Liked as the soundtrack to the 1994 film Dumb and Dumber, the New York City quintet The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart mine sunny pop tracks that are nostalgic like old college sweaters, their honey-sweet sound reminiscent of the late 80’s / early 90’s The Primitives and Crash Test Dummies. For those of you out there sadly unfamiliar, the band is made up of Kip Berman (vocals, guitar), Peggy Wang (vocals, keyboards), Alex Naidus (bass), Kurt Feldman (drums) and Christoph Hochheim (guitar), their name derivative of Kip’s unpublished children’s story.
Their latest album Belong is a masterpiece: they expand their gorgeously fragile indie pop aesthetic and rev it up to another level entirely, with the help of producers Flood and Alan Moulder at the helm. The result is a record that is as lush and widescreen as it is effortlessly infectious.
Here Kip talks to us about drunken German fans, lewd lyrics, the latest album and new beginnings.
Alex, Peggy and I were all friends and formed to play our first show at Peggy’s birthday party in March 2007 with two bands we totally adored: The Manhattan Love Suicides and Titus Andronicus. At the time we had five songs and a drum machine. I remember someone wanting to take a picture of us afterwards – it was like “wait, are we real?” It was kind of awkward, but way more fun than awkward.
Later that year my roommate Kurt joined up on drums, and that’s when things started to actually sound “real.” In 2009 Christoph started playing with as well, which also improved things a lot – especially live. The best part is, we’re all friends, so it’s never awkward or weird – touring would be miserable if it was just some random people who answered a “musicians wanted” ad and only spent time together to play songs.
You’ve been described as a combination of shoegaze indie-pop, dance-punk and new wave, all filtered through an eternally melancholic point of view. How does this labeling suit you? How would you describe yourself?
Pop. I might add that we’re not eternally melancholic.
There was a fairly long break between your debut album The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart (2009) and the most recent Belong (2011). What have you been up to in the past two years?
We’ve toured pretty consistently since 2009 with the exception of the time we took to record and mix the new record last summer.
As there has been a fair gap, do you think that there are similarities between the debut and recent albums, or do you think you’ve matured, and your sound / ideals altered?
Our ideals are the same: write the best pop songs we can, record them the best we can, play them the best we can. It’s pretty simple, but I don’t think that has ever or should ever change.
Are you worried about the reception of the next album Belong?
We made something we’re proud of and didn’t try to simply re-write our first record. No matter what people say, it can’t really affect how we feel about doing that and how we feel about these songs. A polarizing record is far more interesting than one that gets a series of nice reviews. Belong seemed to provoke strong feelings on both sides – and to us that’s a good thing.
Do you have a favourite track on the new release?
‘Strange’ : “When everyone was doing drugs, we were just doing love, a stranger said ‘you’re strange like me.’” It’s so uncomfortable to hear, it’s an awkward phrase – but what else could we say? I just wanted to strip away any affectation and say something that got to the core of what we are as a band and as people, however weird, ridiculous and ungainly. Maybe people think it’s not sophisticated. But the pop music I love isn’t about elitism, it’s about immediacy.
You’ve registered one of the great uses of the f-word in a songtitle: This Love Is Fucking Right. Have there been occasions when you’ve had to tone down during performance?
Hearing Slipknot on the stage next to ours at a festival in France saying “Merci Beaucoup, Motherfuckersssss!!!!” was pretty awesome. The first word in Higher Than the Stars is “Shitfaced” and there’s also a line on there that says “this street looks just like the next street, bumblefuck on repeat.” Cursing is good when it’s funny – the idea of shocking anyone with the word “fuck” seems pretty impossible in 2011.
Although your music glows, some of the lyrics are pretty dark. Is this a conscious dichotomy between tone of lyrics and music?
It just seems to be what comes out when I write songs. I don’t mean to be a downer, I don’t want to make things that are just unrelentingly or irredeemably morbid. That’s why I like “Strange” – it doesn’t let the album end in some methadoned out post apocalyptic purgatory of the heart. Our lyrics are often ridiculed by more machismo elements of the music press – but “when everyone was doing drugs, we were just doing love” isn’t for people who want rock bands to sing about how many girls they can ejaculate in or upon in a given week. What’s so punk about predictable postures of sweaty boy angst, or “look at our dicks and the speed of our riffs”?
