Devlin McCluskey of The Dead Ships

by Dan MacIntosh

The Dead Ships are an honest-to-goodness great guitar band. Led by vocalist Devlin McCluskey, who puts his whole heart into every line he sings, this band – which played during the early hours of the Coachella Valley Music Festival in 2016 – will likely be headlining big music festivals before long.

Much of the group's album Citycide, which was produced by Broken Social Scene's Brendan Canning, addresses McClusky's emotional responses to the recent death of his best friend. This act proves that heartfelt rock and roll is not solely the domain of Bruce Springsteen.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): You did a song called "Ophelia." Is that an original?

Devlin McCluskey: No, that's a cover. Some would say an unrecognizable cover of a song by The Band.

Songfacts: I know a song with the same name by The Band, but you're right, I didn't recognize it.

Devlin: Four years ago when Levon Helm passed away, we did a benefit show at The Mint in LA, and we had to go through and pick a couple of Band songs to cover, and that one really stuck out to me. I really latched onto how really sad the lyrics are, even thought the song's really upbeat. Going through and playing it, I felt that adding the big, sort of chorus thing that wasn't in the original song just seemed to fit where I come from.

Songfacts: I was trying to peg what your sound is like, and I heard a lot of power pop. Is that a part of what makes up your sound?

Devlin: Undeniably, we're all fans of Weezer. I don't know if you consider the Pixies power pop. You probably wouldn't. But there are some power-poppy songs that they have. They've been a big influence.

More than anything, I do like pop music – especially the pop music I grew up listening to. And I think that when we get together and play, it sort of has the pop mentality that I have when writing the songs, and then we charge it up and it equals power pop – especially with all of us listening to Weezer.

Songfacts: What are some of your other stylistic influences?

Devlin: I do think the bands that I listened to in college, like Modest Mouse, Strokes, TV On The Radio and The White Stripes earlier on were definitely in there. I love Bob Dylan. I love The Temptations and The Beatles and The Kinks.

Songfacts: Can you point back to a moment when you realized you had a gift for songwriting?Devlin: I don't know about a gift. I'd still be reluctant to call it a gift. But there are definitely times where I know things have clicked with a really good melody matched with a good lyric. There are definitely times where it feels really, really right.

It's kind of funny. I've been writing songs since I was 15 years old and really working on it for a long time. I do remember writing a song called "You Were Young" that was sort of the single off of our first demos and one of the first songs that we did. And that song helped everyone get on board with the idea that we should be a band and keep going. I knew when I came up with the melody that it was hooky, with a good riff. All the parts are there and it flows really nicely.

For me, writing songs is something I do compulsively. I remember I went through a really tough breakup seven years ago, and all I would do is write songs about how I was feeling. And any hard time that I was going through, or even when I was overstressed at work and definitely drinking way too much, writing songs was very much an escape from all of that and a way to process how I was feeling outside of the trappings of everyday. Then a couple of years ago, my very best friend committed suicide. It was really invaluable to have a way to process my feelings and to figure out how I'm feeling about things. I'm not a particularly religious person, but I definitely have some spiritual ideas that there's more going on.

Songfacts: Has that experience ended up in any songs?

Devlin: Yeah, our EP that came out last year had a few, and our new album, which came out in June, has a lot of the songs that are dealing with that.

Songfacts: What are you calling the album?

Devlin: The album is called Citycide.

Songfacts: And it's called that because?

Devlin: Well, one of the songs I wrote during this period was about the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, one of the biggest suicide spots in the world. When I first went to Golden Gate Park our friend was showing it to us and was explaining the numbers about people jumping off each year – it's the second-biggest suicide spot in the world and she was saying, like, 95 percent of the people that jump off, jump off on the side facing the city. And there was something very poetic, very sad about the fact that, instead of jumping off on the side facing the ocean, the side facing the water, everyone jumps off with one last look at the city. Like they're sending a message to the city, saying goodbye to it.

That was sort of the idea for that song. And writing it, "Citycide," turned into "death by city" with "Citycide" and that feeling of isolation where you're surrounded by millions of people in the city, but you still feel like you're there all by yourself. And your relationship of you with the city was sort of the through line of some of the songs that I'd written before that were on this album and the new songs that were more dealing with my best friend.

Songfacts: I can't imagine losing a best friend.

Devlin: He was a student at DePaul University. A big history buff. He graduated at the front of his class. He wanted to go into military history, which is a really specialized kind of history. He really knew his stuff. He wrote a bunch of papers. He spoke at conferences and had a tough time finding a job in military history doing research anywhere. He took a job at a medical place, a pharmaceutical company, and it was like data entry stuff. It was repetitive. Then he moved to the city after living at home for a very long time. He moved down in April, and it was July when he killed himself.

It was completely devastating. I was just listening to Deerhunter – I don't know if you know them. And we'd heard that he (Bradford Cox) had someone close to him pass away last week, and still had to perform. Listening to him play a song, I was tearing up with our friend because it's still so very present. You can completely bury it and be okay going about things, but it's still so very present in moments it just comes back and hits you.

Songfacts: I remember when my mom passed away. And even though it's been quite a while ago, but there are times where it just comes back. They talk about this healing process, but I don't think we're ever completely healed. But things happen in our lives that scar us for life.

Devlin: Scarring is really a good way to think about it. It hardens over, but it's very much there. It very much changes how you look at things.

Songfacts: Talk about two or three of your fan-favorite songs.

Devlin: "Big Quiet" is one of our newer songs. That was one of the first ones about this loss.

I was just talking to one of our friends back there. She was asking how I'm able to sing these songs about my friend, and technically, it's a hard song to sing and so that makes it a little easier to focus during the verse.

A lot of the songs that we put out so far, they're not really downers. I feel like there's some positivity and light to them. I go more for that in singing them.

There's a song called "Séance" where it's really raging and it makes it easier to not break down.

Songfacts: Have you ever had that experience where you couldn't finish a song?

Devlin: I have with that "Ophelia" cover, which is weird because I didn't even write that one.

Songfacts: But you relate to it.

Devlin: Yeah, and it was right after I came back from the funeral. We had a show in Pomona and we played this song. It's got this big high note in it, and I can just remember pushing that so hard and being hit with this thing of, no matter how hard I go at it, no matter how hard I push for it, absolutely nothing is going to change. Nothing is going to bring him back. It was so devastating in the moment to go through the song and just feel like pushing out every muscle. Just reaching, knowing nothing was going to change. That's the only time I can think of where I was, like, crying during the song.

August 22, 2016.
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