Home Studio Studios: Devin McKnight (Maneka)

In 2019, my grandparents emailed me an album review that was packed dense with buzzwords and genre terminology, and asked if I could help decode it – after all, the album in question was made by their friend’s son, Devin McKnight. It was a strange and delightful coincidence. I knew of Devin as a former member of Speedy Ortiz, a band who’ve made some of my favorite records of the past decade. But until their email, I didn’t know that we were one degree of separation away – nor did I know that he made brainy, thrilling indie rock under the name Maneka. 

Maneka’s third album, Dark Matters, was released in March of this year, and its polish and panache caught my ear immediately. When I found out via an Alt Press interview that it was partially recorded at home, I wanted to know more about its creation. We caught up to talk about his creative process, the joy of the full album, and the differences between home and studio recording.

So my first question – pretty easy one – who are you, and how would you describe your work?

My name is Devin McKnight, and I’m a guitarist, multi-instrumentalist, singer/songwriter… person. I’d say I dabble in a lot of different things. Maybe perhaps a master of none, but [I’m an] indie rock, punk-indie-rock guitar player, mostly.

What do you think inspires your work? Is it one thing, or a lot of things?

The need for me to express myself in ways that I fail in [other situations]. I feel like music gives me an outlet to say things, curate things, feel things in ways that I feel like maybe are more representative of who I am than I’m able to express in real life. [laughs]

So it’s like, the stuff that you’re not expressing comes out in your work?

I think so. And you know, it’s also maybe… you’re able to learn more about yourself in the process, too. Maybe there’s some things you didn’t know that just make their way into the work, that you didn’t realize were ever in there. I guess that’s a motivator.

Yeah, I feel that. What do you think you learned in the making of Dark Matters?

Maybe that this wasn’t just a personal experiment anymore, that this was more of a serious undertaking that I could convincingly do and be proud of. That I’m here to stay, you know? I think doing my own band was something that was always very new. I always had collaborators, I always at least worked with a singer – I never sang in groups – so in the beginning, it was more to see what I was made of, see if I could cut it. This one, I think I was a little more like, “Let’s do this for real.” Does that make sense?

Yeah, it does! I kind of hear it, too… I was reading other interviews about the record and the process of making it, and one of the things I noticed was that you started doing voice lessons for this record.

Yeah. I did a few lessons before the first one, because I literally didn’t know how to use my voice, especially in the context of a loud band – it’s a lot more visceral than you might expect. Because at that volume, I mean, nobody speaks that loudly, you don’t realize how hard it is to project over loud rock music, so I found that to be pretty jarring. My cousin on my mom’s side is a professional singer and actor, so she helped me out a little bit, but she kept asking things like, “So what are you going for? How do you sound?” And I was like, I don’t actually know, maybe I need to figure that out. [laughs]

I teach music at the School of Rock, actually, and the teacher who had the lesson room next to me was a vocal teacher. And I heard her conducting [vocal] warmups, the things singers do to get themselves ready, and I was like, “Wow, that sounds like it would be really helpful.” We’re allowed to trade lessons [with other teachers], and she was interested in guitar, so I would show up a little bit before work for a few months and give her guitar lessons, and she’d give me short vocal lessons. She also showed me a good regimen for taking care of my vocal chords, and learning my range, and things I didn’t completely understand about that instrument. Because it is an instrument, it’s just a part of you. 

That’s cool! I wonder – since this was a studio album, too – was the process of working on your voice and working in a studio a similar thought process? Or did they happen independently of each other?

I think they happened independently of each other. Actually, because of the pandemic, all the vocals were recorded in my bedroom.

What is your recording setup like?

I have this universal audio interface thingy, like a vocal mic. I actually borrowed a few mics from my friend who basically engineered the rest of it. He was – rightfully so – pretty scared of the pandemic at that point, so he was like, “I don’t wanna meet in person. You can take this mic and let’s see how you do at home, and you can just send me the vocal takes.” At first I felt, “Aw man, this is gonna suck.” [laughs] Because self-motivation, when you are at home or working from home in any discipline, it takes a little bit more because you’re in your home space where you usually unwind or get comfortable after work.

