"I found myself floundering in this dark sea we call life..." - The Drums talk the dark making of new album Abysmal Thoughts
The Drums began life as a happy-go-lucky indie pop four-piece with songs like 'Let's Go Surfing' and 'Me And The Moon' back in 2010, but in the years in between, they've morphed into something much darker.
These days they're just one man, singer Jonathan Pierce, who is now on his lonesome after the departure of founding guitarist Jacob Graham a year ago, and he talked us through the making of their new album Abysmal Thoughts, an album borne from an awful lot of turmoil...
How did you want Abysmal Thoughts to move on from what you did on Encyclopedia?
"I found myself working very hard while writing Encyclopaedia, which is not always a good sign, I believe that great art usually happens with little effort, there are exceptions of course, but overall good art wants to exist. Encyclopaedia was a very labour intensive album, everything from the lyrics to the music itself felt like a big uphill climb. It doesn’t surprise me really though, because I was at a stage in my life where, for the first time, I felt like I was in the right place. I was in a loving relationship, enjoying a busy music career, I was fostering two dogs in NYC, and overall just feeling alright."
How did that affect the writing of that record?
"When it came to writing Encyclopedia I had a really difficult time because a lot of the sadness that I felt when writing my previous albums was seemingly gone, and I didn’t want to write songs about walking dogs or getting ice cream on Bleeker Street. I ended up sort of formulating ideas for songs that were not altogether that personal for me. I feel as though because things were so nice in my life at the time, I felt a need to invent, so when I listen to Encyclopedia now, I feel distant from it, with a few exceptions. It’s like someone else who’s made that album. I don’t feel that way about any other of my releases. Another factor was the fact that Jacob was really taking the reigns on a lot of that album, and he is a dreamer."
So did his departure affect how you wrote?
"He enjoys storytelling and metaphors whereas I get off on our grim realities. He loves The Chronicles of Narnia and I pretty much only watch and read non-fiction. He likes fantasy and I am a documentary lover. I think with Jacob leaving, as sad as that is for some, it ended up being a gift because I was finally able to let loose musically and lyrically. There were all these creative ideas that I had been storing in my back pocket over the years that I don’t think would have made the final cut if Jacob was around - and now I was able to fully explore all my audio and lyrical fetishes. Jacob's departure allowed me to talk about myself and exactly how I felt, which, at the time, was not so good."
You recorded in Los Angeles this time, why did you decide to record there?
"I had just started writing for the new album in New York when disaster struck in my relationship with my then-partner and I began to see my life fall apart. We both loved each other and wanted to try salvage what we could and so we decided that we should move to Los Angeles and try again. New city, new start was the idea. Of course, our problems didn’t just stay in New York, then followed us to LA and so here we were in a city we didn’t know and falling apart even more until finally, he moved out."
"I ended up being in this huge empty apartment by myself and feeling utterly destroyed. All I could do was set up a small recording studio in one of the rooms and sit there and write - and for the first time in my life, I was not looking out and blaming others, but rather I was looking inward and taking responsibility for my problems. What I ended up with is an album that is much less “woe is me” and much more “who am i” or “what am i” and even “why am i”…. I’m not so much a victim on this album as I am someone who’s found themselves completely fucked and quite possibly at my own doing."
You’ve said in the build-up to this album that you need to be uncomfortable to make your best music, how did you discover that?
"Well, my husband and life-long close friend and collaborator both left me within the same couple of months. I would have been able to handle that better if I had more love for myself, but ultimately I found that I was leaning on everyone around me to make me feel good about myself, when in reality, I think I near hated myself so when these two people left, I found myself floundering in this dark sea we call life. I resorted to lots of drugs and lots of partying and lots of random sex. They say victory comes through struggle, and maybe, in this case, Abysmal Thoughts was my silver lining."
Which song on the album took the longest to get right?
"Believe it or not, the first single, 'Blood Under My Belt' took a few tries. Normally, I don’t need to labour over much - and I certainly didn’t with almost everything on Abysmal Thoughts, but Blood was a pain in the ass lyrically. I think over the chorus of two months, I had tried six different choruses and nothing worked. Then I went for an hour long walk near my cabin in upstate New York, and came back to the studio, sat down, and hit record with a fresh mind, and the lyrics and melody just came pouring out. So, in a way it was still effortless, but only after I put some effort into it- if that makes any sense! I def pulled that session out of the trash bin a couple times."
And which came together most quickly?
The opening track 'Mirror'. I honestly have almost no memory of making that song - and no it's not because I was too drunk or high. It’s just that songs like this just deliver themselves with a bow on top. You sit down, hit record, eat lunch, and the song is done… and you’re just sitting there confused at how that happened! I didn’t experience that at all on the last album but it happened a lot on Abysmal Thoughts, as well as on the debut album and Portamento."
When did you settle on the title of Abysmal Thoughts?
"Well I had only dark thoughts making this album, and I had this title at the beginning of the album, but I had hoped that things would improve in my life and I would be in a better place emotionally speaking by the end of making the album - but that didn’t happen the way I had hoped, so Abysmal Thoughts stayed and I’m glad for it. I think it is an album with a strong identity and it wouldn’t be the same if the album was called Ice Cream on Bleeker Street."
Were there any other titles in contention?
"Yeah, Burn In Hell, Jonny.."
What are your plans to take the album out live?
"I’ve got a full band, a world tour and some really strong songs. Does one need much more in life?"
How is your live set looking for this run? You’ve got a lot of songs to choose from now...
"I’ll be playing some new songs and all the hits. I used to be really selfish with the setlist, but now I have a better time playing songs that people want to hear."