“We had this eureka moment and realized that we’re not incomplete, that this is The Drums and maybe we’ve always been searching for something that we didn’t need.” This is lead singer Jonny Pierce on the thrill of being one half of The Drums’ unbreakable duo with founding member Jacob Graham. After both guitarist Adam Kessler and third founding member Connor Hanwick abruptly announced their separate exits from the band, this quitting necessitated in equal parts the vulnerability of sharing such a personal experience like creating music with others, and also the challenge of extracting from it all the understanding that comes with universal acceptance – even if it seers a hole right through your guts.
Tuning into that inner voice, Pierce tells me, was just as important in his journey as tuning out the external fear, self-judgment, and noise that nearly drowned it all out – an experience arguably even more vital for artists today, to sift through hardships and just move on. His creative source springs from precisely this feeling, “Sometimes you gotta get pushed to the edge in order to make something meaningful” says Pierce when I ask about their long-awaited third album, Encyclopedia, released this week.
To that last end, Encyclopedia is detached, but not unfamiliar, captivating but not all-consuming, “It’s for the outsider who has always felt a little out of tune with the world.” And so it benefits from Pierce and Graham’s respective pasts, as each piece suggests to us newfound information, a single statement meant to express new ideas about abandonment, authority, gay rights and transgender. But there’s never the sense that they are preaching contraries into a void.
As the album embraces slow fades into its closing moments, a departure from their upbeat “Let’s Go Surfing” sound, Pierce and Graham tackle concepts that mirror their lives, with profound sincerity, and by doing so have altered the course of The Drums forever. It’s more compelling than anything they’ve done before. They have essentially, closed the book on their past and are rewriting the pages of their present. We tackle the notions of glamourising Gods, Gays and well, Geese.
I believe you’ve just arrived back from a gig in Russia? I can imagine touring can affect a new relationship, so does your partner come with you?
You know this October we’ll be celebrating our one-year of marriage upstate in the countryside. I always used to be quite outspoken against the whole idea as I hate any sort of uniformity, but I’m learning new things as I grow and I always say I got married and then I never saw him again! That’s the vibe because we’re both just so extremely busy, but it’s the type of thing where you know there’s something wonderful there.
How do you find your centre point between touring and home life?
I would be lying if I said I did find a balance, which I guess lends to better songwriting. I’m constantly living in the fear that I’m not adequate enough or I’m not working hard enough. It’s very easy for me to feel guilty about myself which I know is incredibly unhealthy and cancerous. I think a lot of the songs on this new record are inspired by those exact feelings. I’ve always been quite the independent spirit because I grew up in a family of five siblings where you felt on your own, but amidst a bunch of people, which is almost a lonelier feeling.
It definitely resonates, so why did this feel like the right time to make your third record?
For us this album did feel very timely and by far the most urgent. This album is about comforting the outsider which is how we’ve felt our whole lives and it’s how Jacob and I met, nobody else wanted to talk to us so we kinda pulled together. That’s what our music is for and we decided to be a bit more brutal about how we feel about the world and how we feel about religion and people loving each other. There’s songs where we deal with atheism and there’s songs where we deal with sex change as a positive. We would have never been able to do that before. On this really strange level we realise maybe this record is more important to me than we thought it was. Truth is, it’s never fun for Jacob and I to make a record I think we take it so seriously that we kill any joy.
I’d prefer not to bring up the past so without downplaying former members’ Adam Kessler and Connor Hanwick’s contribution, what’s the appeal of playing as a duo now?
When this band formed it was just Jacob and I. We seem to share a musical brain and a musical heart and we’ve always felt like we’re on the exact same wavelength. We barely had to speak while we were making this record. I think that’s a product of being friends since we were 12 or 13, it’s years of learning about each other not only on a music level, but on a personal level. We had this eureka moment and realised that we’re not incomplete, that this is The Drums and maybe we’ve always been searching for something that we didn’t need. That’s not to say that we didn’t have some good times with those guys, we loved them. I grew up in a very broken atmosphere and I can honestly say for the first time in my life when I met Connor and Adam it felt like this was finally my family, and I fell in love with the entire idea of The Drums. To have that disappear – we better make a new record! Those emotions have to go somewhere you know! [Laughs.]
It’s true! Some people crumble when band members leave, and if anything it’s given you a jolt. Other than the noticeable nodes of synth and the quieter moments, how would you describe your progression over the last few years?
