Saying "poor Jonny Pierce" sounds condescending, but seriously, in the most empathic way possible, poor Jonny Pierce.
The lead singer of The Drums
has had a pretty tough last few years -- a tough life in general. He grew up as an outcast kid who questioned death while others were fighting over the swing set on the playground and he grew up gay in a very anti-gay home. Most recently, he went through a divorce, lost all of his band members, and briefly experienced the loneliness of moving to new city.
Immediately upon answering my call, Pierce was very open which made for one of the most intimate interviews I've conducted in a while. He mentioned having a therapist -- two actually -- one being an actual person and the other being music, but for a quick moment, I felt like his third. And I loved it. At the time of our call, he was staying somewhere in Upstate New York and, being the friendly guy he is, he set aside a solid chunk of time to give me recommendations of where to go after I had mentioned I'd been wanting to take a trip up there (but don't worry, I cut that out for your own good). When we weren't talking about isolating ourselves up in the wilderness, we were talking about The Drums' new dynamic now that it's just Pierce, the emotional stages throughout the writing/recording process, and his excellent new album Abysmal Thoughts
KIRSTEN SPRUCH: I read that your new album, Abysmal Thoughts, was inspired by heartbreak. Is that true? Was that a painful process for you?
JONNY PIERCE: It was partly inspired by heartbreak, and also just growing up and realizing that ultimately, heartbreak is the seed that sprouted into something much bigger and much scarier -- which is just dealing with and confronting my own personal issues. I think like the last 3 albums I've written, I'll sit down to write a song and I'll be in an okay mood, or even a happy one, but what comes out is sadness. I'm not sure why that happens, but it's very natural -- and usually that sadness is like a "woe is me," almost just whining
about my problems. Whereas on this album, it is like whining about my problems, but in the same breath saying, "My problems are actually me. They're not other people." I think it's really looking inward and saying, "What's going on? Why do these things keep happening? Why do band members keep leaving? Why did you fall so deeply in love and then see this beautiful life crumble before your eyes?" And after years of looking, I notice I have myself to blame. It's a me-me-me album, but it's looking in, and it's taking responsibility.
KS: Do you ever look back at your old music and think, "God, why was I so whiny?" Not saying that you actually complain in your music, but I think it's a common thing for all writers...
JP: No, I do sometimes, that's fair. I think it's tricky to talk about art in that way, my own art. I think it's just was what it was. I just let it exist, whether it came from a good place or not, it came from an honest place. It was how I was feeling. It was a broken message coming from a broken heart, maybe even a broken mind at the time. I just let things in the past be what they are and all I can really focus on now is making sure that whatever I'm putting out there is exactly how I'm feeling. If there's one regret from my music in the past it's that I didn't, because I had other band members at the time.
Now that this album is just me, the big difference is that I had to represent more people because we'd all be getting on stage together, we'd all be in interviews together, we'd do music videos together. Even though I was like the songwriter for the band, it felt like I needed to wrap things into my songs that the other guys could relate to. I wasn't able to get as personal and quite as vulnerable and honest as I was able to do on Abysmal
. I think that kind of bums me a little. I wasn't able to fully express. They were at times really wonderful to work with. I don't want it to sound like I was bumming working with them. We're friends now. But purely from the point of view of the expression of an artist, I felt like I was weighed down just a little bit.
KS: Was it tough to write in a much more introspective manner?
JP: Yeah, during the making of Abysmal Thoughts
I've never felt so alone. I was going through this awful, awful breakup -- I was actually married -- and we were still in the middle of a divorce. This is somebody that I've spent my whole life with. So I was writing this album, my heart is broken, and I'm feeling like an insane person. And then two months later my band mate Jacob who I've been making music with since I was a little boy, literally a little boy, just wrote me an email and said, "Hey, I think I'm going to step away from the band. I have all these other passions I wanna pursue." So I was dealing with two really big losses in my life, and it sounds like I'm blaming these experiences on like why I was sad, but I think ultimately why it was so hard for me was because I wasn't emotionally stable to begin with.
