Q&A with Kevin Devine
Singer-songwriter Kevin Devine, the subject of a profile in this week's Westword advancing his Sunday, May 24 gig at the Marquis Theatre with Miniature Tigers, The Rouge and Brian Bonz, is the rarest of interview subjects: a guy who listeners carefully to every question and answers each as completely and honestly as he can, without regard to self-promotion or vanity. The result, accessible after the jump, is probably the longest and most extensive Q&A published in this space to date, as well as one that's consistently fascinating.
Topics include an in-depth look at his formative years in and around Brooklyn, New York; his discovery of independent music, which helped politicize him; his decision to pursue music, as opposed to journalism; the contrast between the making of his early, lo-fi recordings and the assemblage of Put Your Ghosts to Rest, his excellent 2006 debut for Capitol Records; his belief that his eclectism caused marketing problems that eventually resulted in Capitol dropping his contract; his resurrection as a born-again independent artist; a dissection of a key song on Brother's Blood, his latest recording; and the ways in which he tries to use music for the betterment of the world around him.
The results are positively Devine.
Westword (Michael Roberts): Tell me a little bit about your background. Where are you from originally?
Kevin Devine: I grew up in Brooklyn, New York. I grew up in Bay Ridge, which is, like, southwest Brooklyn, kind of out toward Staten Island, where Saturday Night Fever takes place. Working class, Italian, Irish, and Middle Eastern now, too. And I used to play music out on Staten Island. There was a hardcore punk scene when I was about fifteen, sixteen, and my family moved out there. That's where I kind of started really playing. And then I went to college at Fordham, at Lincoln Center, and then I lived at Manhattan for three years. And I've been back in Brooklyn for the last ten. So I've been in New York my whole life, and been playing music for about half of it now.
WW: You've just scanned through a lot of your biography, but I was hoping to hit some highpoints along the way...
KD: We can double back. That's the really abbreviated, CliffsNotes version of my 29 years on Earth (laughs).
WW: How would you describe your parents?
KD: My father was a lifelong Brooklyn resident, Irish-American. Grew up in Prospect Heights and Park Slope, and moved out eventually to Bay Ridge. He was a cop. He was 33 years in the NYPD, an Internal Affairs lieutenant by the end. And he came from a cop family. My grandfather was a cop, two of my uncles were cops. One of them was chief at least for a day.
WW: For a day?
KD: Yeah. He was a captain and he had brain cancer. He was high up in the department under Ed Koch, and Koch made him commissioner for a day toward the end of his life. So there was a lot of cop culture around growing up, and there's good things about that and bad things about that. I think the bad things were kind of brought into sharper contrast when I got into punk rock and hardcore. I was meeting people who were speaking about more radical social ideas. I started hearing words like "police state" and seeing the other side of the experience. I grew up around lots of people hanging out on the weekend having drinks, and they all seemed like good guys.
The idea you have as a kid of cops is a little different from the idea you have of them when you grow up and live a little more. The best I know, my dad was on the up and up. I think he was pretty unpopular among cop circles, because the IA guys are the ones who are watching the Watchmen, sort of. And he grew up in the '30s and '40s in New York. He was a lot older than my mom. He passed in 2003, and my mom is an RN. She works at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in a gastroenterological cancer ward. Another lifelong Brooklyn resident. She's Irish... My parents were very different people. My dad's stock joke about my mom is that she would have been the one at the protest rally in Central Park in 1969, and he'd be the guy who'd be cracking her friends' heads with a nightstick. My mom was a hippie. That's where I first heard a lot of the music I gravitated to later in life. Definitely the Beatles and Bob Dylan, and she loved a lot of folk singers, like Buffy Sainte-Marie and Phil Ochs and Joni Mitchell. And a lot of older country stuff: The first place I heard Patsy Cline and that kind of stuff was from my mother. My dad was kind of pre-rock and roll, more of a doo-wop guy. Definitely didn't have any use for that other stuff...
WW: You're describing too extreme opposites. How did they get together?
KD: Well, I wasn't around yet (laughs), but they met in, I think, 1976. They had some mutual friends and I think they met at a party at a Knights of Columbus somewhere in Brooklyn, up on, like, 95th Street. My dad was newly single after his first marriage and had my two brothers already from that one, and they met and hit it off. That's my personal history, anyway, if not world history (laughs).
