“The festival thing is fun because it’s exceptional; I love being able to go play outside with a bunch of bands that I think are interesting.”
On August 20 at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Quincy, the first ever In Between Days Music Festival will take place. Among the great acts coming to town, Atlanta indie-rock group Manchester Orchestra will headline a stacked bill that is rounded out by Philadelphia ska disruptors Catbite, Queens psychedelic rockers Blac Rabbit, local singer-songwriter Sidney Gish, Canadian blues rock duo the Blue Stones, Denver indie-pop energizers Tennis, and Saint Paul, Minnesota indie rock dynamos Hippo Campus.
Another talented artist, Brooklyn singer-songwriter Kevin Devine, will also take part with a performance at 2:15pm. He’s been riding the wave of his latest album, Nothing’s Real, So Nothing’s Wrong, which came out back in March. It’s his first release in six years and also one of his best, and you can bet he’ll play some songs from the project when his cohort takes the stage.
I spoke with Devine ahead of the festival about how the album comes off as a pandemic record, the making of it over a year and a half, incorporating new elements into his music, and his looking forward to playing outdoors.
Nothing’s Real, So Nothing’s Wrong has a theme of fatherhood during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. How did you go about incorporating this theme into the songs on the album?
One thing that’s funny about the record is that it was mostly written in 2019 and early 2020, so it was already written before the pandemic. I think the last song I wrote for the record was written in February of 2020. There’s one quick little connective tissue song on the record called “If I’m Gonna Die Here” which was written during COVID but everything else was prior. Because of some of the knottier stuff that I’m trying to digest, it sort of feels like a pandemic album. It was also created during that time, the actual recording of it was certainly affected by the pandemic—but the songs, the lyrics and the content itself was actually stuff that existed the year prior.
I would say that if there was an unconscious emphasis on fatherhood and parenthood, this record in a lot of ways was a processing of some serious shifts in my personal life. My daughter’s mom and I separated, got divorced and I think that informed a lot of my thought process in respect to accountability, responsibility, making sense of your own worst impulses, behaviors, and how to alchemize those things into the best possible example for this dependent human child that you’re trying to raise the right way. How do you do that in the context of not just your own personal chaos but in a world that often seems to have such an upside down value system? It’s quite literally on fire in some ways and figuratively on fire socially in so many ways. I think that’s what informs everything on some level now I suppose either consciously or unconsciously seen through the lens of trying to not just take care of her but also be real with her. Responsibly real because she’s six so I don’t talk to her the way I’m talking to you right now, but that’s what I would say. I live two blocks away from them and we see each other seven days a week, it’s a healthy three-dimensional relationship. Her mom and I sort of figured out from day one after her school closed that we were going to have to go through this together as a kind of dotted line bubble or whatever. I had her around five days a week from nine to four so her mom could work from home, then a couple nights she’d sleep over but I would usually bring her back home a little after four and then the rest of my life would start. There was also an emphasis on the nature of parenthood, at least for this parent, changing profoundly in the early stages of the pandemic because you’re playing one-on-one.
That was for me, other people were playing one-on-two, one-on-three or whatever. I was playing one-on-one with a just turned four-year-old all day while the world was in absolute inversion outside. I think that was a pretty ever-present thought process, it was like, Holy shit, how do I take care of this kid in this apartment for the next eight hours? while trying to navigate what seemed like the world at that point feeling like a video game where the levels were being drawn as you played it. If any of that makes sense, there you go.
You mentioned that you recorded the album during 2020. What was that experience like for you and Chris Bracco who worked with you on it as the producer? Did you do it remotely? Were you in the same room together with masks on? How was the album made during that time?
It was a combination. We actually started working during the last weekend of February of that year. I went up to his house in Connecticut, we just did the acoustic guitars for a few of the songs, and for a couple of them we started to build them out a little bit. It was like the very first layer of paint with some keyboards, electric guitar and some bells and whistles, but that was the very ground floor. Then I went back one more time during the first weekend of the proper, nationally acknowledged pandemic with everything shutting down.
We had some time set aside to go do these Kenny O’Brien & The O’Douls shows and those got canceled, so since we still had the time clear Chris had me come up again to record. Obviously, with what we would know four days later, if we had known that four days earlier I wouldn’t have gone there and I wouldn’t have been in a room with him. At the time there was still some plausible deniability so I went up during the second weekend in March and we did the rest of the songs on acoustic guitar. I think we’d gotten up to 12 because I had written 16 or something and then we put a little bit more paint on some things, a little bit more sprinkles of joy with the other instrumentation. Then from the rest of March to August it was totally remote with me doing stuff at home with vocals and guitar while sending him bits of keyboard stuff here and there, Chris was doing some drum machine stuff here and there.
Then, later in August we went into a studio on Long Island—it was Chris, myself, and our drummer Damon Cox, and we did the drums. We were there for three or four days and that was pre-vaccines and stuff so it was totally masks everywhere. We all tested prior to going, the people at the studio did the same. Anytime we weren’t working or sleeping we went outside, we were all in different rooms in this kind of house complex thing so we each had our own areas. I think from that point Chris and I weren’t in a room together again until post-vaccination in April or May of last year.
The rest of it for the next nine months was all remote. I was playing bass, I did all the harmonies, all the rest of the keyboards and electric guitars and stuff. Chris and I both did a listen-through at his house during the spring of last year and we made a list of what we still needed to do. We then finished it up both remotely and in-person, Chris mixed it at home alone and I went out to LA to mix five of the songs with Rob Schnapf. Then we mastered it together in Brooklyn that following September.
It took us a year-and-a-half from the first session to mastering and it was a mix of remote and in-person. At first everyone wore masks and then it was looser after everyone had been vaccinated but it was certainly a journey for sure.
