Jonny Pierce hasn’t had it easy.
The latest record by his band the Drums has the same irresistible pop sound that made their self-titled 2010 debut and sophomore LP Portamento instant classics. But more than ever, it’s evident that the lyrics accompanying their breezy, upbeat tunes reflect dark times.
It wasn’t surprising to learn that Abysmal Thoughts has a backstory to match its title: Within one month last year, just as work on the album began, Pierce separated from both his husband and his best friend/bandmate Jacob Graham.
“(Jacob) was a pillar of stability in my life for many years,” Pierce explains. “He was my right-hand man since I was 11, 12 years old and suddenly he just dips out — it goes without saying that that just shifted the whole dynamic of my life.
“I was already going through a divorce, and to add insult to injury I had just moved to L.A. with my husband and I wasn’t gelling well with the city — it just never felt like a home to me,” says Pierce, who’s otherwise been Brooklyn-based since leaving the small town of Horseheads in upstate New York over a decade ago.
“I was really frustrated, heartbroken, lonely, extremely depressed, and I threw myself into drugs and alcohol in a really excessive way — I was punishing myself for letting this relationship fall apart. It was just a messy time and a scary time but I’ve always thrived artistically in those moments. There was a lot to talk about.”
Despite the emotional impact of Graham’s departure (the reasons for which were not fully explained in the band’s official statement, though Graham said he aimed to focus on puppetry — no joke, look it up — and his other music project, Sounds of Ceres), professionally its impact on the Drums’ sound was minor.
“The lion’s share of the writing and the recording has always been me, and it took Jacob leaving the band for me to feel comfortable enough to say that. It’s a coming out of sorts,” says Pierce, who has taken time to reassure fans that he’d “been making this music all along, and they won’t be blindsided by something crazy different.” (If anything, the band’s 2014 record Encyclopedia came across as crazy different, and that, Pierce says, was the most collaborative project he and Graham had ever produced.)
Facing the music
After overcoming the fear of facing music (and its reception) on his own, Pierce viewed Graham’s departure as a blessing, “a gift of creative freedom” and a green light to express himself the way he wanted to.
“Yes, I was the singer for all these years but I was a different person then — I really hated myself for a lot of the beginning of the career of the Drums, even into Encyclopedia. I really pushed away from who I was and I had help with that from people around me — people in the band, people outside the band, people pushing me to act a certain way.
“I remember feeling a lot of pressure, especially with that first album and all the buzz that surrounded it, and particularly from the U.K. press, which really led our rise to wherever we’ve risen to. There was this idea that this was the new rock band that you should care about, the new Strokes or whatever. But no one ever mentioned that I was gay, and I felt this pressure to not talk about it, to ignore that side of myself. On Portamento I started to use pronouns a little bit and I wrote a song called ‘If He Likes It Let Him Do It,’ but ultimately I was still very guarded and nervous, not just about the gay side of things, but even talking about sex or religion or politics or depression.”
Graham in particular wanted the band to portray an innocent, almost childlike perspective, hence the naive love songs, songs about surfing and campfires and, as Pierce puts it, “this 1950s, Americana, James Dean at the greasy spoon sort of vibe.”
“We really weren’t saying a lot,” he says, “and I think that’s how most of the guys in the band wanted it. Since accepting myself for who I am was uncomfortable, I was happy to be guided into this space.
“But throughout the years, losing Conor and losing Jacob — each album that we’ve put out, we’ve lost a member and now it’s just down to me. I guess when there’s less people in the room you start looking at yourself a little bit more. I lead this album with a song called ‘Mirror’ — for the first time I’m pointing a finger back at myself and saying, ‘Maybe there’s some stuff that you’ve gotta work on, Jonny-boy.’”
Blowing off steam
Therapy has helped Pierce to helm this band on his own (with live support from three other musicians, two of whom have been part of the Drums crew for a few years) with newfound confidence to make all the creative decisions.
“When Jacob left, I was like ‘Wow, I can use cowbells and coach whistles, I can put a photo of my boyfriend smelling a gym shoe on the album cover, I can use an ugly orange Halloween font, I can just do it!’ And the magical thing about it is that I was also personally ready for that,” Pierce says, admitting that he’s far from done with his shrink.
“As much as I loved my husband, the most depressing day for me was my wedding day — I just went into this slump. There’s something inside of me that gets really nervous about having stability, and I think it’s because I never had it growing up.
“I still have all this anger at my parents over how they raised me. On top of being abusive, they homeschooled me, but not in a way that was good for me. I felt like they really limited my ability to explore the world; they really kept me under a rock until it was time to apply for college, and I had no idea what was up or down. I felt really jipped, and it still pisses me off. My dad was like, ‘I just want you to work in the church,’ and that was it, there was no other option. That’s why I ran away.”
More than ever, songwriting has a cathartic effect for Pierce, who felt like each of the dozen tracks on Abysmal Thoughts was a free therapy session.
“Whenever I finish a song, I picture myself as a valve and I’ve turned a crank and I’m letting out steam. It calms me down a little bit and makes me feel more stable as a person. When I put a record out into the world, I feel like I’ve done something that people appreciate.
“I still have a lot to explore (emotionally, psychologically), and that’s why I wanna keep making records. I’m gonna unearth all this stuff and it’s gonna be really beautiful stuff to paint with.
“My outlook now is that if we’re not being honest as artists, what’s the point of being an artist?” ■
The Drums play with openers Methyl Ethyl at Théâtre Fairmount (5240 Parc) on Monday, Nov. 13, 8 p.m., $23.25/$28.25