Jonny Pierce is stood in front of a glacial lake in Upstate New York hiding out at the little cabin he owns. “I’m surround by all this nature,” he tells me, “I love raw nature and I love big wild frantic cities and I’m not so good at anything in between, I don’t do well in a suburb.” Here at the cabin is where he wrote half of his new The Drums album Abysmal Thoughts, de-camping to LA to work on the rest.
Since the release of Encyclopedia in 2014 it’s all change for Pierce. With The Drums co-founder Jacob Graham exiting the band, Pierce found himself riding solo under The Drums moniker, left to his own devices, unrestricted, off the chain. The result is a deeply personal, intimate and reflective record. Abysmal Thoughts is drenched in melody, the sound of weights being lifted from Pierce’s shoulders.
Childhood friends Pierce and Graham met at bible camp when they were 11 or 12, Pierce says Graham became his “main support” and they began trying to make music together immediately. Later they formed a short-lived band called Goat Explosion that was soon renamed Elkland, releasing an album titled Golden in 2005. By 2009 the pair had relocated to New York launching themselves as The Drums with drummer Connor Hanwick and former Elkland guitarist Adam Kessler onboard.
Right let’s get this part out the way, Jonny Pierce is now the last man standing as The Drums (Jacob Graham, Connor and Adam have all departed the band). Do you feel that Jacob deciding he’d had enough of the band life has been a blessing in disguise?
“It’s been a blessing, I don’t know about in disguise. Jacob is someone that’s still in my life, not as much as he used to be because we were pretty inseparable, on the road together, in studios together, working together. Enough time has passed where – it might sound a bit sad but any clarity in my life is welcome – it’s become apparent to me that because our relationship was so focused on music and working together in music, now that we don’t work together in music it’s become hard for us to figure out what the new identity of our relationship is, it’s not like we sat down and had a big heart to heart conversations all the time and that was ok when we were in a band together because everything was music so we weren’t searching for something to fill any kind of void. So I’m still learning what my relationship is with Jacob and I think he’s doing the same thing.”
“To answer your question more directly, I think I’ve settled on good. It feels good. The biggest change for me is this new feeling of independence and freedom that I hadn’t experienced. While I had written and recorded most of the music that you’ve heard from The Drums over the years, knowing that I don’t have to represent anyone else and I’m just representing myself as a person and as an artist, I can just do it. I’ve always been more extreme than I was allowed to show before.”
Since The Drums first emerged the music and cultural landscape has gone through a bit of shift. Troye Sivan, Sam Smith and Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander have all proved it’s possible to have massive careers on their own terms, being openly gay popstars and finding that being themselves is ultimately their number one appeal. Back in 2009 The Drums track ‘Let’s Go Surfacing’ made the band instant indie-pop darlings when it was released, but Pierce found himself in a tricky position as a newly established public entity.
“It’s definitely a different time now, even just in America where gay marriage is now legal and that really changed a lot, just how people respond to other people being different from them. Definitely when I started The Drums it was a scary time to be gay and in a rock band. I don’t know why I felt this way but a magazine like NME and the whole NME culture, when we first came out they embraced us but I really have my doubts that they would have embraced us fully if they knew that the lead singer was gay. They wanted us to be something that we weren’t. We’re not dumb, we got it too, they wanted us to be the next whatever and so we kept quiet. Not just picking on the UK press because in the US it felt the same. In Brooklyn there was this whole indie music scene around 2010, all these bands coming out – out of Brooklyn not the closet [laughs] – and we felt that too and I remember be asked by some highbrow journalist point blank ‘Is anyone in the band gay?’ and we all freaked out and choked and I remember my heart just pounding and we didn’t answer the guy. It felt like if we said yes everyone would throw us aside and I feel embarrassed about that. It wasn’t courageous.”
Well you’re only human, it’s easy to look back and say ‘I wish I’d been brave and said fuck it’ but you’re a person too and you’re allowed to make mistakes and maybe you weren’t ready for it at the time.
“That’s the thing, if you know you’re going to be hated on and you want to do it in the right place in the right time. I do wish I had said ‘yes I am’ because here’s the thing, the other result is the one that I got. Yeah we were on the cover of magazines and yeah we were touring the world and that still happens now, but when it was happening then I can honestly say that, I think we were on the cover of NME four times in one year, but it wasn’t us, it was a version of us and we were hiding who we were and not fully being out there. I’m sure people back then would have come to a Drums show and been like ‘oh he’s clearly gay’ [laughs]. When I think of those years I don’t have good feelings, it doesn’t feel good and what feels good is now, with the freedom just to be me and the fanbase that has replaced the old one are people who are just fucking great and I can walk out onstage and feel really nice.”
