“Anything you hear on the radio these days is just nonsense…” – hmv.com talks to The Drums
Every time New York indie types The Drums return with a new album, it seems like they’ve been through a world of turmoil. They emerged in 2009 with songs that felt like they’d been genetically engineered to blast from crappy stereos at summer barbeques or at lazy afternoons at the beach, whimsical melodies, angular guitars and snappy choruses, tracks like ‘Best Friend’ and ‘Let’s Go Surfing’ were instant hits and it seemed like they’d be providing indie summer anthems for years to come.
Cut to 2011 and they return with a much darker proposition, shorn of guitarist Adam Kessler, their sophomore effort Portamento was raw, stripped back and much, much angrier. They toured extensively off the back of that album, but returned home to find their band once again in tatters. Drummer Connor Hanwick departed the band, leaving just vocalist Johnny Pierce and keyboardist Jacob Graham left. There was talk of splits and solo albums over the last 24 months, but as it turns out they’ve regrouped and they actually seem much happier.
Now back with new album Encyclopaedia, we sat down with Pierce and Graham to find out all about their peculiar way of working, their disgust at the current state of pop music and why this is the most honest they’ve ever been…
This is your third time releasing a record, are you over feeling nervous at this point?
Jacob: “I don’t, do you?”
Johnny: “No, not really. You can’t predict anything anymore, so being nervous is really a waste of time. We feel like we’ve made a record that is above and beyond anything we’ve done before. There is always the chance though that when me and Jacob like a record, no one else will.”
How long did you take to make the album?
Johnny: “We took three years off and I’d say all of that went into making the record. It was a year and a half of recording here and there. We wrote Portamento over a few months in hotel rooms and in apartment living rooms, because we were never off the road. Our first album too was written quite quickly, this is the first time we’ve taken our time and I think that’s down to the fact that it’s just Jacob and I.”
What makes you say that?
Johnny: “We spent about a year sulking and wondering why we can’t seem to keep people. But then we thought ‘Why are we looking at this as a negative?’, Jacob and I have always done the vast majority of the work, especially when it came to recording. We knew we could do this so we said to ourselves ‘Let’s not just make a record, let’s make our dream record’, we’ve got no-one to answer to now, we don’t have to keep the other guys in the room happy. We wanted songs to be as almost ridiculous in how glimmer and lush they sound and we wanted to be as honest as we could with our lyrics. I think if Connor and Adam were here right now, we wouldn’t be able to do this.”
What kind of record did you want to make?
Jacob: “Quite different ones.”
Johnny: “I wanted to make a garbage can guitar record and he wanted to make an orchestral synthesis masterpiece. So we tried to combine the two. We had the rules there and we tried to blend the two in a pop way. You might hear it in an experimental band’s work, but to try and combine these beautiful synth patterns with a guitar that sounds like a dying cow inside a pop song is not something most bands would try.”
So is it just the two of you on the album?
Johnny: “95% of it is Jacob and I.”
Jacob: “We called our live guitar player in to do some bits. If we want a guitar to sound bad, which we usually do, then we can do that ourselves. But if we want something to sound pretty, we have to get help in.”
Johnny: “We spend most of our time working on analogue synthesisers, that’s our first love, we bonded over them when we were 13. We didn’t pick up guitars until we wrote ‘Best Friend’, our first song as The Drums, we don’t have much interest in learning either, it takes your creativity away.”
You self-produced the album again, why?
Jacob: “We’re too nit-picky, too used to being in control, we’ve tried a few times, we even went into a big fancy studio for a day on this record with a big producer, but it kills all our creativity. It’s their job to make you sound better, but if you make us sound better you change our sound.”
Johnny: “We really choke in those environments, Jacob summed it up neatly the other day when he said that it’s like being in school and you’re in the middle of solving an easy math problem, but if there’s a teacher looking over your shoulder you end up getting it wrong because of the pressure. We always know we’re hard to work with, that may be why we’ve lost two band members…”
Is there nothing working with a producer would give you?
Jacob: “Producers come with standards and rules. There are lot of standards today that we don’t adhere to. To get on the radio today you need to have your track mixed in a certain way, that’s doing two things, it’s making everything sound the same and it’s making everything sound awful. Anything you listen to on the radio these days is just nonsense, there’s no heart or soul, it’s scientifically engineered to hypnotise you into buying it.”
Johnny: “There are rare exceptions.”
Jacob: “There are, but they’re so rare, they’re wonderful when they appear, but they’re so rare. If you give an inch in that direction, you end up giving it completely. We try to keep absolute control and if something needs to sound bad, we let it sound bad. It’s definitely been to our detriment, if we had adhered to those standards, we’d be a lot more successful now.”
What kind of album is this lyrically?
Johnny: “It’s a lot more honest, a lot more informational, a lot’s happened to the band, so we’ve kind of taken the opportunity to update a few things, clear out a lot of useless old information and change it out."
So how will you bring this to life in a live setting?
Jacob: “We have a backing band, a drummer and two guitar players. There’s a lot more synth on this album, the amount of gear I have to bring on the road keeps growing.”
Johnny: “Jacob’s very busy now during our sets, every time I look over at him his tongue is hanging out he’s concentrating so hard.”
Jacob: “I feel like a phone operator from the 1920s when I play live, it’s just leads and wires everywhere.”
You’re touring here in November, will you be playing songs from across your back catalogue?
Jacob: “It’ll be a mixture, but we are playing a lot of this (the new album), we’re just playing longer. You know when we first started the band we said ‘We’re never going to play for longer than half an hour’, but we moved on from that. We’re playing tracks from every album.”
What’s your relationship like with those early albums?
Johnny: “I understand how and why we made them. For us, though we don’t feel so attached to those old songs, we will play them live. We’ve decided not to be precious about what we play live, we’ll do ‘the hits’, we’ll put our elbows out and buckle down on the records, that’s what we won’t budge on, but we’re more open with our live show.”
Were there any records you look to during the making of this album?
Jacob: “It’s odd. When we started making this album, we kind of tried to look into a magic mirror and imagine what the record would be when it was finished. For me, I’ve grown tired of listening to bands, maybe because it’s my job, I listen to a lot of soundtracks and weird things like radio jingles from the 1920s.”
Jacob: “I think it’s that it’s done and it’s the way we wanted.”
Johnny: “We did everything the way we wanted, we oversaw everything, we shot and edited our own video, we literally pressed the button to upload it to YouTube ourselves, this is all of us.”
Jacob: “I think it’s more if kids come up to you at a show and tell you the record’s important to them. It’s wonderful to make an impact on someone’s life.”
Johnny: “If this record has a message, then it’s one of being honest. There are tracks on here about my atheism, subjects like that make people uncomfortable, this is a record to comfort the outsider.”
The Drums’ new album Encyclopaedia is released on Monday (September 22nd). You can pre-order the album in hmv stores now.