The Drums' Front Man Jonny Pierce on Raw, Real Lyricism And SXSW
Almost three years since their last release, The Drums are back. And their new single? Classic Drums with a twist. “Blood Under My Belt” is filled with wistful melodies and playful guitars, a contrast they enhance with heart wrenching lyrics. After multiple longtime relationships in his life dissolved, front man Jonny Pierce left New York for LA, taking the time to soul search and create the Abysmal Thoughts album (to be released June 16th). The change of scenery clearly paid of—the album, written and played by Pierce, is some of the most honest and exciting music from The Drums to date.
Pierce, currently on tour, is stopping in Austin this week to play SXSW. Milk.xyz caught up with him prior to talk Abysmal Thoughts, being back on tour, and the importance of making your voice heard.
You wrote and played all the instruments on your new album, Abysmal Thoughts. What inspired the more individual route for this project?
To be really frank with you—I’ve always done the lion’s share of not only writing, but also recording, of The Drums albums. Jacob [Graham] got more involved on the last record, Encyclopedia, but for the most part, what you have heard over the years and what you will hear on Abysmal Thoughts is me doing my thing. After Encyclopedia, Jacob felt like he wanted to do other things with his life, and I felt like it was a good time for him to pursue that. So—the main thing to focus on here is that while I always did most of the recording and writing, I was always under a pressure or influence to do things a certain way. I felt like there were certain subjects I was not able to reference with the others in the band. Stuff like drug use, or explicit sex. I get to do that now. I also get to write something incredibly dark or blissfully bubbly and I don’t have to run it by anyone. Absolute freedom. This is my reality now and you’ll feel it on Abysmal Thoughts. I think people are already picking up on that with the new single, “Blood Under My Belt”.
You also recorded a lot of it in LA and upstate New York. Did the change of location from New York City affect the way you worked?
I moved to LA desperately trying to save a very significant relationship. I thought “well maybe we move to LA and leave our problems in New York and try again…” I set up studio in our new LA apartment, and proceeded to write some of the darkest material—lyrically anyway—that I’ve every written. I’ve never felt a darkness like I did that whole first year in LA. I would go out and do shit loads of drugs and drink nonstop and fuck around and just be over all a really awful person. I was trying to feel good again—but doing it all the wrong ways. I ended up feeling even more lost, alone, and afraid. We ended up breaking up, and not long after that, I got an email from my longtime band mate and childhood friend, Jacob. He said he wanted to leave the band. I felt truly rock bottom and so right then and there, I knew I could make great album, and that I could heal, and that I could start healing right away. I went to my house in upstate New York, set up a makeshift recording rig, and wrote songs full of self-discovery, regret, forgiveness, growth, and truth. What I ended up with is a really well-rounded album. It’s a journey that literally goes from feeling worthless to feeling hopeful and sometimes victorious even.
What were some of the challenges—and rewards—of working as an individual?
There is no way to express how fucking gorgeous it feels to be on my own now. I want to make it clear that there are things that I appreciate about the years past, and working here and there with others, but to be honest, this was always my vision. And to get to play it out fully and unfiltered feels refreshing. I know that this new album is the best I’ve ever made and there is also a pride that comes with that. I have rarely felt pride in anything that I have been a part of. It’s so me—plagued with self-doubt and embarrassed of things I’ve done. I don’t think any of that exists on the new album. And hopefully it won’t come back as I continue to write.
You’re currently on tour right now. How’s being back on the road? What are some of your favorite things about performing for an audience?
I can’t believe how supportive everyone has been. We’ve been playing sold out shows and the kids are coming out with such enthusiasm: singing along, dancing along, getting kicked out, getting too wasted. I feel connected as fuck! Something about this tour feels old school. Feels like punk—like we aren’t playing for the hell of it, we’re playing because we have shit to say. It all feels so much more in your face. It’s all or nothing from here on out.
This album is more emotional and personal that a lot of your previous work. How does it feel performing such vulnerable material for crowds of people?
