A Conversation With Bad Books' Kevin Devine
Mike Ragogna: Hey Kevin, how are you?
Kevin Devine: I'm well, how are you, Mike?
MR: I'm doing okay. Kevin, can you go into the song "Forest Whitaker" from your new album Bad Books II?
KD: It was the last song we wrote on the record, and it's one of Andy's. Usually the way we work is that either I write the basic structure of a song and we work it out from there, or Andy writes the basic structure and we do the same, and that one was an Andy song. From our prior record, we had a single called "You Wouldn't Have To Ask," and it was a pretty poppy song -- an accessible, ear candy type of song. And while we really liked this record and what we had on it so far, we kind of felt like that was the one color that was missing. We hadn't written a straight pop song for the record. I was on tour and Andy was home, and he sent me a voicemail with this super-catchy melody and this whistling kind of hook, and weird lyrics like, "...you had a baby with a biker and named him Forest Whitaker." That's kind of great, and it pops out for sure. I think it just fell into Andy's head from the clear blue sky. He said something at some point about how the female character in the song is supposed to be this sort of neo-hippy -- the kind of person who would marry a biker and name their kid Forest Whitaker. I think they exist. He was character-stretching one of them. For the music, we wanted it to sound kind of like... this kind of weird pop music with kind of trashy drum machines. When we actually did the recording, we came up with these harmonies that helped sweeten the song, and the guitar lead sounded like it either came out of a video game or kind of like that second Strokes record. A lot of the guitar sounds on that Strokes record kind of sound like cross-dressed keyboards, but they're just manipulated on guitar. So, that was what we were going for with it, and that song became the obvious first single for us.
MR: You went into this project with Rob Schnapf, right?
KD: Rob mixed it. We self-produced and Rob mixed the record, yeah.
MR: How did you and Andy go about creating this album? You guys are kind of at opposite ends of the spectrum, aren't you?
KD: I guess. I think we're probably closer in a lot more ways than our day jobs would suggest. We started touring together back in '07. We were on a tour at that time with a band called Brand New, and Manchester was the first band, Kevin Devine and The God Damn Band were second, and Brand New was the headlining band. We did a seven-week tour, and we clicked kind of early and deeply. By the middle of that trip, I was playing guitar on the Manchester Orchestra set. They were coming out and playing instruments during my set. We went to Europe together, and I think overall, we probably played over one hundred shows with some combination of Kevin Devine and Manchester Orchestra. All that time, we were always talking about how it would be nice to actually write music together someday instead of just supplementing each other's primary projects. So, around January of '10, we actually took the next step towards actualizing that, and we came down to Atlanta. I came with about four songs I had structured, Andy had some stuff he'd been working on, and we kind of built them out into an album. The results were something we all really liked and we thought it was something that both could stand toe-to-toe with anything in either of our catalogs, but also separately as their own animal, and not as a collection of cast off songs. That was the first record. Since Bad Books records are made on kind of a limited time frame -- we usually have like six to eight days because we both tour a lot and make our other records and stuff. Typically, what happens is either I play a song I've written or Andy plays a song he's written, we cut away a little bit of structural stuff, and then basically start jumping into recording it right away. So, most of the instrumental tracks are stuff that's being created in the moment, like as people are hearing the song for the first time. We basically do a song and a half a day, so what you're hearing on the record is pretty much like the immediate response by the players to what the song is. There's not a whole lot of time to sit there and tease out Pet Sounds or something -- we can't take a year and a half to make these records. Basically, on both records, we took about a three month break so we could go take care of our day jobs, but we came back about three months later on each album and addressed little issues we had, finished up a couple of other songs, and that's how the records have been made. It seems to work so far. I really stand by both albums, and I especially feel like this one took a leap in terms of over all quality from the first one.
MR: One of the best things about Bad Books' first album was the video for "You Wouldn't Have To Ask," your cool take off of The Everly Brothers' "Gone, Gone, Gone."
KD: Exactly, that was for "You Wouldn't Have To Ask," yeah.
MR: I'm a big Everly Brothers fan -- what went into that video?
KD: I have a friend from home I've known since I was 12, and I think he sent me that link one day. Our song was under two minutes long, and theirs was only about that long, and something about watching that video made us think that we should do a video that was a direct homage, or rip-off, of this. I guess enough time has passed that most people that will see our band wouldn't know it was a rip-off, but that video is basically us doing not a shot-for-shot remake, but it's definitely inspired by that performance clip.
MR: So, I'll bet you got a little education on Shindig!, huh? Did you go and do more research on other Shindig! shows?