When we came off the Portomento tour we had been on the road a total of three and a half years. Sometimes when that happens it seems like you’re not really existing and you lose touch with yourself and reality. Jacob always describes it as pushing the big pause button on life. So we were physically and mentally and emotionally exhausted, even though Jacob and I had no spat whatsoever I think just being in the same room together conjured up those old heartbroken feelings. Connor left us mid tour to go play with another band, and he never really gave us a true reason why so it’s that sense memory when Jacob and I would be together it would just feel dark and that lasted about a year. I think we needed to rediscover ourselves and sharpen the tools that we had so when we came back together both of us had figured out new ways to make music and skim the surface for the cream.
I think what struck me first about this album is how much more room it had to breathe. Did you record it in a new environment?
My friend has a small cabin that he let us use in the middle of all this nature. I’ll be honest when we set up our little station to record we were really nervous and fearful with this strange frantic energy and we went to bed and first thing in the morning we just started tinkering away and the first song we wrote was absolute garbage! Which really scared the shit out of us, and it will never see the light of day. We looked at each other thinking oh my god maybe that was it? We wrote a song that sounded like little house on the prairie mixed with acid house and it was just this strange gross thing. Actually now that I’m talking about it, it sounds kinda cool! So we sat down and started a new song that became “I Can’t Pretend” and by nightfall the sweet relief that washed over us was pretty indescribable. Some of the songs were fully formed in our heads and it’s just a process of coloring in the lines.
Forests are some of the only places on Earth that people haven’t destroyed yet. Even subconsciously the environment can effect your music.
Right? Hence “Magic Mountain” and I think we used the word mountain about three or four times on the album. As soon as I decided that I was an atheist, trees became twice as beautiful and flowers smelled twice as sweet. It allowed me to focus on the here and now which probably sounds too hippy.
That doesn’t sound hippy-ish it’s certainly the way I live and you don’t seem like the type of person to give excuses for your beliefs either, but it’s naturally difficult to explain personal beliefs which I suppose is what humbles you too
It’s not the most fun subject to deal with and you can easily silence a room when you start saying things like “nature is all we’ve got.” I did this interview with a journalist in Berlin last week and we were sitting face to face and she said a song like “I Can’t Pretend” seems so hopeless. I just said that those are very fundamental ideas in my life that actually make me feel the most peace. I felt incredibly fearful and a sense of guilt when I was searching for what happens when we die. A big part of this record was closing the door on all of that and finally making space for what’s real.
Nowadays, it seems like there’s more of an onus on songwriters to write about themselves exclusively, and it’s almost confusing to people when they don’t do that, so your message here that one shouldn’t pretend to be anything other than who they are is relevant.
Sometimes you gotta get pushed to the edge in order to make something meaningful.
But do you think sincerity is needed with the type of music you make?
Well, I’ll be honest I live just across from Brooklyn and I think there’s a reason I keep it at arms length these days it just seems full of “that Brooklyn sound”. There are a lot of people that almost seem like they’re saying something, but then they take a step back and the dollar seems to always win and the wider net you can catch the more people you can snag. Jacob and I have always felt long term. I can’t even believe I’m saying these words as I’m saying them because we were all pretty outspoken about not having a big political thing going on. As you get older, there are certain issues where you think this isn’t progressing fast enough for me so I’m pissed off and things need to change. I’m going to wrap this into a beautiful cinematic blissful package but at the heart of it there’s gonna be a grenade.
So does the name have any real implication beyond the obvious object of an Encyclopedia?
It’s a beautiful word and sometimes that’s enough for us to want to incorporate it. Each song feels informational just like an encyclopedia. There’s a new edition in that romantic old sense of new information brought in and the old taken out and cleansed from the pages. Jacob and I were in a new place and old things had fallen away.
On the track “There is Nothing Left” you speak about how you want love, but in your heart there was nothing left and even that sentiment felt romantic. I was like you’re putting me down! But you’re also loving me.
Jacob and I were talking the other day and we were saying how we think art that really stands the test of time has an element of sadness in it. The most beautiful movies, books and photographs are always tinged with sadness.
Do you think as you’ve gotten older advocating darker subject matter, like during the song “Face of God” is becoming crucial?
I feel a responsibility at this point because it burns so deeply in me. I say the word God as if I’m stating that God is a thing that exists, but I would hope that people who follow the band understand that god is used as symbol for other things authority. It’s almost a little scary, like what’s the next record going to entail? We just going to have to make sure the music is really pretty [laughs] so we can tackle some deeper things.