WW: Tell me about your siblings.
KD: (Pause) I have three older brothers, an older sister and a younger brother.
WW: You sounded like you were doing some calculations there...
KD: Yeah (laughs). General thought patterns are kind of under siege when you're in the van anyway. It's difficult to have any kind of intelligent conversation. But I do sometimes have to do some counting, because there's a lot of us. But six in all, four from my dad's first marriage, and two from my dad and my mom.
WW: Your description of cop culture would certainly have given you a lot to rebel against if that was your choice. Is that what drew you to punk rock?
KD: Maybe. I think what drew me to punk rock was Nirvana, initially. I was twelve when they hit. I was the perfect age to have my mind blown by that whole thing. I gravitated to music young. My brothers always listened to, like, Springsteen and KISS and the Beatles. And like I said, my parents are musical in very different ways. So I definitely was around music a lot. But what I thought was badass was Motley Crue and Poison and bands like that. When I was a nine or a ten-year-old kid, I joined the Columbia House thing where you got twelve cassettes for a dollar or something like that. And my cassettes were pretty uniformly stocked with cock-rock music, with a splash of pop here and there. I definitely had the Debbie Gibson Electric Youth cassette, and Milli Vanilli. I listened to pop radio and whatever the girls in my fourth-grade class liked, I pretty much liked that, and then Guns N' Roses, who were at that point a pop band; they were all over the place. They might have been harder, but you can't really claim underground status on a band that sold fifteen-million records or whatever the fuck it is they sold. But when Nirvana's record came out, I had that very stereotypical generational experience that most people in my age group had. I remember the first time I saw their video, Axl Rose played it on a video block on MTV. He said, "This band's great and they're called Nirvana" - and he played "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and after that, I just didn't have as much use for all that other stuff. It's not that I totally annexed it from my sphere. It took me a while to get out of my Guns N' Roses phase...
WW: It was probably easier to get out of the Debbie Gibson phase.
KD: Yeah, and all the rest of it. I didn't really listen to much of the other cock-rock stuff after that. Because then Nirvana got you into... You started with the other big bands, like Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. But then, I really got into the things Kurt Cobain would talk about. I started listening to Superchunk and the Pixies and Pavement and Sonic Youth and some of the older stuff through their covers, like the Vaselines. And it's kind of hard when you've been listening to that stuff to still listen to "I Want Action" [by Poison]. Not that there's not a place for "I Want Action." Later, you learn how to put everything in its right place. But you know how provincial that adolescent brain can be about what you like about what you don't. But Nirvana was the gateway into indie rock and punk rock, and into folk rock and country and blues on some level through the Unplugged record, too. They were definitely like a big skeleton key for me.
The place I grew up, there were a lot of great people, and there was a lot of work ethic and it was family-oriented, and there's a lot of stuff I still carry from it, and it's still integral. But there was a lot of close-mindedness in Bay Ridge. There's a lot of really small-town vibe in a big city. And if you're even a little kid with any kind of sensitivity or a thoughtful nature or if you're drawn to any kind of thing that's artistic or weird... As much as I was drawn to the Mets and riding my bike and whatever, I also was a kid who was always writing a lot in grade school and I'd read whatever books I could. Sit in room and read Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Dickens from when I was a kid. And if you're drawn to anything outside the usual framework when you're young, punk rock and indie rock and these other things, they felt a little bit like, "Oh! There are other weird people. It's not just everybody who looks like they're on Growing Up Gotti.
WW: Punk rock would have also helped in terms of politicizing you, I imagine.
KD: Without a doubt. I would say it was the catalyst. Especially in the Staten Island hardcore scene. Now, how deeply they understood it is a different debate, but that's kind of the point. It's youthful and it's exciting, but there's a lot of discussion of socialism and anarchy and veganism and a lot of influence from that D.C. hardcore scene. From Fugazi and Minor Threat and all that Dischord stuff that's very conscious of eradicating the barrier between the band and the crowd. Keeping costs down and making an experience happen that was drug and alcohol-free. That was the culture I grew up around. Going to shows where it would cost $5 at the door, but it would be $3 if you brought a can of food for a food drive. Very socially minded people.