KD: That is the beauty and the curse of YouTube. You can find anything, and you can get lost down the wormhole. I definitely fell down a Shindig! wormhole after that.
MR: Kevin, you did a cover of Built To Spill's "The Plan" that you then offered as a free MP3, right?
KD: Yeah. They're a band that we're all fans of what they do. The first round of touring we did for Bad Books in '10, we kind of had to fill out our set because the record was only 35 minutes long. We were headlining the tour, so we were doing closer to 60 or 75 minutes a night. Something that was great at that point was that we could fill it out with some Manchester songs, some of my songs, and then any combination of stuff that wasn't on the album itself we could add to the set. Then, we thought that maybe we should do a cover, and "The Plan" is one of my favorite songs by Built To Spill, which means it's one of my favorite songs by anybody. It was kind of a cool opportunity. I've always wanted to cover that song, and I think Andy has also, so to do a credible rock 'n' roll cover of that song every night was sort of for us. We filmed it at a show we played in Brooklyn, and we had a really nice recording and video of it, so we decided to share it with the people who were coming to our shows, and sort of making Bad Books possible to pursue. I think we put that out for our people in January of '11 maybe.
MR: On this new album, you have another single that is just now being released, "It Never Stops."
KD: That's right.
MR: Can you go into its storyline?
KD: Yeah, that's one of mine, in the sense that I brought in sort of the meat and potatoes of it, and then we built it out into a proper band song. That was actually the first song recorded for the record. I had the vocal melody of the chorus for a little while, and I'd been kicking it around, but I didn't know what I wanted to do or how to dress it up. For whatever reason I had written the lyrics to it on the flight into do Bad Books that day. I had a bunch of songs ready to go, but I thought maybe we would get around to do that one, and it was a very big "if." I sat there and sang the chorus and the basic structure for Andy just with some basic chords on guitar, and he was like, "This is really good. We should just start with this right now and jump in on it." The dynamic of it -- the tightness of the verses and the big, kind of exploding choruses -- took a turn I hadn't expected it to take, and that's the best thing about being in a band like this. I'm sure "It Never Stops" would have been a very different song had it become just a strict Kevin Devine song on one of my own records. Again, I feel like maybe a lot of the guitar sounds are indebted to that Strokes album, Room On Fire. It's a little what I'm hearing more of now, those tight wound, unmated guitars that can blow up into a proper rock and roll chorus. The song, lyrically, has a passing reference to the change that I've seen in McCarren Park over the last 15 to 20 years, to where it seems now like there are a lot of great coffee shops, great record stores and great looking people walking around, but it feels like it's a copy of a copy of a copy, "copy after copy, til the color washed out." That's just my little way of throwing an observation in there. McCarren Park is the central place in the song where I actually ended up spending a lost weekend in the middle of the week once with a close friend of mine. We were kind of boozing and whatever else, and we ended up spending sort of a Monday that bled into a Tuesday in and around that neighborhood, and the song is a lot about the kinds of feelings that come with that sort of chemically aided feeling -- you feel open, sort of like you're riding that wave, and then that wave crashes, which is maybe also a metaphor for the culture. That song is kind of about both of those things, but really is predominantly a personal story with some liberties taken about the blurred line between friendship and love, and the blurred line between sober realizations and less sober idealizations that happen in your head. It's a song that's kind of about the opportunity to see things in retrospect that in the moment felt so different. It's kind of in a weird way a lost love song too.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
KD: My career has been a strange one, and in retrospect I would call it a lucky one, and even a charmed one on some levels, but I would say in the traditional music industry I would be a never-was, or a has-been, or a non-starter. I had an opportunity to make a record for Capitol, and it didn't go. I was part of a wave of people that got dropped pretty quickly after they got merged with Virgin records. I'm sure there were people in the music industry who, if they were tracking my story, that's where it ends, but I've had a really lucky, vibrant and lush career independently since that happened. The last five years have actually been the best years of my career. So, what I would say, in-so-far as someone would want to model their career one someone like me, is that for me the abiding principle is that you have to look at yourself in the mirror at the end of the day about the choices you make, so take them seriously, but also have fun with it. For me, it's a really great time to be a musician because you don't have to define your successes with this metric that is sort of crumbling around us all the time now. The main stream music industry is in chaos, and I think that's a really good thing for people who want to make interesting music, and who can figure out a way to have a career that isn't contingent upon their metric. The days of bands selling millions and millions of albums and demanding millions and millions of dollars in corporate record money are almost over unless you're Jay-Z or someone like that. Now, my advice would be to follow your gut and your ideas about this stuff, make stuff that's interesting and work your ass off because people aren't going to just give you anything, but you can work your way into a really good relationship, if you're smart with your audience, in a way that really gets around the business. For me, I wouldn't have a career if I hadn't been willing to go play like a hundred shows a year for a long time, and still I tour quite a lot. The best advice I could give is that you've got to be willing and ready to work, and if you get lucky and some things break your way, then the work will be the foundation on which you build something special. If it's something you're interested in, then the work you do will still be more rewarding than anything else you could do. Any of the work I ever did before, I'd much rather work two-hundred-fifty days a year playing shows and recording music, and I feel like it's a gift that I get to. So, do the work. Don't trust that you need these big companies to help you anymore, because you don't. And try to remember that anyone you act like a jerk to on your way up or around, that's one less person you're going to have that would be willing to advocate for you when you're on your inevitable way down. So, treat people well, not because you want your career to succeed, but also because there's no reason not to. I guess that's the best stuff I could say.
