Home Live For Live Music I Read Dante’s ‘Inferno’ To Understand Kitchen Dwellers’ New Album ‘Seven Devils’...

I Read Dante’s ‘Inferno’ To Understand Kitchen Dwellers’ New Album ‘Seven Devils’ So You Don’t Have To [Interview]

liveforlivemusic 2024 02 26T153732.426
liveforlivemusic 2024 02 26T153732.426

I: Inferno

The Italian poet Dante Alighieri‘s 14th-century epic poem The Divine Comedy—often referred to as Dante’s Inferno—begins with Dante waking in the Dark Wood of Error. He is startled to realize that he has strayed from the True Way. As the sun rises just two days before the rebirth of the Easter holiday, he sees the path he must climb up to heaven. But the path is blocked by the beasts of worldly vices. The only way for him to reach paradise is to descend into the inferno and climb through the nine circles of hell, which correspond to the Seven Deadly Sins, wade through purgatory, and finally reach heaven. The story is separated into three sections: “Inferno,” “Purgatorio,” and “Paradiso.”

Throughout the United States, there are various environmental phenomena known as the Seven Devils. In North Carolina, there is a town called Seven Devils, named by its seven founders after the seven peaks on the ridgeline of the Blue Ridge Parkway—with locals saying that “the wind blows like the devil up there in the wintertime.” In Idaho, there are the Seven Devils Mountains, said by the Nez Perce tribe to have been formed when the coyote, fox, and snake dug holes to defeat the giants that were devouring the peoples’ children. The giants fell into the holes, and their heads became the seven peaks of the mountains. Other Seven Devils come from the English settlers who took the reference from the seven demons cast out of Mary Magdalene in the Bible. Each of these can be seen as their own Dark Wood where Dante found himself.

Bozeman, MT-bred “galaxy grass” quartet Kitchen Dwellers, like everyone around the world, recently had to navigate their own Dark Wood when the COVID pandemic brought their lives as touring musicians to a halt. Luckily for them, they all lived in Montana at the time and were able to socially distance across the Rocky Mountains to the Great Plains, easing the mental trials of the pandemic by venturing into nature and writing music.

Their product of the pandemic, 2022’s Wise River, was an introspective album that pieced their four distinct perspectives together with the band’s trademark gruff confrontation of heavy-hearted topics like mental health, death, and addiction.

“A lot of people feel like they lost a few years of their life, or like you were just a stagnant being during those times,” Kitchen Dwellers banjo player/singer Torrin Daniels told Live For Live Music by phone during a recent break in touring. “So there’s all this introspective thought now happening, not just among us, but among tons of people all over the world. I feel like that if Wise River is an album of escapism, then this album is a journey of going inward.”

“This album” he’s referring to is Kitchen Dwellers’ reimagining of the Seven Devils concept, fittingly titled Seven Devils. The album takes inspiration from The Divine Comedy as well as the multitude of meanings behind the Seven Devils—including but not limited to the Seven Deadly Sins outlined in Christianity. The LP has 11 songs, seven of which correspond to one of the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. Through these trials of human morality, Kitchen Dwellers return to many of their common themes like substance abuse, broken hearts, and bitter resentments, along with added theological reflections and even a history lesson on Montana’s first governor and Irish nationalist badass Thomas Meagher.

“These songs that are on this new album are, I think, more based in human experience overall,” Torrin, one of the architects of the album’s central theme, said. “The epiphany I had while thinking about these songs was that whether you want to refer to them as sins or not, the Seven Deadly Sins, they’re all sort of rooted in human experience. Everyone can be guilty at times of envy or lust or greed in varying levels of severity, but that it’s all sort of central in the human experience, whether it’s Biblical or not, and that real true happiness and wholeness in our human experience comes from within and not from all these things that are being pitched to you in our society nowadays.”

To access this creative place of shared human experience, the members of the band looked within to find their own wholeness—or lack thereof. Bassist/singer Joe Funk adds poignant reflection to the album with “Pendulum (V)“, a song rooted in his interest in addiction replacement theory. While not an explicitly first-person account, the song makes universal the ways that our carnal impulses swing just overhead like a pendulum.

