Words by Jim Testa
Is the sum ever greater than its parts? Fans of Bad Books certainly think so. Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter Kevin Devine first teamed up with Atlanta’s Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull to form Bad Books after the two acts toured together and found common bond in 2008. Bad Books, which leaned toward doleful introspection and eschewed the upbeat, hooky indie pop that Devine and Hull had written separately, resulted in 2010; Bad Books II, a collection of story songs exploring lost souls in the vein of Craig Finn, followed in 2012.
And now, seven years later, there’s Bad Books III, arguably the best and most fully realized collaboration of the lot. The stripped down, more acoustic vibe of this album finds Devine, Hull, and Manchester Orchestra member Robert McDowell creating intimate tableaus that draw from the strengths of the group’s two primary songwriters. Both Hull and Devine recently had their first children, and the wonder of new life sparks the brightest moments of these songs. But the darkness of our times invades the tracks as well, sometimes to the point of their protagonists considering or committing suicide.
These songs were born in woodshedding sessions several years ago, then revisited and finished more recently. For those lucky enough to have seen Kevin Devine and Andy Hull when they toured together as acoustic troubadours, the Simon & Garfunkel harmonies and almost psychic link between the two will come as no surprise. For new fans, this album will be a revelation of how two hard-touring indie-rock lifers can still surprise, delight, and move us.
Since first gaining notice in the twenty-something indie-pop band Miracle of 86 at the turn of the 21st Century, Kevin Devine has been the poster boy for the pitfalls, ingenuity, and entrepreneurship of the modern American singer/songwriter. His career has run the gamut from DIY touring to indie labels to the inevitably brief major label dalliance, to crowdfunding and self-releasing. Besides the three Bad Books releases and a long string of excellent solo albums, often with the orchestral collective he dubbed The Goddamn Band, Devine started releasing a series he called “Devinyl Splits” in 2015, splitting 7-inches with friends, tour mates, up-and-coming acts, and contemporaries like Craig Finn, John K. Samson, Jesse Lacey of Brand New, and the Front Bottoms.
Off Shelf caught up with Kevin just as he was about to embark on a national tour with Bad Books which continues to the end of August.
Off Shelf: What is it about Bad Books that keeps drawing you back to this project? It’s been seven years between albums. I would think you have your hands full just being Kevin Devine.
Kevin Devine: It’s a funny thing because it has been seven years since we released the last record, but in that interim time, I’ve been in close touch with the other principal of Bad Books and his consigliere, which is Andy and Robert. I opened for Manchester Orchestra in the states, I opened for them in England, I opened for them in Australia. We got together and did a one-off song for Bad Books that never got released. Andy and I did two short solo tours together. So we saw each other a lot professionally. But also, we met in March, 2007, and I don’t think I’ve ever gone more than 10 days without talking to him. Whether it’s a text or a phone call, we keep each other fairly close. We send each other our developmental ideas as we come up with them. So even though Bad Books wasn’t happening, it never felt that far away because he and I were always in close contact.
Now I don’t want to sound hippie-ish about it, but it just kind of felt at some point that it was going to make itself apparent that Bad Books needed to shift itself toward something a little more concertized. Or to put it more simply, we both just said, ‘let’s make another Bad Books record.’ And how that actually happened was not even planned. I went down to Atlanta in April of 2017, which was after they had finished recording their most recent record but before it had been released. So they had a little downtime and I happened to be down there as part of the whatever campaign there was supporting my last album.
So we got together with the idea that we’d try to kick the tires and see if a song popped out, and Andy, as he is wont to do – he’s a guy who builds a mountain and then asks us all to climb it – just said, hey, what if we just recorded ten songs, like “The Basement Tapes” or something? Just you and me, back and forth with a guitar, and see what’s there? So I was there for three days, and on the first night, we just sat there, Robert with a notebook out and Andy and I just passing a guitar back and forth, and seeing what songs we each had in our heads. And by the end of the second day, we had ten skeletons. Like a live vocal and guitar take. And then by the time I left, we had started to put some harmonies on it. But that’s all we had. So then it was like, well, shit, there’s ten songs here, let’s revisit it later and see what we can turn this into. But it was ten months before we got back together again.
