Courtesy of Anti- Records
On the surface, things were going well for the New York-based guitar pop band, the Drums. They were selling loads of albums and touring the world, and frontman Jonny Pierce had become an idol for all the misfit kids who listened to bands like the Smiths or Joy Division.
However, during the height of the band's success, the sharply dressed, robotic-dancing Pierce was often anxious, lacked self-confidence and had many dark secrets buried inside himself.
After the departure of one original member of the band after each of their three albums and a crazy divorce, one would think Jonny Pierce would have crumbled under the spotlight or at least taken several years off. Pierce, who is gay, also remains traumatized by his extreme and abusive religious upbringing, which left him feeling unaccepted and unloved by his own family members, who disapprove of his sexual orientation.
Instead of wallowing, Pierce responded by making Abysmal Thoughts
, the Drums' most musically ambitious and lyrically honest and heartfelt record to date, not to mention one of the best albums of 2017.
How did he pull it off?
"I was just in this ‘fuck it’ mode,” he says via phone. He brings the band to the Grog Shop on Aug. 4. “I’m just going to say how I’m feeling and once I made that decision, to just vomit out how I’m feeling, it all just started writing itself. There wasn’t a single song, really, where I was really laboring over it like ‘how do I express myself or how is this going to work?’ This album really just presented itself to me, almost as a gift, you know. It's been really exciting to say what I want to say and say what I need to say.”
Gone are the days of the band's more romanticized, abstract songs like "Let's Go Surfing" or "Forever and Ever Amen," and Pierce says that this era of the Drums (their first EP and first few albums) had a more cinematic sound thanks to former bandmate, Jacob Graham.
"Jacob has always leaned towards innocence and sort of child-like songs," says Pierce. "I remember once he told me he was never going to read the newspaper, he just told me it depressed him. For me, I want to know what’s going on. I want to figure things out. I want to just tear into life and I want to talk about that experience."
According to Pierce, his former bandmates influenced not only his songwriting but also the way the band dressed, which was such a huge part of its identity.
"When the Drums started, we were wearing 1950s Americana, James Dean style clothes," Pierce says. "It was never fully me, but Jacob really liked that aesthetic and at the time, I was pretty impressionable."
Even though Pierce was the band's main songwriter on all the Drums' albums, he was never comfortable publically admitting that until now. He says that confusion and self-doubt marred the early years of the Drums.
"I think the whole reason I started the Drums was because I lacked self-confidence," he says. "I really, truly felt that no one would care if it was just me."
There was also Pierce's apprehension to speak publicly about being gay, which was in part due to his upbringing. "When the band started, I was afraid to tell people I was gay," he says. "I would shut down in interviews if something like that came up."
Pierce grew up in upstate New York where both his parents were pastors of a Pentecostal church who led anti-gay rallies and strictly prohibited Pierce from listening to anything other than Christian music. "When you’re told you’re not loved, and you’re told that you’re sick for years and years and years growing up, when that is the vibe for that long, you need a lot of time to get rid of all that," he explains. "It’s traumatic. There’s no other word for it."
Earlier this year, however, he decided that instead of continuing to hide behind the letterman jackets he used to wear, he would present himself on his own terms.
"I’m dressing how I’ve always wanted to dress, making music videos how I’ve always wanted them to look," he says. "I don’t hate my past in this band. I appreciate every step of the way, but this is the first time, I can fully say that ‘This is me. This is what I have to offer. This is what I want to offer.’"
Lyrically rooted in reality, Abysmal Thoughts
combines the classic reverb-soaked guitar pop that fans know and love with new instrumentation like a saxophone and a lap-steel guitar.
One of the album's singles, “Head Of The Horse," a catchy guitar and synth song, is a track that Pierce never would’ve written with the other original members still in the band. The song refers to Pierce's working-class childhood in Horseheads, New York. It comes off as a highly autobiographical song as it opens with a sample of Pierce on a Christian radio show when he was a kid.
The painfully transparent track contains lines that refer to his religious upbringing ("have a headache/well grab the oil/if you complain, well that's the devil talking") and his parents' refusal to accept him ("I fell in love and told them I was happy/my dad hugged me and said this would be the last hug"), which could prompt even the most stoic, unemotional person to become teary-eyed.
Then, there's the devilishly infectious first single, "Blood Under My Belt" and "Under The Ice," which has one of the Drums strongest guitar riffs yet. It would even make Johnny Marr proud. Moving further down the track listing, the songs become increasingly experimental. "Rich Kids" is a seething attack on spoiled trust fund kids.
The album's title track comes off as quite the grand finale as it revels in its own misery with layers of Pierce's uplifting lead and backing vocals, cowbells, whistles and a choir. The almost Sgt. Pepper
-like track is nothing short of a celebratory symphony of sadness, and it's the Drums' most inventive track thus far.
Pierce describes the whole process of making Abysmal Thoughts
as a cleansing and reinvigorating one.
"Every song has been a therapy session," he says. "I’ve been getting so much encouragement from fans and now the album is out, it’s resonating with people and we’re selling out tours, which has been so exciting. I just feel for the first time in my life, a little bit of confidence in myself."
The album serves as a defining moment in the band's career and a major turning point.
"You know what I’ve learned?" Pierce asks. "The key to everything, and it’s gonna sound like a goddamn bumper sticker, truly is just listening to your heart."
Pierce still has a long, hard personal journey ahead of him, but he's optimistic and relieved to finally let out some of his inner demons.
"There’s a lot to work on, but it does feel good putting this out, and I do feel a couple steps closer to being OK," he says. "I’m lucky enough to not be a mailman or a cashier because I’m able to put it down into music, so I feel so grateful for that. Even though this album’s called Abysmal Thoughts
, when I think about it, I think of learning and growing and becoming more healthy, and becoming wiser. For me, it’s just moving forward, respecting the past and the journey and stepping into the future."
The Drums, NE-HI, the sonder bombs, 9 p.m. Friday, Aug. 4, Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-5588. Tickets: $8-$18, grogshop.gs.