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Bad Books: Where Loud And Soft Collaborate

Kevin Devine is a quiet singer-songwriter. Manchester Orchestra is a loud rock band. The two acts have toured together extensively, and earlier this year, they actually began working on music together.

Together, Devine and members of Manchester Orchestra are known as Bad Books, and they have a new self-titled album out. It makes Bad Books something of a union of opposites, though there are common elements.

"I don't know if it's quite as polarized as 'opposites,' " Devine says. "Andy Hull, who writes the songs for Manchester Orchestra -- he has a softer side and does a project that's kind of his acoustic songs. I definitely do have a number of songs that skew toward that kind of -- you know, I love Elliott Smith and Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan and Neil Young. But actually, all those people except for Leonard Cohen also have a part that is more loud and more bombastic."

In an interview with Weekend All Things Considered guest host Audie Cornish, Devine describes the process of working with Hull and the other members of Manchester Orchestra. He describes the struggle to finish one song in particular -- "You Wouldn't Have to Ask" -- as the crux of the collaboration.

"As a songwriter, you want your thing to be fully formed and perfect when people hear it," he says. "There is that part of the ego that doesn't want to take suggestion. But collaborating is definitively all about taking suggestion. And the bridge that [Hull] came up with was better, and it made the song better, and it straightened it out. He did with that part what I couldn't do. And in that moment, it was like ... I think for both of us, it was the kind of realization, 'Well, that's why we're doing this.' "

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, host:

Now, we've talked about bad sex and good writing, and we'll finish with Bad Books...

(Soundbite of song, "How This All Ends")

CORNISH: ...as in the band Bad Books. This song is the first track off the band's debut album. It's a side project for two up-and-coming acts in the indie world: Manchester Orchestra and solo artist Kevin Devine.

(Soundbite of song, "How This All Ends")

BAD BOOKS (Music Group): (Singing) I arrived with no shoes, without a name, without a use.

CORNISH: That track is called "How This All Ends." Bad Books could be seen as a union of opposites. Kevin Devine is usually the sensitive singer/songwriter type. But the guys in Manchester Orchestra are more turn-the-amps-up-to-11 sort of guys.

Mr. KEVINE DEVINE (Bad Books): Andy Hull, who writes the songs for Manchester, he has a softer side. And I definitely do have a number of songs that skew towards that kind of more loud and bombastic. And I grew up listening to like, Nirvana and Pavement and the Pixies and Sonic Youth and '90s kind of indie rock guitar stuff. So that's in elements of my songs and some of my records.

But I think Manchester's much more consistently, as you've said, you know, crank the amps and full-throated scream kind of a thing.

CORNISH: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DEVINE: I think - but I think we kind of have a bit more in common in the musical DNA than that might indicate, you know?

CORNISH: And you mentioned Andy Hull of Manchester Orchestra. And he wrote the song we just heard. And now, I want to play one of the songs that you wrote, Kevin. This one is called "You Wouldn't Have To Ask."

(Soundbite of song, "You Wouldn't Have To Ask")

BAD BOOKS: (Singing) Your crooked days come bundled up in bunches. They break your brain like a branch and push you out here asking after something you should know I don't have. If I had it, you wouldn't have to ask. If I had it, you wouldn't have to ask.

CORNISH: Kevin Devine, what is it about this song that lends itself so well to collaboration with Manchester Orchestra?

Mr. DEVINE: Well, I think, for me, that's the song that kind of the collaboration turned on - that song I wrote in a hotel room in Hamburg, Germany - a hotel's generous, like a hostel in Hamburg, Germany.

And it came really quickly, which to me, usually, some part of my brain tells me that means it's not good. But the other part told me that I was wrong. And the verses and choruses were pretty fully formed by the time I brought it down there. But the bridge, I had this kind of key-changing, labyrinthine, like overthought, kind of a late-period Beatles thing as a bridge.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: Which sounds very romantic. It sounds good.

Mr. DEVINE: Well, it might sound romantic, but I promise you it did not sound good. And Andy kind of suggested straightening out the bridge. And you know, as a songwriter, this is the part of your ego that doesn't want to take suggestion. But collaborating is definitively about taking suggestion. And the bridge he came up with was better, and it made the song better and it straightened it out.

You know, he did with that part what I couldn't do without him. And in that moment, it was like - I think for both of us, it was the kind of realization that, well, that's why we're doing this.

