Johnny Pierce knows how to talk. Recording, hype, producers; it feels like he has an answer prepared on them all. Furthermore, Johnny Pierce, frontman of the Drums, knows how to talk in a manner that makes us feel like the Metallica life coach. Discussing misery and band tensions, God and the flames of hell, our 15-minute chat could be mistaken for a therapy session. Perhaps this is no bad thing. Returning next month with Portamento – a new album said to be the Drums most honest and revealing work to date, it’s clear that Pierce is in a pensive mood…
The album was recorded quite quickly, was that a constraint you put upon yourself?
Y’know by the time we’d finished the first album, we’d already been playing those songs for a year and the album was done six months before it came out. I know for myself, personally I don’t like to stand still so I was ready to start writing as soon as the first album was released. We do everything on our own, I mean we recorded Portamento in my apartment; it just alters the possibilities…if this album didn’t want to be written so badly, it wouldn’t have happened so fast. It was deceptively urgent really. We didn’t tell our label or our management we were recording our new album ‘cause we didn’t want any outside pressure – it moved at its own pace”
You mentioned recording in your apartment, is it more comfortable than the studio environment?
Well it’s really funny, we actually used the same gear (as the first album), I don’t think we bought a single new piece of equipment, but we’ve improved just a little bit on producing and mixing. Jacob (Graham – synth/guitar in The Drums) bought this book from the 1950s that explained how to mix a record, so we were very self-taught. For one, I think it’s very interesting to learn as you go and it’s more of a challenge. The idea of bringing in a big producer and going into a big fancy studio rubs us the wrong way. I think a lot of bands are better because they found the right producer who can help reveal the band, but this is a very revealing album and I don’t think we needed any help being honest with this one. If we can do it ourselves and get away with it, we will – rather than having a load of dirty finger prints on it.
It’s a very revealing album as you put it. Addressing your feelings about your Christian upbringing, was it difficult to articulate those feelings in song?
I think making the initial decision to talk about those things was a longtime in the making. I’ve never been outspoken in my views on life and death and god and religion, mainly because it was too close to home for me. I grew up in a very religious household and ran away from that to New York City, and very much found my own way and rejected those ideas…I actually look at them as quite foolish. I feel like we made a decision to make an honest album and I really think every song is very autobiographical. I feel like I would have been cheating the album not to talk about those things as they were weighing very heavy on my mind. We started recording at the end of last year, and really it was a year in which I was able to quench any last fear of the flames of hell. Suddenly I felt freer than I’d ever been to not be fearing god and these things that don’t exist for me.
Lyrically, the theme of heartbreak still seems to be permeating through your music. There are songs on this new album called ‘I Don’t Know How To Love’, ‘In The Cold’; why does it all end in tears Johnny?
God, haha…I think throughout my life I’ve just had a harder time with rejection then most people. I think I’m a much more sensitive guy than most men my age. Beyond that, I’ve always been drawn to sadder times, movies, pieces of art that have something dark about them. I can’t really explain why, I can only assume it’s because I relate to them better. I think people hearing my songs might think ‘god this guy’s such a drag, he must never be happy, he must be miserable’, and of course I’m always miserable, everyone is if they’re honest. But there are moments when I laugh, when I feel joy, they’re just not interesting to write about. I think because those moments are so fleeting I don’t want to be committed to singing (joyful) songs for the rest of my life. I’m miserable much more of the time so I’d rather sing something I can really sink in to on stage. There’s no interest in writing a purely blissful song for me.
You’ve talked before about being aware of having an audience now, how does that affect you?
When we recorded our first, it was just us in a bedroom thinking we were recording songs and maybe one day we’d play a show in New York City and have day jobs and that would be that. Things turned out drastically different. I think in the back of our mind we know people are listening and that was one of the contributing factors to why we made this album so personal. We don’t want to be a band who makes grand statements and certainly we don’t want to be political, but we have to say something. I think everything we did before Portamento was laced with cinematic flair and I think that was because we had our defences up a bit.
You know because the lyrics on this album are rooted in reality, it dictated the music and made it darker in a way…we couldn’t be happier with it though and we weren’t sure how we were going to feel about it. I mean the band almost fell apart during the making of this album, but again that has something to do with knowing everyone’s watching and listening. I feel like this band grew up under a microscope in a way. We played our first show in the summer of 2008 and pretty much immediately after that people were taking our photos for covers of magazines. It was the most bizarre, crazy experience and I think we enjoyed it at the start, but all the stuff…*exhales* everything that comes from that is not good.
You guys toured an awful lot supporting that first album, was there a certain innocence and naivety lost by the end of it?
All hope was gone! *Laughs* It really felt tumultuous to say the least and I think by the end of that touring cycle we could have gone three years without seeing each other and probably would have been just fine. It’s so funny because when we started this band we really felt like a gang and us against the world. It was a very surreal way to live, everything felt like a movie, but then reality sets in. We lose a guitar player (Adam Kessler left the band in September 2010 during a US tour), we start fighting on the road and having disagreements about the next album…I think anyone in a band is bored reading this because it happens to everyone, but all I can say is the truth and it did become difficult.
It’s impossible to be ready for the…I don’t think…in the last five or seven years I don’t remember a band being as overly hyped as we were. With hype, you know we didn’t change a thing. We were just three guys making music in our bedrooms, simple little pop songs and we never changed that. So the whole world was spinning around us and we were just trying to ride it out as best we could. I think some bands can handle it and it some can’t and we were toured to the edge of not being able to handle it. I think though, because of the way Portamento turned out, we’re really excited. Now is the first time we’ve really felt a freshness within the group, we’ve sort of pulled together. There seems to be a shred of naivety about the future as well, and all that’s going to make things all right for us.
Portamento is released September 10th. The Drums play the Electric Picnic on Saturday, 3rd of September.