“We’re Ready To Be In the Future Now”: a Talk with Devin McKnight and Shehzaad Jiwani

McKnight talks to the Greys frontman about racial identity, working within the confines of a white indie establishment, and his new album as Maneka.

Maneka is the solo project of Brooklyn-based musician, Devin McKnight. I say this not only as preamble to the rest of this article, but also to establish the project as the culmination of his singular experience and vision as a guitar player with roots in genres as disparate as indie rock, jazz, nu-metal and hip hop. Devin, McKnight’s second album under this moniker also deals directly with his unique perspective as a person of mixed race active in the predominantly white indie rock community. 

Focusing on an artist’s otherness feels like its own type of cliche at this point, but McKnight deliberately chose to write about navigating his scene as a person who routinely feels marginalized, consciously or unconsciously, by the people around him. The lyrics on Devin broach these issues with such specificity that it both reinforces the distinct viewpoint from which they are written and also speaks to more universal truths about not only racial identity, but the general discomfort one can experience while searching for a place of belonging, physically and mentally.

That the former Speedy Ortiz/Grass Is Green guitarist chose to name the album after himself speaks to a more personal connection with his own identity, far more introspective than broad declarations about race relations. “Black is a concept,” he sings on “Mixer.” “Stemming from our ways and our dialect.” This nuanced approach makes the record a bit harder to parse, but far more rewarding as a result. The frustration in the lyrics is often juxtaposed with McKnight’s lethargic delivery, as he often lets his guitar to the exorcising, mirroring such existential tension in the lyrics.

McKnight’s method for discussing such subjects is as varied as the material itself. On “Oodie Oop,” his cousin — one of the only people he has ever been able to share a type of shorthand with based on their shared experiences growing up — plays saxophone, speaking to that intimate connection not only with a family member but also to various genres of music. Electronic beats are found throughout the album, and his frenetic guitar playing runs the gamut from spidery math rock licks to chunky punk breakdowns.

I spoke with McKnight about his decision to address his own identity head on, his relationship with various musical genres and scenes, and the frustration a person of color can feel discussing race in the press.

— Shehzaad Jiwani

Shehzaad Jiwani: OK, first off: who are you and what do you do?

Devin McKnight: I am Devin McKnight and I play guitar sometimes, write songs sometimes, and I work at a library.

Shehzaad: Those are all good things.

Devin: [Laughs] Yeah, I don’t know… Next question.

Shehzaad: Well, first of all, the record sounds really great. You sent it to me a while ago, so I’ve been listening to it on and off for a few months now. The thing I’m taking away from it the most is that, there’s just so many different influences and genres that are present on it, and on top of that, it just seems like there’s a lot on your mind, maybe more so than on the last record. Like, it seems like you’re really trying to get every idea onto the page and into the music, but in a way that blends it together almost like a hip-hop record, where you’re kind of sampling from a bunch of different places, which I really, really like. 

So, I guess the first question would be: Can you tell me what you would say the overarching themes on the record are, lyrically and musically?

Devin: I guess if we’re comparing to the last release, I think I was lyrically… not that I wasn’t being serious, but it was a little bit more light-hearted. I wasn’t really sure what I was doing with the amps, or anything. I was just kind of writing songs on my computer being like, Oh, that was cool. One of the songs is about The O.C. I don’t think I would put that on this new record. 

Since I’m in this band that’s supposed to be about self-identifying as a minority in a white-dominated genre, and what that means, it seems kind of weird to not even talk about it. So this time I was like, Maybe I should work that in and make the whole thing make more sense to people. Part of the reason why I play is so that hopefully people can make more sense of myself. I’m naturally a pretty quiet person, so that’s my way of expressing things that I might not actually say. 

Some songs on this one are about gentrification, and another is about being multi-racial and navigating different homogeneous spaces. That’s something I’ve always thought about, because I’ve got two brothers who are the same as me in that way, and we talk about it a lot, but I usually don’t have anyone to talk about that stuff with. One thing we always talk about is, it seems like everyone else has a distinct clan or tribe, and we didn’t really have that; we had a few communities that would let us in, and our family, obviously, but there was always something a little different about us. You have to learn how to take that in stride over time. 

