As he enters a midtown office and bounds through the heavy glass doors, the first rushed words out of Jonny Pierce’s mouth are a muffled apology. “I just want to say I’m so sorry,” he says through a mouthful of cotton, peeling off his Balenciaga hoodie to reveal a long-sleeved black t-shirt with a familiar logo printed across the front. “I ran out of clean clothes on tour so I’ve just been wearing my own merch.” As far as first impressions go, two things are immediately evident: that he’s a bona fide rockstar, and that he’s probably the sweetest one you’ll ever meet.
In 2008, Pierce and co-founding member Jacob Graham devised a plan for a new band, switching gears from their previous musical endeavors. To facilitate the creative process of writing and recording the project, Pierce moved from Brooklyn to Florida where Graham had been living, and they got to work. The Drums officially splashed into the blogosphere with 2009’s Summertime! EP, a buoyant collection of reverb-heavy pop songs whose unbridled energy reflected the waves of tentative optimism that were swelling across the nation. The country’s youth had just shattered voter turnout records to elect Barack Obama president, a monumental event symbolizing that the storms of the previous administration had finally broken to make way for the sun.
Alongside the changing political climate, the 2000s fostered a golden age of indie rock. The Drums’ debut self-titled LP advanced the Summertime! EP’s blog buzz into true momentum, but their 2011 sophomore record set their signature sound apart from the pack. After an especially crushing heartbreak that rocked his personal life, Pierce wrote Portamento in an attempt to process and cope with what had happened, and to this day it remains cherished by fans for a determined candidness that would continue with each subsequent album. Pierce shrugs off any criticism of repetitiveness: “We live in this world now where it's just not cool to show that side of ourselves. I'll have people making fun of the fact that I just sing about the same thing over and over, but it works for me because I’m being genuine and people connect to it. They make memes. But if you're making a meme, you know you like it too.”
It’s been a long 10 years. In addition to the turbulence in his personal life that influenced the music he was making, the band’s roster was shaken up as well, leaving Pierce the sole remaining member as of 2017. However, five records later, he’s continued, unfazed. In an industry as relentless as music it’s easy for indie artists to fade into irrelevance or get lost in the fray of new names all clamoring to be the next best thing, but The Drums have remained an example of a band who opted for an organic slow burn rather than major label stunts and temporary hype.
Brutalism, his latest album, might be his most daring yet: it’s an emotionally vulnerable record about moving across the world to be with someone only to have it fall apart, learning to live with yourself in the aftermath, then ultimately finding joy. It’s a complete departure from the sound he spent his whole career cultivating, but one thing will never change: he’s still wearing his heart on his sleeve.
This is year 11 of The Drums, how does it feel?
And I still look great right?
You do, your SKIN LOOKS AMAZING.
That's what I want in bold letters.
I’ll make sure it happens. How's touring Brutalism been?
With anything I do, it's hard for me to just get lost in the moment. When I'm playing new songs I'm like, "Is this reaching people? Are people connecting to it? Are people enjoying it? Is this boring?" People say "You look like you're just in your own world." I'm like, "I am in my own world of stress and anxiety, that's where I am." I can count on two hands the amount of times I've really just been able to lose myself.
What do you think is the common denominator with those times?
Enough tequila. I'm such an extremist I'll either say, "Okay, this tour I'm going to let loose," and then I just come close to death by the end of it. Or I'll say, "No drinking,” and I just do this sober tour where I don't feel relaxed at all. I came from a place where everything was really rigid. The Bible dictated right from wrong and there wasn't any gray area in between. I think I carried that rigidity into my adulthood.
When I'm on stage, I'll see one person with their arms crossed, even though there's a crowd of thousands smiling and dancing. I'll zero in on that person and be like, "What's wrong with this guy?” My brain is just like, "What's wrong with me? What am I doing wrong? Am I offending this person?” I find myself caring a lot. Caring is a strength, but if you care too much it becomes a weakness and you become paralyzed at times. When I first started the band, I would run around onstage. I had this sense that if I wasn't literally juggling and dancing as hard as I could the whole time that people would lose interest in me and want to leave, or that people would give the show a bad review or consider me lazy or ungrateful. I'm to the point now where I'm able to have entire shows where I only dance and move when I really want to rather than keeping up this character.
My whole thing is I want to be as genuine as possible. If I have a thought like, “Oh my God, that guy in the back seems kind of grumpy, maybe I should try to entertain him,” I just kick that thought to the back of my mind.
People turned their backs on guitars, and now they’re coming back.
