Jonny Pierce seems to have found himself as a bit of a cultural figurehead of late.
Prominently recognised as the driving force behind New York indie darlings The Drums, recent self-penned articles have signalled Pierce as an outspoken advocate for social justice within the LGBTQ+ community from opening up about gay conversion therapy right through to the importance of protest. Add to this his fashion ventures for Saint Laurent and L’Hommes alongside numerous co-writing credits and you’ve got yourself one of pop’s busiest men.
With the departure of original guitarist Jacob Graham and almost a decade into the band’s career, Pierce is ready to carry The Drums touch in areas beyond their twee indie legacy to a rebirth of self-questioning, autobiographical guitar pop.
With brilliant fourth record Abysmal Thoughts let lose on the world, we joined Pierce for coffee in Soho earlier this year to run through the heartbreak and self-identification that ultimately crafted his finest record yet and the record he’s been wanting to make for so long.
How does it feel to be on your fourth record as The Drums?
I’m just really grateful that people still give a shit. There are great bands that come out, get a lot of buzz then disappear forever. To be able to make a fourth record and have the general reception being that it feels like a second debut record, or a rebirth, is amazing to me. I think, without sounding too egotistical, it’s because The Drums make weird music. I’m weird!
Which is totally OK, of course…
Yes! I’ve always thought that I’m weird and, with previous records, I’ve held back on that. I’m not going to shy away from what I am, I’m a bit of a kook and that’s absolutely OK. I think I spent a lot my career trying to please people, whether it be journalists or on stage. The cost of that being I was never myself, ultimately sacrificing my own happiness so that everyone could have their ‘moment with Jonny.’ It fucked me over, just the questioning of “is there really any Jonny left in me?” You can hear it on the record, Mirror questions “who am I and who do you wanna be?” I grew up with really anti-gay parents, who still are that way, which is where me not allowing myself to be me stems from. I’m hoping that people will hear the record and pick up on what I’m talking about and resonate with that. If you can’t or won’t approve of yourself, how can you possibly love anybody else? You really have to know who you are and value who you are.
“Being sexual is a beautiful thing. I’ve been told it’s a bad thing to crave sex or have certain sexual fetishes when it’s the total opposite”
I’m sure I can vouch for a number of people that wish they could have heard something like that when they were teens…
Well, that’s exactly my objective here! I’m not writing about surfing or the beach, I’m writing about matters of the heart. I feel like I’m reaching the people that I want to reach, especially with Abysmal Thoughts as I’m making myself so transparent through what I’m writing about. What I’ve noticed is that people have started opening their hearts back up to me so I’ll get emails or Facebook messages from people pouring their heart out and telling me my music is helping them. My fanbase has gone from these kids all about “surfing! Road trips! Coachella!” to people sitting in their room, questioning who they are and what they should do. I feel there’s now more purpose behind why The Drums even exists.
I guess that’s the ultimate goals for any musician or artist, to make that level of an impact on a listener.
Well it should be, as I’m not sure Maroon 5 are really trying to reach out that far… [laughs]
It feels like the UK has taking you under our wing a little bit, especially with the love the first record received over here from fans and press alike. Why do you think the UK reacted so well to tracks about, as you said, surfing and Coachella which are fairly unfamiliar concepts over here?
I guess it’s about escapism. If I’m being totally honest, around the time of our debut, if one big press outlet said something was good then a load of other press outlets would just copy. I remember when we were on the BBC Sound Of poll and suddenly everyone was saying “The Drums are the best!” Nobody took the time to ask us what we were about or who we really were but just got “do you surf?!” instead. I’m not sure why the UK fell in love with the first record so much and I do really appreciate that, I just want to say stuff now.
The artwork for the new record is pretty great. Run me through how you came up with the idea and how in-control of the visuals you’ve been with this album.
The whole thing was my idea, I took the photograph. The label said do whatever you want so I came back to them with a photograph of a boy smelling his shoe whilst grabbing his crotch, surrounded by bright orange Halloween-style lettering and it’s going to be called Abysmal Thoughts [laughs]. You just have surround yourself in work with the people that will let you do your thing. With the departure of Jacob, it means I can really go to those places I wanna talk about now. Just today, I was researching motocross gear which, as well as being a beautiful aesthetic, is ultimately a sexual fetish for me. I could never express that beforehand, everyone would have freaked out. There’s a real different side to me that I could never show or talk about before which I’m happy I can now as being sexual is a beautiful thing. I’ve been told it’s a bad thing to crave sex or have certain sexual fetishes when it’s the total opposite.
Which is essentially something the LGBTQ+ community are told on a constant basis…
Exactly! Being told that what you crave or who you love is dirty or sinful when it’s simply beautiful. I want people to start feeling free to be who they are. To be honest, it’s all about who you surround yourself with and if you have friends or parents telling you “being gay is sinful” then you have to put your foot down, say you may love them but I have to be who I am and you do not get to tell me otherwise.
“I’m not writing about surfing or the beach, I’m writing about matters of the heart”
You moved from your home in New York to L.A prior to this record, what was the importance of relocating in order for Abysmal Thoughts to come together?
