INTERVIEW: Mathew Ajjarapu The Devonns

INTERVIEW: Mathew Ajjarapu The Devonns

Coming out of Chicago, Illinois, The Devonns (pronounced “De vaughns”) are a brand new soul outfit and the latest addition of the Record Kicks’ family, whose self-titled debut album that drops April 3rd, is an assortment of influences taking us back to the heyday of soul. I Think I’m Falling In Love taken from the album is bathed in sunshine soul. You can watch the video for the track plus a lengthy engaging interview with Mathew from the band below.

1 Can you tell me a bit about your upbringing, first memories and first music you can remember hearing?

My upbringing was really weird in a sense.  My parents emigrated from India and then me and my brothers were born here in America.  So there was always this weird cultural friction at home, because my parents wanted us to be really Indian and get good grades and study… but we were really American kids and we didn’t have any real attachment to India at all.  Me and my brothers don’t speak a lick of the language and we’ve only ever been to India once. 

I think where it got weirder for me and my brothers was that unlike a lot of Indian kids (who are Hindu or Muslim)… we grew up super Christian.  Like Pentecostal, people putting oil on your heads, people speaking in tongues all the time… that kind of Pentecostal.  My parents actually still fuck with that oil shit.  Sex before you got married?  Heck we couldn’t even date, none of us.  And this might come as a surprise… but we weren’t allowed to listen to popular (non-Christian) music.  The first time I turned on the radio to listen to music as a teenager was when I was 17.

Speaking of memories, since my parents were super Indian, they didn’t want us even looking at American girls (especially white girls).  But since we were American kids, we were into the girls around us (mostly white and Hispanic girls).  And I remember my older brother had a secret girlfriend in high school (white)… and he used to bring her back to the house to hang out while my parents were at work.  One time, my dad came home from work early and caught them, and I remember my dad flipped out; the girl was so scared, she jumped in her car and took off, and my dad actually chased her down the street on foot.  I mention that to kind of show what kind of a weird culture-shocked environment we grew up in.

Finally, first music I remember hearing; before my older brother went away to college, he had always been the black sheep of the family.  He’s a musical prodigy and he has excellent taste in music.  Anyways, he had a bunch of music that we weren’t allowed to listen to; but he would sneak me into his room and play stuff, and I remember the first song I ever fell in love with was, “I Only Have Eyes For You” by The Flamingos (that old reverb’d out doo-wop track from the 50s).  A couple of other ones he played for me that really left a strong mark was “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by The Byrds.  And finally, one time, he played me “Stairway To Heaven” by Led Zeppelin, and I remember even though I was maybe 8 or 9 years old, I just sat through the entire 7+ minutes of it utterly mesmerized.  I remember that first listen… when it came to the last part of the song (after Page’s guitar solo), I was really thrown off by how Robert Plant’s voice changed.  I was so young and naïve (and we had grown up so religious) that I remember actually thinking Plant had been possessed by actual demons and that’s how he had changed his voice like that.  I actually thought that maybe he had channelled a demon (for some reason, the church I went to really was pushing that whole ‘rock n’ roll actually had come from the devil-angle’, so maybe that’s where I had got the idea). 

2 Who were your first musical heroes?

That is a really tough question to answer.  For many years, when I first started actually making/playing music, I wanted to play a “cool” instrument.  Because of that, even though I had taken piano lessons for many years from the time I was a kid… I went through the trouble of teaching myself to first play bass and then the electric guitar during high school.  So during this time, my first musical heroes were really more “players” than writers.  On the bass, I really idolized Stuart Zender (from Jamiroquai), Bootsy Collins (another artist my brother turned me on to), and of course James Jamerson (strangely enough, back in high school, I was more familiar with Jamerson’s bass lines, rather than Jamerson the person, since he didn’t really become widely known until years after he had died).  And on guitar, I really idolized the way Jimmy Page played, because he could do blues, slide, and folk, and a lot of his playing had a mystical or ominously sad quality to it (to my ears).  I also really, really dug Nick Zinner (from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) because on a lot of songs, he’s basically making his guitar do the rhythm and lead guitar parts as well as the bass, and still keeping it catchy and kinetic.

Later on (after I sort of got tired of playing for other people and started trying to write), I really started to gravitate towards writers, especially people that did most of their own writing.  So really important heroes to me were Burt Bacharach, Carole King, Lamont Dozier + Brian & Eddie Holland, Smokey Robinson, Nickolas Ashford + Valerie Simpson, Curtis Mayfield… people like that.  All of these people are musicians, but I really think of them as writers FIRST, since they would craft both music and lyrics, which is significantly harder than doing either by itself.  And all of these people had so many incredible hooks… musical hooks, lyrical hooks… if you locked them in a room with nothing but a piano or a guitar, they’d probably give you back solid musical gold.  I should also mention the profound influence Prince has had on me, because he sort of embodied all possibilities: he wrote so many songs he was giving hits away to other people… he could out-shred and out-sing most people… and he was the consummate performer on stage.  You watch videos of him, and his magnetism and confidence is just completely otherworldly.  I’ve listened to pretty much his entire available catalogue (including stuff from his pseudonyms, the acts he wrote for, demos)… and his ratio of thriller to filler is shockingly good for how much material he wrote.

