Interview: The Drums - "People have always hated the music we make..."
Since scoring big with 2009's now-ubiquitous summer jam 'Let's Go Surfing', The Drums have had a rise to fame that's been equal parts meteoric and turbulent. The Brooklyn-via-Florida-via-Ohio outfit have been hastily hyped to bits as well as practically written off as chancers; they've experienced the highs of awards and chart-bothering sales figures, but have also been driven close to breaking point by lineup changes and internal strife.
To their credit, they've emerged from such fraught circumstances with an impressive and surprisingly coherent second album in the form of last year's somewhat overlooked Portamento. Its twelve tracks traverse slow-motion heartbreak and confused longing in a more understated fashion than 2010's self-titled debut. It's the sound of The Drums, if not quite fully grown-up, then at least starting to learn from some of their mistakes.
Ahead of the band's return to the UK live circuit later this month, Michael James Hall caught up with multi-instrumental founding member Jacob Graham (a pretty keen interviewer in his own right), who told us about the importance of sticking to your guns, the shifting nature of friendship and a brief moonlit encounter with Arcade Fire.
RW: How has the Portamento tour been going so far? The record came out back in September... Have you guys been on the road pretty much constantly since then?
JG: I think it's gone really well actually. The response to the new songs has been positive, which is obviously great. It's encouraging to know that people are still interested. Also, personally speaking, this tour has just been better for me in many ways. I think I'm starting to settle into my life a little more now, and finally growing out of some awkwardness I've been trying to shake.
Staying with touring, do you prefer the big outdoor festival shows or the intimacy of the club and theatre gigs? Where do you feel more at home?
Definitely the indoor shows. I've always thought music sounded better inside... There's a certain intimacy that doesn't quite translate to the great outdoors, I don't think. The best outdoor music is sung around a campfire.
It all seems like a very swift series of events: from your formation a few years back to suddenly being hotly tipped right across the board, and from playing huge landmark gigs to reportedly almost falling apart last year - but managing to keep things together in order to make that all-important second LP. How has that roller-coaster experience changed the band members as people would you say?
Oh, I don't know. You kind of summed it up right there, I guess. I think a lot of the reason it all nearly fell apart is because of things happening so fast, and to be honest I think I'm still too close to the situation to say for sure how it has or hasn't changed me as a person. It doesn't feel like it's stopped, but it does feel like it's starting to slow down a little, and that's something I've been looking forward to.
If we can rewind a couple of years for a moment: when you first realised you were getting all of this hype and attention as a band, how did you respond?
I think we sort of had a negative reaction to it. The hype more or less put us on the defensive because we didn't really want to be perceived as trendy or of-the-moment or whatever... I guess it was your typical, naive behaviour of not feeling comfortable with being categorised and all that.
Losing key members, recruiting new ones - has any of this recent instability affected the aims of the band at all? Are you (still) the band you dreamed of being when you and Jonathan (Pierce, lead singer) were kids?
Hmmm… I don't think any of that has really altered the overall aims of the band, to tell you the truth. I mean, even after those lineup changes you've just mentioned, the core of the group is still the same (Graham and Pierce have been friends since childhood, having cut their teeth in electropop outfit Goat Explosion together –RW Ed.). As far as being in that band I used to dream of when I was a kid goes, I don't know. I'm not sure that I was one for dreaming of being in a certain type of band per se as a kid... It was more about the sort of songs I wanted to write, and I think we have managed to achieve that, yeah.
The idea that teenage girls are listening to a song like 'Searching for Heaven' is a wonderful thought for me. Of course, whether or not they actually enjoy it is another matter, but just the fact that something like that would even be on their radar makes me glad. I remember, when the band first started, I used to have this recurring dream where I'd come face-to-face with my childhood self and he would either be disappointed in me or else wouldn't even acknowledge my existence. I don't know if I was having regrets back then that I hadn't become a magician or something like that, but those dreams have since subsided!
Jonathan and Jacob: how much of a toll (if any) has this all taken on your close friendship? Are you two still the friends you were when you were younger?
