On Devin, the former Speedy Ortiz guitarist addresses his experiences as a person of color in indie rock.
Brooklyn-based guitarist and vocalist Devin McKnight, aka Maneka (pronounced “Monica”), is known for his work with the grungy indie rock groups Speedy Ortiz and Grass is Green. But his arresting, entrancing, and aptly titled new record, Devin, is entirely his own. Traversing math rock, metal, shoegaze, grindcore, hip-hop, and jazz, it’s an album that refuses to be pigeon-holed even more than his 2017 EP, Is You Is, did. With dissonant layers of twinkling and thunderous guitar, droning vocals that range from deadpan to sinister, and occasional saxophone from McKnight’s virtuoso cousin Brent Birckhead, Devin is a bracing listen that sounds like a storm cloud rolling in.
McKnight, a mixed-race black man, says the album addresses his experiences “as a minority in white indie rock scenes.” On “Mixer,” for example, he satirizes discomfort with racial ambiguity and wryly undercuts the security we find in classifying one another. “Before I open my mouth and sing, I must let you know,” he says (of course, already singing): “All along you been sharing your dinner with a halfling.” McKnight spoke to AdHoc about gentrification, male privilege in the music industry, Tom DeLonge’s alien abduction, and discovering that he was multi-racial in his twenties.
AdHoc: You’ve said that the alien-themed “My Queen,” a song from the new record, is dedicated to Tom DeLonge, who executive produced the History Channel show Ancient Aliens. What are your feelings on Blink-182?
Devin McKnight: I used to really like that band [in] middle school and high school. They’re really silly; it’s more of a nostalgia thing. There was a time when they were the most popular thing for kids. That whole genre doesn’t really mean anything anymore, but I remember.
I don’t know about those new songs, though. I miss Tom. He got too into aliens. I looked into stuff he said about being abducted. It sucks to not have anybody believe you about stuff like that—not even your band.
Do you believe it?
Yeah, I do. I obviously don’t know a ton. I have not been abducted. But, poor guy. He’s not making it up. “Aliens Exist” is a great song. It holds up pretty well.
Do they have a big influence on your music now?
I have one pop-punk song per record. I don’t wanna be that dude. Even back [in high school], I was in a nu-metal rap-rock band, and it was slightly uncool to play certain types of pop songs. I never got to scratch that itch. But it’s just that one song per album. That’s the Maneka rule.
You’ve said with this album you’re not making “art for art’s sake any more.” What changed for you?
It wasn’t any specific moment—more a gradual shift in thinking that’s important to grapple with, especially if you’re a person of color. Thinking about who you are, why you’re there, [and if] the other people around you [are] cool. If you don’t realize it on your own, it’s gonna find you eventually.
The album highlights your experiences as a black person in music. Your dad is black and your mom is Chinese and Pakistani. It’s a cliché, but do you feel like you had to “pick a side?”
My mom was actually adopted by black parents at the age of four. She was raised thinking she was a black person and was definitely raised in that community. I didn’t even know what [ethnicity] my mom was until I was in college. She wanted to know where she came from, so she figured out who her mom was, and we met her Chinese family.
I know that’s not the cool, in-depth college essay answer that I could’ve given. But black culture was the dominant culture in my household. Me and my brothers were definitely kind of confused, because we knew we didn’t look like the other black kids. We had eyes like my mom, who looked like she was maybe Filipino or something. So we knew there was something else there.
We went to a very racially diverse high school growing up, [with] an even split between black, white, [and] Asian. There were a lot of mixed kids there, and other kids would ask questions. It’s kind of weird, because you can’t embrace [just] one thing [if you don’t] even know what the other thing is, but the other thing [did] present itself at one point. My family is complex. Upon reaching out to my maternal grandmother’s family, we started to try to find more [connection] with that side, but that was [in] my twenties. It was actually a pretty confusing thing.
“Holy Hell” is about gentrification in your neighborhood. What’s the story behind that song?
I grew up in DC, and that place is being aggressively gentrified right now. That song is about crack dealers in my old building. We shouldn’t have drug dealers in our stairwell—that’s why I don’t live there anymore—but people view it as someone else’s issue and will literally step around people that are in pain or struggling through some serious shit.
