Jonny Pierce seems introspective, perhaps even a little rattled. What should be a gig has instead turned into some sort of improvised Shepherd’s Bush therapy session. “I was on the cover of NME, I got constant airplay and yet I was never fully happy,” Pierce laments. You almost expect him to then open up the floor to any questions and initiate some trust exercises.
For any other band, this feeling of emptiness would seem like shallow pandering, but The Drums were attuned to melancholy way before they graced any magazine. Their new album, with the typically sorrowful sobriquet Abysmal Thoughts, is a surprisingly consistent collection from a band now four records, and three exiled members, in. Opening with the pulsating ‘I’ll Fight For Your Life’, Pierce frolics from one end of the stage to the other, throwing his arms to the heavens like a drunk matinee idol on the roughed-up, energetic ‘Best Friend’ and the wistful ‘Book of Stories’.
The packed London audience are a mix of those in their mid-twenties yearning for noughties nostalgia and a much older cohort who consider The Drums to be natural successors to The Smiths. When Pierce is on top form, that comparison seems entirely justified – the songs plucked from Portamento, their 2011 high water mark, mix morose melodies with kitchen-sink despair brilliantly. The breezy, bass-driven ‘Days’ gets one of the biggest cheers, ‘Money’ has a Morrissey-esque brand of morbid humour, and ‘I Need A Doctor’ is propelled by a jaunty jangle, despite its sample motif sounding unnervingly like a frog.
Pierce is far from a spent force, though, and the songs from Abysmal Thoughts stand up on their own terms. ‘Heart Basel’ and its bittersweet guitar coda is matched by Pierce’s theatrical falsetto, while the soaring ‘Blood Under My Belt’ has an adolescent ache that is just as potent as their other hits. And on the subject of hits, ‘Let’s Go Surfing’ is dispatched early, its earworm whistle ricocheting around the room like a lost bird. But on the whole, that song is something of an anomaly in The Drums’ back catalogue – the rest of the setlist is devoted to their moodier works, the chugging kiss-off ‘What You Were’ and the yearning ‘How It Ended’.
The bizarre encore sees Pierce, who had hitherto devoted his stage presence to dancing, launch into a long speech regarding the band’s current position, also touching upon the exit of long-term synth player and co-founder Jacob Graham. Despite that, though, it’s perhaps telling that the next song they play is ‘The Future’. They leave a Shepherd’s Bush audience awash with sombre delight, the gothic charm of ‘If He Likes It Let Him Do It’ serving as the finale. On this evidence, Pierce seems to like it a lot more now than he ever did before.