Friday, October 29, 2021

TREEFORT MUSIC FEST 9 (2021)—The Evening Class Interview With Smokey Brights

Any day that releases two new singles by Seattle band Smokey Brights [Facebook / Twitter / Instagram] is cause for celebration. “Honey Eye” and “Unity”, produced by Andy Park (Death Cab for Cutie, Deftones, Princess Nokia) and engineered by Sam Rosson (Great Grandpa, Sydney Sprague), and released on Freakout Records, are described as “anthems for finding light and protecting joy in the strangest of times.” 

“Unity”, featured as the “Daily Discovery” at American Songwriter, is described by singer and keys player Kim West as “a rally cry against division; an anthem against apathy. We have all seen how much easier it is to divide than unite these days. People are scared, people are angry, people are tired. And why wouldn’t they be? It’s a nightmare out there. But there is still so much love and light left in this world. And it is worth fighting for. Living in the Pacific NW, we have seen smokier and smokier summers. It is easy to look up in the blood red sky in the middle of an August day and just think, whelp that’s it. We’re too far gone for fixing. And it’s true—no single person is going to save us. But if we can find the common ground to work together, we can fix more than we even know.”

  

“Honey Eye”, a Big Takeover exclusive, is described as “a sincere and desperate love letter from one worried lover to the other. As the world seems to crash down around them, their resolve is to live and love as deeply as possible, while they still can.” 

Cobbling from the press release for Smokey Brights: “Fronted by husband and wife duo Ryan Devlin (guitar and vocals) and Kim West (keys and vocals) , Smokey Brights was born during a cash-strapped Christmas when the two approached their first holiday season as a newly-formed couple. They looked at their woefully underfunded bank accounts and their long list of family and friends, and knew that gift cards and baked goods weren’t going to cut it that year. It was right then and there that they decided to combine their mutual love of music and record a few of their favorite songs to create CDs to distribute among friends and family. This lofi collection of covers contained the seeds of what would become the band we know today as Smokey Brights. 


“Now married, their bond continues to permeate their pop songcraft. Pulling from their mutual love of 70s rock, vintage synthesizers, thrift shop treasures, and early MTV, the pair co-writes about the deeply personal aspects of their life together. The early days of their origin story is on full display in songs that speak to their transitions: As young friends to life partners in their beloved city of Seattle. Touring in a van during the Northwest’s notoriously grey winters. Being in love in a deeply uncertain period. And everything in between. 

“West, a barred attorney, and Devlin, who has a background in booking, publishing and punk bands, create songs that are perpetually deep and eminently danceable. Nick Krivchenia (drums), is an Ohio native from a family of musicians, and brings a soulful, classic groove to Smokey Brights’ sound. Luke Logan (bass) grew up singing folk songs with his family in Kodiak, Alaska, and provides melodic bass lines and a crucial third harmony to the band’s vocals. Together, Smokey Brights create a stoney blend of Northwest rock & roll and razor-sharp disco grooves. 

“Musical inspiration is commonly sketched into notebooks in the curiously small, window-less dining room at the center of their home, crowded with a 50s jukebox, a Wurlitzer 200A electric piano, guitar holsters, and the upright piano West grew up learning on, complete with a well worn sticker marking middle C. Only after songs are fleshed out on guitar, piano, and voice, they make their way downstairs to the band’s wood-paneled practice room and take on new shapes and grooves at the hand of the full lineup. 

“Despite the pandemic, Smokey Brights continue to record and release music in and around a constant bustle of songwriting, demo recording, BBQs, bar-tending, co-working, band practice and 18 months no one will soon forget. The band remains best known for their explosive live shows that immerse the listener in warm, harmony rich, and arena rock anthems, and instantly found a hard core fanbase in the US, UK, and Europe, and earned slots at SXSW, Off Beat Festival, and Treefort Music Fest. 

“After more than a decade they have a rabid base of fans to show for it. Gaining momentum with every show, they are a self-made, self-sustaining rock ‘n roll machine that generates maximum joy through musical communion.” 

Thanks have to go out to Dana Robinson Slote, tour manager for Smokey Brights, who first invited me to come listen to the band at Treefort, and then arranged a Zoom interview the week after. 

* * *  

Guillén: I want to congratulate you on your presence at Treefort. I caught your “hot” show at The Hideout, where you were literally dripping with sweat. It looked like you were melting on stage. I’d like to start off with the name of the band—Smokey Brights—because I haven’t read anything anywhere regarding what that name signifies. How did you go about choosing Smokey Brights as the name for your band? 

