January 03, 2009

Interview: The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart

We first heard of The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart in 2007, they continued to steal our hearts in 2008 and now they seem ready to conquer the world in 2009. This month the New York quartet will release their highly anticipated debut album. Keywords: joy, passion, enthusiasm and positive noise. The world can surely use some more of that. Kip Berman (guitar, vocals) and Peggy Wang (keyboards, vocals) talked with me about brilliant moments past and yet to come.

It’s been quite a year for the band! How will you remember 2008?

Kip: Yeah, 2008 was super fun! I think seeing moshpits in London (twice!), meeting Stephen Pastel in Glasgow along with so many of our pop heroes and just making lots of new friends is the highlight for me. That's the real thrill - getting to say hello to the people that made the music I grew up with and found inspirational. Plus, meeting true fans of indiepop all over the world was great. When I was 17 and on the Belle & Sebastian Sinister mailing list, I never really got to meet the people who loved the kinds of music I loved, and now I know other people with home-made Cat's Miaow t-shirts and Heavenly posters in their bedroom.

Peggy: Joining the band really changed my life. I'm re-embracing my youth. I think of it as maybe how my senior year of high school would have been if I had like, gotten to go to the state championships or something? So yeah. 1998 in 2008.

After several 7-inches and EPs (on Slumberland, Cloudberry and Atomic Beat Records) you’re ready to release your much anticipated debut album, on Slumberland and Fortuna POP! In the meantime New York has become the most hip place for music again. Do you sometimes daydream about how big you could be in a couple of months? Is that scary, exciting, or do you think it’s unlikely it’ll happen?

Kip: When we formed, if you told us we'd even get to put out a split 7" on Slumberland, we would have been disbelieving. I mean, so many of our favorite bands (Rocketship, Black Tambourine/Velocity Girl, The Aislers Set) have released their best work on that label - to be part of it in any way is a real dream come true.

In addition to the label's storied history, they're currently releasing a bunch of our favorite contemporary bands (Sexy Kids, Crystal Stilts, A Sunny Day in Glasgow, and maybe Pants Yell!). It's a great feeling to be part of all that.

As for New York being hip - perhaps it is, but I think we're pretty geeky. Still, it's a diverse place where MGMT, Grizzly Bear and Vampire Weekend can co-exist with a crop of bands like us who are into Black Tambourine, The Clean, The Pastels and TVPs. Thankfully there's more than a few other bands that really embrace a noisy, adventurous pop sound - Crystal Stilts, My Teenage Stride, caUSE co-MOTION, Knight School, The Beets and Vivian Girls. As simply a music fan, it's extra cool to be able to see all those bands on a pretty regular basis.

But there are great bands all over - from Moscow Olympics in the Philipines to A Sunny Day in Glasgow in Philadelphia to Days in Gothenburg. We're just lucky that people seem genuinely excited about the music coming out of Brooklyn/New York right now - but it's definitely not the only place that's worth paying attention to.

Peggy: Yeah, I was reading about the history of Creation Records and how The Pastels weren't really embraced in the beginning, they were kind of outcasts. Thinking about The Pastels now, it's hard to imagine that because I think they are the coolest band ever. I'm not saying our story is the same, but I wouldn't say we are a trendy band or anything. "We'll never be cool" is kind of our mantra. It is awesome that the growing popularity of Vivian Girls and Crystal Stilts means that people are discovering some really great bands from the 80's. Sort of like a few years ago when they reissued Orange Juice because Franz Ferdinand got big, now they're doing the same thing with The Shop Assistants. If it will ever be 'cool' to like that sort of music, then that's awesome. I think a lot of those C-86 bands are really accessible and actually kind of punk, and it doesn't even really make sense that it's music for awkward nerds, or why it's as obscure as it is. We are kind of at the right place at the right time at the moment, but everything is fleeting, and it's good not to take anything for granted.

Once you’re big stars, those pains of being pure at heart will become even more obvious of course. Is there any aspect of making music that disappoints or discourages you? How hard is it to be ambitious and pure at heart at the same time?

Kip: Well, I don't think any band that thinks Stephen Pastel is cooler than Lou Reed, or freaks out over Blueboy and Rocketship 7-inches will ever be 'big stars' - but it's cool if you think so. We are who we are - and if you ever met us, you'd realize we're pretty nerdy people that take pictures next to funny road signs and the only 'experimentation' we do on tour is with various chocolate bars and gummi candies.

Peggy: Maybe I get a little disappointed about being pigeonholed as being precious and cutesy. If you actually saw one of our live shows, or listened to the lyrics, you'd come to realize that we're pretty loud and actually kind of dark. It's also scary to think that once more than 10 people actually like your band, the criticism starts rolling in and people can be kinda mean. Maybe I'm just a little sensitive, but I've always had a hard time putting myself out there and having to face rejection.