(Soundbite of song, "You Wouldn't Have To Ask")

BAD BOOKS: (Singing) So how could you know if you didn't? And what's left to say when your tongue's turned to ash? I tell you you're fine and forgiven so you wouldn't have to ask.

CORNISH: How has it changed the way that you write music?

Mr. DEVINE: I had a tendency before to feel like a song had to be - by the first time I sat down and played it for you on an acoustic guitar, it had to basically be as finished structurally as it would be on the final recording months and months later.

And I think for me, as I was writing, if I couldn't get to that place kind of quickly or directly, I would convince myself that meant that the song wasn't worth pursuing or that the idea wasn't like, full enough or fruitful enough. And...

CORNISH: You sound like a perfectionist.

Mr. DEVINE: I think that's probably true. And I think like with a lot of people that are perfectionists, the flipside of that is you kind of paralyze yourself into total inactivity, which is kind of the irony of one - you know, it's like a perfectionist who does nothing.

But what I've realized through this Bad Books record, we did this whole thing in six days, you know?

CORNISH: So how long does it normally take you to put together an album by yourself?

Mr. DEVINE: Well, you know, our last record, "Brother's Blood," I did in about two and a half weeks in the studio. But we did a month's worth of full band demos and then a month's worth of me doing acoustic demos before that.

So, you know, end to end, it probably ended up taking close to three months. But it's kind of made me realize that, you know, get the rough idea down, and you can always build around that or chop away at that later. It doesn't have to be ready for Carnegie Hall the first day you come up with the idea.

CORNISH: I'm speaking with Kevin Devine of the band Bad Books. So, Kevin, I want to listen to another track, and this is called "The Easy Mark and the Old Maid."

(Soundbite of song, "The Easy Mark and the Old Maid")

BAD BOOKS: (Singing) Some men they go make their own luck, grow fat from feeding on lame ducks. The easy mark and the old maid, the invalid and the ingrate.

CORNISH: Talk a little bit about what this song is about. I mean, it's a very pretty, kind of acoustic piece.

Mr. DEVINE: I tend to write songs about the tenuous relationship between worry and hope. And that's a song to me that's kind of about different pictures of collapse, different little kind of vignettes anecdotally about the guy at the racetrack, the dude kind of locked in at the bar stool. And I'm obsessed with these people a little bit because you drive around the country on tour and you just see all these buildings boarded up and where'd-the-jobs-go kind of a thing.

And there's a lot of anxiety, but also a lot of - I think we're a hopeful people. And I'm kind of fascinated by that balance.

(Soundbite of song, "The Easy Mark and the Old Maid")

BAD BOOKS: (Singing) Eyes are fixed and my palms are spread, dissonance floats my shipwrecked head. God sleeps in the Gaza Strip and man alone's left to live with it. The coin-flip faith of the optimist. Beginner's luck in a sewing kit. What to do when there is no fix on the unflinching ambivalence.

CORNISH: It's kind of intense for such pretty music. And I ask just because when I look at the titles of the songs you've written, you know, "Holding Down the Laughter," You're A Mirror I Cannot Avoid," "You Wouldn't Have To Ask," you do sound like an anxious guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: Is that okay to say?

Mr. DEVINE: Oh, it's certainly not offensive to say. I mean, I think that there is that part of me. And also, there's the goofy part. There's the part that wants to, like, root for the Mets and, you know, watch the basketball highlights on Sports Center or whatever.

There's a lot of different - that part doesn't tend to write songs, thankfully, because those songs might not be that compelling.

CORNISH: Though a lot of people who might want to hear a song about the Mets. I mean I'm sure...

Mr. DEVINE: Yeah. I will. Actually, maybe my anxiety is more closely married to being a Mets fan than I'm giving credit to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DEVINE: But, yeah. So I feel like - I think that there is a bit of anxiety, but I think that there's also a bit more acceptance and perspective than there probably was when I was 22. But hopefully, that trend continues.

CORNISH: That's Kevin Devine. He's partnered with the guys from Manchester Orchestra to form the band Bad Books. You can hear a few tracks from their debut album on our website, nprmusic.org.

Kevin, thanks so much.

Mr. DEVINE: Oh, totally a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

(Soundbite of song, " Holding Down The Laughter")

BAD BOOKS: (Singing) Styrofoam cup of mud in my good hand.

CORNISH: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. Remember, you can hear the best of this program on our new podcast WEEKENDS ON ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Subscribe or listen at npr.org/weekendatc. We'll be back next week. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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