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Kevin Devine: Kickstarter, Bubblegum And Bulldozer

Friday, 11 October 2013 Written by Huw Baines

The music industry that we knew and, sometimes, loved is no more. There’s an internet-shaped divide between traditional structures and musicians who are finding new ways to interact with their fans, new ways to make music on their own terms. One man who’s decided to dip a toe in these relatively uncharted waters is Kevin Devine.

Six records into a solo career that took root following his beginnings as frontman of Miracle Of 86, Devine decided to put himself out there online. Turning to Kickstarter to fund an ambitious double album, he wrestled with the idea of crowdsourcing as a business model and also his own status as an artist within these new boundaries.

The campaign was a resounding success, a $114,805 success if you’re asking, one that blasted through its initial ceiling and resulted in ‘Bubblegum’ and ‘Bulldozer’, two records that might just be his best to date. ‘Bubblegum’, produced by old friend and Brand New frontman Jesse Lacey, is a ball of energy, spitting out three-minute alt-pop songs, while ‘Bulldozer’ is a more stripped-back, introspective piece recorded with long-time collaborator Rob Schnapf.

It’s been a long road to this point, and the journey is far from over. With different hats for his role as songwriter, performer, marketing exec, distribution mogul and more, Devine has a hell of a lot on his plate. It’s a good thing, then, that he’s got some very solid foundations to build from.

“I really love the records,” he said. “The band that makes them should always think, or believe, that their new records are the best ones they’ve ever made, even if there’s obviously an understanding that the audience isn’t always going to agree with that. I don’t think that ‘The King Of Limbs’ was the best Radiohead record, or even close, but I hope they did at the time.

“I really do think that about these. I think ‘Bubblegum’ is a blunt instrument and I think it will be, in a weird way, easier to receive. ‘Bulldozer’ is a little subtler and it might take a minute for that record to get received the way I think it could.”

When launching his campaign, Devine spoke thoughtfully about crowdsourcing as an idea and as a blueprint for the future. Eight months and two records down the line, he’s still not sure it’s for everyone, or that it’s going to be around for the long run. As someone who’s bounced around a bunch of labels - from indie to major, to big indie and back again - his opinion is an informed one.

What he is sure about is that it can be successful at a certain time and place, and also that it means a shitload of work for the lucky artists who are able to reach their targets. As much as labels are evolving, so are musicians. Devine readily points out that the days of the idle, pampered rock star are pretty much over.

“I remember reading a Murder By Death interview where one of the guys was talking about how he didn’t realise that it was going to become a 100 hour a week job,” he said. “And it does. I don’t say that as a complaint because it should be, in some sense. It actually made me feel better about the whole process because people were kind enough to donate so generously and then if you broke it down to an hourly fee, the work you ended up doing for those donations was close to a competitive, normal wage. It wasn’t like ‘here’s $115,000 for nothing’.

“I kinda feel the same way about it now as I did before, I just think I happen to be someone who got really lucky. This was a way for them to say out loud: ‘we want you to keep making music and we don’t care how you do it’. I’m not saying I wouldn’t do it again, but I don’t know yet. Even if I did do it again, I don’t know that it would be the same kind of ‘lightning in a bottle’. I don’t know if it’s a viable multi-album, multi-year plan to be a replacement economy for the music industry. As a standalone experiment, it was transformatively successful for me.”

Another risky path was central to Devine’s plan. In order to justify asking for his fans’ faith, and money, he determined to offer something special in return. The idea of releasing a double album, or perhaps more accurately two records at the same time, had been percolating for a while and grew ever more attractive as the thought of recording with different producers, different musicians and at different locations took hold. But, the glib line tells us that there’s one good record lurking in every double album. Devine thinks he’s got that one beat, simply because there’s always been two veins of inspiration running through his work.

“It could turn out that the accepted wisdom is that there is one really good record in these two and I diluted it by making it two,” he said. “I can tell you that’s not the way I feel and I don’t make enough money to employ yes men. If you look over my career, I tend to write a wide assortment of styles always in the loose umbrella of guitar-based rock music.

