The Drums Are Marching On
Photo by Moni Haworth, courtesy of The Drums

The Drums Are Marching On

For his fourth record, Jonny Pierce is marching to the beat of his own... well, you know.
May 2, 2017, 3:44pm

Band fonts can be completely pointless. But often, they are a good way of representing how the music sounds. A good example of this is Metallica's sharp-edged customized font, which acts as a reminder that they will always at least try to shove metal up your ass, or any extreme metal band's logo, which is both often illegible and sinister as fuck. When it came time to visualize the fourth album by The Drums (their first for new label Anti-), frontman Jonny Pierce felt a new font was in order to accommodate the title, Abysmal Thoughts. So he reached for something called "Bloody Stump."

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"That font is a reaction to having my hands tied artistically on certain things, like the visual aspect of the band, but also the music side," says Pierce. "I thought Bloody Stump was appropriate for an album called Abysmal Thoughts. It was only until the artwork was done that I analyzed how different it was from the previous Futura font we had going on before: It's me finally expressing everything I want to do without having to ask anyone else. This is my record to go for it."

Pierce is currently facing a time of deep self-reflection. For the past year he has been living with the fact that he is now the last remaining member of The Drums, the band he formed back in 2008 with his long-time confidante Jacob Graham. Although the band has gone through a few lineups over the years, mostly with touring musicians, until now it has always been Pierce and Graham, bosom buddies playing the most melodically bittersweet indie pop the world has heard in its post-Smiths times.

Even before they had a band, the two were often in the thick of it together. "I met Jacob many, many, many years ago at bible camp, and we connected over synthpop, of all things," remembers Pierce. "We really developed a relationship that was based on our love for music, which not a lot of people around us shared any enthusiasm for. A lot of people downright hated it. During the era of Nirvana and Hole we were listening to this homo-enthused synthpop from the UK. We were into analog synthesizers when it was cool to have long hair and be into guitars. I was confused about everything, and the one thing I knew in my life was that there was a kid named Jacob Graham that I could talk to about music and feel supported by. We really held onto each other."

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Below: Listen to The Drums' new track "Heart Basel"

While first living in New York, Pierce and Graham initially started Elkland, a synthpop four-piece that released one album, Golden, on Columbia in 2005, before they were dropped and split up. Two years later they decided to start a new band, just the two of them, while living together in Florida. At first it was a completely collaborative project, but not long after Graham lost interest, and Pierce realized that he had become the band's only songwriter. This allowed him to "curate the sound of The Drums," as he describes it, but he worried about Graham's lack of commitment.

Buoyed by the effervescent whistling of its single "Let's Go Surfing," the band's Summertime! EP quickly caught the attention of music blogs and the always excitable UK press. At this point The Drums had inflated to a quartet—with Connor Hanwick on drums and their former Elkland bandmate Adam Kessler on guitar—and relocated to Brooklyn. All of a sudden they were being hailed as stars in the making, and the offers began to pour in from labels (they signed to Island/Universal).

"Suddenly our lives changed, and Jacob wanted to be a part of it," says Pierce. "I always wondered if he genuinely wanted to be a part of this or did he just see this as a nice career. I just never fully knew, but he seemed committed."

By the time they were set to release their self-titled debut album in 2010, The Drums were one of indie music's most celebrated new bands. The NME put them on the cover, claiming they were at the forefront of a "new American invasion" and Pierce was named the seventh coolest musician on the magazine's annual Cool List. All seemed well in the land of The Drums. Of course, it wasn't really.

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"People often referred to us as a gang, but I felt we were more like a family. Because of this I wanted them to feel as involved as possible so they wouldn't ever leave. And then of course, one, two, three left over the course of five years."

"I've never really said this before because up until this album I've never felt free to say it, but 90 percent of what you've ever heard from The Drums was just me playing and recording the guitars, the drums, the bass, the synthesizers, the vocals, the backing vocals, the percussion and the mixing of it all and writing the lyrics," admits Pierce. "Most of the songs that you've ever heard by The Drums are looped and sample-based. That's how these records are made, including Abysmal Thoughts. I've always shied away from saying that to let the guys talk when we were asked about the recording process. I would talk a little bit but also stay a little quiet. I don't know why I did that."