“Everybody has this baseline addictiveness level. And when you take out one thing, you have to replace it with another,” Funk said from his home, coincidentally not far from Seven Devils, NC. “Or even if you don’t intentionally do that, it happens with another thing. So if you quit doing heroin, you’re probably going to be really into yoga for a little while or something along those lines, and you have to maintain this baseline feeding, this dope fix basically.”

Kitchen Dwellers – “Pendulum (V)”

II. Purgatorio

As Kitchen Dwellers embarked on this journey of self-examination to create Seven Devils, they were connected with their guide through the circles of hell and purgatory: producer Glenn Brown. The Grammy-winning producer behind Billy Strings‘ 2019 breakthrough album Home and releases by everyone from Greensky Bluegrass to Spın̈al Tap brought his unique recording style to the malleable Kitchen Dwellers.

As a young band, Torrin said, they would seek out producers in creative circles they knew well like The Infamous Stringdusters’ Chris Pandolfi (for 2019’s Muir Made) and Leftover Salmon’s Andy Thorn (on their 2017 debut Ghost in the Bottle), always learning and adapting with each new production puppet master. “Then working with Cory Wong,” he added, “was just trying to do something completely different and trying out new things with the music and seeing what directions we could get pushed in by someone that we didn’t have as much in common with as a banjo player in a bluegrass band that we’ve all known for a long time.”

By the nature of Wise River coming together during the pandemic, Torrin, Joe, mandolinist Shawn Swain, and guitarist Max Davies did much of their work separately as they woodshedded their individual songs. They would then send phone recordings to Wong who would offer his opinions on fine-tuning the compositions. By the time they were ready to record, Kitchen Dwellers were in and out of the studio in four days. That was not the case with Glenn Brown.

“We never really have written music like this before,” Torrin recalled of Brown’s process. “Usually it’s from a very kind of one-sided thing where one guy from the band would come to the group and be like, ‘This is my new song. It’s a pretty fully formulated idea.’ Then the band kind of puts their own flavor on it, and then bam, that’s our new song. But the way we did it with this was we sat together in this room in Glenn Brown’s studio, which is kind of a small space, so we’re kind of crammed in there. We’re all on top of each other and just sat and really fleshed out these ideas, often in pretty painstaking ways.”

Going into the recording for Seven Devils, the band members brought in song sketches that in many cases were about halfway finished. Some songs were made up of multiple fragments. Others still had quite a bit of fleshing out to do. Now with this new creative approach, the band members were put into both a creative and physical space where the process of creation was no longer solely on their timetable.

“I have a hard time, especially with writing, just being creative on the spot and trying to conjure something,” Funk confessed. “Almost like things either have to just come to me or I have to really get into that flow state, and I had a hard time doing that sitting inside in a studio. So that was a bit of a challenge for me.”

Torrin agreed that the process itself felt a bit at times like purgatory. Other times it was borderline contentious, having somebody take your idea that you came up with in a new direction that you hadn’t planned on or perhaps hadn’t desired.

“It’s hard not to become attached to certain parts of the art,” Torrin said, “but then if you’re able to step back, you realize that you were looking at the painting that you made, but you were way too close to it, so you only saw part of it. So when you’re able to step back and bounce ideas off of people and you reach that flow state is when I think it’s possible to create some of your best work.”

It was through this communal creative process that the central theme behind Seven Devils began to materialize. Many of the songs were already put together in some form or another going into the recording studio, so the overarching concept of the Seven Deadly Sins and the allusions to The Divine Comedy formed around the songs, not the other way around. Through their three previous albums, Kitchen Dwellers have continued to hone their abilities to transform our deepest, darkest impulses into shout-along anthems like “Drowning (…Again)”, “Covered Bridges”, and “Sundown”. With Seven Devils, the band went to the root cause of these instincts and connected them to philosophies that have existed throughout centuries and across cultures.

