The PV Q&A: Bad Books' Kevin Devine on the Triumphs of Trial and Error + Why It's So Good to Let Go

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When Manchester Orchestra's Andy Hull and singer/songwriter Kevin Devine joined forces to create Bad Books, the intent was never to form a full-fledged band with follow-up albums and extensive tours. It was merely a creative departure from their primary projects — a musical meeting of the mind between two friends. So naturally, after dropping their highly-acclaimed, debut self-titled album in 2010, the two musicians found themselves eager to give Bad Books another lease on life. Thus, Bad Books II, set for an October 9 release and flourished with the signature sound that could only come from the combined forces of the project's two leaders. Here, Kevin Devine talks about what they did differently this time around, and why sometimes, letting go can be the best approach to songwriting.

PureVolume: Both you and Andy [Hull] have such an extensive background in songwriting. When writing new songs, is it a collaboration of both mindsets, or do you each work on separate parts individually and then refine the track together?
Kevin Devine: It’s a little bit of both. Both of us write basic structures for the song and the lyrics, as well as a basic sense of the melodic movement and the chords, but the real arranging and building of the song is done in the studio with one another, and with the rest of the guys in the band. This time around we actually workshopped lyrics with one another on a few songs. There’s this song called “Friendly Advice,” which is Andy’s, which kind of opened up with him asking me my thoughts on some of the lyrics and if some things should move around, and that was something we hadn’t done for the first record. And there’s a song called “It Never Stops” which I wrote the basic structure to and we arranged in unison from the ground up into a song in the studio. Both of us are used to being our own primary agents in our own projects, but I think that both of us have collaborated enough and respect one another that the trust [to workshop] is there.
PV: Did you find that workshopping the songs brought a different dimension to the songs? Or allowed for more honesty?
KD: I don’t know if I would say more honesty, but it definitely allows you to get outside of your own ego. I just read something by the writer Junot Diaz, he wrote “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” and it’s a quote that goes ‘the reason we use editors is because we all have a blind spot, and the blind spot is shaped exactly like us,” and I think that’s kind of applicable to anything creative. It’s always nice to have a second opinion, in particular from someone who you respect as much as we do one another. So I don’t know if it helps you achieve a greater level of honesty, but I think it helps you achieve a bit of letting go of your own preconceptions.
PV: You made the first album in a week, and worked with a similar time strain for this new album. Do you feel that a less-concentrated approach has helped shape the songs?
KD: I definitely do. The first record was done in six days and the second record took eight days. I think it’s still kind of remarkable to me that we got what we did in eight days, and the songs sound as realized as they do— which I think is a testament to both of us growing over these two years. I think that, naturally, things develop and sort of grow if you have more time, but I also think that you might over-think some things and it might lose some of the spontaneity that’s there now. We did the bulk of the first [record] in four days, and then had a three month break for touring for our other bands, and then got back together and did the last two songs in two days. Same thing with this record. We did six day sessions, got most of the record done, came back and did “Forest Whitacker” and “Overdubs” about three months later. In that interim time, you’re not actively working on the record but you’re hearing it, and thinking about it, and the songs are becoming more embedded in you, and I think you can then kind of go back and treat some of the blemishes. So I think that worked well for us. I think with this record, I liked the fact that everybody [in the band] was hearing the songs for the first time when Andy or I sat down with the guitar and played them in the studio, like ‘this is an idea I have.’ Like, ‘here’s a song, BAM, figure out what you’re going to play’ [laughs]. I think in that sense, maybe it brings cool stuff out of people rather than having all that time to think about it, because what you come up with on the spot has to be good otherwise it’s not going to be on [the record].
PV: Your first single, “Forest Whitaker,” acts as a nice testament to that spontaneous approach.
KD: On the first record I had written “You Wouldn’t Have To Ask,” and it was kind of clear that would be the single. It was the most accessible song and super catchy. So for this record, we were really in love with what we had, but then we realized we didn’t really have that — there wasn’t one of those songs. There was a lot of really cool stuff, and catchy songs, but nothing that was so immediate. Andy was the one who saw that and was like, ‘I think we need to come up with a pop song.’ And he kind of came up with this thing pretty quickly, and sent it to me as these notes he had recorded to his iPhone, and then e-mailed it to me when I was on tour with Say Anything this past spring. He was like, ‘Listen to this thing. I think this is it.” He had this whole space for what he thought would be the instrumental hook, and I was like ‘We should keep the whistling. That’s the hook. That melody you have is so catchy and the whistling kind of makes it quirky.” And we both, kind of independently of one another, referenced the fact that we thought it should be sort of like a granddaddy sound — like trashy drum machines but also sugary ear-candy kind of stuff.

So I went directly from the Say Anything tour to Atlanta to finish the two songs for the record, and when I got there that night at the airport, they had already put the drum machine in place, the basic guitars, and Andy’s vocals. So I came in and messed around with those Strokes-y, video game sounding guitars, and then I did the harmonies. Once we had those in place it was really cool. It was just like trial and error, experimentation — this whole project is — but that song was sort of an instrumental departure from what the record sounds like, while also fitting. I think the record’s really harmony-heavy and that song is for sure, so it kind of works. I think it fits with the theme of the record a bit too. It’s a pop song about sad stuff, and I always love music that sounds really chipper but has lyrics that are more pensive and thoughtful.
PV: What have you learned from this side-project that you’ve found yourself utilizing while working on your main projects?
KD: I definitely think that, for me, working with Andy has made me challenge myself and ultimately improve a lot as a singer. The harmonies are such a central part of this band’s identity, and he has a lot of faith in my abilities to improve and excel there that I didn’t have. I know I have to do certain things as a songwriter and as a performer, and I have confidence, but then there are other things... like, the singing has always been a work in progress. I think I’ve seen the improvement over the years for sure, from record to record, but I think Andy challenged me to kind of really believe in that, step into it, and I think that I took that back from this project with the last [personal] record I made, which I thought was the best, most realized vocal performance that I’ve had on a record to that point. And I think both of us would probably say that we learned a lot about letting go. When you’re the primary driver in your project, it’s nice to finally be able to let go of the reigns once in awhile. I think a lot of good things come from that.
PV: You’re kicking off your tour in support of this album on October 6, but your routing doesn’t hit the East Coast. Why choose to hit the South/West and not the East?
KD: The first thing we got offered was City Limits. We got offered that while the record was being recorded, so that kind of dictated when we would release the record and how we would roll it out. The last record we did limited touring, but the touring was predominantly limited to the North East and South East, and some California shows. This time we thought, why not flip it, get to places we didn’t get last time — Seattle, Portland, San Diego, Phoenix, some more South East places we didn’t hit. And it’s not the end of what’s going to be scheduled. We’re going to do a North East tour next year as well, and probably get to Chicago on that, which we’ve never played as Bad Books, so that’s all coming.
PV: Fair enough! Is there anything in particular about this record that you’re most excited to play live?
KD: Just playing the songs every night. I’ve been living with the record for five months, and I really love it, and I think it’s really a jump from the first one, and I think it stands toe to toe with anything we’ve ever made on our own. I actually think, in some respects, I can even see people who don’t even like us in our other iterations really liking that record. Which I think is cool. I love all these places we’re going, so I’m looking forward to all of it.

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