The Vaults of The WILD: Drums in crescendo
Over a decade ago, back in 2012, I began a fruitful connection with Giovanna Badilla, then-Editor in Chief of The Wild Magazine, a cutting-edge publication based in New York City that incorporated relevant conversations about fashion, design, and style from a social and cultural lens. It was the thrill of a lifetime to be a contributor (and later, Music Editor) for The Wild, and getting the opportunity to meet with a handful of visionaries. One of them is Jonny Pierce, the musician behind the critically-acclaimed rock group The Drums. At the dawn of the 2010s, Pierce had become a sort of indie darling, having been praised by all the major music publications, from NME to Pitchfork, and had made his US TV debut appearing on Jimmy Fallon's "Late Night" show before switching to "The Tonight Show."
When I interviewed Pierce, he was promoting The Drums' second album "Portamento," inspired by him and bandmate Jacob Graham's love for the synth stylings of Kraftwerk and Wendy Carlos. He was also in the midst of shakeups and disagreements within the band, which almost led to its demise. The Drums never ceased to bang, though. Jonny is releasing new music in 2023, with a couple of singles ("Plastic Envelope" and "Protect Him Always") already out and receiving much acclaim. To celebrate, I wanted to unearth my conversation with Jonny Pierce for The Wild Magazine, published on its inaugural issue from October 2012.
The release in March 2010 of The Drums’ debut EP “Summertime!,” followed by their self-titled LP later in the year, was a breath of fresh air in more ways than one. Their Brooklyn-based take on California Dreamin’ resulted in beachy melodies, blended with witty lyricism and fast-paced true musicianship that won massive acclaim worldwide from critics and fans alike. As they face the challenges of crafting a second album titled “Portamento” (Moshi Moshi/Island, 2011), Jonathan Pierce, Jacob Graham and Connor Hanwick are determined to prove they’re not a one-trick-pony by embarking on a musical journey through personal and professional growth. In this album, they are intent on revealing a more introspective side to their work, while staying simple and fresh. Taking time from their hectic European touring schedule, front man Pierce sits down with The WILD to discuss the group’s current development and their place in the ever-changing scope of indie pop.
You were brought up in a strict religious household where you were not allowed to listen to music. Would you say this was the trigger for you to become involved with music?
Well, I could listen to some music, but it had to be Christian. But honestly, that was the least of my problems. I could easily sneak some records into the house and listen to them on my headphones. The real problem really lied in the fact that I was a non-believer in a very religious setting. It caused a lot of friction and made for an unfortunate childhood. I do feel, however, as though that very hardship I had growing up is what made me run away to New York and do things my way. I’ve always loved music, but don’t think I would be doing what I am doing now had I not moved here to this beautiful and accepting city.
Tell me about meeting Jacob Graham for the first time in a summer camp. Did you guys get along immediately?
It was nothing short of love at first sight. I think I was 12 and he was 11, something like that. We met under very peculiar circumstances. We had both just been given our first instruments. His mother gave him a Roland Juno 6 and my father had let me have his Sequential Circuits Multi-Trak Synthesizer that he was no longer using in the church worship services. I don’t know if there was a single other boy our age in the world that had just fallen in love with analog circuitry. So we had plenty to talk about. We also both hated summer camp. To this day we avoid anything that involves too much group organization. We always swam upstream, we hated being told what to do. Still do. Anyway, we became best friends immediately and that has never changed.
Your past music ventures included forming Goat Explosion (later Elkland), making an album on Columbia and opening for Erasure in 2005. Looking back, do you think there’s any regret or dissatisfaction regarding these past projects?
In a way I regret everything I have done up until The Drums. I just don’t think I was ready to make music or at least not ready for others to hear it. I kind of wish I could erase everything I’ve done up until [now], and there are even some things I wish I could erase that I have released since I started The Drums. I don’t know, as soon as I finish something, I tend to never listen to it again. I think I am inherently terrified of the past; hate looking back. All I can do is try to make good music now, but I am never satisfied. It might be as simple as that whole thing where no one wants to actually hear their own voice recorded, but sadly I think it’s much more complex than that. I need to see a shrink.
How did The Drums come about? Both the concept and the group formation.
