Ever since the release of 2009’s Summertime! EP, The Drums have been known for putting out upbeat songs with rather dark lyrics. Example: Their 2010 single “Best Friend” begins with, “You’re my best friend, but then you died.” But in person? They joke about their lack of musical skill and calling their tour opener a “grade-A freak” in between thoughtful discussions of what their newest album means to them.
The Drums started with duo Jonny Pierce and Jacob Graham and grew as the years went on — but a recent lineup change put the number back at two, letting the original Drums tackle topics like atheism and homosexuality that they weren’t able to before. “When you get more brains in the mix, naturally you can’t be as potent with your art because everyone has to be represented in a way,” Pierce tells EW. “I used to say, ‘they left us.’ Now I’m saying, ‘lucky for us, they left us.'”
Their latest album, Encyclopedia, is more intimate than their previous work while also including some bigger, chaotic sounds — namely the jarring opener “Magic Mountain.” The accompanying tour, which kicked off Sept. 15, matches that intimacy: The duo are playing smaller venues to gear up for bigger spaces in the winter.
Before heading out on stage to play a 21-song set at the Music Hall of Williamsburg Sept. 16, Pierce and Graham sat down with EW to talk about that Elizabeth Taylor mention in their “Magic Mountain” video, which song of theirs is getting play on French metal stations, and what it’s like returning to the original two.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You guys had your first night of the tour last night in Philly, was it?
JONNY PIERCE: City of Brotherly Love.
Did you feel the brotherly love there? How was it?
PIERCE: And sisterly.
JACOB GRAHAM: I felt it.
PIERCE: Anything is scary when you’re doing it for the first time again. That’s kind of how we feel right now. It’s where we are as a band, just Jacob and I. Back to our original form. We haven’t experienced that dynamic since 2008, 2009. So we wrote, recorded this new record and it’s just, ‘Okay, now we’ve gotta do a live show.’ And we’re not the best musician,s so we were relying a lot on our friends who are onstage with us who actually know how to play. [Laughs] We’ve never prided ourselves on our “skill” as musicians, technical skill. But we do think we can write a good song or two. That’s the trade-off.
If you don’t think you’re good musicians, how’d you come about forming a band?
GRAHAM: When we’re in a studio environment, and by studio, I mean like, one of our bedrooms, you’re just able to hit “record” and do a thousand takes until it sounds like music. And that’s kind of what we do.
PIERCE: We just try our best. We try to use the shortcomings to our advantage, in a way. Especially our earlier sounds, it sounded a little off or a little out of tune here and there but it kind of gave the music a bit of a charm. So it’s an interesting thing, and we haven’t got it down right yet. Maybe now, with this new set-up live, but we’re really bad at choosing people to work with. [Laughs] We’re always just like, “You’re paying attention to us? Come on in!” And I think this is the first time, the first chapter in our life as a band, that we’re a little more careful or gun-shy about who we bring into the fold. We’re just so ready to have a really solid team of players on stage. And I think we have that for the first time, that’s how it feels for this new tour, anyway. Last night, I felt like Philadelphia felt really amazing. Philadelphia was technically a basement. It felt like a basement show. We haven’t done that in it feels like years. It was an interesting dynamic to be back in that place.
And the fans love it too. I mean, they’re always hoping that once their favorite bands get big they’ll return to playing smaller shows.
PIERCE: From firsthand experience, for me, I never really understood the culture of, like, festivals and when there’s huge groups of people. I mean, I’m a huge Björk fan and I saw her play [at a festival] and she was doing her best, you could see her heart was there, and I had like really great seats because we were playing the festival and they kind of let you do special things. But the fact that there were just so many people, I guess a lot of people get swept up in that, but for me, it’s always sort of a deterrent from the feeling, from really feeling something special. And then she went back like five years ago and did a church tour where she didn’t use any microphones and she was just walking up and down the aisles of churches and singing.
Speaking of womanly figures, at the end of the “Magic Mountain” video, there’s that dedication to Elizabeth Taylor. What’s the story behind it?
