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 signaled 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 the release of fourth stellar record Abysmal Thoughts, 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 a new found fan base right behind him.
The son of two pastors, Pierce was born into a strict “really fucking anti-gay” Pentecostal church community in New York State before relocating to the city to pursue music. “If you can’t or won’t approve of yourself, how can you possibly love anybody else?” he explains over black coffee as we meet, rather fittingly, in London’s queer hub Soho. “You really have to know who you are and value who you are, hence why I had to get out.”
A eureka moment within Pierce’s life, it’s a similar thought process applied his own public image. “I spent a lot my career trying to please people, whether it be journalists or on stage, making sure that everyone was thoroughly entertain and I could never switch that off,” he describes. “The cost of that being I was never myself, ultimately sacrificing my own happiness so that everyone could have their ‘moment’ with Jonny.”
This, essentially closeted Jonny, landed him a reputation of being the band’s vocally overt forerunner singularly for the music with anything related to his personal life was likely to be shut down immediately. “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,” he explains. “I gave him some silly answer about how that’s a ridiculous question, purely from self-hatred and homophobia towards myself.”
Had Pierce’s moment of self-realisation not occurred, it’s unlikely he’d have “made it to a fourth record at all.” He elaborates, “The constant questioning of ‘is there really any Jonny left in me?’ really fucked me over. You can hear it on the record, Mirror questions ‘who am I and who do you wanna be?”
The track in question not only opens the record, but kicks off with the opening line, “I didn’t need another push towards the urge,” instantly marking album number four as far more than a skipping stone’s throw away from the previous outputs. Twee track titles such as Down By The Water, Skippin’ Town and Let’s Go Surfing have been switched up for more the ominous Are U Fucked, Blood Under My Belt and the record’s title track, a move Pierce puts down to “a combination of self-identity, the departure of [original guitarist] Jacob Graham and the damage of Trump as president.”
The latter, he explains, is “symbolic of this dark chapter we’re all in and how 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.” These three components also play into the record’s sound, noting the melodic veracity and lo-fi indie “surfer hipster” beginnings of debut The Drums (“it sounds like shit but in a sweet, charming way,” he divulges with laughter) through to 2014’s Encyclopaedia. Nowadays, Pierce can be found crafting vivid, imaginative guitar pop with “a purpose behind why The Drums even exists.” He recalls an article from the Independent, “The Drums: The Would-Be Rock Band that Failed On Purpose, as “hilarious” yet key for a look at the sonic and thematic change of the band’s history in the past eight years. “I guess that’s very punk in spirit, right?”
Punk it just may be, given the entire album was recorded solely by Pierce in a cabin in upstate Newq York woods following the breakup of his long-term relationship. “We fucked each other over and it wasn’t working,” he elaborates. “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 to where we had just moved in L.A. Everyone thinks of that place as so sunny and joyful but it’s a dark, horrible place for me now,” before noting that even London in the sun, like today, can be triggering for him.
“I moved back to my little lake house in upstate New York which is where I got the email off Jacob explaining that being in the band just wasn’t working out. I lost two very significant relationships in a very short period and, though I’ve not really said it until now, but 95% of what you hear from The Drums has always been solely me anyway.”
In terms of where Pierce stands on the departure of Graham, it’s tricky to grasp. “It means I can really go to those places I wanna talk about now,” he explains. “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, Jacob would have freaked out as he’d never really allow me to be myself.” A quick glance at Abysmal Thoughts’ brilliant cover highlights this – as photographed by Pierce – portraying his boyfriend “smelling his shoe whilst grabbing his crotch, surrounded by bright orange Halloween-style lettering” is a result of both the label applying no restrictions and Pierce being “as honest with myself as I can.”
This exploration appears to feed its way throughout the album campaign with the newly-dropped video for Blood Under My Belt taking a striking and colourful approach at “exploring some visual fetishes of mine” in order to showcase a “real different side to me that I could never show or talk about before. I’m just happy I can now as being sexual is such 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.”
My mention that this is essential what the LGBTQ+ community are told on a daily basis is met with a “yes!” loud enough to warrant glares from the couple sat behind. “Being told that what you crave or who you love is dirty or sinful is so wrong when it’s all simply beautiful. 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.”
The idea of leaving those who prove no good to your wellbeing is bought up a handful of times, mainly in line with his recollections of his past and the idea of “moving forward” through life. His most passionate response comes when asked about the fans, who appear to have opened up to Jonny as Jonny has through is “transparency with what I’m writing about” and addressing. “Now that I’m not writing about surfing or the beach and I’m writing about matters of the heart, I feel like I’m reaching the people that I want to reach,” he ponders.
Reflecting on his current fan base, Pierce recognises how far he’s come: “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. Just last week, a girl told me about her brother getting involved in a car accident so she’s been listening to Portamento on a loop as it’s helping her. My fan base 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.” When pushed for the idea that this should be any artist’s ultimate goal, it’s met with a cackle and “I’m not sure Maroon 5 are really trying to reach out that far…”
“I’ve opened up a little bit more which the audience have done too right back to me,” he describes, significantly noting LGBTQ+ fans as the most prominent. “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 a stark contrast to the band’s early shows, packed with “indie kids who only shop at Urban Outfitters” with the change being warmly welcomed by Pierce. “I feel so fortunate that at this stage now where my lyrics are reaching the people I want them to reach. For me, it was The Smiths that made me realise that I wasn’t the only 16 year old feeling how I felt. So that’s why I left my shitty little town and moved to New York.”
This new-found openness to discuss serious conversation topics has ultimately lead to the labelling of Pierce as a ‘cultural figurehead’ within the press and fan base, a tag he’s “very happy to take” given his articles for Vice surrounding politics, gay conversion therapy and the women’s marches. Most recently was a statement surrounding his SXSW performances, in which he addressed the festival’s policies on foreign artists performing at unofficial showcases.
“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,” he explains. “The main 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.” This would see SXSW later change their policy and issue an apology, “enough for me to think they’re taking a step forward and enough for me to play.” A brief moment of laugher-to-self later and he concludes, “Though it was actually hell on earth this year.”
At present, he’s proud of his accomplishments, particularly in light of being the voice for queer kids in a genre that largely fails to do anything at all. For teenage listeners, many would argue his words are far more powerful than we’d expect from The Drums. “I want to just encourage everyone to be honest with themselves. If somebody loves you because you don’t talk about being gay around them then they’re only loving that version of you.
As we conclude, I wonder if Pierce would now have the perfect thing to say to his 16-year-old self that he didn’t before: “Two people had a pleasurable experience, someone came, nine months later you pop out. You are amazing how you are and you don’t need the approval of two people who fucked to feel OK.” A brief pause for reflection later and he clarifies, “though probably only the one person came…” Queue further glares.
With what seems an entire new start for The Drums, Pierce is more than ready to bare the band’s touch solo. “The general reception being that it feels like a second debut record, or a rebirth, is amazing to me. His closing statement? “It’s ok to be weird. To any minority, that is my main message.”
Abysmal Thoughts is out now.