Saturday, December 3, 2011

Devon Kay and the Solutions

Midway through Devon Kay's account of recording Never Punt, his band's most recent release, his friend and bassist Campy makes a confession: “I listen to our own record almost daily.”

You loser!” Kay cackles in response.

Call me a loser, but I love all of our songs,” Campy says, his voice vivid with sincerity. “I'm incredibly proud of it.”

Kay is kidding, of course, and could not empathize more with his counterpart's confession. “I guess, in short, it's like this: We write music for us,” he says as Campy yups behind him. “We write what we'd like to hear on the radio. All the songs are really good to us, and I know that sounds weird.”

So what does it mean that Kay and Campy love and listen to the music they make? Is it narcissistic? Is it selfish? Is it a sign that they're doing something wrong or right? And is it something about which they should be ashamed, or does it make the six songs on Never Punt that much more meaningful?

It's, perhaps, unsurprising that Devon Kay and the Solutions started with just Kay, who felt unfulfilled with the music he was playing at the time. “I was kind of trying to get away from this emo band I was playing in,” he tells, “and it started with these acoustic folk songs that had a little bit of pop punk in them.”

When he was offered a show as Devon Kay, he accepted, but was uninterested in performing a solo set. “I was like, 'Well, I'm going to need a band. I'm not doing this solo.' So I asked Campy, who I played with in a ska band back in high school and we've been hanging out living together forever.” After he asked a few other friends to hop on board, Kay had his Solutions—a full five (or six) piece folk-punk ensemble that included a viola and, occasionally, keyboards. With this lineup, Kay recorded and released Songs to Sing With, a collection of rock songs that ranged from country-colored acoustic tracks to big, barroom bouncers infused with fiddle and girl/guy harmonies.

After that record, everything fell apart,” Kay continues, causing Campy to chuckle uncontrollably at the understood understatement.

This breakdown might have been for the better, however, since Kay's songwriting style evolved into something more explosive, more visceral, less folk, and more punk. “I challenge myself to try and write in different styles,” he explains, “but then it always kind of comes back to the style that I write in, which is—I don't even know—but it has pop-punk laced over it.”

At the recommendation of Marc Ruvolo, who owns the record store Buckets O' Blood across the street from where they live in Chicago, Kay and Campy brought six new songs to Eric Rasmussen to record at Observatory Studios. These songs stray not only stylistically from the first release; Kay admits that, lyrically, their moods are drastically different as well—indignant, desperate, playfully resentful, and painfully candid.

The first one was very lovey,” he recalls. “I was all love-struck and wanted to write a love record. On [Never Punt], I've come down from that high. I'm broke. I'm pissed. I'm frustrated with nine-to-five retail. I don't have a college degree and I don't want one anymore. Everything came from frustration.”

This frustration is straight-forward on “W.W.B.C.D” (which stands for “What Would Bruce Campbell Do”), Never Punt's second song. “'What Would Bruce Campbell Do' is about relationships,” Kay explains, “getting cheated on, but having to work through it.” During its chorus, Kay's intense, vivid voice seems to flail as he sings, “She starting screaming 'cause I kept on asking questions / she said, 'I'm not okay, I'm not okay.' / I started yelling at the point of comprehension / screaming, 'I'm not okay, I'm not okay / with you falling in love again.’” Later, during a bridge where Campy's bass jangles with tension and stress, Kay's vocals seem to spiral suddenly out of control, capturing the emotional mess expressed in its lyrics.

Even on Never Punt's sole innocent song, there's a sense of insidiousness. On “Go California”, Kay's guitar chords are gunked in distortion (though not enough to obscure their colors and character), and the drumbeat drives at a bouncy, bumpy tempo. But, when he sings, “You've been comin' around, making my life just a little more bearable. / I moved the gun from my mouth and now my life is a little less terrible. / 'Cause this life is fast and I don't want to live past you,” something seems off.

'Go California' is the only gushy love song on there,” Kay explains, “but, even then, it's almost so sugary that it's not sincere, and that was kind of the idea. It's like, 'Everything's totally great all the time!' when, inside, I'm not totally sure I should be smiling.”

The EP's most playful track, “Always Tip Your Therapist”, is also among its most interesting and, in a way, captures the dissonance that makes Kay's songwriting special. It starts with a trotting, tramping piano part and Kay's bold vocals, but becomes denser and delicate during a pre-chorus when an airy ambience begins to slowly cloud in the background. “I got locked in my basement when my family lived in the suburbs,” Kay says, “and they had a piano down there. I didn't have a guitar, so all I did was sit around and play piano, and that's what I came up with.” Suddenly, the song detonates; cymbals shoot off like fireworks, guitars rise and rumble, the bass booms, a snare drum crackles like a lit wick, and the song plows powerfully towards a climactic conclusion.

Despite the song's playfulness and power, it too expresses Kay's frustration about becoming an adult. “'Always Tip Your Therapist' is half about oddly falling in love with your therapist because they're paid to listen to you and they make you feel like, even though you're an awful human being, you're right,” he says. “But the second half is all about the whole theme of the record, which is struggling with what growing up is. Is it getting a real job, or is it becoming okay with yourself? That's what I try to touch on with all of [the songs].”

As a whole, Never Punt is musically wild and occasionally reckless, but its mood is always reflective and real; it succeeds at expressing its anger and aggression by serving it on a platter of pop punk (with sides of snide sarcasm and irreverence). It is, in fact, so successful that Ruvolo (who referred them to Rasmussen and Observatory Studios, remember) decided to release it. “It turns out that he runs a record label called Johann's Face Records,” Kay explains, “He was always fucking really nice to us and, when we came back and played what we recorded, he went, 'Awp, I have to put this out.' So he ended up wasting money on us by putting out Never Punt.”

Part of its success, of course, also lies in the fact that Devon Kay and the Solutions—now a three-piece with Ryan Solava pounding the drums—writes, records, and performs music that they love to listen to, regardless of whatever unspoken rules they are supposed to follow.

Though one would assume that most musicians do the same, Kay would argue that it's not necessarily the norm—that, in fact, its frowned upon. “I remember there was a Aziz Ansari skit where he hung out with Kanye West,” he says. “He comes in and Kanye West is sitting in his chair and listening to his own CD with these giant headphones like that Magnavox commercial where all this stuff is blowing backwards. And [Ansari] went on a tirade about it. And I was like, that's actually kind of fucking cool, to sit there and listen to it and be completely happy with it!”

Make what you want to hear,” he continues. “If you're unhappy with it, do it better. No one's telling you that you can't.” And, because Kay and Campy can, they will.

Kay recorded these songs, with Campy providing backup vocals, on a late autumn evening from the house of their friend Sal, who plays bass in Huff. "Unofficial fourth member" and friend Alex Freeman was there during the interview and performance, and provided backup vocals as well.

"W.W.B.C.D." and "Dark Side of the Super Moon" appears on Devon Kay and the Solutions' 201 EP titled Never Punt. "Sell Out" is a Reel Big Fish cover; the song originally appeared on the 1996 album Turn the Radio Off.

The band recently contributed "W.W.B.C.D." for the Behind Punk Mixtape #7 with a ton of other excellent bands. Please consider purchasing this digital mixtape, as all proceeds will be donated to the direct care and support of animals in Russia.

For more music, visit the band's Bandcamp page.

Sorry, but these songs were taken down due to space constraints. Please download The Switchboard Sessions, Volume Two for a track from this and other sessions recorded in 2011. If you're desperate for a copy of these tracks, please see the "About the Switchboard Sessions" page for info on how to contact the author.

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