PIERCE: This album, well, besides the obvious fact that she was just wonderful and amazing, Encyclopedia is, ultimately, it’s sort of a letter of comfort to the outsider, to a person who feels a little out of tune with the world. That’s how Jacob and I have always felt, that’s why when we met each other when we were 13, we just connected. And it felt like us against the world. So that’s what this record, the overall theme is, to comfort the outsider. And Elizabeth Taylor… When we were shooting that video, she just kept popping up in our minds because she was famous for her jewelry collection, and in that video, there’s diamonds floating through. It just dawned on us, like, oh, we haven’t really paid her tribute yet. And she’s always been someone who embraces the outsider. I mean, her best friends were like, Macaulay Culkin and Michael Jackson. You know? She kind of like took in the weirdos. I love that. You know, she must feel like a true freak herself. [Laughs] In the sweetest way.
You’ve described the album as being full of magic.
PIERCE: It feels really adventurous, and magical to us. It’s like our most colorful record. It has a lot of big peaks and some really low valleys. It’s the first record we’ve kind of let be its own animal.
GRAHAM: I’ve always loved music that just kind of sounds like magic. Maybe it’s because I don’t know how to just pick up a guitar and start playing a song. But maybe I don’t know how to do that because it’s never interested me enough. I love hearing sounds that are kind of like… how were those made?
PIERCE: You can’t really identify what the instrument is, but they kind of introduce a spirit to the song. They just take you away sort of. I do want to make clear that Jacob and I do write and record everything on our own. We don’t bring in outside help. We keep saying we don’t know how to play instruments, but recording a record is a lot of work for us.
GRAHAM: It’s like pulling teeth.
PIERCE: We’re not musicians in that traditional sense. You know that guy who always just has a guitar on his person just always for some reason? You’re like, “why?” We just never understood that sort of band-y culture. So when we go to write a song, it’s just, “hey, I have this great idea for this really beautiful song, let’s go record it.” And then the other person says, “okay, cool. Let’s just go record it.” And then it’s done. Then you’re like, “okay, well I’ll see you in a couple weeks!” There’s not a lot of lying around and fiddling.
GRAHAM: We don’t like, jam.
You don’t have jam seshes?
PIERCE: I’d rather eat glass.
How did the process of making this album work?
PIERCE: Everything we’ve done in the past, there’s been a pressure to get it out, get it done. Our labels were always saying, “Oh, we need your record, this, this, this.” And this is the first time we… We didn’t tell anyone we were making a new record. So that’s the trick, to all you young bands who are like, “How do I avoid the pressures of a major label?”
GRAHAM: Do everything in secret.
PIERCE: Don’t tell anyone, not even your manager. And just make a great record. And then come back, and say, “It’s done!” And then if they say, “we hate this record,” then you’re screwed. [Laughs]
Did you try to stay secret?
PIERCE: I think if the cat had got out of the bag we wouldn’t have been destroyed, but I think there was an element, going back to that word magical or magic, it just kind of made it like, we’re under the blanket, twiddling and making something really special. Because when the world isn’t watching, you get to shut out all outside influences and you can actually let your imagination run wild. When you’re so aware of what’s happening around you, it’s very easy to subconsciously want to fit in what’s going on around you. And I think that’s the safer way to play it, maybe. But if you’re thinking the long-term, you want to make something really special, that 30 years from now, you’re like, “What a weird record,” like, “Why would they do that?” In a good way. [Laughs] A lot of journalists have been just like, “Why did you record ‘Magic Mountain?'” [Laughs] “Why did we do that?” We don’t know why.
That was my next question, so.
GRAHAM: Why does anyone do anything they do? But we are getting heavy metal radio play for “Magic Mountain” in France.
PIERCE: And in Mexico.
GRAHAM: So I guess that song constitutes metal in those countries. Which is really funny to us, because it’s like the last thing we’ve ever…
PIERCE: Suddenly these alt-rock stations and all those are contacting us.
GRAHAM: They’re like, [Lowers voice] “check out this song. Don’t check out the music video.” [Laughs]
PIERCE: “And you’re gonna hate the record.”
Do they really say that?
GRAHAM: No. I mean… maybe.
PIERCE: Just imagine someone listening to alt-rock station, who’s just like, “This is sick, I can rock out to this song.”
GRAHAM: Yeah, I’m sure they’re not like, “check out this slammin’ song. It’s dedicated to Elizabeth Taylor.”
