by Tom Hallett
"I'm the fucking worst singer ever,” quips 24-year-old local singer/songwriter Martin Devaney, uttering one of the many self-deprecating half-chortles he’ll be tossing into our conversation over the next hour and a half. It’s not true, of course. Sure, Devaney has what some might term a “unique” set of pipes—his style alternates between excited, young buck yelps and a smooth, almost hypnotic croon in a blink of an eye—but hearing him exercise those degrees isn’t an altogether unpleasant experience, by any means. Besides, he’s the first to admit that he dove headfirst into the local scene with not much more than rudimentary guitar skills, a handful of songs and the proverbial impossible dream. That display of guts and bravado has paid off in increments over the past few years, though, culminating in the release, this week, of his third full-length album.
La Mancha is a tight, mostly upbeat mix of crackling pop, lilting country-rock
and smart, New Wave-y pomp—with a few haunting ballads thrown in for good
measure—that features such lauded musical guests as former Replacements
axeman Slim Dunlap, singer/multi-instrumentalist Jessy Greene, Honeydogs keyboard
player Pete Sands, singer/multi-instrumentalist Jake Hyer, singer/songwriter Mike
Brady, musician/producer Mark Stockert, and guitarist Scott Legere. Recorded at
Underwood Studios, the production is top-notch, Devaney’s longtime backing
band (smoking axeman Josh Peterson on guitars, Matt Palin on bass, and Kevin Hunt
on skins) a solid, cohesive unit, the vibes soulful and true. And it proves beyond
a shadow of a doubt that this was one voice worth waiting around for.
The tunes themselves—chock full of heavenly “oo-la-la-la’s,”
“do do do’s” and “ahh-ahh-ahh’s”—run
the gamut of emotions and subject matter. Album opener, “Is That You?”
is a rollicking, sexy, guitar-driven bar stomper; “Empty Moon” delves
into self-loathing (“Can’t look the mirror in the eye/I hate that
guy...”); “Say Anything” explores the darkest depths of the
human psyche (“I’m so scared of love and God and sin...”); the
Slim Dunlap-augmented “Nobody Writes Letters Anymore” simultaneously
recalls The Beatles’ “You Won’t See Me” and 33 1/3rd-era
George Harrison; and “Magazine” finds Devaney turning the whole silly,
rock ‘n’ roll kit and kaboodle on its ear and laughing in its face.
Which is more than appropriate, considering the hard lessons he’s learned—and,
in turn, taught others—along the way.
When he debuted on the scene a few years back with his kinky mop of brown hair,
goofy half-grin, angst-y, romantically-charged lyrics, and an acoustic guitar,
it was easy to see why certain local writers and critics were eager to saddle
the young tune-smith with the standard “baby Dylan” mantle. And although
he now admits that those comparisons weren’t all unwelcome, he’s secure
enough with his own talents and musical style to laugh and have a bit of fun with
it. Not that he doesn’t love the shit out of Bob, Bruce Springsteen and
Elvis Costello—he does—but he’s eager to prove himself to the
public on his own merits. And aside from the hair, the romantic exploits and good
songwriting, Devaney’s persona is about as far from early Dylan’s
as one can get.
Dylan ran from the Midwest, changed his name and invented a whole new history
for himself, Devaney embraces his family, his past and his home town wholeheartedly.
Bob began as a folkie, musically mimicking his hero Woody Guthrie; Martin as a
jazz sax-man who went on to form a rock ‘n’ roll group. Where Dylan
hid behind obscure lyrics, carefully concocted mystery and, eventually, walls
of privacy, Devaney is a social butterfly, a vital and healthy part of both the
musical and social structure of his world. Martin insists on using his own name
rather than a band’s, writes personal, confessional songs, offers live gigs
and interviews and creates the artwork on his albums, consistently baring his
soul for all the world to see.
To be fair, he has pretty much grown up—musically and otherwise—in
public over the past seven years or so. Born in St. Paul and raised by artistically
supportive parents, his interest in music was apparent from the start. He began
practicing for what would eventually become his chosen profession as a child,
playing the flute (one lesson, he says, and he was out), the violin (he couldn’t
play a note these days), and eventually, with much more success, the jazz saxophone.
