The Drums might be a surf rock band from Brooklyn, New York, but core duo, Jonathan Pierce (Jonny) and Jacob Graham, owes their sound more to the garage-y, reverb-drenched sounds of ‘80s Britrock (enough that they’re often mistaken for Europeans). Despite that, both their self-titled debut and Portamento had a cinematic quality to them that was ineffably Americana in aesthetics – you could almost imagine growing up as a particularly precocious American in the suburbs, rummaging through your dad’s vinyl collection of The Clash, The Smiths, and New Order in the garage. Recently, the duo together with their touring members stopped by KL for Heineken Green Room, stuck with us for dinner, we prod Jonny and Jacob on their attraction to Brit culture and reverbs, being fearless of expressing their sensitivity, and their filmic influences.
Both you and Jacob have solo projects in the works. Was there something individually that you want to express that you can’t quite do as The Drums?
Jonny Oh man! I think we both have always had our own things – and there are many things that keep us together and kind of unite us and make us want to do something as a team – but there are just as many things that are different about us, I think that’s what makes it work. After Portamento, we took a time off to explore our own individual interest and kind of create something where we don’t have to ask the other one if it’s okay with them, you know?
The Drums’ debut was really breezy, very surf rock, and very happy. Come Portamento, you guys were all about heartbreaks. Did something happen in between?
Jacob Well, what happened was we recorded the first album before people start paying attention to us, and we were really isolated and living in our own world. Then we got signed to a major record label, and we were flying all over the world. What happened was The Drums happened and maybe we weren’t ready to tour the world for a solid 2 years. I mean, we’re grateful for it but we’re kind of bummed out a little, being away from everyone we love for so long – I think it made the second album a little darker.
Jonny I think what made Portamento a darker record was because mine and Jacob’s friendship is sort of at the cornerstone of our band. We met when we were young kids and we’ve always been creative together and always shared everything. But as close as we thought we were, we didn’t imagine how truly close we’ve become and how much time you can spend with someone on the road for 2 years. I think we both kind of saw things we didn’t like and love about each other, but you really learn so much [about each other]. It’s sort of being married in a way (laughs). That’s what it is and that’s the only thing you can compare it to. A lot of good and fun times come out from that but a lot of not-so-good stuff too. I think our friendship, our working relationship, and our creative relationship will probably forever change because of that and it’s not all good, you know? We welcome the sadness and we’re really thankful of the experiences because without it, we couldn’t write meaningful songs, so we always have our arms wide open for hardship and struggle. I mean our favourite songs are sad songs so we kind of embrace that anyway!
Speaking of the sound of The Drums, you guys are from Brooklyn, but at the same time your music is indebted to ‘80s British rock – and your first big exposure was also through British media. What was it about British subculture that you guys just gravitated towards?
Jonny I think we like all subcultures, I think there’s something about the British indie scene that [the Britons] tapped into musically that you couldn’t really find anywhere else.
Jacob Well there’s definitely sensitivity that you’d find in British indie music from the ‘80s and ‘90s that you couldn’t find in America. When we were growing up [in the States], we were concerned about being masculine and tough – even indie music was very hard [at the time] – so we discovered these British bands that weren’t concerned about that at all. I think that goes back earlier than ‘80s and ‘90’s, I think if you look at The Beatles compared to Elvis Presley, one’s clearly more sensitive than the other. So I think that’s it, really. We love songs that we can connect with and [the sensitivity was] where we found the connection and kind of drawn into it.
Jonny It’s refreshing to hear music that is done by grown men who aren’t afraid to show their sensitivity or some weakness and some frailty in it. We always find that refreshing and drawn toward that and naturally that’s kind of reflected in our music.
Jacob, you were quoted on NME saying that everyone’s just losing their identity and you also said you like bands with strong identities. Having said that, in a nutshell, what would you say is the identity of The Drums?
Jacob I say a lot of things, especially on NME because they have a monthly column and let me say whatever I want, which isn’t always good (laughs). I think the identity of The Drums is sort of what we were talking about earlier, about bands who have a certain sensitivity and aren’t afraid to show a sensitive side. There are so many songs from when we were teenagers that were so important and special to us and that’s always been our goal, to write those songs. Don’t write it because it sounds interesting, you know, there are a lot of songs that have a little hook and that’s all there is to the songs, but we’d like our songs to be about something… hopefully.