But I guess I’d been used to recording a lot of stuff from previous albums in my bedroom. And it actually helped, because I was able to try out as many ideas as I wanted to, there’s no time limits. Anytime I felt ready, I would just do it – I don’t think we had neighbors downstairs at this point, and I live with my brother, so he doesn’t care what I do.

So the vocals were done in your bedroom but everything else was in the studio?

Yeah. That was actually kind of an odd process too, because of the pandemic. My friend Mike Thomas, who I’ve pretty much recorded everything since 2009 with, he’s a friend from music school – his studio shut down at the beginning of the pandemic because of a mold issue that they didn’t know about. So they were kind of changing spaces every few months. It’s a lot of gear and a lot of heavy stuff, so they’re doing full-ass moves, and they were scattered between two or three spaces. So we were in rooms that they’d never really worked in, just seeing what was happening with limited time. That was kind of rolling the dice. But I had already demoed all the stuff anyway, so I felt like I was comfortable and I knew what I wanted, which made it easier.

When you’re demoing stuff, you’re just bashing out ideas in your bedroom too?

At the time, yes. Now I have a separate room for it.

Oh cool. Is that where you’re sitting right now?

Yeah, that’s where I’m sitting right now.

Can you pan the camera around so I can see? Obviously a written interview, it’s going to be harder [to describe], but…

It’s just a little extra room we have. I’ve got some guitars over there, a little bit of wall treatment which actually goes a long way [to dampen the sound]. You know, we get the job done. [laughs]

McKnight’s home studio setup.

When you’re making stuff at home, doing demos or recording stuff, do you use all the stuff in the room? Or do you go in with a sense of, “I’m going to use this guitar, this piece of gear, and see what I can do”?

It’s probably more of a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing. I think I’m pretty restless and impulsive when it comes to the process. But I do have a few things that are always set up. I have amps, for instance – they’re not in here right now, they’re in the practice space I rent for rehearsals – but I do a direct in-amp modeler situation, because that technology has gotten so good that it’s barely noticeable.

And I have this guy [holds up a BluGuitar Amp1 to the camera], which is a virtual amp. You just go right into the interface and you can kind of dial it in. Those are basically constant, because I’m not ever worried about noise or [thinking] “Oh, am I gonna bother someone with this?” and not record because I’m afraid of that. So I don’t really have those limitations, and because it’s set up already, it’s a good grab-and-go.

There’s a bunch of pedals that I have. I guess that’s a little bit more of an experimenting, trial-and-error kind of situation. But I always keep a few on hand that I know I’m gonna try to use, so I’ll experiment on different takes with different pedal setups. The keyboard stuff is very… I’m still pretty new at that, but it’s been pretty cool to get going, actually, because it’s a different sound, different texture, and there’s so many options, so that’s a lot of experimentation. A little bit of this, a little bit of that.

Yeah, I feel like you need both. When you’re making music, or composing – and this is sort of a similar question – do you have a structure in your head, lyrics written out? How do songs develop for you?

Sometimes I’m just messing around on guitar in the living room or something, and I’ll be like, this could be cool, and I’ll take note of it if I’m not gonna record it right then and there. And then maybe if I’ve thought of a B-section or C-section to the song, then in my head I’ll be like, I wonder what that’s gonna sound like. But a lot of the stuff, I don’t necessarily commit to until I hear it side-by-side. I like to record clips, so the clips are different parts of the song.

I use Ableton, so I have this little… I guess it’s sort of a MIDI controller, it allows me to switch between parts just by pressing a button. So I can kind of try it out, and just be like, “How does this sound after that? How does this work if it goes four times, or two times, or one time?” So I can actually hear it in real time after I’ve made it, and that definitely helps a lot. And usually, once I’ve figured that out, I start thinking about auxiliary instruments, lead instruments, and then after that I’ll write lyrics and stuff. I might have ideas in mind, but I don’t bother with the vocals until everything else is done. I don’t really know why – I guess it’s just a comfort thing.