Shehzaad: Just on a musical level, when you were saying that you’re very quiet and that you wanted to use this as a way to have a conversation that you might not have in real life, I find it really interesting that the vocals on the record sound so opiated and detached, and then the guitar playing is really in your face the whole time. Do you feel like you’re maybe able to express yourself easier with one versus the other? Like, do you feel like you’re predominantly a guitar player who is a singer or a singer who also plays guitar, or anything like that?

Devin: Well, if I’m being honest, I’m a guitarist who happens to sing, I guess. I’ve been doing one way longer than the other. It’s always a breath of fresh air on stage when I’m just playing for a little bit. It’s easier [with] certain styles of rock, where you don’t have to be the best singer — you can kind of almost mumble sometimes and it’s stylistically satisfying. 

Shehzaad: I just think it’s cool because the vocals are so chilled out even though you’re talking about such frustrating stuff. The guitar does the yelling for you, you know what I mean? It’s almost like you’re letting that do the heavy lifting, and then having more of a nuanced conversation behind it, which I think is cool. 

I like that you made this record largely about navigating a predominantly white landscape as a person of color, but we’ve also talked a lot in the past about how even having that conversation in press situations is a little bit frustrating in and of itself. So did you feel a little bit on edge entering this album cycle knowing you would have to talk about this in every interview? Like, do you find that exhausting? Is it a conversation you’re more willing to have now than you might have been a couple of years ago?

Devin: Yeah, I think I was on edge for a little bit about that. I will say that, one thing [Exploding In Sound Records founder] Dan Goldin told me was that, if you really want the press to report on the things that are important to you, you really have to spell it out. Because not only are they not musicians, usually, but they’re white, so they’re not coming from a place where they’ll know what questions to even ask, or they’re not going to feel comfortable going there. Even though I’m a pretty nice guy, I’m not going to bite anybody’s head off! So this time around, [Dan] was like, “Definitely spell it all out, make it really obvious.”

I was definitely pretty nervous — am I just going to be yelling into a void or are people just going to be repeating the same sound bites or clips of me and they’re going to think I’m just this angry curmudgeon always bitching about racism? You never know how someone’s gonna react to that. I don’t want to talk shit, but I know a lot of white journalists from playing in Speedy [Ortiz] who if I see them out, we’ll talk, but as far as press is concerned, no one is beating down my door to talk about that kind of shit. I definitely get it, but I don’t think they should be afraid.

Shehzaad: I agree and I can definitely relate to that. It’s not always an easy conversation to have, to kind of address someone’s own possible white guilt head on. People don’t necessarily want to touch on that.

Devin: Yeah, and that has to be in the conversation. 

Shehzaad: Yeah, and I don’t even know if it’s intentional with a lot of people. Like, a lot of my friends are journalists and a lot of people have written about us in that way, and I don’t think it’s coming from a negative place, but it’s a little difficult to be having that conversation when you’re not actually able to address the really dark side of it. Which it is dark a lot of the time, because  that’s how history works. 

You discuss race and your relationship with your own racial identity on this record in a very nuanced way. I personally find the way identity is discussed in music journalism — just by virtue of the nature of the thing — to be very one dimensional. Whether it’s intentional or not, I find that identity politics are usually represented in this almost tokenizing way. Obviously Sadie [Dupuis]’s someone who’s dealt with this and talked about this a lot, too, and you’ve been around that with women in music. A lot of times, it seems like it’s almost a badge, or something, to cover this kind of stuff, but not actually get into it. 

Devin: Yeah, it’s kind of like a qualifying thing for an image of a band — “They play music I like, but also…” [Laughs.]

Shezaad: Do you find that, with white writers specifically talking about this kind of thing, it’s easier for them to talk about it if it doesn’t necessarily address that kind of thing — that white guilt stuff? It’s almost like they prefer the MLK approach to the Malcolm X one, and I find that a little bit tough to deal with. You don’t want to do this or say this, but there’s been times where I’ve specifically requested that if we are gonna talk about that kind of thing, I’d like the writer to be a person of color so we can just get into it, because there’s a shorthand there that just doesn’t exist necessarily — and again, intentionally or not. I don’t think it’s coming from a negative place, but that is something that frustrates me about this conversation a little bit.