Are you kidding? It’s the ONLY way to be, especially with all the shit going on politically. I wake up every single day and see some new atrocity taking place in our country. It’s devastating and I feel that I have an almost sacred responsibility to speak out—and sometimes speaking out means just being completely transparent. I’m not going to pretend things are ok when they are not, and, yeah, I tell kids all the time the best thing they can do is to love themselves—as hard as that is sometimes. If you can love yourself, you can make real change in the world, but if you feel like shit about yourself, and aren’t expressing yourself, how can you expect to make a dent anywhere. Be vulnerable—it’s so much more exciting. And healthy.
I think my career would have tanked a long time ago if I had decided to be a private person. I enjoy putting it out there because that what kids relate to, and in turn I feel like it’s all worth it. You won’t find me writing Mr.Brightside lyrics. I have shit to say, things to express. Any other way is really a death sentence. I mean, I literally get emails and DM’s from people on an almost daily basis saying how my music has pulled them out of a suicidal state. This is real life. And with real life, by default, there is very real death. I am here for all of it.
You’re playing SXSW this year, and The Drums have played before. What keeps you coming back to Austin?
I’m not sure if Austin is a sanctuary city, but it feels like one, and I appreciate that. Texas has done so much to destroy the country we live in. There is so much hate coming from Texas—it’s enough to make me sick—but then there’s Austin. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I still don’t feel totally safe holding Keon’s hand on the street in Austin, but I wouldn’t be as afraid as I would be in other parts if that state. Texas has a lot of work to do to earn a shred of respect from me. I know I have some fans in Texas and I have to assume that if they are real fans of The Drums, then they know we are all about love, compassion, empathy, diversity, inclusion, expression, and standing up to anything that threatens that. I have to assume they are standing with us. And if they are, then I commend them and thank them.
As far as playing SXSW, I’ve had some good and not-so-good experiences. It’s a mixed bag for me. SXSW has become a bit greedy as a festival in my opinion. They lure in poor, up-and-coming bands and usually don’t pay them. The festival walks away with millions and many of these new bands go home broke. It’s really unfair. I think this will be my last SXSW. I don’t think I can do it and feel honorable anymore. I signed a bunch of contracts before I really stopped to think about this shit and so I have my hands tied and will play this year. But I’m all about intentional living and it is not my intention to play into a festival that fucks over countless new artists.
On that note, SXSW has agreed to remove their immigration clause, but what are your feelings on it being there in the first place? Especially with the Muslim Ban and increase in deportations happening now.
The same rules should apply for everyone, no matter what the festival or event. We just need a blanket of equality wrapped snuggly around all of us, all the time. I don’t want to feel safer because I’m American. If you feel safer because you’re American…well, that’s when you should actually feel scared, because you will ultimately be less safe. Inequality actually creates very dangerous situations. I’ve been out protesting more than ever, and for a music festival to make me feel uneasy because of gross language in their contract…well it perplexes me. I keep hearing the argument, “well it’s been in the contract for years…” All I can think is, “Yeah? Well gay people have been ostracized from communities for years and woman have been making less money in the work place for years…should we just keep that going too?” Rules need to change. And shouldn’t the festival—especially one that has a progressive vibe—be taking extra precautionary steps to make sure everyone is included and respected?
While you’re not necessarily a political artist, you have spoken out about Donald Trump and protesting. Do you feel that artists have a responsibility to speak out in these times?
I used to think politics was for politicians, but I would actually consider myself a political artist these days. Being an artist is so much more than just putting out albums. It’s in everything you do. I feel that everyone, artist or not, has a responsibility to speak out. Silence is violence. I mean, truthfully, don’t even try to befriend me if you are someone who “stays out of it.” If you don’t speak out for those who don’t have a voice, then you ARE choosing a side. Silence is violence. Please don’t be Switzerland.
You’ve played other festivals, like Coachella, where the focus on the clothing is almost on par with who’s playing. What are your thoughts on the relationship between music and fashion?
Oh God, I dunno. Music and fashion have always had a very strong relationship. I’ve been fucking around with some motocross looks for the Abysmal Thoughts tour, but I’m trying to wear only secondhand clothing to reduce my footprint. We are only printing merch made out of 100% recyclable cotton, and I had a recycle bin added to our tour bus. You don’t have destroy the planet and the people who live in it to make your art. Intentional living, babies.
Is the way you dress when you’re performing different from everyday life?
Dude, I’m a freak all day every day.
Featured image via Moni Haworth
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