The Drums: Dancing in the Dark

Despite melancholy content, The Drums’ Jonny Pierce brings joy to his fans

Photo by Nicholas Moore

In typical cases, belting out lines like “I am scared of all the people in the world” would not prompt the masses to make a beeline for the dancefloor. Admissions of that quality usually call for people to bust mopes, not moves.

Yet Jonny Pierce — the creative force and sole full-time member of Brooklyn indie-pop band The Drums — has an indefatigable quality of stirring joy out of misery, of finding the resilient strength in collective reflection and self-acknowledgement. It also helps that he pairs those bleak, candid lyrics with ridiculously catchy melodies, allowing one to dreamily forget that they are listening to songs of heartbreak and woe.

“It’s not important that every song is peppy and also sad, but what is important for me is being genuine when I write,” says Pierce, who performs two shows as The Drums at August Hall on Friday and Saturday, July 25-26. “I think every day, I carry a bit of sadness and a bit of happiness with me. I never once sat down and said, ‘I’m gonna write a sad song that sounds happy.’ I just follow my instincts and that’s where things end up.”

Pierce has long maintained that sad/happy dynamic, dating back to the first Drums record, which included songs like “Best Friend,” an upbeat elegy to a dead companion. But he long ago evolved from the foppish, naive frontman who danced awkwardly alone in those halcyon days to a more complicated, mature persona — someone who tackles difficult subjects of sexuality, faith (or lack thereof), and adult relationships.

Brutalism, The Drums’ fifth album, is the latest example of that development. Gone are songs about surfing, dipping into the water, and skippin’ through town. In their stead are lyrics that approach sex, loneliness, and happiness in blunt, plaintive terms. Statements like “You said you could cum and I said I could, too” — from “Loner,” the same song where Pierce sings about being scared of all people — would sound completely out of place on those early, waifish Drums albums.

“I think the responsibility of any true artist is to let their life reflect who they are as a person, and I’m a different person than I was 10 years ago,” Pierce says. “It would be disingenuous and misrepresentative of me as a human if I were just to dig my claws into my old sound and my old lyrics.”

Pierce’s growth as a storyteller has been matched by his evolution as a producer, overseeing a sound and vibe that has become increasingly more daring and fearless. Whereas the old Drums’ sound featured thick, nylon-y guitars and immediate, New Order pacing, the songs on Brutalism are less structured and more avant-garde. Pierce deftly weaves between maximalist and minimalist offerings, shifting from kitchen-sink noise-pop sounds that emulate solo-era Julian Casablancas tunes, to hushed, diffident tracks that evoke post-rockers Young Marble Giants.

The foundational elements that have long defined The Drums’ sound — hooky pop atmospherics — still make up the basis for the tracks on Brutalism, but the bold new layers and approaches provide the tunes with profundity and, ultimately, uniqueness. Very few bands blend nostalgia with strange, icy affectations in a manner that Pierce has perfected.

Brutalism is just the latest example of Pierce embracing outsider art. (There is a reason he named a song “Loner.”) Other than a brief, whirlwind moment circa 2010, when the British press went crazy for The Drums’ debut album and did their very British press thing of declaring the band saviors of rock ’n’ roll, Pierce and company have rarely fit into any specific music scene.

Shifting between Los Angeles and New York, Pierce has never been deeply associated with either place, and his musical styles don’t ally him with any of the other whiz-bang indie rock bands of the late aughts. As a gay child who grew up in a deeply religious household, Pierce has long been accustomed to feeling isolated and ostracized.

Pierce said he’s always been proudly and defiantly independent, but, just as his music has changed, so too has his ability to grow relationships and build connections — provided they are meaningful.

“We live in a really guarded world, and so that can lead to a bit of isolation in a way,” he says.

“I don’t want to fill my life with compromised relationships — I’m past talking about the weather or sports or whatever people talk about to get through the day. I want to be able to help people and have people help me, that’s the kind of world I want to live in. I have a handful of people who are doing that with me now, but I could always use a little bit more.”

That is why every Drums performance feels like an uproarious, gilded affair, despite the relatively morose tales Pierce spins. He’s out there every night looking for a connection, and his fans are happy to dance along to his beat, gliding along on a shared embrace of melancholic party music.

“I still feel like I’m a bit of an outsider from the status quo,” Pierce says. “But that’s OK, because all my fans are that same way. We are outsiders, but we have the inside scoop, we have the connection.”

The Drums with Chai, Thursday and Friday, July 25-26, 8 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., at August Hall, 420 Mason St. $25; augusthallsf.com

  

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