Interview: Kevin Devine on Bad Books ‘III’

Posted: by The Editor

After a seven year silence, Bad Books released their third studio LP, III, earlier this summer through Loma Vista Recordings. While the group has been playing with each other on and off  by proxy over the past few years, the complete unit we know and love as Bad Books have officially re-joined forces. 

The group is comprised of Kevin Devine (Miracle of 86, Kevin Devine and the Goddamn Band), Andy Hull (Manchester Orchestra, Right Away Great Captain), and Robert McDowell (Manchester Orchestra, Gobotron). Practically growing up in the industry together after meeting in 2007, on a Brand New tour, the three have been inseparable ever since. Touring the world and collaborating extensively, Bad Books was birthed by happenstance. Their third studio followed the same suit. After a tour fell through the rocks, Devine took a writing trip to Nashville in 2017 to meet up with the others. Quickly, the hangout turned from shooting the breeze to “let’s record an album”. 72 hours later, the majority of III had been written.

We were able to catch up with Devine to learn even more about the recording process, the narratives behind the album, his opinion on “side projects”, and so much more. Stream the album as you read our in-depth interview with Devine below. 

The Alternative: I read the three of you stay in contact almost daily. So what took so long to finally get together and record?

Kevin Devine: “That’s more of a mechanical answer. Bad Books played its last shows for the second record in the fall of 2013, and then from that point forward Manchester [Orchestra] put out Cope and then Hope. I put out Bubblegum and Bulldozer. I did almost two full rounds, three years, of DeVinyl split series, like 12 singles. Andy and Robert scored “Swiss Army Man”. Manchester made A Black Mile to the Surface. I made Instigator and We Are Who We’ve Always Been. I had a daughter, Andy had two kids, Robert had a kid, and between 2014 and 2018 I toured as Kevin with Manchester in the US, the UK, and Australia, and Andy and I did a US solo tour.

There was a ton of stuff going on separately and collaboratively, and when we were doing those things we were likely playing a Bad Books song a night. Even though Bad Books wasn’t happening by name, it was kind of happening by proxy. Given the way our independent stuff was going and the way Bad Books seems to percolate with people, we saw that it wasn’t something we necessarily needed to rush back to and when we did eventually go back to it would be all the stronger. We were thinking about Bad Books all the time and we actually got together and wrote a song in 2015 that never got released. It was a very good song, I like it a lot, there just wasn’t a place for it. It was always kind of around, we just had a lot of other stuff going on, getting in the way. Stuff being our day jobs and our kids.”

Is that song just floating out there now?

“Ya it’s sitting on a hard drive somewhere. I haven’t heard it in years, but I remember the last time I did thinking, ‘shit that’s good’ *laughs*.”

Was there anything specific that sparked getting back together?

“It felt like it was time. There was a window. Manchester had finished making, but had not yet released, Black Mile. I had released Instigator and had done a headlining US and UK tour for it, and then was supposed to do a support tour in the spring of 2017 in the states with Modern Baseball and they cancelled that tour pretty abruptly, maybe about two weeks before it was supposed to happen. So all the sudden there was time, and I was filling it. I went on a writing trip to Nashville and went to Los Angeles writing for other people. Manchester had this pocket of relief because they had finished this heavy experience of recording A Black Mile. Andy asked me, ‘why don’t you come down here for a couple days if you’re already coming to Nashville’ and so I did. Getting down there that first day just hanging out very quickly turned into going ‘what songs do you have?’ and we were sitting there with an acoustic guitar, Robert had a notebook out, just playing songs back and forth. Honestly, the ten songs that ended up on the record all came out of that first 72 hours. I don’t mean to undersell the drama but it was, to use an overused word, very organic. Once we were sitting in the room together it was kind of like, ‘should we try to write a song?’ and Andy was like, ‘why don’t we try to record a record’.

The initial goal was to just make them skelatley, just two voices and an acoustic guitar. Then we re-visited that and tried to dress it up more from that point forward. At the time, it was just three people hanging out in a room that happened to have musical equipment and recording equipment *laughs*. It went from shooting the shit to what became recording the record in the span of two hours.”

Were you nervous about the reactions or excited to finally release a new album under Bad Books?