In the interim, we had not listened to any of it. We had seen each other but we made a pact that no one could open the files unless we were all together. And then when we did get back together, we had this moment where we were both thinking, “what if this sucks?” I mean, I know this is a nice story, but this is exactly how it happened. We really didn’t know what we had. And we listened to it, we realized that we had some good stuff. In fact there were a couple of songs that, when we laid them down, we were pretty iffy on and when we listened back, we thought, oh, that aged well. I like that better now than I did a year ago. But that was how it happened. There was never really a map that got drawn. One song became ten – oh wait, I think there may have actually been twelve. And twelve is a record if you like ‘em. And then it took shape from there.
OS: So if one of you had gotten the flu that week, you might have just wound up with five Kevin songs and five Andy songs that this never would have turned into a Bad Books album.
KD: It might have very easily turned out that way. I definitely know the stuff that became the first Bad Books record… I know when I went down to Atlanta to do that, I had no clue what we were going to do, just that we were going to see if we could record together. We knew we got along well, we knew that we respected and admired each other’s work, we knew we could hang out. We knew we could play. But we didn’t know if could make music together. And the first time I went down with a handful of songs, I remember wondering how much I wanted to give to this thing. Like, what if this doesn’t happen, and I’ve wasted five good song ideas? Not that I was afraid the other guys would do something, but what if the project never got off the ground? What if it never happened? What if we couldn’t get the record released? But after the second day down there, it was very clear that it was a thing that could be a thing.
OS: Could take all the Kevin songs and all the Andy songs from Bad Books III and make two albums? Or do you think these are Bad Books songs?
KD: I guess you could but I don’t really know. There are certain things about the way we both write that are similar, that are bridged. Certain melodic sensibilities, certain ways we hear what a song is. It’s hard to put into words, but there’s all kinds of music and all kinds of songs and all kinds of things that are good for different reasons.
But I am always going to be most drawn to a song… something that someone could sit down in a room with me, with a guitar or a piano, and play it for me. And there’s an A and a B and a C and it moves through, and there’s a certain model it adheres to.
There’s also certain wonderful experimental abstract things that I like, but the thing I always come back to is I love to be able to play you a song. To hear a song. Andy and I both share that general sensibility. I think the topicality is interesting because some of the subjects are the same, but they’re approached from opposite sides. Not philosophically or poetically. My information is that I grew up the last Irish Catholic lifelong Northeastern New York Outer Borough guy. That’s my information. Whatever I’ve done, wherever I’ve moved around the world, that’s what’s in the belly button. And Andy is a Southern kid, born of pastors, Evangelical, moved up to Toronto, moved around the world, but still always a Southerner. That’s different information. We share a friendship over Neutral Milk Hotel and Wilco and the Beatles, the things that we were both super invested in, but the things that make us who we are can be really quite different, and I think that manifests itself in the way we write.
One of my favorite things about Andy’s songs on this record is the way they have this dreamt feeling. They’re not the most structured traditionally, they’re not really verse-chorus-verse songs, they’re almost like he’s very patiently unspooling them. And I think mine tend to bring a little more of that verse-chorus-verse-bridge structure on this record.
But while I think the written voice for both of us is different, we both explore that subliminal space between dreaming and reality. There’s a lot of very real stuff topicality-wise being discussed on the record, real “Capital F” stuff like Fate and Family, and social superstructure stuff, and picking at what it means to be a person. But we’re coming from different angles.
OS: One thing you two share is that idea that if I am fan of your music, I feel like I know you personally through your songs. That’s not really true of, say, a Bob Dylan or Elton John, who’s always wearing a different mask.
KD: Totally. It’s interesting because my brain goes in three distinct directions about that. One is that, coming up through punk and DIY culture, and also coming up through a working class, Irish Catholic upbringing, there’s this idea that you don’t even want to think about yourself enough to assess what that means. Like, who the fuck do you think you are? But the second lane is that there’s something really beautiful about that, because there are aspects of the music that are revealing and intimate, and that are deeply personal. And then the third thing is that it’s also a bit tricky because while there are revealing components to what I write, I’m also intentionally creating composites, or intentionally obfuscating stuff.
You’re also trying to write. It’s not supposed to be a journal. You’re trying to funnel feelings but also dreams and memories and projections and some amount of storytelling, through a lens that’s a little abstract and hopefully has a little poeticism to it. You know when I’m interested in reading someone’s journal? When they do it in a way that’s so bracing and unflinching that it becomes its own art. When you strip as much artifice from it as you can that it becomes its own art form. But most of what has stereotypically been called “emo,” I haven’t had much use for it. Because if it’s just confessional and in a histrionic way, that’s the kind of thing Elliot Smith ruined for me forever. Because I loved that guy deeply, but you never knew exactly what he was telling you about. He never told you the whole story.