As a student at St. Paul’s Walker West Music Academy, he honed his skills,
learned the finer points of free-form jazz, and took his first forays into live
Along the way, he hooked up with other budding young artists, delved into urban
culture and, while still in high school, helped form Heiruspecs, a popular, live-music-based
Twin Cities Hip-Hop act. The time he spent with that outfit helped to expand even
further his already eclectic musical tendencies, and would later inform and shape
his solo and band career. Friends and family were supportive of him when he split
from the group, bought an acoustic guitar and began writing his own material,
but those early days were a true trial by fire for his emerging talents.
Devaney and his backing band made up of close friends began playing any and all
local gigs they could, eventually catching the ear of 400 Bar owners the Sullivan
brothers, who began giving them stage time. His first official release, 2002’s
Somebody Somewhere, was a no-frills batch of catchy, simple ditties (which
nonetheless established him as a top-notch romantic lyricist) that showcased a
promising singer/songwriter and a band just learning its own limits and possibilities.
It was a surprise critical favorite around town, garnering praise from both the
underground and mainstream press.
was overjoyed and, despite an admitted lack of front man experience and a physical
presence that he describes as “short and skinny, with shaggy sideburns and
a farmer’s tan,” feverishly pressed onward. In the midst of this whirl
of activity, and while he was still openly attempting to find his own musical
and adult identities, the notoriously hyper gadabout found time to establish his
own indie label, Eclectone Records. A more perfect moniker there couldn’t
be, considering Devaney’s background and the stable of local artists he’s
gathered under the E.R. umbrella.
Besides his own band, he counts Dan Israel, Mark Thomas Stockert, Big Ditch Road,
The Missing Numbers, Ben Weaver, First Prize Killers and Mandrew among the members
of a loose collective of artists who gig, tour and support each other with the
common goal of promoting quality independent local music. In just a few short
years, the label’s gone from relative obscurity to receiving reviews in
national mags like No Depression and Magnet, as well as attracting interest and
approval from some of the big-name artists (The Jayhawks, Ike Reilly, Evan Dando,
Dan Bern, Mike Doughty) the E.R. bands have opened for recently. Not bad for a
kid who’s barely into his 20s, huh?
At the height of their early successes, though, things took some strange turns.
Personal issues, the “rock and roll lifestyle,” changing relationships
and natural growth led to some bizarre experiences and inspired a significant
twist in Devaney’s songwriting style. While Somebody... had showcased
his quirky sense of humor, knack for a quick pop hook and the band’s penchant
for smart melodies, 2003’s September was a beast of a decidedly different
nature. A quieter, almost unbearably sad collection of intimate, painful recollections
and musings, the album was again a local fave (scoring Devaney another in what
would be a total of three Minnesota Music Awards nominations over the years),
but despite the positive feedback from fans, friends and the press, he says today
that he’s never really been completely satisfied with either the songs or
the recordings. Hence the long and dark road that led to the writing, rewriting
and eventual recording of his third—and strongest—release to date,
With its seemingly obvious title, continuing themes of love, romance, barflies,
failure, alienation, loneliness and self-loathing, album art featuring scads of
local landmarks and a host of Twin Cities musicians guesting, the album—and
the sometimes harrowing tale of its author—fairly begs closer inspection.
Call it a musician’s inquisition, if you like. Pulse caught up with Martin
Devaney recently, and got the low-down on all of the above and more ...
Pulse: What was the process of switching from free-form jazz sax to
pop/rock/country guitar-oriented music like for you?
Devaney: At some point, I had this weird Stevie Ray Vaughn obsession, and
I wanted to bring that influence into my sax playing, which sounds kind of weird,
but then, Hendrix said that he sometimes thought of himself as a sax player
playing guitar, you know? But I had some friends that were in rock and roll
bands, and I started thinking, “That’s kind of cool ...”
P: But it wasn’t like you just switched from listening to say,
Coltrane, to The Replacements, right?
MD: No. I mean, my earliest musical memories are of listening to Willie
Nelson do “Pancho And Lefty” and Arlo (Guthrie) doing “City
Of New Orleans.” Along the way, I got into Dylan, Neil Young, Dan Bern,
Tom Waits, whoever. And much to the secret giggling of my friends and peers,
I bought a guitar. And I didn’t know how to play for shit, but it was
always going to be a vehicle to write with.