“You want people to like what you make. Think pizza, you want someone to say, ‘that tastes good’. If you make a song, you want people to say, ‘I like your song’, but also you have to like it. You’re the one who has to sleep with yourself at night. You’re the one who goes through your entire life with the things you make following you around, and so I have a mixed relationship to it. I always get excited about releasing a record, I get more excited about writing and recording it and performing it, but I always get excited about releasing it because it’s a reminder that I’m super lucky to get to do the thing I wanted to do since I was 10 and that I get to continue to do as I near 40. 

I thought we made something beautiful, something subtle, mature, nuanced, and thoughtful and elegant. I thought we wrote something where each of us were writing at a very high level and augmenting one another’s material at a very high level. I don’t mean any of that to sound egotistical, I mean it just about the song cycle and performance, not that we are The Beatles or some shit *laughs*. I just like what we do, and think we did it really well, tried some new things and took some chances. I thought there would be a handful of people who would be bummed it wasn’t a rock record. I thought there would be a much much higher percentage who come to me and Andy for the songs that would be really pleased. That seems to be about what has happened so far.”

Yeah that’s the most important thing. You and Andy have played shows together over the past few years, but what are you most excited about this time around? How was the first leg of the tour so far?

“It was really great. There’s a four piece stage arrangement. Andy and I playing both acoustic and electric guitars. Robert McDowell playing keyboard, piano, and electric guitar. Caroline Glaser, from Brother Bird, singing and also opening the show with her own stuff. It’s really broad and wide screen, and little a cinematic. It represents the sound of the record pretty faithfully. Then we run a bunch of older Bad Books songs through that prism too.

The band presentation for this specific record and these tours is really different than it was the last time, when it was a six-piece rock band, which it will be again someday, but this is just not the way it is for these songs, this album. When you talk about nerves, it’s a little bit more like… ‘Well, I hope people are okay with this.’ You hope the people can be in a club and be okay with it not being a rock show. Not that it’s some super stripped bare spoken word. It’s still dynamic. People really responded to the dynamism of it in a way that was really encouraging and felt affirming. All of what we do is built on Andy or I writing a song, in a room, likely on our acoustic guitar. We both performed those songs that way hundreds of thousands of times for the Kevin stuff and the Manchester stuff. 

If you’re a fan of Bad Books, or myself, or Manchester Orchestra, you probably like songs. Songs that someone can sit down and convey to you. Even if you took all the sound away, and it was just a guitar, or piano, and a vocal; you’d still probably find something in it and maybe even find more. I think that this record and this treatment at these shows really indicates that. It seems like people are really stoked to have it be presented that way. 

The crowds are wonderful, really attentive and present. Travel was easy. I laugh my ass off at those guys, and I think we were performing at a very high level. Caroline was a great addition, and Robert’s a god damn monster now. He can play everything, it’s like… I don’t know. He’s like a sneaky baby, like Elliott Smith guy in your band, who can play every instrument better than, not only you, but most people who are actually really good at it. So yeah, I’m really happy with it, and we get to go out and do Seattle and Portland and San Francisco and two shows in LA and San Diego and Phoenix and Dallas and Austin in about six weeks, so I’m looking forward to that too.”

I know that some artists don’t like using the term “side project,” because that insinuates that one of their projects is more important than the other. What’s your stance on that?

“I understand the phraseology. That’s why I used that phrase before, “day job.” Andy will probably always think -he and I both really put ourselves intently into this- but his brain is always Manchester Orchestra because that’s the thing that he’s been doing since he was 16-years-old. I’ve been playing music under my name since I was like a 15-year-old kid. But I’ve been writing songs since before that, so I’m always thinking about what I’m doing for me, and it’s a little different. But I do think Bad Books is more like a, more like a 1A, than a B or a two. 

It feels like we both take the Bad Books thing really seriously because we both wanted to hold its place, not only amongst itself but amongst our catalogs. I love when someone tells me they love Bad Books better than either Manchester or Kevin stuff. And that happens. There’s people who come up and whisper it to you.”


