Around 2009/2010 American four-piece THE DRUMS sort-of became the overnight-saviours of contemporary indie music. Four years after the hype the remaining two members, Jacob Graham and Jonny Pierce, return with their third album Encyclopedia. The band has gone through a difficult phase in the past years which clearly forced them to take some time out and re-think the concept of the band as well as their relationship to music. The buzz might be over but THE DRUMS feel better than never before. NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION met the two gentlemen for an extended talk at the Michelberger Hotel in Berlin. The pair is an interlocking yin/yang of both physical presence and personal energy. Jonny leans back, arms loose, tipping his chair back almost to the wall, some spark in his eyes, a little bit of a fighter maybe? Jacob, curled forward, looks downward and speaks softly as we begin to talk
As I was doing a little research today I noticed that you guys both said somewhere that you were both homeschooled. Its kind of interesting, because I was, too.
Jonny: Oh really?
And that made me want to ask you about childhood influences, experiences of being an outsider, because I feel like all three of us know what that feels like, and has that affected your music at all? So I guess that’s super open-ended…
Jacob: (laughs) We are constantly using that excuse as a crutch. When we really don’t know something we just say ‘oh, I was homeschooled, sorry, there’s all these gaps in our education’, and I think we both at this point pretty firmly believe that homeschooling is probably not… good. (laughs) But it’s odd because I think it probably has a lot to do with who we are today, with who we are.
Jonny: Yeah. We both hate our lives! ‘With who we are!’ (laughs)
Jacob: I’d kind of be, like ‘Oh, I need to take a break from my regular schoolwork to watch The Muppet Show, because I plan on going into puppetry professionally’, and they’d be like ‘Oh, okay, you’re going to do that’ and that sort of thing. For that I’m kind of grateful.
So you would in some ways agree with me that there’s some sort of outside feel…
Jacob: For sure. You don’t develop socially, properly.
Or least it’s very delayed. Like in my case I felt like I had my high-school and college experiences after I got out of university.
Jacob: I think we both went through our teenage years in our mid-twenties.
Jonny: Still going.
There’s always been a sense of nostalgia in your music, in all the records you’ve released. On ‘Encyclopedia’ I felt an even deeper, almost childlike sense of nostalgia…and there’s even a whole track about a memory of visiting a national park. Was there a real reaching back into your past on this record?
Jonny: Yes and no. The whole nostalgia thing is tricky because it’s so easy to romanticize your past. And I think we’re guilty of doing that, certainly on a track like United States National Park. I think we both have an almost fetish for that aesthetic, of those beautiful parks, but more like in the 50s era.
Like the Polaroid era?
Jonny: Yeah, that kind of… back on our Summertime EP, we’ve pulled from this kind of ‘visual infinitude’. [To Jacob] Wouldn’t you say?
Jacob: Kind of like memories that weren’t quite our own, but we made them our own.
Jonny: Or they were our own, but then we played with them.
Jacob: …romanticized them. Over time you can look back at something through rose-colored glasses and it seems a lot more grand than it actually was, and suddenly this dumpy little canoe trip you went on with your dad is this grand trip to a US national park.
Jonny: There’s one side of that song that sounds very beautiful, but the lyrics on that song are just about feeling utterly hopeless, and dying alone. I think we have to sort of play with those two things and mesh them together. A beautiful song that might almost sound deceitfully hopeful, but then at the end you get slammed in the face by reality…but I like that you pick up on that stuff.
You sort of have this beautiful aesthetic, but with this dark undercurrent, and that’s something that I think has been present in all three records. When I introduce anyone to your music who hasn’t listened to you before, one of the things that I say is that it’s almost like our generation’s THE SMITHS or MORRISSEY… there’s sort of multiple layers of, uh, fucking with the audience, although I think in the case of THE DRUMS there’s a lot more anger in there. Do you think that that’s a reasonable interpretation?
Jonny: Well, certainly with the new record! (laughs) We were pretty pissed-off during the making of it, and certainly happy to divulge information, and it just felt like there would be no point in making a record that wasn’t completely honest, both musically and lyrically. And I don’t think we could write a purely happy song to save our lives. Even our bounciest song, Let’s Go Surfing, has the word ‘hopeless’ in it. We just can’t get away from that to save ourselves.
Jacob: To us, that equals beauty. When we see happiness, and this is horrible to say, but when we see a group of people having a great time, we’re just like ‘What a bunch of assholes!’ (laughs) ‘No one has the right to be that happy, let’s calm down!’ But when we see a person quietly weeping in a corner, that’s beautiful to us.
Jonny: Sadness has always been a more gratifying emotion to me, compared to happiness, and it’s certainly longer-lasting (laughs). At least I know how to deal with that!
I think we touched on this a bit, but it struck me as I was listening to ‘Encyclopedia’ that this record is a bit ‘noisier’ that the previous two. The opening track is almost flirting with a metal feel, there’s some pretty heavy sounds in there. Can you talk about where this new, extra noise or edge came from?
Jacob: I think we probably view it more as a kind of grit, because I feel like a lot of bands these days are into this shoegazy noise kind of sound, and it’s really noisy, but it’s noise that’s stretched out through a bunch of reverb and stuff. And we were thinking that for this record we wanted to kind of scale back on the reverb on the guitars and just let them be a little grittier and up front in the mix…um, yeah, what was the question? (laughs)
Blake: Yeah. I just kind of wanted to know where this slice of the sonic pie came from. Like was this something you wanted to do for a while or was it just something that happened in the studio or…?