Devin: Yeah, that’s definitely a thing. On the last album cycle, I asked a friend who writes for The Baffler [G’Ra Asim] about it, because he offered, like, “If you ever need anyone to make some noise on your behalf, I’m down with what you’re trying to do.” And he’s a black kid who’s really into pop punk, so he was always the only one in the room, so he got what I was saying and he wrote a beautiful article, but it kind of turned into me having to actually reach out on my own for that. And things that I thought were obvious, weren’t. We were talking about before how Dan was telling me I had to spell it out — I thought I was. When I was talking to him, when he heard the name of the band, he got it immediately. Most people don’t get it.

Shehzaad: Can you elaborate on that?

Devin: So the name is basically just from a meme that one of my best friends sent me a while ago — we talk about this kind of thing a lot, we grew up together and kind of always related on being brown and stuff. So the meme is basically this really confused white guy playing basketball with these black guys, and he’s trying to figure out what their obsession is with the name “Monica.” But they’re just saying “my nigga” over and over really fast. Which is just how people talk on the East Coast — people just use it as a verbal pause, almost. I moved to Brooklyn and I kept hearing it everywhere, and it just made me kind of chuckle. I was like, Maybe I can just name a band that and nobody would know. It’s just a girl’s name, right? Pretty innocuous. A girl asked me last night what it meant, and I was like, “It’s just an inside joke.” 

Shehzaad: I wanted to ask — and in all the interviews that I’ve had to do about this kind of thing specifically, I don’t really know that anyone else has actually asked this of me, and I always found it really odd, because they’ll ask you about whatever the press release might say the song is about, but they won’t straight up just ask, like, “How does this actually make its way into your writing?” which I think is a lot more interesting for each individual person. I would talk about this with Amar [Lal] from Big Ups a regular amount — you know, him and I are both brown guys who actually grew up in the same neighborhood, but clearly have totally different experiences. Obviously there’s a lot of overlap, but still completely different experiences individually. I think that is such an interesting thing in terms of how it informs your own writing. 

So I wanted to ask you: How would you say that your identity and identity politics informs your writing? Because while the songs may be about what they’re about, you’re coming at it from a unique place of your own, and you’re not simply writing about that. You know, even if it’s a guitar part that you wrote, it’s still filtered through your experiences, and I think that’s the kind of question that gets a lot closer to the individual than just talking about blanket issues.

Devin: Well, growing up, my parents didn’t listen to quote-un-quote “rock music,” really. It wasn’t really a personal thing; the world used to be a lot more segregated, and I think they just never had a huge opportunity to get into it, you know what I mean? I was listening to Led Zeppelin once and they were like, “Who’s that?” They knew who the band was, but just couldn’t identify it because it wasn’t a part of their upbringing at all. They have a pretty refined taste in music too, but it’s just not rock. My dad, one of his favorites was Prince; jazz was a big thing in my house. So I learned guitar from jazz guitarists, but I just ended up playing other music. The album is called Devin, and I’m trying to encompass the whole picture, so let’s throw some fucking jazz on there. There is some jazz stuff going on — [from] my cousin, he’s incredible.

Shehzaad Oh, that’s awesome. I love that part.

Devin: He came in a just riffed maybe seven takes, and we ended up using a lot more of it than I originally intended. Anyway, that definitely informs my writing a lot. My introduction to being in bands was, I was actually a rapper. I was in a rock band but, I’m sure you remember, back in 1999, rap rock was king of the hill.

Shehzaad: [Laughs] I do, yes.

Devin: So we were just trying to be like Rage Against the Machine. I had a guitar, but I didn’t think I was any good or anything. My friend had played a bunch and was showing me some stuff, but I could do the rap thing well enough and hip hop was my first love, musically. It was just kind of a golden age for us in the late ‘90s when it was really starting to get big. So many classics, so much to get into. I didn’t really get that into rock until I was about to go to high school. 

I definitely wanted to touch on that a little bit on the record, because I’ve done a little bit of beat production and stuff like that. I never got a chance to drop any beats on records — especially in rock bands, people are just like, “Oh, rock rap!” I mean, it’s a fine line to walk for sure. You don’t want to be Limp Bizkit. So I was like, How do I do that on my record without it being the cheesiest thing ever? “The End of a Brand New Day,” for instance, drops a trap beat; I thought that was a slick way to throw that in there. That kind of rap and hip hop influence in my life, I wanted to sort of touch on it but still be allowed on the indie rock label. [Laughs.] I don’t actually think I’m that good of a rapper, so I didn’t want to just do the rap thing. I only do it on one song on the record. Obviously the math rock and alternative stuff is definitely all present on the record, because that was a big part of my life as well. 