“They’re like, ‘I think I like Bad Books better,’ and I’m like, ‘That’s good.’ Not because I want to shit on myself or Manchester, but because I think that means to me that it’s not a vanity project or a side project, but it’s a thing that is vital and has its own energy and deserves its own life.”

Yeah, definitely. I think that’s a really good way to describe it. The recording process happened really quickly with this album. How does writing for Bad Books differ from other projects? I also noticed that one of the songs on the album was also on one of your Devinyl splits, so how does that go for you?

“Well actually there was two songs. There was a song called “I Wrote It Down” used on John Samson’s split. Then there was a song called, “I Love you, I’m Sorry Please Help Me, Thank You” that I wrote right before the election of 2016. This was a very different version of the song , and that was two years ago. 

How is it different? For this record, it’s funny, it moves around. For the first and third Bad Books records, it wasn’t like we were writing songs for Bad Books. We literally sat down and shook out our bag of songs at one another. They might have been songs that might’ve been cool for the next Manchester record or songs that would’ve been cool for my next record. What makes them Bad Books songs is the interaction between the three of us and how they get and built and taken apart and rebuilt. 

With Two, I think we each did a little bit more for that record because that was one of the three records that was made with any sort of pre-awareness that we were going to make an album. Those were songs that I wrote and thought, ‘Oh. This is a Bad Book song.’ I could hear Andy singing it. I could hear Robert and Ben playing it. I could just… I had that in my head. This is so different, and I know that with that record too, there was a song called “It Never Stops”. That was something that I really had. I had the structure. I had the vocal. I had the lyric. But I wasn’t sure at all how I wanted to dress it. And I brought it to them, and I was like, ‘Here’s this thing. I think the chorus is great, and I like the words but I don’t really know what I want it to be yet.” And we just built it together.

With respect to “I Wrote It Down For You” being on the split before, those splits are such a limited scope. We make like 700 to 1,000 copies of them, and they live online, but they’re not broad releases in anyway. The Bad Books record we knew was going to be broader, and Andy loved that song. He heard me sing it at a show opening for Manchester last summer, and he was like, ‘Can we please have that for Bad Books record?’ And I said sure, because I think it’s fine. It also kind of gives it a different light and reaches different things. I love that too. I think it’s nice when songs can have a conversation with themselves and live a few different lives, so that’s how that happened.”

Kind of along the same lines, can you explain what goes into writing the narratives behind a lot of the songs that you write? Especially on this record.

“I tend to write a lot of what it’s like to be a person music. If you dip into my catalog, it’s like one person’s experience of personhood at 20, 23, 25, 26, 29. And this is that. I feel like I write a lot of what is/what if songs. That luminal space where something might be a memory or might be a dream. Where something might be biographic, autobiographical, or something might be rejection and fiction, where you’re talking about one specific person or incident, or you’re talking about aggregate composite of a bunch of different things that you moved around. My favorite songwriters are people who write things, that even if they give you certain details that are hyper-vivid and specific, there’s always something that’s a little bit opaque about it. A little less like reading a journal, a little more like reading a poem about a journal, or something like that.

This record, I can pick through it in retrospect and see it’s a lot of transition. There’s a lot of transition. A lot of my stuff on the record is about trying to make sense of yourself when sense and self can change all the time. And how do you fix something to the ground to wrap yourself around when the storm hits? 

I’m hyper-editorial about words to some extent, but I also sometimes feel like my subconscious tends to do like a Jackson Pollock thing in a lot of my songs. There’s a lot of splatter painting and stuff. It can strike you, but it’s not sometimes for years that I’m like, ‘Oh. That’s what that was about.’ Which I kind of like, and then sometimes I kind of don’t because I feel like I get leveled by it later. You’re planting eggs for yourself. How the act of writing them is, can be different for every song. Something like “I Wrote It Down For You” literally showed up and was finished within an hour.”

Oh wow.

“Something like “Supposed To Be”, which might be my personal favorite song of mine on there, at least execution-wise, I had the verse and chorus to. I knew the melody. I could hear it, and I knew what I wanted the chorus to do, but I didn’t get the words right for a while. I would tinker with them, and there’s multiple versions of that song, not on record or recording, but in my head, from over the years and in notebooks and stuff. One day I was driving, and I heard that *starts singing “Supposed to Be”* and I was like, ‘Oh.’ Once a melody like that shows up sometimes, I can’t stop writing because all of a sudden, it’s almost phonetic, syllabic. I just hear a bunch of words that fit.