Pierce does have an idea of why he played pushover, and it seems to stem from his upbringing. Both his mother and father are Pentecostal pastors, which meant spending his formative years under the strict watchful eyes of what he calls a "very anti-gay" household. "Like to the point where my parents would lead anti-gay rallies and call for a town-wide boycott of this community bookstore that carried gay and lesbian literature," he adds.

"I never felt a sense of family, so I think part of why I wanted [the other members] to be so involved was because I didn't want to lose them," he explains. "For the first time in my life I actually felt like I had a family. To me, they were like my brothers. It felt beautiful, organic, and natural. There was so much love. People often referred to us as a gang, but I felt we were more like a family. Because of this I wanted them to feel as involved as possible so they wouldn't ever leave. And then of course, one, two, three left over the course of five years."

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After they finished touring their second album, 2012's Portamento, The Drums once again became a duo. According to Pierce, this was a turning point for Graham, who began contributing more than ever for the third Drums album, 2014's Encyclopedia. However, that feeling of collaboration turned out to be a short-lived one.

"Jacob did Encyclopedia with me, and that's the album he really took the reins on," says Pierce. "After that I think he felt that he had done the album that he wanted to make with The Drums. I had gone down to LA to start recording Abysmal Thoughts, and I got an email from him, which was the first time I'd heard from him in a while. Essentially it was very sweet, but he said, 'I have other passions in my life, and I find little to no joy in the process of making records and touring.'"

Graham announced that he had left The Drums this past March, more than a year after he informed Pierce he was quitting the band. In a note on Instagram, Graham stated, "There are no hard feelings whatsoever, I wish Jonny and the band the best of luck. I'd been with the band for almost ten years and I wanted to focus on my puppetry and my work with Sound of Ceres." As it turns out, he's a pretty accomplished puppeteer.

Pierce wasn't surprised when Graham said he wanted to leave. "But I was surprised that he actually went through with it," he says. "That he actually said, 'I want out.' At the time I could see him sucking it up for another album cycle, but to my surprise he didn't. But I let him go right away because I could sense it, and it was making me crazy too."

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Photo by CyCy Sanders, courtesy of The Drums

The moment Pierce realized that he was now the only member left, he experienced a range of emotions. "There were a few minutes where I felt nervous, that it was now up to me," he exclaims. "I was all alone, but it was more like, 'I'm all alone! I can now do this on my own!' I don't miss the old Drums. I love Jacob and Connor—we're all still friends—but I don't miss the power struggle that was ever-present when those two were on the road."

What he has come to learn about himself is that The Drums is better off as a solo artist because—and it's taken him almost a decade to figure this out—that's what he's always wanted.

"I'm not a band person. I never have been," he says in a determined tone. "I don't care about bands. I hate band culture and I always have. The words I hate more than any other are, 'Dude, nice to meet you! We should get together some time and jam.' Jamming to me is literally the sixth circle of Hell."

And yet, for all of those years he insisted on making The Drums a quartet to fill a void in his life, all while making most of the music himself. He claims that a lack of self-confidence was the main obstacle keeping him from happiness.

"I was leaning on these guys in an unhealthy way because I didn't feel that I was good enough on my own," he says. "I didn't feel like people would care about just me. I knew I could write songs and make a great album, but I didn't know if people would be satisfied with The Drums being just Jonny doing it without Jacob or Connor or whatever. And to my surprise, I haven't felt this excitement for putting out a record since the debut. I learned to stop looking at myself as worthless and inadequate and start realizing that I can do this. I've always been plagued with so much self-doubt, and I've pulled people into my life to stilt me up. It's like I've always been on this hamster wheel working towards this goal of finally saying to myself, 'No Jonny, you're a cool cat. You don't have to worry, man.' But it's easier said than done."

