The Drums: Sadder and Stronger Than Ever
You can hear, and see, the difference. Whereas 2017's Abysmal Thoughts carried on the dreamy, melancholic and elusive art that The Drums became known for, Brutalism is comparatively a workout in pop pilates, Pierce's personal quest to see just how much he can stretch his sound, and his vulnerability, while still remaining true to his underdog sensibilities. Album opener "Pretty Cloud" sets the stage for this progression: a 90's video game-like synth drives the track, while Pierce sings about a lover being like a cloud in the sky, pretty but distant. "626 Bedford Avenue" is perhaps the hook-iest song on the record, its whimsical guitar framing Pierce's sweet tenor while it finds its way up to the sky, then right back down again. Brutalism's cover is a closeup of Pierce's face framed by bold primary colors—something you definitely would not have seen on The Drums records in the past.
"Sad pop" is a thing, maybe now more than ever. In the age we currently live in, adolescence is still depressing, angst is still ubiquitous, and the art being released is reflecting that. But now a decade into their career, The Drums have been making music for outsiders since their inception. It's just that now, Jonny Pierce is experimenting in finding his way out of his darkness instead of basking in it—turning his pain into progress.
How has your press tour been? Did you just come back from Europe?
Yes, it was good. I really liked Paris. I really liked Amsterdam. It’s going really good. We did some photo shoots, talked about myself for eight hours a day.
How was that? I’m sure it’s much different now that you are essentially solo, right?
Yes it is, definitely. I get to hit things on the nose, instead of spending half of the interview talking about things that are not important to me. It’s this new found joy in my life. I don’t know, I feel like I am just now stepping into what an artist really is. I feel like I have always sort of been on the edge of calling myself an artist and self-identifying as an artist, a proper artist. I think that the only way you can really call yourself an artist is when you really understand yourself on some level. I was watching the Kusama documentary and even though Kusama deals with mental health, she understands what she needs and who she is. She understands what her fears are and understands her strengths and how to survive for her and her specific situation. I think that is why her art is so amazing. She has an understanding of herself. I feel like I’m doing that just now, and I’m in my mid-30s.
It took a minute.
Yeah, it took a minute. It took really conscious choices. I’ve always been someone who romanticizes everything, between pain and confusion, especially because I was playing with the moniker of artists. It was my crutch always. "I’m really depressed, but you know what, I’m creative. We are supposed to be different." I don’t think that is modern, that’s MAGA. That’s old fashioned. That’s 80’s. I want to be modern. I want to be in the future. I want to be leaning towards the future. I think what’s modern is taking your life by the horns. The superficial, “I want to be king of the hill"—That’s MAGA, too. I want to be the best version of myself. I want to be the best artist I can be. I want to be the best human I can be and the only way to do that is to figure out who the fuck I am.
So, I started going to therapy. I started to eat differently. I started pulling away from the party scene and surrounding myself with people who understand me more, instead of people who don’t. It all aims toward loving myself versus just stumbling through life until it is over. I’m not attracted to that idea anymore. I want to be particular, and that's also why the new record is a bit more focused and structured. It has a dreamy element to it, but it is not out of tune guitars. It doesn’t feel like it is held together by scotch tape. There is something that feels sure about it. I think it is a reflection of making choices that are really more particular because I’m doing that I am figuring out who I am as an artist and what I want to do. There is less of a dreaminess. That was a really long answer.
You said you like to romanticize pain. I feel like I do that all the time. I low-key enjoy being sad. Is that something that has always permeated your music, or just recently?
I’ve thought about this a lot, so I’m really glad you asked. I think that joy and sadness are two emotions that are a lot closer to each other than we think they are. I think they really compliment each other. In our joyful times, there is a sadness. The joy will inevitably disappear at some point. In our sad times, I think, for me, when I am sad or depressed sometimes, there is a sliver of joy. I think part of that is because feeling sad or feeling depressed means we are feeling. It taps us into the human side of us. It kind of shows us that we are alive. I think that there is this inherent subconscious joy that flutters in, even in moments of sadness. There is something pure about those moments, endorphins in a way. Maybe they aren’t endorphins. Sadness is just so beautiful sometimes. Again, that’s me romanticizing it. Beauty is pain, but it’s also a reminder that you are human.
As opposed to just being numb.
Yeah. You know I’ve said this a few times on this press tour, but I don’t think you can be intelligent and not carry sadness with you every single day.
Every artist is sad.
Yeah, I guess so, if you’re a good artist.
Why the name Brutalism? I feel like that name kind of encapsulates what you just said, in a certain sense.
It certainly does. I mean, during the making of this album, I moved and I fell in love with someone. He lived in Brussels, of all places. I moved there to be with him. I didn’t really identify anywhere else in my life as home, so I thought, why not live with him. So, we got an apartment, moved in, and it was a terrible experience. I’ve always loved the brutalist architecture and type, but Brussels has a lot of that.
So, it's a type of architecture?
Yes. It’s really dark and heavy. Have you seen the FIT building here in New York? That’s an example of a Brutalist building. The rooms that are all concrete, really excessive amounts, small windows usually. They're heavy. They're hard. They're impractical. They are also beautiful. That is how I would describe my relationship when I was in Brussels. So it just felt really fitting. I had been aware of these buildings forever. I just love them, so showing up in Brussels and being surrounded by these buildings, and kind of seeing my life played out in them was just a reflection of my heart and where I was going and what I was doing. I moved back and wrapped up the record and kept that name. It just felt really fitting. I’m a big lover. I kind of go for it. There’s this quote that I try to live by, “All of our weaknesses are our strengths taken to excess.” Being loving, of course, is a strength, but taken to an excess where you forget about loving yourself, taking care of yourself, it becomes a weakness. And same with generosity, it’s great to be generous.