And make out with your boyfriend onstage.
“And I can do that too [laughs].”
I was one of those weird kids who were like eight and was all ‘what’s the point we’re all gonna die’.
Pierce’s upbringing goes a long way to explaining why in the past he’s not only been reluctant to open up, but also given himself such a hard time over it. Pierce’s mother and father are pastors of a medium-sized Pentecostal born-again church. He’s said in the past that stuff like speaking in tongues was the norm, saying that as a family they were “full-on religious freaks.” He grew up being told and believing if you were gay you were basically going to hell.
“My whole life I’ve felt a bit alone or an outsider and I’ve also been judgemental towards people that I see clamouring for attention or there’s certain people that you can tell it’s their priority to have everyone be their friend. Growing up as I did I never really felt close to anyone. When you’re a little kid and you’re gay and your parents are fundamentally anti-gay, that is the fuel to the flame and I know that had that not been my beginnings I wouldn’t be making music and saying the things that I’m saying. I don’t know where I’d be or what I’d be doing but it definitely pushed me to get out of that small town and move to a big city and be around people that were like me. I definitely was leaning on Jacob and Connor and even my manager at the time, I felt like these were my family. It wasn’t until afterwards that I put it all together and realised that’s what I was doing. Maybe it was too much pressure for a lot of people and it wasn’t sustainable. You live and you learn. I’m sitting here saying I wouldn’t change anything but I probably would [laughs].”
Are you an advocate for oversharing?
“Yeh. I don’t see the point of me making a record any more if it’s not just super open and honest and vulnerable. A lot of people that listen to my music reach out to me and I get messages all the time online from people just saying that by me being open it’s helped them to be open or by me trying to figure out who the fuck I am, it’s helped them figure out who they are. That to me is so much more satisfying than a girl sitting on someone’s shoulders at who knows what festival singing ‘Let’s Go Surfing’. There’s no comparison. It’s really those kids who have encouraged me and made me feel like I’m in a safe space to be able to say this stuff. It sounds cheesy but it’s a real connection and it’s the only reason I keep making music. To be honest it’s not my favourite thing to do in the world, being in band, I really don’t like band culture and all of that. I’m not interested in being in a studio all the time, I really hate collaborating with people and jamming sessions and being in green rooms. That whole thing is not for me. Some people want it to be their real life and I’ve no idea why. The whole thing is stressful and unhealthy.”
The new record feels way more personal than anything you’ve done before. I think my favourite track is ‘Head of the Horse’ and that’s probably because it feels very open and confessional and easy.
“I grew up in a town called Horseheads. Believe it or not, Horseheads does exist. It sounds like something out of a David Lynch film. I’m actually like a half hour from it now at the cabin in Upstate New York. I actually bought the cabin as a last attempt to be close with my family. It’s on this lake up here and my dad has always wanted a cabin on the lake and I grew up and made a little bit of money and bought this cabin and it was really for me a way to reach out to them. So I got it and said ‘you guys should use it whenever you want’ and it was also look at me I did what you always wanted to do and I’m gay [laughs]. It was a way to prove myself to them and to also instead of me always wanting their approval I thought maybe they’d start wanting mine and none of that happened. Our relationship still sucks and now I’m stuck with this cabin [laughs]. That’s life – we do the craziest stuff to try and get what we want right and I’m no exception.”
I recently saw you talking about how you make music and it’s made me listen to the album in a totally differently way.
“To me artists that do things differently are the most exciting and when someone take son someone else’s recipe that’s when things get a little bit boring. I think a lot about how John Fox used to put tape over his analogue synthesiser, where the knobs are labelled and what does what or he’d turn the synthesiser upside down and close his eyes and fool around to make a sound. I’m doing things differently because I literally don’t know how to do anything else. I made all my music, up until The Drums, with analogue synthesisers most of which were monosynths so you play one note at a time, because the technology of the synths I collected you couldn’t play a chord, you couldn’t play two or three notes at a time. So that’s how I formed all my songs and then when I picked up a guitar finally to start The Drums I just played one note at a time, like my brain was stuck in that one note at a time mode, so if I wanted to make something that sounded like a chord I’d set up three different tracks and record one note on each track and they’d blend together and form something like a pad or a chord. I’m such a song fanatic, the song, not just he music. I always think if you can whistle a song to someone else that means you’ve got a good song and you don’t need much else.”
Do you think you’re melody writing has peaked?
