Even before they released their self-titled 2010 debut, New York pop outfit The Drums was comprised of Jonny Pierce and Jacob Graham. The childhood friends met at Bible camp as pre-teens, and were in an electro-pop band together long before ever they released music as The Drums.
After a trio of well-received LPs, the pair surprised fans when announcing the band’s 2017 fourth album, Abysmal Thoughts, revealing that Graham had left in an amicable split a year prior.
Written over 15 months in both Los Angeles and New York, Pierce used the same guitar, synthesizer, drum machine, and reverb unit he’s used since the band’s inception to create the new album by himself.
With complete creative control, he also seized the opportunity to make Abysmal Thoughts unflinchingly autobiographical — the first time he’s ever had the opportunity to do so.
The June-released album debuted at number 9 on Billboard’s U.S. Heat Seekers Chart, the highest of any Drums release.
PACIFIC recently spoke with Pierce about it all from a busy train station in New York.
PACIFIC: How has it been to have 100% control of the band?
JONNY PIERCE: I’m used to taking on the lion’s share of the work. Fun isn’t fun for me. Work is fun. And it’s always been a problem in my life. Going to a music festival and listening to bands sounds like hell on earth to me. I really like to get serious and getting my hands dirty. I like to perform, write songs and make things happen. So I never really doubted that I could do that — on top of just knowing how to construct pop songs.
And this time around, I just had so much happen in my life — leading up to the beginning of recording this album — I had SO much to talk about when it was time to make it. And that was freeing from a music-writing standpoint. But for me, the most exciting part was how freeing it was when it came to saying anything that I wanted to say.
Could you not do that in the past?
I appreciate past band members and all they gave. But I always felt as if I had to write with one hand tied behind my back. And I say that because there were certain topics that were off limits. There was a spirit that we carried with us where we tried to keep things somewhat innocent. And I don’t even know if that’s the right word. I just wouldn’t go for the nitty-gritty. Like if I was feeling worthless, I’d go with something like hopeless (laughs). I was just sort of editing and holding myself back. I was called overly dramatic if I ever tried to go into the arena of being brutal and frank. So I reined it in a bit.
But I am a dramatic person and life really is dramatic — especially these days. So I had so much to say this time, and it also was the first time that the album pretty much presented itself.
That’s why I don’t have a lot of stories about making this record. It just oozed out of me and demanded to exist. It’s funny that the record is called Abysmal Thoughts because it’s the most freeing and blissful time I’ve ever had making one. And although it’s a bit darker, it felt wonderful to let go.
Each track was like a therapy session. These songs were like good friends just there to listen. I learned so much about myself, and I don’t think I would’ve been able to focus inward like I did if there were people all around. It was a beautiful gift that from the outside eye might be seen as something else. But it was something that needed to happen. And I’m so glad it did.
Must also be a bit strange.
For sure. I played my first show without Jacob at the Glasshouse in Pomona. I was excited, ready to go, had no nerves. And then, about 15 minutes before I went on stage, it wasn’t exactly nervousness, but something more subconscious was taking over.
My boyfriend always gives me a hand massage before I go on stage. They’re amazing. I love hand massages and it really relaxes me. But when he went to do it, I couldn’t feel his fingers on my hand. My whole body was numb. It was like a borderline anxiety attack. It never really took over, and the show was amazing, but my body did some weird things. I think somewhere, deep down, I was freaking out. But I never really put it together until after the fact. It was like, ‘Duh, Jonny. You’re without your lifetime best friend-slash-collaborator. Of course this is going to feel weird for you.’ But that was the only time.
You also got Abysmal Thoughts from the process.
Exactly. And I’m so grateful that people are loving the record the way they are. This record is really all about looking inward. My whole life I’ve suffered from feeling inadequate. And that started with me as a young gay boy, with both parents who were pastors of a Pentecostal church that was very anti-gay.
My whole life I was told that I was bad, evil, and gross. And even though I knew that was not true, for much of my life, I just felt that I wasn’t good enough because they wouldn’t accept who I am. I think that’s partly why I formed the band. And it feels so good to be able to do what I, maybe, should have done in the first place. I mean, no one will ever know. But it’s amazing to just be like, ‘Hi. I’m Jonny. And these are some songs I wrote’ (laughs). I hope that doesn’t sound silly, but it was a real boost to my self-esteem. And it’s really important to feel OK about yourself.
I have started working on what could be the next Drums record. But I don’t know. I was asking my manager the other day if it was possible to just release songs. It’s just such a better way to keep it all moving without having to go through things like a whole tour just for promo (laughs). But the issue lies in the quality of the content you’re doing. And I’m not one of those people who can just go sit in a room with Justin Bieber and write a hit.
So I might just be one of those guys that makes albums. And I never want to bow to the pressure of “what’s hot!” I’ve never done that. Really, that’s the trick I have up my sleeve. I’ve always just done my own thing. And even though it’s not the most cutting-edge thing on earth, it’s something that’s true to me. And there’s always going to be an audience for things that are genuine and true.