Do you find that you had to address the issue of gay rights?
I do I wanted to be present and really reflect my life. I think that’s my responsibility if I have a microphone. You can’t just write a record and then go on tour for a better part of two years without that. Eventually you’re listening to your own album every night and singing these words and I got fed up. It’s funny a song like “Let’s Go Surfing” I wrote on my own when I was just sitting in my bedroom and I never thought anyone would hear it, so every night when I walk on stage there’s this one part of the show that I know I will spend three minutes singing something that has lost a lot of meaning. A part of it is a big reaction to how I was raised. I run my whole life to get away from this man but in the end of the day I am my father’s son. He’s the pastor of a church and he stands on stage with a microphone and there’s essentially an audience looking to him and listening to every word he says. It’s just the funniest thing I’m doing the exact same thing but only with an opposite message.
That’s possibly why it feels very timely; when you approach a stage where each word is layered with intent it feels more real receiving it. You also tackle the idea of transgender?
There’s a verse more abstractly for some than others that says along the lines of a clock ticks on the wall, a knife sings in the dark he’s closing his eyes for the last time he’s going to be her. I’m hoping that anyone who hears that who has friends that are dealing with that sort of thing feels touched. Jacob and I have many trans friends who we love so much and are a very big part of our lives, so that’s another reason that we wanted to address it.
And hopefully more artists will start discussing bigger ideas outside universal themes. Perfume Genius speaks about the idea of being a Queen
How exciting to be in a world where things like this aren’t snuffed out. I feel like gay artists up until recently have been so much better accepted by the general public if they’re willing to make fun of their own lives. If you think about it 99% of gay characters on TV come with a shtick, they’re never just a normal person who has a good job who just comes home and goes about life in a normal way and just happened to be gay. It’s always the guy with the smart mouth, the girl who is super gruff and frustrated and oversexed. I think this is starting to progress, and artists on stage aren’t feeling the pressure because they’re gay to wear angel wings. The normal person who lives next to you in the same building is just gay and that’s it, there’s no crazy fan-fair or fireworks – they are a person who is worthwhile.
I think you tackle that a lot on “Rules of Life” when you say, “I don’t subscribe to the rules of life, who penned them?
Oh totally and you know every time I mention God I know this is going to be a thing in interviews with people asking why I always say I don’t believe in God but then I’m always talking about God. When I say God, what I mean is my father or an organization that say no to people who deserve a chance.
Am I weird for not mentioning the God thing? The tone and the rest of the lyrics subtly hint that you’re speaking of the symbolism behind authority
No I think we’re on the same wavelength which is really nice and refreshing.
I must ask about the song “Wild Geese” as the lyrics feel marginally poetic – “sighed with the trees and walked passed the windows”
[Long pause] Well if I can be honest with you, Jacob wrote that song he wrote the lyrics and the music without me even knowing. He put it on a CD and I was driving around in my car by myself playing through these songs he had written and I slammed the breaks when that song came on. I called him immediately and I was pretty emotional and I just said you know Jacob this is your magnum opus! It’s like all the years of writing songs this is the one. Initially he declined my request to put it on the album and then called me back five minutes later and said let’s put it on the record. Every time I hear it gets me a little choked up which is harder and harder to do these days.
Do you find yourself becoming thicker skinned?
I brought all these people in to share my life and many of them disappeared after the initial big fuzzy moment when The Drums first broke, it’s so easy for everyone to be seduced by that and sort of want a piece of the pie. This is the place where this whole album started and thank goodness it did, because we might not have any record had we not had a dark corner to walk out of.
Do you see it being another three more years until your next record?
Jacob and I have always said we’re learning to be present now but were always looking into the past while running into the future and slamming into a wall [Laughs] I don’t really know but all I can tell you is that this is the first album that at the end of it we weren’t exhausted and creatively depleted – it was the opposite. Sometimes it feels like our careers are held together by band-aids and there are other times where it feels like we could go forever and nothing can stop us.
That’s very honest and beautiful.
Is it? It’s a scary place to be but I prefer it than to living an easy breezy over confident life. Otherwise what’s the point? With all the stuff going on, you better be sincere. And I just want to say thank you for your thoughtfulness, it’s not every interview that’s as thoughtful. It means a lot when you’re in the thick of to be able to talk about the intricacies and the subtleties of what you’ve worked on.