The Drums

The Drums Talk Christian New Wave, Rejecting Religion and the Freedom of Failure

J. Edward Keyes

By J. Edward Keyes

on 09.26.14 in Features

I had known that Jonny Pierce and Jacob Graham from the Drums had a past in Christian music for some time now. Back in the early ’00s, when I was heavily involved in the scene, they were members of a band called Goat Explosion and released a record on the label Plastiq Musiq, which was run by Ronnie Martin of the group Joy Electric. We had a few friends in common — when you grow up involved in Christian indie rock, the number of people who are similarly invested is automatically limited — but we’d never met face to face. (I even remember hearing a few concerned rumors that the members of Goat Explosion were gay.) Eventually, our respective life paths led us out of the scene — and, in fact, out of Christianity all together — and ultimately, we arrived in very similar places. But here’s the thing about Christian music, to paraphrase Magnolia: You may be done with it, but it is never done with you. A few weeks before the release of their third album Encyclopedia, Pierce, Graham and I sat down to talk about Christianity and Christian rock, how it impacted our us and how we still continue to work through that period of our lives to this day.

Can you tell me a little bit about the families in which you grew up?

Jonny Pierce: My mom and dad are both ministers. The day I came home from the hospital was the same day my father was ordained as a pastor. And I was actually used in a symbolic physical gesture [during the ceremony]. One pastor was holding me and handed me to my father, as a sort of way of passing the torch. And I was the torch. It was so intense — literally from the day I came home from the hospital — and it never stopped from there.

This was no casual Christian, Sunday-morning bake sale sort of thing. This was every time the church door was open, you were there. And when the church doors weren’t open, you were there. You were cleaning the church or mowing the lawn in the back. It wasn’t just saying grace at dinner — you’re in a constant attitude of prayer all day long, every day, for your entire life. And I think to the outsider, to people who don’t experience that kind of upbringing, it almost sounds lovely and beautiful. But being immersed in it, and becoming a teenager and discovering that I was homosexual — I mean, talk about throwing a wrench into the whole thing.

‘To this day, I don’t know if they ever thought, that maybe there was a possibility that I was gay. Because I was God’s chosen one. — Jonny Pierce’

I was naturally interested in the arts and dancing — I was interested in ballet — and my parents really encouraged that sort of thing. To this day, I don’t know if they ever thought, that maybe there was a possibility that I was gay. Because I was God’s chosen one. Because they gave birth to us, we were God’s chosen ones. And when I was 14 or 15 I started discovering, “Oh God, this girl that I’ve really had a crush on — her body’s changing. Why don’t I like this?” I just didn’t understand. I spent my whole life trying to figure out how to cope with it. I think that’s why I’m always so frantically moving forward. Just in the past year, I’ve closed the door completely on my biological family. I mean, as backward as the whole thing is, I can understand how it’s very comforting. There are days when I miss that feeling of believing in something greater. But all that stuff was so riddled with fear for me, and condemnation and guilt. As soon as I came to the realization that all of that was nonsense, I experienced peace for the first time. It was the first time in my life that I wasn’t living in fear. It was incredible.

I can totally relate to that. I remember sitting in the back of my college science class and the professor was teaching, in all earnestness, that the earth was 7,000 years old. And I just remember thinking, “I have got to get out of here, these people are crazy.” And the moment I allowed myself to just accept the fact that I didn’t believe anymore, what an incredible relief it was. I had been trying to do all these mental gymnastics to make the facts of the world line up inside this archaic worldview, and when I finally just released it, I felt more content and more at peace than I ever had as a Christian. What about you, Jacob?

Jacob Graham: Well, my family is equally weird. My grandparents were Amish, and they left the Amish community and started their own church. It was Amish, but not Amish. Their theology took a lot from [the Amish], but it was more progressive. My parents had a Christian rock band called the Key. There was a [relatively popular] Christian band called David & the Giants, and my parents’ band used to open for them all the time. When I was really little, I was always going to their shows. And it was pretty hard music, what they were doing. My mom played synthesizers for the band. So I always grew up with synthesizers and loved them. My family wanted the kids to be very musical, and I’m sort of inherently not musical. It’s not a natural gift. I had piano lessons for a long time, but I always hated it. We never had a piano at home, so I’d come home and be practicing on a Juno 106 [synthesizer] and quickly forgot what I was supposed to be doing and started making these grand sounds. I never thought music was something I could do myself until I heard [analog synth band] Joy Electric.

