From the moment Devin’s debut album, Romancing, bursts to life with the brash garage rock and raucous riffs of ‘Masochist,’ the New Yorker sounds every bit the passionate upstart rocker he looks on the front cover.
A monochromatic photo of the bequiffed singer/guitarist slouched against a stairwell, dressed in a tweed jacket and snappy open-breast shirt, his model-handsome face pulling his best vacant stare; it’s a look that, like its aural contents, is at once a balance of retro-chic and modern style.
Romancing’s twelve tracks are straight-up, no-nonsense rock n’ roll inspired by the classics. With his nasal twang that hovers somewhere between the sneer of a young Mick Jagger and the raw clarity of early Iggy Pop, Devin barrels through punk-infused chunks of Stooges-powered guitar delivered with a dash of Strokes-worthy cool.
His musical mix of references is so clear, and Devin’s appeal so direct and simple, that it’s almost too well calculated, too straightforward to work.
Even his rag-to-riches story, or more accurately, (warehouse-to-worldwide exposure) over a few short months has the faint waft of record label machination about it; but even a short few minutes with him and it’s clear it’s no act. “I’m a real practical guy” he says in his authentic Brooklynite drawl, his responses peppered with ‘y’knowhadimean’s – you can almost picture him sucking his fingers from a recently scoffed New York ‘slice.’
“It’s unbelievable” he remarks, “the whole situation. I never would have thought of going to Australia ever, or that I would be on the radio there… it is really mind-blowing.”
Romancing’s swift success has made Devin one of 2012’s hotly-tipped acts, quickly certifying him as the darling of UK press, with NME to Time Out toasting his raw, upbeat rock across a whirlwind tour of Britain and his native US.
Surely the rapidfire media exposure has been difficult to adjust to? “Has it been strange? Talking about myself? Yeah, it has,” he confesses. “That’s one thing I didn’t think about at all or foresee, even while recording the album. Interviews and videos… I had no idea that was a responsibility of mine. But I’m getting used to it now, I’m getting better.”
The international recognition has meant an enormous change in lifestyle for the self-described “practical guy,” who less than a year ago was slumming it out in a lonely one-bedroom apartment, working in a shipping warehouse job he hated.
“Luckily, it wasn’t a heavy work load,” he explains. Left to his own devices at work, it was this same nine-to-five routine that drove him into songwriting “I would just obsessively think of songs in my head and know that when I got back to my apartment, I could try them out.”
The majority of Romancing was recorded entirely at home on Devin’s laptop, “that’s the way most of them were done,” he admits, “just thinking about them a lot while I was at work. Singing them out loud… I had eight hours a day to work mentally on the song then another eight hours when I got home.”
It is perhaps this workman-like approach that gives cuts like ‘Born To Cry’ and ‘Run’ (“the first song I wrote”) their raw simplicity.
Interestingly, helping craft Romancing’s attitude-laden sound was producer Chris Zane. A man typically known for his work with electro-pop sensations like Passion Pit and Friendly Fires, not punk-spirited rock music. So what led to Zane’s involvement? “You could see the link because Chris is a drummer, so just the way he records drums; and the drums on Romancing are really important.”
“I programmed all the parts on midi in my apartment” Devin explains, “and they really are the structure of the songs. They’re the main instrument under the lead vocal and also what brings new life to a song. Even if it’s an old chord progression, the drums really make it modern… we knew Chris could get a cool sound from them.”
Speaking of cool sounds, Devin’s music directly channels his city’s rich history of leather-clad rockers. Confessing to “listening to music exclusively before my time. Johnny Thunders is a great New York character, New York Dolls is pretty authentic… that seventies rock sound. They’re going back and taking direct references from the ‘50s…”
Which brings us to another scepticism levelled at Devin’s classicist take on the genre, lfiting his explicit references from Stooges to Strokes. Your garden-variety cynic would suggest he’s simply regurgitating popular sounds but he doesn’t bother defending himself. Instead, he’s openly honest about his musical homages, “Oh yeah. All the references – lyrically, musically – in the songs are all very direct.”
He makes no bones about copying others’ groundwork, “they’re taken from definite sources, on purpose. You make another version of the song. I did it for myself, again for writing. I knew what I was doing, they would keep me on point.”
“Besides,” he continues “a lot of music in New York right now is not that fun.” Devin’s mission is to reinstate the joy of an old-school rock show. Like his favourites New York Dolls for instance “with that ridiculous sense of humour – I like that. Why not have fun? You don’t have to be so serious, they’re not fucking artists.”
So the Brooklynite doesn’t consider himself an artist?
“No, not in that way. I’d rather be an entertainer, that’s what you’re there for. Again, I don’t want to go to a show and have to learn something or be confused and uncomfortable. If you go to a rock show: have fun, have the time of your life, run around, find a girl.”
He could very well be describing the narratives of his own tunes, whether that’s the rebel balladry of ‘White Leather’ or the spit-fire passion of ‘I Died’, their high-energy coming to life in a visceral live show that Devin promises is “definitely rawer than the album.”
So is Devin a hipster by-product or the genuine article?
Whether you buy into Devin’s ‘garage-punk spirit of New York’ chic relies entirely on the fact of whether the man himself does too. Quite plainly, he doesn’t – he’s too busy making the most of his opportunities, or as he puts it “it’s about writing great songs.”
– Al Newstead