Originally published on http://blurt-online.com/
BY STEVE KLINGE
When Brooklyn's The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart released their self-titled debut in 2009, they were heralded as revivalist of the lo-fi, indie-pop sounds of the mid-eighties, with just cause. Their eminently catchy and enthusiastically romantic songs about teenagers in love, about "Young Adult Friction" and library romances matched punchy guitars and sweet vocals in ways that hearkened back to the days of Sarah, Creation and other tastemaking labels. The album deserved the buzz it got, and the band toured incessantly.
On the new Belong, the group - originally a four-piece, now a quintet (guitarist/vocalist Kip Berman, bassist Alex Naidus, drummer Kurt Feldman, keyboardist/vocalist Peggy Wang, guitarist Christoph Hocheim) - leaves behind the self-produced immediacy of that debut and grows into a more expansive, bigger sound. The album, which they recorded in London and New York, was produced by Flood, the Brit behind some of the best U2, Smashing Pumpkins and PJ Harvey albums, and mixed by Alan Moulder, who produced My Bloody Valentine, the Jesus and Mary Chain and Ride. It's as if the Pains shifted their focus from underground, independent bands of 1986 to modern rock stars of 1990, although it's still full of hook-filled gems and still on the indie label Slumberland.
Leading up to Belong's release, the Pains were gigging in Europe, then at SXSW, then they were headed back on the road in the States. The week the album came out, we caught up with frontman Berman via email to find out the story behind decisions and ambitions that lead to Belong, and the meaning of lo-fi and the supremacy of good songwriting.
BLURT: It seems like life must have been a whirlwind for you guys since the first album came out, so I'm curious to hear about the journey that got you to Belong. KIP BERMAN: First off, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us. Being an indiepop band and growing up loving so much stuff that never really reached the level of awareness it deserved (whether it was post-hardcore bands, indiepop or even most indie rock up until recently), we were pretty aware that there was really no sense having any expectation other than trying to just make the best songs you can and hope that the handful of people that are super into bands like Rocketship, The Pastels, Hefner, Aislers Set, My Favorite, The Exploding Hearts and a lot more would appreciate it. Maybe it was an act of subtle selfishness, making music for us and people that liked the same kind of things we did, but it just seemed such the norm that creating three minute pop songs about feelings was inevitably going to lead to a sort of righteous obscurity. While we were thrilled that our first record started to find listeners that didn't know about the bands we were plagiarizing, there was also a sense that it wasn't the natural order of the universe that an indiepop band like ours on Slumberland Records would suddenly start to tour intensely, travel abroad and play larger kinds of shows (and by larger, I mean, larger than a popfest audience that usually numbers no more than 100). We're still not "huge" in that conventional sense, but from the world we came out of, our ability to be written about in more traditional indie "rock" outlets, even occasionally gaining begrudging acknowledgement or ridicule from mainstream music press, was incredibly rare. And awesome. Yet, while we are massive fans of indiepop (labels like Slumberland, Elephant 6 Collective, Magic Marker, March Records, Le Grande Magistery and more) and English, Scottish and Swedish varieties (Creation in the 80s, Postcard, Sarah, Subway, Labrador, 53rd and 3rd, etc.), there was a whole set of music that went pretty much unacknowledged in our heritage, namely the American alternative rock that allowed us to begin to peer into the underground. Even though so many of the '90s "alternative" bands were on major labels and recorded massively expensive records, there was an aesthetic shift that defined my friends and I growing up. So Nirvana, Weezer, Sonic Youth, Smashing Pumpkins, Dinosaur Jr, The Pixies - these were the sounds of our youth, not the often effete, literary indiepop that we'd grow to love as we got into our late teens and early 20s. I don't mean to celebrate one over the other - and I'm also a huge fan of the "rock canon" (Velvets, Stones, T. Rex, Kinks, Bowie, etc.) as well as a LOT of the indie rock that was being produced at that time - Pavement, Modest Mouse, Yo la Tengo, Guided by Voices, Yo la Tengo, Helium, etc. So we just wanted to paint a more complete view of our identities, that we weren't anglophiles, but pretty normal American suburban kids growing up. Even our introduction to "independent" music (as opposed to the major label "alternative rock") was through pop punk and the post hardcore bands that emerged in YMCA's, VFW's and basements where I grew up. The world that grew out of Dischord, SST, and later Jade Tree, Polyvinyl, Tree, Crank and so many more informed the aesthetic of "indie" in us as much as the more traditional "indie rock" labels that were more the domain of older college kids with access to college radio.
