Interview: The Pains of Being Pure At Heart

The Pains of Being Pure At HeartTo those of us of a certain age, it feels like only yesterday that The Pains of Being Pure at Heart came seemingly out of nowhere – or wherever it is bands you have yet to hear come from – with the still amazingly vital, joyously expressed misery of their eponymous debut. Pretty harrowing then, to realize it was no less than five – five – years ago.

Perhaps this is somewhat accentuated by the four years we’ve had to wait for their latest full length, Days of Abandon, which came out in early June, and is rather good. Half a decade can be a lifetime in the world of music. Does this mean that Pains – of all bands – are veterans of the music world?

Kip Berman, frontman and songwriter-in-chief, doesn’t think so: “Bands like The XX, by the time they put out their third record, they’re like grizzled veterans. We’re still trying to improve – we weren’t perfect when we started, we’re not perfect now. Each record, we’ve tried to do the best we can with what we have – when we made our first recording with a drum machine we thought it was awesome. Now I’m glad it never got reissued!”


The new album, it must be said, is a very different proposition from the bombast of 2010’s Flood-produced Belong, which Berman puts down to the law of diminishing returns. One suspects, however, that there’s a part of him that feels the more-is-more approach applied to said album was a bit too much. It was borne, however, out of something of an obligation to make a record that was reflective of who the band were.

“After the first album everyone thought we wanted to be Scottish kids in 1987. Maybe we did; maybe I still do. I love music from Glasgow – Teenage Fanclub, Orange Juice, obviously The [Jesus and] Mary Chain and stuff like that. But we were American kids from the suburbs, hanging out in Denny’s, listening to Smashing Pumpkins and Weezer, driving to nowhere listening to the 90s mainstream alternative radio station. I just thought, fuck you, you think you know me, I’m Kip Berman, I’m in Pains of Being Pure at Heart, I’m going to rip off the Smashing Pumpkins now. At some level we outsmarted ourselves, by trying to prove a point no one cares about. Then in 2010 there were like 800 bands who wanted to soundtrack ‘I Love the 90s’ on VH1.”

“When recording it, there was a manic, awesome energy, but it was also [...] insufferable how heavy handed it was. After a day of recording I’d just go and hang out with a friend, we’d sort of clear our heads, figure out if one of 87 guitars needed to be louder or quieter. If you listen to Felt, or Aztec Camera or even The Cure, it’s more compact in the arrangement of sound; listenable because the songs aren’t trying to hit you over the head with hammer. But they’re good songs – powerful without needing to turn the volume up.”

After touring the album, it became evident that too many things had to go right for the shows to work – playing an acoustic set in a record store wasn’t really an option, given how much the songs hinged on the actual sound. This is clearly something that didn’t sit well with Berman: “We had to refocus on writing great pop songs – whether we were playing to 30 or 300 people, it didn’t matter, so long as the songs were good.”

‘Great pop songs’ is a theme to which he frequently returns, a concept that seems very much at the centre of his song writing ethos, albeit something which one suspects means more to him than a explosive, booty-shaking Beyoncé throwdown. Indeed, it's to this theme he returns when we touch upon the subject of maturity. One might be forgiven for tracing a narrative through the slightly awkward earnestness of the first album, through the ambitious, assured grandiosity of Belong, to the calmer and more at ease Days of Abandon. While it doesn’t quite feel like he’s approaching things at a remove on the latter, there’s a sense the artistic distance which one would associate with growing maturity.

Well, it seems like we can file such arch narratives squarely under bullshit: “The cool thing about pop music, its value, is in what someone sees in the song, how it relates to their lives. I don’t think a band’s progress should be measured by their increasing maturity, or sophistication or how they look at the world. Pop music is best when it’s three minutes long, and concerns how you feel about things. I don’t want to hear about mortgage or car payments, or how the laundromat messes up your dress shirt.”

While he doesn’t draw upon the minutiae of quotidian existence, real life remains his wellspring of inspiration: “I still write songs about my dick and that’s about it. I’m sure people want to hear about it. I’m not smart enough to make up fake things to sing about; luckily I still have a life I can write about. I don’t think I can simply write drawing on nothing – I think it’s amazing that people can come up with the narrative of working man in a small town in America struggling to get by working on the pipeline.

“I usually just write about people I know and stuff I’ve experienced [and his dick, though one assumes there's some intersection]. The people who they’re about could figure it out pretty easily.” So, “Teenager in Love” from the first album, is that a real person? He confirms that it is: “I change the names so as not to be a dick about it – I don’t want to traffic on someone else’s tragedy for a three minute pop song – but then, these are experiences, you lose people; loss isn’t finite, you don’t lose someone in a given moment, you’re always losing that person, you don’t stop living, but there’s a part of you always experiencing things. Writing songs is a way to help put that in place.”

Again, it’s clear that pop is something more than its dictionary definition to him, although one suspects it’d be difficult to get him to admit it straight out. Indeed, even if pop was the religion, he certainly wouldn’t be talking up his own status as a high priest.

“Just because I can play a D chord doesn’t mean I perceive the world better than anyone else. I have no particular insight, for better or for worse. If you were in New York right now [where Pains are based and from where he is receiving this phonecall], you wouldn’t think I was any cooler than you.”

Okay, shamanic status and mortgages aside, if the songs are about experiences, is increasing maturity not a part of it? We’ve all grown up a bit – in a way – in the past five years; surely this has a bearing on matters?

“The songs have always been about sex, drugs and death. Maybe I’m closer to death, and inching away from sex and drugs. My existence is creeping closer to its end than its beginning.”

One area in which Berman will openly admit progress – or at least new possibilities – is the things that they were able to do musically on Days of Abandon, for which Jen Goma of A Sunny Day in Glasgow and Kelly Pratt, multi-instrumentalist brass player for the likes of Beirut and Arcade Fire, as well as being musical director for the David Byrne and St Vincent’s Love This Giant, were drafted in.

“Jen Goma put a lot of herself into the record, it wasn’t just me mumbling about breaking my fuzz pedal. It actually sounds like pop music; fresh, refreshing, like summer. Having a fresh voice in the room affected how the songs sounded too. I was psyched to have female vocals too – and when I heard "Kelly", I thought, this is definitely a good idea.”

The collaboration with Pratt was borne out of the friendship between the two musicians: “He said one day, if you ever want to do anything, come round, and we’ll watch basketball and I’ll record a symphony. I thought, we’re not a third wave ska band, is this going to work? I don’t have a two tone suit; how will I look in one those hats? One of my rules is no hats or sunglasses. Jesus and Mary Chain, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, maybe they can get away with it. Otherwise you’re not allowed – hats, they never end well. Anyway, I went over to his house, and it turned out to sound like more a breathy organ – it didn’t sound like the laser trumpets on something like "Hot Hot Hot" by Buster Poindexter – though that is a great song.”

He concludes that it’s best to make music with people you know, “that way you get to hang out with people who you like."

So, what now for Pains? A rather impressive not quite world tour for one thing awaits - the UK leg of which started in Bristol on June 29th: “You should never take for granted that people want to hear your record. We’re touring with Fear of Men, who we just did a US tour with. It’s really good to be able to continue playing with them. I really love their music, but they’re the kind of band the British music press doesn’t get excited about. They have no gimmick apart from writing good songs. They don’t do anything crazy apart from playing 10 good songs in a row. But people have to name a musical trend every month and group bands together. I don’t think we’ve ever been cool any month.”

Never change, Kip.


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