Thank you Kacey Musgraves. On a road trip my boyfriend asked me, "Have you listened to Kacey Musgraves?" I didn't even know who it was. He played “Slow Burn” and I just got instantly emotional and he just kept playing songs off that record and I was like, "Okay, my new favorite thing ever." She's so authentic. Maybe she liked Portamento.
Portamento was a very popular record.
The Drums have always been a polarizing band, we’ve known that from the very first time we released anything. Certain writers would be like, "This is the best thing. This is what we've all been waiting for." And others would be like, "I hate these clowns." I stay away from reviews and comments and all that stuff because I'm very sensitive.
The Drums have always been a little bit, for a lack of a better term, weird, odd in a way. When we started, it was the age of Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear, it wasn't about an image, it was about a sound and that was huge. Nobody really knew what these people looked like, and we came out and we were like, “Hey here's a three minute pop song, we all have the same haircut and we're all wearing fashionable clothes.” Some people were like, "Finally, a thing I can grab on to." And other people were like, "What the fuck is this?" At the time there was no other front man dancing around on stage, and I would get made fun of by my peers in other bands about how I was on stage. These days artists get wild on stage, but no one was doing that then.
What was crazy about Portamento is that although we started in Brooklyn, things really popped off for us in the UK. We were on the cover of every music magazine, we were on the BBC Sound of… list. They do this list at the end of every year. Lady Gaga was number one on our list, we were number five. Still, of all the artists in the world that was huge for us.
Six months prior I was sharing an apartment with six people, broke as fuck. Suddenly, everyone was interested. Every PR agency that we worked with was like, “Not since the Strokes have we had so many press requests and everyone is freaking out about you guys.” It felt really good. The fact that anyone would give a shit, it was bigger than big for us. I didn't even know how to process it. It was just out of nowhere. When Portamento came out, it didn't do as well in the UK. We released it just a year later and for that time that was really fast. We had so much buzz and so much hype in the UK and Europe and I think there was a little over saturation.
But the debut album in America didn't really do anything. It came out, it was Downtown but there was no one there. We were part of a lump deal. A bunch of artists that were signed to Island Records in the UK were put in the same contract for Downtown to act as a distributor but there was no A&R person that would get behind us and say, “Yeah, these are my people and I'm going to push really hard.”
"I think the key to sticking around for that long and having people still care about you is that you have to guard what you have with one arm and then with the other arm have your hand out."
This new album is very different from your previous ones, but still an amazing record.
I had two phases of The Drums. The first was elbows out, I created this sound and no one was going to touch it. That was the first EP and the first album and Portamento. With Encyclopedia, we went 50/50 and made this synthesizer record together. That was the beginning of me letting go of being so guarded about the sound and realizing that what's going to keep this band around is for me to remain curious about what I can do and leave a door open for new ideas. I think as I go, especially on this new record. If you compare it to even the last record, it’s solidly more vibrant and alive and colorful. We just went for it. When I was making those older records I would shut off all music and I would only listen to my own records, so everything was really insular.
Do you have a favorite album of yours?
I think it's a tie between Portamento and Abysmal Thoughts. I feel like Abysmal Thoughts is sort of Portamento 2.0. Encyclopedia...I made that in such a strange time in my life. It's like my weird record for sure. Of all the records, I don't even know what I was thinking at the time. I'm really glad it exists. I think every band needs to have their weird record. It sold like one copy.
Every day I think, what do I do next? Do I do anything? If I do, do I make this a really collaborative effort? Do I really get incubated again or something in the middle? I think the key to sticking around for that long and having people still write about you and care about you is that you have to guard what you have with one arm and then with the other arm have your hand out.
So Abysmal Thoughts was your L.A. record?
It was while I went through a divorce and also was really heartbroken about that, I invested so much time and money and energy and it fell apart. I just moved to L.A. with my husband at the time. We got this big apartment and it was supposed to be all exciting and he moved out, so it's just me in this new city that I wasn't necessarily in love with. L.A. is like all a big suburb. It was the loneliest experience, and I wrote all of Abysmal Thoughts in the kitchen actually.
The kitchen is such an intimate space. People think about the bedroom as being the most intimate but the kitchen is where shit really goes down.
If you think of any house party you've ever been to, everyone congregates in the kitchen. We love the kitchen. Then for Brutalism, I actually moved to Belgium a little over a year ago. I was only there for two months. When it comes to love, I'll do pretty much anything. Not Paris or London, I moved to Belgium. I really liked techno and house music as a kid, and when I moved to Europe I just started listening to all that stuff again. That's why there's more of a breakbeat vibe, I really wanted to be a part of the sound. I was only there for two months. We got this apartment and I was fully in. I still think about that guy all the time.
