A baby stillborn, a faithful pet dog buried in loose soil, a father passing away leaving a daughter to cry herself to sleep. Cutting up drugs in a back alley, a lover hit and killed by a car in the pouring rain, a young, tormented girl leaping to her death from the roof of her family home. These are all stories embraced in song by either Kevin Devine or Andy Hull at some point in their song-writing careers. Hardly cheery stuff. While they and their respective bands, Kevin Devine and the Goddamn Band and Manchester Orchestra, boast passionate, faithful followings, few of those fans would describe either music as fun.
Enter Bad Books. Made up of Devine and the members of Manchester Orchestra, Bad Books is a supergroup for the alternative. Born from a friendship-turned-collaboration between Hull and Devine, the group will solidify its own identity next month with the release of their second album, Bad Books II. And, contrary to the immense emotional anguish and heavy, often tear-inducing themes of MO and KDGDB, Bad Books’ foundations are made of fun.
“It’s one of those really nice things where I don’t really hear what people think of it because it’s so fun and happens so fast,” explains Hull on a break from promoting the new album in New York. Bad Books is like a whirlwind romance – no strings attached, no commitment, no pressure. “If people like it then we’ll continue to make records, if they don’t like it, we’ll still make records. It’s just really fun.” He keeps saying fun. This is not how I expected the interview to go. I was anticipating the presence of a man whose songs and singing have brought me to tears several times in the past eight years, but instead Hull says, “This is fun. Fun. Fun. We have so much fun. I never stop smiling. Ever. Look at my massive grin.” Ok, he didn’t actually say that, but it’s clear Bad Books is about a group of friends and incredibly-talented musicians playing for the hell of it – and then, when it turned out pretty good, they recorded it. As such, when I ask Hull if he realises just how much the birth of Bad Books meant to his fans – if you’re a devout MO fan, you’re probably going to be a devout Kevin Devine fan – he laughs. “I don’t think we really realised that what we were doing was going to become what it has become.”
Bad Books II was written and recorded in just 10 days. Hull explains how they were not trying to recreate the epic sound and concepts MO have become familiar and that the fancy-free Bad Books sound is a product of the band’s recording process. “None of us have heard the songs until we turn up to record them – then we bounce ideas off each other and the sound just generates itself,” he says. So carefree, so breezy. Listen to Kevin Devine or MO’s last album, nay, any of their albums, and the gravity and intensity of the music is palpable. Listen to Bad Books II, or the debut album indeed, and that oppressive darkness is replaced by the air of musicians at play. That’s not to say, Bad Books’ sound is entirely fun and games – there are moments of introspection and melancholy. The sound is much more buoyant but the lyrical poignancy upon which their reputations are built is still prevalent.
Just because the new album is a product of a 10-day musical jolly camp doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of our critical attention. Since the first album, MO have released ‘Simple Math’, Kevin Devine has released ‘Between the Concrete and Clouds’, and Hull, as Right Away Great Captain!, has released ‘The Church of the Good Thief’, complete with extensive touring. Despite this packed schedule of all involved and the nature of its creation, the second album shows maturity, steady growth and progression. “The first album seems like more of a split – five songs from me and five from Kevin – whereas this one, we have talked more about how we wanted to sound together and have progressed in melodies and harmonies,” Hull says. “We’re just more confident – and hopefully we’ve created something we’d both be interested in. We tried to reach a little further and take some more risks.”
Hull and Devine, and often Brand New’s Jesse Lacey, can often be found together in on-stage cameos and joint acoustic performances – they are widely regarded as a musical family. So, in some ways it comes as no surprise a combination of them would form a band. Individually, their musical styles are different – Hull is more sombre, his sound more skeletal, raw, or, at the other end of the spectrum, borderline grunge, whereas Devine is more tuneful, folk and indie with a rock edge – but in Bad Books, they strike a perfect balance of the two. Would they be doing it even it didn’t sound so good? Hull laughs, “No, we’re not that vain. I think when collaborative albums happen, people think initially they’re not that great. We didn’t want an album full of songs where I sang one line and Kevin sang the next. I think this second album shows that and hopefully people will appreciate it’s real music.” Collaboration will inevitably breed disagreements and while fans might try and pick out in the sound who wins the arguments, Hull says it’s those disagreements that create the best music. “I don’t think you can make an album in 10 days which is coherent without disagreeing on things – we try everything anyone suggests and if it doesn’t work you can’t really get your feelings hurt.”
The fun fun fun aspects of the albums are most noticeable on the rockier, full band tracks but in both albums both Hull and Devine have acoustic moments reminiscent of their respective, sorrowful best. Strengths, fans would say, it would be mad to ignore even though this is a collaborative supergroup. The songwriting and lyrical themes are as good as either of the writers at their best – Hull says he enjoyed creating characters and stories with Bad Books, while Devine “who is better with the lyrics side of things, has always had a really great social commentary in his songs”. The music is as passionate as any of their own projects and it has not been a problem creating that on a short term, patchwork basis for Bad Books: “Music is music. We’re both so passionate about music regardless of the context so the music we write is always going to be passionate – there hasn’t really been an issue trying to pull that out.”
Bad Books is not the expected sum of Devine and Hull’s dark and sombre moods. Those looking for a band wrought with brooding tears, as one might expect from these two penning songs together, will not find it here. Though Hull says the music is for the fans, it seems this group is a chance for play. Hull says he enjoys the live shows as he gets to play lead guitar without having to sing – something he rarely gets to do. These are musicians who respect each other playing without the pressure of expectation or hype – and the product reflects that. The music is fresh, playful and easy to listen to. Arguably, this should be the text book way to create an album, they rock up, bounce ideas off each other, record in 10 days, sit back and enjoy it. “We’re very encouraging of each other,” Hull swoons. This is a story of musical matrimony at its best, a quality rom-com from an array of unlikely characters used to playing forlorn protagonists in dark dramas. It’s just a bit of fun.
Bad Books’ new album ‘Bad Books II’ will be released in the US on 9th October via Triple Crown Records.