The beat generation

The Drums’ frontman Jonathan Pierce has alienated his pastor parents by turning his back on religion, says Ed Power

THE Drums frontman Jonathan Pierce has been upsetting his parents for years. Now there’s a rift.

On the band’s latest record, Portamento, he sings frankly about being raised an evangelical Christian — and of turning his back on his faith. He no longer speaks to his mother and father. From what he’s heard, they aren’t pleased he’s venting about the oppressiveness of religious zealotry.

“I haven’t been close to my family in quite a while,” he says. “I was told through the grapevine that some of what I’m talking about on the new record — specifically the God stuff — is a little bit taboo for them.

“My parents are both pastors in an evangelical church. You can understand why it would rub them the wrong way.”

He pauses, as if considering how best to phrase his thoughts. “I’ve never been one to live to please anyone but myself,” he says. “You can call me a selfish person. My bottom line is I think it’s sad when children live their entire lives for the approval of their parents.”

A throwback to the catchy indie pop of the 1980s, The Drums recall such groups as The Smiths and Joy Division and the Go Betweens, though with a melodic sensibility that is their own. They first attracted blogger buzz late in 2009 and, before they quite understood what was happening, were swept off their feet by a wave of hype.

The BBC tipped them to break the mainstream, they were splashed on the cover of music magazines and invited to perform on the Conan O’Brien show. It has, Pierce says, been quite a whirlwind — and one that shows little signs of ending.

“If anything, it seems to be getting more intense,” he says. “We haven’t stopped. We’ve been on the road for two and a half years and counting. Actually, we just got our schedule for after Christmas — it looks like we will be touring for 90% of the time.”

The Drums’ debut was carefree, nostalgic, even light-hearted. Pierce sang about the joys of friendship, the thrill of going surfing, how sweet it was to be in love. The follow-up is a different affair. Recorded as the band were emerging from a year of exhaustive touring, it is bleak and brooding — the work of musicians neither at ease with themselves nor with the world around them.

What happened?

“We wanted it to be a ‘real’ record, one rooted in reality,” says Pierce. “On our first album and the EP that preceded it, some of the songs feel like novelty tracks to me now. There was a cinematic vibe. We weren’t talking to any great extent about our own lives. In hindsight, maybe that was a defence mechanism on our part. But being on the road every day forces you to confront reality. You can’t go on hiding in your own little world.”

Towards the end of touring The Drums, Pierce began to tire of the twee aesthetic that, he says, defined great swathes of the material. He was going through a painful romantic break-up and there were still all those unresolved issues from his childhood. It was, he decided, time to bring reality to bear on the songwriting.

“What we’re doing now is less about surfing and being friends — it’s more about stuff we can actually taste and feel. I think everyone leaves the show feeling more gratifying. We feel we’ve outgrown a lot of our songs. When I started singing them, I felt sincere about what I was saying. Not so much anymore. It feels like the work of someone else’s band.

“When we started writing new songs, initially I didn’t know I would be going to darker places lyrically. We were determined it was going to be completely honest. We felt it was important to be blunt and straightforward with the listener, and that’s regardless of whether we are writing about atheism or heartbreak,” Pierce says.

Might he one day regret his searing honesty? Absolutely, he says. But the way he sees it, it’s better to create great art rather than holding back for fear of going over-the-top. “It would be dishonest not to put everything in,” he says, “Could I look back years from now and wish I hadn’t put it all out on the table? Of course. However, right now making a really great record is my ultimate goal. That’s all I really want to do.”

Spend a few minutes in Pierce’s company and it is obvious he is a singular presence. For one thing, as an interviewee he is utterly unguarded. When The Drums moved to Brooklyn last year to pursue their career, he didn’t hesitate in panning local bands such as Grizzly Bear and Dirty Projectors as middle class dandies, rich kids who didn’t want scruffy newcomers from the boondocks crashing their scene.

Speaking to the Irish media while supporting Florence and the Machine in mid-2010, Pierce embarked on a diatribe against Bono, whom he believed to be something of an empty suit (to put it mildly).

Pierce is equally honest when addressing the problems that have bedeviled The Drums. The biggest influence on the new record, he says, was the surprise departure in late 2010 of bassist Adam Kessler, Pierce’s friend since childhood. Endless gigging put huge strain on relationships within the group and, in the end, Kessler couldn’t go on. It was a wake-up moment, says the singer. The notion that they were somehow living a charmed existence and could keep pushing themselves without negative consequences was thoroughly demolished.

“We were extremely shocked,” says Pierce. “It took something as big as that for us to re-evaluate who we were as a band. Up until that point, we were sort of snot-nosed and stubborn. And probably arrogant too. Suddenly the carpet was pulled from under us.

“It was the first time we thought, ‘hey, maybe we aren’t doing everything right, maybe there is something to be learned’. It forced us to step outside ourselves, to take a look at what we were doing, what was important to us. We learned a lot.”

* Heineken Green Spheres weekender takes place at various venues across Dublin from December 1-3. Further information: www.heinekenmusic.ie. The Drums play The Village, Dublin tomorrow night.

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