I grew up gay. My mother and father are Pentecostal pastors of a born-again, speaking in tongues church, so they're really anti-gay. I didn't have a close relationship with my family. Even as a little boy I was not close with them, and so that continues today. It's very animalistic but you do want that primal sort of core group of people, and I might be looking for that my entire life and still die with frustrations about it. I could've started The Drums on my own. I've written all these songs, I record everything on my own, but for some reason I wanted a bunch of people around me. In a way, I looked at being in a band as a replacement for having a family. When you're young and drinking and doing a bunch of drugs and broken inside and getting no help for it, you kinda make these decisions.
KS: When you finished making the album, did you feel better?
JP: Yes, I did! No one's ever asked me that question. I did feel better. I started seeing a therapist, I always say I feel like I was seeing two therapists, one was a person and the other was my studio. I know that sounds annoying (laughs), but I had to talk to someone in real life. Being able to spill my guts on each song made each one feel like a deep therapy session. I was walking away from these songs with some degree of personal enlightenment. That was really cool. I'm looking forward to doing that again because I'm going to be putting out more work than an album every two to three years. I think I have to strike while the iron's hot and I'm in a really open space creatively so I just wanna go for it. And it's really healing for me.
KS: What would you say is the song you're most excited for people to hear?
JP: I really like the song called "Are U Fucked." I think the music nerd in me enjoys that song because it's a bit more meandering and kinda baggy-sounding and slacker vibes. I'm using weird percussive elements that I've always wanted to use but kinda wasn't allowed to for awhile, like bongos and coach whistles -- weird stuff like that -- and a muted saxophone, which I really enjoy. Another is "Head of the Horse" which is a really personal song. It talks about personal details of growing up in this small town called Horsehead, what it was like and some of the pain that I went through. That song, to me, is exciting just because it's really saying something. It's nice to not be like "Oh, it's a surf band," you know, with a gay lead singer.
KS: Is it true that you recorded every instrument yourself on the album?
JP: It is true. Well, I would have musicians come in and play the more exotic instruments. And if there was a guitar line that I had in my head but couldn't play it well enough to feel good about it on the record, then I had a guitar player named Johnny come in and help me with that. Peppered throughout he's playing lines that I wrote. But overall, like 99% of what's on there is just me in my bedroom, recording.
And it's mostly samples because I'm not a real musician. I hear every sound in my head, so I'll grab the bass guitar and I'll hear this bass line, and I'll just work until I match it with what's in my head, and then I'll record it, and then I'll take that bass line and just loop it throughout the whole song, or wherever the chorus is I'll loop it like 4 times, and then place it where the next chorus would be. I do that with the drums, synthesizers, sometimes the backing vocals, so there's a lot of copy and paste, but ultimately at the end it sounds like there's a band playing it, but it's really me white-knuckling every move. A lot of people don't know that, but that's how these songs get made.
KS: Is it true you spent time between both LA and New York while recording this album?
JP: Yeah, I moved to LA kinda on the offset of the breakup. We were like, "New city, new chance," and we'd try again in LA. It was a really silly idea. LA is a really lonely place. It's a place where you're kind of on your own all the time, but in New York it feels like you're always on this packed cruise ship. It's comforting for me. I wrote half of the songs out there, and then we separated, and I decided to move back to New York. When I did I felt really good, it felt like, "this is where I'm supposed to be."
KS: Can you tell me a little bit about the meaning behind the title of your album?
JP: Abysmal Thoughts...
it's kinda obvious to me. It's just what was happening in my head for the entire length of the process of recording. I was having a really hard time, personally, and going through a lot with the divorce, loss of my band mate, and then feeling really lonely in Los Angeles. And then to pour salt on the wound, Donald Trump becomes president. It's sort of a grim future right now. Personally, I feel like I'm coming alive, in part because of what's happening politically. If there was ever a time to be empathetic, and understand who you are and how you could help, it's right now. This isn't exactly "Let's Go Surfing" but it's really symbolic of how nothing's sugarcoated on this album. It's my go-for-it record.