THE DRUMS: BANG & BLAME

Originally published in The Irish Star on Sunday, June 2009

I’M SITTING across from Jonathan Pierce backstage at the Olympia in Dublin. The flaxen-haired singer has a Granny Smith apple in one hand, a paper cup of coffee in the other, and the wide-eyed look that possibly suggests an overindulgence in psychotropic drugs. Around him, his three bandmates – Jacob Graham, Adam Kessler and Connor Hanwick – cluster with similar spaced-out expressions.

On second thoughts, their collective confoundment could simply be a matter of plain old tiredness. It’s not that The Drums are too clean-cut for rock ‘n’ roll excesses, but having witnessed their performance the evening before – they’re in Dublin to support Florence and the Machine on the first night of her UK and Irish tour – it’s little wonder their energy levels are flagging. The average Drums live show largely consists of Pierce undertaking dance moves comparable to Morrissey, Jagger, a baby dinosaur, or a combination of all three, guitarist Graham whirling around the stage like a indie-rock Nureyev, and Hanwick pummelling his kit like a man with a grudge to bear. As for co-guitarist Kessler – well, it’s his job to just look cool. Which he does, in a James Dean-crossed-with-Michael Cera sort of way.

You might already have heard of The Drums. The New York-based band were one of the most buzzed-about bands at the tail end of 2009, thanks to their debut EP ‘Summertime‘ piquing the interest and ears of all the right people last year – not least because of the flash of pure ’60s scuffled pop brilliance that was ‘Let’s Go Surfing’ (they don’t indulge, by the way). By December, they were being deemed ‘Most Likely to Succeed in Twenty-Ten’ by the likes of NME, Pitchfork, Clash magazine, and the BBC’s ‘Sound of 2010’ panel, and even Edwyn Collins recently requested their services for his forthcoming album. Now they’re ready to roll out their full-length debut, and it’s a stormer, too – combining the gloomier end of Britpop with a sunny West Coast sensibility and a canny knack for a catchy hook.

“This band started out as something where we just wanted to make songs, and we thought we’d show them to some of our friends, and at the most, maybe release a single on some 7 inch indie label,” shrugs Pierce nonchalantly. “I think most of the bands who get hyped-up are bands that are really trendy and of-the-moment, and they’re like, gluing feathers to their eyelids, and stuff. We’ve never tried to be like that. Once the dust settles, we’ll still be here doing exactly what we’re doing.”

The Drums’ is an album of two halves, although the crease is a soft one. Pierce agrees that the dichotomy of their ‘dark’ and ‘light’ surroundings – they decamped to Florida to record for a bit, before returning to the intensity of city life in Brooklyn to finish it – undoubtedly had a bearing on how the record sounds.

“I think what we did for the album was to cut ourselves off from everything, forget about what was ‘cool’ and all that. Just write a really simple, honest record. The first half is a little more… joyous sounding, maybe, than the second half,” he nods, munching his apple. “And if I think about it, most of the second half was written when we were in New York. So that may have been a conditional thing. It’s hard to really analyse what they are, or why they are, other than just simple pop songs.”

Despite their protestations that they’re no more influenced by bands like The Smiths (Morrissey turned up at a recent London gig) or Joy Division (the beat and bass of ‘It Will All End in Tears‘ is distinctly Hook/Morris-esque), they can’t deny that there are certain elements of singularly British gloom in their music. Perhaps that’s why it seems that the UK music press and audiences have fallen for the quartet’s charms in a way that their home nation hasn’t.

“The way music is consumed in America is a lot different than here,” drummer Connor Hanwick explains. “Here, people listen to the radio, and the radio will play things that people wanna hear. Whereas there, the radio is like a club. There are maybe 8 or 9 artists on every station – with the exception of college radio and independent radio, which has been great for us, and probably the reason that we’ve got whatever level of success we’ve managed so far. But that’s one of the reasons that we’re still unsigned in America, because we haven’t found that level of support yet.”

Nevertheless, the bubbling-under success of ‘Summertime‘ eventually led to The Drums being picked up by Island Records for their album – but it’s not the first experience they’ve had with a major label. Pierce and Kessler were former members of Elkland, who signed a deal with Columbia Records several years ago. The experience somewhat soured their view of the industry.

“We were just kids, it was years ago,” says Pierce, shaking his head. “We grew up in a really small town in the middle of nowhere, and then we were rushed into New York City into these big buildings, signing contracts. Our intent was pure, but the outcome wasn’t what we wanted it to be. It was almost nothing like it. So that was just disheartening a little bit… a lot, actually.”

“It was a learning experience, though,” interjects Kessler. “With The Drums, we’ve been so selective with who we work with. We probably spent about 9 months talking to every record label till we found one that actually liked what we were doing.”

What they’re doing is making music that harkens back to a simpler time, in a way. The Drums are not particularly concerned with being experimental or current, and they don’t really identify with their uber-hip Brooklyn surroundings, either.

“We’ve all been in bands for so long, since we were kids,” explains Graham. “Jonathan and I were mostly in electronic bands with old vintage synthesisers and things, and spent a lot of time ‘experimenting’ with music as teenagers. I feel like at this point we’re almost experimenting with the idea of not being experimental now. Like, we’ve tried every weird thing you can do, and now to us, it’s really exciting to just strip it all down. I think it’s also because I think when we were growing up, a lot of the bands we listened to – whether they came from Europe or wherever – you couldn’t really get their records in America. All you could find was ‘Best of’ compilations, and you just assumed that all their songs were like, amazing,” he chuckles. “So you kind of grew up with that mentality of like, ‘What’s the point of writing a song that’s not as good as it can be?’ They’re classics for a reason.”

“We had never played guitars before we started this band,” nods Pierce, “so it’s a totally new thing. In a way, we had to be really simple, because we couldn’t play anything else. But we’re really grateful for that now, ‘cos we’ve sort of found this sound by accident. And hopefully you can hear the sincerity in it. But that said, the way we go about writing songs is very mathematical, in a way. It’s a very strict formula. If you listen to our album, pretty much every song is ‘Verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-end’. Every song. The idea of not changing that is actually really exciting. It’s like what Jacob just said – just getting down to exactly what a song needs to be. Rather than being experimental and having long intros and long outros, and three key changes, and solos. We’ve literally started a ton of songs and if it’s just not there,” he says, snapping his fingers, “we leave them behind.  We want them to all feel like classic songs straight away, and if it’s not giving us that sort of feeling, we just move on to the next one.”

Moving on is a common theme in the Drums camp; from Dublin, they’ll travel back to the UK by ferry to finish Florence’s tour, then head out onto their own promotional circuit and headline tour of Europe before returning to our shores for Oxegen. It’s going to be a busy year, but they’ve found a way to keep themselves amused between motorway service areas.

“I have a label called Holiday Records, so I find a lot of new bands on tour. Fans come up to me and send me music, and if it’s good, I’ll release it,” says Graham. “So it’s this really cool cycle, and it’s really rewarding. That kind of thing makes it all kind of worth it, being able to be a music fan as well as a musician on the road.”

“Yeah,” says Pierce, rubbing the sleep from his eyes as he just about musters the energy to grin from ear to ear. “Somehow it’s all just worked out that we’re all just able to have a really good time.”

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