We were kids, but it was great to be around kids who gave a shit about things like that. I'd hear about Malcolm X and Emma Goldman and all these things at sixteen and seventeen, and even younger. Not that I developed any really profound understanding of it, but I was introduced to it. There was a surface-level understanding of it. And I think particularly after September 11, I think the things that were catalyzed within me then were things that were sort of embedded as a teenager. Sort of the fundamental inequalities that's sadly at the heart of how the world works, and exploitation that's at the guts of it, at least in the current structure of things. Seeing what happened that day and seeing the aftermath of it, and seeing what happened in the next eight years, especially, I kind of went back and researched the things I'd digested at sixteen, and it kind of made more sense, I guess.
WW: You mentioned that you attended Fordham, and I understand that you majored in journalism. Was that something you were serious about? Or was it more, "I've got to major in something, so it might as well be journalism, so at least I can be dealing with current events"?
KD: No, it wasn't a lark. I really love writing, and I really love words, and I really love being able to express myself that way. And especially being able to be blown away by other people's expressions. To me, language is something to be valued and to be treated with respect, and also to have fun with and to be awed by. I've never been good at anything visual. I can't draw, I can't paint, I can't sculpt or do anything like that. But I can express myself, and I can have my mind blown when I hear or read someone expressing themselves verbally or whatever. Journalism seemed like a great conduit for that.
I didn't know what I wanted to do, and sometimes I still don't, but I knew I wanted to do something about words, and to do something where I'd be able to write about culture and express myself. I liked the school I was in. I had really supportive and wonderful teachers at that program that I'm still in touch with and close to today, and I was an editor at the school paper, and I did freelance writing for a couple of websites, and I'd pitched a story to the metro section of the New York Times that they greenlit for me to go out and write. It was going to be on these shoeshine workers on the Staten Island ferry, these Italian and Eastern Bloc immigrants. But they wouldn't talk to me, so the story didn't start. And I had two stories that I wrote for the New York Post that got purchased, and then I got a kill fee, because they didn't run them. So I was at a crossroads. It was either keep doing it and go to grad school and get further in debt but try to make a go of this journalism thing, or work part-time jobs and try to figure out how to do music. That was really as deeply planned as that whole thing went...
But I was serious about it. I had some time off before this record came out, basically four months aside from the trip to South By Southwest and the trip to Japan for a tour. So I audited a writing class at Fordham in first-person journalism. Like opinion writing. Just to get back in that environment and workshop and write like that again. Exercise some atrophied muscles. My brother's a journalist who writes for a community journalist in the Boston area, and besides being a better writer than I am, he's also a way, way more dogged and intellectually curious and disciplined journalist. The reporting part of it. The eureka moment, the writing part of it, I could do that all day. But the part where you had to bust your ass to get a story, and research it and develop it? I found that I was more comfortable and it seemed more comfortable to me to be busting my ass on what I'm doing with music, whether it be the creative side or the administrative side. It feels like this is more natural, which I don't mind at all.
WW: The first three albums you made were quite low budget. In some ways, though, do you feel it was a blessing in disguise, because it forced you to come up with creative ideas that might not have occurred to you if you'd suddenly been thrown into a studio with tons of money and as much time as you needed?
KD: I think that's true. And I've never expected to have any kind of recording budget. I also think the budget spoke to my development. Around nineteen years old, when I had $1,000 to make a record, I probably didn't need much more. I wasn't looking to make some kind of orchestral masterpiece, some rock opus. I just wanted to get some songs down, and I felt thrilled when we were able to con friends into coming in and playing the drums. That was as broad as my ambitions were at that point. And I was listening to that first Elliott Smith record and Either/Or, these really kind of great sounding records that were also lo-fi. And I was interested in trying to draw out songs and make as interesting a recording as possible with as little fanfare as I could. It didn't even really occur to me that we were on a shoestring budget. It was more, "Oh, cool, somebody's giving me money to make a record."
