Keyboard’s Unpopular Pop

Morgan Troper

Santa Fe-based songwriter Noah Devore, who’s been performing under the moniker Keyboard for over a decade, might be the only person to have secured a record deal by winning a pepper-eating contest.

“Mike Park from Asian Man Records bet me I couldn’t eat everyone’s red and green chilis leftover on their plates after a bunch of people got breakfast together, and I won the bet,” recalls Devore. “And so [Mike Park] was like, ‘I guess this means I’m going to have to put out your album,’ and everybody was sad.”

Released in 2006, Keyboard’s self-titled record remains the project’s only “official” release. Outside of Devore’s immediate friend group, the album was met without fanfare. In fact, Devore suggests that I may have been the only person to have ordered the CD off the Asian Man website. “If you can get in touch with Mike Park, he’ll probably sell you (the remaining) two million copies of that CD,” he says.

My first exposure to Keyboard was at the end of 2008, at a “Vegan Thanksgiving”-themed house show in Portland. This was an era before anyone really seemed to consider stylistic consistency at DIY shows—weirdos simply played with other weirdos. Still, Keyboard contrasted with the other, predominantly heavier bands on the bill (Keyboard was on tour supporting emo legends Kidcrash, who were also based in Santa Fe at the time). Armed with merely a cheap Casio keyboard, Devore finally took the stage in the wee hours of the morning, blasting through a set of bizarre yet pitch perfect pop. The spellbound—and slightly bemused—expressions on audience members’ faces are permanently emblazoned on my memory.

But the inherent novelty of Devore’s stage act is only the proverbial icing on the cake. Keyboard arrived on my parents’ doorstep when I was a pop-obsessed 17-year-old, still in the process of fortifying my tastes and figuring out what it was I loved about music. I’m self-conscious telling Devore that his tiny, homespun debut was a musical game changer for me, because he clearly hates his old material (and it sounds like he might also hate himself). “God that album is terrible, but I guess someone has to love it,” he says.

Keyboard’s lack of popularity is frustrating but understandable—Devore is working with an unpalatable recipe. The songs on Keyboard consist mainly of Devore’s dry vocals and toy keyboard presets. This is defiant lo-fi, à la Guided by Voices or R. Stevie Moore: sterling pop songs deliberately marred by questionable instrumentation and production, like if Dali painted little dicks all over The Persistence of Memory.

Devore’s penchant for melody is also offset by his challenging and sometime unflinchingly personal lyrics. “The End” is initially joyous—a little bird lands on Devore’s window, and the two engage in an imagined conversation (“Hello Mr. Bird! How did you find my window?”). It sounds like something straight out of a Disney movie. But these G-rated themes are sneakily interspersed with darker allusions to suicide: “I didn’t mean to die / I didn’t mean to make her cry / But in the coffin where I lie, I didn’t have much choice.” It’s every depressed narcissist’s closet fantasy—how will the people you love react if you off yourself?

“Morning” toys with themes of chemical dependence and general debauchery—“Sentimental when you’re drunk / Sad when you’re not / Jubilant when you’re stealing things / Less so when you get caught / Dumb when I’m high / And I’m high all of the time / They don’t take me serious / ‘Cause all of my songs rhyme.”

While most songs on Keyboard are total downers, the best track on the record is the most positive. “The Most Important Part” is a true-blue love song—its syrupy pithiness is on par with The Zombies’ “This Will Be Our Year.” “You’re inquisitive / And you’ve got a good heart / And you’re intelligent / That’s the most important part,” Devore sings in the song’s refrain. It’s what everyone wants told to them by their lover, and coming from Devore it can’t possibly be insincere.

Devore revels in his ability to marry misanthropic sentiment to ostensibly “poppy” song-craft. And even though he’s stepped away from the traditional pop songwriting that characterized his first record—Keyboard’s newer material owes a lot more to hiphop and contemporary R&B—his approach to writing lyrics hasn’t changed much, if at all. “Honesty in writing is something I’m big on,” he tells me. “That’s something that years ago I would get into arguments about—I remember seeing someone play a show, and all of their songs were just so filled with metaphors and similes, and I was like, ‘I don’t think they actually want to fly like a bird.’ I don’t ever want to write music like that, and I think we all do a little bit, but I’m more interested in singing things that you would actually say, or singing like how you talk.”

Devore is merely the latest in a long line of bedroom pop stars who probably won’t ever receive the accolades they deserve. After all, we live in a post-pop world. Millionaire producers have an impenetrable, monopolistic chokehold on the airwaves—but Keyboard’s “underground” appeal feels equally limited. Devore’s music occupies a unique blindspot; it’s unpopular pop.

Yet Devore’s close network of friends and fans are quick to acknowledge his off-kilter gifts—and that’s probably more valuable than large-scale recognition, anyway. “He’s the weirdest, most lovable, most brilliant-ass sociopath I know,” John Gee of Kidcrash tells me. “I would take a bullet for the kid, even though he most likely invited the shot.”

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