Shehzaad: I think that’s cool. The fact that there’s all these different things on it sounds very unique in a way that you can’t put a finger on, which, to me, speaks to your own experience — even just aside from knowing you and knowing your influences and tastes and stuff like that. I could relate to that with my own writing. This isn’t really so much a question as a talking point, but I find it really interesting that a number of artists who have been championed by music journalists for, in their eyes, representing marginalized people, some of those artists are still playing what I would personally call inherently white-establishment-approved music. Maybe I’m wrong for saying this, but in my opinion it isn’t really enough, or that interesting to me, to just simply be or represent a marginalized group — I think that your art should also reflect that singular experience as well. Otherwise, what’s the point? That’s what I like about the Maneka record.

Devin: People our age and younger I feel like always roll their eyes when they know they’re being sold something, so they feel like they’re being sold identity politics and they go, “Ugh, not again.” But my thing is: yeah, it’s just something the press can nibble on, but I’ve also been learning guitar and music and writing for a really long time and I take a lot of pride in that — that is 100% my goal. I’m not trying to just be, like, the black rock guy. That’s lame. I want to make good songs. So that’s something I think about all the time. People often times do seem a little surprised, because they didn’t know how I was gonna come off live. So I guess the internet is different than real life in that way. 

Shehzaad: I do really like that too, the fact that you’re kind of going in and you don’t know what to expect. The album is like that too — it blends so much stuff together, which to me, feels like a pretty common thing right now, whereas I feel like the last decade or so, especially within indie rock specifically, everything’s been kind of segregated. You don’t really hear a lot of overlap with stuff, you know? There’s the kind of Shins-y, 2000s indie rock, and then there’s all the sub genre, DIIV kind of things like that. I didn’t feel like there was a lot of crossover, whereas in the last few years, it feels like so many bands — like let’s say Spirit of the Beehive, for example — are blending so many different things together. I find that that dovetails a lot with people’s own sense of identity with things like gender fluidity or you have exponentially more people making this type of music from non-white backgrounds and mixed backgrounds than you would have even five, 10 years ago.

Devin: Or even being seen as sell-able too. I think a big part of the reason you get cookie-cutter indie rock — it’s so curated and branded, like a cheap rebranding of Kurt Cobain, or something. You go to the store and buy yourself a Kurt brand indie rock band. I think people of all walks of life are a little tired of that. It’s like, we’re ready to be in the future now. We’re tired of being kept in boxes, especially if you’re trying to sell art too. It is a brand, but at the same time, you’re still a person. Even the new Greys record — if you told me that’s what you were going to be doing in 2019, I wouldn’t have believed it. 

How many more questions you got?

Shehzaad: Well, you kind of went into the last one right there. I was just gonna ask: I find that when it’s not one thing that is so easily marketable or packaged in a certain way, it’s a little difficult to get people to give it a chance, and this is a record that has a lot going on. Do you find it’s difficult for people to process all those ideas, and do you find that frustrating, or are people responding to it the way you want them to? I know it’s early and the record’s not out yet, but how are you finding the experience so far?

Devin: I find that people kind of just know what they’re into. I’ve got lots of friends who love hopping on all kinds of records, and they’ve been the ones who’ve responded the most positively, because they’re in it for the whole experience as a full-bodied work — they like that, and the sequencing, and stuff like that. So far also, people that do know me, it seems to make sense to them, so it doesn’t come as a surprise. But I’ve yet to see what the greater public thinks.

Devin will be out via Exploding In Sound Records July 26.

Shehzaad Jiwani is a musician, producer, writer and director from Toronto. He fronts the band Greys and performs solo under the name Golden Drag. As a producer, Shehzaad has worked with bands like The Dirty Nil, Casper Skulls, and Patio. His writing has appeared in Brooklyn Vegan, Hazlitt, Metro Toronto and others. He is currently filming his first documentary.