If I had been someone who had more immodest ambitions musically, someone with more of an epic kind of sweep, at that point in my life, it probably would have been a little more noticeable to me. Circle Gets the Square and Make the Clocks Move were made for $1,000 and $2,500 respectively, but they were made in somebody's basement who I knew. If you spent $1,000 in a studio, you'd have two days. But it took us probably two weeks of a couple of hours here and there to do the Circle Gets the Square record, and it probably took the same thing over the course of a summer, getting in whenever other people weren't in there, to make Make the Clocks Move. So by the time we got to Split the Country and we had $7,500 and we were making it in a real studio in Brooklyn, in my mind, we were loaded (laughs). I thought that was totally extravagant.
Put Your Ghosts to Rest, the Capitol one: We did with Rob Schnapf out in L.A., we had legitimate pre-production and we were in two world-renowned studios: Sunset Sound and Sound Factory, where Neil Young and Prince and all these people have made all these albums. The Doors and Led Zeppelin and all these ridiculous, canonical bands. And I'm glad that I was insulated from the cost of making that record. I really don't know how much it cost to this day. I know the whole thing was, all in, somewhere around $100,000, including Rob. But that's a super-significant jump from $7,500. And I think the record's fidelity speaks to that. It's definitely a much more high-fidelity recording than anything we'd done prior, and I love that for that song cycle. It's really bright and it's really shimmery and pretty. But for Brother's Blood, we were really lucky. We got something like thirty grand to make that record, and that's a lot of money for an indie label. And we really used every cent of it. We were at Headgear in Brooklyn for two weeks, and we were there every day from, like, 11 a.m. to three in the morning, and sometimes six or seven in the morning. We demoed the hell out of the songs before we got there and had all the arrangements worked out and did a lot of live recording and still needed every minute of eleven days to do what we were doing.
I feel like I could probably make a record for fifty bucks, and I feel like I could make a record for $200,000, and depending on whose basement it's in or how good the mikes are, I think both of them could still be good. Recording's changed so much anyway. You can hear it when something is made in a really great space, but people are able to do some amazing things these days in the privacy of their own homes. Budgets are kind of negotiable. I wanted to get that money for this record because I actually wanted to give the guys who played on this record a little bit of cash. Not just some pizza and a case of beer. That was important to me, because these guys have been really committed to helping me out.
WW: Going back to the Ghost record, I thought that was a terrific album...
KD: Thank you.
WW:... and I couldn't tell if Capitol didn't know what to do with it, or if it was just bad timing. If the company and the industry at large were in such turmoil that it just sort of got sucked under...
KD: I think it was both. And I don't say this to sound egotistical, or a self-expressed prick, but I really like that record, too. I hadn't listened to it for a long time, but I listened to it recently for the first time in probably a couple of years, and I really enjoyed listening to it. I think Rob made a really beautiful record. I love the song cycle and I think he really drew out the right things. I'm really proud of that record, and that's why we toured on it for two-and-a-half years after we got dropped. I was doggedly determined to make sure that people heard it. And I think the reason this record is getting some modicum of attention, comparatively speaking, is because we did work hard on that record, to help it find some audience even though it feel out of their hands really quickly.
With Capitol, it was, I think, a poorly run company at that point. They got merged with Virgin; that was looming and a lot of people in the company knew it was going to happen. But I do sort of wind up sitting between a bunch of things. They put me out on tour with Corinne Bailey Rae and I went out on tour on my own with KT Tunstall, and they're both wonderful, and I'm still in touch with both of them. But Corinne's a soul singer and KT's a pop singer. And I went out with Straylight Run, and they're kind of an emo band, and I went on the Hotel Café tour with Joshua Radin and all those kinds of Scrubs/Gray's Anatomy folk-scene kind of thing. And those are all great guys, too, but that's not really what I do. And I had a great time on the tour I did with Brand New and the Manchester Orchestra. Those guys are some of my best friends in music, or in general. But they're both big, burly rock bands, and I have that facet to what I do, but that's not all of it.
