Last month, Danny Kiranos had enough of being stuck at home. The lack of movement during the pandemic over the last year was weighing on the singer-songwriter, who performs under the moniker Amigo the Devil.
“I got cabin fever so I packed a bag, put some stuff in the car and I’ve literally been driving,” Kiranos says. “I started going north, I didn’t have much of a plan.”
He headed out from his home base in Austin, Texas, drove through Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, making a pit stop at Yellowstone along the way. Things got a little too chilly, so he came down to Florida where he was raised and picked up a friend to join the ride. He was still on the road a week before his new album Born Against was set be released.
Like his American travels of late, a sense of exploration and curiosity runs through Amigo the Devil’s singular music. He’s written from the point of view of serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer and Ed Kemper, merged menacing heavy metal undertow with brooding folk music on his previous album Everything Is Fine, and probed other pitch-black recesses of humanity with songs about suicide and depression, always managing to crack a smile in the most unlikely places.
Born Against finds Kiranos pushing himself lyrically and vocally, but quieting down his musical attack to let his stories land with full force. Kiranos recorded the project with Beau Bedford at Modern Electric in Dallas, experimenting with strange sounds that call to mind the Rain Dogs era of Tom Waits. He also tried to capture some of the gut-level force of the music loved by his Greek father and Spanish mother, citing Chavela Vargas’ ranchera “Paloma Negra” as an example of what he wanted to do — “no holding back, no concerns about sounding silly or dumb.”
Kiranos’s stories this time are less self-lacerating, but still willing to go to places few others dare. “Quiet As a Rat” examines moral decay and loneliness through a series of haunting vignettes, while album closer “Letter From Death Row” turns a sympathetic eye on a doomed prisoner. “You’re the closest thing to heaven I’ll ever see,” he sings. “24K Casket” is a lively bluegrass romp, a surprisingly upbeat moment near the album’s end, and “Murder at the Bingo Hall” manages to live up to its bonkers title by combining lurid detail with escalating tension.
“I like watching. I like looking. I like observing things,” he says. “That makes me sound like a creep, like I’m just watching people! People watching, social watching — it’s interesting.”
The last time we talked, you were in the finishing stages for Born Against and you mentioned the influences of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and Fiona Apple. What drew you to those artists in particular?
Besides being phenomenal storytellers, the musicality and the structure of the songs and their ability to build this incredible foundation… None of the songs are really that involved, but they all sound complete and they all sound full. It really is only three instruments, two instruments sometimes, and it’s this incredible playing with space and silence and the lack of noise that makes it sounds so full. On the music aspect, [that is] something we really tried to focus on. And then lyrically the three of them are just out-of-this-world poets.
The sound aspect of it, did it involve paring down or pulling back from what you had done before?
It was a lot of that except it sounds a lot more full than the other records. We would record the whole song and then we would listen to it and be like, ”You know what, these three are the only things that really have to be in there.” Everything else is extra. Get rid of the extra. Trim the fat. “Quiet As a Rat” is one of my favorite examples of that. [It] is literally only tuba, electric guitar, and percussion. And there’s a little trumpet frill for the hook. That’s straight out of the Waits playbook.
I definitely hear the Waits on that one. “Quiet As a Rat” also contains the title phrase, “Born against.” Where did that idea come from?
I was thinking a lot about the concept of whether we are instinctually faith-driven or socially faith-driven. I’m not necessarily suggesting “Born Against” entirely in perpetuity. For me it’s more the question of are we born a blank slate and then we find faith or are taught faith, or is it we are born with some sort of faith and then we lose it or rediscover it along the way? It doesn’t necessarily just have to be the faith — that applies to addiction, to any other human emotion that we want to find or strip ourselves of. Then [it] dove into this wormhole of, how do I feel about faith itself, because I’ve never really talked about that. For the most part I am a big, big, big fan for anyone to believe anything they want and need, any faith they want to have that makes them the best version of themselves that they can be, as long as it doesn’t harm other people. Once you start using your faith as an excuse to fuck with other people’s lives, that’s when it becomes an issue.