Belong sounds different - bigger, denser - from the first album and singles. How did that change come about? Did you want a different sound, and if so, what were you seeking? We wanted to make something visceral, immediate and sensational - in the sense that it just enveloped the senses. It's easy to make up this artificial dichotomy of "superficial beauty vs. depth of meaning." But this is rock music. I could probably write you the review from memory that says there is something "real" about our debut and the "production" somehow diminishes the meaningfulness or authenticity of our band on this record. But we feel very much the opposite. On a very basic level, we were a failure as a pop band - there was a bar of elitism set up, where you had to know seventeen other bands before you could understand why what we were doing was "good" or "worthwhile" (if you were kind enough to think it is). We wanted something that could be understood without all the antecedents (though knowing them is still pretty cool, at least I think so). We've always wanted to be a pop band, and if our music can't make a listener understand the worth of that song in that initial instant (think the euphoria of Weezer's nerdy-yet-arena-ready guitars, or the Smashing Pumpkins "shopping mall glam" or Nirvana's self-admittedly cribbed-from-the-Pixies vicious loud-quiet dynamics). We wanted to make a sound that meant something powerful and ineffably affecting in that initial instant.
Was there a decision to seek out a producer who could achieve it? How did that end up happening?Well, we didn't really have a list or anything. When we heard Alan Moulder wanted to be involved (and he suggested Flood wanted to do it too, as they are friends) we said "yes." I'm glad we did.
Whose idea was it to enlist Flood? What work of his were you familiar with already? Ditto Alan Moulder.Well, Alan Moulder initially expressed interest. But he was super busy and could only mix the record, not produce it. So because he's BFF with Flood and they've worked on TONS of stuff together through the years, he pitched it to Flood and Flood was super down. Totally crazy and unreal, but awesome. I guess the thing we kept coming back to was American sounds, like those on [the Smashing Pumpkins'] Siamese Dream (Alan Moulder) and Melon Collie (Flood and Moulder). But honestly, we love a LOT of what they've done (Ride, Jesus and Mary Chain, The Associates, Curve, PJ Harvey, Depeche Mode, and Alex and I are actually pretty legit Killers fans - it's hard to explain, but I actually have a picture disc of Sam's Town (which both Moulder and Flood produced). I may have just lost 37 cred points, but oh well...
I'm curious about the economics: Slumberland isn't a big label, but you recorded with a "name" producer in both London and New York. How did the expenses play into the process? Well, we're lucky that Slumberland was our label in the US and Fortuna Pop/PIAS (also indie) were our labels in the UK/EU. We also toured as much as humanly possible, and thanks to splitting it three ways we were able to swing it. Honestly, we put all our eggs in this basket - but we also thought, if we were lucky enough to make this money from playing music, let's just invest it into doing something super awesome involving music. And besides, those guys were so psyched to work on it that they made it work, which we're super grateful for. Even if this record bombs and we are back working at a call center, they'll be a record we made on our shelves with Flood and Alan Moulder - and that's pretty awesome.
Did you go into the sessions with the songs already worked out, or did they change or develop during the recordings?We worked really hard before the actual recording to do demos of all the songs so that we wouldn't waste Flood and Alan's time. We didn't really have a lot of time to record the record, which I think was good - when you have too much time in the studio, bad things can start to happen. I think we balanced out the instinctual elements of what we wanted with obviously the more thoughtful approach to recording/production that working with someone like Flood affords.
Could you describe one or two of the songs that ended up changing during the recording process? Did any of the results surprise you? "Anne With an E" was a song I thought was just going to be a b-side (if that). But when we recorded it, it sounded a lot better and more meaningful than the song we had originally slated for track 5 which was called "Tomorrow Dies Today." To be honest, Peggy really hated that song ("Tomorrow Dies Today"), and when I heard myself say things like "Well, yes, on some level it sucks, but its suckyness is like the milk carton that holds the non-suck milk in place," I think I also agreed she was right. "Anne With an E," even though it is far less musically "powerful," has a lot more power in the lyrics and its sense of vulnerability makes for a really good way to end the first side of the LP. Another example was "Girl of 1,000 Dreams," which I also thought was going to be a b-side. But Kurt was pretty adamant that that song was "totally Pains," and the one we were gonna use instead, "Steel Daughter," kinda sucked. I mean, the latter had a line about "your twisted friend is better off playing dead with the goths in parents' SUVs" which I liked, but it wasn't worth putting a sorta mediocre song on the record to get that image in there. Besides, now when I listen to the record I realize that, especially for pacing's sake, "Girl of 1,000 Dreams" keeps things from becoming TOO syrupy and slow around track 8. It's fast, it's fun - it keeps the album from being all "self-serious" and stuff. Good call, Kurt.