P: By this time, you’d started your first year at the University
of Minnesota, right?
MD: Yeah, I started taking journalism at the U because I wanted to be
(popular local music writer) Jim Walsh. Not really, but that’s what I
started going there for. I was doing some freelance writing for the Daily, and
just learning to play guitar, just getting into Paul Westerberg. Then I heard
Dan Bern, who was writing songs about Marilyn Monroe, and the sandwich he had
that day, and the girl that he loved, and the painting he had made. And I was
like, ‘Holy shit! You can write about anything!”
P: You got quite a positive reaction from local music writers when you
released that first album, Somebody Somewhere. What was that like for
you, being so fresh into the “rock” side of things?
One day, Walsh—who was still writing for that right-wing rag, the Pioneer
Press, at the time—did his column where he reviewed a bunch of shit, and
he put us right on the front page of the Express section with a picture of the
record, and a really nice paragraph. AND he reviewed it before he reviewed the
Atmosphere record! (chortles) And (I thought) my God, this is the hugest thing
in the world! My record got reviewed in the paper! It was just such a huge point
of validation for me, thinking that someone had listened to it who hadn’t
P: Do you think now that maybe things happened kind of fast?
MD: I try to come across as being modest about that, but in my head,
I was like, “Oh, shit! People are going to be into it, and they’re
going to think things about me, and they’re going to form an opinion.”
Which is still an intriguing concept.
P: Which brings us to your second proper album, September. I
liked that record, but you’ve said there are things you might have changed
about it if you could’ve. Can you elaborate?
MD: We went in and banged that thing (September) out in a couple
of days. Listening to it now, it was obviously very rushed, we did everything
live in four days. It wasn’t particularly produced. But to me, at the
time, it was so sophisticated, comparatively. Through (Somebody Somewhere
producer Tom) Herbers, I’d met Pete Sands, the keyboard player, he came
in and played some stuff on it, and that was brilliant. That just sort of happened,
and we were done with it, and got it out. The night that we released it at the
400 Bar, in the middle of March, there was a huge blizzard, this ridiculous
blizzard, and there was like eight people there. It was kind of a disheartening
deal. But even then, I found out quick about making records that you don’t
rush them. I read all the Dylan bios, where Bob would go in and barely show
people a song, and they’d bang it out and it’s a classic! Again,
I was both modest enough to hope that someone cared and arrogant enough to think
that I could go in and do that, just because that’s what he did.
P: Well, not always...
MD: No, but you know, you hear that shit, and you think, I’m not
gonna spruce this up, we’re gonna use the real take. And because of that,
the record didn’t get a lot of air play, and I’d try to give it
to online distributors, and they’d say, “Yeah, you know ...”
And I think even Walsh said something like, “The songs are good, but the
production values leave something to be desired.” So I learned a lesson
from that. Some people responded well to that, and we got it out there.
P: Well, you’ve admitted that it’s all been kind of a learning
process. You were younger then ...
That’s the problem with that last record. That time was so full of self-pity,
and it sounds so overwrought to me now. I gotta say that a lot of that was such
an exercise in self-loathing, now that I think about it. ‘Cause of nothing
in particular. I almost brought myself there just to do it. It doesn’t
ring as true to me as some other things now. A lot of that record doesn’t
ring true to me. And it may be me being overly critical, but think about it:
The Ashtray Hearts make sad music. They have a niche, that’s what they
do. That’s cool. Ryan Adams makes fucking crazy sad records. That’s
cool. Chicks dig that, you know? And I felt like shit, but when I think about
it, it just seems so overwrought to me now. It’s not that I don’t
like it, but there’s only a few songs there that I really value.
P: I bet the new album is lots more fun to play live, being so much
more upbeat, too.
MD: That’s the other thing about that record, I found out real
quick, that unless you’re like the Ashtray Hearts, or Low, that’s
their thing, but when you’re going out and trying to play in front of
an audience, especially when you’re out of town, that’s not the
best way to go about it. So we ended up not playing a lot of that stuff live
so much, unless it was a quieter setting or I was solo. I realized that to play
live, you gotta have stuff that’s gonna grab people, then you can throw
in the ballads and mix it up.
