I'll Fight for Your Life: An Interview with the Drums
He seemed to lose a band member with each passing album, and then a big breakup made him rethink things. Jonny Pierce turned all of that into an album some are calling The Drums' best.
Jonny Pierce can't stop talking.
When PopMatters reaches him by phone, he's lying on his bed in Manhattan, and he's been doing press all morning. You would think he would be listless about this whole interview thing by now, but he's not. He's excited about the new turn his band, The Drums, have taken.
"I've just been hearing from different journalists over and over and over, 'This really feels like a debut ... and you're finally letting us in' and it's exactly what I wanted to do," Pierce tells us. An album titled Abysmal Thoughts doesn't instantly hit like a work of art that revives and brings life to its creator, but that's exactly what happened: "I feel like my feet are more on the ground than they ever have, and I really think it has a lot to do with writing this album." Pierce is feeling his new album and the relief it has brought him mentally, but the journey to get there wasn't as sweet.
The Drums hit the media hard and fast in 2009. The EP Summertime! got music writers all perked up with the band's fresh mix of beachy melodies and New Order tones. They were the most Shazamed band of 2009, Pitchfork called them "The Best Hope for 2010", and they had members of The Smiths showing up at their concerts. The Drums were huge, but Pierce wasn't enjoying it: "I think about the first album and all that buzz. I was on the cover of all these magazines and it was really a giant buzz around the world for the Drums and I was miserable."
The songs on the debut and the following two albums are great, but Pierce's writing style has changed dramatically since then: "I wasn't singing about anything really. It was whimsical, beachy, escapist songs. I mean there were some personal subtlety in there and there was some autobiographical stuff, but for the most part, it was really generalized."
This change was brought on by two precipitating factors, one a bummer, and the other just straight up depressing.
First off, The Drums have devolved into a solo act, after starting as a full-fledged four-piece with the self-titled debut: "With every album, I seem to have lost an official band member. We started as a four-piece with the debut album. By the time we released Portamento, we were down to three. Conner left just before we started Encyclopedia, and then Jacob, just after we finished recording Encyclopedia, told me that he was ready to do other things in his life ..."
Losing Jacob Graham was quite the blow for Pierce. They had been friends since they were small children, and they were the founding members of The Drums. This loss eventually brought Pierce to a revelation about himself though: "I knew that I could record this album on my own. Well, there's no one here anymore. It's just me, so I might as just well say it. I came out of the closet years ago, and I'm sort of coming out of a different closet now as a songwriter."
So, it's a good thing. Being on his own allowed him to write something more authentic to himself, something closer to his heart. "When you have other members in a band you feel some sort of pressure to also represent their feelings," he notes, "so I was sort of writing for a group instead of writing from my heart. So, that's a big difference on this album. And I think it makes the album all the more potent and relevant." So, losing members turned out to be a blessing, but the other inspiration for the album was quite a bit darker.
Pierce lost a love. Not just any love, but the first person he had really let in: "I hadn't ever felt the feeling of having a family or being close with someone and so it finally happened and I thought, 'Oh my god this is wonderful,' and it just didn't last." They tried moving to Los Angeles to put a Band-Aid on the problems, but the relationship problems just followed them there, and before long, Pierce was alone: "We ended up just breaking up, and I'm sitting in the middle of this big apartment in L.A. and I'm feeling crazier than I ever have. I think there were times when I almost went out of my mind. I don't mean that to sound funny or weird. I genuinely couldn't think straight." He was hitting a bottom he had not seen before.
After some time in this mental abyss, the dark times eventually illuminated his past for him: "OK Jonny, you're in your thirties now. Shit keeps hitting the fan, so maybe there's a reason that you're sitting in this giant apartment in L.A. by yourself feeling really dark. Maybe you really need some help. Maybe I'm the problem. Maybe I need to get some help."
He did get some help, but it turned out to be from within himself. He began to write more songs focused on his personal life, and it felt good: "I didn't have a lot of answers, but I had a lot of questions and I had a lot of frustrations and a lot of self-exploring to do, so every track ended up being more of a therapy session." His wounds are exposed on Abysmal Thoughts. Nothing is hidden from the listener. Some songs are quite direct. "Blood Under My Belt" is Pierce taking the blame for past mistakes and expressing his regret for losing someone. Later, "Head of The Horse" is a painful account of returning home and not being accepted for who you are.
At one point in our talk, when we were discussing Jonny's love of dance music, he said something elegant about his own tunes. He quipped: "I write pop songs ... they're short and they're sweet and they're gone." It almost sounds like a dig on himself at first, like that "gone" represents that his songs don't have a lasting impact. Well, they do have an impact -- at least the ones on the new record. He could tell you that himself: "Once you start talking about the inner workings of your heart, it gets addicting. I don't think I could write a song about surfing again. I don't see what the point would be for me." He has come back from an abysmal place, and he has himself and his songs to thank.