Interview The Drums: ‘Music Saved My Life’

Frontman Jonathan Pierce talks suicide, religion and the good old English weather.

Darlings of 2010, it’s now one year later and The Drums are back. Which is no mean feat for a band that hasn’t really been away. From somewhere which could all so easily have been beyond the grave (but which actually sounds a bit like a bed in a New York apartment), front man Jonathan Pierce talks suicide, religion and the good old English weather ahead of the release of their second album.

When you released your EP, and subsequently your first album, you were really hyped up by the media and given the tag of ‘the next big thing’. How did that affect you as a band, do you feel like you’ve become that?
I don’t know if we’ve become the next big thing, I think that’s something more like Lady Gaga. Which is unfortunate – she’s someone that is just not interesting at all to me. I can’t relate to anything that she’s doing, or has done, or probably will do. But I guess that’s beside the point. When all that hype started it was really surreal for us - for anyone to be in the position that we were in. It doesn’t come as just a big bucket of fun; there are some really negative things that can happen to a band. And certainly in our case it brought a lot of friction. When we started this band we thought that we’d maybe play a few shows around New York City, keep our day jobs and live somewhat normal lives. Things went the other way. It was a really big thing that happened - I don’t know of another band that was as hyped as we were, at least in the last five years. I’d been signed to a label with a band under a variety of different names before The Drums, and that was a bad experience. There was a lot of hype around that band and I learned not to get excited or to let other people get excited, but actually to be very realistic and keep the mindset that nothing lasts forever. Things do go away and the next year there’ll be another hot band. You have to keep that in mind and I think that’s how you survive.

We’re now into ‘difficult second album territory’, but it’s only been a year since your first one. Might it be fair to say that it hasn’t been as difficult as all that then?
We started work on the second album pretty much as soon as the first one came out. I remember the night that it was released we were all together and just talking about what we wanted to do for our second album, and we got so excited about all these ideas that we wanted to execute that we just started writing and recording immediately. By the time the first album came out, we’d been playing the songs that we’d written for it for about a year – we’d grown tired of them. But I think we started moving around mentally and creatively and found something a little more real and personal. And we decided to make the next album into a very autobiographical one, specifically for me - I made the decision to be very honest about my life. We’ve always been a band who likes to push people’s buttons and make people feel uncomfortable, and so it’s that thrill of finally being who we always wanted to be. But it’s taken a couple of years to really find that.

So what can we expect? Your first album was full of sad songs disguised as cheery pop tunes. You’d listen to it and sing along happily and then a couple of hours later you’d be sat there and suddenly think “Oh.” Is this record going to fool us all in a similar way?
I feel like the new album is much more blunt; it’s very direct. I write all the lyrics so it’s kind of up to me where I want to steer the ship. And I really wanted to sink the ship in a way. I felt like I’d been dealing with these demons my whole life and I wanted to finally put the last nail in the coffin. I talk about my childhood – where I grew up. It was a very religious household, with very extreme religious right wing parents. I had five siblings and they tried to teach all of us the way they wanted us to live. And the beliefs they had, they sort of forced down our throats. I never really bought into it; and then I ran away to New York. But it really took until last year to actually decide what I was going to believe, and that found its way onto the record. I think it would have been cheating the album out of some great subject matter if I didn’t address my view on God, and Heaven and Hell, and what’s important during life, and what happens when you die. I really wanted to speak on those things, so I wrote Book of Revelation, which is the opener. I got a little bit of resistance from my manager saying “I don’t know if you want to open an album saying you don’t believe in God - that might be a little tough for people to digest.” But like I said, we’ve always been a band who would rather push buttons than play it safe.

It’s called Portamento. Where does that come from?
‘Portamento’ is a word that I’ve always been quite fond of, since I was a little boy actually. I first learnt the word off an old analogue synthesiser that I had. I was obsessed with analogue circuitry as a kid. (So was Jacob and that’s how we bonded and became best friends. We’d talk to each other for four or five hours a day on the phone through our entire teenage years!) But Portamento is a musical term; it’s the slide from one note to another – the travelling; changing; evolving. And I felt that since this band started, since our very first show we’ve been evolving into what we are now. And I don’t know if that will stop or if it’ll continue. It feels like we’ve gone through a big transition – losing a guitar player, having five members versus four – at least for the live shows. There have been changes, even very personal changes within the group – just getting to know each other on such an intimate level.

And what have you been listening to this time around? Your first album was always compared to the likes of Orange Juice and The Beach Boys – Duran Duran and other lovely 80’s POP. Has that stayed the same or have other influences played a part?
Jacob and I have always had this fascination with Wendy Carlos – this synthesiser pioneer who actually (if I read this from a correct source), had the biggest selling album of the 1960’s – it even outsold The Beatles! It was called Switched-on Bach and it was all of Bach’s symphonies but done with this huge, modular analogue system. She was such a peculiar and private person and we were really fascinated with her. And without really even talking to each other about it, I think we were both kind of pretending that Wendy Carlos was producing our album and overseeing it. SWe would finish a track and just pretend that we would have to show it to Wendy – it had to be good enough to show to Wendy. So, without knowing it, she kind of produced this album.