“There’s people who have questioned, ‘Are you guys Satanists?’” Funk recalled. “We feel like we don’t want to be offending people because we’re not trying to put any specific message out. This is just a story that happened to work itself into this album in some way. I feel like we need to make it almost a disclaimer that’s like, no, this is not overtly Christian or Paganist or Satanist or whatever you think it might be. This is just a story as it is.”

The album opens with one of its strongest songs, the titular “Seven Devils (Limbo)”, which represents purgatory. Just like in The Divine Comedy, the story begins in the Dark Wood as Torrin howls “So am I supposed to hop the next train / Or stand here drowning in the Oregon rain?!” The album sequencing then travels through the Seven Deadly Sins like the nine circles of hell. There’s Shawn’s breakup song “The Crow and the Raven (III)” featuring Lindsay Lou representing lust, which the band turned into a cinematic short film. Joe’s previously mentioned “Pendulum (V)” confronts gluttonous impulses while a pair of rock songs (“Cabin Pressure (IV)” and “Here We Go (VI)”, with drums and all, represent envy and wrath respectively.

“Most art is [comparable] to going to therapy or something like that,” Torrin observed, “where if someone is angry and they’re putting this energy out there … if you sit with it long enough … you’re like, ‘Where is this shit coming from?’ … With songwriting, it’s much easier to write about terrible things or horrifying experiences or something that you’ve done wrong or that you feel terrible about. It’s much easier to write about those than it is to write about happiness and convey that type of joy and stuff in song without it sounding cheesy.”

Kitchen Dwellers – “The Crow And The Raven (III)” [Official Video]

Another album standout is “Waterford Son (II)”, which tells the story of Thomas Meagher and could be adapted into a Martin Scorsese Killers of the Flower Moon-style epic. The band uses the biographical tale as an allegory for greed, tracing Meagher’s story as a scrappy seditious Irish nationalist (he is credited with introducing Ireland’s tricolor flag) through his exile to Australia, and eventual escape to the United States. His legend grew as he became a journalist and lecturer on Irish causes, eventually leading the Irish Brigade in the Union Army during the Civil War where he was distinguished for valor. After the war, he became the governor of the new Territory of Montana, but his story came to an end on July 1st, 1867 when he drowned in the Missouri River under circumstances that have remained a mystery for over 150 years.

“I think part of us being a band from the West and all having roots in the West is kind of a rare thing as far as bands go,” Torrin said of Max’s decision to write the historical ballad. “I think in this country, there’s just more people back east, and we have a very rare perspective of one of us in the band being from rural ranch, Wyoming life, one of us in the band being from Telluride, which Shawn might be the only guy I know that is actually born and raised in Telluride, and then Joe is from Alaska. So having those three perspectives in the band all at the same time really can make our tastes and our viewpoint overtly Western in nature.”

Kitchen Dwellers – “Waterford Son (II)”

Kitchen Dwellers complete their journey through the Seven Deadly Sins with “Wind Bitten (VII)”, which represents sloth (“We might lie forever to sleep under stone / In a cold pile of rocks down a wind bitten road”). For the final song of the album we arrive at “Unwind (Paradiso)”, heaven. The spacey instrumental intro is celestial like the opening of the pearly gates and the song sports the hook “Draw the line, buy the ticket take the ride”—a reference to the late Hunter S. Thompson, a man who certainly understood a thing or two about wading through the depths of human depravity. “Unwind” is bookended with Torrin’s heavily filtered vocals, distorted so that he sounds like the voice of the Almighty himself as he finally welcomes you to paradise.

III. Paradiso

Torrin and Joe both grew up with very different religious backgrounds. Joe Funk was born and raised in Juneau, AK which, though not technically an island, is surrounded by ice fields and is only accessible by ferry or plane. While the result was a somewhat isolating experience, bluegrass made it to Juneua by way of the Southeast Alaska Folk Festival, which filled every hotel lobby, public park, and bar in the city with impromptu jams, exposing him to string band music at an early age. His parents brought him up in an anti-religious household—he hadn’t even heard of the “Seven Deadly Sins” until Seven Devils came together. An engineering major at Montana State, where the band met, his worldview was shaped by the physical realm which he could see, feel, and measure. With age, however, he’s beginning to open up to all of the possibilities of existence.