MR: Nice. That was a lot of information there. Before we go, I want to ask you about "The After Party." Do you have a story on that?
KD: That was one of Andy's, and that's one of our pretty big rock songs that get pretty raucous and are a lot of fun to play. It has a really sweet chorus of his that I really like, kind of oscillating between "it's good to be alone" and "I hate to be alone" and "I need to be alone." It's very simple, but I know I feel that way sometimes -- I want to be around people but I don't. I think that all of us kind of need to be alone at some point to figure out why we want to have people in our life and what those relationships are about. I tend to be a bit more verbose than Andy. We both talk a lot, but I tend to write with a lot more words. He's got an economy of language that I really like, and this song is really illustrative of that too.
MR: Thank you for taking some time today to be with us, Kevin.
KD: Thank you, it's been my pleasure.
Transcribed by Ryan Gaffney
Keith Lynch's new video. Silent soliloquy at its moodiest and hookiest...
A Conversation With Lord Huron's Ben Schneider
Mike Ragogna: How are you, sir?
Ben Schneider: I'm doing well. How about yourself?
MR: I'm doing fine. I want to start this off by telling you that when I got your album, Lonesome Dreams, the packaging was so beautiful I just couldn't wait to listen to it.
BS: It's good to hear that that had an impact on you. That's really great.
MR: Then I listened to the album and I admit it, I was floored. Would you walk me through the history of Ben Schneider and Lord Huron?
BS: Sure. I actually went to school to study visual arts, and somehow made my way out to LA, where I was pursuing a career in painting, but it wasn't really panning out the way I foresaw. So, I went back to making music, which I'd been doing since I was young -- incorporating it into a lot of my art projects -- but it was always kind of secondary. I went on vacation by the lake up in Michigan, where I'm from, and I recorded a few songs. I just self-released them. I handed them out at festivals and online, and things picked up. I've been on the road and recording music ever since.
MR: By the way, are these your paintings on the CD booklet?
BS: Yeah, they're kind of a mixture of paintings and photo collage that I've been working on in the computer.
MR: It's a gorgeous package, and that reflects the music well. What brought you to this sound?
BS: I've always been really into American folk music, which I think is at the core of this music. But in addition to that, I've long had an interest in world music, movie music, and all kinds of stuff from all over the world. I've always had a habit of going to record stores and buying weird, exotic albums just based on the covers. I think that stuff has really found its way into Lord Huron. It's kind of the spice that I add to the American stew I guess.
MR: What's your creative process like?
BS: Like you were mentioning about the visuals before, that's actually a big part of how I work on the songs. I usually develop the visuals in tandem with the music. So sometimes I'll start on a guitar, or with the lyrics, more traditionally, but sometimes, I'll start more with just an image in mind, and just try to recreate that image sonically as best I can. It might sound a little strange, but it's just a way for me to wrap my head around things, since I'm so used to thinking visually. You can kind of get an idea for a space and a story, and try to create it with sound.
MR: Let talk about your single, "Time To Run," and the making of the video.
BS: With the whole album, I kind of started with this idea in mind that it would be all these Western tales, or frontier stories. So continuing that in the video, we made this old style, Technicolor western short film. It follows the story of the song, but in a fun, stylized way, which I think is a theme throughout the record.
MR: To me, this is like a big song cycle, with songs blending seamlessly into one another. You've created a tapestry.
BS: Yes. I guess I think of it as one box of work. The idea of the album is kind of starting to drift away in the internet age, but I really wanted to get back to that because I think it's a really strong way to present a group of songs.