Pierce: Joy Electric, actually, joined us together. When we were teenagers, we were both shipped to a Bible camp. Jacob was living in Ohio at the time, I was living in upstate New York and there was this place that advertised something called Impact ’96 — because they always have names like that.

Graham: The slogan was, like, “Eyes on the Skies.”

Pierce: “Extreme” was another word they liked to use back then. Everything was “extreme.”

Graham: Except that actually nothing was extreme.

Pierce: I hated the thing, and I think Jacob felt weird there, too. The very first night, all the boys are put in a gymnasium — bring your sleeping bags, that sort of thing. And I brought a CD player, and I was playing [the Joy Electric album] Robot Rock. Jacob was clear on the other side of the gym and he started walking over to me and was like, “Who’s playing this?” And I thought he was going to tell me to shut it off — because that’s what everyone else did. But he was like, “This is my favorite band!” So I said, “Hold on a second,” and I opened my bag and pulled out one of those rare Joy Electric Melody ringer t-shirts. I remember Jacob specifically asking me if he could touch it.

‘It was surreal to meet someone who liked Joy Electric. Anyone I knew who even knew about Joy Electric, they only knew because I told them, and they hated them.
— Jacob Graham’

Graham: It was surreal to meet someone who liked Joy Electric. Anyone I knew who even knew about Joy Electric, they only knew because I told them, and they hated them. It was like 1996 in Ohio, and everybody just wanted to listen to Bush. If they did listen to Christian music, it was MxPx. It was like “Look at my CD case,” and he was like “You have every Joy Electric CD!” It was just mind-boggling.

Pierce: And then we discovered his mother gave him his first synthesizer, and my father gave me my first synthesizer, and they were both keyboards that the church used for Sunday morning worship. And that’s what we both started playing on. We kept in touch and would get together every summer and sort of compare our analog synthesizer collections. All year long, we’d plan — “We’re gonna record songs when we’re together!” And then we’d get together and plug in our synthesizers and plug in our amps and we’d play a couple of notes and then just kind of… turn them off… [laughs] It lasted about five minutes. And then we just instead would just take photos of ourselves with our synthesizers.

Graham: We’d position them in weird ways. Put it on a Roman column or something. And then, I opened for Jonny at his first record release show. When Jonny put out that record [with his first band], my brother and I drove out from Ohio to open at their big record release concert in their backyard.

Pierce: We saved up all our money and rented this huge, elaborate stage.

Graham: The greatest thing about that show — which, like, 10 people were at — you bought some old keyboard at a garage sale and you painted a Moog logo on it, and then you smashed it, and some lady from your church called your parents.

Pierce: Yeah, she said, “I think Jonny is full of the spirit of rebellion.” I bought this thing knowing I was going to destroy it, thinking all these kids — which, again, was like 10-12 kids — would be like, “Whoah!”

That experience you describe is so common, though. I went to Philadelphia Biblical University, now rebranded as Cairn University, and it was incredibly conservative: no drinking, no dancing, no playing cards, no girls in the boys’ dorm, no boys in the girls’ dorm, and if you wanted to be out past midnight, you had to get a permission slip signed by your R.A. I was in a band in college, and I remember I was so excited when we played our first show. It was my first real band; I thought we had really good songs. We played and I thought it had gone so well. And the next morning, I found myself in the office of the Director of Student Life — apparently, it had been decided that the way I was dancing on stage was “too sexual,” which was insane

‘But I remember putting up flyers all over town and on my church bulletin board that said, “Morella’s Forest.” And I remember writing on the bottom of the flyer, “P.S. The singer is really hot.” And all it took was that word, “hot,” and it was fire and brimstone. — Jonny Pierce’

Pierce: And, really, what does it say about them that what you were doing made them think of sex?

Exactly. It just made me feel like shit, like I had done something sinful without even meaning to. “You know, everything you do is an example to non-believers, and if someone had walked in off the street and saw you moving like that, they would think ‘Christians are no different from ‘the world.’” The next show we played, they forced me to sit on a stool and not move the entire time.

