And then there was one. Ever since New York's The Drums came to prominence towards the end of the noughties, they have shorn a member with each passing album. Once long-standing stalwart Jacob Graham handed in his notice after 2014's Encyclopedia, the only surviving member was lead singer Jonny Pierce.
Rather than throw in the towel or return under a solo guise, Pierce has instead ploughed on with the band, and upon hearing new record Abysmal Thoughts it was an astute decision - it is an album rich with self-reflection, mourning the end of relationships (the effervescent, bittersweet pop of single 'Blood Under My Belt'), acceptance within an anti-gay culture ('Head of the Horse') and hedonistic derision ('Rich Kids', 'Are U Fucked').
Sam Lambeth spoke to Pierce to discuss the new record, The Drums' trajectory thus far and plans for the future.
Abysmal Thoughts sees you as a last standing member of The Drums, but for the majority of the band’s career it has mostly been you in the creative driving seat. Is that correct? Ergo, was creating Abysmal Thoughts any different than before? Was it more liberating?
Well, yeah, it was always me behind the driving wheel, so to speak. Since the beginning, I was the one doing almost all of the writing and recording on my own. I brought the other guys on because at the time I thought I wanted to form a band around me, but years later - and with some therapy, I think I just didn’t feel confident enough in myself to do this on my own. I know that sounds smug or whatever, but I’m just trying to be really honest with everyone. I grew up in a small town with anti-gay parents and I was always told that I was not good enough, and stuff like that sticks with some people, and it certainly did for me. So the other guys were less of a creative driving force for me, and much more of a support system. I get why they left, like, I understand it. I was leaning on them hard to essentially fill a big void in my life. It was probably taxing for both of them. So, yeah, Connor left during Portamento, and then Jacob left after Encyclopedia. When Jacob asked told me he wanted to leave the band, I didn’t for a second think to ask him to stay on. I could tell he was exhausted from the years of touring and that he had been taking emotional steps away from The Drums for a while, so when he asked to leave it felt really natural. I didn’t fear at all that I couldn’t manage The Drums at that point, seeing as I was the one making the music since the beginning, but I guess, what was new and exciting for me was the fact that I was no longer responsible for managing other people’s feelings - or considering their creative opinions. So, I went for it. I dove in deep and explored all the things I had been holding on to and hadn’t been able to put into the music before. Cowbells, horns, lap steele, and coach whistles found their way onto the album, but so did a fresh wave of unfiltered subject matter. With the lyrics, I just said exactly what I wanted to say. When Jacob was in the band, I was able to flirt with transparency, but I always felt like I had to reign in the “drama” because I had other people to consider, but now I can just expose myself, lyrically and the hope is, that I can better connect my message to other people , that message being : “I know, I know, life is weird and confusing and it sometimes feels devastatingly pointless, but look - you’re not alone.”
Crucially, though, Jacob Graham severed his ties with the band. How important was he, as a friend as much as a musician, during The Drums’ tenure? And even though his interest in the band curtailed, did you initially miss his presence while creating the record?
I don’t know if Jacob will read this, and I hope he doesn’t take offence, but I didn’t miss working with anyone else in this process. There were times where the workload felt pretty heavy, but I was happy to do it. There were aspects that felt very familiar, It also felt wildly fresh. New Ideas and new concepts took precedent and there wasn’t much room for sulking about what I had lost. My relationship with Jacob was always so music-based and, you know, Jacob is a very private person - even with me, so when two guys have had a relationship based off of pretty much only music for the last 15 years, and then you remove music from the equation, well, what is left? I think I’m trying to figure it all out, but I’m not putting pressure on myself to get to a place of understanding right away. He’s a lovely guy with great values and he’s super talented - he just needs to be the master of his own ship.
Abysmal Thoughts is an album haunted by both professional and personal break-ups. Do you feel both were more devastating now you are older than the writer who penned, say, ‘It Will All End in Tears’? Was penning the album a cathartic experience?
I’ll always be writing about feeling sad, because there is a part of me that will always be that way. All I can do is be honest in my life and in my art. I see what you are asking in your question, but I don’t feel that way at all. Yes, I am older, but hopefully with age comes a little bit of wisdom. Wisdom tells me that there is reason to believe that there is no god and there is no real reason to life other than to procreate and continue our species. Wisdom also tells me that since there is no real point, you have to decided what is important for yourself, and how you want to live your life. I spent a lot of my youth looking for answers on why we are on this planet. I’ve given all that up now. I just want to make my art, love myself and others, and live with good values. Beyond that, I’m not sure much is of importance. I could give a shit about owning nice cars or a giant house. Matters of the heart are what interest me most - and I’m happy to do that at any age.
There are also other themes running throughout the album. For example, can you give us some background to the track Rich Kids?
