In this edition of our "Five Minutes" interview series, contributor Stephanie Smith talks to Devon Williams about his new record A Tear In The Fabric, out now on Slumberland Records.
By Stephanie Nicole Smith
I met Devon Williams at Amoeba Records Hollywood around 2005. We were co-workers and young adults in our early 20s. Devon was one of the most passionate audiophiles and musicians I knew then. A lot of incredible artists came out of that particular group that worked at the record shop in the early 2000s—most are still playing, touring and recording. Amoeba Hollywood was a home for the artists who couldn't bear taking a "normal job" elsewhere and found an effortless kinship in each others' artistic drive. Everyone bonded on their allegiance to a less traveled path. Often seen walking home with bags of records to take back to his Hollywood apartment (as pictured on the cover of his first album "Carefree"), Devon was constantly exploring music from the past and present as he tirelessly worked on his own songs.
Devon was born and raised in Los Angeles—something most of my peers here cannot claim. In his 20s Devon moved around a bit—San Francisco for the myth and the magic, Ohio for college, back to LA and finally London where he met his wife. Devon and his wife returned to LA to settle and raise their kid. Despite LA's glittery appeal to outsiders, those of us who live here know that living in the middle of the day-to-day buzz can get tiresome. Another relocation for their family is not out of the question. For now, he lives and works here.
Devon records with notable LA musicians Dan Allaire (Cass McCombs, Darker My Love, Brian Jonestown Massacre), Wayne Faler, Nic Hessler (Captured Tracks / Nic Hessler) and Tim Ramsay (Vetiver, Little Wings, Fruit Bats, Kacey Johansing, Parting Lines), and tours with Jessica Espeleta (LA multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire who's music resume may be as long as a CVS receipt, including acts Weird War with Ian Sveonius, Tamaryn, LA Takedown, Love as Laughter, and Bart Davenport to name a few).
Devon Williams new album A Tear in the Fabric (Slumberland Records) is the fourth full-length record he's completed to date. It is undoubtedly one of the most accomplished records to come out this year. At first listen you may hear sonic influences of Martin Newell (Cleaners from Venus) and one of my favorite bands, Prefab Sprout. To my comparison Devon remarked "I don't try to sound like anyone. But, the music I love is my language." It's a language I also love. Each track is perfect. My favorites are "In Babylon" "Out of Time" and "Domesticated". It's been six years since Devon released a full length album. If you missed his 2014 release Gilding the Lily give it a listen, too. Let's hope another six years doesn't go by before his next release.
Where did you spend your "coming of age" years?
Do I get to decide when I came of age? When I went on my first tour at 18, I grew up a lot. It was the first time I saw the country, and traveling around gave me a well-rounded perspective, opened my eyes. I also feel like I came of age when I got married and we were living in London. For the first time I felt a responsibility for someone else, but I couldn't find a job, so I took what I could get. That was rough. That opened my eyes too. I'm an optimist, so I think it steered me in a good direction.
How long have you been writing music? Did you always want to be a songwriter?
I wrote my first song at 13. I didn't care about being a songwriter, I just wanted to write originals in a band. I didn't want to play other people's songs. When I heard songs I liked, I thought, "I want to do that." It seemed obvious. Now that I've lived a song-centric life, I don't see it as a "living." It's what I like to do. I accidentally found out a couple years ago that Marianne Faithfull covered one of my songs (Fragile Weapon on "Carefree" 2008). Nobody contacted me. Nobody sent me royalties. But it was a good feeling that someone thought, "Oh this is a song we should re-create." There are gratifications to writing songs that are more important than money. Songs live forever, and I know that because there are songs that live forever within me. I have written songs—so by definition I'm a songwriter. Are they good songs? Who cares. I enjoyed making the songs. I know my voice, or my subject matter are not everyone's cup of tea, but that's just what I am, so I just keep doing it.
What bands do you draw inspiration from that heavily influences your sound? How has that evolved over the years?
I think I'm most influenced by people that play an instrument and sing. I like the idea of someone sitting down and playing a song of their own, on their own, without needing too much else. To me, there's so much power, strength, and beauty in that. HOWEVER, I love layers and beds of melodies and parts. I love the sound of two guitars together, playing different parts.
I like 80s guitar stuff, but I really connect with singer-songwriter stuff. I always go back to my "core" inspiration which is The Church's album Heyday, Pete Dello, Roy Harper's Valentine, Duncan Browne's self titled record, Chris Spedding, The Go-Betweens Spring Hill Fair, Bill Fay's first record, Cleaners from Venus Midnight Cleaners, Prefab Sprout's Steve McQueen, Nirvana (UK) Story of Simon Simopath, Blue Nile, Alan Hull, and Robyn Hitchcock.
What was your very first instrument?