Ryan Devlin: Originally, before we were Smokey Brights, we were called Colossal Brights. We had a little recording project going—Nick, myself, our original bassist Jim, and Mikey our original lead guitarist. We were making some demos and were thinking, “How are we going to get a name for this?” 

I had the radio down real low when I was driving home one night listening to KEXP and this song where I thought I heard someone say in this song “colossal brights”. I thought that was such a cool phrase. I came back to the band and told them, “I’ve got the band name: Colossal Brights!” Jim looked at me and he goes, “Spell Colossal.” And I couldn’t. So I said to him, “Well, it’s back to the drawing board, I guess.” 

A day later, Jim was like, “Y’know, ‘Brights’ is a cool name. I’ve never heard that attached to a band. It’s kind of cool.” We’ve always straddled some darker, moodier, gloomier elements—being Northwest folks suffering through the cold—but we also love pop, and are trying to find the light of things. So, it felt like ‘Smokey’ Brights embodied the dichotomy that sounded like what we were already doing.  

Guillén: I understand you’ve been to a few of the Treefort festivals, but I’m curious what your experience of this particular edition of Treefort was like? For our community this edition was painfully meaningful. It took such a struggle and effort on the part of the Treefort team to get the festival going that, for myself, it felt triumphant that Treefort actually got back out there for the community. There had been worried concerns that they might have to cancel again when the Delta Variant began spreading in Idaho, which I honestly believed might have spelled the death of this festival. So it was great that the festival got to go, albeit masked and vaxxed and waxed (whatever people had to do). [The band laughs.] 

So I want to know if each of you can give me a feeling you had about what your experience of the festival was? I know you got to play three different stages—the Record Exchange, the El Korah Shrine, and the Hideout—which is lucky. I don’t know many musicians that have had that luck. So, perhaps, in describing your experience, can you comment as well on the variance of the stages? Perhaps on the sound systems? If you felt your music was being presented differently on the different stages? 

Kim West: I’ll go first. You described it perfectly. The experience was triumphant. It was triumphant and surreal to get to play our favorite festival. We played Treefort a couple of times before and the first time we played we came in 20 minutes before our set and had to leave at 7:00AM the next day because we were on tour. All of our friends were like, “What are you doing? You have to be here the whole time!” We were walking around the streets of Boise, freaking out, saying, “What are we doing? We’re messing up! We have to be here the whole time!” Ever since then, we come Wednesday through Sunday and just try to experience so much of it because it’s more music than we get to see in four days.  

Guillén: Who can? It’s a discovery festival. You’ve been here three or four times, as you’ve said, and yet this is the first time I’ve seen you, or even heard of you, because there’s always over 300 bands and it’s tough trying to graph out who to listen to. A person can only do so much. I feel lucky that I got to see you guys this time. A lot of that is due to Dana, who has been doing a remarkable job for you. She reached out and invited me to come hear you. 

I feel your band is on the cusp of something—I sense it, I feel it—and I’m excited for you guys. I’ve been listening to as much of your music as I could get my hands on and have been bopping around the house. I really love the music. But back to the festival, other band and stage experiences? 

Ryan Devlin: I’ll try to be brief but I can speak to that feeling that it might not have happened was really palpable. There was a lot of conflict even within our own immediate community of other musicians and friends, people who come to every Smokey Brights show in Boise, who weren’t so convinced that Treefort should be happening. I was following along. I read Eric Gilbert’s interview in the Idaho NPR affiliate where he said, “We need to prove that this can work. That if we get vaccination cards in hand, and we mask up, we can go ahead and have a really good time together.” 

One of the most surreal moments to me was when I had a hangout with a friend, a resident of Boise, usually vocal on Twitter about how Treefort shouldn’t happen because Idaho’s health care systems were overloaded, and it was too irresponsible. We went to our first set, we hung out, we had a really long conversation, and then that night he drove home and he passed what he described as a country bar. He looked at it and a lightbulb went off in his head. He thought, “I’ve driven by this bar every night during this pandemic and it’s been packed. These people aren’t wearing masks. And these people aren’t being vaccinated (some might be, who knows?). Treefort’s not the problem.” 

Kim West: Of course not. 

Ryan Devlin: Treefort has been working collectively to create a safe experience. If they don’t do that, as a music community, as promoters, as bands, people are going to find something else to do but it might not be as safe. So that feeling of being right on the edge, everyone was feeling that, but it wasn’t until we got there that we thought, “This has to happen.” 