I read that you recorded a large part of it in the kitchen. Is this because it creates superior sound quality or because it’s closer to the kettle?
(Laughs) It is closer to food and drink, but I think the main thing was that it was just the most convenient place because it was in my apartment and I could just wake up and work on music at any time. These songs were flowing out of us in a natural, organic way - a really fast way. So I didn’t want the studio across town, I wanted it close to me so I could just continue to work when Connor and Jacob weren’t around. We all live a few blocks from each other so normally they would come over in the morning and I would have a song started, and they would add things and then go home and I would finish the song and put vocals on it. Every song that we’ve written for The Drums (with the exception of a couple) has been written in one day – the ideas conceptualised, and then executed and the song completely finished by nightfall. That sort of thing is really exciting – that’s when it’s exciting to be a part of a band like The Drums because these songs really feel like they need to be written, there’s a real sense of urgency. And I think we’ll stop making music when it starts feeling like I’m sure Youtube feels. Like Coldplay these days – the proof is in the pudding as they say in America – I feel like their newer material is a little uninspired, and it’s probably a reflection of them not being inspired anymore. That’s just how it goes, and I think the second that that starts happening to us, we’re aware of ourselves enough to recognise it, and that’s when we’ll stop making music. And it could be tomorrow – I could wake up and not be inspired with my life, which would be a real nightmare, it’d be really unfortunate but I know these things happen. We’re just trying to live in the moment and enjoy the parts of this life that we can, and trying to ignore the miserable bits that always seem to consume us.

You’ve got a UK tour coming up later this year, playing all the big cities. Is there anywhere you’d particularly like to play but haven’t got out to yet?
You know what I’d like to do? I’d like to play a concert at Stonehenge!

Well you’d have to pick a good weather day – it’s awful up there in the wind and rain!
Yes you do have pretty bad weather – there’s never an exception – every single time I fly there, I land and it’s raining every single time. It’s a little bit of a bummer, but it’s kind of beautiful and romantic in a way that’s nostalgic for me, even though I didn’t grow up there. I dreamt of growing up in a place like London or Manchester – I was certainly influenced by a lot of bands from around there. So it’s fine when I land and it’s raining, it feels homey, there’s something comforting about it. Stonehenge would be cool though, I’ve driven by it on the way to Glastonbury and it seems like a really weird, creepy place. But on the whole I’m not really too excited by outdoor shows - I prefer an indoor, intimate setting where everyone can go home with a real story to tell. That’s why people go to shows at the end of the day - to experience something they can talk to people about, something tangible enough to take with them and hold on to for the rest of their lives. And at an outdoor thing you’re kind of at the mercy of the weather. Music is always a better experience when you’re indoors and a band has full control of every aspect of the show – lighting and how many people they want to let into the room and I feel like the energy of the show is so much more intimate and beautiful. We make the music that we make indoors and so I feel like I should be played indoors. I know playing outdoors is like a necessary evil, something that everybody has to do if they want to continue touring. But I always prefer the smaller, intimate settings. That’s how the band started and that’s how we’re most comfortable.

If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
I probably, in all honesty, would have committed suicide or been sent off to a mental institution. I think music really has saved me from being incarcerated or possibly dead. I started this band because I was really frantic about my life, I felt like I had no direction. I was in a band previously that had some mild success and it all fell apart and I was very disillusioned and didn’t want to continue making music or continue doing anything creative, and so I took a retail job selling clothes. I was selling shoes actually, for years. I reached rock bottom and I was doing a lot of drugs and getting really fucked up and that’s when I called Jacob and said “We should just start making music. I’m gonna move down to Florida next year, let’s start a band.” And I cleaned up and we started the band, we started writing songs. So it’s one of those things that if I wasn’t doing this - if music hadn’t saved my life (which it has, many times!), I would probably be in really dull shape right now.

And finally, where will you be in five years time?
I don’t really have any plans. I feel like such a loser sometimes because everyone around me, even kids who are ten years younger than me, seem to be making very definite plans about the future. People try to find security in owning something like a house, getting married or owning a person, owning a pet or a car, or two cars. And to me whenever I’ve owned something I’ve got really depressed because I felt locked down. I’m the kind of person who will always be travelling or on the road. The idea of having a home or somewhere to call home is nice in a kind of romantic and nostalgic way. But the reality of my mental case is that I don’t think I’ll ever want to stop travelling because once you stop, you actually exist – and I feel like if you’re constantly in transit your feet don’t ever have to touch the ground. You can go through your life not existing. I have people watch me onstage in their thousands almost every night and that’s when I’m the most non-existent, that’s when I can really escape into nothingness. It’s the ultimate high.

The Drums’ second album ‘Portamento’ will be released on 5th September via The first single to be taken from it, ‘Money’, is out now.

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