Musically there seems to be this orchestral dream pop distortion that comes into play in various tracks, which is a bit different than your previous releases. What inspired this and how were you able to get those types of sounds, elements and instrumentation into the recording sessions?
The last studio album I did was Instigator and I made that album in 2015, it came out in late 2016. I’ve also done a Bad Books record since then, a bunch of Devinyl Splits, and a ton of recordings for Patreon. I’ve done stuff, but not as a proper 10 to 12 song collection of studio recordings since the last time. I knew after Instigator and after touring it around that I had sort of done, between Bubblegum and that album, enough for the time of the kind of Nirvana, Pixies, thornier powerpop thing. It’s a tight verse, explosive chorus, step on a pedal, raise your voice, I love that shit, I will love it forever and I’m sure I’ll continue to make songs like that forever because it’s hardwired into my DNA. I felt like I had done enough, Bubblegum was the more punk rock version of that expression while Instigator was more of the powerpop version of that expression.
I didn’t really know what the next thing should be. It took me a year, almost two years, to start to think about the next record to write the first song which ended up becoming the title track and the EP No One’s Waiting Up For Me Tonight that came out last June. Before any of that stuff got written, it was two years of me thinking about what I’m going to do next. There was a period of time when I was thinking of doing something with no guitars, perhaps more electronic or something. There was another period of time where I was thinking of finding a producer I’d never met or worked with and do some weird shit with them.
Then at some point what happened was songs started to come out and I realized there was a way to try to build dynamics that are more widescreen and cinematic than up and down like the Nirvana thing. Something that was more lush, atmospheric, orchestral in spaces and experimental in spaces. Chris is a wizard with that stuff, that’s really his primary wheelhouse as an artist. He really hears that stuff, he’s an acolyte of the Flaming Lips and bands like that and he really has a sense for it. I knew that if he and I were going to be working together that direction would be really fruitful.
Also he and I hadn’t made a record together since Between the Concrete and Clouds so it was coming up on 10 years and it just felt like time. Once we knew that, we pulled the songs we had left to write apart like taffy rather than make them big or small, up and down or like skyscrapers or something. Then we got into references like The Soft Bulletin by the Flaming Lips, It’s A Wonderful Life by Sparklehorse, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out by Yo La Tengo, OK Computer by Radiohead and The Beatles’ White Album. I’m sure I’m forgetting some others but those start at the guts of it with really strong songs and then deconstruct. I thought that was the approach we wanted to take and I’m very satisfied with it.
I love how it came out and it’s been so fun to play it live. It’s very much a project like building a ship but that was also the inspiration, getting these sounds through trial and error. Chris is so much fun to get in there and try weird shit with and that’s what was so fun about the record, running things through the filter of Chris’ mind.
What are your thoughts on performing these kinds of outdoor events like In Between Days? Will you be with the Goddamn Band or will you be solo? Do you prepare yourself any differently for a festival performance than you do for a set at a club or a music venue?
It’s awesome to play outdoors. The first club show I played in my life was at my high school gym when I was 14 and then I played at a venue called the Rock Palace in Staten Island, it was 1994. I’ve been in dimly lit, semi-poorly maintained piss and beer soaked rock clubs the majority of the time for 28 years so playing outdoors feels like a real treat. The festival thing is fun because it’s exceptional; I love being able to go play outside with a bunch of bands that I think are interesting. There’s something about that experience that can also be more stressful with the logistics of it because it’s such a bigger operation.
We have been fortunate enough to basically have an outsider career while also being able to play festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, and Austin City Limits. Those things are always really stressful because the whole process of getting on-site, getting to where you’re playing and getting your gear loaded in is always a little bit nutty at festivals like those. It’s a very idyllic thing to stand outside in warm weather and play songs even when you’re as pale and sun reactive as I am, it’s a nice thing. It will be with the Goddamn Band, it’s a four piece with myself plus three.
Andy Prince will play bass, Mike Fatum will play drums, and Mike Stramburg will play guitar with both Prince and Stramburg singing harmonies. Prince and Stramburg also just toured with me in the spring, Fatum has been playing with me on and off since the album Brother’s Blood. He was the drummer on the Between the Concrete and Clouds, Bulldozer, and Bubblegum records. For something like this, it might sound silly but really the emphasis is to go have fun. I don’t get to see those guys as often as I used to, Fatum runs a couple pizza shops in Brooklyn, Stramburg moved to Ohio and Prince lives in Florida and he’ll be there that day with Manchester Orchestra as well.
To get to go up on stage and make a racket for 45 minutes with a bunch of 35-to-42-year-old-guys, that’s nice and it sounds fun. That’s the general approach to this and plus I have a lot of history in the Boston area which is creative, professional, familial, fraternal and friendly. I always like being up there.
You just mentioned how Manchester Orchestra is going to be performing at the festival, so can we expect you to jump in with Andy Hull and the band for some Bad Books songs?
I could definitely say that there’s no way that it would be with the band because outside of Prince and Robert McDowell I don’t think the other members know any Bad Books songs. I could possibly jump up there with Robert and Andy and do a song or two but more will be revealed. I encourage the prospective ticket buyer to come check it out.
In Between Days lineup and tickets here
Rob Duguay is an arts & entertainment journalist based in Providence, RI who is originally from Shelton, CT. Outside of DigBoston, he also writes for The Providence Journal, The Connecticut Examiner, The Newport Daily News, Worcester Magazine, New Noise Magazine, Northern Transmissions and numerous other publications. While covering mostly music, he has also written about film, TV, comedy, theatre, visual art, food, drink, sports and cannabis.