Yeah, I feel like it’s different for everyone, which is why I’m curious. For this series, I interviewed someone else who writes in a similar way, where lyrics and vocals come last, and to me it’s really interesting because I have to write lyrics first before I do anything else. So I always think it’s really interesting when people write the other way.

Yeah. I mean, I’m sure it’s happened the other way, I just can’t think of an example. Especially for thematic stuff, I might have a broad thematic idea, but I haven’t hashed out the exact lyrics or the cadence or anything like that. So that stays pretty broad, but I’m like, “I know I want this song to be that one,” but I just haven’t done it yet. Probably a lot of that has to do with, like, I’m the most confident on guitar and bass, so that being a starting point is how it’s always been. It’s a good jumping-off point for me.

I’m curious, too – in prepping for this I was listening to your records again – and one of the things I noticed was, I really like the way you use interludes and outros and how you’ll change the mood of a song or switch genres really fast. I found that really striking. Do you plan that out, or is that something that comes together later in the process?

I think it comes together later, like when I’m hearing it, I’m like, “I don’t know why, but that works.” You know what I mean? But as far as segues and interludes and things, when the songs are done, I’ll always go through and listen to the sequencing – how I think it’s gonna be – and then make changes. I’ll ask friends and family what they think of the sequencing. That’s always been important to me, because I think I’m an album person.

I like singles, I like EPs, but there’s just something really cool about the full album, with the art and how it’s all packaged. I feel like bands like Pink Floyd, The Mars Volta, maybe less so The Beatles, and perhaps to a lesser extent Alex G, I notice that they’ll have random minute-long things that pop up and get us to the next song. And they’ll even do them live sometimes. I feel like not every band is gonna be, like, this rocking visceral experience the whole time. There’s something to be said about the band that you just stand there and zone out and watch. That’s a full experience, or just listening to the album is a full experience, like watching a good movie or a show. That’s how I’ve always looked at it.

But it’s funny, because I was just talking to somebody and I was like, “Maybe I’ll just release a string of singles for the next little bit.” I’ve never done that, you know? We’ll see.

What about that feels interesting to you?

I dunno. I’ve been writing very sporadically and been in very different moods, and kind of internally struggling with, like, is this the direction the band is gonna go in? You know, as if I have to commit to that idea. Also, every album feels like a semester, final project kind of thing that has this big idea, and it’s a little exhausting. Whereas if you just have a little something to say in a song, you know, just get it out there.

Yeah, I feel that. Whenever I release longer projects – which is all I’ve ever really done – it’s like, it’s out and then it’s like, what now? I feel like it builds pressure over time.

Yeah, I haven’t thought about what I’m gonna try or do [next]. But there’s these little things, you know, and maybe they just exist on their own and get their own attention.

Yeah! So the albums you made before Dark Matters, those were fully done at home? Like, they were mixed and mastered in studio, but recorded at home?

Mostly. The second one, I did just what you said, but there’s maybe three songs with live drums, and then everything else was just computer drums. That was kind of a personal challenge – I wanted to see how far I could take that. And then the first one, all the instruments were pretty much done at home and then touched up in the studio. And the guy that recorded it played drums on the whole thing. Maybe the vocals were done in the studio too? I can’t remember, it’s been awhile. So it’s been mostly at home.

How does it feel different recording something in-studio, versus when you’re on your own?

I think it’s mostly just time. There’s no time constraints when you’re at home – you can stay up as late as you want, you can wake up early in the morning, you don’t have to depend on anyone else. It’s all on you. That’s fun. But in the studio, you know how they say “pressure makes diamonds” or whatever? When you’re in the moment, you can’t really recreate that. You have this frame of mind and this vague idea, and you’re like, “We’re gonna make this into something.” There’s some magic to that. But at home, you have a lot more freedom. Less fancy stuff, though. Sometimes I hear the music run through the fancy stuff and I’m like, “That’s why they pay you the big bucks.” [laughs]

So I have one more question, which is: what is coming up next for you?

More touring. I’m currently trying to set some dates for that in the spring, and then in the meantime I’m gonna try that singles idea out and see how that works.

Listen to Maneka’s latest album Dark Matters on Apple Music and Spotify, and consider supporting it on Bandcamp. Follow Devin on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

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