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You Want To Be Able To Belong: Kevin Devine On The Thrills and Challenges Of Devinyl Splits

Friday, 07 December 2018 Written by Huw Baines

Illustration: Tom Norton

“If you’re a basketball player you don’t get better by playing people you can beat easily. You get better by playing people you might lose to.”

His voice crackling along the line from his apartment in New York, Kevin Devine quickly qualifies that he doesn’t believe art is a competition. But, after the year he’s had, it’s easy to see where that analogy came from. Once he had finished up touring on 2016’s ‘Instigator’ and its acoustic reimagining ‘We Are Who We’ve Always Been’, he turned his attention to something that had sat neatly on a shelf for a little while: the Devinyl Splits series.

The project follows the traditional split single format with a song—either an original or a cover—from Devine and a guest artist on each side of a 7”. His latest crop of collaborators is something of a murderer's row, with phase two beginning back in March when Galveston, a new track from Craig Finn, landed with a satisfying thud. The Hold Steady veteran has since been joined on the running order by more indie-rock royalty in Pedro The Lion’s David Bazan, and John K. Samson, the former Weakerthans leader, plus two deeply exciting songwriters in Worriers’ Lauren Denitzio and Kiley Lotz of Petal.

With two rounds left to go—Devine is tight-lipped on the identities of the next contributors, but says they’re between 10 and 20 years younger than him—he will need to keep putting in work on his jump shot. “It’s a challenge,” he says. “On those singles you want to make sure your side stands up. In doing so, you’re trying to claim space alongside people who are really, really good. You want to be able to belong, that’s what I mean.”

When the year’s end rolls around we (the music press, people online, ‘we’) become a little obsessed with formats. We want to know the best albums, the best songs, the best EPs, the best videos. A series like Devinyl Splits is easy to overlook in that bitesize environment, but it deserves to be viewed as one of 2018’s standout undertakings for a couple of reasons: the uniform excellence of the music, and the logistics of assembling something with this many moving parts.

Devine’s work stands up very well against a mid-career gem from Finn, stunning covers from Bazan and Lotz, a melodically complex, satisfying effort from Denitzio and the very fact that Samson released something that we could hear and enjoy. As well as reinforcing the task facing Devine, rattling off these names illustrates the overall theme of this volume, with three senior figures slotting in alongside artists who are closer to the start but busy assembling fabulous catalogues of their own.

“With Craig and David and John I thought it would be cool if half of the series was people I perceive to be heavy-hitter songwriters of their generation,” Devine says. “Three guys I consider to be canonical. To me, if you’re serious about songwriting and are of a certain age, those are three catalogues you should reckon with at some point because there’s a lot of fruit in them. Not to mention three people who do things very differently but who I think all do things in a way I think is super cool and respectable. And certainly fairly lean on bullshit, all three of them.

“David, he’s somebody whose approach to things has always struck me as both wise and kinda badass. The way he’s navigated his career has been pretty unflinching. I think Craig has influenced a whole generation of super successful performers and a whole style of music. John writes in a way that is his and is immediately identifiable as his, with such precision and clarity and economy. I’ve never heard a record of John’s where there wasn’t a song that you just sit there and go, ‘Fuck. Alright, I wish I wrote that one.’ That’s the best compliment I think you can pay a songwriter.”

Dentizio’s involvement, meanwhile, is a direct result of reacting to something going sideways. Their contribution came on a digital-only release called 'Unplanned Service Changes', which was assembled due to a delay with Lotz’s 7” while she was at work on her second LP, ‘Magic Gone’. Shifting one single might have potentially created a yawning gap in the series and Denitzio, whom Devine first met when Worriers opened for Samson in New York last year, was happy to step in.

Fresh from the superb ‘Survival Pop’, it helped that their effort, No More Bad News, was an immaculate example of their emotionally-engaging twist on indie-punk. “Lauren wrote back very quickly, and I love their song on that,” Devine says, noting with sadness that Scott Hutchison, the late Frightened Rabbit frontman, had also thrown his hat into the ring to share the single with himself and Denitzio.

