Music Features

The Drums (Interview)

Currently touring the U.S. in support of their second album, Portamento, The Drums have been haunting audiences and listeners with infectiously catchy pop songs about death, heartbreak, religion and, of course, surfing.  Frontman Jonathan "Jonny" Pierce and guitarist/synth-man Jacob Graham sit down with David Hogg backstage at the Union Transfer in Philadelphia before their show on April 23rd.  

The room we're sitting in is small, barely enough to fit the four of us (my girlfriend was with me), and there is a desk dividing us.  Jonny refers to the room as the interrogation room, and notes that the word "gay" has been etched into the desk.  Jacob mentions that the clock on the wall is upside down.  And so the interview begins...


NR: How did The Drums get started? How did you guys decide to form the band?

Jonny: It just started out of feeling a bit aimless. I was living in New York, and I had exhausted the idea of being a free spirit. I've always wanted to make music – Jacob and I were always making music whenever we could together, but he moved to Florida. It was one of those things we talked about our whole lives. So I called him and said I'm coming down to Florida, I'm gonna leave New York behind for a while, maybe forever, and let's just start writing songs. It wasn't really about a band, it was about just writing songs.

NR: After the initial success of Let's Go Surfing, which became a blog hit, and your first album, how did that change things from two guys writing songs to a band that had more commitments?

Jacob: I think it changed things a lot because it just put us in this position we'd never been in before. We both grew up in really small towns, so we'd play concerts and everyone thought we were completely out of our minds. We've grown up with that mentality, that everything we were doing, no one would really get it or like it. So when that song caught on, suddenly people are interviewing us and asking us what we think is cool. And obviously with touring the world, your life completely changes in every way. You realize really quickly that it's not about trying to write catchy, fun pop songs, but that there's a whole other thing that goes with the lifestyle that is traveling around and having meetings with business people. It's kind of jarring.

Jonny: It kind of forced us to grow up in some ways that we probably should have before then, and in some ways that we never wanted to. There's good and bad with everything, I suppose.

NR: Between that first album and the new one, Portamento, which came out in the Fall, there's a definite difference in sound. A lot of people have noticed its a darker album with darker themes. How has the mentality changed?

Jacob: It's like we were saying about being forced out in the real world for the first time. It is kind of easy when you're just living your life, working an awful 9 to 5 job and then coming home and doing whatever you want every night, having those little moments of freedom where you can live in a bubble and imagine whatever world you want around you. I feel like we've lived our lives that way for a really long time, and the first record really reflects that. The whole thing is very utopian and cinematic and grand, and the second album, when I hear it at least, it sounds like us thrust out into the real world. The whole thing is a lot more blunt and a lot less romanticized.

Jonny: I feel like we'll probably see our own backlash from Portamento. I think without knowing it, we're pretty reactive to what we do, so I feel like maybe the next step is to say goodbye to reality again. [laughs] I'm over reality.

NR: How does the songwriting process begin? Does one of you come in with a song completed, or is it more democratic?

Jacob: We're not the kind of people that mess around with instruments too much unless we want to write a song. I think with most songs, we like the idea of it being about something, so when we have an idea to start a record, we'll have an idea of the direction we want to go in. Right after we come up with the album title, sometimes we'll come up with a handful of song titles, and that will inform the general direction of the album.

Jonny: But we don't do a whole lot of planning. When you have a great idea and you hold onto it for too long, it becomes stale. If we can't be at home recording, we really try not to think about writing songs or what we want to do on the next album. For us, there's this build-up, and then finally when we have time to do it, it all comes right out. Pop music is supposed to sound effortless. I'm not saying that it can't have texture, or that it can't move you, because great pop songs do that. But it's because it's simple.

NR: What influences do each of you bring in when you write a song?

Jonny: Jacob and I are usually on the same page with influence. We have our own things, but we share everything.

Jacob: When we made our first record, we very deliberately wanted to take the sound of 60s girl groups – citing The Shangri-La's as the quintessential girl group – and late-70s pop that was going on in Scotland – the quintessential band is The Wake – and merging those two things together as much as we could. When we made the second record, we didn't have a grand idea like that. At the time, we were listening to more experimental things, like The Durutti Column and a lot of the synth pioneers, like Tomita. But I don't know if any of that stuff influenced the music as much as the vibe of the album.

NR: What can fans expect to hear from The Drums in a live setting that they wouldn't hear in a studio recording?

Jonny: I think it's important for a band to represent their album and not to stray too much. I put myself in the shoes of someone who's buying a ticket, and I know when I've gone to a show and I'm waiting for that song and they do some weird alteration because they're tired of playing it, it's really frustrating. I'm not saying we've never pulled stunts like that, but we've regretted it later. We started thinking “what would one want to see if they were to come to a Drums concert?” That said, I think we fail at representing that.

Jacob: We stick to the structure, but we like our records to sound like records. We don't try to mix them to give you the full 3-dimensional experience, we don't want you to feel like you're at a concert. I've recently started telling people that I don't understand the concept of live music.

Jonny: I don't really either, especially in an outdoor setting. We have to play festivals, and that's how it goes, but music is just such an indoors thing, it's so personal. But please, everyone come to our shows! [laughs]

NR: How has the reception been with the new material at concerts?

Jacob: It's been good, almost better than our first record. With our first record, we didn't play a lot in America. We were stuck in the UK and Europe for a lot of that time, and the first record didn't make such a splash in America, and the label we were with weren't really keen on us. With Portamento, I think it really made more of an impact. So now when we play here, it seems like fans in America are more familiar with that record, which is encouraging.

NR: Right now you're on a U.S. tour, but after the tour are there any plans for the future?

Jacob: For the summer, we have a few festivals, and then I guess the idea is to record our third album. But like we said, we're trying not to think about it too much. Our only thought is to take more time with it. Our last two records we made fairly quickly, so for this one, I think the idea is to get really nit-picky with things. We're really excited to dissect and reconstruct our sound.

Jonny: We're at a point where we're ready to expand a bit, just for our own sanity. We've done everything in such a neurotic, very specific, almost fetishy way, and we're trying to broaden things a little.

Jacob: Maybe have live drums on a Drums record. [laughs]

Jonny: It's a slippery slope when you start changing things, especially when things are done in such a simplistic way, like ours are. The smallest change really affects us. We just have to be clever about how we go about this.

Jacob: The last two records came together so quickly and almost effortlessly that we want to make a record that tortures us to make.

Jonny: A little painstaking. I think we're both in the mood for that.