Did you learn any lessons from Flood? Honestly, this sounds super cheesy and Mr. Rogers-esque, but he just gave us the confidence to be ourselves. We'd often say stuff like, "man, we suck, but then he'd say, "I wouldn't be here if I thought you sucked." You realize when someone that's made some of the greatest records of all times was telling you that what you were doing was worthwhile, you can't really argue.
Should we read any symbolism into the album cover artwork portraits going from stark black & white to more impressionistic color? Yeah, but I don't know that much about art. We went from stark black and white photo to impressionism, which kind of reflects the sonics (stark to expansive) and the lyrics (strictly narrative to more evocative, suggestive language).
Did you write these songs for the new album, or were any of them older? What was the last song you wrote for the album?The last song we wrote was "Heart in Your Heartbreak." But songs like "Belong," "The Body" and "Strange," "My Terrible Friend" and "Even in Dreams" were all written in between when we finished the first album and when we released it. For whatever reason, I got on this weird manic kick where all of a sudden I was just writing all these songs. I think I was really afraid the first record wasn't good enough, and I thought we'd get to tour for two weeks and have to start recording the next one soon after it came out - I had this sense of "I'm sorry, that's not what I meant - THIS is what I meant." In a way, the self doubt and feelings of impending failure motivated me even more to push the songs to places beyond our comfort level.
Any secrets to or stories behind any of the songs?It's hard to explain - they make sense to me in the abstract. "Belong" feels like hitting a wall, of two people or maybe even a band colliding into its inevitable impasse - and all the ways to duck out of the passing of time, to escape, to never confront that impasse, only to return to it and realize it's gone. So many of these songs try to step out of time ("Say you're mine and stop the time that comes between us, that bends beneath us" [from "Belong"]), that linear march of actions and consequences, to try to bend life and live outside of it. To reach the ends of where language can express anything: "I felt everything and nothing that I had before," "no one else can make me know there's no one else." It's this weird pushing of words in two directions, to try to escape, through other people, through language itself, through "other" ways - "we tried each other, let's try another" and then realizing how useless that is. "We tried another, let's try each other" - it never ends, the push and pull.
Are Anne in "Anne With An E" and "Too Tough" and Justine in "Heaven's Gonna Happen Now" real people? Yeah, but Justine isn't her name. I always thought Justine Frischmann [of Elastica] was the coolest, so I used her first name even thought it's obviously not about her. Anne, yeah, she's real, but her name's not Anne. It's also the idea of Anne With an E - the precocious protagonist of Anne of Green Gables and that sense of "E" as Ecstasy. That world where innocence meets decadence, youth confronts and is corrupted by adulthood. "Let's go out tonight and do something that's wrong." Being smart enough to know something is wrong, but doing it anyway.
How do the new songs translate when you perform them? I'm wondering if older songs end up sounding like new ones, or vice versa? I think things blend together a bit more. The old songs sound a bit more "together" than on the original recordings, as we've learned to play them better since then. The new songs are less "pristine" and take on a bit more character. I like both ideas. A live version doesn't have to be the perfect realization of the recorded version or vice versa; if it did, then people would just "press play" on a cd player and stand around and have a drink.
I imagine you have older guys like me comparing you to bands from 1986 or something: how do you feel about that? We're into it when people compare us to bands that are sincere and write great songs. We didn't invent music (nor was it invented in 1986). I think it's not fashionable to cite indiepop or DIY pop "this month," but the truth is there's something that's really affecting about people making music with all their heart just because they can. Good songs are good songs regardless of how they're recorded, and the spirit of that era, when recording studios were prohibitively expensive, for bands to still finds way of documenting their songs is something to admire and something we'd never shy away from in comparison. Yet the contemporary (or recently contemporary) fascination with "lo-fi" equating "authentic" is really silly. What matters is the quality of the songwriting, not some superficial trappings (for better or for worse) of how that song is recorded. I guess that leads to the question of "then why try hard to make it sound 'good' like you guys obviously did on this record"? That's a good question. I guess 'cuz we just want to do things the best we can. The first record was the best we could do then and this record is the best we can do now. I just hate the idea of doing a half-assed job because it fits into what's cool this year. I can still listen to Paris 1919 by John Cale, and it sounds as good in 2011 as it probably did in 1973. Maybe it was never trendy or the "band of the moment," but it's some great songs that seem to sound as good as anything that's happening today. Did I have a point? maybe? I don't know... It does sound really cool when the heavy loud stuff comes in about 12 seconds into "Belong." I can't really explain that feeling, it just feels good.
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