Make no mistake: Jonathan Pierce has always been the creative force behind the Drums. Since the indie-pop band’s early days, he’s written all of the lyrics and most of the music. He maintained the collaborative façade partly because he feared vulnerability, he says. If the creative process was out in the open, any criticism of the music would reflect directly on him.
“I thought if I was honest about it,” he says, “and told everyone that I sit in my bedroom and make most of this stuff on my own, people wouldn’t consider us a band.”
Speaking with New Times ahead of the Drums’ December 1 show at Gramps, Pierce explains he’s dropped the pretense of being anything other than the band’s sole creator, and it feels good to be out about it. Even after ten years of performing on the road, he says, the shows promoting the new album, Abysmal Thoughts, have composed the “most encouraging, exciting, and just sort of thrilling tour, really, that I’ve ever done.”
That’s because he’s truly striking out on his own. Jacob Graham, cofounder of the Drums and Pierce’s longtime creative partner, left the band as Pierce was beginning to write Abysmal Thoughts. Though he acknowledges his friend’s departure was a major loss, Pierce says there’s no ill will: “Jacob is a really special guy, and he is feeding himself with his other passions, and I wouldn’t want anything else for him.”
Graham left during a difficult period in Pierce’s life, however. At the time, Pierce had just moved to Los Angeles and was feeling very out of place. He was also going through an abrupt divorce after a couple of years of marriage.
“I saw two very fundamental relationships in my life vanish,” he says. “There’s a lot of trauma that comes with that, and I’m not even sure I’ve worked through it all yet.”
As a result of the tectonic shifts in his personal life, the lyrics throughout Abysmal Thoughts are melancholic. On the album’s first song, “Mirror,” Pierce sings, “I'm not the human that I could have been/Instead I gave my heart to a breathing machine/Where there's no heartbeat and I'm freezing.” As always, Pierce packages his dark messages within sunny indie-pop songs (and drenches them in reverb). From listening to benchmark bands such as the Smiths and the Cure, Pierce has always been drawn to the juxtaposition of light and dark, he says.
“Both of those bands are prime examples of pulling off beautiful, glistening, up-tempo pop songs while still remaining sort of somber at the core of the song,” he says. “I really relate to tragedy in art, whether it’s a painting or a movie or writing... It’s something ingrained in me, a reflection of who I am. Not a day goes by where I don’t think, What’s the point of all this? I’ve always carried this sort of soft sadness.”
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But lately, he’s been feeling lighter. He says it was a relief to come out as gay — again. “I came out, and then I was sheepish about it and didn’t talk about it much in the press for five or six years,” he recalls. “But nobody really asked me either — a thousand different journalists, and nobody had an inkling that maybe I was gay?”
With his creative and sexual identities on proud display for the first time, Pierce made a record that’s fully his own, and he feels happier with his music and more connected to his fans than ever before. Several times on this tour he’s stopped between songs and talked to the audience at length, which he never would have contemplated in the past.
Pierce is finally being honest with the world: He is the Drums.
“I think it’s because I’m learning how to connect with myself a little bit,” he says. “Making this record was like therapy for me. I learned a lot of about myself, asked myself a lot of questions and tried to sort of carry that over to the live show. I’m trying to be more of who I am.”