But if you’re too generous...
Yes, people can take advantage of you, or it’s a sign that you aren’t really taking care of yourself. You’re seeking approval. I try to remind myself of that all the time, to not be too excessive about things, but it’s really hard for me. My mom and dad are both pastors, we went to anti-gay marches… I spent my whole childhood seeking their approval. Bending over backward to have them say I was a good son. I think I developed a pattern which I carried into my teenage years and then to my adult years. I still deal with this every day. I have a tendency to do things for people, that included people in the band, like Jacob and Connor. I wanted their approval, so I would change the art I would make to reflect something that I thought I wanted to be a part of. I thought I wanted a pat on the back. I wanted someone to say, “You’re so great,” and so, again, that’s an example of not being loving towards myself. That’s why I say, I feel like those aren't really records. That’s why I can’t call myself a full-on artist. I reserve that word for a time when I can know that it is not my concern to make sure that other people are happy with what I am doing.
To not overcompensate.
Yes. To not change anything. This is what I want to do, I’ll do it. I think that’s also part of, I don’t want to sound like a dick, but there are a lot of bands that started when we started and had a part in the scene, and now they are all gone. The Drums are still here because I’ve learned to not give a fuck. I love pop music and I’m going to make a pop record. I love when things sound bad sometimes, so I’m going to make this sound bad. I just am stepping into who I am, and that sometimes means doing things that are a bit risky and scary, but I think a byproduct of that is that the band remains kind of fresh. The sound remains fresh because I’m not interested in clicking into anything. I’m just going to do my thing.
People want to see evolution.
Evolution is modern. I literally think about Donald Trump, and people who want to keep everything the same. I don’t want to die with the past. I certainly don’t want to be some asshole who is holding on to this idea of what’s great. I’m at a point in my life where I am more curious than I have ever been. I think that is kind of the key. It’s a balance, I guess. As an artist, you want to honor your artistic voice. I think that part of being modern and part of being part of the future is remaining open on some level. Leave some openness so you can just be infused with ideas, so they can bounce off of older ideas you have and make something that is relevant.
The standout track for me was “Nervous,” so beautiful. Tell me about that song, because it felt different than the rest of the songs.
I wrote that three years ago during Abysmal Thoughts, that era. I had just gone through a divorce. I was married to a Dutch guy who was a really lovely person. It was one of those things where, for one reason or another, it just didn’t work. We were both really sad that it wasn’t working. I think we both really love each other still in a different way, so that song is by far my most delicate, and I think it’s pretty personal. My feelings were still so raw when I made that, I wasn’t ready to offer it over to the world. Maybe I would now. Maybe I’m at a different space now, where I feel strong enough to just put it out there. At the time I was pretty fragile and still very, very lost. It was too much too soon, so it made it on this record.
Do you think it fit better on this record than it would on Abysmal Thoughts? Sonically?
Yeah I do. There’s something polished about the guitar playing. I think this album needed a track. That track sort of anchors the album in a way. It is one of those songs that staples the album to the floor. That’s kind of why I like “Loners” too, but for a totally different reason. I love pop music, so I love writing big choruses. I like movement and a dynamic quality. So it’s nice to have songs like that.
Where did you start writing this album? In Brussels?
No, I went to this little cabin in upstate New York, about an hour from where I grew up actually. I bought this cabin to win my parents' approval, it’s on this lake. This place where my father always wanted a cabin. I bought it to sort of bridge me to my parents. It didn’t work. So I have this cabin up there and I was like, this is a prime spot to write because there is so much tension there. There is a lot of emotional stuff going on. I did most of my demos up there and brought in my drummer and my guitar player for extra help with writing and recording, which was a first. Usually, it was all up to me to do it all.
This time around I had help. Imagine that? reaching out for help, instead of feeling like I had to do everything. I also think that by me doing everything that it was that pattern of seeking approval from critics and that, “Wow you did it all.” What brings me joy is having lyrics that really speak to me and speak to other people, that’s so much more important to me than saying, “Oh, I played the harpsichord too.” Who cares? Who gives a fuck? Nobody gives a fuck, and if they do they give a fuck for like, two seconds.
Do you have a good relationship with your parents now, or no?
Not good. A good relationship would imply that they are gay-friendly and celebrate people for who they are, and until they are that, it can never be a good relationship. I’m not willing to compromise with anyone, including people who are related to me. You’ve got to appreciate me for who I am, so I can appreciate you for who you are.
Do you find everything in your life going back to that toxic relationship dynamic?
A little less, but it’s very easy to find myself behaving in ways that tie back to the patterns. I think about a lot of times, I find myself recently thinking about my parents dying at the end of their lives, and the admiration of my mother on her deathbed, and I get really sad sometimes, to think about her dying and thinking about how I always envision myself being there. I have five siblings. I envision seeing them through, taking care of them. The one that they couldn’t accept is making sure that they are okay, but I think if I’m real with myself, it would be a last-ditch effort to have them finally say, maybe with their last dying breath, “He was a good kid. He was a good son.” So, I have to really figure out if that’s why I see myself helping them. Is it because I want that approval?
Do you ever analyze your dreams?
I don’t really dream. I’m not really a dreamer. It’s weird.
Brutalism is out now via ANTI- Records.