I'm not very fashionable and I'm not super-hip. So what I do fits in between with a lot of things. I can do shows with bands like Stars and Okkervil River or whatever, and then do stuff with bands like Brand New and KT. And I find that a strength, but it may not seem like a strength to a marketing person. They might not know where to fit you. So I don't know. I kind of have given up thinking about that, because it doesn't do me any good, besides making me frustrated. It's too much for me sometimes. I try to have some degree of gratitude for what I do have and an understanding for why I don't have other things. If in twenty years some kid comes across my digital recording on some catalog on the Internet somewhere and says, "Who the hell is this guy? This is great. I never heard of him. No one I knew ever talked about this person," well, there are worse fates than that. And I can tour around the country and around Europe and Australia and around England and around Japan. And maybe in some places thirty people come. But in other places, two or three or four or five hundred people come, and most places, a hundred to two-hundred people come. And for a guy who's pretty DIY and had a quote-unquote soft release from a dissolving major label, that's not bad.
I got bottom-lined to an Excel spreadsheet when the new guy came in. He was like, "How many records does he sell? Fuck him." And that's the nature of the beast. I'd have to be pretty self-involved and perspective-lacking to thing otherwise. Everyone in the country and in the fucking world is finding that kind of thing out. And major labels aren't art galleries. They're not like the punk-rock shows I played at VFW halls when I was sixteen. It's a business. It's a major international corporation owned by other major international corporations. They looked at me, and I'm a weird fit wherever I go. Too indie rock for emo, too emo for indie rock, too abrasive for the whispery singer-songwriter thing. It doesn't exactly fit. So unless I did 50,000 records my first week, I wasn't going to be invested in by that company either way. I got an assurance that I was going to get to make a second record, and then the guy who made that assurance was let go (laughs). The worst part was, I had a year of solid touring with them. I'd done KT, I was getting ready to do Brand New. I brought in eight tours that were going to happen back to back, from June '06 until the middle of '07. I had those put together, and they did a great video on "Brooklyn Boy" from that record and they were getting ready to service that to VH1, and they were getting ready to service Triple-A radio and the record was charting on college radio, and all this stuff. And the week were getting ready to send all that stuff out was when we got dropped.
We didn't really have a shot. The record was, like, stillborn. So we toured for a long time. I did every tour I could do across genre, across size, across scope, whatever I could afford. I went all over the world on it, and if I have to do the same thing on this one, I will, too. And after that's over, I'll take stock of it. But the thing about writing songs, that's always going to happen. But whether or not I do it 250 days a year to try and eke out a living might be a different story. But I'm not at that place yet, and I really love what I get to do. There's no other job I want to do. And I couldn't get a job anyway right now, even if I tried to (laughs).
WW: When it came time to make Brother's Blood, was it difficult to put all the things you've just talked about in the back of your mind and focus on the music? Or was it a healing experience for you to be able to say, "I'm thinking only about these songs and I'm focused entirely on making them as good as they can be"?
KD: What's weird about Brother's Blood is, when I hear it and when we play it, it's clear it's a very dark sounding record. A lot of minor keys. I've realized while listening to Ghost that the whole record is in major keys. It's also subversive and tricky, because there's a lot of sad or disgruntled things happening on that record. It's not as cheery as the music might indicate. But it is a major-key sounding thing, and a lot of people who aren't focusing on lyrical content hear that and miss that part of it. I had a guy at a radio station tell me one time that "Brooklyn Boy" was, like, his jam for the summer. And I was like, "I don't think you're paying attention too closely, but that's fine with me," because people like music for different reasons.
These songs are very personal for me. A lot of them, like "Hand of God" and "Brother's Blood" and "Carnival" are very deeply felt. I feel strongly about them. But they kind of came more like splatter paintings than still lifes. They were snatches of words. It is a narrative and there's narrative in there, but it's also a lot more abstract. Sometimes for me, the songs start to make more sense later than they do in the moment. So that's a long way to getting to your question. It didn't necessarily feel like it was hard to focus, or that it was good for me to be able to focus. I just felt thrilled to be making a record again at all, because it was two-and-a-half years after the last one by the time we got into the studio. But I didn't feel an overwhelming sense of, "Oh, thank God Capitol isn't involved," because Capitol really was pretty uninvolved to start with. My A&R guy came around the studio, but he was really positive. He was thrilled by the record and thought it was going to do really well. He didn't have any criticisms, or if he did, they weren't like we-need-you-to-write-a-single kinds of things.
