A lot has been said of The Drums’ frontman, Jonathan Pierce. Much of it has been positive, and some of it has been negative. While the depth and honesty of his song writing has been lauded, many seem unable to resist the temptation to write him off as an American Morrissey, a pastiche persona stitched from portions of styles and influences past.
“At first it was flattering,” Pierce reasons when asked about the perpetual comparisons to the Smiths’ singer. “But after a while you sort of get tired of it. I think it’s a lot of die-hard Smiths’ fans, they come to the shows and think ‘oh these guys sound like them,’ but I’ve been compared to everyone, Jagger, even George Michael and Wham!”
It’s not an unjustified comparison. When he was thirteen Pierce found a vinyl copy of Kraftwerk’s 1981 Computer World at a yard sale. “The woman was selling it for a quarter,” he reminisces, “She said, ‘you won’t like that computer music’”. Like most kids, once warned off something, he was enticed, bought it and “fell in love with Kraftwerk at a very young age.”
This led to Pierce unearthing more synth-pop music, eventually discovering a band “called Electrics,” and finding in their liner notes a pledge “that The Smiths were the best band in the world.” Heeding this advice, he went out and found a Smiths’ record, which he says “was sort of the beginning of the end for me.”
But it’s not just the camp swagger or pretty jittering that sustains the association, it’s the heart-on-sleeve sensitivity that infuses many of the Drums’ songs. As Pierce resolutely states, “Morrissey isn’t the only person that’s allowed to feel depressed or down.”
And depressed Pierce may be. You don’t need to talk with him to conclude this, it’s allusion is included conspicuously across both the band’s albums, especially their sophomore effort Portamento. Bristling with broken hearts, bleak admissions, and stark morbidity, the album inspects a grim inner world through a filter of halcyon synth pop.
There’s a kind of Bertolt Brecht influence at work wherein the lyrics (Tell me why/when you look me in the eye/Do I feel like I want to die) seem unsuited to the summery melodies of the music. While their first album has a kindred quality, Pierce notes a departure with Portamento. “The first album had an escapist feeling to it,” he explains. “To me it’s very cinematic and I think it’s because I was trying to escape in a way.”
When explaining his introduction to music, the spectre of some past sadness lingers in his impeccably polite intonation, perhaps pointing to just what he wished to escape.
“My mother and father were and still are both pastors of an evangelical Pentecostal church,” he says. Growing up in a parsonage on church property, religion was a pervasive influence on Pierce’s upbringing. Yet today he’s quick to point out “I don’t buy into the beliefs or anything but the church is very musical, that’s where I got my start.”
“I had five siblings and two parents, all of which are very, very musical and all of which play instruments classically,” he explains. While hymn and gospel may have may have informed his musical inauguration, he was the only one in his family that “didn’t pick anything up.”
After his discovery of Kraftwerk, Pierce attended a summer camp where he met Drums co-founder Jacob Graham who shared his love of electronic music. Thirteen at the time, the two formed electro-pop outfit Goat Explosion, before separating for numerous years for Pierce to pursue new band Elkland and Graham’s Horse Shoes. “We just happened to meet each other and it was really strange how it came about,” he recounts. “But that summer was the beginning.”
Noting the increased use of synths on Portamento, we ask Pierce if it was an unconscious longing to relive those adolescent summer days. His reply is characteristically candid and revelatory. “I’d be lying if I wasn’t wishing we were all younger,” he laughs before casually stating:
“I don’t really long for those days specifically because I didn’t really enjoy my childhood at all, it was a pretty dark one. So I would like to go back and maybe live a different life but I wouldn’t want to go back and do the same thing over again.”
The opening track of Portamento touches on the themes of Pierce’s upbringing. Titled ‘Book of Revelation’, he seems to solace his younger self, cooing “Oh darling/You are the son of an evil man/I know you hate yourself/But you are nothing like him/And it’s over now.”
This type of exposition, which Pierce suggests is a determination to be “transparent and honest,” was initially difficult. “It [was] a slippery slope writing [Book of Revelation]… cause up until that point I was sort of guarding myself,” he says, particularly by withdrawing beneath the romantic idealism of the first album.
Returning with a more mature and undisguised outlook for Portamento, he says that while writing the album was difficult “it almost starts to get exciting once you get the hang of it and just throw in the towel on guarding yourself – it’s somewhat addicting.”
It seems an evolution rather than a surprise arrival for Pierce, who first picked up a guitar when he wrote ‘Best Friend’, another album opener and another personal disclosure. The song, about a deceased best friend, while fraught with emotion, is a little simpler stylistically, but when performed live he’s quite frank about it. “This song is about my dead best friend,” he often tells a rapturous crowd. Despite the morbid nature of the track, it’s one of the band’s biggest hits.
Another crowd favourite that recent live reviews have noted were missing is their breakthrough anthem, ‘Let’s Go Surfing’. We pondered why they would exclude a fan favourite from their set list, to which the affable frontman laughs and says, “What we play is a very spontaneous decision, one day we woke up and we thought we don’t feel how we used to feel.”
‘Let’s Go Surfing’, with its melodic 60s Beach Boys riff and carefree invitation to hit the sand was the perfect soundtrack to summer 2010, but if you listen to the lyrics, it’s not particularly about surfing at all. The lyrics, ‘wake up/there’s a new kid in town/he’s moving into the big house/do you remember when I was so hopeless/well darling he’s going to make it better’ are actually a reference to US President Barack Obama.
“It was essential a song that evoked the feeling of unbridled freedom,” Pierce explains. “We were so excited to be moving on with [Obama], the whole country was wrapped up in it.” On not playing songs because the band no longer feel as they did he clarifies, “Since [Obama’s election] I feel let down, nothing’s quite as magical and great as you think that it will be.”
Of many songs released prior to Portamento he says, “I don’t think I would really be able to sing [those songs] sincerely anymore.” Harking back to his desire to present himself as honestly as possible he figures “your show can only ever really be as good as the level of sincerity.”
But apart from sincerity, what does he want the audience to take from a Drums’ show?
“Well since everyone has no money right now I suppose I want them to feel like they got value for money,” he answers, his tone teetering between melancholy and amusement before he admits, “But in a personal way I want them to feel like they’re not alone.”
In order to achieve a transparency and honesty necessary to accomplish this, his live performance is informed by the same emotional elucidation as his songs. While his detractors like to remind how reminiscent he is of Morrissey, Pierce is a man unafraid of allowing people to see who he truly is. “Not a lot of grown men are willing to discuss their feelings or expose themselves,” he says.
That’s refreshing in an industry defined by image.