Interview with Conor Devlin of [The] Caseworker

Conor Devlin (picture by Gabriella Marks @ Triggerfinger)

Since 2003 multi-national band [The] Caseworker, with members based at various times in San Francisco, England and Switzerland has produced some skilfully crafted melodic guitar music, ranging in styles from Dreampop and Psychedelia to explorations into Country, Alt. Folk and as you’ll discover, Jazz. Conor Devlin, the band’s main guitarist, found some time in his hectic schedules to provide some background to exactly what inspires [The] Caseworker to create their brilliantly realised and performed songs.

You’ve just returned from visiting Berlin, what’s happening there right now? And what’s new in the CD collection following your expedition around Berlin’s music stores?

Berlin was dirty, low rent and full of arty types. You get the sense people are busy creating there. We loved it. It was sort of how I imagine the lower east side of New York might have looked in the late 70’s: run-down and covered in graffiti. And it had at least 10 fully functioning record shops. Good stock too. I’ve been buying a lot of 80’s metal that I missed out on the first time around and it was all sitting there in these shops or at flea markets for 5-10 quid each. It’s weird how many Saxon albums are out there. And Maiden. Always Maiden. I also got the new Opeth boxset -which is a mighty thing – some bad Scorpions records, Hot Snakes…loads of stuff, too many to mention. We also saw the Mali band Tinariwen up there. We caught them in Lausanne a couple of weeks ago and it was incredible, so it was lucky to see them twice. They’re immediately likeable, but really subtle too – your ears hear a 4/4 time and a catchy melody but they’re obviously doing something far more complex… guy just sings backing vocals, but mostly he dances and smiles at the crowd…it’s pretty unique and they have a knack for creating this warm friendly atmosphere in the hall. I thought the Berlin crowd would be wilder than the Swiss, but the Swiss went crazy from the first song. That’s the weird thing about them, they’re reserved and polite during the day but go completely berserk at concerts. Afterwards they congregate outside and debate the show in intellectual terms. And they smoke their cigarettes really intensely. Big smokers, the Swiss. Opeth are playing here next month in a venue that holds about 450 so that should be interesting. The walls will collapse. I’ve found the live shows in Switzerland really intense, and the bands seem shocked by the reception they get. Big death metal audience in Lausanne for some reason. Maybe it’s the cold winters. Wolves in the Throne Room keep you warm on nights like that. Next show here is Bill Callahan, one of my all time heroes.

Aside from metal and African music, [The] Caseworker are quite obviously influenced by what I call West Coast guitar music, I say obviously as you are often based as a band in San Francisco and I think recorded ‘Letters From The Coast’ there. What are your most important actual influences in your own music, now and less recently?

The first five REM lps are key for our band: the simplicity of the playing, the hidden vocals, the overall mystique of the band. I quit following them after “Green”….once I could hear what he was saying all the mystique dissipated very quickly and it never came back. Echo & The Bunnymen’s first three lps are massive for me too, particularly ‘Heaven Up Here’ – the way they could really build a song from nothing, and infuse it with such drama: very exciting records. All the late 80’s stuff was a big influence: The Smiths, Sonic Youth, Spacemen 3, Loop, House of Love, a handful of the Creation groups, some of the 4AD bands. I went to visit a sister in London in 1986 and she was playing Robert Fripp’s ‘Exposure’ album at the time. That record was a window into a whole other range of music for me. It led to David Sylvian, Brian Eno, Harold Budd, all that stuff. Brian Eno’s “Before & After Science” is a huge record for me, and I still think Side Two of that album is one of the most perfectly constructed sides I’ve ever heard. I don’t know if people care about that stuff anymore, do they? Do people still listen to albums as sides? David Gilmour: really got to me too: I have a memory of putting on ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ for the first time, aged 13 or so, and anticipating some kind of Crimsonesque prog, and instead what floated out of the speakers was the opening notes of ‘Breathe’. A completely sublime moment, and one that’s been harder and harder to repeat although I had a similar experience on hearing Scott Walker’s “Scott 3” in 1995, or the David Axelrod records from the late 60’s. Regarding the West Coast thing, sure, we all love the Doors records, later period Byrds, Love especially, and those records Steely Dan made when they decamped to Malibu. People always laugh when I go on about Steely Dan but I think they’re one of the greats. I generally prefer LA’s music scene to San Francisco’s I could never click with the 60’s San Francisco bands. I could never get the Dead or Jefferson Airplane. It wasn’t until the 80’s that I started hearing San Francisco music that I could relate to: AMC and Swell. Swell were a big influence on us, and also inspired us to move there. In our naivety we thought that if San Francisco could produce them, it might be a good place for us too.

