The cross overs. Every year has them; bands that get touched by the hand of hype and go from being blogged about to actually selling significant quantities of records/MP3s along with world wide tour schedules and high billed festival slots. This year one of those bands is Brooklyn’s The Drums who have certainly enjoyed a lot of column pixels and radio play on the strength of their back to basics c86 indie-pop as imagined by Phil Spector self titled debut album and its omnipresent lead single “Let’s Go Surfing”.
They’ve also attracted their share of detractors, partly due to their swift “zeros to heroes” rise to fame sure, but also down to the endearing/irritating on-stage persona of front man Jonathan Piece. Love, or hate them you can’t escape them and its hard not to be hooked by their hooks. Static’s Chris Berkley sits down with a drink with three quarters of the band –Jonathan “Johnny” Pierce, guitarist Jacob Graham and drummer Connor Hanwick (bassist Adam Kessler absent) – for a lesson in pop song 101, loving Orange Juice at the tender age of 12, synths vs guitars and how to avoid being drowned by the wave of success.
Welcome gentlemen. It’s drinking and smoking time, right? You feeling relaxed?
Johnny Pierce (JP): We’re feeling pretty relaxed.
There probably hasn’t been too much time to relax in The Drums in the last twelve months or so. Does it feel like a bit of a whirlwind? You must have had one or two pinch yourself moments, Johnny?
JP: Yeah. Well, I mean yesterday, at Splendour in the Grass, was one of those “pinch yourself” moments. It’s just a weird thing being on the other side of the world, you know? We played our first show in the lower east side of Manhattan a year and a half ago, or a little less than that. So to be in Australia and have so many people being encouraging and so sweet, it’s really more than we could have ever dreamt.
Jacob, when it sort of started happening for The Drums, when the fever pitch started, you guys had to go along with that? You had to jump in head first?
Jacob Graham (JG): Well, we just never expected anything like this to happen. When we started the band, our only intention was to write songs and record music that we thought was really selfish and self-indulgent. We didn’t think anyone would like it except for us and our only hope was really to try to convince some indie label to release a 7” of it or something. But when all this started happening, it’s like there’s nothing you can really do other than grab on and try not to fall off the horse – the proverbial horse.
You say that when you started The Drums you guys were kind of being selfish, was that because the pair of you had both been in bands before – you had kind of been there, done that and tried it the hard way — then you kind of thought with The Drums were kind of pleasing yourselves more, first and foremost.
JG: It’s very easy when you’re in a band to kind of think, like, “I wonder what other people are going to think about this”. Or if you’re around a lot of other bands to maybe mesh in with what everyone else is doing. When we started the band, I was living in Florida and Johnny was living in Brooklyn and I said, “You should move to Florida so we can start this band, record songs ‘cause there’s just too much going on in Brooklyn.” You can’t fail to be influenced when you’re so immersed in all of that. So our intention was just to make music to please ourselves.
I thought it might have been the move to New York that kind of spurred the band on. Was it the reverse thing? You had to get away from what was sort of happening around you.
JP: I took off and went to Florida. We started writing songs immediately. Then after we had a handful of songs written we realised that we had something very special – we thought they were special. We were living in the middle of nowhere in Florida, and there was nowhere to really play. So we decided to just move to New York. That said, we never thought anything would happen in New York but at least there were some places we could play shows and maybe some people would like what we were doing. Immediately just after our very first concert things snowballed. And before we knew it, we were touring the world. It’s really just been a crazy thing.
I mean, the bands that both you guys have been in were kind of more glossy or sort of synth-pop right? Like you kind of had to uncomplicate yourselves a bit for The Drums?
JG: Kind of. We’ve both been playing synthesizers since we were kids and we were always obsessed with synthesizers and just in that mindset of wanting to sound like OMD or the Pet Shop Boys or something like that. After having played synthesizers so long, when we started this band, the very first song we did we started doing it on synthesizers and we just looked at each other and we’re just like, “This has become so redundant, and so monotonous” and my little brother had a guitar in the corner and it seemed really exotic to us. We felt like aliens trying to play the guitar and we didn’t know how to play it but we had this sound in our head.