Pierce: I felt like every time I tried to do something interesting or experimental — and of a “pure heart,” of course, because God’s always watching — I would get in trouble like that. And I would genuinely just want to book a band. We would book [Christian noise-pop band] Morella’s Forest and [Christian death metal band] Zao — I mean, to be honest, it was simply for the purpose of me opening for them.

Graham: He’d be like, “Wouldn’t it be weird if an obscure electronic band — mine — opened for Zao?”

Pierce: It was my first-ever PR stunt. But I remember putting up flyers all over town and on my church bulletin board that said, “Morella’s Forest.” I put my home phone number on the sign so anyone who was interested would just call my parents’ house and I’d tell them about the show. And I remember writing on the bottom of the flyer, “P.S. The singer is really hot.” And all it took was that word, “hot,” and it was fire and brimstone. When I was a little boy like that — and gay, by the way — I wasn’t thinking sex in any way at all. It was just “hot” meaning cool. But I remember getting a really stern talking to. I remember Zao came and played the show, and halfway through, it was determined to be too “like the world,” and they made us stop the show. They were too worried that it was something that wasn’t good simply because of how it sounded.

Stuff like that, when it happens again and again and again, it can totally fuck with your head. It makes you think that there’s something inherently evil or flawed with all the things you naturally like — even if you’re doing them with pure motivations. Your interests are not acceptable, and if you like these things, you need to prayerfully consider how you’re living. And it’s never sports, of course. It’s always music and film or the arts. And it just ruins your brain and your self-esteem. I mean, this actually leads to another question: How were your parents with letting you listen to music — even Christian music. Were they generally OK with it?

Pierce: My family are all super musical. All my brothers and sisters can sing and play piano. My father released an album in the ’80s called Order Yourself Around — Jim Pierce & Friends. Those songs are constantly in my head, and will be ’til the day I die. One of them is called “You’re Gonna Bless Him.” A lot of them are just scripture put to song. The album cover is two photos of my dad. In one he’s a soldier and in the other he’s a sergeant, and the soldier is saluting the sergeant. Since it was called Order Yourself Around, he did this literal split image. As if one photo of him wasn’t enough. He goes on these mission trips to Africa, where it’s like “Believe in Jesus — plus a huge photo of my face next to the word Jesus.”

‘My mother wouldn’t let me listen to things that didn’t have lyrics, even if it said it was Christian. She would ask me, “How do you know it isn’t made for Satan?” She wanted proof that the word Jesus was in there somewhere. — Jonny Pierce’

Graham: My parents were very hippie: “Do whatever you want, you can dye your hair blue, you can buy anything as long as it comes from a Christian store.” But it was a firm line there: Nothing that wasn’t Christian. If it says that it’s Christian, it’s cool. [To Jonny] Your parents were even inspecting the Christian stuff, right?

Pierce: Which is funny, because everyone thinks they have the right brand of Christianity — the way they think to be a Christian is the right way to be a Christian, and anything else is a one-way ticket to hell. My mother wouldn’t let me listen to things that didn’t have lyrics, even if it said it was Christian. She would ask me, “How do you know it isn’t made for Satan?” She wanted proof that the word Jesus was in there somewhere. It had to be that sort of thing. So they weren’t particularly keen on a band like Joy Electric, where, in the music video, he’s wearing tights and lipstick and singing like a girl, and there are flying Barbies. I remember when I came out to my father, he started crying right away. He said, “I think it may have been my fault, I didn’t take you camping enough, I should have thrown the ball with you more.” And then, right after that: “I think you should stop listening to Joy Electric.” That’s where it went. And I was like, “Are you friggin’ crazy? Over my dead body. I’m not giving it up — this is the only joy I have in life!”

How did you come out to your father?

‘I remember that album Five Stars for Failure — how refreshing to have someone in the Christian world singing a song called “Five Stars for Failure.”
— Jonny Pierce’

Pierce: Well, I didn’t come out of my own volition. On my 18th birthday, I went to a gay bar in my little town. It was easy to get in to those places, even when you were young. There was a woman who went to my father’s church, and she had a son that she dragged to church. She got him there once a month, and you could tell he was one foot out the door the whole time. Well, he was at the gay bar. I didn’t see him, but he saw me and reported back, “Oh, I saw the pastor’s son, Jonny, at the gay bar.” Wasn’t that sweet of him? So the next day, my dad says, “Hey Jonny, I’m going for chicken wings. You wanna jump in the car? Let’s go.” So we’re driving there and he says, “OK, so…” And I was on the spot, and I said, “Yeah, I think that’s what’s happening.”