Jonny I don’t know. I feel like, especially in the indie music scene, that we found ourselves falling into [a trap]. It seems to be really taboo these days to say anything, it’s all kind of about just having long hair and being cool. It’s kinda cool to not care right now. That is what we’ve picked up. But we care about every little detail and we’re really overly concerned about our lives and what goes on in them and we’re firmed believers in being really honest when we’re writing a song. It’s a great time stamp just for ourselves to just say how we’re feeling and put it down on a song and it’s forever there. Just selfishly we can look back and remember that time. I think it improves your live shows as well. Feeling the words that are coming out of your mouth rather than thinking, “I know this is a cool phrase to say so let’s put this in,” I’d rather be singing about things that is tugging at my heart as I sing them at the same time. I don’t know… it’s a survival technique – no point in doing something if your heart isn’t in it and if you’re not emotionally connected to it. So we purposely, and maybe we go too far sometimes, try to just kind of like be honest. I don’t know, at the risk of some critics thinking we’re overdramatic or that we’re complaining, I think we’ll always look back and be glad that we wrote honest verses rather than regretting it.
Jacob We don’t want to be terribly obvious, but we hope that our image is coming across in our music, and in our photos. I guess to boil it down – our pants are too short and we all have the same haircut.
We also read a quote from one of you saying you don’t consider yourselves as musicians. Can you explain that?
Jonny Well you see, technically we are musicians because we write and record our own music but we’ve all seen those guys that cannot be seen with a guitar or if they see a piano, they’ve gotta run to it and play it right away. We’re not like that, we store up [our creative juices and energy], like squirrel collecting nuts (laughs), and when it’s time to write a song we use it all then. [The musician stereotype] has always put a bad taste to my mouth. we’ve even had people who have been on tour with us that have been annoying to us because they’re constantly playing on their guitar and I don’t know what they’re actually getting out of it. Maybe it’s enjoyable but it seems like they’re showing off.
Jacob It’s just that neither of us is classically trained and we spent all our formative years, rather than learning every chord, we were figuring out what chords we think are beautiful and work well together and figuring out how to make sounds and things like that.
Jonny I think we always had such urgency to record and to write. This is going to sound strange but we never really had time to learn how to make music, so we just did it however we could and I think that’s how we landed on our sound. Jacob and I, even if we wanted to, couldn’t pick up a guitar and play you any of our songs…
Jacob It’s always a struggle, we can’t just hit record and nail it (laughs).
Jonny Jacob and I grew up collecting old analogue synthesisers since we were 12 and 13, they were called mono synths and you could only play one note at a time. Technology didn’t allow guitar chords or anything like that so we kind of grew up playing one note at a time. When we started The Drums it was the first time we ever touched guitars. We recorded one little note at a time and if we wanted to form sort of a chord, we’d just play one note and then record another note on a separate track and overlap them. So everything was one at a time, but stacked together. We kind of found our own way but it also naturally gave birth to a specific sound that I think is somewhat unique to us so we’re thankful for not knowing all the chords (laughs). Had we been schooled on how to do that, we wouldn’t be sitting here right now. Everything works out in the end.
You guys were also heavily influenced by movies, could you tell us in what way they influenced The Drums?
Jonny It started with Stand By Me and even movies like My Girl, and some of those really all-American, movie movies. They don’t really make movies anymore, it’s just a compilation of stuff (laughs).
Jacob Those movies with shots that stick with you like Chariots of Fire or Rebel Without A Cause…
Jonny Those with really iconic visuals and also very American. I think musically we’re more influenced by the UK but visually we’re very American. It confuses a lot of people. People thought we were European but we’re not. We dress like we’re in an American gang… so I don’t know. But yeah, we’re very visually driven. We were looking through photographs we kept in a shoe box and there was a beautiful photograph somebody had taken of this band in a garage during the ‘60s and it just looked so cool. We had lot of time on our hands at the time and we were thinking of what this band could be called and that’s when we came up with the name The Drums. We wanted to try and be as cool as those kids in the photographs
To paraphrase Jacob again, you said something along the lines of “without reverbs The Drums wouldn’t exist.” What’s your attraction to reverbs and doesn’t it just become another layer of artifice after a while? What not with it being a digital filter now…
Jacob Well Jonny doesn’t agree with me (laughs). I do love reverbs… I could get really technical about it but I’ll try not to do that. I think it has something to do with the way we grew up playing old synthesisers and those synthesisers were very blunt. They don’t exist in any space of their own, you plug it in and it comes right of the speakers and there’s no environment to it whatsoever. People who are using those synthesisers in the ‘70s would say it’s essential that you use reverb devices with these things. I agree with them, I hate the way synthesisers sound when not going through a bunch of springs. We like the idea of really tangible music and I think that that’s one of our biggest problems with those bands that we criticised because nothing sounds tangible anymore because it’s all kind of done on computers. We like to use those old reverb machines that were actually shaking springs or bouncing of plates or running through magnetic tape delays, and things like that. Because we want it to sound tangible, like it actually exist, we want our record to sound like a record – not like [digital recording]. We just want something that you can hear and sounds like you can reach out and touch it.
Finally, without any money, what can we give that special someone?
Jacob A hug, your time and energy, your affection.
The Drums played at KL Live for Heineken Green Room on Saturday 15 June ’13.