Interviews, Podcast

Jonny Pierce Of The Drums: The Culture Creature Interview

The visionary behind The Drums shares his tools for a creative life on the Culture Creature podcast

The Drums interview

Photos by Nicholas Moore

Listen to an interview with Jonny Pierce of The Drums on today’s episode of the Culture Creature podcast. Listen via the audio player above or in your podcast provider of choice (we’re now on Spotify, too!).

The Drums return with a new album, Brutalism, on April 5th (preorder here). On today’s episode of Culture Creature, Jonny muses, “People always say, ‘Jonny, your music sounds so happy, I wanna dance to it, but then I listen to the lyrics and it’s so sad.’ This makes so much sense, because I am living life where I am constantly fluctuating between those two emotions.”

Listen to The Drums interview on the Culture Creature podcast now.

The Drums Interview (Full Podcast Transcript)

Dan Redding: I want to start by talking about creativity. You wrote on Instagram that you’ve been feeling more creative than ever before. How were you able to access this phase of creativity?

Jonny Pierce: Hmm. A big part of my current creative mode that I’m in – I think it spawned out of being still. You know? I have traditionally – I guess for the last ten years – I have been addicted to movement. You know? Whether I was on tour or doing a press tour or going on a vacation or visiting friends somewhere, or sometimes, if I couldn’t figure anything else out, I would just jump in a car and drive. I was always moving all over the surface of the planet. It seems fun and kind of innocent but I knew that I was avoiding things. And if I could just keep things moving, I could kind of postpone the inevitable, which was me finally slowing down and dealing with who I was as a person, and who I was as an artist as well.

I think for a long time, I’ve been in a sort of cyclical mode of maintaining. Maintaining the sound of the band, maintaining the things that I would say, maintaining the speed of my movements. I kind of felt in control and safe that way. But I think what really suffered for a while was me as a person. Personal growth was on pause. Also, development as an artist was moving along real slow. To put it coarsely, I was just afraid and scared of allowing change. So a big part of tapping into myself as an artist again, and developing myself as an artist and a person – my personal life – I feel like I had to slow down and stop.

A big part of that was moving to Los Angeles, which is certainly not New York City. While you can make L.A. a crazy place for yourself if you want, it’s also a place where you can be still. Right now, I’m sitting in my apartment; I live alone for the first time in my life. It’s quiet. [Laughter] I feel almost like I’m living in the suburbs. There’s a lot of time and space to just think.

At first it was really scary being out here, but I’m starting to understand what a gift it is for me to get through the initial shock of not moving, and just being in one place. As a direct result, I’ve started writing and recording some of the most exciting work that I’ve done in a long time. It feels really good. But it took a few really scary steps. Or the opposite I guess: it took standing still. [Laughter]

You put colored lights in the rooms of your home. What did that do for your psyche?

A lot… A big part of what I’m doing right now is that I’m really letting my inner child play. I think when you’re in the habit of maintaining, it’s almost like a parental role. It’s very grown-up, to say the least. You’re maintaining the status quo of what your life is. That involves a lot of responsibility, and sometimes it involves taking down the silly decorations and being a bit more serious about stuff.

The lights specifically – I put colored lights in my room to kind of tie back to my childhood – which had a lot of pain in it, but it was also the place where I learned to escape and to get creative and to get dreamy. At the time, it was for survival. But I feel like in a way, I’m fighting for my survival now, again.

When I was a kid, we grew up in poverty. My parents had these – they probably bought them at the dollar store – they had these pink plastic little wastebaskets in each bedroom. They were in the shapes of tulips and roses. [Laughter] Very kind of Lynchian. I would take these and I would turn them upside down and put them where the lampshades were, and it would emit these colors through the bedroom. It kind of blew my gay little mind. I loved it. It would help me get into a creative space. I felt like I was building a world to exist in. One without judgement, one without feeling scared.

In a way, I’m tapping into that again. I have this synthesizer – the first synth I ever had, that I had in my bedroom as a boy, that I learned to write songs on. I’m tapping back into all of that. It’s not exactly the same. I’m a human being who has lived thirty some-odd years. I have life experience now. It’s an interesting thing to bring that child back but know that there’s also a grown man standing right behind that child, and I am both of those things. I’m really trying to live both of those lives at the same time. Just sort of merge them together again. I’m hoping that I don’t ever have to go back to just being an adult, or just being a child. I think it’s really beautiful if you can play with both all the time. That’s the kind of life I wanna live, so that’s what I’m doing.

