The Drums’ Jonny Pierce on Their New Album, Rejecting Religion & Being a New York Band

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It’s an important moment for The Drums. Coming off the international success of their self-titled debut, these NME darlings have shed their beachy, boyish sound for more honest lyrics and textured melodies, while remaining true to their pop foundation. Now, with the release of their sophomore album, Portamento, the New York-based band is finally getting the homegrown attention it deserves. We recently caught up with Drums frontman Jonny Pierce during their current US tour, to discuss his love for pop music, the strains of touring with his best friend, and the American taboo of rejecting God.

Where are you right now? On tour? Yeah, just woke up in Seattle. We were in Canada last night, in Vancouver, and drove through the night, had a few hours of sleep, and we have a show tonight in Seattle.

Who is doing the driving? We have a driver! Named Jeremy. He’s an older man with a long grey beard.

How has this tour been? It’s pretty exotic for us, actually. With our first album, we toured America and played really small bars, except for maybe New York and LA, where we played bigger shows, but it was that first US tour: very small in scope, and sometimes frustrating. But it was that sort of thing where I guess we had to pay our dues. And with this tour, and Portamento, it’s just been night and day. So we’re really pleasantly surprised. We didn’t expect much. The tour seems to be selling out every night, and it’s really kind of shocking to us. It’s nice to be able to play new songs as well.

How has the feedback been for the new album, especially on tour, considering how different it is from the rest of the music that you’ve put out? One thing I was saying to Jacob the other day was we were both commenting on how surprised we were that people are singing along to all these new songs, even more so than the older songs, and we thought that it would be the opposite. And people are shouting out and requesting songs off the new album, and rarely do we hear any requests of anything older. I feel like Portamento has really gone over in a great way in America. We sort of had America in mind when we wrote the album. Not in the front of our minds, but subconsciously. Our last album barely came out in America, and a lot of people never heard it, so we weren’t really sure what to expect, but when we made Portamento, I think we did want to make an album that represented the fact that we are an American band. We wanted to channel that sort of thing. And I can’t help but think that that’s maybe why people are responding in that kind of way.

Do you see yourselves as definitively a Brooklyn band? Is there such thing as that? I don’t think so. I like the fact that we’re from New York. But we’ve never really felt like we were part of any scene, really. Strictly from a geographic standpoint, yes, we are a New York band, but I don’t think we ever really fit into the Brooklyn scene so much, especially when we first started. We put out our Summertime! EP three years ago, at sort of the height of bands like Animal Collective and bands that are much more experimental. Even a band like Grizzly Bear, there’s something multilayered and textural about what they do. And we came along, and we were releasing two-and-a-half minute straight up girl-groupie weird pop songs. And I think the directness and the bluntness of what we were doing kind of isolated us from that kind of Brooklyn scene. We found ourselves on our own, and I think we kind of like that. It wasn’t that ‘If you cant beat em join em’ thing,’ but more like a ‘who cares’ sort of thing. We had a very specific idea of what we wanted to do, and a very specific thing that we were in love with, and that was pop music. We’re proud to be from New York. It has such an incredible history of putting out amazing music, so I can’t say that I don’t have a sense of pride in that.

And of course, you’ve had so much success internationally. It’s funny to see different places in the world, and to see what we do in very different ways. Sometimes it’s like black and white. In Europe, Japan, and the UK, people went really insane for what we were doing, and in the US I think people were a little more apprehensive. But that’s coming around, and you see more and more bands who are straight up pop, like Twin Shadow. I was so excited when he put that album out, because to me it was the type of thing that we’re trying to do. I see more and more bands dropping the whole experimental thing and just writing interesting pop, and that’s always the music that I’ve loved, so it’s nice to have new music like that, rather than having to go back to the same old albums that I’ve been listening to all the time.

