The excellent Heather Hawke met up with Jonny Pierce from The Drums for a brief chat about the music industry, the writing process and artwork.

Describe your path to becoming involved in the music industry. How long have you been focusing on music full-time? How did you know you wanted to be a musician?

I grew up in a musical family. I maintain that we would have been full blown hippies had we been liberals, but alas, we were very conservative and very Christian and so the music we had inside of us was distorted into a some sort of expression of worship to a god that today I do not believe exists. My biological parents had very strict rules on what we could and could not listen to and what we could and could not watch on the television and who we could and could not talk to, befriend, or date. When I was around 13 years old, I began dating this girl, Kelly. I thought she was beautiful and I was genuinely crazy about her, and my parents would tell me that they could see us getting married- and as a matter of fact, my mother used to greet her with the opening line "Hello my daughter, Kelly!" and I absolutely loved it. It felt good. All these years later I can still tap into these feelings - like it was yesterday.

Then one day, Kelly started going through puberty and I almost immediately started to back away. I did not understand why then, but of course, now, as an adult I do understand. As she was turning into a woman, and developing womanly features, I become more and more confused and turned off. We ended up breaking up and it wasn't too long after that I started to realize I had a very real attraction to guys. It was nothing short of horrific. I was scared to death that if I were indeed gay, I would burn in hell forever, ruin the family image, and ultimately be a huge disappointment to my mother and father who were, of course, pastors of a prominent church in the area - just my luck. Around that same time my biological father started picking up on the cues and brought me a cassette tape which he asked me to listen to each night while I lay in bed before I would fall asleep. It was one of those anti-gay corrective therapy tapes - some guy who's clearly gay talking about how he was clearly not gay anymore. Even as a young teen I felt bad for the guy - having to live a lie like that. When the tape didn't work, my biological father had me put in anti-gay, in-person one-on-one therapy sessions. I would meet once a week at a Ruby Tuesdays at the local mall and talk to this very handsome young man about how I was "struggling" and he would assure me that god could work miracles, and that he too was once attracted to men, but was no longer. It was all too much - and of course now looking back - too abusive.

I began pulling away from everyone and hiding in my bedroom all day. I found an old analog synthesizer in my basement. The same one that my father used to play at the church while leading worship services. It was a Sequential Circuits Multitrack Synthesizer - all analog- complete with an onboard sequencer- kind of ahead of its time, but a lost synth nonetheless. I dusted it off, bought a new battery for the memory, opened it up, soldered the battery in, load the factory sounds in via cassette, and got busy. I feel like I didn't leave my room for three years. I just kept writing and recording and writing and recording and ended up making a bunch of experimental synthesizer music. Every song was about love and sadness and the overwhelming, very real fact that I was misunderstood and officially an outsider in the world that I lived in. I would make the song, hit play, the sequence would start, and I would record vocals live onto a reel to reel.

I still have the tapes somewhere. I made some of my most exciting work way back then - when my life was insanely dark and lonely. One day maybe I can release that stuff. But you know, in a way, I don't need to release that stuff because I'm still writing the same song over and over essentially. Will I ever truly get out of this muck!? Who knows. But yeah to answer your question, I've known since I was very young that all I was good at was music. A passion for melody and putting down sad and beautiful thoughts. Music truly did rescue this man.

How does where you grew up / and now where you live impact your creativity?

I think anyone who grows up in such rigid confinement and overwhelming oppression has been given the gift of "fight". It's up to you to take it and run, or let it pass you by. I also was around only poor people, my whole childhood. I never knew anyone who had any money or any higher education whatsoever. So, naturally I was exposed to menial jobs, blue collar culture essentially. I worked in a sandwich shop, I folded laundry at a hotel in the middle of the night, and I delivered papers each morning before the sun rose. I did these things for years and in that time I flirted with love, and experienced loss and betrayal. The boys that I loved (though they would never know because I could never tell anyone!) were working on cars, bagging groceries, and paving sidewalks. Of course, I have moved away from that town and have made a somewhat more exciting life for myself, I still can't seem to get away from my past when I open the creative mind. I walk in a studio, and I am instantly back at the tire factory my father worked with. Now with the new album, I am making conscious efforts daily to not just write from my teenage perspective, but to make sure that I am talking about who I am now and how I feel now, but I see that Peter Pan shadow fly by at least once a day. I'll always be who I was and who I was will always torture me.

Does it feel like writing music is something you've always had to do or is this something that you discovered along the way at some point?

Writing music is a pain in my ass. I put a lot of pressure on myself. I want it all to be so good. I don't like band culture, I don't like making music, and I don't particularly like playing shows. Unfortunately, I am good at all three - and not much else. I have no official education past a homeschooler's education. I was taught conservative creationism, and was never once asked by anyone around me what my plans for college were - so I never thought about college. It just wasn't a part of my universe. I was told repeatedly that I would not have to worry about jobs and finances because god was always there to take care of us. So I guess what I am trying to say, is that I have no other choice but to make music - or at least that is how I feel. Don't get me wrong. I am not trying to complain, music saved me, and so I will do my duty, but often I imagine myself farming somewhere away from everything else. Just nature. My dogs and I, maybe some chickens. I dunno, maybe I'm romanticizing- I'm good at that. Maybe this is a good as it gets for me.