The Drums interview

You just brought back vivid memories of the Christmas lights that I had in my bedroom on the walls, and the lava lamp.

Yes! I had a lava lamp, too. [Laugher]

I miss that! It kind of demarcated clearly: ‘I’m stepping into a different world than the rest of the house.’

Yeah. You’re kind of curating something special for yourself. Do you remember those Jones Sodas? They were these little glass bottles, and you could send your photo in and they would print your photo on the label … When I was a kid, I would collect these bottles and I would fill them with water and put food coloring in them, and put lights behind them so there were these rainbow lights shining everywhere. I was a pretty artsy kid. All of my brothers were outside playing football all day, and I was tinkering away with color droplets and synthesizers. [Laugher]

Do you do visual art now?

I do a little bit. This is also part of what I’m stepping back into. I’ve always done a bit of design for our band t-shirts or tour merchandise…

I bought some crayons and some paper, and I’ve been working with acrylic [paint]. I’m getting back into crafting things. I haven’t done that in twenty years. It’s a new experience. Again, I don’t think I’d have time to do any of that if I was living in New York or if I was continuing to travel. My therapist is the one that told me, ‘What do you think about challenging yourself to one month of just stillness? No matter how bad you wanna get on a plane, fly to Europe or go visit a friend – just say no.’ I pulled it off. I’m continuing to pull it off. I’m leaving in two days for a press tour, but that’s something I have to do. I’m not voluntarily just running away anymore. It’s given me this beautiful gift of being able to explore with all sorts of different elements and being a little bit crafty again, which is really nice.

It influences my music, it influences my work. It’s all so connected for me. I’ve actually been drawing and painting songs and sounds. Certain sounds that are in my head, I’ll make them a visual feast first. Then I’ll try to record the visuals that I’ve made. It’s been a long but fun and exciting process.

I just feel like really leaning into the abstract and letting my life become dreamy and avant garde. It doesn’t need to all make sense.

There’s a lyric in the song ‘Body Chemistry.’ In the second verse, I say, “Everyone is in one room, and I’m in the next room / I lean into a corner, I smell the wall / I exhale, I smell it again.” I get asked all the time: what the fuck is that lyric? I’m like, you don’t need to understand it. You don’t need to understand it. I also know that some people do get it, even without fully getting it; they feel it. That’s kind of the space I’m in, to use that lyric as an analogy. I’m in the space of doing things that don’t always need to make perfect sense. It has given me this new release on reality for myself.

It sounds like such a creatively abundant time. It’s kind of inspiring just to hear about it.

Another element in your work that I wanted to talk about is the humor. I love the flashes of humor in your work. There’s a moment on Brutalism where one of the narrators tells a lover to get their head out of their ass, which definitely made me laugh. Do you recall the first time when you recognized the power of humor in songwriting?

I think I’ve just always been a bit catty. [Laughter] I like to tease people a little bit. Look, I’m a huge lover and I’ll nurture you to death. But I also like to make you squirm a little bit. It’s always been a really natural thing. I don’t sit down and say, ‘I’m writing a new song, how to I cram a joke in there.’ It all just kind of flows out. I’ve never had a paper trail of lyrics or anything like that.

When I record, I get the music pretty much done, I set up a microphone, I’ll play a verse a few times through. Usually after maybe a dozen times through, I’ve pieced it all together. Sometimes there’s kind of a funny little moment in there, and sometimes there’s not. It happens in a really natural way. My goal in writing these days is so much less about having a song sound really cool. It’s so much more about, yes, having a beautiful-sounding piece of music. But it’s also about saying something, and having a bit more of a message. Even if the message is just vulnerability, that’s a strong message in itself.

My focus lately has really been on what it is that I’m saying. I think it’s really important that I make myself vulnerable in what I’m saying. I think maybe, in a way, because I’m being vulnerable, there has to be moments very naturally occurring, that are sort of a comic relief within all of that vulnerability. You know? Otherwise it’s just too much! [Laughter]

Your work is so personal, so when you are able to work in an abstract way, is that liberating?

