Pop culmination: Famous Letter Writer band Saturday at the Recovery Lounge
Michael Devine once started a performance with a spoken-word piece about Andy Warhol.
“His mother looks at him in his cream corduroy suit and said, ‘You look so dapper,’ and Andy looked at her in the eye and said, ‘Mother, I want to be a SoundCloud rapper.”
“I don’t know where that comes from,” Devine said, “but it’s important to me because I think what it means is I want people to experience the full glory of pop.”
The Plattsburgh-based pop group Famous Letter Writer will perform at the Recovery Lounge in Upper Jay at 8 p.m. Saturday. Also booked that night is an alternative band out of Saranac, The Mountain Carol.
Devine has a unique way of talking. He often speaks in fragments and then ties them all together with a famous quote like a walking epigraph.
Famous Letter Writer has Devine on guitar and vocals and his wife Julia Devine on piano. However, Devine strays away from referring to Julia as his wife when it comes to the band. He calls her “the synth player.” They’re less Sonny and Cher and more New Order. While avoiding the gimmicky-ness of a husband-and-wife act, Devine said having that personal as well as a professional relationship strengthens the music he and Julia create.
“Like Leonard Cohen said, ‘If I knew where good songs came from, I’d go there more often,'” he said. “I feel like you discover a song and you have somebody there who drags it out with you. That’s something that’s kind of amazing. It comes from a space of joy and love, and I think the music reflects that.”
The synth is a cross between a 1970s church organ and what a computer from a Harlan Ellison story might sound like. On top of that, Devine screams, begs and quivers through his lyrics. Amid the sonic chaos, Famous Letter Writer will tackle aspects of life such as communication, pop culture, technology and expression in the modern era. One song, “All in my Head,” has the singer speaking to Siri, the virtual assistant on Apple computers.
“What we do is bring a lot of depth to technology and pop culture,” Devine said. “We have a line in that song that goes, ‘Jesus is looking skinny like teenage girls on Tumblr.'” That was actually motivated by a piece in The Atlantic about bulimic girls who were expressing themselves on Tumblr, and it made me think about children and technology and the culture we live in.
“Famous Letter Writer is a persona,” he continued. “It inhabits a lot of people. It’s a shape shifter in some ways. It’s funny and it’s deep and it’s sad and it’s angry, and I like to scream when I sing sometimes. But all of it tries to be a kind of a collective consciousness of American culture.”
Famous Letter Writer has a song called “#FamousLetterWriter” similar to other bands with self-titled tracks such as Bad Company, Black Sabbath and Green Day.
“It is a statement about branding,” Devine said. “But the music to me is about the country and the place and the time that we live. It’s somewhat caught between a celebration of pop as a ritual that binds people together, and it’s also about the trauma of life as ritual.”
Their debut album, which will be released soon, is steeped in American culture with songs titled “Andy Warhola,” “All I Do Is Win” and “Cream,” which is a reference to a 1993 Wu-Tang Clan track.
“It’s an homage to pop culture in a lot of ways, and I think that’s what makes it fun and accessible but deep in the way that pop culture is deep,” Devine said.
Keith Zarriello of the Brooklyn-based group Shivers worked on and helped produce the record.
“Keith was like a music encyclopedia,” Devine said. “I know American poetry like the back of my hand, but when you meet people who have that encyclopedic knowledge of music, I’m very humbled about what I don’t know. I think it’s an advantage for me because when you know too much, I think it’s a little bit of a handicap.”
For his day job, Devine is an English professor at SUNY Plattsburgh. He and many other folks these days, especially artists, know the struggle of the hustle and juggling work with passion projects.
“I think it says something about the public intellectual,” he said. “We don’t have the privilege or the luxury to be keeping our ideas only to ourselves. We climb out of that tower, and we try to reach people where they are.
“A person came up to me at a show the other day and said, ‘That’s really intelligent music,'” he continued. “It’s music for intelligent people. I think that’s a compliment not only to us but to our audiences, too. We’re trying to up the discourse of what music does and what music doesn’t. Everyone’s always done it, from Bowie to Dylan to Kendrick Lamar.”
Though he is the frontman of the band, he said when he gets on stage, it’s not him playing. It’s Famous Letter Writer. Like the Velvet Underground, a performance isn’t just about the music. It’s a spectacle. There are odd outfits. Projected images of rotary phones and switch board operators scroll across their faces, melding grainy film and the high definition of reality. Weird things happen.
“Yeah, it’s not just the music,” Devine said. “You know, the synth player, Julia, wears a wig that’s kind of like a bad Marilyn Monroe impersonation. We’ve played with movies that we’ve created like homages to French new wave and things like that. So yeah, it tries to bring a CBGB-Blondie-New Wave experience, and people are seeing something that’s transformative.
“It’s like William Butler Yeates said, ‘Every play should be performed through a mask,’ and that’s my feeling about art. That’s our mask.”
Actually writing songs can be a challenge, Devine said, because writers are constantly struggling with the artists they look up to.
“Harold Bloom described it as the ‘anxiety of influence,'” he said. “You have to pick your masters. I’ll write against Leonard Cohen at times and sometimes Bob Dylan — maybe weaker masters like Elvis Costello or Jeff Tweedy.”
However, Devine doesn’t mind when people say he sounds a little like someone else. He embraces that.
“I love the comparisons because I feel like our music is kind of joining the tradition when you get compared to Elvis Costello or Talking Heads,” he said. “You know, like most songwriters I was in a sort of death struggle with Bob Dylan as a teenager. I left that behind, thankfully. So yeah, it’s part of your joining the conversation in a lot of ways.”
If you go…
Who: Famous Letter Writer and The Mountain Carol
When: Saturday, Nov. 3 at 8 p.m.
Where: The Upper Jay Art Center and Recovery Lounge, 12198 Route 9N, Upper Jay
How much: Admission by donation