Do you think it was almost like finding a more modest sound or something kind of, with this band, Connor?
Connor: I don’t know if modest is the word I would use. Maybe it could come across as modest because it’s sort of sparse, but I’d say more minimal or humble because the sound of this band relies on the idea of removing anything extraneous. More simplistic than the current tide of music right now, which has a lot to do with adding and adding and getting more and more indulgent until you’re the next big thing. But this band was kind of the opposite, just strip it down to exactly what you want.
Johnny, is there a bit of a math equation as well? I mean, you said you took yourselves away from New York to not be around other bands. Did you also have to look for a set of reference points that other people aren’t necessarily into as well. I mean, I haven’t heard too many bands apart from The Drums to name check English group The Wake and give them props.
JP: Our idea when we started writing songs was just to stop listening to modern music pretty much all together. We just started listening to the bands and the songs that we listened to when we were kids and teenagers, bands like The Wake and bands like Orange Juice…
Were you really that cool a teenager? Were you listening to Orange Juice at age 12?
JP: Well Jake and I met over the love of Kraftwerk and we were like 12 and 13. We were really into collecting Human League vinyls and stuff like that. It’s very weird how we met; it was a one in a million chance meeting.
Make it perfect. Tell me it was in a record shop now, Jacob.
JG: It wasn’t. It was actually at summer camp where both of our parents had shipped us to. We were the sort of kids that were out of place, everyone was playing sports and stuff and we were running away, listening to CDs. It was really a once-in-a-lifetime thing because we met each other and both of us were into Kraftwerk and The Smiths, and stuff like that. When you live in middle America you never think you’re going to meet anyone your age that likes this music. Everyone tells you you’re stupid and you’re out of your mind. So then when you meet someone who actually shares the same tastes, it’s almost life-changing. I think the day we met we said “We have to start a band together.” But of course we couldn’t because…
…You were still 12.
JG: Exactly. We always thought The Drums sort of started then. But we didn’t write our first song until a year and a half ago.
Were you aware of constructing a certain sound on the album? There’s stuff like the guitar on “Book of Stories” or even the whistling on “Let’s Go Surfing”. Where you quite aware of the elements that go into The Drums?
JG: I mean a Drums song has a lot of rules to it. I think the first few songs that were written in Florida sort of set up a structure to the point where now, when we talk about the second album, it’s almost becoming a process where we can come up with an idea and put it on a conveyor belt. We can sit down and put this idea on the conveyor belt and press “Go!”
I hope it’s not going to be quite as clinical as that though.
JP: What really fascinates us is the fundamentals of how pop songs are made. So we definitely put rules on ourselves and it’s the same rules for every song. It becomes very methodical. So saying it sounds like it’s coming out of a factory, or a conveyor belt, well in a way it is because we have the exact same structure for every song that we make. Those rules were formed when Phil Spector was doing his thing. He pulled those rules out of thin air and just said “this is the pop song, this is it. This is the hit. This is what you’ll hear on the radio” and that’s a really fascinating idea. Since I was very young, I have always loved that. It could be Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” or it could be a song by a-ha or it could be a song by Orange Juice or it could be The Shangri-Las. Era, location, genre, they’re all very secondary to us. It’s about the pop song. It’s about the song that’s underneath everything.
I like the fact you’re already thinking about album number two, I hope you can get some time to make it in the next twelve months.
JP: Here’s to hoping. So far we haven’t had a day or even a few hours to actually do something. When we’re on the road we like to talk about what we want to do. We have ideas and we have a pretty strong vision of what we want to do but finding the time is crucial. It seems impossible right now!
First broadcast on Static on 05/08/10. Static can be heard on Sydney’s 2SER (107.3 FM) and via the Internet (www.2ser.com) every Thursday evening (AEST).