Who are The Drums? It's a difficult question to answer. Not because they're some obscurity or anything like that, far from it. The question is meant in more of a literal sense – who is behind this music? It began as a four-piece upon forming in 2008; before converting to a trio for their second LP and a duo for their third. On the cusp of Abysmal Thoughts, album number four to bare The Drums name, only one man remains behind it – vocalist, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Pierce. It's the first time that Pierce has stepped out on his own as The Drums, and the first album by the project to not feature mainstay collaborator Jacob Graham. While it was initially upsetting for Pierce, he has since found that reverting the band to a solo project was far more liberating than he could have ever anticipated.
“I have a very strong vision of what I want to do, but in this band I've always been one of several other A personalities in the creative process,” he says. “Sometimes, it got a little tricky – a lot of what was written and recorded under the band name was just me, but I kept that quiet because I didn't want to embarrass or belittle the other guys. There were things that I had always wanted to do with the music of this band, but I felt that I couldn't because I wanted it to represent more than just me. I look at the emotion and the vulnerability of some of the songs on the new record, and I genuinely wonder if I would have been able to write them if any of the other guys were still around. Even something like the album cover – my boyfriend smelling a dirty gym shoe with bloody orange font over it – might not have flown if it was anyone's decision but mine. All these little things added up to a lot, and I have free range to do it all now.”
Pierce assembled Abysmal Thoughts piece by piece across several writing and recording sessions between his native New York and Los Angeles. The end result is a challenging and directly personal record – an artwork that lives and dies by the catharsis that it brought to its creator. “I was emotionally primed and ready going into this album,” says Pierce. “There was the whole thing with Jacob leaving the band, and then the relationship that I was in had fallen apart. I mean, I was fucking married. I thought I was going to be with this person forever. It crumbled before my eyes.”
“I was dealing with a lot of grief and a lot of significant loss – and for what may have been the first time in my life, I wasn't looking to blame everyone else for it. It occurred to me: I've written some 10 thousand songs about being left, having my heart broken or being abandoned. Maybe I should stop looking for who I should blame. Maybe it's me. Maybe there's a reason people find it difficult to stick with me. That's why the album opens with the song 'Mirror' – I had to go through some pretty serious self-reflection.”
Abysmal Thoughts is equal parts a flirtation with indie rock, pop, drum'n'bass and post-punk. It's a diverse and fearless record in its approach, not least of all because Pierce finally felt compelled to draw from certain inspirations and instruments that normally would have been considered out of bounds by his bandmates. Pierce talks candidly about one particular – and unexpected – element that made its way onto the album; and perhaps enhanced it more than a casual listen would give it credit for.
“I've always been a big fan of percussion,” says Pierce. “I know it's so small and simple, but it honestly was not allowed on previous Drums albums. Things like cowbell, woodblocks, shakers, maracas. I've always loved bands like Liquid Liquid and A Certain Ratio; and bands that have that strong percussive element. Jacob literally told me point-blank when I tried to put some bongos on a song that he didn't want there to be any percussion. I really went for it on songs like the title track and 'Are U Fucked'. To me, it adds a real human feel to the song. When I'm writing songs that are often so sample-based, I really need that human element – even if it's just shaking a tambourine. It's the kind of thing that glues it all together and makes the songs sound alive.”
Pierce is also very open in speaking about the influence that dance music had on Abysmal Thoughts' composition – specifically that of drum'n'bass in the 90s. “Roni Size was my God back then,” Pierce says. “A song like 'Mirror' has kind of a drum'n'bass feel, and 'Your Tenderness' goes a little further towards that sound as well. When I was getting the album mastered, it came to that song and the guy that was doing it casually mentioned the drum'n'bass sound – I was like, 'dude! I didn't think that anyone would pick that up!' It's so cool I can do whatever I want.”
Abysmal Thoughts by The Drums is out on Friday June 17 through ANTI Records/Cooking Vinyl Australia.