In this indie sphere you exist in, you have a pretty singular voice for this specific type of longing.
That's your answer. We're too specific. That has always been the problem. They're all about longing, but we live in this world now where it's just not cool to show that side of ourselves, but it's so universal.
The Beach Boys also had that vibe going on, every indie rock act now owes something to the Beach Boys.
I find it so good that you didn't say The Beatles, I hate The Beatles. They don’t have a single song that touches my heart. With The Beach Boys, there's a tenderness there. In my mind, with the Beatles, there was always a little bit of a guard up. I feel like it's Trump-y how the music industry is now, it’s like trickle down economics in a way. If you're a huge artist you get everything always. It's just the 1% of rich people in the world.
I think the Taylor Swift album rollouts are a great example of that. When she made us all suffer through the Reputation phase I just wanted to know if she voted for Trump.
No, she did. Even if she didn't, her silence was so violent. It was truly wrong. You can't be quiet. It’s about money, that's what it is. Being polarizing is to lose fans, aka money.
Do you think you have any Trump supporter fans?
I don’t, but if I have any they're not welcome. Why would I want that support? I don't want them around my precious fans. They are all sweeties. A lot of them are kind of broken and sad, but they also mosh. They're kind of like the perfect mix.
In 2017 you played a House of Vans show with Princess Nokia as your opener. Does that type of crossover happen often?
Not really. Usually we'll get on festivals or we'll play shows with bands that are a little bit more like us, but I hate band culture. I hate a bunch of dudes with guitars and drums tuning and drinking beer backstage. I want to start looking at The Drums as more of a project.
A girls and gays event?
That's literally what it's turning into. I had to take a long, hard look in the mirror because I preach equality and honoring people from all different walks of life and the truth is, for the last 10 years I've been in a band with, other than Jacob, a bunch of straight guys. Now the band is very different, my other guitar player is bi, I'm gay, and my drummer is half-Mexican, so we're just getting there. It's a slow burn but it feels so good. Being on the road has always been a pain in my ass and I know why, it's a bunch of straight guys throwing beer bottles in the tour bus. Now we all just get together and talk.
What do you think is next for you? How do you follow this record up?
I'm doing a lot of co-writing right now with a hip hop artist which is interesting for me.My message is very specific, it’s for people who feel a bit cut off from the world in a way. It's for people surrounded by those they know and love but still can't quite connect to that moment.
"My message is very specific, it’s for people who feel a bit cut off from the world in a way. It's for people surrounded by those they know and love but still can't quite connect to that moment."
Are we going to get a Playboi Carti x The Drums collab?
You never know. It’s funny, I get DMs almost exclusively from hip-hop artists. Some of them are wildly famous and they hit me up just saying that they like my music, but I don't get that from indie rockers. I don't know what the connection is but I love it. The other day I was watching Rico Nasty getting interviewed by Nardwuar because a fan sent me there then he pulls out a Smiths album and she literally changes her whole demeanor. She gets quiet and tender. She goes, "I was very depressed when I came across their music, and I came across them, and The Drums, and they got me through a lot of depressed times.”My message is very specific, it’s for people who feel a bit cut off from the world in a way. It's for people surrounded by those they know and love but still can't quite connect to that moment.
It's scary to stray from the beaten path sonically, but you did so really effectively on Brutalism. I’ve wondered before why it feels like people in music and media have slept on it despite these sentiments you write about that are so unifying.
I truly love this album, and I can't say that for all of my past albums. There are journalists who don't want to interview a gay person, especially one who is going to speak the truth. I think part of why we are where we are is that I’m willing to be transparent. Some people don't know how to handle it, but the people that do are just loyal to the end. My message is very specific, it’s for people who feel a bit cut off from the world in a way. It's for people surrounded by those they know and love but still can't quite connect to that moment. It's for people who lay in bed and stare at the ceiling and just feel strange about themselves. I think we all deal with that but a lot of us refuse to admit that. When all is said and done if I'm effective, that's what's important to me. For any of my work, I put it out and then I never want to hear it again. Always. I don't go back and just chill to my records.
Is putting out a record you can come back to a goal for you?
I don't think it's in the cards for me, it's not natural for me to gloat over something I've done. From a very young age I had to be scrappy to survive and I never lost that. It's always about, "Okay cool. We did it. Let's keep going." I never stop to just appreciate what just happened. I don't know what's going to happen next.