Jonathan and I are still good friends. I don't know that the band has necessarily taken a toll on our friendship. I have found that there's this natural sort of detachment that happens as you grow older and realise that your ideas have maybe deviated from one another – no matter how slight or significant that may be. I think that it's a dream of many that people of faith and atheists should be able to work together towards a common good. It would be pretty hypocritical of me not to strive to put that ideal into practice in my own life.
You guys get compared to a lot of '80s groups. One band that never seems to get mentioned is The Go-Betweens, even though the Aussie cult legends strike me as having been a strong influence on your music. Are you fans of theirs, or am I totally on the wrong track here?...
You know, I've actually never heard them - or even heard of them, for that matter. Having said that, though, I can't say whether or not you're way off with your comparison. It's entirely possible that some band we love is very obviously inspired by them. It's a small world after all, and getting smaller.
What stylistic progression(s) do you detect between your first and second records?
I think (and I hope) that it's a very natural progression. In my opinion we had a decidedly narrow palette to work from on our first LP - consciously downplaying the synthesizer and things like that. I'm glad, though, that we started the band out sort of small and simple; we left ourselves lots of room to grow, and it's nice because our audience has been able to grow with us - not necessarily in size, but in their sensibilities. Of course, we wouldn't be completely opposed to the size growing as well!
Your cover of Arcade Fire's 'We Used to Wait' single has won over a lot of fans of the band. Are you guys friends with Win, Régine and co. and/or are they aware of your version of their song?
Unfortunately not. We aren't friends with them, and I have no idea whether they're aware of our cover or not. The closest I've come to befriending them was a chance meeting at the end of a long dock on a lake in the middle of the night somewhere in Norway. We talked briefly, and they were very sweet. Then they sailed off into the moonlight, as heroes often do. I sat on the dock and watched them disappear over the horizon. It was one of those strange moments in your life where, as it's happening, you feel more like you're remembering it than experiencing it because it seems so unreal.
You're a pretty well-established, big-name band now - who do you see coming up through the ranks that's capable of filling the spot you recently vacated as stars-in-waiting? You're obviously fans of The History of Apple Pie, whom you recently toured The UK with...
Oh, you're asking the wrong guy! I think it was a fluke that we ever managed to get to this point, to be honest. I was actually writing a monthly NME column for a while on 'up-and-coming' bands and, put it this way, I don't think it took them very long to realise that these bands were more 'down-and-out' than up-and-coming!
It's the start of a new year, which means those annual lists of acts to look out for are still fresh in people's minds. What advice would you give to a 'buzz band' who are maybe starting to receive the kind of hype and attention you've now grown used to?
I guess just stick to your guns and try not to do or say anything you might regret.
Did you always expect your music and style to divide opinion as strongly as it has?
Well, for the most part people have always hated the music Jonathan and I have made, so it's actually when people enjoy it that it's peculiar for us.
Are The Drums really forever, then, or are they – like so many so-called 'pop' bands – more of a more temporary or disposable concern?
I don't know. I tend to go back and forth in my mind... Sometimes I'm not sure if I'm comfortable with The Drums being my legacy or whether the thing to do is to harness what's going on to be the sort of legacy I want to achieve. It's too big of a thought for me really.
You've released two albums in relatively quick succession - do you feel it's important for the band to maintain this momentum, or will the next record perhaps be more considered and have a longer period of gestation?
I felt it was important for us to put our second record out quite soon after the first. Not so much to keep up momentum, but more to establish ourselves as a stubborn band that doesn't change with the wind. I think our third album will probably take a good deal longer, though.
Finally, how do you see the future panning out for The Drums? Do you have any concrete long-term plans or goals, or is it more a case of you guys winging it?
Our goal is to make records that we'd want to hear ourselves. No noise.
Portamento is out now via Moshi Moshi/Island. 'Days', the third single to be lifted from the album, will be released on February 27. The Drums have a handful of UK live dates coming up at the end of this month, including an NME Awards Show headline slot at London's Roundhouse. For more info and to buy tickets, check the band's website.