I want to talk about the themes on Portamento, specifically the rejection of god and the constant revisiting of death. Can you speak a bit about those themes? When we started Portamento, we decided that it would be a very personal album. We were at a point where the dust had sort of settled. We were very hyped at the beginning, and things felt very surreal, and there wasn’t that much that felt tangible to us. We made Portamento to put an end to that. We wanted to write an album that was nothing but exactly how we felt. So there is some bluntness there. In America, I think saying you are an atheist is a pretty taboo thing, and being an atheist is kind of a lonely place to be. Even with my closest friends, they’ll sort of tolerate it, but I can kind of see in their eyes that they think I’m crazy. But I guess at the risk of looking like a lunatic, I’d rather just put something out there. I think we’ve always been a band that kind of likes to push buttons. Life is truly boring, so it’s nice to kind of poke a little bit. Even our management asked us, “Are you sure you want to open the album with a song that says that you don’t believe in God? Because that could be very polarizing.” And the fact that that concerned them made me all the more excited to put it at the beginning of the album. I grew up in a really religious household, and my mother and father are both pastors of the church, and I had a pretty extreme upbringing. They sort of enforced these ideas that I never really agreed with, and never really owned them myself, so now that I’ve grown up and have moved away, I’ve really been able to come to terms with how I actually feel. And in writing an honest album I didn’t want to leave that out.

Some lyrics are very literal, but there are also a lot of songs with really ambiguous lyrics, which have led to extreme interpretations. How do you feel about that ambiguity? I think ambiguity is a really powerful thing. I’ve always been drawn to it. It adds a nice texture to a band. It’s really funny because there’s been allegations that all of us in the band sleep with each other. To us it’s really exciting when people say something like that, because just from being a fan of bands, you kind of have those same rumors going around. I always just find it so fascinating. I’m not afraid to use a gender-specific term in a song, but I do like the fact that people can sort of take it however they want. At the end of the day, people really want an answer.

Is that why you released a track-by-track commentary to Portamento? What was the motivation behind that? I was just asked to do it. I had never heard of doing something like that before, and I thought it would be interesting. You know, when we record an album, we record a song and then put it away and start the next song. Before we knew it, we had this album of songs, and we released it as Portamento. But I hadn’t really gone back and re-examined the songs until I was asked to do a commentary on them, and I found them to be really exciting and nostalgic. When you’re dealing with something that’s right in your face, you look at it in a specific way, and then a month could go by, and when you return to it, you examine what it was and why it exists and you kind of view it in a totally different light. So that was really interesting to me. So much had changed since I wrote a lot of those songs. In a way, it’s kind of like looking through an old scrapbook or something.

Speaking of scrapbooks, can you tell me a bit about the photo on the cover? That’s a photo I found. We weren’t sure what we wanted to do for the album cover. And I thought it really needed to be a photo of my childhood, because so much of it is weaved throughout Portamento. And because it’s an autobiographical album, I thought the cover should also be autobiographical. So I was looking through old photos that I took with me to New York, and I found that one, and I showed it to Jake and Connor, and they both instantly said ‘this is it’. We painted my eyes red, and the reason behind that is, because growing up I didn’t really buy into what my parents wanted me to buy into.

Who’s the woman in the photo? Oh, I don’t know.

Given that the album is so much of your childhood, I was wondering how it is making music with your childhood friend, having grown up in the same world and now exploring those themes in your music. Can you tell me a bit about your friendship with Jacob? It’s really nice, and there are parts that are really difficult. It’s really weird when you start a band. All you have in your mind is, We’re making these songs and we love them, let’s start playing live. We certainly didn’t expect what happened to happen. When we started, we thought we’d write a handful of songs and play a few shows here and there, and keep our day jobs, and that that would be our lives. But things went a really different way, and you don’t think about the fact that you’re going to spend every living second with somebody, or a group of people. It’s essentially almost like a marriage. It’s kind of worse than a marriage, because typically two people who are married go off and do separate things during the day, and then at night they’ll spend time together to relax. Being in a band is worse, because you’re with the same people 24 hours a day, and you’re sharing hotel rooms with those people, and you’re crammed in a van or a bus or a plane. You’re always seeing the same faces non-stop, for three or four months straight. It’s funny because I learned so much more about Jacob than I ever thought I would. I thought I knew everything. It’s a lot of learning and growing that you have to do, and thankfully we made it through this hard period. It’s just funny because we always said we wanted to start a band together, and make music together. It’s a weird life.

Does he share your views on the themes on the album? I don’t think so. I don’t really know how he feels. He doesn’t agree with everything, but he does support the things I say. I never really run lyrics by him, I just say, Here’s the song, and he’s always been cool with that. But I have asked him before if he agrees with what I’m saying, specifically the religious aspect of the album, and he doesn’t quite agree. But I don’t know if that just means he doesn’t want to let go of something from his past. I think he sort of views religion in a very nostalgic way. I don’t think he had a tough childhood like I did. He looks back and it’s sweet, whereas I look back with a lot of disdain.