Photo: Rachel Wright
After the runaway success of their eponymous debut album, with a rearrangement of personnel, The Drums are back.
As they release their new album ‘Portamento’, Gigwise caught up with front man, Jonny Pierce, to discuss charity shop instruments, the power of the kitchen and the inevitable demise of The Drums…
Gigwise: Aside from New York City, you’ve found most of your success here in Britain. You have another UK tour planned soon in support of the new album. Does the UK feel like home for the band in a way?
Jonny: Yeah, this is where things really happened for us and people really responded to us in a great way. It’s funny though, when it happened everyone back home said “Yeah, they love you now, but just wait until the second album…” The British press have a pretty bad reputation for loving a band then turning on them. It’s going to be quite exciting, playing new material, showing off the new line up.
Gigwise: Another thing the British press is good at is claiming is US bands for our own if we like them. For example you always get labelled as an Anglophile band due to some of the influences present in your music. Do you find that weird, seeing as how most of your early material seems to go for a ‘Fantasy Americana’ feel...?
Jonny: We never really understood it. Influence is a funny thing and I think to an extent people hear what they want to hear. I mean we’ve been compared to Orange Juice, and maybe a big Orange Juice fan can hear elements of their sound in what we do, but I don’t really.
Obviously, loads of the bands we love are British. If we were being compared to something awful that would be annoying but Britain’s made some of the best music in the world, so I don’t mind….
Listen: Exclusive Chad Valley Remix Of The Drums' 'Money' - Audio
Gigwise: The new album, ‘Portamento’, takes its title from a musical expression for the slide between two notes, something you do very well. Are their any deeper meanings there? The band sliding into more personal material maybe?
Jonny: It’s a double edged sword. Basically me and my band mate Jacob met as youngsters and we had a real shared passion for analogue synths, which is kind of weird for kids of that age. The first instruments we ever received were both old synths, both gifts from our parents. When we got a bit older we used to go to thrift stores looking for more of them. This was when you could actually find some amazing instruments for $50, some of the exact models that are on e-bay now for about $3,000. When people started building these electronic instruments, originally they wanted to try and faithfully recreate the sound, and also the functions, of classical instruments.
One of my favourite records ever is by Wendy Carlos and she basically must played Bach symphonies, but all on this huge, room-sized electric organ. At points on that record is does sound like your hearing an orchestra…Anyway, these old synths had functions like ‘portamento’ so you could play in the style of a violin. So that’s where we came across the word and it’s always been in mind as something I wanted to use. In terms of the bands direction, this is definitely a more personal record and, of course, there’s the switch of personnel. We’re a different band now.
Gigwise: Lead single ‘Money’ is, however, pretty whimsical…
Jonny: That’s definitely the most tongue in cheek song on the album. Overall the record is much more personal. Even by the time the first album was released we knew we probably weren’t going to keep going down that track, we were already eyeing a change.
This album is a lot more biographical, a lot more personal. I couldn’t keep going down the track of the first album. For example we wrote ‘Let’s Go Surfing’ some random day, years ago when we didn’t think anyone would hear it. By now it’s harder to relate those kind of songs...
Gigwise: Indeed, some people have criticised you in the past, on the basis that they couldn’t relate to the lyrics, that they aren’t ‘real’ enough in some way. I don’t know if you’re aware of Nicky Wire as a character, but he went as far as to call your music ‘soulless’…
Jonny: I wasn’t aware of him at the time, but I looked him and his band [The Manic Street Preachers] up and, to be honest, I wasn’t into their music at all, not a single thing they’ve put out, and they’ve released a lot of stuff! That makes it harder to care when they criticise you…As for the content of our songs, we always said we wanted to make something music that was quite visual and stylised. We try and make our songs like scenes from a film. We’ve always been outspoken about that, it’s what we’ve always done.
This one interviewer was trying to suggest to us we should try doing longer, slower instrumentals on our records to break up the poppy tracks. You just feel like saying “Yeah, that sounds like a good idea. Why not form a band that does that, or listen to one of the bands already doing that?” It’s strange when people tell you what your band should be doing…
The Drums - 'Money'
Gigwise: I think people are certainly drawn to how stripped back your sound is though. The last decade featured a lot ‘epic’ sounding music and seemed to going down a path where songs were judged and how ‘big’ you could make them. Then you guys broke along with a fair few other minimal sounding bands…
Jonny: I think that’s just the way we do it. We certainly don’t have to make any disciplined effort to keep out sound stripped down or anything. Our philosophy is to just give you ears what they need. We’ll layer a song until it sounds good and then we’ll stop. We don’t sit around looking for ways to make it bigger than it has to be, but at the same time it’s not like we’re trying to make ‘small’ sounding music.
Gigwise: But you certainly aren’t looking to get grandiose. Most of this album was recorded in your kitchen…
Jonny: Yeah, that’s right. All of the band live near each other in New York so it’s convenient for us. Basically, a lot of The Drums career is kind of a reaction I had to the terrible experience I had of making an album with my old band, Elkland, where, basically, a producer just butchered all of my songs. So, I don’t work with producers any more.
It suits us though. We don’t record a song unless it’s breathing down or neck and, because of that sense of urgency, we never take more than a day over recording a track. I definitely think you need that urgency. I’d hate to be in a band that sit around for a couple of years until they feel they have to put an album out. We’ll probably have quite a short career because of it…
Gigwise: As you’ve mentioned, the line up has now changed, making you a five piece with drums, synths, guitars, bass and vocals, all of which you can now do live, meaning you’ll no longer be using backing tracks. Was the line up expanded specifically to move away from using backing tracks at gigs?
Jonny: It’s not like we’re denouncing backing tracks exactly, but they’d started to feel a bit limiting. Obviously, when you’re playing to a backing track you have to stick quite rigidly to a certain feel, you can’t respond to the crowd quite so much. Half of us aren’t good musicians anyway, so we cold use a bit more freedom!
I think this album called for a more exciting live show and that’s what it’ll be now.
Gigwise: Your last album ended on a lovely note with a track called ‘The Future’. What do see in your crystal ball for The Drums?
Jonny: Just to try and make great songs. As a band we’re very self aware. We know that everyone eventually loses it, that spark. We want to make the best pop songs we can, while we can and then stop, as soon as it stops being good. That’s it basically…
'Portamento' is out now.