Being from DC and seeing the crack epidemic be a problem for people [and] something that my parents were trying to get me away from [when I was a kid, I know] these are real problems for real people. When you get a lot of gentrifying people who have no experience there, [they see drug dealers as] just dark shadowy people in the background. But you can’t just put your furniture down, fly your flag, and be like, “This is mine now.” It’s not that simple. The issues are still there, but no one’s trying to provide public services or opportunities for the people in their cities or their schools. It’s just a rich-people playground. I don’t wanna pass judgment on [all] white people, but sometimes when I’m walking around it seems like [white] people are really afraid of people of color, and they just act like they’re not there.
How is your relationship with your neighborhood different?
This might make me a bit of a slacktivist, but I work three jobs; I don’t really volunteer. For me, it’s more just being aware and talking to people that live around me. Talking to my neighbors, trying to be as much of a person as [I] can.
I like to watch a lot of trash, if that’s not obvious. I like to leave TV on and do other stuff. I watched most of 90210 while I was fiddling around on guitar, writing and messing around with song ideas. I watched the whole series of The OC twice for that same reason. I watch a lot of TV, but I’m not actually paying attention. But I guess since it’s on, I end up trying to write hair-metal guitar solos like the 90210 theme.
Ancient Aliens was definitely a big one. There’s actually a King of the Hill quote on [the album], a pretty deep one. I’m always circling back on The Simpsons. That’s my favorite show of all time.
You say your writing process was also influenced by your friendship with (Sandy) Alex G.
[Speedy Ortiz] went on tour with Alex and the gang a while ago, and our two bands really hit it off. I remember asking him—and this is kind of a shitty question to ask a fellow artist—“How do you write your songs, man?” [Laughs.]
He was telling me he has these masters in GarageBand with a library of loops and different parts and he’s glueing them together. I started doing a similar thing because it’s just me. I’ve always been in collaborative bands with three [or] four people, which is great, but I’d never had the chance to do stuff on my own. I got some drum samples and got moving with Ableton, and that’s pretty much how you write a Maneka song.
[Before that,] I was doing something similar but using a shittier program. I was living in my parents’ basement at the time, figuring it out. Sometimes I would just have a friend who’s a drummer come over and track one thing. [I did it] any way I could. I would mostly write stuff on guitar and jam it out with people. I guess now I don’t talk to people anymore.
What made you decide to do your own thing?
Initially I was thinking maybe there was something else I could do with my life, like get a job or something. Novel concept! But that didn’t really pan out the way I wanted it to. Sometimes it takes a small step away from something to re-energize yourself.
Is there anything in particular you want people to take away from the album?
The trope of indie rock can be whatever any of us wants to make it. Don’t let anyone put you in a box, whatever that box might be.
Devin explores your experiences of being put in a box, but also how, as a man, you might be putting others in boxes too. What did you learn through that process?
I think people forget, or want to forget, the ways in which they’re privileged. But after a while, you can’t help but sound self-righteous. Nobody’s all good all the time. Nobody has learned all the right lessons at the right time. I think everyone should self-examine in that way. I try to empathize with people that I have some sort of societal power over. For instance, you see a lot of takes on women in rock music in the media. At the end of the day, as a guy, you have to think about the women that are at your shows [and] the women that you work with in music. Why didn’t you ask them to play with you? Why is your band all guys? Why is your show bill all dudes? You don’t always realize [it’s all] bros on your end, because the guys you hang out with are basically nice guys. You don’t think about it as a problem that you’re enacting.
For Speedy, a big theme is diversity in music. [With them,] I was playing and working with a whole different scene. For a while, in the early 2010s, [my circle] was just math rock bros. I still listen to that music and sometimes play music like that, sometimes with the people I was touring with back then. But a lot of [men] act like they’re just “trying to try.” People act like [including women] takes so much energy, and it really doesn’t. And if I don’t wanna seem like a poser on one end, I need to address as much as I [can] the ways in which I can be better.