What about you, Jacob?

Graham: I didn’t talk to them about it until much later in life. And by that point, I think they had gotten to an age where they were a little more reasonable about stuff. It wasn’t too much of an issue, really. [To Jonny] I think all of those experiences have a lot to do with the difference between you and me and our relationship with religion to this day.

So, you guys went from being sort of on the periphery of the Christian music scene to actually kind of getting involved in it.

Pierce: Ronnie [Martin, from Joy Electric] asked Goat Explosion to open for them on the White Songbook tour. Looking back, I wish I cherished it more than I did. We were playing a lot of churches, and a lot of places that were all called Joe’s Java. I feel like every town had a Joe’s Java. Or The Mustard Seed. And eventually I played drums in Joy Electric, too. That whole Martin family is pretty fascinating. [Ronnie's brother, Jason, is in the group Starflyer 59 — Ed.]. I mean, we grew up thinking those bands were the coolest. And they actually were. They were even the coolest when you consider secular bands. I think we can all agree there is nothing quite as weird as Joy Electric. He would do entire records using just one synthesizer, including the drum sounds, and the songs would have titles like “Buttercup Fairy Jamboree,” “Lilypad the Forest Our Home.” It’s like: This is truly a crazy person, but he’s a great artist and totally genuine and totally punk. I remember that album Five Stars for Failure — how refreshing to have someone in the Christian world singing a song called “Five Stars for Failure.” We’re always told, growing up Christian, that we’re God’s chosen ones, and that the joy of the Lord will carry us through. It’s always this victorious thing. And I remember getting that album and keeping the volume low in the house, because, I mean, “five stars for failure” — that’s such a taboo thing to say. If you admit you’re a sinner, that’s normal. But there’s a different essence to the word “failure.” And to have a song called “Sorcery”? I mean, we had to turn the channel when the Count came on Sesame Street. So Ronnie Martin singing “Sorcery”? That was really exciting.

Have you ever heard the band Ronnie and Jason were in together before they formed Starflyer and Joy Electric, Dance House Children?

Pierce: Have we heard it? That band was our moral compass.

Graham: In 1995 when I realized Dance House Children existed, I started going on a wild hunt. Because it was impossible to find those records. I ended up getting [first album] Songs & Stories from my church’s sound guy. He had an old dubbed cassette of it, so for the longest time I had one Dance House record on a dubbed cassette.

Pierce: I remember when Dance House Children came out with Jesus — which, side note, what an amazing name for a record. Jesus. So crazy. [Laughs] I like that I say it, and no one here flinches, because we’re all so used to it. And Ronnie couldn’t resist — he always had to say something flowery. I remember in the credit of that record, he said, “We believe the Smiths are prettiest band in the world.” And then underneath he wrote, “Wherever you go, we want to be there, in the clubs, always at the forefront of club music.” And I was like, “You’re singing about bees and bonnets, buddy, it’s not going to happen.”

Graham: Jesus was the ultimate clubby phase, when he was listening to all that Manchester stuff. And he was trying to do that, but he just couldn’t resist being himself. So the songs are like “A Lull in the Fairest Maple.”

Pierce: So, in short, I kind of see how my dad had a point.

We asked the Drums to walk Wondering Sound writer John Everhart through some of their favorite songs from their days as Christian music fans. Below are their picks and commentary.

Pierce: Oh my god. They’re the best.

She sounds like the singer from My Bloody Valentine, Bilinda Butcher.

Pierce: She’s beautiful. That lost voice. Nobody gave a crap about this band. We went to Jason [Martin] from Starflyer 59 and Bon Voyage’s house, and she was baking cookies. [Note: The singer, Julie, is Jason Martin's wife — Ed.] We wanted Jason to produce the first Drums album. There’s a version of our first album that was never released that was produced and mixed by Jason Martin.

Graham: The one relic from those session that’s survived, that we’ve never told anyone before, is that the acoustic guitar part from the beginning of “I’ll Never Drop My Sword” is Jason Martin from Starflyer 59. It’s the one thing he added we kept.