Jacob: When we started making the record. I’ve said this a million times but it still rings true…
Jonny: Say it again Jacob!
Jacob: He was all ‘what do you wanna do’ and I was all ‘I wanna make a soundtrack-y, gorgeous, shimmering, radiant synthesizer-orchestral thing..the Sound of Music with synthesizers…’
I think the track that most expands on that is probably ‘Wild Geese,’ which is very synth-heavy, very big, I think there’s even some strings or synth strings?
Jacob: Yeah, totally.
Jonny: Jacob wrote that one, so it makes sense! (laughs)
Jacob: So I said, ‘what do YOU wanna do’ and he said ‘I want to make a really garage-y record that sounds like it was recorded in a garbage can.’ So we just kind of mashed the two ideas together. You’ve got these gritty guitars and under it, these gorgeous strings and synthesizers. But yeah, Magic Mountain kind of flirts with the edge of metal in a way, but to use it’s funny to go that far, and then right when you think you know what the song is all about, burst into that part that’s all ‘doo doo doo doo doo’, this really Disney melody on top of it.
Jonny: It’s like if Clara Rockmore was forced to write a metal track. That’s kind of what we were going for.
Jacob: I remember just feeling so delighted in the studio when we got to that part of the song, where we were like ‘Now let’s really go weird. What would make this more weird than it already is?’ And it’s to do this glorious little melody on top of the whole thing. But I think a lot of people…
Jonny: …just thought we sounded like JANE’S ADDICTION (laughs). But that goes back to people actually not listening, and just being like ‘oh, that’s a little bit heavier…god, they’re like a metal band now.’ But we don’t care.
I’m also wondering, because there’s this other sort of dark element that crops up a lot in your visuals…I think there was this video that you put out for the first record, and also I think on the video for ‘Money’, there’s a lot of violent imagery. There’s a fistfight in one, and there’s all these guys with guns everywhere [in the ‘Money’ video], which is a slightly strange…this use of violent imagery, where did that come from?
Jonny: Well, to be perfectly honest, the men with the machine-guns…that was the one video at that time where we had let someone else take the reins.
Jacob: We really relinquished control, and I was biting my hand off the entire video shoot. (laughs)
But you still have some references to this kind of idea. There’s one lyric on ‘Encyclopedia’ where you say something about ‘If they don’t like when I’m into, they can go kill themselves.’ So there’s still some pretty intense at least references to violence, if not actual…
Jonny: Yeah, well we’d never condone actual violence for any reason, but it’s symbolic of sort of fighting to the death for what you believe. This record, by far, is a record with a message, much more than anything we’d done in the past. It’s about being yourself, and there’s songs that are gender-specific, toward loving a boy, instead of saying ‘you.’ We’re just like ‘Fuck it, life is short.’ In thirty years we want to say we just owned up and were ourselves. We just don’t care about that stuff anymore, and once you don’t care, you have nothing to lose. And just got for it, you know!? The song Face of God is like my atheist anthem, you know [laughs] and Jacob was kind enough to let me put it on the record, even though we don’t completely agree on all of that. That would have never happened on Portamento, and certainly not on the first record. It’s all a part of evolving, you know? I’m in my early thirties now, and I still find myself in the shadow of…guilt. For no reason whatsoever. For being born. And it’s nonsense. So that’s where a lot of this anger comes from, just finally saying… It’s not a self-esteem record. It’s not that at all. I don’t want people to get that confused. It’s not like ‘I’m great!’, it’s not one of those things. (laughs) Just to be one-hundred-percent sure. Self-esteem is much different than not feeling worthless. I think self-esteem, I mean the idea of having such high self-esteem, has been shoved down our throats since I feel like the late 90’s, when self-esteem became a really big thing. It’s all about ‘well, I’m 600 pounds but I’m beautiful’, you know, that kind of thing, because we were just taught to love yourself for exactly who you are.
You mean, maybe, self-esteem at the expense of honesty?
Jonny: Or like health! (laughs)
Jacob: And that could be anything. Like just…decency.
Jacob: You know, no one has any shame anymore. Everything is great. If you question anything, if you think something is not great… And we’ve realized this firsthand in the press. When someone says, ‘What do you think about this band?’, you can’t give an honest answer, or you get destroyed for having an opinion! It’s like you just have to smile and say ‘Everything. Is. Amazing.’ (laughs) Everything is constantly amazing, everybody’s mind is constantly being blown every five seconds. We’re not very…I’m not very ‘modern’.
So it sounds like, with the return of THE DRUMS to being a two-piece, I’m kind of inferring that you felt more freedom that way? More focus because it was ‘back to basics?‘
Jacob: Sure, it definitely felt liberating.
Nothing against previous band members!
Jonny: Oh please! (laughs)
Jacob: No, but it felt like there was a moment where it was like ‘Is this gonna be weird?’, and then it was ‘No, it’s gonna be awesome!’ You know, to make a record…
Jonny: See, everything is awesome every five seconds! It only took us five years to get to this realization.
Jacob: We felt like we could really make a record that was just interesting.
I think you’ve pulled that off. Now, there is one final question. What do ‘hope’ and ‘passion’ mean to you?
Jonny: Hope and passion?
Jacob: I kind of think the most generic things about them, which I don’t think is bad, but I just think if you’re not passionate about something, don’t do it, and it’s nice to have some sort of hope in life.
Jonny: Ha, you don’t want me to get into this.
That’s a completely fine answer!
Jonny: Just use his answer! (laughs)