Can you identify the moment that made you realize your whole life had changed?

The very second I first set foot in New York City.

How did the band come together? Would you say it was an organic union, or were you all looking to start a band?

I had been working in a shoe shop in NYC on West 13th street. Day in and day out I would show up, clock in, be on my knees and essentially smell people's dirty feet all day. It was a humble profession to say the least. I was older than I wanted to be and younger than I wanted to be, and I started thinking about all the music I had made in my teenage years - some of those songs I could still sing to you now as they were pretty and memorable. One day I called my closest friend Jacob, who I had kept in touch with since meeting at a Bible camp in 1996. He was living in Florida and working as a puppeteer. I asked him if he wouldn't mind some company. I told him NYC was too distracting, which it really was. He told me he would drive up to New York and pick me up, which he did. On the way down to Florida, I fell in love with Jacob for the first time and he quickly reciprocated and then promptly rejected me the next day. I laugh about it now and so does he but it was really a strange dynamic for the first couple of months.

I've never said this before, but all the love songs on the Summertime EP are based off those awkward feelings I had while sharing a 1 bedroom apartment with Jacob after we dated for about 6 hours and then broke things off. Go back and listen to our song 'Make You Mine' and you'll get the picture. Anyway, in that time, I wrote the song 'Let's Go Surfing' and uploaded it to Myspace.com . In about two weeks' time, I get a message from someone who owned a very small label in New York and he asked to press about 200 copies of what would become the Summertime EP. He pressed the records and they sold out in less than a week. There was a buzz happening about our band that we were totally unaware of. At the same time, a small label from the UK, Moshi Moshi, asked to press 'Let's Go Surfing' and the Summertime EP. NME put it in its best albums of the year, even though it was an EP. From that point on things just went wild and we found ourselves throwing a band together because we were getting such pressure to play shows. We played the first one at Cake Shop in the lower east side in NYC and the right press was there to push things even farther. We were just being ourselves. We are still just being ourselves - confused and scratching our heads. And rather than trying to keep up, we just let the world spin around us.

What's the writing process like? Is it an individual thing that comes together over time, or is it a group effort?

The first EP and the debut album, I wrote, recorded, produced, and mixed almost completely on my own. Jacob had started out enthusiastic when we first began recording with guitars - and that is when we wrote 'Best Friend', 'Me and The Moon', and 'I Felt Stupid'. I think we wrote those three in the first week of recording. We would literally sit on the dirty carpeted floor and work out these songs together with an old synthesizer, an off brand guitar we borrowed from Jacob's little brother (who also lived with us) and an old reverb unit developed by Radio Shack for their Realistic line. It was incredibly special and now it's almost too dreamlike to believe that is was something that actually happened.

I was very focused and Jacob started busying himself with other things - little projects that he was working on. At the time it really bothered me. I felt like I was doing almost all of the work and that my dream team was dissolving before my eyes. We had all this momentum and then he just kinda fell away. I would work for a full month nonstop and he would barely even ask me how the record was going. I would finish a few songs, and would sit around hoping he would ask about the progress. I ultimately had to go for a long walk with him one night along the highway that runs through Kissimmee, and ask him if he wanted to be in or out. I wanted him to be working with me in a much closer capacity. He wanted to think about it and give me an answer later on. He ultimately said yes and got more involved, and I was and am still grateful to this day. Looking back now, I know that even though he may not have been in the room with me while I was making these songs, he was in the next room over- and that might have been the only way for this to happen. Just knowing he was around and how magical he was to me really helped shape those early songs and ultimately the sound of The Drums. I was yearning for him to be closer on multiple levels and I couldn't have him and, well you've all heard the early stuff.

Portamento was a group effort between Connor and Jacob and I. We all wrote a lot on that album. I still wrote much more than they did, but having them on the record helped make that record a really memorable one. Many of our fans claim that to be the best album we've made. I really miss Connor. I wish he was still in the band with us. It took me a while to miss him, but with time eh?

With Encyclopedia, it was back to just Jacob and I and this record was our dream team record. We went into this together 50/50! I think in the end, Encyclopedia will shine brighter than any other record we've made. We are already seeing the fruits of this. When Portamento came out, people weren't ready for it. Now it is everyone favorite album and we are seeing the same thing happen with Encyclopedia. People didn't get Encyclopedia upon its release, but now all of our fans are loving it and we knew they would. I think it's part of our responsibility as a band to keep things moving forward and not just redo what's been done. Our fans ultimately grow with us - it might just take a few months.

