You could be forgiven for expecting Falling Off The Lavender Bridge, the debut album from Lightspeed Champion (aka Dev from noisenik experimental terrorists Test Icicles), to be a prog-ish mosh-fest. You’d be very wrong indeed. But then nothing about this 21-year old multi-instrumentalist is conventional.
In person, Dev – Devonte Hynes to his mum – is as excitable as a young child, switching between subjects at breakneck pace, equally at home discussing racism in Britain and video game characters or comics (the band’s name allegedly comes from his self-penned comic strips). Musically, too, he flitters around like a butterfly: he has a fully fledged hip-hop album in the bag and is already planning the follow-up to Lavender Bridge.
‘I have songwriting phases and the albums I release capture that particular phase,’ he enthuses. ‘The versions of these songs that I play live are different from the album: they’re heavier, more like a classic rock band style.’ The country influences on his debut are writ large, however, with the pedal-steel and string-driven sound more akin to Badly Drawn Boy or Elvis Costello than the screeching riffs we may have expected.
‘When I was younger, I’d have Gram Parsons playing in the house,’ he recalls, before admitting that his musical love affairs took him to ‘a really uncool point. When I was 12, I was a really big Dixie Chicks fan’. Unfortunately, Dev has never heard of the horrible hybrid that is country -n’ Irish, but when State explains its inherent ugliness to him, he promises to look it up – expect the Big Dev and the Mainliners album in 2009.
For the moment, however, he’s happy to tour Lavender Bridge, a wonderfully accessible smorgasbord of melancholic whimsy, with a pointed sense of humour bubbling under a thin crust of sweepingly anthemic folk-pop.
‘Most of it [the album] is about my ex-girlfriend,’ he confesses. ‘We were together when I wrote the album but we were breaking up: we were friends afterwards but we’re not friends now.’ The wonderfully fragile -Everyone I Know Is Listening To Crunk’ was written an hour after the split, so it’s fair to say that Dev isn’t afraid of excorcising (or at least exercising) his demons through his art. That said, it’s not all po-faced soul-searching, with enough knowing humour for a Stephen Fry novel.
‘I can’t ever do anything completely seriously,’ he admits. ‘Even -Everyone I Know Is Listening To Crunk’, which was a really intense moment, is ridiculous.’ Indeed it is, as he tries to entice his ex around with the promise of the new season of The OC. ‘Ah, the amazingly out-of-date OC reference,’ he guffaws. Indeed, Dev’s not afraid of namechecking all types of pop culture in his songs: the epic -Midnight Surprise’ references classic video game The Legend Of Zelda. The album has a more serious side, though, with Dev describing his first-hand experiences of racism in London (-Devil Tricks For A Bitch’, -Tell Me What It’s Worth’): ‘The interesting thing about racism and me is that I’ve only ever encountered racism from black people,’ he explains.’ The last time I suffered racial abuse from someone who’s white, I was probably seven. Black people seem to have a big problem with me, especially in the area where I live.’
Any idea why?
‘Probably because I’m not dressing in tracksuits. It’s funny, because if only they knew, I’m really big into hip-hop: I wrote the Tupac entry on Wikipedia,’ he smiles ruefully. ‘But there were periods when I wouldn’t leave the house for a month because I couldn’t deal with seeing rude-boys or anyone like that.
‘I guess in school in Britain, unless you choose to, you don’t learn about slavery, about Malcolm X, about racism in the 70s,’ he continues. ‘Racism exists in London but it’s never been a huge problem. It’s almost like they’ve had it too easy, because if they did ever have to fight for certain things, the last thing they’d think of is picking on another black person.In America, there is so much racism still active that the last thing they’ll consider doing is picking on a black person walking down the street.’
Unfortunately, the problem is so bad that Dev’s planning to move. He’s considering uprooting to New York, a far cry from London or the country-tinged surrounds of Omaha, Nebraska, where he recorded Lavender Bridge with resident Saddle Creek producer Mike Mogis, in the home studio which Mogis co-owns with that label’s most famous son, Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, who he describes as misunderstood: ‘People have this perception of a moody, serious, slightly crazy dude, and he’s the guy in a group of friends who is always making a joke or doing something silly: he’s not as guarded as he should be.’
Oberst’s bandmate Nate Walcott played most of the piano on Lavender Bridge, and other musical guests include The Faint’s sticksmith Clark Baechle, stunning vocalist Emmy the Great, as well as various members of Cursive and Tilly and the Wall: ‘I didn’t really ask anyone to do it, people just offered their services. It would just be a case of late one night deciding to do group vocals.’
Most of 2008 is going to be spent on the road promoting the result, which Dev is looking forward to and dreading in equal measure. He’s delighted that his songs are going to reach a wider audience, while feeling slightly uncomfortable at being the focal point on stage instead the relative anonymity of just playing guitar: ‘I’m never going to get used to that. I get really nervous and I say stupid stuff on stage.’ Disarmingly honest, refreshingly scatterbrained, by year’s end he could be a household name.