as well. And so does the Singles Series! It’s like a way to be present without being present. I’ve had a career where I’m a little bit punk, a little bit folk, a little bit indie, a little bit emo, a little bit pop but I’m none of those things all the way. And, as a result, I think it’s been hard for certain people to market my music but I’ve also gotten to play with all different kinds of artists. So the split series is a way to kind of reflect that, and have all these different people that might not make sense with each other but all, in their own way, make sense with me. That’s the idea. How have you reached out to all the artist’s in the series? I’ve known [Mathew Caws of Nada Surf] since 2008 and we did a tour together in Europe in 2010. I am a big fan, I think they’re great. I think his songwriting is a lot of things I want songs to be; my own and other people’s. He writes smart, emotive but not cloying super… Nada Surf demonstrates a lot of maturity given the emotion in their songs. That’s what I mean. Well, he’s a grown up. I also really respect the arc of their career. And he’s a good dude, they’re all good dudes and they just became buddies. I just asked him if he’d want to do it and he said yes and then I kind of was like, 'Well, we’ll see if it actually happens.' Then he sent me his version of the song and I was like, 'Oh! It’s real.' And him saying yes emboldened me to ask other people and Meredith from Perfect Pussy I asked because that record was really bracing and interesting and I like her. I like how she is, what she is, what she represents. I think underground music needs people like her. I think she challenges a lot of the sort of old guard in a really great way. And new guard! Asking her was a little bit different because I had never met her. We had just played a show the day after she had played a show at a club in Manchester, England. We just started talking, sending each other photos from tour. Eventually, I asked her if she’d be interested in doing it and she said yes. She knew of my stuff and it was cool to hear she was like a fan. I didn’t expect that. So that’s sort how it’s all been. Either people that I know or people that I like and just reached out to. So with the reissues, did you reach out to Bad Timing or did they approach you? They approached us about maybe working on something together. I think maybe Brother’s Blood was the first thing and then we started talking about all these other ideas. The “She Can See Me” single, we’re doing another two reissues this year. The other things like the split series. I’ve known [Bad Timing co-founder Zack Zarrillo] since he was like a 17-year-old kid. I like what he’s done and how he’s done it, I like the thing he’s built, I respect it a lot. He’s really on top of his shit with the label. He does great work, takes it seriously and he’s been really creative, enthusiastic and helpful with me and I’m big into what he’s done.

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