In 2017, The Drums became one. After three studio albums as a four-piece, frontman Jonny Pierce chose to release Abysmal Thoughts on his own. This challenged Pierce and set him creatively free. What was once an indie surf-pop sensation, carried by care-free melodies and youth-entangled innocence, became an outlet for darker themes. Now he’s releasing his fifth LP. Out this April, Brutalism tackles emotionally intricate lyrics about anxiety, loss and depression, while remaining synth-heavy and danceable. It’s The Drums’ most candid creation yet.
Pierce has suffered from depression his whole life. Talking openly he explains how, up until the making of Brutalism, he would medicate his symptoms with self-sabotage. Finding himself lost from a string of relationships gone bad, he decided to plant a new path. Starting at the root, he’s moved to LA, found a therapist and cleaned himself up – creating a well-watered ritual of healthy eating, exercise and taking things slow. Now, he’s living alone for the first time in his life. With fewer distractions, he’s listening to his thoughts. “I’m asking myself a lot of questions,” Pierce explains. And, in turn, he’s finding answers.
Brutalism is an open diary. Heartfelt and true, every song sings raw. Pierce’s lyrics are real. Steeped in liquor neat anguish and restrain, each track is relatable in its own way. The Drums are your confidant, your in, your out, your new found mode of self-expression. Pop music’s got its voice back.
Woody Cecilia and Terrence Blakely join Jonny Pierce in his new LA home to unveil what days off from The Drums look like.
Photography: Terrence Blakely
Words: Woody Cecilia
The Drums – Body Chemistry
What time do you usually wake up during your days off?
You know what, I’ve always been someone who wakes up earlier than anyone else – even when I was a kid, I would wake up so early that my mother would send me back to bed. [Laughs] she wasn’t ready for me and all of my wonder! I usually wake up at around 6am.
What’s the very first thing you do?
I read a chapter out of whatever book is sitting next to my bed… It’s kind of a new thing for me, actually. It’s a way for me to ease into the day. Whatever I’m reading feels almost dream-like and romantic.
What are you reading at the minute?
A History of Violence by Édouard Louis.
What other rituals are a constant in your life?
Well, I make coffee – and then I go straight for a hike. I’ve fully delved into L.A. culture! About ten minutes from me, there’s Runyon Canyon. I just go up on my own. It’s just such a special time for me to listen to myself and create space. I’m in love with my bedroom too. Whenever I walk in there, it’s like walking into this beautiful cloud of artistry and passion with an avant-garde spirit where anything can happen.
Are your days off always quite similar or are they different each time?
My life has always been chaotic and all over the place. I was constantly throwing caution to the wind. I used to really romanticise the idea of, “I don’t know which way is up or down, but that’s okay because I’m an artist” – but, really, what that ended up bringing me was just a bunch of stress, anxiety and depression. So, recently, for the first time in my life, I’ve tried to be more conscious of every choice I make, and it’s really helped me develop something that resembles a routine. It’s not about being rigid, it’s just about getting my fucking shit together [laughs].
It sounds like your move to L.A. has been pretty stabilising!
Yeah! I’m loving it, it’s very different from New York. In New York, there’s energy everywhere – the second you wake up, it’s a non-stop rat-race. Whereas, here, it’s like living in a giant suburb. It’s the first time I’ve ever lived alone, and my apartment is just this big, empty space. It’s just me – and I have to sit in this space and be with myself, you know?
What was your life like in New York?
In New York, if I wasn’t on tour, I would plan my own personal tour. I couldn't stand still. I would visit a bunch of people, go to a bunch of places – and if I really had to, I would just get in a car and drive, do a road trip. So, L.A. is kind of forcing me to sit here, be in this stillness and weed through who I am as a person. It’s been an equally painful and joyous experience.
That’s what growth’s about sometimes though, you’ve got to experience pain.
That’s true. It feels like walking through fire! I’ve never done this before – it’s really scary for me to just stare at myself, and not have distractions everywhere.
What was it that inspired such a big change in your life?