I hope they say that on French metal radio. They’re like, “these are some hardcore dudes.” So, how do you answer when people ask you that, “why?”
PIERCE: I always look at them cross-eyed. This was our most purposeful record, for sure. We had this realization that every record should be made as if it’s your last record. So we just set out to make the album of our dreams. And when you have other band members in the mix, even though they didn’t really do much, on some records they didn’t do anything, just having them in the room, or having them in our world, it does kind of lay down some unwritten laws. Like, you can’t really talk about… The new record talks about homosexual love, there’s songs about sex change and an atheist song. When you get more brains in the mix, naturally you can’t be as potent with your art because everyone has to be represented in a way. I used to say, “They left us.” Now I’m saying, “Lucky for us, they left us,” because we got to make this really, sort of like, fetish-y record. Not in a sexual sense, but just like that musical fetish. Like this beautiful bell sound maybe wouldn’t be able to exist because they would think it’s a little too like ridiculously shimmery. But we love that stuff. So we’re able to just kind of go for that and not ask anyone else.
You were talking about the highs and lows of it, and “Wild Geese” stood out as one of those lows to me when I was listening to the album today. I loved how it had this futuristic kind of sound to it — I kept picturing glittery spaceships or something.
GRAHAM: I guess that’s sort of something I’ve always been striving towards musically is, I grew up listening to a lot of early electronic musicians, Wendy Carlos and Kraftwerk and all of them, and loving them, but I never really cared so much about the more typical subject matter of electronic music — you know, singing about robots and things like that. So “Wild Geese” was sort of this attempt to write a song that was like, a Fleetwood Mac song but if Kraftwerk was playing it. Or something? That sort of thing. So to have that strange juxtaposition of the lyrics just being about kind of like, kicking around like an old Midwestern town, the music is, these strange sort of spacey sounds, I guess.
What was the hardest song for you guys to make on this album?
GRAHAM: For me, it was definitely “Wild Geese” because I spent about a year on all those synthesizers for that.
PIERCE: Other than that process, which I wasn’t around for, I feel like all these songs, we don’t… our music’s never felt like, difficult or hard to make. It’s just not, like… fun to make. [Laughs] Even in the studio, we’re not really having fun, we’re too specific about everything. We have such tunnel vision, and we’re such control freaks about it all, that we kind of stomp any joy that might possibly… [Laughs] And I think that’s why all our songs maybe sound, some of them sound like a bit happy, but all the lyrics are a little heavy. We almost get too intense for our own good.
What do you listen to?
PIERCE: We just like great songs, so if there’s a great song on the radio, we’ll listen to it. More so than like, saying we like this or that band, or like this style, it’s always like, great songs. It can be a song from the Zombies, or it can be “I Will Love You” by Dolly Parton, or it could be Beverly, who’s sound-checking right now. We love this song so much. It has nothing really to do with the other songs, except for, it’s a great song. They’re all using different instruments, but there’s something great at the heart of it. I’m listening to Beverly constantly right now.
What’s her [Beverly vocalist Drew Citron] story?
PIERCE: She’s just a grade-A freak. [Laughs]
I’ll go tell her that!
PIERCE: I told her that, actually. Earlier today. But I meant it in a sweet way.
“Freak” is becoming a compliment, I feel.
PIERCE: If you’re currently hugging someone while you’re calling them a freak.
GRAHAM: She gave me this crystal last night. [Pulls out a crystal from his bag.] Magical.
What do you do with it?
GRAHAM: I think I just kind of hold it and think about the world. And put it in my pocket. And then, if I was nervous in a situation, I could like, put my hand in my pocket. And be like, “yeah!”
So what are you most excited for people to hear from this album? If there’s one thing they could take away from it, what would it be?
PIERCE: I just want them to pull away a shred of comfort. I feel like life is really difficult for a lot of people right now. Like, maybe it’s just because I’m getting older. It’s just meant to be, comforting and dare I say, a little empowering to the outsider who’s felt a little weird. That’s always been our favorite music growing up. Songs that we related to always had this sort of string of melancholy going through them and just sort of a more realistic but also dreamy worldview.
Encyclopedia comes out Sept. 23.