Finding Yourself at Last: An Interview with the Drums
The Drums' frontman Johnny Pierce is thrilled about taking the sound of the Drums in a more pop-oriented direction as it soon transpires that he had been feeling a little artistically suffocated by what group had become.
5 April 2019
The Drums' frontman Johnny Pierce always seems to be heading somewhere unexpected. Seemingly out of nowhere, the band's mix of jangly 1980s indie guitar, lo-fi drum machines, and sparkling melodies all coated in washes of reverb set them on a wild course as one of the most heavily lauded new bands at the turn of the decade. However, they quickly found that there is no readily mapped out route when you have to navigate the maze that is being in a "buzz" band. En route they would lose members, becoming a duo by the time of 2014's bittersweet Encyclopedia album. Eventually, only Pierce would last the course, taking to the road alone on the Drums' 2017 album Abysmal Thoughts.
So as we chat on what he describes as an "idyllic New York day", it seems fitting that Pierce decides to talk to me on the phone while walking around Manhattan. Though the walk itself may be aimless, it soon becomes clear that Pierce has, artistically and personally, found a greater sense of direction. In fact, it appears that, in many respects, he has returned himself all the way back to the start to plot a whole new course on the brilliant, more pop-oriented new album Brutalism.
Naturally, after over a decade of the Drums, Pierce is well practiced in talking to the press, but his responses never feel rehearsed or superficial. Each question is met with a thoughtful and considered answer. What's more, Pierce sounds as energized and engaged as I've ever heard him before, which is partly due to him being acutely aware of the significance of releasing a fifth album. "A lot of bands don't make it to a fifth album and if they do, often it's shit. It feels good, at least for myself, that I have another album to offer the world has some meaning to and some relevance. It's offering something fresh and exciting."
The other reason for his positive outlook becomes more and more obvious as the interview progresses. There is a palpable sense of freedom and relief whenever Pierce discusses any aspect of new album Brutalism. Moreover, he is evidently thrilled about taking the sound of the Drums in a more pop-oriented direction as it soon transpires that he had been feeling a little artistically suffocated by what the Drums had become.
"The beginning of my career in the Drums was very much, I guarded the sound of the band. I was really concerned about protecting the sound and protecting the process. I think for the first three albums we didn't bring a single piece of new gear. We were using banged up instruments and kind of half working reverb machines and I think there's a charm and a beauty to all of that but also I was so afraid of changing anything. Afraid that if we collaborated with someone or if we, god forbid, tuned our guitars before we recorded that things would just fall apart. I felt the identity of the band was just so fragile. It needed protecting and maybe there was some truth to that at the time."
Being in a band that has an instantly identifiable sound, can often prove to be something of a double-edged sword and Pierce is keenly aware of what the advantages and limitations of that were with the Drums. "It's a beautiful thing to cultivate a specific sound or a specific voice but the point that that gets excessive to the point where you're not open to anything new you start walking towards an artistic graveyard. Things start winding down. If you don't remain open and curious what is the point of our lives. That was a big eureka moment for me." With that mindset, there was no way Pierce could repeat the writing and recording process of the last the Drums album.
"Writing Abysmal Thoughts and doing the whole thing on my own, lyrics vocals, backing vocals, arrangements, sitting in on all the mixing and all of the mastering sessions. Taking that all on myself, I knew I couldn't do that again. Doing that again would just be holding myself back and putting just so much unneeded pressure on myself." As a result, Pierce knew he needed to let other people in to help with the writing and recording. A decision that felt hugely significant in the context of his career with the band. "This thing that scared me for ten years, I finally confronted it. This idea of bringing people in and asking what they think about a certain sound." This was, in part, due to the total belief in the artistic direction he was steering the band in.
"You know, with this new record in a way, I'm checking off a box of something I've always wanted to do which is making a pop record through and through. Up until this album, everything that I've put out has been technically pop but they still have that fragile, indie sound to them and I just really wanted this album to be a bit more direct and in your face and I wanted this album to carry a message you know. I had things to say on this record and I just wanted to have a very clear platform that's more digestible."
Before I can ask the next question, Pierce, clearly picking up on my English accent, goes off on a little tangent, detailing the British electronic acts like Massive Attack, Add N to (X), and Aphex Twin that were such a crucial influence on him during his formative years. And then a thought in Johnny seems to form as if dots are suddenly being connected as he speaks. "Actually, I'll tell you this. We started the Drums and the first song we ever wrote was "Best Friend" and there's a fully electronic version of that because that's all I had ever done. So something wasn't sitting well with me and I see this guitar sitting in the corner of the room, and I thought, 'what if I tried to remake the song but only using a guitar?' I'd never played the guitar before, literally never so I just picked it up and started messing around with it. It hadn't been played in a really long time."