3 When did you first start singing?

Maybe junior high if we count choir practice.  Probably college if we are counting attempting to actually “seriously” sing.  I put it in quotes because I’m not a singer at all; even after vocal lessons, I really dislike hearing my voice, and I rarely if ever listen to my own music.  I’ve even auditioned singers numerous times to take over the lead singing duties in The Devonns… I only ended up singing leads because I couldn’t find a singer in Chicago that was willing to sing songs someone else had written.  Speaking of which, if you know anyone that can sing but also can take direction, and also won’t try to get me to play their sh*tty songs… please let me know.  I can definitely say that auditioning singers is maybe the worst part of trying to start a band; after a while of meeting morons (or especially people with no musical knowledge outside of current Top 40), you just throw your hands up and say, “fuck it, I’ll just do it myself”. 

4 When did you first start playing a musical instrument?

My parents put me and my brothers in piano lessons when I was 7 years old (1st grade).  A lot of immigrants throw their kids into music super early for nothing other than bragging rights, I think. 

5 Who influenced you to start writing your own music?

That is a tough question.  No one really influenced me to write.  This has happened to me for years, but sometimes, I’ll be doing something random like showering, or driving somewhere, and a hook will pop in to my head.  It might be a bass line, or a guitar riff… just a little seed.  Many times, nothing happens with that seed, unfortunately, and it just becomes a musical idea I don’t end up doing anything with.  But I think if you are going through a period of a lot of stress or adversity… a lot of emotions… then that sort of gives you enough inspiration to maybe find a way to flesh out those occasional seeds. 

I used to have this rule (which I still use)… if I record an idea into my four-track or my computer… if I still like it after 3 days, I keep it.  Otherwise it gets deleted.  So I’ve probably written and deleted several dozen songs over the years, and it was a very slow process of trying to figure out what it is that makes a good song a good song (versus a stinker).  A lot of people might disagree with this approach… but in my opinion, writing is like 90% listening to music.  For many years before I even thought of writing, I would listen to artists I liked or a song that really snuck up on me, and I would very deliberately analyse it to find what it was that made it enjoyable or good to me.   Sometimes it was just to learn a cool bass line.  Since I can play by ear and have a lot of musical training, it’s really easy for me to mentally cut up a guitar riff or a bass line to find out where the “hook” might be.  Or it could be a production touch too… that could be the hook. 

6 Were you in any bands before The Devonns?

Many, in fact.  Probably not too many worth mentioning though; who looks back on their first band in high school or college with any pride?  Suffice it to say I’ve played keys in a few r&b bands… bass in a whole lot of groups… and I used to nail a lot of auditions as a guitarist back when roots rock and indie rock was a thing before that all imploded.  So regardless of what’s been going on in the world of popular music, being able to fill in quite competently in three different instrumental areas has always been nice.

7 How did The Devonns form?

Well, to kind of reach back to question 1… I ended up going to med school briefly (to make my parents happy).  Right away, it was clear I was either too lazy or too stupid to actually be there.  I was still playing in bands at the time, and I remember going to gigs on a Saturday night, getting home Sunday morning, and having a test on Monday that I would take without even reading the material.  So thank god I was able to realize it wasn’t for me, rather than lying to myself or trying to suffer through it for someone else.

After that, I couldn’t get a job for a long time, so I would just bum around listening to music or reading while I was waiting for someone to give me a job interview.  My brothers had turned me on to some old albums that I had missed… “Jim” by Jamie Lidell and “The Way I See It” by Raphael Saadiq.  Even though doing the retro thing in a modern context isn’t new by any means (soul goes through a revival every few years)… what really resonated with me on these two albums was that Jamie Lidell and Raphael Saadiq did most of the writing and production on their own.  They may not have gone full-Prince and played every instrument, but both albums were still a monumental display of individual virtuosity in several very difficult areas (lyrics, music, etc).  Put it this way: Beyonce or Adele can put out a hit album every year because the best writers in the business are happy to give them hits all the time; fuck, it’s easy to do it that way.  To do it the way Raphael or Jamie did it takes so much more time and it’s really back-breaking, arduous, slow work.  I also came across Remy Shand’s debut album “The Way I Feel,” and he came even closer to the Prince ideal (where he wrote all the music and lyrics, and was basically playing most of the instruments on there).  In other words, every bit of music or lyrics on that album was an expression from him… it wasn’t just some team of hit doctors shitting out something).  My understanding is that Remy actually recorded almost all of that album in his parents’ house too.