The thing that was really great this time, though, was being able to go home every night, go home to your apartment. As much as I loved living in Southern California for two months, that means you're away for two months. It's nice to be around your stuff and your people. I think it helps in some way with getting things we needed to get on the record. There was a feeling of community and home. People we play with at home, in our neighborhood, could just walk to the studio and add something, which was helpful. But this whole process feels very purging to me, on the other hand, because it feels like all that work has finally put a base together where there wasn't one before. And I don't ever feel conscious of what I'm writing, because I don't feel like they're expecting me to be something specific. I feel like I can be whatever I want, and however I want. People might like something better than they like something else, but they don't expect me to be doing some specific thing, something I have to stay married to. And I think a lot of that has to do with what happened in the last couple of years.
WW: I wanted to ask you about "Another Bag of Bones," which is, from a lyrical standpoint, this horrific litany of catastrophe. The song raises the question about whether you're optimistic about the future. It's always dangerous to read too much into a single song, but that song features a pretty grim outlook. Where do you come down on things these days?
KD: Well, the proof's got to be in the pudding. It's weird. I'm not a pessimistic person, relatively. I'm maybe manic depressive. I'm in pretty good moods, pretty bad moods. Although maybe that's what everybody's like. Maybe we've overcategorized people's emotional responses to things. But I don't think things are good, and that's what was hard for me in what was happening around the whole Obama thing. I understand the symbolic importance of it, and I understand that it's unbelievable for our country's history to be able to say we've progressed to this point where we could look past color and elect the most qualified person for the job. Of course, the most qualified person for the job is a debatable conversation, too, but I understand that in the mainstream conversation, I'm not ever going to get Dennis Kucinich or Cynthia McKinney as my president. I have to be realistic (laughs). But it was really hard for me to get as excited as a lot of my peers were about that whole thing, because I think there are a lot of reasons to not get overexcited and be more realistic.
There's a lot happening that's not going to be solved by one guy, and the American political system, especially with the amount of corporate infiltration that exists in it, and that Obama is not going to turn back... It's not on his agenda, it's never been on his agenda, to roll any of that back. You can look that up. He's by no means a maverick revolutionary dude. He's a really smart, well-meaning, incredibly intelligent ameliorator who was born of the same political process as anybody else who gets to that position. You don't get to that position if you're actually radical. So my line of thinking, and it's just me, I don't want to tell anybody else how to think, but I think shit's really bad. And I think there need to be radical changes for the world to sustain itself, for there to be a more equitable distribution of property and wealth. For people in Third World countries, they're the ones who get fucked by global warming more than anybody else, and we're the ones who make it a problem for them. We take their resources, and after we use them, what they get back is rising temperatures and untenable places and fucking floods and weather catastrophes. And for their trouble, we'll keep them shackled in IMF debt for undeterminable lengths of time, because we convinced them to let us build military bases in their back yard.
So what do I think? I don't think Obama is going to do anything about any of that? (Laughs.) Because I don't think it's in the American agenda to do anything about that. So ultimately, I think, so long as we're dictated to by these terms, do I get excited about change we can believe in? Not until I can actually see change that I can believe in. And I don't think that's part of the agenda for anyone in this position. Does that mean I don't think there are obviously way, way, way, way better things on the domestic agenda in Obama America than in George Bush America? Not at all. Hopefully we get improvements in things like the stem-cell-research initiative, and although he's taken single-payer health care off the table, maybe there'll be improvements with that. Maybe there'll be improvements in the minimum wage. Gay marriage and maybe eight more years of not having to worry about Roe v. Wade. Those are all important things. But do I think they're the most important things? Personally, I don't. And I don't think that in the political dialectic that exists in this country, those important things are on his agenda... If you compare our image around the world, that's important to business people. And it's important on some level when it comes to goodwill. But if you improve things cosmetically but you don't change the fundamental reasons why people don't trust or fear or hate this country, then I don't really know what the fucking point is.