P: Meanwhile, between all your professional and personal drama, you
managed to get Eclectone Records together. How’d that come about and what’s
it all about?
MD: (Local singer/songwriter) Ben Weaver and I had been talking, wondering
how we could operate within the system but outside of it as well. So we decided
to get together with these people that you want to do shows with, and want to
tour with. Put packages together, push each other’s shows. We’ll
put out a record, like the Stockert record, or the Missing Numbers record, and
we’ll send all this stuff out and people know it’s coming from Eclectone.
And know that it’s credible, because we’re getting stuff to them
regularly. And in the case of bigger magazines like No Depression and Magnet,
we’re getting reviews with them because we’ve done some advertising
with them, and they know that and now they’re starting to see more stuff
from us. We run a cooperative label where everyone helps each other out as much
as they can, all kind of pushing the whole deal forward.
P: Do you want to go over some of the strange things that happened to
you as you started writing the new album?
MD: Ah—I’d had a little mishap in the beginning of the summer.
I broke my finger, kinda got fucked up. I had moved again, and we’d moved
to this house on Lyndale, the one on the inside of the record, right across
from the CC Club. We moved there in June of 2003, and we’d lived there
for a week and Wilco was doing that Rock The Garden show. We walked down to
it, got crazy, and afterwards I was running in the street. I fell and banged
myself up. After a couple of shots of Jameson at the Country Bar, I thought
it’d be a good idea to race my friend’s girlfriend. After a brief
scuffle with the curb and the sidewalk, I lost that fight. I was mostly worried
about my face, because I’d broken my nose as well. The true story (Chortles)
is that some people were giving Tweedy shit and I had to protect him from Ninjas.
P: So you eventually holed up to write what would become La Mancha?
Right. In the months that followed, I was laid up in a cast. I was doing a bunch
of writing, and I’d pretty much written an album, so we went in to start
recording. And the shit just sucked. It was really pretentious, it was all these
long, like, nine minute songs. They were rock and roll songs, but more like,
I was trying to write epics. Very wordy, and when I sang them, they sounded
very pretentious. They didn’t resonate in any way that I thought would
last through any rainstorm ... we figured it out pretty quick. Occasionally,
there’d be a line or two to salvage, but I pretty much scrapped a lot
of stuff, even before we were ready to record. It was kind of a new ball game
by the time we got back in with Mark to record. He’d ended up buying the
console and tape machine from Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. So we recorded La
Mancha on the same equipment as Janet Jackson and Sting ... but it’s
in Stockert’s dank, vibe-y basement!
P: So what do you see for yourself, the band and the label in the future?
MD: We’re just trying to last. Because you see how everything can
crumble. Bands break up, people stop playing. There’s a whole lot of buzz
bands and flashes in the pan. I had two really great wise men talk to me about
this subject. It’s all about the long run. It’s way more rock and
roll to fucking be in there for the long run, and to bring it time and time
again. Both Ike Reilly and Slim Dunlap have sat me down and talked to me about
that. All you’ve got to do is hang in there and stick around. A lot of
people have put out a record or two, but when you start putting out three or
four, and then coming with any kind of regular pace, they figure that person,
or that label, is for real. I think in a year or two we’ll get out a compilation
album. Unreleased stuff.
P: And what about Martin Devaney, the person? How are you holding up
MD: It’s still pretty early in the game—if I can not go
insane for long enough. I toured with Ike this summer, and at the end of the
tour, he sat me down and said, “Listen man, we’re worried about
you. You need to take care of yourself. You need to be in this for the long
haul. When I see you next, I want to know that you’ve been taking care
of yourself.” And it was nice, because when we played with him a few weeks
ago—I’ve grown a beard since we last hung out—he said, ‘You’re
looking good! I like the beard!” So that was cool. ||
Martin Devaney & His Men Of La Mancha play their CD release party
this Saturday, 11/20, at St. Paul’s Turf Club. With The Missing Numbers
and Ela. $4, 9 p.m., 21+. Call The Turf for more info at (651) 647-0486.
Download Martin Devaney’s song “Theme for an
For more information check out MartinDevaney.com.