At best any kind of “golden age” ideology implies a sort of fundamentalism, a decline narrative that is depressing for anyone who didn’t get the opportunity to live and make music in the 60s, 70s, 80s and now, 90s (depending on who you ask) when everything was “real.” Yeah, we love music from then as well – and there’s part of us that knows The New York Dolls, The Kinks, The Ramones, The Stones, Felt, T. Rex and Orange Juice will always be classic in a way that we never will. But we’re not going to sit around trying to re-create those bands, or affect stances that aren’t our own because that’s what “real rock and roll is all about.” If what we say in our songs sounds jarring or uncomfortably direct, if people see who we are as out of step with what indie or rock or pop bands should be – maybe that’s because we want to be. Maybe it’s because we don’t have any other choice.
Is it important to you that people pay attention to what’s being said? Do you listen to what other bands have to say, or is it just about the music?
I find I can only truly love a band if I feel strongly about the lyrics in their songs. It doesn’t even need to be written in the same style or adhere to some lofty, intellectual ideal. I love Leonard Cohen and The Ramones, Destroyer and The Pastels, Titus Andronicus and Tori Amos, Sarge and Hefner. There’s lots of stuff I like, but lyrics are really essential to how I connect with music I love.
We always include our lyrics so people can read them if they want, but different people relate to music differently. There’s a lot of great ways to understand and enjoy pop music. Intellectualizing it isn’t always the best (and can sometimes be the worst).
Although grim, your lyrics can also be fairly ambiguous. Do they pertain to specific experiences or more general sentiments?
Both. But I’d say my “general sentiments” pertain to specific experiences. They are songs about the things I feel. I probably feel things as a result of experiencing things, either directly or indirectly. It’s not all eternal sadness, really. I like Football, I watch TV with my mom. Dogs are nice. I’m not a vampire.
Michael Grace Jr. from My Favorite would rank as one of the perpetually ignored, yet his songwriting was really influential to Peggy and I. I also really like Darren Hayman from Hefner, Tori Amos, Joey Ramone, Daniel Bejar, Patrick Stickles from Titus Andronicus, Brett Anderson from Suede and Elizabeth Elmore from Sarge. I feel the best bands create their own world, a series of ideas, both visually and lyrically that are consistent and allow you to live in the band.
I remember when I heard Belle and Sebastian for the first time in 1998, I wanted to drink tea instead of coffee and have a life like the people in their songs. I realize now that was a weird and unnatural affectation, but it speaks to the power of the best bands that they can make you wear their band’s identity as your own.
These wonderful tunes keep pouring out – what’s the song writing process for you? Is your head full of jingly-jangley magic all the time?
Thank you. You make me sound like an indie-pop unicorn. I just sit in my room and play guitar – the other Pains are good at making the stuff I come up with sound more interesting.
Is there any aspect of making music that disappoints or discourages you? Is it possible to be ambitious and pure at heart at the same time?
I feel like there’s things I try to express in our music that people rarely see, so I guess it’s just a frustration in myself about not being able to really communicate well enough. And other times people make these weird assumptions about our intentions. But I also believe that people’s perception of our music is more important than what we intended (or what people think we intended), so I can’t really be upset by that. It’s kind of cool that people listen to “A Teenager in Love” and it makes them feel really good. It’s also sort of disturbing.
I’ve seen that when asked whether Dylan or Cash, you’ve opted for Leonard Cohen. What is it that draws you to him?
Leonard Cohen was an incredible poet, songwriter, musician and singer – but he wasn’t rock and roll. He didn’t change his name to be cooler. There’s something incredibly powerful and sincere in his music without being a sexless, wimpering eunuch – something great in his music without this self aware sense of his own greatness. I love Dylan too, but I just feel like Leonard Cohen is always the underdog. It’s why I like The Kinks, Felt, The Pastels and Supergrass so much as well; they’re always just one degree removed from the conversation of the greatest of their generation, but those are the records I come back to more often than some of their more famous peers.
My two favourite lyrics are from ‘Contender’: I’m a pretender, you never were a contender / if you shut out the sun the day will never come’. Those lyrics seem to converse with one another; they’re bleak but there’s a silver lining there. It seems a lot of these songs find the silver linings. Are you optimists at heart?
The lyric from “Contender” is, “You saw the boys in white sing ‘I’m A Pretender,” but you never were a contender.” That dealt with me living in Portland and being a loser and knowing a band like The Exploding Hearts, with their song “I’m a Pretender” were doing the thing I wished I could – being emphatically awesome and true at music – and then realizing that I was a loser and playing songs that weren’t that good and working at a call center.
As for “Gentle Sons”, that idea of “shutting out the sun” so “the day will never come” was just this idea of escape, to disappear from the world, to step outside of the unrelenting progression of time and never have to confront the things in life you didn’t want to. In some ways they do relate, they’re both aware of failure, the discrepancy between what you want and what you are.
