Interview: Gavin McDevitt of Tribe Society
Following the success of their 2016 EP Lucid Dreams, Tribe Society have returned with their new mixtape, We Sell Drugs. The New York-based alternative band tackles topics about substance abuse and the stereotyping of drugs dealers in America throughout the 10 songs. Drawing on personal experiences from when they were teenagers to the adventures they encounter as touring musicians, the mixtape tells intriguing, mysterious tales from an uncommon perspective.
Tribe Society’s vocalist and lyricist, Gavin McDevitt, spoke with Songfacts about what inspired the new mixtape, what it was like working with Kiesza, and why he won’t reveal the true meaning of their most popular song, “Kings.”
Laura Antonelli (Songfacts): How does the writing dynamic work within the band?
Gavin McDevitt: There’s no real case-by-case scenario. It’s the weirdest band I’ve ever been in, and I’ve been in a lot of bands. Everybody has their own little satellite bedroom studio, so everybody in the band is a producer and making beats. It’s sweet for me as a vocalist because I can just walk into whoever’s making the coolest sounding shit [laughs]. I can just walk right into their room and then start writing over their beats. So that’s why a lot of the songs sound pretty different: because everybody’s doing their own and sometimes people will team up. We all live in a house together.
So that’s the early stage. Someone will either make a little idea on their own or team up with somebody else and make an idea, and then I’ll try to come in and think of a concept or some melodies. It’s a weird, staggered assembly line type of process. It would rarely be like, “Oh, I have this concept. Let’s write a song.” That never really happens. It’s always production and instrumentation first and then trying to do something good on top, which is a lot of pressure on me because it’s like, “Well, here’s this great beat, now don’t fuck it up.”
Songfacts: We Sell Drugs is the title of the new mixtape. It explores millennials’ views of marijuana throughout. Why did the band choose to delve into that topic?
Gavin: There are a lot of topics outside of that drug on the album.
Songfacts: What other topics do you explore then?
Gavin: I mean, there is a lot of drug use as the topic of that song. The title song “We Sell Drugs,” it’s not as much about the use of drugs but it’s a song about how we characterize one group. We tend to have a stereotype of whose selling drugs in America, but, in reality, it’s happening everywhere. It’s happening in the country clubs. It’s happening in the private schools. So that’s a satire song about a different type of drug dealer, which is not usually characterized on the news.
There’s another song called “Lonely People.” I wrote that with my friend, Mike Rebel. Both him and I have a lot of experience with heroin users and stuff like that, so that’s more of a dark approach to an experience with a heroin user.
I don’t know why there ended up being those kind of songs – I think it’s just something we’ve always been around as creatives.
“Smoke Out the Window” is just a weed anthem. It’s funny because bands don’t ever really do stuff like that but we always loved the idea of everybody that’s ever had a great weed anthem. I grew up in Cleveland and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony was my favorite rap group of all time. They literally made an entire weed album, which was the coolest thing ever when I was in high school.
Songfacts: “We Sell Drugs” features vocals from children and teenagers on it. What was it like recording it and how did the band come up with the concept for it?
Gavin: We had the title of the mixtape and I had made the artwork for the cover. It seemed like a pretty heavy statement and we needed a song to justify it. We couldn’t just have the artwork without there being the title track or something addressing why I have a bunch of rich-looking white kids on the cover saying “We Sell Drugs.” So I wrote the song around that concept trying to address what I had experienced growing up.
I was pretty middle class but I went to a high school in Cleveland that had every mix and every walk of life. It was a 2500 school. You would observe things and I just wanted to address from a firsthand perspective what I’d observed as far as who’s getting away with what, so that’s where that song came from.
Songfacts: And what was it like recording it?
Gavin: It was cool. I had some of my friends’ kids sing it. They were well aware of exactly what I was trying to do so it wasn’t just having their kid sing about drugs [laughs]. They knew it was like, OK, this is a statement. I can get behind this. I’m obviously not going to put their names out there or anything, but it was fun recording it.
It was probably one of the quickest songs on the mixtape. Some of the songs took a year but this song took four days. It was just really quick.
Songfacts: You already mentioned “Smoke Out the Window.” The band described it as “a metaphor to shedding the bullshit.” Can you expand on that thought?
Gavin: Weed is a funny drug because people use it for so many different reasons. I know for myself and for a lot of touring musicians, you need to wind down. So a lot of the times, you’re driving for 12 hours and you’re rushing into a show. You get out. You have four hours to sleep. Your adrenaline is still rushing so there’s a lot of stress and stuff on the road. So we wrote it while we were on the road. It was that feeling of just having a moment to really clear the head and chill out.
Songfacts: There’s a conniving narrative/vibe lyrically and musically in “Secrets.” What prompted the band to write that one?
Gavin: It was a cool one instrumentally that we were writing to weird visuals happening in the background. I teamed up with one of my best friends from a long time ago, a guy named Mike Rebel, who I used to be in a band with. I was struggling for a concept so I told him that I wanted it to be something scandalous and unsettling. He was like, “Well, why don’t we just make it feel like a scandal then?”