I was in a very significant relationship with someone that I thought I was going to be with for a very long time, perhaps forever. We fucked each other over and it wasn’t working so we tried moving to L.A to try and make it work, though the problems are going to follow you wherever you go. Yelling, screaming, talking, crying, arguing, and storming out of the apartment: all a really dark, lonely period for me which resulted in me having to leave L.A. I moved back to my little lake house in upstate New York which is where I got the email off Jacob explaining he had other passions that he needed to explore and that being in the band just wasn’t working out. So I lost two very significant relationships in a very short period though I knew I’d have the fans who would stick by me. I’ve not really said it until now but 95% of what you hear from The Drums has always been solely me. I feel free to say it’s been me all along given this record is now just me.
On first listen, Abysmal Thoughts seems a record of the most upbeat music we’ve heard from you though that signature ‘Drums sadness’ is in full force throughout the lyrics. The title track is a prime example of this, why the decision to close the record on such a negative note?
It’s all jolly until I open my flapper, right? [laughs] I usually end things on a high note and I probably would have done too, had Trump not been elected around the time. I guess it’s symbolic of this dark chapter we’re all in, the damage of Trump as president has already been done. He’s giving hateful people, who were previously too afraid, the opportunity to be awful. A lot of lives are on the line so it’s all abysmal, abysmal, abysmal.
You released a statement prior to SXSW surrounding the festival’s policy towards foreign acts performing. What was the turning point between deciding not to play and playing?
I have two big issues with SXSW. The first being that they lure bands from all over the world, convince them that everyone will be industry and they’ll get signed when the reality is they’re playing their hearts out to tiny crowds or few people. Meanwhile, the festival is making millions of dollars and just putting in their pockets. There’ll be bands who’ve given up everything to be able to perform at SXSW yet no one will watch because everyone’s watching Snoop Dogg on a Doritos stage. The second issue was the language used towards the bands performing which basically read as “if you’re an American band and play an unofficial showcase, that’s alright. If you’re a foreign band, we have every right to report you to immigration.” It all felt really ugly. They did explain themselves though, about how it wasn’t meant to read the way it did and the tone was off, which was enough for me to think they’re taking a step forward and enough for me to play.
So how was this year’s SXSW for you?
Hell on earth [laughs] though the shows were packed and the kids were singing the new song which felt really exciting.
Have you noticed a shift in the audience between playing shows for the first record and playing shows now?
Album number one was the hipsters but with each record, I’ve opened up a little bit more which the audience have done too right back to me. Going back to the fans opening up to me, I get a lot of gay people messaging me feeling at the lowest point of their lives but will come down to the live shows to escape that. It’s amazing and I feel so fortunate that at this stage now where my lyrics are reaching the people I want them to reach. For me, that was The Smiths where I could sit, listen and realise that I wasn’t the only 16-year-old feeling how I felt. They made me realise that there are freaks like me out in the world and once I left my shitty little town and moved to New York.
What do you think you’d say to that 16-year-old you now?
I would just encourage everyone to be honest with themselves. If your parents love you because you don’t talk about being gay around them then they’re only loving that version of you. You have to put your foot down and say “Mum, Dad, I’m not going to come home for Christmas this year. It will be hard for you but it’s harder for me knowing you don’t love me for me.” Every single day I get reminded of that. Forget the “oh, it’s your parents, they’re your family” comments. Two people had a pleasurable experience, someone came, probably just the one though [laughs]. Nine months later you pop out and you are amazing how you are and you don’t need the approval of two people who fucked to feel OK. That’s my main message, to any minority.
“I feel there’s now more purpose behind why The Drums even exists”
“Cultural figurehead” has been tied with your name a couple of times now. What do you make to that?
Very happy to have that. [laughs] Look, I’m just being me. When we were first starting out, a journalist’s first question in an interview was if anyone in the band was gay and I just started sweating. I gave him some silly answer about how that’s a ridiculous question, purely from self-hatred and homophobia towards myself. It’s a weird question but never worth not answering truthfully.
You’ve got music and fashion under your belt now. Are there any other creative areas that you haven’t done yet that you’d like to?
I’m really interested in doing some more visual art and I’ve just bought a load of paint which I’ve got my heart set on doing next. It involves beautiful boys… [laughs] For every album, I’ve taped a photograph in the studio and that dictates the entire record. For Abysmal Thoughts, it was a photo of my ex as a 14-year-old boy with a black eye and bloody nose as it seemed so symbolic. So I may paint something for the next record.
How do you feel the music has changed sonically for this new record in comparison to the others?
For the first, I had no idea what I was doing. I had never touched a guitar before and the songs just seemed to be pouring out once I picked one up. That first record sounds like shit but in a sweet, charming way. For this one, I worked with a sound engineer for the first time so he helped even out all that I had created and helped with mixing. I’ve always been told by radios that they love the music but, boy, does it need mixing properly [laughs]. I remember an article about us a few years back titled The Drums: The Would-Be Rock Band that Failed On Purpose which was hilarious. I’ll do as I wish, that’s how this work. I guess that’s very punk in spirit, right?
Abysmal Thoughts is out now.