The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart Start Over

John Everhart

By John Everhart

on 04.28.14 in Features

“Bands, those funny little plans that never work quite right” sang Jonathan Donahue in Mercury Rev’s “Holes.” That line sums up, more or less, what happened between the Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s last two albums, 2011′s Belong and this year’s Days of Abandon. Peggy Wang, the band’s longtime keyboardist and vocalist, left the band along with bassist Alex Naidus; drummer Kurt Feldman played on the recordings, but split from the touring lineup. All of which essentially left frontman Kip Berman to assemble a new band from scratch.

In lieu of the departed band members, Berman added Jen Goma of A Sunny Day in Glasgow, who contributed angelic harmonies to many of the tracks. Kelly Pratt (Beirut, David Byrne and St. Vincent) fleshed out the recordings with tasteful brass flourishes, while producer Andy Savours lassoed these parts into a gorgeous whole, the indie-pop of Berman’s dreams. These tracks don’t hark strongly to their self-titled debut, or its high octane follow-up BelongDays of Abandon speaks in a vastly different dialect, yet one still distinctly recognizable as Pains. Berman well could’ve wallowed in self-doubt and reverted to his old stylistic tricks. Instead he had the conviction to stride boldly forward and evolve, confident in his abilities as a songwriter. He’s crafted a sonically daring record light years removed from Belong. It may alienate some of that album’s followers, the ones turned on by the volume and power of Moulder and Flood’s production, but those who stick around will get more than they bargained for — a meticulously-crafted, and flat-out terrific pop record — one in which Berman’s keen sense of melody reigns supreme.

With this record, I didn’t know what to expect, knowing that Peggy [Wang] was leaving the band. It was like Versus, with Fontaine Toups and Richard Baluyut. The Pains very much to me were you and Peggy Wang. Was it a bittersweet thing?

It was something I completely understood. We’d done two records together, with Kurt [Feldman] and Alex [Naidus] as well, and Peggy was a big part of that. But she’s someone who has a lot going on with her life, as do Alex and Kurt. They had to focus on different aspects of what they wanted out of life, which is fine. I don’t know how to say it other than I was grateful with the time she made available to do Pains stuff, but at the end of the day, the band has always just me trying to get friends together to make songs and write. Kurt was a big part of that, Alex was a big part of that, and so is Peggy, but I know they’ll go on to do cool stuff. Their life will be fine. The way the band started was, I asked Alex, because I worked with him, and I asked Peggy, and she thought I should ask my roommate Kurt to play drums, because he was kind of bored with the drum machine. So I think we’ve been kind of lucky to have some stability. But, truthfully, it’s exciting to hear what the music can be with other people contributing. “Kelly,” with the horn stuff and Jen’s vocals — both lead and backing — opened up the music in a really good way and made it more pop, which is something we aspired to in the past but never really got there.

What did you feel like you lost with Peggy that maybe you gained with Kelly and Jen?

Kelly did some horn stuff and arrangements on the recording, and Jen sang and played keyboards. It’s not really so much musical. Peggy was a great confidante for ideas, and I think the best bands are driven as much by ideas as by music. There are a lot of great musicians or bands who can write a great song, but kind of the reason a band exists is an important thing. Peggy was always really good with music videos and general band things.

She was great with the visual presentation. I remember with the Big Takeover cover story she had some great ideas.

She had a great eye for that. She was really helpful with the “Heart in Your Heartbreak Video.” That was all her idea. I think about writing songs, and that’s the extent of what I think about. That and cover art and the records. But in terms of visual presentation and videos, she was always thoughtful and helpful. The “Higher Than the Stars” video, the idea of bringing fursuiters into it was all her idea. Kurt was always the most involved musically, just how the songs came together.

He’s not in the band anymore, correct, as far as touring?

He played on the record, but he wanted to focus more on producing other bands and working on his own band, Ice Choir. Touring with Pains was a big time commitment and didn’t allow him to pursue his other talents as much. I think he’s cautious about putting himself forward that way, but he shouldn’t be, because his songwriting’s as good as anyone’s out there. His ideas are so great. I hope he makes another Ice Choir record.

A friend of mine once said to me, either your band makes it by the time you’re 30 or you go back to school. I said that to Fred Thomas of Saturday Looks Good to Me, and he said, “Well, I don’t know where that leaves me, because my band will never be big and I’m never gonna go back to school.” Is this a calling for you? Can you imagine yourself not making music?

Music is the one thing that I never tire of doing. I don’t want to overblow it and make it a calling.

I think it is a calling for a lot of bands, like the bands in the ’80s living in abject squalor while touring just to live day to day out of a van.