Now, things are much less tricky. I live in LA now and Jacob still lives in NYC. We both start songs on our own, and when we have something really good, we share with the other party. Ultimately when we feel like we have a great album set up, we will get together and finish the songs together. Bells and whistles.

Where do the lyrics come from? Where were you at physically, mentally when you wrote them? Was there an event or a specific timeframe where a large chunk of the lyricism came out?

So the trick for me is to make the music, and when it comes time for vocals, I make a type of decision that I call a "heart-decision" where I decide to become vulnerable and open and as the music plays over and over, the lyrics just flood in - often so fast that I don't even write them down, I just record them straight to the project. They are coming from the deepest pit of me and I'll never find it if I'm looking for it, so I let it remain a mystery.

Are you ever intentional when you sit down to write? Is there ever a "I'm going to write a song now" moment or is it more ephemeral, like you've been kicking something around in your head for days, weeks, months, and then suddenly it comes spilling out?

I try to always wait for that feeling of urgency. It's unpredictable and random, but it does show up from time to time, and that is when I make my best work. Occasionally, the label will ask for a couple B-sides to release and they give me a deadline and because B-sides are not as important to anyone, I use the pressure of the deadline to influence the work. There is always this quirky and haphazard vibe that actually works out well for these types of recordings. As a matter of fact, 'I Can't Change Your Life' and 'Blue Stripes' are among my favorites of any songs I've ever written but you won't find them on any album of ours.

Which tracks from the new album are you guys playing live right now? Are you finding new in those songs as you play them live that you did hear while in the studio? What do you find to be the most difficult?

We are playing a few songs off of Encyclopedia but what I've found is we got very "studio" on that album and many of the songs are hard to pull off live - with integrity. We have always sounded like a band and I feel like we got a little less band-focused and a little more production-focused with that album, which was our aim, but it made things tricky in a live setting. We also wrote a lot of those songs in a key that is very hard for me to sing live. Much too high for me to hit perfectly every night. It's a work in progress. Right now we play 'Wild Geese', 'Let Me', 'Kiss Me Again', 'I Can't Pretend', 'I Hope Time Doesn't Change Him', 'Face of God', and 'U.S. National Park'. Well I guess that's half the record, so maybe we are farther along than I thought. Ok. Never mind.

What was your favorite part about the writing / album creation process?

Reconnecting to my roots, and reconnecting with Jacob. It was the first time since 2009 that it was left up to the two of us to make an album. Everyone had fallen away. We lost 2 bandmates, an important friend and manager, and our label. It felt very much like starting all over, and so of course I cherished Jacob and realized how lucky I was to have a friend and partner through life who I make beautiful work with. Since it was back to just the two of us we took advantage of it and made a record that was purposefully "all over the place" and "whatever we want". We pulled from our deepest musical fetishes and made a triumphant album - one that would not have been possible had others been around.

What song or songs would you say represent your band the most? How do you think that's changed since the release of Encyclopedia?

I think the only song that we ever released that does not represent us is 'The New World'. We made it for the people of Japan after that awful natural disaster a few years back, and it was earnest, but not really our song. It was their song. In any other case, why would you ever release music that isn't totally you?

When and how did the album title ­­­­­Encyclopedia come about in the album creation process?

I honestly don't remember the exact story. Hold on, I'll call Jacob really quick because it was his idea. Ok. He says, "It really just came from the universe after starting at the cover art for a while". And that's the magic right there. We are often given these gifts that all tie in so well together. The word came to him, and then of course, it made total sense with the diversity of the album, with the different chapters this band has gone through, and with our overall aesthetic. It was perfect and we never looked back.

With your artwork, how did you interact with the artist/designer? Did you contribute ideas or remain hands-off? Was there a revision process?

Jacob and I have always done all of our album artwork. We almost always design all our own merch as well. It's just impossible for us to make a beautiful album, and then hand the design work over to someone else. Visuals are what started this band and visual remain very important to us. Artwork is never an afterthought. Usually we have the cover made before the album is done so that we have a cornerstone to go back to if things start going offline.

How important is it to you for the art that accompanies your music to represent the sound and the lyrics? Do you aim for a conversation between the two, or are you more interested in an aesthetically cool package?

Well to me, cool is subjective and for us the only way an album is cool is if the artwork falls in line. How can one not totally and completely influence the other?

What is your perspective on how you want to be represented throughout your band's press photographs?

I guess our only rule is that there is no time stamp on the photographs. We go for a timeless, ageless, classic look each and every time. I think if you looked at our most recent press shots, you would have a hard time differentiating them from some of the first shots we took. Well, I guess we look a little older, but you get my drift.

What is a non-musical influence that informs your music?

Nature. Although I might argue that nature is quite musical. But yeah, I'm completely head over heels with nature - especially after I made the decision a few years back to commit to being atheist. Everything is much more vivid nowadays. There is no god-filter so I see things for what they are. Life becomes more honest, and so in turn, so does my art.


You can visit The Drums by heading here.