The real catalyst was a long time coming. I met this guy on tour, fell in love with him and he became my sole focus. He was more important than making music and more important than doing the things I wanted to do – my whole life went into nurturing him and holding his hand through difficult times. It became a full-time job. But, the real truth is, he was just one in a very long line of people who’ve grown dependant on me. And, if I’m honest with myself, I’ve been dependant on their dependance. I’d become addicted to helping and giving, giving, giving – all the while, completely ignoring my own needs. This is something that’s gone on for a really long time. My therapist tells me it’s a pattern that started when my parents pushed me away when I was young. I began a lifelong process of trying to do nice things to win approval – being wildly generous to other people and ignoring my own needs. Continuing that way didn’t make sense anymore. But what’s so beautiful is I’m starting to find myself again. I recently bought the first synthesiser I ever had, from when I was thirteen-years-old.
I heard about this! Wasn’t it your dad’s?
Yeah, so he’s a minister at one of these crazy Trump loving born-again Christian churches in Upstate New York…
And you nicked a synthesiser from them!
[Laughs] Yeah! I found this synth when I was a little kid. I was just starting to realise that I was gay – and I knew that being gay meant being ostracised. It was the nineties. There wasn’t even a one-percent chance that being gay meant people would be cool about it – and, so, realising you’re gay is also realising that you’re different and that everything you love is gonna be pulled away from you. But what was so perfectly timed about this discovery of the synthesiser was that it had a sequencer on it, so you could write songs on the synth itself – you didn’t need a computer. I became obsessed. I wrote my very first songs on it – and it was actually those songs that I later showed to a music manager who lived in New York City. Six months later, I’d signed to Columbia Records – so, music literally saved me. It pulled me out of a very scary situation. When I think about my parents, it still really makes me sad… But then I also have to wonder, if I was accepted by them, would I have pushed myself to do something courageous? Maybe I’d have got comfortable and just stuck around in that small town. There are a million questions – but one thing I do know is I’m just so grateful for music.
That’s so beautiful and raw… You’ve come full circle with that synth too.
I have! I hadn’t touched a sequential MultiTrak in years and years and years – and, when it showed up, it was like riding a bicycle. It was as if I had it all along. I felt my whole body just fall in line, my heart and my head. I started writing on it immediately… It’s funny. When I was young, my parents had these cheap pink and turquoise plastic garbage baskets. I would turn them upside down and use them as lampshades, so I could make music and get really dreamy with my own light-show. But, recently, I recreated that in my apartment. I went and bought these lights that change colour, and I’ve got myself back to my inner-child. Little did I know, this was the starting point of making the new album. Making Brutalism was about rediscovering myself, getting to the brass tacks of who I am, facing myself and asking a lot of questions.
It seems like a pretty cathartic album.
It is. The first single, Body Chemistry, is about crippling depression – wondering if it will ever go away, no matter how hard I try – and dealing with that reality. It’s something that’s pretty universal. We’re much sadder than we’ll admit to anyone, or even ourselves… And I feel like it’s okay to talk about that.
Have you felt like making this album has been a huge breath of fresh air compared to your other albums then, or was it more of a challenge?
You know what, making this album was such a new experience. Before, I would do everything. I was recording the bass, the guitar, the drums, the synth, the backing vocals, the mixing… There was so much pressure that I felt like the lyrics were just another burden. So, this time, I wanted less pressure on myself. I wanted to make things collaborative. Letting go of control is a really scary thing – but I did it, I let go. I hired an engineer to make the record with me, I brought in friends of mine to actually help write it. It’s the first album with actual live drums. There were a lot of firsts which really gave me the space to breathe and to think about what it was that I wanted to say.
What’s your favourite lyric on the new album?
This is gonna sound so strange – but in Body Chemistry, there’s a lyric on the second verse that talks about being at a party. It was this moment where I wandered into another room away from everyone, because sometimes I need to pull myself together – I get social anxiety. And the lyric says, ‘I lean into the corner. I smell the wall, I exhale, I smell it again.’ It’s this idea that we all have tiny, little moments where we do things that are a bit odd. We’re all weirdos – we just won’t admit it to each other, you know?
What’s been the best response you’ve had to those lyrics so far?
Here’s the thing – I think it’s hard to find artists, particularly male, who are willing to talk about feeling insecure or depressed. There’s this idea in male culture that we have to have it all together, that everything’s working out great – especially if you’re in your thirties. I think it’s so important to just put it out there that literally, no-one has their shit together – and, if it seems like they do, they’ve got a really great way of hiding things. So, it’s the best when people are just like, “Thank you for saying that, because that’s how I feel – I haven’t been able to express it, but now I feel like I can.” That’s the best reaction, for me.
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