Well yeah, if you read the Michael Azerrad book Our Band Could Be Your Life, it’s a really harrowing account of what it took to be in a rock band in the ’80s and early ’90s. It’s trying to figure out where everything was on maps, and trying to get in contact without phones. It was a real sense of isolation and just difficulty in logistics of touring. When you think of Black Flag or Beat Happening or the Replacements, they went through experiences that not even the smallest bands today could imagine in terms of the difficulties of touring. But music is entirely my life, and it’s all I want to do, and it’s probably all I can do.

It’s probably all about getting up on stage for you. Aside from writing the songs, of course. Just being out there on the road no matter how shitty the venue might be.

The idea of getting in a van and playing songs to people every night, I never get tired of it. I never weary of it at all. It’s all I really want out of life is the chance to make music and tour and make records. It doesn’t seem like there’s a better life out there than that, no matter if it’s big shows or small shows. I just want to do it.

It’s odd how it isn’t for everyone. It’s a huge commitment. Members of your band wanted to move on to have careers, like Peggy. But I’m sure she’ll continue to make music and be creative in some capacity.

I don’t really know what she’ll do, but in terms of Pains it’s been great to make this new record.

Do you feel rejuvenated by these new people, like new avenues have been opened?

Well, I don’t want to discredit anyone that was before, either.

But nonetheless, do you feel like new avenues will open? Some other doors were closed, obviously. It can probably be equally exciting, just different I’d guess.

I think if you listen to this record, there’s a lot going on that we didn’t do before, and it was cool to have the opportunity to collaborate with other talented people who could enhance the ideas we already had and take them to a different place. It’s not saying that our last record was bad or the record before that was bad. They were where we were, the best we could make them then.

I think they’re all great records.

I think this record’s the same way — this is the best record we could make with the people in the room, and the opportunities we had. I thought it was really cool listening to “Life After Life,” how Jen’s vocals really carry it and really present something both powerful and vulnerable at the same time. And then the counter melodies of the horn parts give it a, not mariachi, but country-western vibe, which is something totally unexpected if you listen to Belong. Like, “Oh, the next record’s gonna have this amazing female singer and trumpets.” They’d be like, “What the fuck, that’s not gonna happen at all” [laughs]. But it was fortuitous that whatever happened opened up good things for our band, and it kind of prevented us from repeating ourselves.

And that’s one of the more difficult things for a band, is not repeating yourself. One of the hardest things in the world is probably being composed of four or five equal pieces. You’re essentially the core member of Pains. It’s got to be tough both ways, though. How egalitarian do you try to make it?

I write the songs, so I have a pretty big voice in how the music sounds, but I don’t think I’m such a genius that other people’s ideas couldn’t improve it. From the demo stage to recording, things improve, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that I don’t play drums. The instrumentation’s developed. But a lot of it’s editing. If you’re playing a song at band practice, and no one seems to like playing it, you can be a jerk and act like no one understands it, or you can admit that maybe it’s not that good a song. What I rely on with my bandmates is a sense of reality. I probably wrote 50 songs between Belong and this record. Thirty of them were just kind of crappy, 20 were good enough to play as a band, 15 we recorded and 10 ended up on the record. If people had heard the wrong 10 songs, people would’ve thought that we were shit — and they might still think that. But the most important thing to do is to be able to gain perspective, and having other people in the room helps you to do that.

You obviously went from big-name producers to different, smaller people. Did you feel like there was a huge difference sonically?

Well, it depends. There’s name recognition, and there’s the talent of what people do. Andy Savours produced the new record, and he was the engineer who helped to mix the new My Bloody Valentine record. He doesn’t have as big a name as Alan [Moulder] or Flood [who produced and mixed Belong], but he wouldn’t have gotten to where he is without the pedigree. And he’s young, and wants to make his reputation. In terms of actual skill, I think Andy was just as good for us on this record as Flood was on the last record. This one’s brighter and fresher and less saturated with heavy guitars, and there’s a lot of interesting synth textures and there’s drum machine and the backing vocals are layered. I feel like this record’s as big as Belong was, but in a different way. The sounds aren’t derived from a bunch of guitar overdubs with a Ratt pedal. And Jen was a great resource, because she could use her voice in really interesting ways. On the bridge of “Simple and Sure,” a vocal run that’s layered upon itself that’s like The Cocteau Twins or something like that. I don’t mind the way I sing, but I’m not operatic. I’m sort of the Eddie Vedder of indiepop. I sing three notes really well.

Or Anthony Kiedis.

Well, I don’t do the speaking rap parts too often [laughs]. So we had a little more to work with in terms of ability, and Andy was just as hands on and thoughtful and involved with the project, and it was a great experience to get to work with him. Also, working at my friend Danny [Taylor]‘s studio in Greenpoint made it more comfortable. Instead of going to a giant, intimidating studio where you felt unsure of yourself, there was a lot of comfort. There was a lot of joy in making it, and I hope that comes through in the sound. It wasn’t any less ambitious. It just felt like a different kind of ambition.

