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Escape Velocity

In The Dock: An Interview With The Drums
Ross Pounds , September 20th, 2011 06:15

Frontman Jonny Pierce puts to Ross Pounds the case for The Drums' defence, in the face of early hype and its inevitable backlash

Jonny Pierce, frontman of The Drums, is on the defensive. It's not a surprise. After numerous magazine covers and much hyperventilating from the likes of NME, many saw the band's first album as something of a damp squib, a lightweight piece of fluff that borrowed too heavily from its obvious influences. Much of the aggravation seemed to stem not from the fact that Pierce and his fellow band members didn't pay homage to the lineage of the songs lacing their self-titled debut (in fact, barely an interview would pass without a reference to The Wake, or The Shangri-La's, or Orange Juice). Rather, the issue was that those bands from the past were altogether less successful than these floppy-fringed, blue-eyed boys with cheekbones sharper than the cut of Edwyn Collins' straight-legged trousers. All bollocks, obviously. After all, who doesn't borrow from someone else, especially in this day and age? Who really gives a shit if Orange Juice never made the cover of NME? The Drums' debut, whilst hardly original, was a decent-enough piece of melancholy pop, a promising start to a career already being looked down upon with a cynical eye. Pierce, it's fair to say, has decided to come out fighting this time.

The band's new album, Portamento, is a different beast from their first. The struggles of the past year (members leaving, the band being on the verge of breaking up numerous times) are written all over it. It's a more mature effort, the work of a band stung by criticism and personal troubles they weren't expecting. "Some of the naivety that was captured on the first album has been lost," notes Pierce. "We went into it [The Drums] not knowing anyone was going to hear it. We were very green about anything that was due to happen and spent all our time writing these escapist pop songs." Pierce's portrayal of the band as naive waifs unaware of the perils of the music industry rings slightly hollow given various band members' previous dabbles in major label territory (Pierce himself was a founder member of the eminently forgettable Elkland, signed to Columbia Records), but it's clear that they weren't expecting the levels of hype and expectation thrust squarely on their shoulders.

As soon as they started appearing in the press, the band had to tackle constant accusations that they were a manufactured group, a cookie cutter exercise in putting together an indie band. Although Pierce says he understands why people might have thought that, it's obviously an issue that troubles him. "I think that people who [our image] rubs the wrong way are also people who maybe aren't fans of the things we're fans of," he says. "Maybe they don't like straight-up pop music." Warming to a theme, he continues: "If you look at a band like the Ramones, they were already fully formed too. But those people who make fun of us now for how we look, or the fact that we take care of how we dress, wouldn't look at bands like The Zombies or the Ramones and sneer at them. The same people who ridicule us would be like, [faux pompous voice] 'But, you know, the Ramones, they're an important part of musical history.' But why? Because it was decades ago? Is there a rule you can't appreciate things from the present?"

It's hard not to sympathise. By virtue of their myriad magazine covers and miles of print, The Drums are very much a public entity, but that doesn't mean some anonymous keyboard warrior laying into the band isn't going to hurt them. Pierce has a point - if you don't like the band then just move on.

When it's put to Pierce that it could be seen as something of a compliment that people presumed they were an indie boyband assembled by an anonymous svengali, he drops a rather pertinent name. "The last time I went to see Edwyn Collins he pulled out a bunch of early press about Orange Juice," he says. "And across the board - highbrow press and lowbrow press and everything in between - they said they were basically shit. Now you have people saying, 'There'd be no Smiths without Orange Juice'. But whatever, it's just how the world works."

Pierce, however, is happy that his band polarises people. "That's happened throughout history," he says. "[To] bring up the Ramones again, there are people who still hate that band, and people who think they're the most important band of all time. I think great things are always polarising and - although I'm not saying that we're great - if some people love us and some people hate us, the fact that there are extremes and passions around something, to me, is really exciting. That friction is really important. If anything it makes our band interesting."

The oft-criticised image of the band is also something the Pierce cares about deeply. Behind the varsity jackets and hem lengths, there's a man who works very hard on aesthetics. "It's always been important to us to deliver a complete pop concept," he says, passion evident. To Pierce, the image of the band, both on stage and off, is as important as the music itself. He cites the band's use of backing tracks onstage in their early days (they're now a five piece, fully live unit) as a case in point. "There's a select group of people who probably consider themselves purists who probably really hate any band who use backing tracks. But to me it's all very subjective - I view backing tracks the same way I view any other instrument. We've never been a band to squeeze ourselves into anyone else's box."