Did you grow up in a church environment?
My mom tried. She thought it was what she was supposed to do. We went to church on Sundays. My mom tried to take us to church and that’s what her family did before her, the whole Latin thing, that’s how she thought the world should be. I remember one day asking her, “Why do we go to church?” She was like, “I have no idea.” And we just stopped going [laughs]. It’s not necessarily a religious upbringing. It was a very mild upbringing, but I was always obsessed with the stories and the imagery. I love the imagery. It’s so brutal! It’s nuts!
The Bible is really filled with violence, whatever you may believe.
If Stephen King had written the Bible, people would be like, “Nah, that’s too much. You went overboard. We can’t allow this to be out in public.” But because it was written so long ago and people latched onto it, they’re like, “This is chill, we’re good.” Not only that, but let’s hang the image of this brutal torturous situation, this crucifixion, everywhere. Let’s live our lives based on a torture instrument. I’m like, “Whoa!”
It seems like there’s more inhabiting other characters here compared to Everything Is Fine. What prompted that shift, and what kind of challenges did it present for you?
If we were to go back to the first collection before Everything Is Fine, that was all written in someone else’s shoes. I was just telling stories imagining what it would be like to be someone else. Everything Is Fine was a huge shift from that perspective into “This is me, all of this is my emotion, my experience, my issues — my broken-ass, depressed brain coming out to everybody right now.” I realized that that was too much for me.
Too much to put yourself through or to put out there in the world?
To put myself through and to continue to live in it. A lot of those songs, when I play them live, they ruin me because they make me feel like shit. When I went into this record to write it, I was like, there has to be a middle ground. There has to be a way to still infuse my emotions and my feelings and my reactions to things without destroying myself. I kind of did the other person’s shoes situation but [instead] how would I react to that situation, as opposed to imagining how they would react.
In “Murder at the Bingo Hall,” you set the scene with the opening line, “It was a quiet night at the gaming hall/I doubled on cocaine and Adderall.” Where do you get the idea for something unfolds into such cinematic violence?
Probably from remembering how it felt like my heart was gonna explode the last time I tried that [laughs]. Those were different days. I dunno, I do love bingo and I used to play a lot, years ago. I remember the strange dullness of the room. It’s a very dull environment. It’s not ever as enthusiastic as it should be, until someone else wins and then everyone else hates them, so it’s exciting for one person at a time. I really wanted that duality of the internal excitement like, what’s the most extreme version of being anxious — uppers, essentially — in such a dull setting?
The one song I can kind of pick out that seems like it’s coming from your own perspective is “Another Man’s Grave.” You even say, “Goddamn the man who says that everything’s gonna be fine,” like you’re referring to an earlier version of yourself.
You’re right about that one. It was a very, very personal song that I just wanted to write. I wanted it to exist. There is one other song that is directly just personally written, no ulterior motives or storylines, and it also has a reference in it to the last record. And that’s “Different Anymore.”
Was there anything on this album in terms of storytelling that was difficult to fully realize?
There are two songs back to back, there’s “Drop for Every Hour” and “Better Ways to Fry a Fish” follows that song. “Better Ways to Fry a Fish” is a song that I’ve been trying to write for maybe four years now and it didn’t end up being that song. I mess with the serial killer concept every once in a while and [murderer/cannibal] Albert Fish has always been a very interesting story — very brutal story, very sad story. I’ve always wanted to write a song from that perspective. My only hassle is that I never wanted to write about people who hunted kids. I didn’t want that to come across differently. For the last four years I’ve had that concept and I couldn’t find the angle. Finally I was like, oh shit, what if instead of Albert Fish getting arrested the father of Grace Budd kidnaps him and gets his revenge instead? So “Drop for Every Hour” ended up breaking off from “Better Ways to Fry a Fish,” then “Better Ways to Fry a Fish” became the original concept. It’s like, here’s the song of my emotions and then the afterthought of, here’s what I did.
“Drop for Every Hour” is the one track on this album that really makes me squirm. It’s super unsettling.
[laughs] Then we succeeded.