Interview

The Drums Find Vulnerability In Brutalism

Jonny Pierce talks self-care, queer culture, & the making of his poppiest album yet

Is there a 2010s indie band more misunderstood than the Drums? When Jonny Pierce’s once-Brooklyn-based indie-pop project first emerged at the top of the decade with their indelible self-titled debut, it was with a wave of hype brought on by the typically mouth-foaming British music press and the local ubiquity afforded by notching multiple CMJ showcases. It’s odd to think about the amount of buzz that initially surrounded the Drums, considering that the sounds that the project’s often embraced — the smart, sparkling sensibilities of Saint Etienne, the “new pop” sound that emerged in the 1980s following post-punk’s stark wake, and the heart-on-sleeve tenderness of Swedish indie labels Sincerely Yours and Labrador — are more cultish and privately beloved than what mainstream indie has come to represent.

Indeed, you could make the case that the Drums have been one of the decade’s best-kept secrets in the increasingly nebulous genre that is indie music. Through label changes and a perpetually shuffling lineup, Pierce — now the sole member — has persevered, sharpening his musical eccentricities and revealing new, personal layers of himself through his songwriting on every subsequent album. His forthcoming Drums release, Brutalism, might be his boldest and most purely-pop statement to date, a paean to self-love and self-care that cuts through the depressive fog that hung over 2017’s exquisite bummer Abysmal Thoughts. The dusky guitars that he once made his name on still pop up every now and again, but they’re joined by a sonic array of gew-gaws — from spongy bass lines and bouncy synth motifs to the bleeping pulse of techno.

Pierce currently lives in Los Angeles, a city that he once resided in but left circa Abysmal Thoughts to return to New York City after a divorce and excessive partying took their emotional toll. The attempt to re-relocate didn’t stick, though, and he returned to L.A. with a renewed sense of purpose at the heart of Brutalism.

“I was in the beginning stages of taking care of myself — taking my mental and physical health more seriously — for the first time in my life,” he explains during an hour-long chat in his publicist’s Midtown office. “For the first time in my life I wanted to find some sort of balance that would allow me to make better work. With the help of therapy — I realized I’m a control maniac. I control things so I can understand them and feel safe. This time around I made a really conscious choice to let go of the things I’ve always been afraid to let go of — to step into the wilderness.”

Read on for our conversation on emotional honesty, queer culture in indie, and the secret history beyond Brutalism’s poppier outlook. You can also stream the LP in full.

STEREOGUM: Was seeing a therapist a new approach for you?

JONNY PIERCE: I’ve done it on and off, but this is the first time I’ve really done it. I’m present in the sessions, I don’t withhold anything, I’m really honest. I take the advice and try to put action to it.

STEREOGUM: What was your general headspace while making this new album?

PIERCE: There’s sadness in every song. Hope and despair are sometimes feelings that are closer together than we think they are. Sadness and joy play with each other. When I’m feeling joyful, there’s a ribbon of sadness in that joy — I always feel it. When I’m feeling sad, there’s something that feels beautiful about that moment. Maybe it’s just the purity of a strong feeling. It reminds you that you’re human and alive. There’s a joy in that, as subtle as it is.

With this new album, I want to be a band with a message. It’s a message of vulnerability. I’ve realized that, when I find true joy, it’s based out of human connection. The only way to connect to another human is to be vulnerable. That’s scary for a lot of people, but for me it’s not. I almost get a kick out of being transparent. It’s the world I want to live in. I’m a man in my mid-30s who still struggles with depression and being alone every single day, and there’s so many people who feel the same way inside and don’t have an outlet to talk about it.

STEREOGUM: After I heard Abysmal Thoughts, I was like, “Maybe we’ll never hear another record from this guy again.”

PIERCE: I’m surprised the last three albums happened. At the beginning of my career, I romanticized this idea that I would make a couple of records and vanish. Those first few records were what they were, but I didn’t know who I was and I didn’t have a true identity as an artist and for myself. I was still developing, and I was pretty damn lost. It wasn’t until the tail end of recording Abysmal Thoughts that I started stepping into who I was and beginning to understand something about myself.

I’ve lived a bunch of lifetimes — from my abusive childhood and escaping that, to having a whirlwind career, to getting married and then getting divorced. Being gay was a big, scary thing too. Being on the road for 10 years hit pause on my human development, too. On Abysmal Thoughts, you could hear how I was starting to look within. Brutalism is the next chapter of continuing on that path and not letting life take me anywhere it wants to. I want to be modern and progressive, and I think there’s something modern and progressive about taking yourself seriously. It’s pretty MAGA to just be like, “Fuck it.” [Laughs]

STEREOGUM: There’s been the perception in recent years that there are more queer artists in indie now, but there’s always been queer artists in indie, regardless of their visibility.

PIERCE: I remember vividly being asked by a writer for The Sunday Times in London, in 2009, if anyone in the band was gay. The question came out of nowhere. It was complete silence, and I just started sweating. My face started getting red. I remember lying and avoiding answering — “None of that really matters, what matters is music,” something like that. I remember feeling really ashamed, but also justified in not being fully transparent. I felt like it wasn’t fair. They don’t have to ask this question to Vampire Weekend.

STEREOGUM: Why do you think he asked that?

PIERCE: Maybe it was the beginning of some journalist wanting to give credit to queer artists, I don’t know. But I had a real fear that it would affect everything — that we would be pigeonholed or sidelined. When I think back on it now, I don’t think that I should’ve just told the truth — I was just trying to manage. There was a lot of fear. I can be empathetic towards myself when thinking about that moment. Now, if someone asks if I’m gay, I’ll shout it from the mountaintops. But it feels safe to say that in some circles.