Pierce: We had Adam [Kessler] who’s not with us anymore, play it, but when he went to the bathroom, Jason was like, “I got this.” Adam never knew the difference. He was always in space, anyway. [Laughs]

Graham: This is my favorite song by Havalina Rail Co. It’s so crazy. I was never a massive fan, but I loved that they existed. I didn’t feel like I needed to own everything they put on, but I loved it.

It’s an interesting song. Has almost an Elephant 6 feel.

Graham: It gets more interesting. Then it goes into this really nutso part.

Pierce: That’s really Russian sounding.

Graham: They actually made a record called Russian Lullabies later.

Pierce: We weren’t head over heels over it, but it showed us that you could do whatever you wanted to. And this was literally on a compilation after an MxPx song.

Graham: This is Daniel Amos, and it was a revolutionary record for the Christian scene. This is from 1986 or something. This guy [Frontman Terry Taylor – Ed.] went on to produce Starflyer. It really is like they wanted to be the Christian 4AD band or something. Their artwork was so cool. I wasn’t around in ’86, so I discovered this five years ago, but the first thing this reminded me of was Aleka’s Attic, River Phoenix’s band. I thought their voices sounded so similar. I wondered if River was listening to this?

Pierce: The ultimate rock ‘n’ roll band. The true spirit of rock ‘n’ roll flies here. The most punk kids ever. They did not give a flying flip.

Graham: Seeing them live is intense. You think it’ll be a fun show, but he’s screaming the whole time, and veins are bulging.

Pierce: It’s because they have a message. They’re kind of the opposite of what I normally like. But you can’t say they aren’t authentic. And you can’t say they aren’t punk.

Are they didactic?

Pierce: I’d like to imagine they lean toward the liberal side. [They got signed because] Brandon from Tooth & Nail saw them in New Jersey when they were all kids — [frontman] Daniel [Smith] had just finished school. They were putting out this record, A Prayer for Every Hour. Daniel did all the artwork, and they ended up putting it out on the biggest Christian label. That never happened in the Christian community. Ever. They went for it. We had so much faith in these [record] labels that we’d [even] buy hardcore bands’ records on Tooth & Nail. The whole spirit expanded everyone’s horizons — the hardcore kids and the weird kids. It was so clear that it was all about the art. But money wins in the end.

Graham: There was a time when everyone thought The 77’s were gonna be the next U2. They were kind of bigger outside Christian than inside Christian music.

Pierce: Kind of an Ocean Blue vibe.

Some Simple Minds.

Pierce: But not as confident. Oh my God, it sounds sort of like a-ha. [to Graham] You must’ve listened to this song a hundred times, because I can hear it in your melodies.

Graham: This song is a little Christian-y, but when I started touring with Joy Electric, Ronnie and I were in a hotel room, and I asked if he knew the band 4-4-1. He said, “That band changed my life. Do you know which song is the one?” And I said “Is it Enough.” And he said, “That’s the one!” The rest of the album, take it or leave it, but that song…

Pierce: It’s a little too much for me.

Graham: I guess at that point in my life I hadn’t heard a lot of guitar music. I hadn’t heard the Smiths. All I’d heard was Joy Electric, which was very mechanical. So here are these drums that sound like the Cranberries drums, before I’d even heard the Cranberries.

Graham: A lot of this stuff in hindsight doesn’t hold up, but some of it’s legitimately good, like this song.

Pierce: This is beautiful. [Frontman Jason Martin] is actually a truck driver and works for his father’s furniture-moving company. And so does [his brother] Ronnie, when he’s in a pinch. All these kids, they were so blue collar. Now to be eccentric, it seems like you have to have a huge trust fund, which is why I have a hard time getting too excited about where music is.

Graham: You can often tell if someone can afford to be eccentric, or if they just are. But anyway I love this song too. It’s so sad. So many of these Starflyer songs sound like you’ve flushed your life down the toilet.

Pierce: I always related to the sadness.

I think you sound happier on your new record than ever.

Pierce: I’m more sure of myself than ever. I’m not happy, but I’ve closed doors and left a few open. This is our most liberating record, and describes us as individuals the most. The outsider mentality of these bands — you wouldn’t think there would be that kind of thinking in Christian rock, but there was. The songs are so incredibly sad and depressing, and it was so taboo, because you’re supposed to have the joy of the Holy Ghost carrying you through each day. As a kid, I always wondered why everyone had such fake smiles.