Where do you find yourself now as opposed to Belong? Do your songs come from a stream of consciousness place now, or is it a different place than they were then?

A lot of the songs on Belong came from before the first album was released. I had a lot of doubt before our debut. We hadn’t made a record that was representative of how good we wanted to be. But maybe I’ll always feel that way. So there was a sense of wanting to challenge people’s beliefs about the band with Belong, and the record hadn’t even been released yet. It was neurotic and bizarre that we were so convinced that our first record sucked before it was released that we were writing all these songs, like “Strange,” “The Body,” “My Terrible Friend,” “Too Tough.” The last song that came was “Heart in Your Heartbreak,” and that ended up being a single before Belong. The songs for this record have been written over the last three years, and I feel that when we were making Belong, there was this sense of — not revulsion, but it was almost unlistenable at times, to the extent that we were mixing it and making it heavier, overdubbing more guitars, and making it heavier, and I’d go back to the studio, and put on a Felt record with a friend over a drink at midnight, to listen to music that was actually music and not a middle finger to a British journalist who thought we were too indiepop or something. So listening to Felt or Comet Gain or Aztec Camera, just ornate stuff that wasn’t burdened by the need to be “rock ‘n’ roll.” Musically it felt inspiring in that sense. And lyrically there were just a lot of issues of personal difficulty over the last three years that have been harrowing where I’ve found myself isolated or alone, trying to make something good out of that or not let myself completely fall apart during those times. I think there’s a strong theme of loss and abandonment on this record.

Abandonment by who?

I don’t know. I just felt very alone in the world. Everything hasn’t gone wrong. [Cleaners From Venus come on at the bar] Kristof from Pains got me into Cleaners From Venus. What a great song. Having great friends who can turn you on to great music is such a cool thing. I go to all the big websites, just like everyone else, but it’s a friend’s recommendation that means the most to me.

My favorite record of the year is still the Hidden Cameras, and no one seems to like it.

Oh my god, I’ve been listening to early Hidden Cameras. And we kept having these emails back and forth about streaming things, and I kept attaching the “Golden Streams” video to the point where everyone got sick of it and told me to stop [laughs]. It was amazing. I’ve always wondered why that band isn’t more popular. It’s not because they’re Canadian, because there are plenty of Canadian bands that are popular.

You’ve gotten so much attention, and deservedly so. It must be strange seeing bands you love so much who are less popular.

I think it’s so difficult to see how arbitrary the world is. When I saw Girls get really popular, having fans around the world, I thought that was amazing. It’s great when something amazing catches on as a quote unquote popular thing. My Favorite’s a great example for me. They never got popular.

They’re playing the NYC Popfest this year, right?

Yeah! I’m so excited for them. I’m DJing one of the first nights then leaving for tour, so I’ll have to miss the Hidden Cameras. But I should get to see My Favorite.

So, in 2014, what constitutes success for you?

Existence. All you can ask for is a shot. I believe in it, and you can’t force people to like it, but good things can happen. But if you can’t keep it together, you have no shot. So I just try to keep it together every day so we can tour.

You’ve been in a long-term relationship, right? How does that impact your musical life?

We share a mail key! I rely upon her to get the mail. But it’s great to have that stability. Music’s so difficult from day to day with disappointments, and you can feel on the brink of not wanting to get out of bed, but if you have something in your life like that…I don’t know if I would’ve been able to finish this record without having someone who believes in me in that way. There’s so many private moments of doubt and despair, and if you get caught up in that, it can be debilitating. If you have someone who can tell you that it’s not the end of the world, it can be comforting. I’m the kind of guy who always thinks it’s the end of the world. I’m not good at keeping an even keel or seeing the big picture. It’s easy for me to lose my shit.

So your first record was made with no expectations, your second record was made with some expectations; this one was made with even more expectations. Does that weigh on your mind?

That’s a good question. There’s an internal pressure for me that’s even greater than reality for me. I don’t know if it’s because I’m such a big music fan, but I find a lot of pressure to do something worthy and good in the world. It sounds obnoxious to say you feel the pressure to feel great, but at some level you have to want to do things that are as good as or better than the things that you love. Or else, why are you doing it? Why would you want to be a mediocre band and have no one care? When we started, I could hardly sing or play guitar, but I had a burning belief that I could do it, when maybe in reality I couldn’t do it. So with the first record, the second record, and with this record, it’s the pressure of making something great, rather than the seasonal trends of whether a band’s cool this week or cool next week. Every band gets shit on eventually. And there have been people who have spent a lot of their lives wanting to explain to everyone why we suck so bad. Morrissey, the Cure, Nirvana and so on. The British press in particular, because they work that way. You have to have some delusion of your self-worth just to know what you do is important. Or at least, important to you.