“I would definitely say I’m spirituality curious at this point in my life,” Funk said. “I grew up like, very science-based material world. And I think the older I get, the less I am totally convinced of everything that I’ve learned as a kid.”

That curiosity recently led Funk to crack open the Bible for the first time in his life. After a show, the bassist noticed the ubiquitous Bible in the nightstand at his hotel, “And I was like, ‘You know what? I’ve never read this thing.’ And so I just opened it up and started reading it somewhere in the middle.” You know, exactly what we all think musicians do at the hotel after the show. Between the Bible, the Thomas Meagher history lesson, and the overarching allusions to The Divine Comedy, Torrin acknowledged, “We’re just a bunch of f–ing nerds, man.”

Torrin Daniels’ spiritual philosophy was similarly shaped by the physical world. Growing up on a ranch in rural Wyoming, his family’s Christian faith was informed by nature, the way they were provided with everything they needed to grow their own food and live off the land given to them by their Creator. Daniels compared the belief system as being closer to Paganism than Christianity, “I think it’s a much more natural way of viewing God because then I feel like humans get too involved in religion and have a tendency to f— it up.”

“I think that I’m still sort of finding what, I guess, makes me tick or what serves me,” Torrin said of his current spiritual status, “but definitely I’m not going to church or listening to anyone else’s sermon. I’m sort of much more concerned with finding my own way.”

He added of Joe’s decision to read the Bible for the first time, “Part of it is just we live in the age of information and we’re hit with so much of it all the time in a digital format that sometimes it is refreshing to take a look at the old ways and think of how people were living thousands of years ago and why the things that they wrote down are still with us and they’re still being talked about in these ways and celebrated or condemned, whichever way you want to put it.”

So what is the spiritual resolution to Kitchen Dwellers’ Seven Devils? At the end of The Divine Comedy, in “Paradiso,” Dante climbs through the nine celestial spheres of heaven which correspond to the nine virtues of a pious life. As he beholds paradise, the poet acknowledges that the vision of heaven he sees is only what his human eyes can comprehend. In much the same way, we all are subject to the morality of our times and our human experiences. Dante Alighieri was an Italian poet, philosopher, and (don’t forget) politician who lived from 1265 to 1321 and projected a fundamentally Christian worldview. He didn’t even know the Earth revolved around the sun, let alone anything about the moral challenges of a technologically advanced civilization.

“I guess the positive parallel that I drew from was recognizing these things in our society,” Torrin said of his conclusions from Seven Devils, “that everyone from Apple to Facebook to our own government, they’re all trying to sell you something outside yourself, and that is supposed to make you happy or whole or fulfilled in one way or another. Really the only way that we can do that is through ourselves.”

The members of Kitchen Dwellers may not be overtly religious, and neither might you. But there was something we all experienced in 2020 and 2021 when we strayed into the Dark Wood of the pandemic. Now that we’ve stepped back out into the light of a somewhat “normal” world, or at least something resembling it, there is a search for answers. Those could come from religion, from music, an Italian poet of the 13th century, or from inside yourself. The reason that Dante’s The Divine Comedy continues to inspire people and artists some 700 years after it was written is because the questions that it poses still don’t have answers. We are all still looking for meaning.

“I think where initially this literature and these ideas come from is from a place of shame for human beings, the whole confess your sins thing of Christianity,” Torrin said. “That all comes from a place of shame and fear and judgment, which is a really good way to control people and get them to do what you want, but it’s not necessarily doing anything for anybody. I think that allowing ourselves to recognize things in our lives and these patterns and choices and activities, being able to recognize that and come from a place of not shame or judgment or fear, but of empathy and understanding and just being aware of it and knowing that it’s all human experience and that we’re all guilty of these things at one point or another, is the only way that we can really build ourselves a brighter future and a greater human experience.”

Kitchen Dwellers’ new album Seven Devils is now via No Coincidence Records. Stream it below or on your preferred platform and order CD/vinyl copies through the band’s store. For tickets and a full list of tour dates visit Kitchen Dwellers’ website.

Kitchen Dwellers – Seven Devils

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