MR: The hard thing will be when you put your greatest hits out.
BS: (laughs) We'll see if we ever get there.
MR: Do you listen to some of your contemporaries like Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes?
BS: Yeah. I wasn't too familiar with a lot of that stuff when I first started the project, but we got a lot of comparisons, so I checked it out a little more and got deeper into their stuff. There is some really great music being made right now. I definitely understand people's comparisons. In an ideal world people would listen without any preconceived notions or anything like that, but it's very flattering to hear that it reminds people of this great music.
MR: As you were working on this project, I can't imagine you were focusing on anything else in your life.
BS: Yeah, it was pretty consuming. We were on the road so much last year, but I would work on it whenever I could when I was home, or even on the road when I could. Once our tour schedule kind of petered out I really took some time, went back up to Michigan and really dug into it. I spent a lot of time on the lyrics, so I'm glad you recognized those. It was definitely a labor of love -- a real intense creative process, but really rewarding.
MR: You talked about your Americana influence before, and one of your songs, "The Ghost On The Shore," reminds me of kind of "Ghost Riders In The Sky."
BS: Yeah, absolutely. The Sons Of The Pioneers version of that song is a favorite of mine, and I've always been really drawn to stories like that -- creepy, Americana stories have always really drawn me in.
MR: So, "The Ghost On The Shore." Give us the tour.
BS: That's one that I wrote while I was in Michigan during the winter. I was watching the big freighters go by out on the middle of Lake Huron, and I just got to thinking about the lives of the people that work on those boats. It can be really creepy in Northern Michigan at that time of year. It's beautiful, but it's very dark, and there is a certain mystical quality up there that's hard to define. I was just kind of getting into that mood, and that's the song that came out.
MR: One of my favorite things is to take the ferry across the lakes.
BS: Oh yeah, it's just beautiful up there, and it's got a feeling like no other place I've ever been to.
MR: Though, I've never had an adventure like on the sailboat that you have here on the back cover.
MR: For this album, are there things that are happening -- adventures in your real life -- that are making their way into these songs? Are these songs related to personal events or things that have happened to you?
BS: Yeah, absolutely. It's all based either on my own life or the lives of people close to me. I'm just kind of looking at it through this frontier story lens, but it really does all come from a very personal place. A lot of it is just from traveling around the last couple of years. I've been on the move for a while, so a lot of it comes from that.
MR: Something I found interesting about Lonesome Dreams is that most albums feel like the kind of wind down at the end, but yours gets this burst of topical energy.
BS: We kind of wanted it to feel almost like it could keep looping, or go on forever, almost like you're just getting a little piece of somebody's life on this record. But you can imagine how they'll keep going and having more and more experiences. I didn't necessarily want to feel like it was reaching a conclusion so much as riding off into the sunset to the next adventure.
MR: What do we need to know about Ben Schneider? About Lord Huron?
BS: Not a whole lot. I'm going to try to be sticking around as long as I can, keep hitting the road and writing songs. Hopefully, I'll be around for a while, making music.
MR: Do you have a goal of where you want to see yourself in a couple of years?
BS: I try not to think too much about that. I'm just hoping to keep myself satisfied creatively, and hopefully the fans appreciate it too. Who knows where it's going to take me, but I'm just going to keep true to what I want to do.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
BS: Man, it's really tough to answer that because it's such a mercurial kind of thing. The way it happened for us was so sudden and strange. I would just say make what you want to make, and get it out there in as many ways as you can. Hopefully, someone will grab onto it, but it's really about using the tools that are at hand. I had to learn a bit about the way things work on the internet at the beginning there, but I think if you can familiarize yourself with those tools as much as possible, and try to get your music out there as much as possible, I think that's really important. The most important thing is definitely just making sure your craft is as good as it can be. I think some people focus too much on the promotional end, and maybe don't spend enough time on the content. You want to get it out there and make things happen fast, but you've got to have a good product to begin with. You have to get your vision clear before you try to do anything. You have to know what you're trying to do and what you're trying to communicate to people, and I think that's one of the reasons it took so long to finish this record. We wanted to make sure we were making as clear a statement as we could.
MR: I'm honored to have talked to you Ben. All hail Lord Huron!
BS: I'm honored as well. Thanks for taking the time.
MR: Thank you. I wish you all the best.
Transcribed by Ryan Gaffney
An earlier version of this post contained a purported telephone Q&A by Mike Ragogna with Johnny Rotten which has been removed following new information making clear that it was in fact Doug Stanhope speaking in place Johnny Rotten as a hoax.