“But there’s definitely one side that’s more spare and folky, for lack of a better word, a rootsy-country influence here and there. Then there’s the other part, the Pixies/Nirvana/Superchunk, loud-soft-loud, power-pop with guitar noises part of the brain. All my records, to some extent, since ‘Split The Country, Split The Street’, have been ‘put it all on the same record and let it be what it’s gonna be’.”

To make this particular double-hander happen, Devine turned to two people he trusts. Schnapf, a veteran of classic records with Elliott Smith, Beck, Guided By Voices and more, brought pedigree and familiarity, having worked on Devine’s Bad Books project, ‘Put Your Ghost To Rest’ and ‘Between The Concrete And Clouds’. Lacey brought boundless enthusiasm, once convinced, and a songwriting mind responsible for some of the most brilliant alt-rock music of the last decade.

Each man is well suited to his task. In Schnapf’s hands, ‘Bulldozer’ is restrained and warm, while Lacey has imbued ‘Bubblegum’ with enough fuzz and power that it strides into view a few months removed from a new Superchunk record and doesn’t come off badly at all.

“I feel like I get to be a better musician through working with Rob, there’s a more theoretical approach,” Devine said. “The ‘Bulldozer’ record is loose and it breathes and it’s fun, but it’s also reflective and the sounds are a bit more considered and mannered. It’s not as spiky as ‘Bubblegum’. Rob’s work on the Elliott Smith stuff, that’s my favourite music, you know?

“Miracle and Brand New used to play shows on Long Island in bowling alleys and back yards of churches when we were kids. A far cry from Wembley Arena or whatever. Jesse has seen my development as a songwriter, musician and arranger, solo guy, band guy, all that stuff for almost as long as it’s been happening. He’s always had really fixed ideas about what he thought the records could be like. He’s always been a fan of the songs but I think there’s been times on the records when he’s wished we made different choices arrangement-wise or production-wise.”

Lacey, having never stepped behind the console for another artist’s work, was understandably anxious at taking Devine up on his offer. Also on board, though, was Claudius Mittendorfer, an engineer with a CV that reads like a rock chart. His presence allowed Devine to get what he wanted from Lacey - his songwriting nous.

“There was a part of him that was worried that he was going to fuck it up,” Devine said. “My thought was, ‘you’re working on the songs and the arrangements with us, and the thoughts about guitar sounds and harmonies, you’re like a fourth member guiding this process’. Claudius would be the guy who puts the mics where they need to go and stuff like that. You can’t fuck it up too badly, because this guy is a pro.

“I think Jesse did really incredible work on the record. He let the songs be what they were but he also pushed them to being more than what they could have been without his input. Jesse was pro. He showed up every day, enthusiastic. He was there from rehearsals through mixing. He was involved for five months of his life with this thing. You can’t ask for anything more than that.”

Packed into both records are the sort of ruminations fans have come to expect from Devine. His musings range from the personal to social, with a healthy dose of post-crash politics mixed in. ‘Bulldozer’ finds him dealing with the after effects of Hurricane Sandy on his hometown and friends, with From Here and For Eugene, while Fiscal Cliff opened a songwriting door that led to the inclusion of Nobel Prize and Private First Class, which documents an emotional reaction to the plight of Chelsea Manning, on ‘Bubblegum’.

“I might have a different career if I was someone who could just write whatever people like,” Devine said. “Or whatever people topically want to hear about. I tried that in other iterations of my career, not performing under my name but writing songs with other people, and I don’t think it’s where I’m strongest.”

Kevin Devine UK & Ireland Tour Dates are as follows

Tue February 4th 2014 - LONDON Lexington
Wed February 5th 2014 - BRISTOL Louisiana
Thu February 6th 2014 - MANCHESTER The Soup Kitchen
Fri February 7th 2014 - GLASGOW Nice and Sleazy

Click Here to Compare & Buy Kevin Devine Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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