Kim West: It has to happen, yeah. And I couldn’t have thought of a cooler way to start our experience than to play the Record Exchange for their first in-store appearance in 18 months. The sound was amazing. I wasn’t expecting a stage. I wasn’t expecting a full PA. It was like the whole nine yards. The sound guy was probably one of the more experienced sound guys in Boise. He had worked for everybody and knew that whole system backwards and forwards. We could hear everything. It was a really nice way to ease back into this festival experience.  

Guillén: I was just watching the videos from your performance at the Record Exchange today. They’ve just gone up. 

Kim West: Oh, cool….  

Guillén: And they do sound good. 

Kim West: We’ve played in stores before and it doesn’t usually sound like that.

   

Guillén: How about the El Korah Shrine? 

Nick Krivchenia: I think my audio is gone again. Oh, here I am!!  

Guillén: [Laughs.] Okay, that’s enough feedback out of you. [Band laughs.] 

Luke Logan: The El Korah was massive. We felt really humbled to play it and thankful that we were able to get that slot and that Eric trusted us with that. One of the things that we didn’t have during the pandemic was audiences. They’re a pretty important half of what we do; the people who come to give it back in our faces. We played some shows throughout the summer. We had a couple of ones where it felt like we were getting some energy and pulsing but they were smaller scale. Our El Korah experience was big scale. Talking to what Ryan was saying, knowing that everyone had gone through so much to get to that point too, that it was a very intentional crowd, even moreso than it usually is, made it even more meaningful as they were moving along with the rhythms that Nick was putting out. It made it one of the more special performing experiences I’ve ever had.  

Guillén: Which leads me to the question of what it was like for you guys to be onstage looking out at a masked audience? Normally, you’d be registering smiles, you’d be registering facial reactions to your music; but, suddenly, you’re watching a sea of masked faces. Did that affect you? Other musicians who have answered that question for me have said that it didn’t make a difference, that they still felt the energy of the crowd. But did you miss the facial connection? 

Ryan Devlin: I can speak to that. We had a few practice runs of playing to masked audiences and I have to say that, at first, it was a little disorienting because we are so much depending on the energy put forth from our audience and, yeah, that is usually displayed in cheering, in smiling, in singing along, all those things that we don’t really get to have with a masked audience. But by the time we got to the El Korah Shrine, we had several different performing experiences and I was pretty used to the masked audience. Feeling the energy of those people in that room far transcended any sort of loss of seeing the smiles or anything like that. One thing that the mask does not cover are tears. When we played “I Love You, but Damn”, I looked out and saw at least three friends, dude friends, just crying.  

Guillén: Dudes aren’t the same anymore, are they? [Laughs]. Nick, reaction to the Hideout. How did you like the Hideout? 

Nick Krivchenia: Loved it.  

Guillén: It wasn’t too hot for you? 

 Nick Krivchenia: It was super hot. The sound was great. We got everything we needed. Great crowd.  

Guillén: You guys might not have noticed this, but across the street from the Hideout was a big parking lot, which was where I was parked whenever I came down to the festival, and in the parking lot your music got amplified. It was a huge sound. I couldn’t believe it! There were people actually sitting on the higher levels of the parking lot to watch your set from there. 

Kim West: That would have been a good spot to watch!  

Guillén: I came in to cover Treefort this edition primarily because of my interest in the COVID Interruption—those 18 months of artistic interruption—which almost devasted film and film festival culture because film culture is based so much on production and exhibition, both of which couldn’t be done. Whereas, music differs in that—though you couldn’t have exhibition and concerts—musicians could still make music. Can you speak to how your band kept its musicality together? I’m actually proposing that the COVID Interruption helped many artists focus and get more creative. What happened with you folks? 

Kim West: For us, it was three phases of COVID. We had a record on deck, “I Love You, but Damn”, that was going to come out. We had four tours, national and international, booked. We had a whole year ready to go. We were like, “Here we go!” We were getting ready and then COVID hit. We actually personally weren’t very creative the first couple of months. We were sad. All of a sudden we were free-floating and trying to figure it out. I consider us very lucky in that we were all able to prioritize our time in getting together and practicing and making that something that was important to us. Ryan and I saw these two men [Nick and Luke] and our two other friends and that was it. Those were the only people we saw during the whole pandemic in person without the masks. We made it work. We got through the sadness. We wrote a record that we kind of liked. Then we kind of scrapped that. Then we wrote another record that we really liked and we went and recorded it about a month and a half ago. In two days all the amazing tracks were done. In a week everything was recorded. Then we came into being able to play live shows again. There wasn’t a moment of, “Oh no. Do we know how to do this still?” It was: “Oh yeah, we can!!”  