You recorded a number of covers of Tom Waits songs for the soundtrack of the film ‘East Of Sunset’ and hearing these songs I was impressed by exactly how you’d gone about reinterpreting the music of one of the most idiosyncratic entertainers of our time, given that Waits loungebar jazz style is at quite some distance from that of [The] Caseworker. What can you tell DOA about these recordings, the process of breaking down and virtually rewriting Wait’s songs? Did he give you much in the way of assistance and/or approval?

Our label at the time was/is part of an umbrella group of companies, one of which owns the publishing rights to the first few Waits albums. So it’s up to them to make money off these songs by exploiting the songs. I guess someone had the bright idea to put some Waits songs in a movie and they asked us to record one song. That became two songs, and then it was up to six. I think Alex Chilton is on the soundtrack too, and that Drugstore band. I’ve never owned the cd so I’ve never heard it all the way through…I did see a rough cut of the film years ago and it’s not something I’d be keen to see again. But there we are, in it, miming badly as the most boring “bar band” ever captured on tape. Monte had a gripe with the crew after being made to wear an ugly jacket for the shoot, so for revenge he unplugged his guitar to see if anyone would notice, which they didn’t, so you can see him on stage, dragging his delay pedal around, with no chord going into the amp. That’s my main memory of the filming. But the money we got for the songs paid for the rehearsal room for 3 years and van rental for any tours we did for about two years. So it was worth it for us. I don’t think there’s much of a relationship between Mr Waits and the people who own his publishing so there was zero interaction between us and him. I can’t imagine he’d be too thrilled with what we did to them anyway. He’s not sitting there going “WOW, those guys nailed it!”, you know? We got the sheet music faxed to us and there was no way we were going to be able to do justice to his versions, so we just sort of stripped them back to almost nothing – the main aspect we concentrated on was getting his mood shifting chord changes right, which I think you can hear to best effect on ‘Ruby’s Arms’. It was a very ad hoc approach to taping them because I didn’t feel they were going to be analysed too much, and we had a deadline of only a few weeks. So we made it up as we went along. Monte was still living in a converted bar on Harrison Street in San Francisco and we just did a few weekends in his front room to tape them. The vocals were done in his closet as usual. Will came by at the weekend and did most of the drums in an afternoon. I remember half the songs ended up sounding pretty good but I haven’t heard them in about 5 years. I know Eimer’s got a copy of the film, which she puts on to horrify people at Thanksgiving or Christmas and so on. But she’s made of stronger stuff than me. She can laugh about it, which is something I can’t do. Yet.

Conor and Eimer Devlin

Your filming experiences obviously haven’t put you off recording your own songs, and ‘Letters From The Coast’ is an album that very definitely deserves a wider audience. It wouldn’t surprise if other film or media companies asked that you provided provide soundtracking for other projects. You are at the moment an almost entirely studio based band, is this going to change in the near future?

We’re studio based for now, yeah. Going on the road as a group doesn’t really appeal right now. I think we all feel we did enough when we had to years ago, and I have generally pleasant memories of those trips. I go out to see touring bands probably once a week and I’ve yet to feel any pang for touring when I see them packing up their double parked vans in the rain, or heading off to their bunkbeds or friends couches. I was talking to Stu Medley (of Hidden Shoal) a few weeks back and we talked about us maybe going down to Australia to tour there with his group My Majestic Star for a week or two. That seemed to appeal to the others as well, in a busman’s holiday sort of way. But we’ll see. I do miss being in a room and making a racket, but it’s a pricey business flying four people from all over the place down to Perth. Right now we start taping drums for the next record in the UK in March and hopefully we’ll have it wrapped up by year’s end. After that is anyone’s guess. Maybe we’ll play, maybe we won’t. It’s not like we’re denying the multitudes by staying home…

Letters From The Coast is available now on Hidden Shoal Records