Without realizing it, that fluke encounter with an out of tune guitar would set him and the rest of the band on a wholly unexpected and unplanned musical journey. "That version of the song is the one that we released on Island Records a year later. So it was like, this band technically started as this electronic band but because I re-recorded "Best Friend" with this broken out of tune guitar that's what people attached themselves too. That's what people got excited about." From that point, Pierce had unwittingly forged the future sound of the band. "And so it was like a runaway train where we kept making songs with that damn guitar and this new sound that I had never explored or never really cared about suddenly became my identity. I remember a moment when Jacob looked at me, it may have been a year or two into the Drums touring and putting out records, and said: 'If I wasn't in this band, I would never listen to it.' I've never really talked about it this way. I'm having a eureka moment right now."
Naturally, the mention of Jacob Graham, for three albums his closest musical partner, raises the question of whether Graham has heard the new album yet. From the response, it's safe to say that their personal and musical relationship can best be described as "complicated". "You know, I think Jacob and me, we had our time together and we had beautiful chapters of our life that we shared together and then there are moments I wish I could forget and moments in between. I feel like I've met my quota. I think if I saw Jacob walking in the street, I'd give him a big hug and I'd probably feel a cornucopia of emotion. This is what happens in life. Some things are meant to be forever and some things just aren't. I think he's doing well and that makes me happy."
There is a sense of catharsis in Pierce's responses now. It's if he has finally found a way to successfully articulate his frustrations and, in doing so, has gained some perspective on the reasons why the pair frequently clashed on the direction of the band. Part of this he puts down to their very different upbringing. "I mean I grew up as a realist. I was homeschooled, went to Bible camp. I've had enough loony tunes for a lifetime. I don't wanna be singing about things that are whimsical and made up, I want to be talking about how I'm feeling and expressing how I'm feeling." In Pierce's opinion, this never sat well with what Graham wanted for the band. "I think it was hard for him to connect with his feelings, very least express them and I've always wanted to talk about how I'm feeling. If I'm not talking about what's going on in my life, what am I even doing." Before adding, "I'm not interested in writing a song about a train station in Kentucky!"
It has evidently taken Pierce a long time to figure this out. Even on Abysmal Thoughts, the first album written solely by Pierce, Graham's presence was keenly felt. "Despite the fact Jacob was not around, there were times that I would alter what I was doing because I knew that he would ultimately hear the record and I still, in some way wanted to make him proud." However, with Brutalism, Pierce patently feels a great sense of personal and musical liberation. "The focus is on what I want to do. That's why this album was pretty easy to make because all of this stuff has been boiling up inside me for years and I'm finally at a place where I don't have to ask anyone, I can just go for it. I wanna make myself vulnerable and I'm finally able to do that and this is evidence of me moving away from feeling influenced by Jacob."
That could easily be all Pierce has to say on the matter but he clearly has a need to get things off his chest. After a brief pause, Pierce opens up further. "Look, I've finally freed myself. Again, he didn't do too much of the writing, but I felt a bit controlled by him in a way." Pierce uses the example of the song "Instruct Me" from the band's 2009 Summertime! EP to illustrate exactly what he means. "It was about the first time I ever had sex. That's something that's sentimental, it's intimate but there's also something innocent about a song like that. It wasn't dirty, it was very poetic but he still felt it was an adult theme in his mind and he wanted to keep the band as whimsical as possible."
Lyrically, this has meant he can get a little more personal on Brutalism. For example, on "Nervous" he felt free enough to write about his recent divorce. The way he describes it, it's obvious that he is hugely relieved to write without having to second guess himself. "I have felt that I haven't said enough sometimes. The real joy is when I can say what I'm feeling and not holding back. I'm happy to be the one who says too much. I'd rather be the one who says too much rather than not say anything at all. I hope that I have the courage to express even more."
I ask whether he agrees that this is because he is better equipped to deal with things nowadays."Yeah, I do, I really do. I was so emotionally handicapped until I was about 30 years old. I was getting so depressed because I didn't have an outlet to understand myself. I've taken some pretty big steps to try and change that. I've been to therapy a bit and changed the amount that I party. Really taking action to make things better for myself. A big part of that is just slowing down and being still with your thoughts and with your heart. I used to romanticize pain. I used to romanticize sadness, and I still do in my writing a bit but in my real life I wanna figure it out because I don't want to go through life feeling depressed every day. I don't mind being sad sometimes, I think that's important. I just don't want to feel an ocean of weight on me every time my eyes are open." He pauses before adding, "It feels like I'm a much better place to try and deal with that kind of stuff and I'm just really glad that I have a vehicle like music to put it all down."
Safe in the knowledge that Pierce, is in a very positive place, my more pressing concern is for his physical well being after talking to me on the phone for the last 40 minutes whilst wandering around the busy streets of New York. He laughs, before adding. "I've walked through a film set, been honked at, walked under scaffolding, it's all happening!" For Pierce, you get the impression that it is, indeed, all happening, and in some ways, it's all happening for the first time.