If there is a silver lining in the latter song, it is that there is ultimately a realization that you have to move forward – the last line is “we can’t live again.” Maybe that means leaving someone behind or maybe it just means a recognition of your own mortality and age, that you only have this life and you have to do something with it.
I like My Teenage stride and Teenage Fanclub a lot. We’ve played shows with My Teenage Stride before, and would love to open for Teenage Fanclub someday. I saw them play in New York last summer and they are so great – I wish we were that good. If I were them I’d resent us for stealing their songs, but not really doing them as well – still, I bet they’re not the kind of people who worry about that stuff. I saw some Youtube clips of them backing Edwin Collins – it was so good, and it really impressed me even more with those guys, because those Orange Juice basslines are definitely hard to play. Lotsa notes….
You’ve also had some very obscure reference points for a young band from New York; The Pastels, Lazy-era My Bloody Valentine and many bands from the C86 underground scene. Do you agree? What turned you onto that whole movement?
We just love enthusiastic, emphatic pop music. And certainly Kurt Cobain championing a lot of those bands when we were 14 and 15, was a good starting point to discovering a lot of music we otherwise might have missed. We’re not English people or Scottish people, but there were a lot of bands that took the best parts of punk (a sense of accessibility and a celebration of song over technique) and applied it to pop over there in the 80s and 90s. That was an awesome idea and shouldn’t be reduced to a single cassette tape from the NME or a “trend”.
It’s just a good lesson to always remember that good songs are good songs regardless of production. It doesn’t mean that poorly recorded songs are more “authentic”, but as one of my heroes Jack Rabid of The Big Takeover is prone to say, “good songs win”.
Your songs are overall basic and simple, yet instantly addictive. Is this your secret to the perfect indie-pop song? Does a song come to mind which you consider the perfect pop song, if such a thing exists?
Ash “Girl from Mars” or “Angel Interceptor” from 1977, most anything on Supergrass’ “I Should Coco” and Outkast’s massively popular (at least here) “Hey Ya.” Those are 4, but there are probably about 800 perfect pop songs. I know John Peel was fond of saying The Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks” was his #1, though I could argue Comet Gain’s “Kids at the Club” on certain days, and really – this could go on forever. Unrest’s “Makeout Party” or Saint Etienne’s cover of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart?” Yo la Tengo’s “Sugarcube” is pretty amazing as well. Tell me you wouldn’t be psyched to hear that right now… But yeah, “Girl from Mars” is probably about as good as Western Civilization is going to get.
Your sound involves a lot of effects. Is that a sound you set out to craft or is it more accidental? Any favourite pedals or machines?
I basically just use a Boss Super Overdrive with a Big Muff fuzz pedal that is slightly weird that my friend Danny from Zaza made. That’s sort of the best effect. We’re not really all that complicated – in fact, I’d think learning Pains songs as a beginner would be pretty easy.
You’ve toured quite extensively; can you tell the difference in indie-pop scenes across the globe? What has been one of your favourite venues around the world to play?
Indie-pop is pretty much the same everywhere – except Sweden. For whatever reason, Indie-pop is actually a recognized form of pop music in Sweden, not a very small subset of indie rock like in most places.
Any humorous touring stories?
One time in Munich, Germany we were playing a venue with two performing areas/stages. In between each song, a very drunk man kept screaming (in heavily German accented English) “Play an Irish song! I will dance for you! Come on feel the noise!” And he repeated screaming these three phrases in various order in between each of our songs, looking very disappointed the moment we began playing one of our own (inherently non-Irish) songs. After the show, as we were leaving the venue we realized the band that was playing the other stage was “The Dropkick Murphy’s.” I don’t know how drunk you have to be to confuse “The Pains of Being Pure at Heart” with “The Dropkick Murphy’s,” but… that was pretty awesome.
Any band tips for 2011?
Well there are always a lot of things that people should know about, but as for newish bands: Catwalk (Captured Tracks), Weekend (Slumberland), Twin Shadow (Terrible Records), Hooray for Earth, Blanche Hudson Weekend (Squirrel Records), Puro Instinct (Mexican Summer), The Hairs (Magic Marker), Dream Diary (Kanine Records), Zaza, CUFFS and Kurt’s new band, The Ice Choir.
What’s next for POBPAH? Hope’s for the future?
We don’t really have much of a master plan, but we believe with touring a lot. So much is made of the internet as a way for people to learn about music, and that’s true – but to really have experiences that feel meaningful with bands, it’s important to see them live. Maybe that’s old fashioned, but we have this idea where you really have to go out there and earn your existence – not just sit around in New York acting cool and expect anyone to care.
Brilliant. And finally, any last words?
Belong is out now on Fortuna Pop! and Play It Again Sam records.