A poet, essayist, critic, and native Oklahoman, T. Cole Rachel lives in Brooklyn in an apartment filled with ceramic cats. He is a frequent contributor to Interview, V, OUT, The New York Times Magazine, Dossier, Numero, and The Fader, is also a DJ, a part-time bartender, and is known to wear a highly-prized and often-photograhed horse sweater. Please welcome him as he catches us up with the Pains Of Being Pure At Heart in this, his inaugural Progress Report for Stereogum.
NAME: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
PROGRESS REPORT: Prepping their second full-length album, Belong, for release in March 2011 via Slumberland.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart might just be the most aptly named band I’ve ever had the pleasure of speaking to. It’s apparent after listening to the band’s jingly-jangly self-titled 2009 album that they are, as the music would imply, a bunch of sweet softies. That album’s winning combination of teenage heart-directly-on-sleeve melodic wistfulness and sweetly messy production might have been unbearably twee were it not for the fact that the songs themselves were such perfectly formed pop tunes. Garnering comparisons to everything from Black Tambourine to Ride, the record was — at least by the tiny indie world from which it was launched — a runaway success, a fact that proved perhaps most surprising to the actual band itself. It also made the prospect of crafting a proper follow-up a rather confounding proposition.
“With the first record we didn’t really have any expectations,” explains vocalist/guitarist Kip Berman. “We have just been so overwhelmed and grateful and … surprised, to be honest.” Keyboardist Peggy Wang concurs: “Half of us didn’t even have passports when we made that record. We never expected that we’d get to travel anywhere. Seeing crowds react to the songs was, like, absolutely shocking. It was all totally life-affirming and weird.”
So what, then, does a band like The Pains of Being Pure at Heart do to follow such a modest triumph? Apparently you do the least expected thing — enlist the superpowers of mega-producers Flood and Alan Moulder — two humans responsible for some of the most influential rock sounds of the past two decades — to record and mix your record. “We were so in awe and also a little bit scared of Flood,” explains Berman. “We didn’t want him to make us sound like a ’big’ rock band. We didn’t want to iron out all of our rough edges. In the end, he was really into the ways in which we are bad at playing music and he kind of celebrated it. He wasn’t trying to make us U2. He just wanted to make us become a better version of ourselves — to get to the heart of what makes us good as a band. That was the coolest thing.”
“It was such a paradox for a band like us to work with someone like Flood,” says Wang, “but I feel like our amateurishness was kind of endearing for him. In the beginning we were so intimidated, but by the end we had developed a good push-and-pull with him. He made it seem as if he had really learned something from us as well … which is crazy, when you think about it.”
Recorded and mixed in New York and London over the summer, Belong doesn’t necessarily represent a bold new sound for the band but rather, they hope, a proper refinement. While previous Pains Of Being Pure at Heart records were written using drum machines, the new record favors a live dynamic. Instead of quickly recording songs after writing them as they had in the past, this time the band had the opportunity to test material out on the road and allow the songs to evolve over the course of several months — a process that has yielded a bunch of songs in which “the loud parts are louder and the quieter parts are quieter — with a lot more variation between the two.”
For many fans, the inherent joy in listening to a band like Pains comes from the angsty and vaguely adolescent sense of melancholy in the bands music, much of which stems from the hazy bedroom-recording aesthetic. The rough-hewn vibe of “Young Adult Friction” and “This Love Is Fucking Right” is the thing that gives them such emotional heft, like teen diary doodles morphed into song form. Given Alan Moulder’s deft touch adding sonic boom to everyone from My Bloody Valentine to the Killers, how much of Pains’ fuzzy vibe will be shaved away? At least a little, explains Berman.
“There’s a reason why Siamese Dream is such an amazing American rock and roll record,” he says. “There are moments on that record where everything sounded so perfect and beautiful … not that we could ever sound like Smashing Pumpkins! Still, we wanted our record to sound very immediate and rock and roll. We didn’t want it to sound too gauzy and reverby. We wanted a guitar sound that hit you in the chest. Our first record was so much about nostalgia. This record is very much about experiencing the present. It’s about right now … and we really wanted a sound to match that.”
At the very least, the new Pains record represents an interesting experiment — an example of two seemingly disparate worlds managing to creatively collide. It’s also a nice acknowledgment that the scruffy indie-pop pouring out of Brooklyn over the past couple of years is finally poised to reach a deservedly bigger audience. Maybe. The band is loathe to make any big predictions about what happens next, choosing instead to savor the general surreality of their current position.
“One of the most interesting things about working with these big name people was that they are so totally removed from the world that we come from,” says Berman. “The thought that there is gonna be a Slumberland Records catalog entry that was produced by Flood and mixed by Alan Moulder is a bizarre juxtaposition. It feels very once in a lifetime for us. Not that our lives are all downhill from here, but you know … we’re still just a kind of shitty indie-pop band from Brooklyn — we weren’t snorting lines of expensive drugs and trying to isolate the perfect synthesizer sound for weeks at a time. We just wanted to make a really good record that sounded really good. Working with these people was like our “Rome being sacked” kind of moment — like we managed to sneak in and make off with a really nice statue without anyone noticing. I hope people can appreciate the weirdness of that.”
“Heart In Your Heartbreak” is the first taste from Belong. Listen:
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Heart In Your Heartbreak by forcefieldpr