Even the Devics aren‘t sure what their name signifies. Singer Sara Lov and pianist-guitarist Dustin O’Halloran just liked the way the word (pronounced ”DEE-vicks“) sounded when they overheard a friend use it in 1991.
”It‘s something that we thought meant something and ended up being something else,“ O’Halloran says.
”She explained it as this kind of mythological angel,“ says Lov, who eventually found an enigmatic allusion, in Geoffrey Hodson‘s nonfiction book Kingdom of the Gods, to ”a protective muse“ who helps struggling artists. Research also indicated that devics could be a type of eye infection, or that it might have originated with a legend about a caravan of horses that disappeared while carrying gold through treacherous Balkan mountains.
”People can apply whatever they want to ’Devics,‘“ says drummer Evan Schnabel. ”We’re not tied to any one meaning.“
The Devics‘ grand, melancholic ballads are similarly mysterious and ambiguous, not evoking any particular decade or neatly aligning with retro movements. Lov does occasionally linger in her phrasing like Billie Holiday, and her glassy, ethereal cooing on ”Three,“ from the Devics’ second CD, If You Forget Me . . ., recalls the Cocteau Twins. Yet there‘s something distinct and pure about the way her rueful voice slinks through O’Halloran‘s sparse, shimmering guitar chords, then soars unrestrained above Schnabel’s stormy tom-toms during the buildup of ”Ghost,“ from The Ghost in the Girl EP, the group‘s third and most recent CD on their own Splinter label.
Lov’s just as beguiling on ”My Beautiful Sinking Ship,“ with lyrics that ”swing and sway“ to the tidal waltz of Ed Maxwell‘s upright bass and O’Halloran‘s demented cabaret piano. ”The sea is such a great analogy for emotional things,“ says O’Halloran, who has tattoos of sea serpents, ships and a compass on his chest and arms. ”It can be the most beautiful, tranquil thing one moment, then suddenly it‘s out of control.“
”The Smell of Ink“ might be the strangest track on The Ghost, with Lov’s shell-shocked poetry delivered breathily against a haunting soundscape of shifting textures from O‘Halloran’s accordion and Maxwell‘s samples, programming and bowed upright bass.
”I was doing a casual-type gig [with another band],“ Maxwell says, ”and I was warming up with the bow, and I heard the whole thing in my head right then, and I was like, ’Oh my God, I gotta go home and record this.‘ I remembered it through three sets of jazz.“
Maxwell joined the Devics a year and a half ago, before the recording of The Ghost, after moving from Vancouver to Hollywood with Canadian rockabilly combo the Rattled Roosters. With the exception of Maxwell, whom Schnabel calls ”our token professional musician,“ this is everyone’s first real group, though Schnabel is proud of a brief stint in Dead Alumni, his high school heavy metal cover band. O‘Halloran and Lov met in art class at Santa Monica College in 1989, invited Schnabel aboard a couple years later, and released Buxom, their first CD, in 1996. O’Halloran also sings in Mephisto, a theatrical side project with Aaron Embry and Brian Bell (Weezer, Space Twins) that Lov describes as ”a Tom Waits kind of vibe with violin, cello and banjo.“
The new EP‘s wistfully gloomy version of Gershwin’s ”The Man I Love“ marks the first time the Devics have recorded a non-original song. ”We mess around with some things, but we never perform any of them,“ says Lov. ”We tried ‘Happiness’ by Tones on Tail, but it‘s hard for me to sing somebody else’s lyrics. I want to sing what I‘m feeling.“
The question is — with lyrics like ”I’m just a sad girl“ and ”I wish I could keep this beautiful mood lost“ (from ”Blue Miss Sunday“ on If You Forget Me . . .) — is she feeling okay? ”I don‘t think I’m sad,“ Lov says. ”If I wasn‘t doing music and expressing these things that I have inside myself, I would be sad. Because I get them out, I feel better. I just put it out on everyone else and make them sad! I’ve had people say, ‘You guys should write a happy song.’ But my job is to write this kind. When I get introspective, I write a lot, and when I‘m happy, I do other things.“
So is it in the band’s best interest to make Lov unhappy? ”We try to keep her sad as much as possible, destroy her love life,“ Maxwell says. ”We‘re pretty brutal on ourselves.“
Devics play at Spaceland, Saturday, May 27.