Guillén: One thing that has always fascinated me about music is the cover song. There were two songs that caught me in your work immediately: “I Love You, but Damn”, of course, but then you had a cover of Gerry Rafferty’s “Right Down the Line”, which was just a beautiful cover. And then when Dana sent me the press notes, I discovered there was this wonderful love story behind all of this with the covers and the poor Christmas and the CD that went out with the covers on it as Christmas gifts. I’m interested in knowing what some of those covers were on that CD, because it’s not available is it? 

Kim West: I actually have a picture of it on my phone from a friend’s aunt who just found a copy of that. 

Ryan Devlin: It was just a burnt CD.  

Guillén: That’s what I figured, but I thought it was interesting because I have been arguing with musicians I’ve met in the Boise scene about the importance of covers. I’m an older guy so I’m familiar with music from the ‘60s and the ‘70s, and going even further back. I had a complaint with the Boise music scene when I first arrived because it was so thoroughly saturated with neo-psychedelia. It was like every band I heard was neo-psychedelia and they were copying each other. I could only take so much of that, y’know? I would say, “Can’t you guys learn a traditional? Like even just one traditional? Can’t you go back and sing a song written by a songwriter from the 1970s? Would that be so wrong?” 

For me, the value of a song is that it can be interpreted. If you write a good song, it can be sung in different tempos, different languages, you can do so much with the structure of the song. So you started out with a burnt CD of covers and I’d like to know what some of the titles were on that burnt CD. As I was going through your body of work noting which covers you’d done, there was “Right Down the Line”, there was Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams”, and Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares to You.” Are there any others that you’ve actually recorded?

   

Ryan Devlin: That first EP was wintery, holiday-feeling songs for us, but they were not traditional holiday songs. We had Joni Mitchell’s “River”, Kim sang it, and it was really beautiful. 

Guillén: I would love to hear that. You know, of course, that Joni Mitchell’s “River” has since become an official holiday song? 

Ryan Devlin: We did a cover from one of my most formative bands, Idaho’s own Built to Spill. We did “Twin Falls, Idaho.” We did “St. Augustine” by Bob Dylan, again feeling vaguely religious, vaguely holiday. It’s one of my favorite Dylan tunes.

 

Guillén: How autobiographical are your songs? My roommate was listening to “I Love You, but Damn” and he was taken with the lyrics from where you talked about “being taken home to dinner to meet the parents and how are you going to explain me”. Was that about you two? 

Kim West: “You’re back home getting your degree / explain me to your family.”  

Guillén: With the COVID Interruption having tripped up the release of “I Love You, But Damn”, don’t you think it should somehow be re-released? 

Ryan Devlin: We would need to get a bigger label. 

Kim West: We have two singles coming out soon. And we’re going to release a deluxe version of “I Love You, but Damn” on CD with those two. We’ve gotten quite a number of requests for CDs, generally from people not in the U.S., usually people in Asia; but, CD technology is still alive and well in certain parts of the world and in people’s cars.  

Guillén: Tell me the story of “I Love You, but Damn.” 

Ryan: In the briefest sense possible, not all of Smokey Brights’ songs are autobiographical, but the speaker in that song is probably Ryan Devlin, me. When Kim and I first started dating about twelve years ago, I was playing in a couple of punk bands and touring a lot. For the first six months of us dating I was gone easily three months of it. We had an up and down cycle, y’know? We’d get together, we’d break up, we’d get together, we’d break up. That song is literally about love and distance, trying to grow up and figure it out, while being very far away from this person that might be falling in love. If we might be falling in love, we might have to change ourselves, I might have to change how I think about myself.  

Guillén: I’m sure you recognize that in the corpus of your work, it is an important song. As I was reviewing your work, it was the first song that, POW, I was grabbed. “What is this song?!!” And I’ve noticed you’ve chosen to use it to close your sets, so obviously you are aware of its power? So I’m glad it’s getting a CD re-release with your two new singles. 

I’m going to let you go, because you got to go, you have other people to talk to, but thank you so much for your time and I really hope you guys enjoy your ascent. I really think you’re on a cresting wave. 

Smokey Brights: Thank you, Michael.

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