But we've got a good situation going, so if that seems really sincere or cheesy or twee, then so be it. We're all actually friends and really really like each other and have fun. Going to band practice means hanging out and having awesome times. As far as staying 'pure at heart', I want to think we started the band for the right reasons, and that we'll remain true to that. I guess I'll draw the line if someone makes me wear a bikini in a music video.

How did you get into indiepop, or any kind of independent music? Do you remember what made you realise there was more out there than the music you heard in the charts?

Peggy: I had a very obsessive relationship with music, which is heightened by the emotional uproar of growing up. You just want something to relate to. Once I started discovering bands that I could really relate to, it made me want to learn guitar and start playing in bands. I didn't have any siblings (or friends really, ha) and my parents only listened to Chinese opera. But I remember watching 120 Minutes by myself for the first time and getting really excited. All the bands seemed so cool. The Sundays and Sonic Youth and The Sugarcubes. I just wanted to absorb it all. Anyway, maybe it all started with Sonic Youth. I made some pen pals through the fan club who made me mix tapes and introduced me to Polvo, Unwound, Tiger Trap and Kicking Giant. Also, there was an article about riot grrrls in Seventeen Magazine that I read when I was 12. I had an English teacher that was assigning me all this feminist literature to read, and the whole riot grrrl movement just really appealed to me. That's when I decided I wanted to be in a band. And start a fanzine. More alt stuff ensued. Oh yeah, another factor was discovering The Magnetic Fields from watching The Adventures of Pete and Pete. They became my favorite band in high school.

Kip: My friends and I in highschool would go to a lot of Punk and Hardcore shows. Plus, Nirvana always championed indie bands like The Vaselines and Beat Happening. I think Sonic Youth, Helium, Yo La Tengo, Papas Fritas and Pavement were bands that got me more into indie"rock" music.

As for indiepop, it was a combination of living in the Pacific Northwest (K Records, Magic Marker Records, Slumberland) that allowed me to get to know so many bands. All the 'rock' shows were for 21+, but being underage, I went to a lot of house shows and DIY shows and saw everything from Dear Nora, The Softies, The Lucksmiths to Mates of State and Urban Legends (pre-Thermals Hutch and Kathy). It was a great time for music, and to get to experience it all in such intimate, living room settings was a thrill.

We all know the story of how you formed the band in springtime 2007 to play at Peggy’s birthday party. After that things happened fast, which we’ve all been able to witness. But of course before that party there’s a little history as well. How did you know each other to begin with? Had you always wanted to be in a band? Have you been in other bands before?

Kip: Well, Alex and I worked together and would listen to Paint a Rainbow at least once every day around 5pm when we didn't feel like working anymore... Peggy and I met at an Indiepop Dance Party at Cake Shop. She was pretty cool, and I was scared to ask her to be in the band - as I thought she was 'too cool' and wouldn't want to do it.

We didn't have a drummer for a long time - just a drum machine. Kurt kept on coming to our shows and had a cool Blueboy and Sarah Records badge on his bag and eventually Peggy insisted I ask him to join on drums. Peggy is always right - ever since Kurt joined it's been just so much fun and the live shows are a lot better than seeing three people play along to a drum machine.

Peggy: I wouldn't say I am too cool, but yes, I AM always right! I don't think Kip and I bonded over music at first. Actually, I think we bonded over salad. And he introduced me to Titus Andronicus, an incredibly life-affirming band. I dunno, we just started hanging out - how typical friendships begin, I suppose. I was in another band for three years in NYC, and that band really meant a lot to me. My ex-bandmate Christian was an amazing songwriter, I still listen to our old demos to this day. But we could just never get our shit together to do anything. So being in the Pains is quite a different experience.

Your songs are overall very basic and simple, and instantly addictive. What do you think makes a perfect pop song? Now we’re there, does a song come to mind which you consider THE perfect pop song, if such a thing exists?

Kip: To me the perfect pop songs are the imperfect pop songs. I feel too many bands try to erase anything 'out of place' or write lyrics that are 'vaguely universal' - I appreciate bands that are themselves, that are unafraid to leave their personality in the song, or sing about things that maybe don't seem like traditional 'pop love' songs.

As for perfect pop songs, I can think of so many - but the one that always sticks out in my head is Nothing to be Done by The Pastels. I love the boy/girl vocals, and the lyrics are just amazing. The way Stephen sings is so cool - and it's like he's declaring sappy, undying love, but then Aggie sings, "What do you say we go and get a beer?" It's like, "hold on there, Stephen - let's take things one step at a time." It's a little out of place, because a cliche indiepop band would be all "let's go and have some tea" or "a picnic and poetry in the springtime would be a nice thing to do." But it feels so real and unaffected - the vocals are direct and conversational, like Calvin Johnson - but still really lovely. I guess that's an example of the perfect/imperfect pop song to me. But there are so many others, i feel bad picking just one.

