The Drums | There is life outside the VIP section
For several years now, Jonny Pierce of The Drums and I have been acquaintances, bumping into each other at fashion parties and concerts, saying hi’s and bye’s and chatting in passing. The first time we met was backstage somewhere—I can’t remember, as I probably had one too many cocktails—lounging in a pool of twinks, vegan burgers, and models smoking American Spirits of the light orange variety. We were immersed in a specific culture that produced a procession of uber-cool kids converging like a storm in the VIP areas and serving geared-up looks with indie swagger. Leading their pack was usually one of the deities of the headlining kind. Often, Pierce took the reins, with his tailored, boyish good-looks. It was a tableau depicting a distilled moment that was so very special and self-aware, a generation of post-punk creatives draped in Saint Laurent, or now, Hedi’s CELINE.
As the years went by, we shared moments in Miami and countless birthday parties for all our rockstar friends, and when the opportunity came to interview Pierce, I jumped at the chance. I anticipated an afternoon of cocktails and gossiping, but like any other responsible writer would do, I began researching. As I scratched the surface, I cut too deep into an artery that bled out all the things I never understood, the frantic mass of queer children who flocked to the front row shouting every single line of each song, undulating to his ups and downs. This was the stuff of emo band fandom, or maybe K-pop’s stature—even verging into worshipful devotion, the kind of obsession usually reserved for Morrissey and the Pope. As much as I want to paint this as some endless Instagram story planted with minimal drama and impeccable taste, my research produced a truth I wasn’t prepared for: I really didn’t know shit about the guy.
I meet Pierce at the photoshoot in a studio around the corner from The Eagle, a leather-daddy dive perfect for shooting the shit. Eventually, we end up at old faithful Bar Stella, a more fitting arena with patinated walls and arabesque decor. We sink into our puffy seats, snuggling our drinks. Beyond Pierce’s youthful demeanor is a man who has lived a life of personal struggles that have informed his music. A quick summary, regurgitated endlessly by media outlets, describes a kid who discovers his sexuality in a conservative setting, escapes to another town, finds a family in the shape of a band, the band becomes successful, the band disintegrates, the boy reclaims his virtuosity in the 4th album slump after a failed marriage, and leads him to create his solo record which garners acclaim. A single mantra keeps Pierce humble: “Your weaknesses are your strengths taken to excess.”
This weakness manifests itself in his constant search for acceptance, sternly proclaiming, “I’ve learned at a very young age that I desired approval from people that I’ve loved—my parents at that time—and it was a pattern that stuck with me.” Now I understood why hordes of disenfranchised youth were at every show, why they responded so enthusiastically to someone who could channel their angst into something poetic. We were here to discuss his latest work in Brutalism, an album which represents a breaking point and subsequent reclamation of trust and agency. His well-covered backstory resonates with me. I feel his pain.
Pierce’s previous record, Abysmal Thoughts, posed the daunting task of reintroducing him as The Drums’ sole proprietor after long-time collaborator left to focus on ther projects. While this new-found emancipation was welcome, the internal turmoil Pierce suffered during this period was not properly conveyed until Brutalism. Pierce admits, “[Making Abysmal Thoughts] I held myself back from really talking about what I wanted because I also knew that my bandmates wanted The Drums to always remain sort of whimsical and imaginary—talking about my real-life experiences was deemed too dramatic or too adult or too real. I wanted to prove to the world that I could do a Drums record on my own.”
While the session brought forth an album that was critically and commercially successful, it left a deep hole in Pierce that was hard to fill. “I don’t want to do it again,” he says. Remarkably, only four additional people worked on the record. “It’s too much; it’s too much pressure for me to play the bass, guitar, drums, do backing vocals, and come up with all the lyrics.” At this point in our conversation, it seems Pierce was still haunted by the ghost of approval—a sensitive rupture that had yet to heal on its own, on his own terms.
Now briefed on the auteur’s background, we finally dive into Brutalism. Most noticeably, the latest album is a departure from the dark and moody rock of past releases. Sonically, Brutalism is as neon as the album artwork. Songs follow highly danceable structures, employ drum machines, synths, and distorted programming loops. Despite the coquetry these rhythms flash, a sad-boy narrative will always be attached to the band. Pierce confesses, “Most people could put this album on and dance to it. It’s almost uplifting. Then they peel back a layer and listen to the lyrics and get a sense of ‘oh shit this is a bit heavier than I thought it was.”
As our culture continues to shed light on mental health, Pierce’s openness to his creative process is a sign of progress. “This album is me starting to crack open a self-help journey where I’m asking myself questions and I’m exploring a little bit more,” he confides. “I was aware I was unhappy and had a new drive to pull myself out of it somehow.”
Opening up has also meant the slow reintroduction to new collaborators chosen out of trust. “I think that’s a good move... when you’ve been so protected.” Pierce’s spirits seem enthusiastic, adding, “I just had to create space for other people to come at it. I brought in people I love, like my guitar player, my drummer, and [my friend] Chris Coady.”
Where Abysmal Thoughts was a product of self-liberation leading to alienation, Brutalism is a badge of self-improvement leading to fulfillment. Right off the bat, the intro track “Pretty Cloud” sets the tone for an upbeat record. “This is not about being the King of Indie-schmindy. I want this album to reflect where I am in my life. I love electronic music and I want to make a record that reflects that.”
This shift towards a more electronic sound serves as a homecoming of sorts allowing earlier, proto-Drums sounds to resurface, ensuring the band’s legacy. “When I started the band ten years ago, I wrote a song called ‘Best Friend’ and I did it all with synthesizers. I sat with the song a couple days and realized I had only ever made electronic music, synth music—homosynth stuff. [Then] I look over and see this guitar sitting against the corner, out of tune and old. I had never played guitar, but I picked it up, tried to tune it best I could, and I rerecorded ‘Best Friend’ with guitar. This guitar version... it took off.”
Noticing the album sent to me had a track listing that was still a work-in-progress, I realize the original name of the ballad “Nervous” alludes to his ex—a friend of mine. This hits a little too close to home. My mood of bopping the previous tracks around, dreaming of what I would wear in a stoned haze at their next show, shrivels. At this point we arrive back to reality. I tell him how I started weeping upon hearing the song, to which he says, “Well, you were right there with us... I don’t think I’ve ever written anything in that detail. It was a hard song to write.” With that statement, it is quite apparent that maybe I had fallen too deep into my subject’s world. The sun starts to set, and we both have to go. For my final question, I have to ask Pierce what he names his legion of obsessed fans, to which he replies, “My Little Kicks.”