Yes. Absolutely. I’m making music right now, actually, now that I’ve wrapped the Brutalism album. It’s music that I don’t think that I don’t think will ever be released. It’s just for me. There are literally sentences and phrases that grammatically don’t make any sense. I’m just letting things flow out of my mouth and being okay with that. It feels almost like a form of therapy for me.

Have you ever stood in the shower and just grunted or made a noise?

Usually I smell the wall.

[Laughter] Full circle.

You know, those moments, where – exactly, you lean into a corner and you smell the wall, and you’re thinking, ‘You know what? I’m never gonna tell anyone that I did that.’ [Laughter]

I think we all do things throughout the day, throughout our lives, and there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t even make sense to us, why we did it – but we did, and we’ll probably take it to our grave. It’s just kind of tapping into that side of myself. The part that needs to be abstract, and that needs to be undignified. Letting that take over sometimes.

I think everyone should do that. It’s not just reserved for songwriters or visual artists. I think everyone should allow themselves to be a little less serious or a little less rooted in reality twenty-four seven. It’s kind of nice, especially with what’s going on these days. The political climate and this asshole as a president. It’s a natural reaction for me. I fight the good fight: I go to the marches and I protest and I donate and all that. But then there’s a side of me that needs to get as fucking far away from all of it.

I believe that our bodies have not evolved to experience as much tragedy as we’re exposed to everyday. We certainly aren’t able to mourn all of that. I think it’s really about picking your battles and then reserving some space to just get away or escape or just be yourself, even if it’s something that someone else doesn’t understand.

You mentioned this synthesizer that you found in your parent’s basement when you were a kid. Do you recall the first song that you wrote with that synth?

I do! It’s called ‘Having You Here Is Wonderful.’

That’s really nice.

I actually still think it’s kind of a pretty song. I love the chord changes of it. I don’t think I have a recording of it. When I was like fifteen I actually was signed to this little electronic label called Plastic Music out of Orange County, California. We never actually did an official release but they put out a compilation with a bunch of synth pop bands and that song, I think, went onto that compilation.

That’s pretty crazy – your first song.

[Laughter] Yeah. And it was all on that synth. That synthesizer was kind of ahead of its time. Everyone was so in love with these Prophets, and then this sequential circuits multitrack came out and it had an onboard sequencer with six different voices. You could create entire songs just with the synthesizer itself. You didn’t need an external sequencer or a computer. You could just kind of record. This was technology from 1984. It was pretty ahead of its time but it slipped through the cracks. That’s probably why my dad had one – he probably got it on sale somewhere because nobody wanted it.

I feel really lucky that I was able to use that to record with, and I still think it’s such a beautiful-sounding synthesizer. A lot of my friends who are big synth junkies had never heard of that synthesizer. It’s one of these lost little babies. But I do well with that stuff. I like the broken and the hurting. [Laughter]

The Drums interview

Sometimes those are the most intriguing things: the ones that fall between the cracks.

Of course! That’s all I’m into. The Prophets and the Moog Voyagers – it’s all so sure of itself. There’s nothing fragile or tender about those synthesizers to me. They’re just like, ‘Come on, let’s fuck shit up.’

I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in the synth that has a really hard time doing anything. [Laughter] Just like people! It’s the same fucking thing.

Actually, ‘Brutalism,’ the title track [of Brutalism], that’s exactly what it’s about. I just want to nurture and love this guy so much that I forget about loving myself. I love this person so deeply and because all of my love is going towards him and I’m not reserving any for myself, this relationship surely will self-destruct. And, of course, it did!

But I love to be the nurturer. I love to find someone who’s broken or lost or hurting, or feeling wounded. I love to try to help. It becomes like a full-time job for me. Which also, in turn, puts my personal growth on pause, and it also kind of puts my artistry on pause as well because I’m working overtime trying to make sure someone else is not supremely unhappy all the time, you know? Oh, God. That’s what a lot of the album is about, actually.

But it’s interesting that you sound like you’re already on the other side of that, in a way, in a place where you’re taking better care of yourself.

Yes. Well, it depends on the day, sir. [Laughter] Sometimes it depends on the hour.

It’s like that for everybody, right?

I think so.