I remember hearing a story about Neil Young, which makes him sound like an insufferable prick, and he might be. But his wife at the time being like, ‘Oh. We’ll be out to dinner,’ and they’ll be in a public situation and all of a sudden, he’ll be like, ‘I got to go.’ Someone will be like, ‘What?’ and he’s like, ‘I just thought of a song. I got to go,’ and I guess when Neil Young says that, people are probably like, ‘Okay. Gotta go.’

I don’t know if that would work in my life as well, but I do try to sneak off for 30 seconds and put it down on a voice memo or type it quickly so I won’t forget it, and I can come back to it later. That’s the way the song tends to show up for me. There’s little lightning bolts that either resolve themselves quickly, or I have to ease the ghosts of electricity out of them for two years until the song is where I want it to be. So like half Bob Dylan, half Leonard Cohen.”

So you guys seem to have a natural… You even said, it’s organic, like a natural compatibility together, but whenever I’ve seen you guys on stage together, it’s almost like you have very different personalities. I could be completely wrong. It’s just what I’ve noticed. How does this affect how you guys create together?

“I think that we’re more similar than people see. I had a friend who said to me once, ‘You are simultaneously the funniest and most serious person I know,’ and that’s a high compliment. I don’t know if I’m the funniest person, but I can be fucking super silly. Very comfortable being goofy, and I also think about things deeply and write them that way. I always thought that’s just being a person.

I’m not going to get up on stage and perform sadness. I’m going to get up on stage and inject feeling into everything that I play. But if I feel like being silly, or if I feel like being goofy in between the songs, I’m going to have to think that my audience has the intellectual capacity to understand that both things are expressions of reality. In other words, it’s okay to be funny and sad at the same time.

I think that people don’t see that as readily for some reason with Andy, and I think Andy’s a super funny mother fucker. Really sharp and quick. And I think the Bad Book shows are actually an opportunity for people to see the ways in which we bend more toward one another than they might think because if you come see a Bad Book show, Andy, between the songs, is pretty loose.”

Do you think that it’s easy to strike a balance when everyone sits down in the room and writes something? 

“Most of what happens in Bad Books is Andy puts a lump of clay on the table, or I put a lump of clay on the table, and then we sit down and help build the clay. Shape it, put it in the kiln, and that’s what makes a Bad Books song. That doesn’t result in fighting. It actually results in a weird, sort of sweet thing, where each of us tends to jump in and work on one another songs. When it comes to the initial lump of clay, we both very much respect the other’s lump of clay. I think that’s how we are able to make it work as well as it does.”

What are some things that you admire about Andy and Robert, either personally, musically?

“I have known those guys since they were literally 20 and 17. I’ve known them since they were kids. We’ve seen each other through a lot of growth and transition and difficult periods. If you had told me two weeks before I met them that I had yet to meet the two people that would become two of my primary collaborators, not only in my own material but also starting a new band together that would become a thriving and central part of my musical identity and career, I would have been like, ‘Who are you talking about? What? There’s no way that’s true.’ 

I was 27 when we did that tour, which now I feel like I was a baby, but at the time, I was already four records in. I’d already had the Capitol thing happen, where we made a record for a major label, and the major label got swallowed by another major label. Everybody that was on it got kicked off of it, and I didn’t know if I was at the beginning, middle, or end of my career. We were both on tour with Brand New. We opened this tour in the spring of 2007 for Brand New. The creative and professional and personal relationships that sprang forward from that tour in specific for all three groups are mind-blowingly endless. How many different permutations of stuff came out of that? How many times one of the three of us was with the other? It was all the time for 12 years, right? This is a cliché thing to say. It’s overused. I love them, and they’re brothers to me.

Andy is somebody who I think is simultaneously very strong, very focused, very clear in his intention, very capable, and also vulnerable, sensitive, thoughtful. A person who can be dynamically funny and also really generous. He has been a very good friend to me in times that were easy to be and in times that were less easy to be. He’s curious. He’s a person who thinks about things deeply, and I have a soft spot for that. I think he’s an insanely talented songwriter, and he’s an incredibly talented arranger and producer. I think I’ve become a better singer, working with Andy. I think the world of him.