Around this time, I went through a couple of bad breakups that were entirely my fault.  Long story-short, I got greedy, hurt some people, and because karma is a bitch, I ended up alone and really, profoundly depressed.  Even though I had chosen to leave med school, I still felt like a failure… plus I couldn’t get a job… plus I had fucked up two very intense relationships through my own ignorance.  So that’s where the music came from… within a short time, I had written two of the best songs I had ever written before.  I had a good feeling about them, so I played the demos for several people, and they all felt like there was something there.  I knew I wanted to try playing these live, so I would need extra hands; I met a great bass player through Soundcloud, and then his roommate played drums which was even better.  That’s kind of how it started.  We were originally called “The Signatures,” when I was going originally for a 50’s/60’s sound (I had wanted us to start off with doo wop, but then it turned out that none of us could sing for sh*t).  Eventually, another band in the UK started using the same name (definitely after we had been using it for like a year, because I had checked many times)… but they got bigger faster, so I had to name change.    

8 Who are your musical influences?

Definitely not in any order:  Prince, The Isley Brothers; Earth, Wind & Fire; Leroy Hutson; Curtis Mayfield; The Bar-Kays; Willie Hutch; The System; Rufus and Chaka Khan; Aretha Franklin; Stevie Wonder; Remy Shand; Jamie Lidell; Raphael Saadiq; Norman Connors; Phyllis Hyman; Rick James; Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis; Bryce Wilson (of Groove Theory).  Plus the songwriters I had mentioned above (Burt Bacharach, Carole King, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Smokey Robinson, Ashford & Simpson, etc).  I’m probably leaving someone out, but these are all artists who I’ve really dissected a lot over the last five years or sought to learn from/steal from.

9 How did your debut album come about?

How did this album come about?   Depression and self-pity entirely.  Like I said in question 7… a lot of dumb things had happened to me that were depressing me.  I was unemployed and couldn’t find work… I had dropped out of med school and felt like a giant failure… and I had f*cked up two really special relationships through a combination of hubris and being a selfish, cheating prick.  So I wasn’t proud of myself, you could put it that way.  In pretty much one day, I had written two songs that were as good as I had ever written (“Come Back”, and then one not on this album).  I then formed The Signatures (which became The Devonns) and I had around this time also met somebody new and had fallen in love.  So these sudden new feelings of good emotions and stability in a relationship led to “Tell Me” and “Think I’m Falling In Love”.  I’m not totally sure how it happened, but within a pretty short time, I had actually completed enough songs for a 45 minute set, which is the set we started playing around Chicago.  Initially, I had just wanted to record an EP just to get it out of my system.  Of course, it always takes longer than you think it will… that five-song EP took about a year, maybe a year and a half.   I self-released that on Soundcloud and Bandcamp, and that’s eventually how RecordKicks (my label) had found me.  They wanted a debut LP; originally I was going to follow up that first EP (which was more 60s inspired) with a second EP (of more 70s influences) but eventually we decided to combine those two EP’s into one LP. 

I should say (and I can’t stress this enough)… there would have been NO album without Mike Hagler and Paul Von Mertens, and there would be no The Devonns.  Mike was integral because he’s just… perfect in the studio.  He’s a great sounding board when you have an idea… he’s firm when you’re wasting time or going down a rabbit hole… it takes a while to get him to speak honestly, but he doesn’t pull any punches.  And his ear is fantastic.  When I made The Devonns’ very first EP (the one we had self-released before RecordKicks signed us)… I had had it mastered by someone who had been highly recommended.  And those masters didn’t… they just didn’t really work.  So I begged Mike to do it since I trusted his ear… but he really didn’t want to master music he had mixed.  But Mike’s masters were absolutely spot on… they were just the “sound” I was going for; they sounded period-correct for what I was going for.  I still listen to those masters because that was as close to how I heard it in my head as possible.  His ear is obscene.

Mike also introduced me to Paul Von Mertens (the arranger), and honestly, without Paul, there would definitely be no album at all.  Zero chance.  I’m proud of these songs but when you’re going for a 60’s or 70’s sound… there are certain production techniques, certain period-specific gear you might use, etc.  But past all that, there are arrangements that have to be period correct.  I mean, if you listen to any Motown hit… it’s all these crazy, lush, unbelievable arrangements.  