In fact, sometimes it’s like a boomerang. If I really eat really poorly and drank too much over the weekend, I might have a week where I’m going to the gym every day… Sometimes it balances out like that.

Yesterday was one of those days where it felt like anything was possible, sky’s the limit, let’s do this. And then today I woke up, and I felt the exact opposite. [Laughter]

People always say, ‘Jonny, your music sounds so happy, I wanna dance to it, but then I listen to the lyrics and it’s so sad.’ It’s like, this makes so much sense, because I am living life where I am constantly fluctuating between those two emotions of feeling pretty good about stuff and then pretty bad as well. It just comes and goes all the time.

Part of survival mode is trying to find peace with that truth: we don’t have such high expectations for every day, but you just decide, ‘I’m gonna roll with this. I’m gonna try to be better, I’m gonna try to learn about myself, but I’m gonna try to honor all of these things that I’m feeling.’ I try to do that when I’m writing. I try to put that into my songs.

You’ll hear on the new album, there’s a song called ‘Body Chemistry,’ there’s a song called ‘Loner,’ ‘Brutalism’ – these are all songs that are pretty heavy. Then suddenly there’s a song like ‘626 Bedford Avenue,’ where I’m kind of feeling a bit more secure with myself. Then there’s a song called ‘Blip of Joy’ at the end of the album where I’m experiencing some happiness and feeling good for a moment. I also wanted the new album to reflect that juxtaposition and the ebb and flow of what I experience day to day.

I have a segment of the show called Culture Questions. I wrote three questions about culture that are all inspired by songs by The Drums. You named one of the songs on the new album after Bedford Avenue here in Brooklyn. What’s one thing you miss and one thing you don’t miss about New York City?

God, you know what? I miss and don’t miss the same exact damn thing. And that is the constant, frantic energy.

Sometimes I get so heartsick for that because it just doesn’t exist in L.A. It’s just not a thing. Everyone’s sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, or they’re in their house playing board games and watching TV. It’s just a slower pace.

Traditionally, I’ve been such a go-go-go person. I miss that – it’s a comfortable place for me. That doesn’t mean it’s a healthy place for me. I do miss that; the unhealthy part of me misses that.

Also, I’m really so grateful for being still here in L.A. and getting to finally face some of my demons, that I also don’t miss that [part of New York]. I feel a bit conflicted about the same thing.

You wrote a song called ‘Heart Basel,’ which is a play on the name of the art fair Art Basel. If you could have any work of art in your home, what would you choose?

That is tough, my friend. I’m really into this artist, she’s on Instagram @ducatimist. She does these incredible paintings. I wrote her and said, ‘How does one buy one of these paintings?’ She never wrote me back. [Laughter]

These paintings are just perfectly bizarre. There’s something terrible and scary about some of them. And sad. I’m always drawn towards dark stuff going on in art. All of my favorite paintings and movies and books are all a bit tragic in their nature. So, I think that’s what I’d start with. I’d get one of those paintings.

When The Drums’ song ‘Money’ was released in 2011, I remember how critics interpreted it as an anthem of the economic recession. What does it feel like when a song takes on a life of its own in that way?

Oh, you mean how everyone thought I was a big fan of surfing and was from California [due to The Drums’ song ‘Let’s Go Surfing’]? [Laughter]

Right? You’ve probably experienced that a lot!

You know what? There’s a bunch of different ways I could answer that, but I think what I would say is: I’m not really in the business of caring too much about how people perceive my music, really. As long as they don’t get it grossly wrong.

If people thought ‘Money’ was the anthem of economic woes of 2011 – they’re not that far off, I was singing about being broke. So that’s not so crazy, and that’s fine.

If people had said, ‘Oh, this is a song that’s anti-abortion rights,’ or something, then I would say, ‘That’s crazy and you’re wrong.’ But it was pretty close.

My rule is, I write things that reflect where I am, and reflect the moment for me. Beyond that, I can’t control much. So, instead of putting energy into trying to convince everyone about something, I’d rather just continue making new work and letting the world spin.

Jonny, you’ve been really generous with your time. It’s been a pleasure talking with you, I appreciate it.

Hey, I appreciate your thoughtfulness throughout this entire interview. It’s not always the case, so I appreciate it.

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