As for Robert, Robert was literally a kid. Robert was a minor. He was 17-years-old when we started that tour. He’s quieter, but he’s really sure of himself. He really knows who he is. I think he’s also an encyclopedic, voraciously curious, hungry musical mind. Somebody who I’ve watched be like, ‘I can fuck around on the piano,’ to ‘I’m going to learn how to play the piano,’ to… This guy can now sit down at a piano and play… If you don’t know this song, I encourage you to listen to it, “Everything Means Nothing to Me” from Figure 8 by Elliott Smith, which sounds like Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky or someone would have written. He’s become such a super strong harmony singer in both Manchester and Bad Books. Now we can do these three-part harmonies that are incredible and so lush. He’s every bit as capable a singer in his way as either Andy or I. 

In the studio, he literally was sitting there, closed his eyes, he’s like, “come back in 45 minutes,” so I went in the other room. Andy and I dicked around, hung out, whatever, went back in, and he’s like, ‘Listen to this.’ And I sat there, and I fucking cried when he played it for me because I was like, ‘How did you do…’ He heard the thing in my head and without me having to say it, and made it better by himself.

And that also speaks to his capacity to be intuitive about the people he’s making music with. He knows what chords move around in my head, my colors and the way I see things. He’s also a killer engineer. He’s a pro-tools guy. He’s a ‘where does the mic go’ guy. He’s the ‘what pre-amp do we use?’ guy. He’s the ‘what’s wrong with my guitar pedal’ guy. Robert’s… I’m sorry to be using coarse language, but a mother fucker. 

You’d have to ask them what they think I bring to the table. I just got to try to not be like Bob Dylan and the Traveling Wilburys. He’s unassailable, but if he was ever assailable, it was 1987. When he was standing in that room with Roy Orbison, George Harrison, and Tom Petty, there’s a reason why you don’t hear Dylan’s voice very often on the Traveling Wilburys records. He might have written a bunch of songs, but they were probably like, ‘You know what, Bob? Let’s let Roy Orbison sing this one.’ And I don’t think that’s who I am, but I love them, and I’m grateful I get to do this with them.”

Yeah. That’s a really beautiful thing and a really beautiful relationship to have. I’m going to change the topic a little bit. How has your relationship with the music industry changed since starting a family and becoming a father?

“I have a weird relationship to the music industry. I have a relationship with the music industry in the sense that I’m part of the touring economy. I play at major festivals. I’m in some of the publications that are known to people, right, about our stuff, and I have put records out on labels varying from really tiny bedroom labels to multinational corporations. Loma Vista for Bad Books is one of the bigger labels… outside of Capitol, they’d be the second biggest label I’ve ever worked with, so it’s an interesting thing. It’s a little nomadic. 

I don’t know how much has changed. My ability and willingness to tour for six weeks at a time is not the same. I don’t do that anymore. I used to do that all the time. I don’t really go out for any longer than just three weeks now. If I do go out for three weeks, I come home for a day or two on days off or something, even if it’s great physical discomfort to me. If it means a five a.m. flight somewhere to just be home for like 18 hours with my daughter, I do that. I’m not saying that because I want a medal for it. I’m just saying that’s the job.

I’m actually deep enough in it and far enough along in it that it makes less sense for me to do anything else at this point. I have to make enough money to do it, and there’s some years that are easier and some years that are harder. There are some projects that are more successful and some projects that are less. You just have to be flexible and adjustable and patient and believe in what you’re doing and also be rooted in reality, and if you get the sense it’s time to get out, you probably shouldn’t stay too long, but I don’t know that I’ve gotten that message yet. Everything shifts now because it’s not just for me. I do this also for my kid. Not just to make a living but also to model for her a certain way you can move around in the world. I’ve always felt like a country doctor, like the music industry is like some big, gleaming, hyper-modern hospital in the middle of the city or something. I go in when I have to, but I also find myself pretty skeptical. 