Not only is finding an arranger next to impossible in this day and age… finding someone with a vocabulary that’s informed by recordings from that time period is literally and actually impossible.  I can guarantee that if Paul hadn’t agreed to do the arranging on my first EP (and then this LP), I would have had to pull the plug on everything, because those arrangements are (to me) what really make the songs.  They’re what “sell” the songs… or rather, the arrangements are what really help the songs land into the correct “time period” in the listener’s mind.  Probably the day Paul retires is the day I will stop bothering to write music, since there will be no point any more without his absolutely sublime touch.  I mean for Christ sakes, that flute solo on “Think I’m Falling In Love” does more for that song than anything I’m singing or playing on there, if we’re talking about setting a mood (and that mood happens to be 1973).

10 Do all the band write the material or do you jam together which form songs?

I know a lot of musicians like to write together, but I actually hate doing that.  First off, I can’t focus at all (again, I dropped out of grad school).  Secondly, I find it really hard to write with people that aren’t coming from the same musical space and influences.  My bassist (Khalyle) is one of the dopest people I know, but he grew up listening to Mars Volta and punk, so it’s kind of hard to mash that together with someone who grew up fawning over The Flamingos and Aretha Franklin.  So in my experience, jamming together is just a waste of time, from a musical sense… to say nothing of how pointless and futile that would be in a lyrical sense.

Instead, I write all the material, typically music first and then the lyrics later (but sometimes both at the same time, as with “Come Back”).  Typically, I’ll hear a hook when I’m out and about… maybe in the shower or driving.  Then I’ll come back to my bedroom and track it piece-by-piece… I’ll play the basic guitar riff, the bass line, keys parts, etc., and basically make a really basic demo of the song.   I’ll take that demo to band practice so they can hear how I kind of wanted it to sound.  Not being much of a drummer, I’ll usually just verbally tell my drummer something like, “play it like the drums from ‘Footsteps in the Dark’ by the Isley Brothers” and then play that song for reference.  Khori picks up on those cues pretty quick. 

11 How would you describe your live sound?

People’s responses have been really positive live.  Minus the occasional bum gig we’ve had, people always come up to me to say they really like the sound or they missed music that sounds like this (even though soul music is always getting revived every few years).  Guaranteed, every time we play “Tell Me” some couple starts dancing, which is great to see from the stage.  Every time people hear “More,” that too, seems to get people grooving a little, since it has a very “Mary Jane” by Rick James-type of funk feel to it.  The one thing maybe I regret about the LP is that live… we play a lot of these songs a bit more up-tempo (faster)… and I wish we had played them that fast in the studio.  But of course, most musicians are nervous in a studio once the mics are turned on, so that’s maybe why the studio cuts are at a more normal tempo.

12 What are you expectations for the 2020?

Honestly… I need a break.  Even though The Devonns is a band with four people… I do all the writing, I do all the booking, I do all the promo… there is no manager, because I’m it.  I even design the album covers (even though my brother actually does the art editing).  I have a really specific artistic vision for the look and sound of our albums… after we track a song, me and Mike Hagler will be in the studio for hours, days… weeks… just trying to get something to sound what I would consider “right” (we literally actually had to record the LP twice, which is another story entirely).   Besides all of that, I work full-time, and I’m in school again (for something totally different).  I literally have had homework 4 or 5 nights a week every week since 2018; at one point in all of that, I was in four other bands (besides The Devonns) playing bass or keys and gigging several nights a week.  So suffice it to say… I need a f*cking break before my girlfriend actually leaves me.

More than anything, I’m always writing and working on musical ideas… so now that this LP is done and about to be released, I’ve been kind of hanging back from gigging to spend more time finishing new music.  For me, a band or artist dies when he/she stops writing music… NOT when they stop gigging or touring.  So that’s probably my expectations… take a bit of a break to finish up some new music.  Probably look for a local gig playing bass or guitar for somebody else for a few months just to stretch my musical legs a little.  I actually never wanted to be the front person of any band, so any time I’m front-and-center… I really feel weird being there, which sucks for someone that idolizes Prince.  But what I really do like doing is helping other people with their music… touching up a bass line or a guitar riff here or there… kind of approaching it more from a writing or production or arranging perspective.    

13 Will you be visiting the UK at some point?

Hmmm… I would love to.  Maybe if the label is paying for it and my bandmates, since I’ve basically bankrupted myself trying to get this album finished and pay tuition and rent.

14 Finally, what’s on your turn table at the moment?

Melba Moore… Marlena Shaw… Marcos Valle… Groove Theory… Albertina Walker and The Caravanas… Change… Patti Austin… Hateful Head Helen.  Lots of random mid/late 70s yacht rock from Japan and lots of random 80’s Italio disco.  I really think that’s going to be the next “revival”… dance music that specifically leans into the immediate post-disco era (1978-ish – 1984 give or take).

The Devonns will be released April 3rd via Record Kicks available via the following link