The Drums’ Jonny Pierce Thinks Un-Abysmal Thoughts

Shutting the door on his tumultuous upbringing as a tortured gay kid, Pierce collects fan mail from young people whose lives he's touched.

Jonny Pierce (Moni Haworth)

Jonny Pierce says the emails number in the thousands. The notes express gratitude, appreciation, and a sense of kinship. Penned by isolated, marginalized individuals from across the globe, they help affirm Pierce’s belief that he is somehow making a difference.

Pierce is the founding member and sole songwriter of the indie rock group The Drums, and his music acts as a touchpoint of hope for anyone who has endured a troubling childhood. As a gay kid growing up in a deeply conservative and religious household, Pierce was ostracized by his family, a sadly familiar situation for many of his fans.

“I’ve gotten so many letters from people who tell me they are alone, they are suicidal, that they really scared of their parents, or that their father beats them,” says Pierce, whose group will play at The Fillmore on Friday night. “They tell me that my songs help them. That’s a huge part of why I’m still doing this. It’s just to give a little hope to kids growing up in that situation.”

Although he has written about his troubling adolescent experiences in the past, Pierce has never been as heartbreakingly candid about the subject as he is on the Drum’s latest album, Abysmal Thoughts. It is a searing indictment about close-mindedness and hate, but ultimately, an album filled with hope for a better future and acceptance of the present.

Pierce has long been the primary creative force behind the Drums, but for the first three albums he shared some of the songwriting responsibilities with Jacob Graham, the group’s other founding member. Graham departed following the Drums’ third album, 2014’s Encyclopedia, freeing up Pierce to further mine the depths of his personal life.

“I love Jacob, and having him in the band was really wonderful, but it was also kind of restricting,” Pierce says. “He always wanted a kind of innocence to the Drums, and there is nothing innocent about me or this band. There were certain boundaries I wasn’t able to cross because I wanted to protect Jacob’s artistic vision. It was like I was in the Drums with one hand tied behind my back. That pressure is gone now.”

The result is a deeply autobiographical album, and an aesthetic departure from the Drum’s earlier surf-rock roots. Whereas those albums had a whimsical feel — heightened by the group’s penchant for dressing up in ’50s throwback apparel — Abysmal Thoughts is a mature, darker piece of work. During the synth-laden, atmospheric album, Pierce scoffs at elites (“Rich Kids,”), reflects on his past failures (“Are U Fucked”), desperately pines for lost lovers (“Heart Basel”) and justifies destructive relationships (“I’ll Fight For Your Life.”)

But the single most harrowing moment on the album is “Head of the Horse,” an homage to Pierce’s childhood home, Horseheads, N.Y. On that number he talks mournfully about the family dynamics, nothing that “Your sister got married fourteen times / But if you fall in love, son, that’s a crime.”

It’s a sad, haunting creation, but when you hear Pierce sing, he sounds defiant. Pierce has always been open about his family estrangement, but now he embraces a newfound self-assuredness.

“I’m a firm believer in not writing people off forever,” Pierce says, in reference to his parents. “I checked in with them recently, and everything kind of looked the same on their end. I told them that if anything ever changes, I will run back immediately to them with open arms. But the ball is in their court.”

While a family reunion would be nice, Pierce isn’t building his life around the hopes of reconciliation. With a supportive music label in Anti-, a promising upcoming worldwide tour, and a new boyfriend (Keon Smith, who graces the cover of Abysmal Thoughts and often acts as the muse for the Drums’ creative impulses), Pierce says he in content with his life for the first time in years.

“I’ve spent a long time seeking the approval of foolish people,” Pierce says. “I’m learning to love myself with or without them. I hope that’s the message that my music conveys now. I want people to know that they’re not alone. That someone else has gone through the same journey. And I’m still here.”

The Drums play with Stef Chura and Soccer Mommy at The Fillmore on Friday, July 21. Tickets here.

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