I had the chorus, “I know all your secrets.” We were trying to figure out what that could mean. So the way the song has turned out, you could interpret that as a relationship, which is not exactly what we were going for. We just wanted it to feel like it could be applied to anything. It could be applied to a president or it could be applied to a relationship, but it’s just that idea, “I know something you’ve been hiding and it’s going to come out and it’s going to haunt you.”
Songfacts: What’s the story happening in “Garden of God”?
Gavin: [Long pause] “Garden of God” is probably the only song on the mixtape that directly addresses a breakup, which is a topic that I don’t usually do. It’s direct. It’s almost like dialogue between somebody and somebody else. It was definitely written in a darker time for me so it’s pretty heavy with being really direct.
Songfacts: And what moved you to write “Disorder”?
Gavin: Lyrically, I wrote that one with my buddy, Mike Rebel. It’s just about living in New York and not getting too caught up. There’s a lyric in there, “Oh, what an awful scene,” and, “I run with the dirt and I try to stay clean.” It’s just about trying to do your thing in New York and not getting caught up in the bad drugs and not getting caught up in things that aren’t too real.
There’s a lyric in there, “I lost all my heroes ’cause they look real on the screen.” It’s a reference to idealizing something. It can destroy you because maybe it’s not even real. It’s a lot of things but it’s just about surviving in New York City.
Songfacts: The band said that “Kings” from Delirium Sonata is about “finding your truth.” Can you elaborate on that and explain how that song came to be?
Gavin: I usually don’t because what’s so interesting about that song is everybody comments what it means to them. When you write a song that’s a little ambiguous, it’s really cool hearing everybody insert their life into the song. So I have a personal meaning to that song but I like keeping that one open because it’s fun to hear everybody’s interpretation of what it means to make themselves a “king.”
Songfacts: What was it originally to you?
Gavin: It was just the journey of our band to me. The opening line is, “Running with all of my brothers.” We’ve been through a lot of shit together. It just felt almost like your little odd, unexpected group of travellers like Lord of the Rings or something.
Songfacts: What was it like working with Kiesza on “Pain Told Love”?
Gavin: It was written years ago way before I had ever even met Kiesza, but she liked the song and had heard it in the studio. I remember going into the studio and hearing her hum along to the melody, so I was like, “Yo! I haven’t recorded a second verse. You sound really great. Do you want to record on it?”
She was like, “Well, I have to get on a plane to Spain in 45 minutes so I literally have 15 minutes. Let’s do it.” So she cut the verse three times. She’s a great singer so we just used an entire take and then that was it.
Songfacts: And what inspired that one?
Gavin: Another one that I wrote with my buddy, Mike Rebel. It’s a deep one. It’s about the inevitability of embracing pain, which is something not really taught in our culture. It’s something I learned from other cultures, such as Eastern culture, where you embrace the highs and the lows instead of running from the lows. And instead of taking the drugs and instead of masking it with whatever vice you have, maybe just go through it a little bit. So that’s what that’s about.
Songfacts: Do you have a favorite lyric out of all of your tunes that possibly moves you whenever you sing it?
Gavin: Yeah, that would definitely be in “Pain Told Love” – “You gotta make a friend of pain ’cause hurricanes make flowers grow.” I don’t think we’ll beat that [laughs].
People have that tattooed. People have that all over the internet. It’s one of those lines that even though no one ever pushed that song as a single, the lyric found people. They come up to me at shows and tell me that song helped them, and that just makes it all worth it.
Songfacts: Is there a song you’re particularly proud of that you wish got more attention from people?
Gavin: It would be that song. We were on a major label at the time. They don’t always see the value in a ballad and how powerful a ballad can be, so it never got pushed. It got pushed to the side, whereas, I was always like, “You guys are absolutely crazy. This is the best thing I’ve written.”
They think marketing-wise, which is ironic because that song marketed itself. But I wish in a parallel universe a lot more people would have heard that particular song, which is a really important one to me just because it can help people.
Songfacts: How do you know when a song’s completely finished and there’s nothing more you should do it?
Gavin: That’s a really good question. Unlike most artists, I will get to a point where it will feel complete but it’s a lot of listening. If I listen in an environment that feels like life and it feels okay, then I think it’s done. If I have a song and I play it in somebody’s car and there’s nothing that takes away from that experience, then I think it’s done.
Songfacts: What’s the greatest challenge you encounter while writing a song?
Gavin: When I do melodies first, I do what I guess people call scats. It’s when you’re just mouthing syllables that sound like words but you’re really in the moment so everything is perfect. It’s all about chasing the tone, attitude, and the emotional vibe of that scat for me. It’s always the hardest thing: Recording a vocal and then listening back to that first vocal that had no right brain and no over-thinking. It’s always trying to compare to that and get it as good, and sometimes that can take four months just trying to copy the vibe of a vocal that had no lyrics, so that’s the hardest for me.