Rich Kids is the only track where I got a little bit political. People ask me all the time if my album is secretly political and I always have to be honest and say no. This is a “me me me” album. I was pretty much only looking inward and not doing a lot of looking around me when it came time to write lyrics. However, Rich Kids was one of the last song I wrote and it happened to be at a time where, for the first time, Trump seemed to have a real possibility of getting elected. I was seeing his daughter on the news all the time being total complicit and I was seeing his sons in the news all the time - posing in front of dead elephants and it was making me crazy. So Rich Kids was a reaction to their stupidity. It was also a slight jab at wealthy people I know who could do a lot to help - whether it be donating, or speaking out on their socials, or going to marches, but because they are comfortable monetarily, they don’t see much of a need to do anything at all. When I hear someone say “Oh, I’m just not a political person” it makes me crazy. You might as well be saying “I'm a selfish prick.” because politics is ultimately about people and just because you get your three meals a day and Netflix account, that doesn’t mean that a single mother in Cleveland who just got laid off isn’t totally suffering. No one is perfect, but it’s the ones that don’t try at all that make me sick.
You also delved into other styles of music on the record, for example drum and bass. Was this something you wouldn’t have been able to do previously, or was this a newfound intrigue you wished to pursue?
I can’t say for sure if I would have been able to put these types of beats on my songs on previous albums, but I will tell you that ever since Roni Size put out his Mercury prize winning New Forms, I have someone who appreciates drum n bass. When I went to record the album, these snare patterns emerged quite naturally, and so I just went with it. It’s like my subconscious had been storing up all these ideas for the last eight years, and now it was time to unleash.
The two singles that have preceded Abysmal Thoughts, ‘Blood Under My Belt’ and ‘Heart Basel’, have that imitable Drums brand of melancholy. Do you feel The Drums have something of a signature sound? Has it ever been tempting to completely rip up the formula, or would that be something for an official ‘solo’ record?
I think anyone that you would ask would agree that The Drums have formed an original sound and for the most part, I’ve stuck with it. So, this is a reason that I am grateful for the years that I was totally broke. I was living in Florida, borrowing money for rent, and working at a shoe shop. I was coming home after work each night and recording the Summertime EP and the debut album. At the time I was using an off-brand electric guitar, a 10 dollar reverb machine from Radio Shack, and one of Jacob’s synthesizers. I didn’t even have a bass guitar, so I just blended the subs on the synths and the electric guitar to try to mimic a bass guitar. I did this all on a dirty carpeted floor. So, I had about 4 pieces of gear and thats it. I had never played guitar before, and I wasn’t trying to make them sound amazing because at the times, I didn’t know that anyone else would be hearing these songs. Call it a happy accident. But I definitely stuck with the formula because I have a real respect for artists that refine their work through the years rather than bow to the modern day pressure of showing variety.
You’re returning to the UK in the fall for a tour. Have you got a new band in place? How are the new songs sounding live? Did they go down well at SXSW?
I can’t wait to come back. Yes, we’ve got a full band but half of the band has been playing with me for years. The songs are sounding better than ever, I'm told.
Do you feel that the band also have a strong relationship with the UK? Perhaps stronger than in the US?
Well, when we start, The Drums was pretty big in the UK thanks to a lot of UK publications pushing us and making us super buzzy. It took America a long time to catch up, but now I feel like there's equal love for the band in both places. I feel at home playing either market. Our biggest market is actually Mexico and South America. We are giant there and I love it.
I am keen to talk briefly about the band’s second LP, Portamento, as I believe it to be a particularly strong record and one that had a noticeable aura of bittersweet maturity (‘Days’ and ‘What You Were’ being just two examples). However, commercially it did not quite live up to your debut. While sometimes that is to be expected, do you ever feel Portamento was given a raw deal? Was it released too soon after your debut?
Well, I mean the UK press seem to have a predictable formula, don’t they? Love a band when they are brand new and then shit on them no matter what they do for their second album. Portamento is a far superior album to the debut. I almost never hear people talking about the debut album, but fans are always reaching out telling me how Portamento has changed their lives or made them feel less sad or whatever. Thanks for noticing that though. Ah, the fickle press.
When Jacob left, was it tempting to retire The Drums’ name? Has it ever been an albatross around your neck? And now Abysmal Thoughts is here, do you think about the ‘band’’s future?
The Drums is so thoroughly “me”. It wouldn’t make sense to retire the name. I'm doing what I’ve always done. Hiring people around me to play live with me, but write and record nearly everything on my own in the studio, or bedroom if you will. I will say I was talking to my manager last night about doing some solo stuff and how its much more possible to make that successful now that I’ve made it clear to the world that The Drums was really just silly old me this whole time. I have the weight to through around now.
The Drums are on Facebook and Twitter. Their new album, Abysmal Thoughts, is released on Friday 16 June.