My first electric guitar was a JB Player. My dad got it for me for Christmas. I still have it. But the first guitar I learned on was a borrowed acoustic guitar. The first electric guitar was a purple les paul-looking guitar. The first acoustic guitar I bought myself was from Marina Music in Culver City for $150. I've bought a lot of guitars from them.
Why did you pick up guitar?
I saw rock bands on MTV in 1990 and I thought they were cool—Poison, Guns N Roses, Def Leppard, Skid Row. I was 10. But, the guitar style was not something I could pull off. I took lessons for awhile, but I wasn't into reading notes. I wanted to play songs. So I started just reading tabs from Guitar magazines until I learned the stuff I liked. I guess that's how I developed my own style.
Where do you rehearse?
I don't have a rehearsal space. I actually hate to practice. When we do practice, we use Wayne's (Faler) space. I feel like over-practicing sucks out the fun and surprise of playing. Sometimes I like to not know if I remember what I'm doing. I've found that it's a pain in the ass to record yourself. I don't want to think about the technical side of things. So I've been recording more lately with close friends in their basements or bedrooms. I don't think records need to be recorded in a proper studio.
Where was A Tear In The Fabric recorded?
A Tear in the Fabric was recorded in lots of different places with many different (patient) friends. I had a lot of help from Scott Cornish (FOH Engineer for Best Coast, Sky Ferreria, Angel Olsen, No Age, Cate LeBon), Carlos de la Garza (Grammy award winning producer/mixer/engineer M83, Wolf Alice, Best Coast, Bad Religion, Ziggy Marley...), and mixing from Dave Carswell (Destroyer, The New Pornographers, Tegan and Sara, Neko Case) who lives up in Vancouver, and we worked out mixes by sending them back and forth—a total pain in the ass. But, totally worth it.
Specifically, I'd love to talk about how you recorded this album. Do you record analog or digitally? I'm curious as to how you achieved your guitar tones for the tracks "In Babylon" and "Out of Time".
Digital is fine with me. I recorded my album in Pro Tools and Garage Band (some of the other members record their parts in Logic). Obviously a record from the 70s has a warm sound, but to chase down that equipment and that style is just pointless. I do believe that analog sounds better but that's just not the world right now. Who can afford that equipment now?
I built out the songs with my guitar parts, then I send Wayne (Faler) and Nic (Hessler) the songs to see if they want to add anything. They're so great and always come up with amazing things. With that many layers of guitars, I'd say six different guitar tracks, I try not to let things step on each other. Then again sometimes the cacophony is relaxing to me. Now, when we play these songs, I like to do it with the three of us playing guitars.
(We asked Nic (guitarist) on his specifics...)
NIC HESSLER: My set up for the album was an Ibanez cs-9 stereo chorus, Pro-Con Rat, Strymon el Capistan delay, Pulp n Squeeze compressor, Soundtoys Echoboy and Microshift into a focusrite interface into Logic. I use eq's & limiters in (apple) Logic Pro—reverb, too.
If you had to pick one pedal you could not live without on your latest album which would that be?
I guess it would be my Boss Chorus Pedal. Even when I play acoustic guitar, I run it through a chorus pedal.
Best tour you've been on and why?
The tour we did for [the album] Euphoria in 2011 was my favorite. We were a five piece band at the time and musically and personality-wise it just worked. It was loose and enjoyable. We went to London and that's when I started dating my wife. The band at the time was me, Wayne Faler, Johnny Payne (Shilohs), Marty Sataman (Boom Bip, Gun Outfit), and Bill Gray. I really enjoyed playing with those guys. Even when we had bad shows, it still was an experience. I think the key to any experience is to be with people who can also make the most of any situation.
Which players should aspiring musicians study and learn from?
I think people should do only what suits/fits them. I like the spirit of making music, whether people are listening or not. It is like a craft. You're making something. It's fun. I could keep reworking my songs forever. It's hard to let it go. I watched the TV show Songland—it's like American Idol for songwriters. It's interesting to see a song go from one form and be transformed into another. But that's pop music. You can sometimes squeeze the life out of it. I believe that a song should be played through the voice of the person who wrote it. That feels like the truest form. I'm not an expert. I'm not a professional. My advice is to write a song how you want, and keep writing songs, and never stop. Keep working on songs until you're in your own bubble. Write something only you can write, because it'll be unique to you, and that is the most catchy thing about songs—a unique perspective.
Where do you find inspiration for writing?
My songs come from my mind. Listening to records inspires me but I usually just record and record and edit and edit until something comes out. I've got a lot of non-music related thoughts in my head and I think music helps me find clarity. I need something to balance those voices out, or at least narrate them.
What's in your record player this week?
This week...Angelo Branduardi, Pearls before Swine, Randy Burns, Fuchsia, and Pugh Rogefeldt.
Will you tour when the pandemic is over?
Sure! I don't think I can stand another LIVE STREAM event.
To find more information about Devon's tours, releases, get a copy of his record or download his music go here:
Check out the video for "In Babylon" off of A Tear In The Fabric.