Peggy: These are my picks, although I'm sure tomorrow I'll be kicking myself for forgetting some all-time favorite - Crimson and Clover by Tommy James and the Shondells. Different Drum by Linda Ronstadt. You Can Hide Your Love Forever by Comet Gain. Pail Frail Lovely One by Outrageous Cherry. And Tendency Right Foot Forward by Kleenex Girl Wonder.

You've shared a split single with Summer Cats (on Slumberland) and with The Parallelograms (on Atomic Beat Records), also two great bands that emerged this past year. Looking back, we can say it's been a brilliant year for pop! How do you find out about new music nowadays?

Kip: I think I rely a lot on my bandmates and friends - we're all big record nerds so if they like something, they tell me about it and vice versa. I always read Skatterbrain and Indie-MP3 a lot to find out about new bands I might enjoy. But there are so many fantastic blogs, like Heaven is Above Your Head, The Finest Kiss, and Alex Loves You and Your Silly Pop Songs that there's really no shortage of great sources to find out about new bands.

Plus, there's loads of new (printed) zines like Sapricot, Bottle Rocket, Iconoclastic Cardies and A Layer of Chips that seem to defy the notion that fanzines are limited to the internet. All in all, it's a great time for pop music, and the many diverse voices make it impossible not to get excited about all that's going on right now.

Peggy: I have a hard time keeping up with new bands. I'm always two years behind. Seriously, someone will play me a Strokes song next week and I'll be like "Oh, wow, this is good, what is this??" There's just such a sheer plethora of bands these days that I assume I'm not going to like something because I'm kinda picky. It's not like in the 90's when you'd discover an indie label and want to buy everything on that label because it was all of the same aesthetic. There are the aforementioned blogs that I do pay attention to, and yeah, just friends whose taste I trust. It's so weird because now that I've lived in NYC for a while, I've actually made friends who have really similar music taste to me. Never had that growing up. It's amazing. But now I don't ever want to leave that bubble!

As happy as your music makes a lot of people, some of your lyrics are quite grim. Is it important to you that people pay attention? Do you listen to what other bands have to say, or is it mainly about the music? Do you have a favourite lyricist?

Kip: To me, lyrics are so essential - I find myself listening closely to lyrics, and whether it's Hefner, Titus Andronicus, Pulp or My Favorite, the music that I love the most, usually has a strong emphasis on lyrics - and maybe they are a bit more ridiculous than 'tasteful' or 'restrained' - I like songs that are unafraid to say something special, even if it seems weird or a bit out of place in a pop song.

Peggy: The lyrics make or break a band for me. I have to relate to them, OR ELSE. I don't care how catchy a song is, but if it's about architecture or something, I'm not going to listen to it. A band whose lyrics I love is the Russian Futurists. Go to their website and read all of their lyrics! I love them. I also love Hefner's lyrics, and Orange Juice, and My Bloody Valentine, and The Pastels and The Magnetic Fields, and The Aislers Set and Comet Gain. Thankfully with all of these bands, the music is quite enjoyable as well.

You recently played some shows in the UK with The Wedding Present. Were those the biggest crowds you’ve played for so far? Did you get to know The Wedding Present a little bit? Are you fans?

Kip: Yeah, playing with The Wedding Present was such a thrill, as they're one the most legendary indiepop bands. Aside from the excitement of getting to play these larger venues, their fans were super nice to us. They have people coming to their shows that have been following them since the mid-80's. It's really touching to see that level of dedication. Also, the band treated us really nicely. Terry (bass) was especially nice, and so was David.

Peggy: It's weird to play on a high stage that is like, 3 times bigger than my apartment. Getting to play with The Wedding Present was an honor, and they are all such pleasant people to hang around. No egos, or rock star antics or anything. And definitely no debauchery! I can't imagine what it would be like to tour with a band that was strung out and had tons of groupies hanging around all the time. It was good clean fun.

2009 has been designated as the International Year of Astronomy. What do you see in the stars for The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart?

Kip: Maybe some more mosh pits?

Peggy: Lots of adventures! And a vicious betrayal. And maybe a murder... in a library...

Thanks Peggy and Kip, have a wonderful 2009!

The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart website
The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart myspace
Fortune POP!
Slumberland Records
Cloudberry Rercords
Atomic Beat Records

Download (Mediafire)
1. Come Saturday
2. Kurt Cobain's cardigan
3. Everything with you


Anonymous said...

I think it's funny when "noise" = "experimental"="good"

Grizzly Bear are far more adventurous than anything the vivian girls will ever do

Anonymous said...

What a lovely and informative interview! Don't they come across as the kindest, most genuine and sincere musicians out there? :-)