Emerging from Brooklyn via Florida in 2009, The Drums initially caught the ear of the indie world with their Summertime! EP. It was an escapist collection of beach pop fantasies; tracks suffused with a wistful, longing nostalgia that never pandered to cheap sentimentality. Their rise, particularly in the UK, was meteoric. Early buzz led to a prestigious spot on the BBC Sound of 2010 shortlist, followed in short succession by a slot on the Shockwaves NME Tour in 2009, and the publication’s Phillip Hall Radar Award in early 2010, well before the album’s release that summer.
Their terrific self-titled debut LP, released in June, was bifurcated into a first half dedicated to more upbeat pop songs, and a second half revealing a darker, more introspective side of the band. A resounding success, the album has sold 200,000 copies globally to date (90,000 in the UK alone) and found the band touring relentlessly, playing triumphant sold out gigs worldwide throughout 2010 and 2011, including a 6 week tour of the USA and shows in Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, Brazil, Chile, Germany, France, Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Mexico and Indonesia, as well as a sold out UK tour, culminating in two nights headlining the London Forum.
For the often difficult sophomore LP, the band sidestepped the pitfalls of a slump by recording it quickly, again self producing, often laying down tracks spontaneously in singer Jonny Pierce’s kitchen. Following the departure of guitarist Adam Kessler, drummer Connor Hanwick switched to guitar, and guitarist Jacob Graham picked up his more natural instrument of synthesizers. Titled Portamento, the new album, released just 14 months after their debut, reveals a band tugging lightly at the boundaries of their sound while still retaining their recognizable sonic signatures—sweet rushes of melody, winsome lyrics, and brittle synthesizer sheens colliding with wiry Spector-esque guitar and bass lines. Pierce’s lyrics have also assumed a more starkly intimate, personal tone, evinced from the outset on opener “Book of Revelations,” with its brazen examination of religion, through the bittersweet closing love song “How It Ended.”
Pierce explains “The first EP there was this air of innocence. We were obsessed with vintage Americana sort of things. There were personal moments on the first album and EP, but it was very idea driven and conceptual. We wanted it to be cinematic. A scene from a movie, if you will. Now that’s gone. The new album, it’s like every song is a scene from real life. I think from beginning to end it’s sort of autobiographical for me. I was able to be alone for a lot of this, and really write about myself. This new album touches on everything from my extreme religious roots to transgenderism to violence, and of course there’s plenty of heartbreak stuff, which I couldn’t get away from even if I tried.”
And the heartbreak is apparent on the tremulous “In the Cold,” and the aching “If He Likes It Let Him Do It,” as Pierce laments, “Because it was a happy time/Now it’s winter time/And you’re cold,” until the chorus ascends to an eerily shrill wall of synthesizers. But it’s never cheaply manipulative. These are songs devoid of cynicism, written from a “self-involved place,” according to Pierce. “But after a certain point you have to be self-involved to some extent to make it stick.”
Connor Hanwick agrees with his assessment. “There are songs like ‘I Need a Doctor.’ Jonny and I wrote that, and I was like, wow, it was the first one that didn’t feel lyrically detached. It was almost too personal.”
“‘In the Cold’ is one that I love because the emotion in it is so real,” adds Jacob Graham. “That’s something that distinguishes this record from the last one is that I don’t think we would’ve allowed anything that real to be on the first one. I guess the closest thing is ‘Down By the Water,’ but that feels more cinematic like your watching a scene instead of feeling that way. ‘In the Cold’ really goes there.”
“Jonny has this thing about him where he’s so capable of writing huge, banging choruses,” Hanwick adds. “He has such a knack for it that if it’s not that, it’s kind of the end of the world. So I kept saying to him, ‘Why don’t you just keep going with it?’ And he did on ‘Money’, and it’s a great single.”
Graham hints that the band became more detail oriented in the studio, and improved, focusing on the finer points of their sound. “It’s been three years and we are better. When you think about music as much as we’re forced to, you become more analytical about things,” says Graham. “When we were in the studio and even when we were mixing the record we were thinking a lot about the sounds. I think the first record had a very narrow palette of sound, and this one has a slightly broader palette.”
While the band continue to expand their sonic palette, one consistency has been their unabashed love for The Wake, whose influence is even more pervasive than on their earlier work. “I’d be sitting down with a bass guitar, and I’d think, how can we do a bass line like The Wake? It’s still a band that we cited on this record, even though our influences on this record definitely changed. They’re just so good,” enthuses Hanwick.
“But I’m happy with the record,” he adds. “We’ve progressed in the right way. There are some songs that Jonny wrote on there by himself. For ‘How it Ended’ and ‘Book of Revelations,’ I wish I’d been there. Not all the songs are balls out pop, but those songs are just Jonny doing what he does best.”
To accommodate the record’s sonic expansiveness, the band have swelled to a five piece live, augmented by two auxiliary members, including Myles Matheny of Violens and Papercranes on guitar and bass. They’ve also eliminated the backing tracks used for the bulk of their shows to date, thus lending their performances a more visceral, spontaneous feel, in line with the aesthetic of the album.
The record’s titled Portamento, which is a 17th century Italian term that denotes a vocal slide between two pitches. For Pierce, it takes on an additional, personal meaning. “Well it’s got some significance,” he says. “Jacob and I meeting as young boys with a shared love for Kraftwerk and Anything Box and Wendy Carlos, and these were all synth pioneers, and a common feature on old analogue systems was ‘Portamento.’ It dictates the travel time from one note to another, and we have always thought it was a beautiful word. It seems to come in to play with how we have transitioned in the last year, losing a guitarist, reforming the band, our personal lives, and the actual sound of the album travelling from one thing to the next.” In a sense Pierce is describing loss, nostalgia, redemption, vulnerability, and love, which could well be a checklist of all the things that make The Drums matter.