“[laughs] When we released Encyclopedia I did have a thought that maybe I peaked on Portamento. With having Jacob leave the band it really was that extra push, like take a breathe and 1-2-3-4 charge. It was that vibe. Let’s open the flood gates and not hold back. Jacob has his own process but he didn’t like when things got too dramatic, if my lyrics got too dramatic he’d literally roll his eyes saying ‘oh so dramatic’ and I think I always wanted to be as dramatic as I wanted to be. So I’ve held back some of the drama and now I can whine away. It’s very much a me me me record. I get asked all the time, oh well Donald Trump and is that why you called the album Abysmal Thoughts because of the political unrest in your country – no, I was solely focused on myself for this whole album. It’s weird because Trump coming into office has really pushed me and a lot of people I know further towards activism and protesting and all that but none of that was happening when I was making the album, I was just focused on my life and what was left of it I supposed. During the process I had a huge breakup with my ex and that was a relationship I though I would carry to my grave and it just fell apart right before my eyes and that was difficult and I felt super alone. Then a month or two later Jacob leaves the band. I’m still grieving both of those things in a way, those were two big pillars of stability in my life that were yanked away at once. I think I’ll get a few more records out of that anyway [laughs].”
Maybe people shouldn’t have too much sympathy for you since you wrote a great new record and you scored a great new boyfriend.
“That’s the real curse, I had this thought and I’m not being funny but I wonder if in order for me to make good work I always have to be in that dark headspace. Even at times in my life when I felt somewhat content or dare I say happy, when I go to write something the sad corners of my heart warm up and rise to the surface and suddenly I’m writing a heartbreak song and I’m literally not sad. Maybe I deep down I still am sad. Maybe this is just a little blip of joy in this huge ocean of sadness. It’s confusing, why when I go to make art does something inside of me flip a switch? I can have fun, I can laugh, I can dance around with my boyfriend and we wake up every morning and put on really bad house music and dance house music. It’s like a dream, I’m super happy but maybe I’m not and that’s what this is all about. It’s a real process. My rule is just let it be what it is and I don’t fight it. Good art just happens and it’ll slither out one way or another.”
Ok you have to explain something to me. I was reading about you living minimally and saying you and your boyfriend have just two plates and two sets of knives and forks and stuff like that. How does this work practically, what if people come for dinner?
“They don’t! Honestly, we made a rule for our lives that we’re not having people over. Part of living minimal for us is that if someone wants to come over then we can make some coffee or tea but we’ll go out to eat or we’ll go to their place. There’s all sorts of options. For us we want everything to be really simple and we have been more at peace since we got rid of everything. We still have shit all over the place and it’s a real process getting rid of everything because you can’t just go dump everything in a dumpster because that fucks up the whole point of this conscious intentional living. So if we’re getting rid of a TV or something it’s about trying to donate it to a charity, everything is given away very carefully so that it makes sense and wont be wasteful and end up in a landfill. It’s taken literally 8 months and we’re still not done giving stuff away. It has made us happier, it feels good to just not had things. On the first album I had a lyric that said, “The less you own the more freedom you have” and so I’m finally putting that to use years later.”
What is your favourite lyric on the new album?
“Oooh. I think one that’s very telling of my life is on a song called ‘Under the Ice’ and it says, “Every morning I quit smoking/ Every night I’m bumming a light.” That sums up hopefully my past and not my future. This idea of always trying to improve and figure out who I am and ending up having lots more questions and a whole bunch more confusing and throwing in the towel and the next morning is new and you try to have positive thoughts about your life and about the day and it’s all so much easier said than done. I remember being a little kid and looking up to my parents and thinking whoah, I can’t wait until I’m that age because I wont hate myself so much or be confused about who I am. I was one of those weird kids who were like eight and was all ‘what’s the point we’re all gonna die’ [laughs].”
What would fourth album Jonny say to first album Jonny?
“To relax. I think about those years and the first EP and album and the second album and even going into Encyclopedia, they were nonstop and there was such a fear of it all falling away that I felt like if I wasn’t on a hamster wheel running running running, the second I stopped all the things I worked hard for would just vanish. So I think I would tell first album Jonny just relax, take some time for yourself and stop doing so much cocaine [laughs]. I wasn’t present to enjoy those years. I was in those moments but my brain was in a different space and because my brain was so often affected by drug use or drinking. I got into bad situations and made awful mistakes and was careless with people and I let people be careless with me, literally because I was recovering all the time from being hungover or I was high or drunk. I was really in that space for years. Now I’d tell my younger self that you don’t have to feel crazy to feel alive you can just be and everything’s not going to fall apart.”