So yes, sometimes it’s beautiful when people think they know you from your music. And sometimes it’s a little scary, because there’s some amount of attachment and conjecture there that’s not commensurate with what you’re trying to do. It can be great, because people are invested, but it can also be tricky, because every once in a while you get someone who’s a little nutty with that. And that can be scary. And me, I try to ameliorate those situations and meet people where they are, and sometimes that ends up with you trying to deal with unmeetable people, and you wind up feeling like an asshole about it. I have to watch that.
The best way this works is if, like with an Elliot Smith, you can wind up feeling that you know yourself a little better through him. With Elliot Smith, I felt like he was so good and so real and so relatable that it helped me see pieces of myself differently. Which I think is a real magic trick that music and art can do.
OS: When you tour with Bad Books, do you look in the crowd and see fans you know from Kevin Devine shows and Manchester Orchestra shows? Or is there a separate Bad Books audience?
KD: I actually think there’s a more subtle distinction. I actually do think there’s a difference. One of my favorite things about Bad Books is something that started with our friends. But now people who are fans of either or both projects come up and, it’s almost like they feel like they have to whisper it, but they’ll say, ‘I kind of like Bad Books better.’ And I love that. I actually think that’s fucking awesome if for no other reason than… Well, first, if anyone is willing to spend any time with any music you make, you should always be thankful. It’s a very crowded space out there. But also, it indicates to me that there’s a reason for Bad Books to exist, that it’s not just some sort of vanity project just because we want to do it. You want it to be something that has some kind of artistic value, and people saying that they like this better than your day job indicates that this is a thing that can stand on its own legs.
I also think you do get the odd person who’ll say, like they’re playing the new album on that Sirius station Alt Nation, and I saw someone tweet today, ‘Man, Bad Books sound so much like Manchester Orchestra.’ And I absolutely have had people hear me and not know. I was soundchecking at a recent show and I just felt like playing a Bad Books song so I soundchecked with it, and someone working at the club said, “hey, you sound just like the guy who sings that song on the record.’ So there is actually a Bad Books audience that exists who either does not know Manchester Orchestra and me, or does not know that Bad Books is Manchester Orchestra and me.
OS: What is on your agenda after the Bad Books tour?
KD: I don’t mean to be flippant or cavalier with my own ultimate fate, because I should take it very seriously, but I’ll be 40 this year, and there’s two ways I look at it. One is that I have never had another job besides singer/songwriter/touring guy since 2005. That’s a good run. So if in two years it is no longer tenable for me to do this, I’ll have to figure some shit out. It’ll probably be pretty intense and wrenching, because I dived into this in my mid-twenties. I have a college degree in journalism from 2001 that probably isn’t going to get me very far in 2021. But I’m also of the mind that I’ve chopped so far into the forest that at this point it probably makes more sense to keep chopping rather than trying to figure out your way back.
And actually, in a niche way, everything I’ve done has been pretty consistent. I never went up through the roof, but I’ve never crashed down through the fucking concrete either. There’s been a slight and subtle and barely perceptible uptick over the course of the entire thing, and I know that nothing does that forever. The hope is that you can level out at a place that is enough to be sustainable. There’s probably not some crazy spike in my future resulting from a record label doing something that had not been done before. Things just don’t work like that anymore. Although, who the fuck knows? You never know. For right now, it’s still working to the point where I’m able to make a living. It’s all to scale and taste and temperament. I’m living in a one bedroom apartment in South Brooklyn. Part of me in 2019 feels like I’m doing pretty well if that’s my experience and my only work is being a musician. And part of me is acutely aware that I’m one broken limb away from being where a lot of Americans are, and basically falling through the bottom of your life.
So I don’t know. That’s a great question and the answer is, at the moment, I’m in a position where this actually still works. I’m not getting by on the skin of my teeth, but I’m not swimming through money like Scrooge McDuck either. But what happens next is that I’m in the very early stages of cobbling together what will be an album. I don’t believe that happens before next year, probably around this time next year, so there’ll be some real estate to cover to get from September to there.
I feel like more will be revealed the closer I get to it, but the kind of glib, quippy thing I can say is, ‘well, no one’s told me to go home yet.’ But if that’s the thing that changes in the next couple of years, I feel like I’m in communion with the fact that none of this is guaranteed, but I also don’t know how you plan for when you have to shit or get off the pot. So far, it’s been a good run, and things seem to justify their own existence, but I’ll check in with you next year.