Kevin Devine (the Goddamn Band, Bad Books) Talks Desaparecidos’ Payola

A dozen years after their first album, Desaparecidos would still rather speak truth to power than capitulate to the lowest common denominator.

I’m not a celebrity. My relationship to the music industry and fame cycle is more like that of a small-town country doctor with a modest independent practice who sometimes elects to come into corporate gatherings at a metropolitan city hospital to update his membership card and see how things have deteriorated since last year. So the potential commercial consequences of my decisions to release “protest” music are relatively small, generally professionally impacting myself and maybe a dozen other people, and not hundreds or thousands, the way, say, a Katy Perry protest anthem might.

Which is part of what makes Payola by Desaparecidos such a rad, relevant, impressive record. The band’s leader, Conor Oberst, is not Katy Perry, but he’s not me, either.

Which is to say, he is, inarguably, a kind of celebrity, someone who’s experienced a rare, long-lasting global cultural currency and visibility, especially given the era his myriad musical outfits have occupied. Regardless of your preferred metric of measurement or your aesthetic opinions about his work, his career is a success story. He has sold a lot of records, inspired a library’s worth of media coverage, filled many iconic venues, and on and on, largely on something close to his own terms. And for someone in his position, at this point in his career, to unleash a snarling album’s worth of urgent, articulate punk rock about xenophobia, class warfare, jingoistic self-delusion and radical-left resistance is genuinely exciting and inspiring.

It’s not a challenge Oberst’s issuing all by himself. Payola is only the second album by Desaparecidos, the punk group that released 2002’s Read Music/Speak Spanish, a few months before Bright Eyes’ breakthrough, Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground. The band has been on a long hiatus since then, resurfacing a few years ago for a handful of singles and benefit shows that eventually turned into a new album. Make no mistake. Desaparecidos is, for certain, a real and very propulsive band: Matt Baum on drums, Denver Dalley on lead guitar, Landon Hedges on bass and vocals, Ian McElroy on keyboards and Oberst on vocals and guitars. Their pissed-off immediacy (brash, certainly punk in spirit, but also with bits of late-’90s/early-’00s Midwestern emo, DC hardcore, the adrenalized gallop of Superchunk, and even the synth-driven, super-compressed festival party metal of Andrew W.K. mixed in) affords the perfect platform for the most fanged face of Oberst’s songwriting.

It looks good on him. I’ve always felt Desaparecidos was the best fit for Oberst’s most unhinged, freaked-out vocal performances, and working in this context seems to have ignited a compelling aspect of the storyteller in him. Payola details the pervasive horror and battered hope of a moment boiling over with institutional rot both macro (American imperialism, antiquated religious zealotry) and micro (the yawning death of the record business, as addressed on “Backsell”). Oberst’s lyrics are direct (“All the founding fathers sowed their seeds into servant girls”), blunt (“It’s a locker room of CFOs telling racist jokes”) and confrontational (“Heavy premium, I had to quit my job/don’t wanna sponge off the government, but I’m coughing blood”). He manages to thread needles throughout, with bile, sarcasm, bleak comedy and incredulous humanity, occupying characters and switching perspectives ably and believably.

Of equal importance: these are often, at their core, hummable and memorable (if abrasive) pop songs, which helps carry the message, and the album showcases an improved attention to detail and structure honed in the members’ time spent in disparate projects since Read Music/Speak Spanish, without sacrificing that record’s violence, intent and commitment.

That commitment is what initially floored me about Desaparecidos and Oberst when my old band opened for them at Northsix in Brooklyn in 2002. It was a messy show; I was basically annihilated — drunk and high — but I remember it fondly, if incompletely. It feels like someone else’s life now.

Two years earlier, I was a college intern for Nate Krenkel, who had signed Conor at Sony Publishing in New York, and, later, managed & started Team Love Records with him.  Nate was the first person who played me Bright Eyes/Desa after a kid at a show I did in 2001 at the Punk Temple in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn — quite literally a temple that did weekend matinee shows – said my voice & lyrics reminded him of “Conor,” who I expected to be another kid at the show, someone he was about to introduce to me at the merch table.

(Full disclosure: despite having met and played with Oberst a handful of times since that 2002 Desaparecidos show (twice in clubs and once at an Australian festival, to be exact), which would also be roughly the number of times we’ve seen each other in that timeframe, neither I nor any other reasonable person would comfortably claim we were close friends, or anything more than pleasant-though-distant acquaintances. The same is true of the other members of the band.)

Nate gave me the then-unreleased first Desaparecidos record, and Bright Eyes’ Fevers and Mirrors (2000), and I remember immediately thinking this was seriously accomplished stuff for a peer, someone my age. The lyrical resolves were evolved and surprising, the arrangement ideas widescreen, and even in the instances where I didn’t think it all quite added up, I believed in the commitment. It was readily apparent, fully and unapologetically embodied, to a degree that almost felt frightening and intimidating, and like a tacit challenge to anyone else around doing the same thing: “Step your shit up.”

You also got the sense Conor was perpetually issuing that challenge to himself. He took it seriously and wasn’t embarrassed to make this his life’s work. It’s cool and instructive to see him still doing that this far in, and to see Desaparecidos respecting themselves and their audience enough to place a higher value on speaking truth to power than on capitulating to please the lowest common denominator. I suspect their listeners appreciate that choice, and know there’s a deep bench of less-committed artists who’ll gladly pick up their slack in the other direction.

Kevin Devine is an independent singer-songwriter from Brooklyn, New York. He plays alone, with his Goddamn Band, and as a member of Bad Books. The first run of his Devinyl Splits, released between February 2015 and March 2016, consisted of six split 7” singles, each featuring Devine and a different partner.  The series, released by Bad Timing Records and Devinyl Records, returns in 2018 for another run.