For Kevin Devine, the message is the medium
On the 2002 album Circle Meets the Square, Kevin Devine included a song titled "Protest Singer," and the tag has stuck to him ever since, despite his lyrical confession that "I'm only protesting myself." But while plenty of his subsequent compositions have grappled with societal injustice and other crimes against humanity, he considers his work to be as personal as it is political. "If you can boil eighty songs over all these records down to ten words or something," he says, "it's me trying to make sense out of myself and trying to make sense of everything else."
That's a big task for anyone to undertake, and at times, Devine isn't sure he's up to the challenge. He admits to insecurity about his capacity for truly understanding the issues of the day, his decision to express his beliefs musically as opposed to manning the barricades full-time, and even the long-term prospects for his musical career, which suffered a blow when his excellent major-label debut, 2006's Put Your Ghost to Rest, succumbed to a killer combination of poor timing and bad luck. Not that he's ready to surrender just yet. Once Ghost really was at rest, he formed his current group, wittily dubbed the Goddamn Band, and wrote the songs for Brother's Blood, an occasionally difficult but consistently rewarding album on the independent Favorite Gentlemen imprint. According to Devine, the sonic diversity of his new material, which ranges from the gentle strums and sighs heard throughout "Hand of God" to the title cut's epic guitar histrionics, was nurtured by what he sees as the open-mindedness of his loyal listeners. "I don't ever feel conscious of what I'm writing, because I don't feel like they're expecting me to be something specific," he notes. "I feel like I can be whatever I want, and however I want."
Eclectism was Devine's birthright. His father, who died in 2003, served and protected as a New York City police officer, while his mother, a registered nurse who works in a gastroenterological cancer ward, once qualified as something of a hippie. "My dad's stock joke about my mom is that she would have been the one at the protest rally in Central Park in 1969, and he'd be the guy who'd be cracking her friends' heads with a nightstick," he recalls.
As a kid, Devine didn't spend a lot of time questioning the cop culture of his upbringing — but that began to change in tandem with the evolution of his musical taste. The cassettes he'd purchased through a Columbia House subscription (like Debbie Gibson's Electric Youth) didn't seem all that interesting after he heard Nirvana's Nevermind, which he calls the "skeleton key" that unlocked a world far different from the one he'd come to know in the Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, neighborhood where he spent his formative years. "If you're drawn to anything outside the usual framework when you're young," he says, "punk rock and indie rock and these other things, they feel a little bit like, 'Oh! There are other weird people. It's not just everybody who looks like they're on Growing Up Gotti.'"
By his mid-teens, Devine was a regular in a Staten Island hardcore scene heavily influenced by "Fugazi and Minor Threat and all that Dischord stuff that's very conscious of eradicating the barrier between the band and the crowd," he points out. "Going to shows where it would cost $5 at the door but it would be $3 if you brought a can of food for a food drive. Very socially minded people.... It was great to be around kids who gave a shit about things like that."
Nonetheless, Devine wasn't quite ready to chuck convention entirely in favor of a rock-and-roll lifestyle. In 1997 he enrolled at New York's Fordham University, emerging four years later with both a journalism degree and a membership in Miracle of 86, a punky band named for his beloved New York Mets. Obviously, something had to give — and after promising freelance assignments from the New York Times and the New York Post came to naught, he says, "I was at a crossroads. It was either keep doing it and go to grad school and get further in debt but try to make a go of this journalism thing, or work part-time jobs and try to figure out how to do music."
In the end, he chose to walk the latter path alone, as a solo artist with a lo-fi emphasis. The aforementioned Circle Meets the Square was recorded for just $1,000, with its successors, 2003's Make the Clocks Move and 2005's Split the Country, Split the Street, costing $2,500 and $7,500, respectively. But after Capitol Records signed him, his circumstances improved by leaps and bounds. Suddenly, he found himself in landmark Los Angeles facilities such as Sunset Sound in the company of Rob Schnapf, a producer whose credits included Beck and one of Devine's musical heroes, Elliott Smith — and the results were first-rate. Numbers such as "Brooklyn Boy" and "Go Haunt Someone Else" retained the sensibility that had made his previous offerings so fascinating even as they deepened and expanded his musical vocabulary.
Too bad so few people got a chance to hear them. The album came out around the time that Capitol merged with Virgin Records, creating turmoil throughout the company. To make matters worse, staffers didn't quite know how to promote such a stylistically varied artist. "I can do shows with bands like Stars and Okkervil River or whatever, and then do stuff with bands like Brand New and KT [Tunstall]," he maintains. "And I find that a strength — but it may not seem like a strength to a marketing person." True enough: "I got an assurance that I was going to get to make a second record, and then the guy who made that assurance was let go," he says with a laugh.
Devine followed shortly thereafter, and by the time he had a deal in place to capture Brother's Blood, more than two years had passed since his last trip to the studio. He was thrilled to be back in front of a microphone, but the songs that emerged were often quite dark. Take "Another Bag of Bones," a horrific litany of shocking images: "It's an Argentine schoolgirl, gagged and bound/It's a torture camp, it's a long way down." Although these lines aren't emblematic of Devine's worldview as a whole, he sees plenty of cause for pessimism. "There's a lot of scary shit out there," he says.
Does making such statements in song constitute protest music? Devine's not sure, just as he's uncertain how much of a difference it makes. But he's doing his best to keep his doubts at bay.
"Maybe for somebody like me, the point of me existing in that world is to get somebody who wouldn't think about these things to think about them, and then to go and read the people who really know what the fuck they're talking about," he says. "And that's just as noble as anything else. You can talk yourself in and out of reasons for why you should do anything, or at least I can. But I think there's plenty to get worked up about. And you've got to understand that yours is just a drop in the ocean, but it's still your drop. It's asinine and egotistical to think that you're going to be able to turn any kind of tide on your own, or even that it's your job. But it's not asinine or egotistical to care."
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