That's just me, and I'm not trying to be cynical when I say that. I believe in people, and I think he's wonderful. I'm sure if I met the guy, I'd have stars in my eyes because he's brilliant and compassionate and amazing and charismatic. But he still is what he is, and it is still what it is. That's just how I feel. And it's not just about this country. There are a lot of concerns around the world, and if you step outside that conversation... You just have to open a newspaper or a browser. You're besieged by it every time you fucking open your eyes. So that's where that song comes from. And I'm not smart enough to tell anyone how they should or shouldn't think. My feelings about this stuff change so rapidly, and I'm not the most well-informed person in the world on any of these things. I'm not Noam Chomsky sitting in front of a bank of computer screens just reading and digesting information all day, or whoever Noam Chomsky's counterpart would be on the right and in the middle. But I don't have to be. I sing in a band (laughs).
That's not to negate everything we've been talking about. I do care about these things and I do think about them and I do believe in people. But I also believe in the statistics and I believe in the facts, and there's a lot of scary shit out there.
WW: I was looking at some lyrics from your past albums, and I came across "Protest Singer" from your debut, in which you talk about how the only thing you were only protesting against was yourself. But there seems like there's a lot more to protest against these days...
KD: Yeah, but I think ultimately I'd still probably come back to that. Someone said recently something about my music being "a cycle of self-reactions," and I think that's probably better than anything I've ever said about it. They're all just songs where I'm trying to make sense out of things, ultimately. If you can boil eighty songs over all these records down to ten words or something, it's me trying to make sense out of myself, and trying to make sense of everything else. And everything else is filtered through your eyes and ears. So ultimately, the protest music I write, if you could even call it protest music... I don't know that if I sang "Another Bag of Bones" at a rally, people would be moved. It's not like "We Shall Overcome." I don't know if it could be considered protest music or what. But those songs are still very personal as much as they're anything else. They're my understanding, or lack of understanding, of those situations.
I think when I was a nineteen-year-old kid, I was a college kid who grew up with the Clintons. Later, I found out a lot more about what was going on then, too. But at that time, I had all these weird, nascent, unhatched eggs in my head of all this political theory. Gut-level, street-level political theory from the things I heard people talking about at those shows, and things that I'd read about and studied. By no means did I feel as strongly about a lot of it as I do now. But I also spent a lot of my twenties being completely fucking freaked out by all of it, and not being in any way proactive. Just being self-destructive, largely. It was as much part my self-destructiveness as anything else was. I'll say that. I'm not saying I was sitting in my room doing crazy things to myself because of Latin American dictatorships propped up by the CIA. But it was part of it (laughs). It seemed like a pretty unbeatable and inexhaustible and massive enemy. And now I see it that I have to live well in my own small way and make my contributions in my immediate life and continue to educate and prepare myself and be honest and open.
"Think global, act local" was an '80s thing. And I think there are a lot of legitimate activists that would say I'm a complete joke when it comes to activism, because all I do is write songs and unplug my cellphone charger from the wall at night, so I'm not contributing to mounting electrical losses. I go to protests, I go to Marxist analyses of the economic crisis. I'm into the intellectual side of the stuff as much as I can, and I'm sure if there's a list of people into that kind of stuff, I might be on it, because of some of the things I've done, bought, said, attended, whatever. But I'm not out in the street fucking involved in local politics or trying to sign up people to do things...
I just read this article about the eight people who were arrested for disruption of Congress for going to the healthcare summit the other day. There was a Congressional panel, and they were speaking out about single-payer healthcare in even tones, unarmed, dressed in black to symbolize the 20,000 people who die in this country every year from lack of healthcare. And they got arrested for disruption of Congress, because a really understandable voice is being frozen out of that entire debate. A voice that might be the best option for a group of people who might not be able to afford healthcare even if they reduce the cost. I'm not doing anything like that. I'm talking to you, or I'm singing songs to twenty-year-old kids. But that might be the point.
Maybe for somebody like me, the point of me existing in that world is to get somebody who wouldn't think about these things to think about them, and then to go and read the people who really know what the fuck they're talking about. And that's just as noble as anything else. You can talk yourself in and out of reasons for why you should do anything, or at least I can. But I think there's plenty to get worked up about. And you've got to understand that yours is just a drop in the ocean, but it's still your drop. It's asinine and egotistical to think that you're going to be able to turn any kind of tide on your own, or even that it's your job. But it's not asinine or egotistical to care.