I’ve said this to John Samson on the tour we just did. He fully agreed with me, and that is a very smart man who’s been doing this longer than I have and if he agrees with it, then I think it’s the right thing. Nobody should ever be allowed to play in front of more than a thousand people. Once you get past a thousand people, most people start to get a little crazy. And it’s a vulnerable place to be. I challenge most people to name 10 famous people are well-adjusted. It’s really hard to do.”

How has raising a daughter changed not only your outlook within the music industry, but the world in general? Has it changed anything?

“It’s changed everything. You are no longer the center of the universe. Not that any and all of us can speak altruistically about not thinking we are, but all of us think we are the center of the universe. It’s not a knock on people. We’re imprisoned by ourselves. How could we not? Even the most selfless person experiences themselves as the center of the universe because you’re the only person whose mind you see the world through. I don’t mean that like we’re all selfish pricks. There’s a difference between being the center of the universe in your mind and being a callous, selfish person. But having a kid just arrests the center of the universe from you and puts is squarely wherever the hell they are.

In some ways, it’s scarier because you’re also responsible for them and for ushering them through a pretty scary world.On the other hand, it shrinks the focus to where, even if the news is fucking dreadful and terrifying, I also still have to just make sure I pick my daughter up from daycare and make sure she eats and gets a bath and has some books read to her and has some songs sung to her before she goes to bed and make sure she doesn’t think it’s okay to hit me when I tell her a thing she doesn’t want to hear and stuff like that. The world can be burning, and it literally is, but I have to still be responsible for these very things that allow this kid to cobble together the beginnings of personhood. That’s a thing that I think is invaluable.”

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I only have one last question for you, it’s a little bit lighter-


What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve ever gotten? It doesn’t have to be musical. It can be a life hack. Could be musical. Could be personal. Just anything. What is a piece of advice that you would like to share with the world?

“My brother John is not a musician. He does something to do with loans, money, and stuff I don’t understand. I actually worked at his office when I was 18-years-old. Still don’t understand it. But when I was on the Brother’s Blood Tour… that album the first record that I had expectations of. I put that record on my back and toured the fucking world with it. Winning people over an armful at a time. We were really excited about the record, and it leaked two, three months early. But when it leaked, it was ubiquitously positively received. So, it actually helped the record in some ways because people were like, ‘Holy shit. This is really cool’. We sold out the Bowery Ballroom in New York in a day. Then played in, or sold out Maxwell’s or something. Then played in Philly, and there was 200 kids there, and it was little shows, but I had never done a show of that size. That was my first real headlining tour ever. Got down to Baltimore, and it was like 110 kids, and then get down to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and it was 85 kids, and then got down to Charleston, South Carolina on a Sunday, and there was like 50 kids at the show and I was like, ‘Fuck.’ I thought this was the tour where I was going to go out, and it was going to be the Bowery Ballroom in every city kind of a thing. I’m usually someone who keeps pretty measured, but I was frustrated.

My brother, John, called me, and I was talking to him. He’s older than me by about 10 years, 11 years, and I was just letting it out because I just thought this was going to be easier. He kind of laughs, ‘First of all, when has anything been easy? It didn’t really strike me that that’s your career path.’ I was like, ‘Okay.’ He’s like, ‘But also, I understand what you’re saying, but if you get up on stage, and you show those people that you feel like that, and you feel that way in a way that’s self-pitying, you’re an asshole. The same 50 people that are in that room tonight, whether it was 600 in New York or 50 in South Carolina, they’re all kids taking a night away from high school or college or parents getting a babysitter to come out for a night. Or someone who’s just trying to have a good time because they fucking hate their job or whatever else, or trying to hang out with their significant other, or have a memory or have a night out, distract themselves from something, experience something, and if you go in there, and you blame them for not being more of them by acting like that, you’re an asshole.’

I really was like, ‘Wow.’ That’s the best advice I’ve ever gotten about music, and it was more about showing up for your life. Just put your head down and do your work and be grateful. Yes, sometimes you’re going to look at somebody else’s lawn and wish it was yours, but also at the end of the day, just be stoked you have a lawn. And if there are 50 people sitting on it that night, and you get to sing to them then that’s a pretty good lawn to have.”

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Emily Kitchin //@DeathNap4Cutie

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