The Drums - Interview with Johnny Pierce
Words: John Balfe
In their short existence The Drums have all the rock n' roll highs and lows of a band many years their senior. They've had a hit album, media-acclaim, they've toured the world but they've also had a band-member walk out and there have even been rumours of a split this summer. The newly refocused Brooklyn band are set to release Portamento, their 'difficult' second album, in September. Front-man Johnny Pierce spoke to John Balfe from the comfort of the kitchen in his Lower East Side apartment in New York City about why they're following their 2010 debut album so swiftly, their new approach to live performances and why he hates being compared to Ian Curtis.
The first thing I thought when I heard that there was a new Drums album was that it wasn't really that long since your debut album came out. What made you go straight back into recording and song-writing straight away?
Part of it was just sheer panic of us not having anything to do except for relaxing like a normal person would.
There's nothing more motivating than panic...
(laughs) Well, I say that tongue-in-cheek, sort of jokingly. Overall, by the time our first album came out, we have been playing the songs for over a year and the album was actually finished for about half a year. We were already starting to move on creatively as a band, and mentally too I think. In a very natural way we had a craving to start writing some more.
Our whole lives - we met very young - when we weren't working our day jobs, we were recording music. It wasn't really for anyone else to hear, it was just for the hell of it. That's what we filled our time with and it's continued our whole lives. We've written hundreds and hundreds of songs. Suddenly we became The Drums, but with the same mentality. People really liked The Drums and it really took off for us. So when we got off tour supporting the first album, we did what we had always done and that was record music. There are only so many streets I can walk up and down aimlessly.
We recorded it all in my kitchen. Usually in a weekend we could record two songs, maybe even three, the songs really have an urgency to them. They really wanted to be written. There are certain songs that I don't even really remember recording because they happened so quickly. That's the most exciting thing about making music, when it's sort of making itself and you're just standing there in awe of what's happening.
And all of a sudden this thing exists that didn't an hour ago. Are those the really good ones, when a song just appears as if from nowhere?
It is, when just suddenly it's there. That really happened with every single song. I've never written a song because I felt like I had to write a song, I have only written when it felt really natural. We wouldn't have been able to catch these creative moments otherwise because if you're working in a big studio with a big producer you are on their time and you have to wait for them to be available. The song is always more important than the production for us.
You mentioned that The Drums essentially came into being because you and your friends had a love of music, then all of a sudden you've got an album out. Then you get the media calling you "the sound of 2010". How do you deal with labels like that?
I think the main thing to keep in mind from the very first time you start recording is that you have to make sure you're doing it for yourself and for your own ears. You have to do things in a selfish way. There's nothing wrong with being selfish when you're being creative. As soon as you start caring what one person has to say, all of a sudden you start caring what the person next to that person has to say. No one can please everyone.
There are people who say we sound like The Smiths and there are people who say we don't sound like The Smiths. There are people who love how I am on stage and there are people who hate how I am on stage. If you cater to one person, there's always going to be another person who hates how you did that. You have to just focus on what is going to be important to you and what you can do to make sure that you don't have a big list of regrets in 20 years.
Listen :: The Drums - Let's Go Surfing
The Drums - Lovebox Festival, London - 16th July
I've heard your band described as everything from The Ventures to New Order. How do you react to people trying to define you as such?
I think it's human nature. People love to label things. I think we're all probably guilty of that. I did an interview in Brussels a few months ago and the guy interviewing me opened with "Hello Ian Curtis, how are you today?"
What are you supposed to say to that?!
I looked at him and I said, "Ian Curtis is dead. My name is Johnny Pierce. My band is called The Drums and this interview is over." That was the first time I'd ever really put my foot down. To actually watch Ian Curtis and actually watch me on stage, there may be a vague similarity, but nothing really. I think the main thing is that there's no front-men really anymore, in the sense of really going for it and not being afraid to come across as foolish. I really make the decision before I go on stage to really let the music do what it wants.
Our influences are bands like The Zombies, who all wore the same suits and had a specific haircut and bands like The Ramones. That sort of pop concept is really important to us. I think the people who make fun of us now would look back at those bands and say that they're an important part of musical history.
You mentioned that you recorded the album in your kitchen. Is the fact that you're not working under the direction of a producer or an engineer in there creatively liberating?
I produced, engineered and mixed this album. We didn't have any outside help at all, aside from sending it out for mastering when it was all done. I feel it's the purest form of delivery possible. Literally, it's going from my kitchen in to somebody's iPod. I think that's a rare thing for a band, especially one that's signed to a major label. We didn't even tell our label that we were starting our record, we just did it in secret.
That's why we went with Island [Records]. From the beginning they've been incredibly supportive and always 'for the artist'. They're still putting out Grace Jones records! She's completely insane. I think they value having some 'cool' acts on their roster, I think it's important to them. If that's all we are to them - some sort of validation - that's just fine with me! (laughs)
You're coming to Ireland in a few weeks to play Electric Picnic. You've actually been doing a lot of the festivals this summer, how have the shows gone?
It's been exciting, to be honest, because we have a new live formation. There are now no more backing tracks, everything is done live. It makes the show a little bit more exciting from the get-go because none of us are that great musicians, so it feels like it could come apart at any second but somehow we pull it off. It feels very rewarding, there's a new energy there. Sometimes there's a really rowdy crowd who wants to hear things harder and faster and we can do that now.
How did this new approach come about?
Adam left the band and suddenly we were in the position where we had to think outside the box. It sort of felt it was us against the world, and if anyone has a problem with this they can go jump off a bridge - it was that sort of mentality.
Suddenly, things fell apart out of nowhere. We're grateful for it now because it allowed us to re-evaluate things. We wouldn't have the album that we have now and we certainly wouldn't have the new live show. It really made us think about who we were and who we really wanted to be. It's exciting, things feel fresh again.
Is this The Drums 2.0?
I think so. It's just fuller and it feels much more real to all of us.
Watch :: The Drums - 'Money' from Portamento
Story by EI Team | 09:00 | Friday 19th August 2011 | Music
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