A firm favourite last year with those of a pop persuasion was the debut album of Brooklyn four-piece, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. An example of youthful exuberance and melodic indulgences, The Pains (is it ok to call them that?) were as easy to swallow as a chocolate sundae with all the toppings — and just as addictive and in no way fattening.
Caught in the middle of touring Australia and spreading The Pains of Being Pure at Heart gospel, guitarist/vocalist and seemingly all-round nice guy, Kip Berman took time out to speak with Chris Berkley of Static in a conversation that quickly turned into a history lesson on Sarah Records, DIY pop and indie distribution.
It’s the first time in the country for any of you guys, are you soaking it all up?
We love it. We had no idea it was going to be like this. We’d never been to Australia before and it’s just been a total blast and we’re psyched to see more of the country and eventually come down to Sydney.
Are you guys in the Pains at Being Pure at Heart all Brooklyn natives or did you grow up all over the place?
Most people migrate to New York for school and we’re no different. We’re all kinda from the suburbs. We’re the least gritty band in America, or at least from New York. Peggy’s from New Orleans, I’m from Philadelphia, Alex is from New Jersey and Chris is a New York native.
Brooklyn seems like the borough to go to form a band.
Yeah, it’s great. These were my friends back in Brooklyn and we all liked the same stuff and were psyched on similar bands and we just started playing in one ourselves. It’s been fantastic to be able to do that with your close friends.
Is it like you never move to New York to form a band, it just happens?
It kinda was. I’d kinda given up on music and just sort of moved to New York to get a job and get on with my life. For whatever reason, the second I stopped trying it turned out ok, so I don’t know what the logic is there.
I’m guessing in Brooklyn it’s easier to find like-minded people maybe as well. There’s probably fewer Dave Matthews and Phish fans there trying to start bands.
Well actually we’re all Dave Matthews and Phish fans to be honest (laughs).
Were all of you music nerds?
I guess nerds is a good way of putting it. Yeah, we all grew up definitely not the cool kids in high school. We all kinda bonded, or formed our identities around, independent music, American 90’s stuff like Pavement and Yo La Tengo, but also a lot of Scottish bands like Teenage Fanclub and The Pastels. We just liked that big guitar pop sound and I guess when we started a band ourselves, that’s what we were going for.
You kinda flew your nerd colours on your sleeve, with a song of yours called ‘This Love is Fucking Right’ an answer song to the Field Mice’s “This Love is Not Wrong”.
Yeah, it’s good of you to pick up on that. We thought it was pretty funny when we wrote that. It was one of our first songs and we were big fans of the Field Mice and the Sarah Records catalogue in general. It was pretty important to us growing up, even thought we’re a bit more louder and abrasive than most of the bands on that roster. We really look to those bands as inspiration.
Is it not only a sound inspiration as well but also the way they went about their business? I mean, Sarah Records in particular had such a DIY ethic. Was that something you tried to take on board?
You know, it’s funny because growing up in America that wasn’t really our first exposure to DIY culture and music. When I first came in contact with it, it was punk music and hardcore. That was the first expression of those ideas. Similar to indie rock and indie pop, it was cool getting older and seeing that same aesthetic to a lot wussier music, which I was drawn more to than hardcore. No offence to hardcore, I definitely went to a bunch of shows in high school, but I wanted to do something where the punk aesthetic applied to a more pop sound. I was really psyched on that. I found it really compelling. But we don’t try to be more self-righteous DIY than anyone. I mean, we have a booking agent and stuff. We don’t try and do everything ourselves.
Well also, bands like that and labels like that didn’t have the internet as well, so it was a very different world they were operating in.
I think right now, as easy as it is to feel nostalgic for the era of the initial forays into independent distribution and self-releasing music, I think things have become extremely more accessible to bands starting out to release their music on their own, and also for labels starting out to distribute music for fans to discover music more easily. It’s a really cool era because, aside from the aspect of elitism, you can feel like you know this band and no-one else does, most things have improved from the aspect of the music fan. There might be a band in Indonesia playing really cool music and you can just instantly hear that. There’s that accessibility that’s so awesome. It’s really helped a band like ours, who didn’t get a chance to tour extensively starting out for people to hear our music and we were all music fans long before we were in a band, so we really enjoy finding new bands and finding out about new stuff.
Yeah, it’s a lot easier not having to mail order records and not waiting four weeks for them to arrive, like people did in the ‘80s.
A lot of people fetishize and look back on that era with a lot of nostalgia and wistfulness and that’s really understandable. There is something special about something you have to work so hard to attain. Any record that you find, any new band that you find, it must have been overwhelmingly difficult but then fulfilling, because it gave you a sense of accomplishment. I can understand people looking back at that era and idealising it. Me, I’m just really lazy. So I appreciate the convenience of technology, the digitalization of music and being able to take almost your entire record collection, at least the digital aspect, with you on something the size of your hand.
There seems to be a tough veneer about what the Pains of Being Pure at Heart do. It’s not all sweetness and light. You guys love your fuzz and noise, don’t you?
I think the first independent bands we discovered of our generation were quote unquote “cool”, were Nirvana and Sonic Youth and that idea of uniting more dissonant elements to pop melodies and I think even though you’d be hard pressed to say we sound like anything like Nirvana and Sonic Youth, obviously we’re not that cool. I think that idea of taking something very pretty and adding an element of noise or dissonance makes it, in our view, a bit more compelling. It doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate the more strictly pop sounds, bands like Blue Boy, The Field Mice, St. Christopher, and a lot of that stuff, but for us, it feels like it emotionally connects more when you crank the guitars a little bit. Bands like Yo La Tengo do that beautifully, and bands like Teenage Fanclub harmonise way better than we ever could.
Speaking of those indie aesthetics and rules and sounds, you guys in the Pains of Being Pure at Heart have gone about the release schedule pretty smartly as well. Already at the end of last year you released that Higher Than The Stars EP, so the singles that you guys do have that great immediate format to keep the band growing. Is that kind of still part of the plan, because that’s the way the band got started, doing singles and EPs?
It’s true, but it’s been more through necessity and accident than business model that we have. I think first off, we just appreciate formats like 7” singles and the EP, and I think the EP, a lot of bands I liked growing up released EPs and it gave them the chance to release music and have a little less structure to that music. It allows for a little more experimentation and less pressure to release a cohesive masterpiece every time you write a song. So it allows you to put songs and make songs available to your fans in a way that’s “here’s 4 songs we really like, hope that you like them too”.
And it gives you an excuse to ask St. Etienne to do a remix for you as well.
Well, that was really a cool thing. We were never a band that felt the need to make a bunch of remixes available, but the chance to work with St. Etienne, which was a band that really bridged indie pop music with electro pop music, and made electronic music palatable to people who might’ve thought they weren’t into that sort of thing. It was really cool to work with them because we were big fans of them as a band and a huge honour to have them even listen to our song, let alone remix it, so we were kinda blown away when we got that back and listened to it. It sounded nothing like us which was great. It just sounded like St. Etienne. They kind of erased all our parts and just put their touch on it and that was a success in our view.
First broadcast on Static on 18/02/10. Static can be heard on Sydney’s 2SER (107.3 FM) and via the Internet (www.2ser.com) every Thursday evening (AEST).