Interview: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Published on November 18th, 2012 | Theo Gorst
In a week where The Killers and Muse have both started tours of the country’s most soulless arenas, it’s all the more pertinent to talk to a band for whom the divide between fans and artist is non-existent. Indeed the freeness with which New York four-piece The Pains of Being Pure at Heart interact with their fans comes from the fact that, despite being in a fully functioning, touring band, ultimately they too are fans of music first and foremost.
That isn’t to say they aren’t a great band in their own right; on the contrary, 2009’s eponymous debut LP and 2011 follow-up Belong both stand as some of the finest records to have come out in the last three years. As such it was a delight to be able to talk to front man Kip Berman about new songs, his “self-righteous idiocy” (his words, not ours!), and why on earth Felt aren’t a household name…
How did you enjoy your recent gig at Camden Dingwalls with Echo Lake and Hatcham Social? (Click here to read Rocksucker’s review of the night) It looked like you were all really enjoying it. Was it a particularly good show or do you get the same kick playing every night?
It felt really good. Hatcham Social and Echo Lake both played wonderful sets and we were glad to have such great bands share this night with us.
I can never really tell whether we played well or not. But I try to never leave the stage unless I’ve given all I have. I want to be covered in sweat, feel the bruises on my body where the guitar hits me, and the cuts on my fingers where I hit the strings too hard. When that happens I know that there was no reserve, no affectation.
Since the release of Belong, what have the band been up to?
Belong came out in March of 2011 (recorded summer 2010) and we’ve spent most of the time since its release touring. Kurt also took some time to record a great record as The Ice Choir, and that gave me a chance to stay in my bedroom and write a bunch of songs. There’s a lot written, but we’ve only learned a few as a band so far. We’ve been playing three new ones on this tour: “Until The Sun Explodes,” “Sure” and “Kelly.”
How do you plan on following such a grandly produced album as Belong?
Good songs are always the most important thing. I never want to minimize the intelligence and artistry of people who can shape sound in innovative and beautiful ways. I am amazed by the skill of people like Jorge from Violens or Kurt when he does Ice Choir. They not only write these sublime songs, but create a world of sound that really complements and distinguishes those songs.
But having a technical conversation about production is pretty foreign to me. That’s not to say I don’t have a clear sense of the sound, the feeling I want for our music; I do, but I try to stay focused on writing. Great songs can sound great no matter how you record them. But a bad song, a lazy metaphor; no production or technical wizardry can mask that.
For your latest 7″ you decided to cover The Magnetic Fields and East River Pipe. Were these obvious songs for you to cover or did you have a long list of tracks to chose from?
Peggy and I had a few in mind, but when it came down to learning the songs those two just came the most naturally. We really love The Magnetic Fields and East River Pipe, so it was a thrill to give Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes (Sarah Records) the 7″ when they came to our London show. “My Life is Wrong” was actually a B-side (if you can believe that) on Sarah. If anything speaks to the legacy of their label, it’s that songs of that quality were on the OTHER side of the singles. That’s really something few bands seem capable of: making B-sides that aren’t just afterthoughts.
We try to give people something that we feel is of real worth when they pay the now expensive price for a 7″ ($5+ for only two songs). To me, vinyl isn’t just a thing to collect: it’s meant to have a function, to be useful. Collecting can be an art form in itself, and I’m often blown away by seeing the time, taste and care some people I know put into their record collections. Seriously, you should see Mike Schulman’s (Slumberland); it’s like a museum! But I’d rather just have a few records that I really love, take them off the shelf and mess them up over time.
If any, which band’s career would you like to emulate? Not so much sonically but in terms of career trajectory and rate of output?
Most every band I love has almost no career trajectory. It feels unfair that bands like Felt, Strawberry Switchblade, The Wake, The Prids and so many more aren’t household names. But if you spend time thinking about career trajectory and all that, you’re missing the point of why you want to be in a band in the first place. If you’re lucky enough to have a chance for one moment in your life to write songs, do that. Just do your best to make great records, and life will be okay. Or it won’t. But no matter what happens, you have to live and die with the decisions and the music you make. Say something good, if you can. Don’t dumb it down or try to be what you think people want. I believe people are starved for pop music that isn’t patronizing, songs that aren’t just trying to be “not disliked” by as many people as possible.
How do you think your third LP will sound? The new tracks struck me as a progression but at the same time like a a nice marriage of the of the first two records. Am I at all on the money?
It’s too soon to say. I’ve written a lot of songs since we finished the last record in 2010, and we’ve already done a few as demos together. I really like this song called “Masokissed” and another tentatively called “Your Filthy Hand in Mine.”
Having now released a couple of records, some EPs and numerous singles, is it hard deciding which tracks to play live?
It’s actually a lot easier because we have more songs to choose from. We try to focus on the stuff that’s really high-energy. When people spend their money to come see us play, we do our best to play the songs they’re most familiar with.
Looking back on the band’s career, is there anything you’d do differently?
I don’t know how our story ends. I don’t want to lose faith, even when it seems hopeless; and it often does. Aside from a few acts of self-righteous idiocy on my part, I’ll stand by who we are as a band and the music that we make. Hell, I’ll stand by the self-righteous idiocy too.
With the dominant role the internet now plays in music, it feels as if there’s less romanticism in a band’s relationship with their fans, due in part to bands’ increased availability through social media and such. Firstly, when growing up, were you the sort to write letters to your favourite bands Secondly, as an artist, do you miss that culture of fan interaction? Or instead do you much prefer now being able to connect with fans via Facebook and Twitter, and do you wish this were available when you first got into music?
There are different types of bands: some bands try to create a sort of mythic divide between themselves and their audience. This isn’t a bad thing, and it makes certain music all the more compelling due to the mystery. I think it would be weird if you could just write Trent Reznor on Facebook and he wrote back within a day or two. Same with Echo and the Bunnymen or The Jesus and Mary Chain; there’s something about their unavailability that adds to their mystique. To be fair, I bet Trent is a really sincere, good person, but it’s cool that he exists in another world, somewhere out of reach.
But while I respect that in certain artists, it’s not really who we are. I make music because it takes me away from the emptiness of life; it doesn’t make me an artist, it doesn’t make me better than anyone. The people that come to our shows are people that are a lot like me. If I’m standoffish or come off weird, it’s not because I mean to be rude or affect some sort of “artistic” posture; I just express myself a lot better when I write songs than when I have conversations. I’m really just a goth girl at heart.
Can you recommend any new/ up-and-coming acts?
The bands we’re touring with as I write this are all really worth a listen. So if you have some time, definitely check out Echo Lake, Hatcham Social, Fear of Men and a brand new band from London called Flowers.
If you could have only the output of five bands/artists for the rest of your life who would they be?
Felt, Joni Mitchell, The Rolling Stones, Francoise Hardy, Leonard Cohen.
Kip Berman, thank you.
For more information, please visit www.thepainsofbeingpureatheart.com