Pierce and his bandmates were often easy targets for criticism for the way they performed on stage, but he's adamant it didn't have much of an effect on him. "It's funny, because normally when people think they're criticising the band - like somebody might say, 'They look absolutely ridiculous' or, 'They're using backing tracks for their synthesisers' - they don't realise that we've always been really outspoken about that, and that it's a really important thing to us." Criticism, he says, is something he's become rather immune to. "People criticise how I am onstage but we've said from the very beginning that we want to be a band that puts on a show. We live in a musical age where it's all about the music and you get scoffed at if you try to have a certain look. It's a really suppressive time to be in a pop band, to do what we're trying to do. People will just roll their eyes but we really don't care; we'd rather have some reaction than none at all."

It's an impassioned speech, and one it's tough not to side with. Pierce is a man who truly believes in what he does, and strives to do it to the best of his ability. A rebellion against the po-faced, black-clad masses and the layers of irony that pour over the music scene today isn't a bad idea. To Pierce, it's not about being cool or uncool, a pariah or a flavour of the month. It's just about doing what you want to do.

"We wanted to do something interesting," he says. "We made a decision. We knew we looked like a bunch of assholes on stage but we just don't care. If one day it feels wrong then we'll stop doing it, but right now it feels very natural to be that way." He's not a man who has much time for bands posing and pretending, saying one thing and meaning another. "I think the way they look is important to most bands, but some of them are maybe a little more clever about hiding that, or maybe aren't so blatant about it. Every band that I look up to, great pop bands, how they dressed and what they wore was a part of their art. Some people might think that's silly but to me it's taking your band very seriously. An all consuming way of living, a desire to devour every last detail, is a really exciting idea to me."

How does he see the band continuing? "Maybe it's a defence mechanism, but when things started taking off we had a very specific conversation about keeping our hats on, about going into this knowing anything could happen and that it could all go away," Pierce says. "We knew that people would be fickle, that the press would be fickle and that nothing lasts forever, so all we can do is focus on ourselves and put out great songs, and hopefully we won't have a long list of regrets in twenty years."

Is there a time when the band will call it a day? "I think we always felt we'd have a short lifespan. I've always thought it's a real exception when a band can keep going and keep putting out great music that actually still manages to generate some kind of excitement," he says, citing U2's conveyor belt approach to churning out mediocre record after mediocre record. "We never want to get to that point. If it ever stops feeling urgent then we'll just call it quits."

For a band whose sound faces so much criticism, Pierce's music taste is impeccable. Despite stating that he doesn't like to listen to any other music when he's recording, he declares his love for Clare Grogan [of Altered Images], as well as the composer Wendy Carlos and warhorse Scott Walker ("We love the way he throws caution to the wind when being creative"). When it's put to him that Portamento is going to lose the band a fair few casual fans, he seems delighted. It's a grower of an album, one that will delight the hardcore fanbase but more or less completely alienate any who might just have heard 'Let's Go Surfing' once at Reading. "I have a feeling that anyone who likes our band just for that song won't be too interested and, to be honest, we're not too interested in those types of people either,” he says, shortly. "It's a win-win for us. We love this new album and it's really annoying when you play 'Let's Go Surfing' at a festival and you finish the song and watch half the crowd leave." That song is an albatross Pierce seems particularly keen to throw off. "There were literally a few shows were I felt like throwing up on stage if I had to play it again. You just have to take a break from it. I'm not saying we'll never play it again, but we'll see. With Portamento, we're really trying to play songs that just feel relevant to us as a band. I think by hearing that it'll ultimately be a better show for real fans. We're really trying to focus on that rather than on a bunch of people who listen to Radio 1."

Pierce, for all the criticism the band has received about using backing tracks and not being particularly proficient with their instruments, is something of a music nerd. Asking why the band chose the title Portamento (a word meaning the sound between two notes) gives way to a winding, long-winded answer about his and bandmate Jacob Graham's childhood obsession with analogue synthesisers (the two have known each for a very long time, and both had ministers for parents who gave their children discarded church instruments). It's a sweet, rather touching moment, part Pierce striving to prove he does know a thing or two about music and part a recollection of happier times, of him and his closest friend discovering music before the rigours of press, touring and major label politics took their toll. "Portamento is a word I fell in love with immediately," he says. "It's the glide between two notes, sort of a transitionary term, and with everything this band has been through since its first show we felt like we've been 'portamento-ing' since we began. It just seems to play into where we are as a band."

Not the most positive of statements perhaps, but it does seem apt: The Drums do feel like a band in transition. Shorn of a member and with a backlash to fight against, they've come out fighting. Hype off their backs, it's time to prove the critics wrong. Portamento, while by no means a fantastic record, is certainly a step in the right direction. It's the work of a band more comfortable with their sound, deeper and more mature. If they can get over the bumps and out of this transitional period, then they might well manage to capitalise on that early promise. Parting, Pierce states that all the band wanted to do with Portamento was to make something honest. They've certainly achieved that.