What I don’t appreciate is — and I don’t want to name names — but there have been artists in the last year who are not gay or queer and tapping into the “pink dollar” a little bit. Look, if you’re straight, I’m sure you deal with some shit. But straight men have ruled the world since the beginning of time. In recent modern history, gay people have been ostracized, abused, killed, beaten. When I see someone straight tapping into gay culture — even if they feel like they “get it” and really appreciate it — I feel like it’s irresponsible to take even a drop of that power away that queer artists finally have.

And we’re not out of the woods! We have a President who is vowing to strip rights from queer people. Fucking Congress, up until recently, was just going to fall right in line with all of that. Our existence is still under threat, and I think it will be for a long time. If you’re straight, you might just want to err on the side of being supportive instead of trying to pull from that identity. I don’t want queer people acting straight, like I’ve been guilty of, and I don’t want straight people tapping into the gay stuff to cash out. If we can just all be honest and compassionate, we’d be in a better place.

STEREOGUM: I feel like the Obama era was a time in which we all started working on ourselves more, and now we’re back at square one again.

PIERCE: It’s survival now. Working on yourself has become a luxury.

STEREOGUM: “Body Chemistry” is explicitly about depression and self-care.

PIERCE: It encapsulates what I’m really trying to say on the album. I felt cut off from the real world my whole life, and I see people on the street who seem blissfully prancing through. I don’t quite want that, but I don’t want to feel how I feel. I don’t want day after day to keep going by where I’m in a room of people and I’m not connecting to anyone. I’m putting it out there that I’m frustrated, and that I want to change it. I’m looking inward and asking, “How do I fix this?” And the best way to fix anything is by asking questions and examining yourself.

I feel better than I’ve ever felt. I don’t feel an ocean of depression weighing down on me like I used to, and it’s a direct result of exploring myself. It’s easier to live with something you understand. It’s more work to stay up on it, but the second you become less persistent and more reckless, it snowballs really fast. It’s the art of maintaining. This album was therapeutic. Every time I finished a song, I felt 5% more enlightened about myself. I’m thrilled when I think about making music in the future, because I have a new confidence. It’s not an overwhelming confidence [Laughs], but it’s exotic and new.

STEREOGUM: Making pop music within the confines of indie used to be an outlier, and now everyone does it. This is your poppiest record to date.

PIERCE: I’ve always had a fascination with pop music. I’m drawn to efficiency, and I don’t have a lot of patience for lollygagging. I was always fascinated with how pop could package complex ideas in a three-minute time span, with lots of dynamics. There was something exciting about reaching people that way. I’m a huge stickler for melody, too. There was a band called Joy Electric on Tooth And Nail who released an album called Melody, and I loved that album — pop was that guy’s aim. That was my first introduction to real, artful music that was also pop.  

I’ll talk about something that I’ve shied away from talking about in the past. In 2002 or 2003, I was still living upstate with my parents. We’d just gotten dial-up internet, and I waited until they went to bed and went into a Yahoo gay chat room. The first person I talked to turned out to be someone who was a music industry manager in New York City. My father had given me a synthesizer that I’d composed entire songs on, so I had about 18 songs all greatly influenced by Joy Electric. This guy asked me what I do, I sent him a couple of tracks, he asked for a photo, and the next day I jumped on a Greyhound and came down to the city.

Six months later, I’d signed to Columbia and started a band called Elkland. We put this record out, and it was a whirlwind — I knew nothing about the world, I was homeschooled in the church, the Bible was my science book. I had just been making music in my bedroom. It was a classic tale: this green artist who doesn’t know what’s going on, and a major label that says, “We have the perfect producer for this project.” They set me up with some people I’d never met to produce a record that sounded nothing like anything I was remotely interested in, and I was still shackled by fear of going back upstate and working at the local mall.

The record came out, it was a huge flop, no one cared about it, and I hated it. I never listened to it and was completely embarrassed by it. If you heard the demos, they were technically pop songs and kind of beautiful — but they had nothing to do with the final project. Brutalism is a stab at making that pop record that could have been.

STEREOGUM: The Drums were one of the last bands to get a certain type of buzz from the music press.

PIERCE: I think we were the last band. Us and Surfer Blood. [Laughs]

STEREOGUM: How have you seen things change in the industry since?

PIERCE: I try to avoid the industry, but it doesn’t really work for me. I’m going to say something that might rub people the wrong way, but I’m convinced that the internet is responsible for a lot of queer awareness. Information is shared, and it’s less scary. “Oh, this was just a big boogeyman in my head — queer people are great!” I feel like “band culture” is, in a way, old-fashioned. It’s a little bit MAGA. Part of the staying power of the Drums is that we’ve always been weird, and my interest is in being modern.

As a human and as an artist, I want to be conscious about who I am, what my art is, and how it affects people. How does what I do and sing reflect on me as a human? The recklessness of 2003, 2005 — I don’t know if there’s a place in music for that anymore. I don’t see as much of it. I can’t speak for anyone, but I think the reason the Drums are still paid attention to is that I’m willing to be aware and talk about things that are important. I’m not sitting here and singing songs about getting wasted and partying, or clichéd heartbreak. It’s about my brokenness, and I don’t think there are a lot of artists talking about that. That’s what’s pulling us through — awareness of self. The world’s changing, but I’m okay with it.

Brutalism is out 4/5 via ANTI.