“Three singles are me, a 38-year-old white man who plays guitar, with three other 40 plus-year-old white men who play guitars,” he continues. “There’s a long list of people I reached out to who are not white men who play guitar and a lot of them, for various reasons [weren’t able to do it]. Lauren and Kiley were interested and did do it. It’s not like the market for good songwriting is cornered by white guys who play guitar. I wanted to represent a generation of songwriting that I perceive to be capital I important. On the other side I wanted to have something that was equally as important but youthful and ascendant.

“Someone like Kiley, the bracing nature of what she writes and how she presents it speaks for itself. Her whole thing of alchemising vulnerability as bravery is part of a long tradition—Michael Stipe, Sinead O’Connor—that’s a big deal to me, and I see some of that unflinching...it’s not that she’s playing punk music but there’s a punk staring contest with the way she reveals herself. In a loose way I wanted six great songwriters, and I wanted a balance of old people like me and people who are not old people like me.”

Alongside his partner in vinyl, Bad Timing Records’ Zack Zarrillo, Devine had to assemble his team and then figure out a way to make the whole thing function. Devinyl Splits spans multiple months and has to contend with competing artist schedules, the fickle nature of the vinyl pressing plant, and the fact that making music takes time and care. Step one essentially equates to you don’t ask, you don’t get, while Zarrillo has proven adept at providing a steadying hand when things inevitably do go awry. “I’d rather have eight yeses and figure that out,” Devine says. “There’s no shortage of incredible people to ask.”

“This time there were two proper curveballs and one near miss—in my head I was just like, ‘Oh, this might just get, like, fucked.’ And then it didn’t,” he adds. “Everything landed and worked out. You’re just trying to juggle six disparate, distinct careers in a project where over the life of these singles if someone makes $1000 off them they’ve really done well.

"The thing that’s so cool about it is that people of this calibre actually want to do it. Value is a relative term, but I find a lot of value in things like this and I think I’m finding like-minded people. But you’re not going to buy a house off the back of your Devinyl split. My intention is to do them every three or four years, and in its small way it’s something people see as cool to be associated with. You can look at the roster and see, ‘Oh shit, some really cool people have done this.’

“With any of these artists, if they want to do it I want to be as accommodating as possible. I don’t mean to suggest I’m putting more emphasis on anyone, I legitimately find them all to be of equivalent and interesting value, but someone like David or someone like John I’m kind of like, ‘Whatever I have to do to make that one happen, I’m going to make it happen’ because I’m so enamored of their work and I respect them on such a level. They were two of the first people in my head for the series so the fact that they were like, ‘Yeah, fuck it let’s go!’, meant I was going to make it happen.”

With all these attention-grabbing names flying around, Devine might have been happy to bask in the glare for a while. But, as he did the first time around, he viewed this set of splits as an outlet to allow him to stay creative and improve certain aspects of his process.  “I can actually grow, here’s a hairy term, but grow artistically through it,” he says. The last few years have found him investigating form as much as anything—prior to releasing the songs from ‘Instigator’ in two different guises he put out ‘Bubblegum’ and ‘Bulldozer’, a twin album set that displayed the loud and quiet sides of his writing—but here his focus is on the micro mechanics of making music.

“I’ve been doing a lot of work on home recording to try to get what I’m doing here more developed, and this series has really been unlocking things for me in that pursuit,” he says. “I don’t have room in my apartment for a drum kit, I don’t think I could make ‘Pet Sounds’ here, but I have got better at making something that feels dynamic and full to me, in a stripped down sense. I’m getting better at using MIDI instruments, keyboard stuff, atmosphere. I think I got to mess with that a bit more with the Now, Now cover with Bazan, too. That’s part of what this series is.”

Growing up in New York and kicking around the fertile punk and hardcore scenes on Staten Island—home to multiple tiny labels run from box rooms and the like—Devine came to see, and love, split singles as both a means to an end and creative curios. A limited vinyl run might provide the impetus for a show or a tour, or help his band’s music make inroads in other geographical areas through association. Similarly, he might spend a few bucks at a merch table and end up hearing something strange and exciting. Devinyl is different, but you can trace its roots all the way back to this point.

“I saw Texas is the Reason and the Promise Ring in New York when I was 16 on the back of a split 7” they did for something,” Devine says. “I’ve done them throughout my career, and I mean that very literally. One of the first things I did with my band when I was a teenager was a split with a band from Canada that we’d played a show with or something. I’ve been doing it on and off for 20 years.”

Huw Baines is the editor of Stereoboard. He's on Twitter.

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