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During the making of Abysmal Thoughts, Pierce wasn't only undergoing a professional break-up with Graham, he was also undergoing a personal break-up with his husband. For him, the two relationships had a lot in common. Being married gave him another sense of belonging to a family.

"I assumed that this person was someone I'd spend the rest of my life with, and in retrospect I see it very similarly to why I never wanted my bandmates to leave," he says. "I viewed my relationship with this guy as finally having a family and that need to belong to someone. I felt that only if I belong to someone am I worth anything. And now I'm learning that it's not true."

All of this emotional turmoil definitely took its toll, but Pierce did what any good songwriter would do: he used it as inspiration for the next Drums record.

"To be in my 30s, sitting in this empty apartment in Los Angeles, a city that I never connected with was really lonely," he says. "So I just writing and recording, and the songs just oozed out of me in a way I hadn't experienced since making the Summertime! EP. Like I would finish a song in two hours. And it was happening over and over, so I got really excited. So I made the choice that if I was gonna make a record, I was gonna take advantage of this heartbreak and loneliness, and I'd respect it and honor it by just being honest with my art."

He started in LA but soon decided that he needed to leave his old life behind him, and returned to New York. "When I landed at the airport it felt like I started the healing process," he says. "Something felt warm and good in both my heart and my gut. Then I went straight to my cabin in upstate New York, and I just kept writing. It became a very introspective period that is still going, actually. I started writing songs like 'Mirror' and 'Are U Fucked,' which are more about looking in than looking out. Before I knew it the album was done. It just happened. I feel like I didn't try, but in the best way. I didn't need to try because it was all there begging to be made."

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Abysmal Thoughts may be a title that suggests the fourth album by The Drums is Pierce painting a deep pit of despair, but it's not that black and white. For him, these songs gave him the freedom to lyrically address his sexuality without any of the concerns he faced in previous attempts.

"I remember there was a time when we were just starting out and one of the Times papers came to our apartment in Brooklyn and the interviewer asked, 'Is anyone in the band gay?'" he recalls. "We all choked and started sweating. I felt embarrassed. Looking back I think I was dealing with the fear of being rejected because I was gay. We kept it a secret at first. We never said that we weren't, we just wouldn't answer the question. And I really do think that it was a product of Jacob and I being raised in households where we were told that being gay was not just a sin but an abomination. And even though neither of us believed in any of that, there was still this ingrained fear that was part of the fabric of who we were. We were sort of homophobic towards ourselves.

"Every step you take closer to being yourself is very exciting. Once you make the decision to really let it all hang loose, it actually becomes addictive."

"With this album, I went for it," he says. "It wasn't scary at all. Like every step you take closer to being yourself is very exciting. Once you make the decision to really let it all hang loose, it actually becomes addictive. So to go back and write another song about surfing would be hard for me to do that with any degree of enthusiasm. It definitely wouldn't be genuine."

Abysmal Thoughts is an album that finds Pierce finally facing and conquering his demons. He's managed to make the album he's always wanted to make, and on his own terms. This means if he wants to use a bloody new font to spell out the name or throw in some nods to drum and bass (no joke, they're in there!) he will. But of all the ways he's expressed his independence, it's the photo of his boyfriend on the front smelling Pierce's shoe in a Los Angeles garden that excites him the most.

"Yeah, I took a photo of my boyfriend smelling a dirty gym shoe and put it on the cover. And no, he was not just casually sniffing my shoe. We shot it in the backyard of my friend's place in Los Angeles," he says with a laugh. "It's an example of how I'm doing exactly what I want to do. It's invigorating. This photo is something I wanted to do but also something I felt I had to do. It was almost like a reaction to this unwritten law we had in the band. This album explores sexual and visual fetishes. It really is an album for fetishes, like my love for drum and bass, sports and athleticism, and my disdain for the rich. I wouldn't have been able to do something like that before, and now I can just please myself. It's really nice."

Cam Lindsay writes all his articles in the same font because Noisey makes him. Follow him on Twitter.