Jacob and I were talking one day on the phone about three years ago and we decided that we were bored with our lives. We were both feeling creative, but were not too sure what we would do about it. After thinking it over for a couple days, I decided to move down to Florida and move in with Jacob and start The Drums. The songs flowed effortlessly and the concept really gave birth to itself. We sort of watched the band take shape in the most natural way. At the beginning it was very visually inspired, all of it. But with the new album, Portamento, things are less visual and much more internal. I think we will always be refining into what we actually are. It’s definitely been a journey.
At the time of your Summertime! EP, you were still learning to play your instruments. As your music has evolved, do you see any difference in the band’s current sound?
We had never played guitar before we started The Drums. It had always been synthesizer-based pop music until then. I still don’t think you need to be very good at any instruments to make music these days. With technology, you can do as many takes as you need to get it just how you want it. But for us, we tried to do as few takes as possible because we didn’t want the songs to sound rehearsed so we just kinda let it sound like shit—but I think that’s how we found our sound. Perfection has always been such a bore anyway. I like the tangibility of a Drums recording. I don’t think we are too interested in progressing in our musical skills. I think once we get “good” it will all be over.
How have you reacted to your success in the U.S. and overseas?
I don’t think we have changed at all creatively and our work ethic has remained the same. You know I’ve always said I don’t mind success as long as I am not compromising a thing. The worst thing that happens to bands when they get successful is they start cutting corners and doing things differently just because they can and that is a very slippery slope. Usually by the time a second album is released they have completely lost themselves.
Do you feel that being dubbed as an “indie” act limits your possibilities as an ensemble?
To be completely honest, I never set out to cater to any side of the music world. It’s always rubbed me the wrong way when people put themselves in that awful position. All I have ever tried to do is make music that I love. I am a pop enthusiast and I always have been. So when it came time for me to make music, I didn’t have a dime to my name, just some cheap recording hardware, and I did the best I could. And I think because I didn’t really know how to make a big sounding album, it ended up coming off as “indie.” I’m happy things went the way they did, though. I think we found our sound that way and we are happy with our sound so I don’t think we are going to be hiring a big name producer anytime soon.
The making of a second album is often a trial moment for any artist. Was there any pressure for you to out do yourselves in a way?
We knew that we didn’t want to make another album that was just like the first, and we also knew we didn’t want to sound like a different band. The bands that inspire the spirit behind our band were always very consistent with each release until their dying breath and sometimes people would get annoyed at that level of consistency. I think some people call it monotonous, but I see it more as a band having a very clear vision for what they are meant to do and their place in the musical landscape. I think the main change on this album was less a sonic thing and more of a mental thing. We wanted to make a very personal and honest album. The whole thing feels autobiographical to me and that’s very different from the first album, which to me was very idea- driven and cinematic.
Can you briefly describe how you went about recording Portamento?
The same way we recorded the first album. We literally did not buy a single piece of additional gear for this album. The song has always been the most important thing, not the production. So since we knew we had a handful of great songs, we dived right into it and the album really ended up writing itself. I mean, there are certain songs that I barely remember recording because they happened so fast and so organically. I have a rule and that is to never start recording unless a song is literally breathing down your neck. The whole album was recorded while we were on small breaks from touring and before we knew it, we had written the final song.
Let’s talk about the single “Money”, does it reflect your view on life before death, or just being carefree and broke?
It is essentially a playful song about being a loser who can’t get his shit together, never learning from mistakes but always keeping a pure heart, wanting to be better, but somehow it’s impossible. Ever feel like the world is against you?
Is the meaning of the term Portamento (transitioning from one note to the other) a reflection of where you guys are today, and will it be a constant in the band’s career from now on?
Yeah I think we are constantly evolving and learning from being in this band. I don’t think any of us were prepared for what was going to become of us when we decided to start. I don’t know of another band that was as hyped as our band was in the last five or seven years and that comes with a price. Always learning.... and at the same time never learning anything.
While in Lollapalooza, you were quite candid about the current state of music. Where do you think music is going these days and in which way would you say The Drums stand out amongst its peers?
Oh I could never say we stand out, but I will say that we do feel like we are a part of the solution to bring pop music back to its true glory. There are other bands that are doing the same and it feels like an exciting time to be making pop.
Lastly, what is your WILD wish?
This is dumb, but I want to fall in love.