An interview with gay front man Jonny Pierce of The Drums.
By Gregg Shapiro
When we look back at 2017, one of the trends that will surely stand out is the increasing visibility (and audibility) of gay male musicians. There are still plenty of queer women making music with crossover appeal (see Palehound, Hurray for The Riff Raff, Romy Madley Croft of The xx, and Ruthie Foster, among others). But now the gay men are finally coming forward in increasing numbers.
Jonny Pierce, of The Drums, is one of these gay musicians. On their new album “Abysmal Thoughts” (Anti-), The Drums maintain much of the dance energy of previous releases, especially on “Blood Under My Belt,” “Your Tenderness,” “I’ll Fight for Your Life,” and “Heart Basel.” But this album also has some particularly devastating moments, including “Head of the Horse” and “If All We Share (Means Nothing).” I spoke with Pierce about “Abysmal Thoughts,” including its eye-catching cover art, during the summer of 2017.
The Drums perform on December 6 at White Oak Music Hall Downstairs in Houston.
Gregg Shapiro: You were the primary songwriter when you were with Elkland, releasing one album, Golden, in 2005. I detected the influences of New Order and The Cure on Golden. Would you agree, and are there any other influences I missed?
Jonny Pierce: You’re spot-on as far as New Order. I guess I was listening to The Cure, but I wasn’t as crazy about The Cure as I was about New Order. It’s funny, when I was in the studio making Golden, I remember my producer Dave Trumfio [from The Pulsars] saying, “There’s a lot of The Cure stuff happening, even some of the stuff you’re doing with your vocals.” For me, that was more of an introduction to The Cure. I think I started listening to The Cure while I was making that album because Dave was talking about it so much. That’s happened to me a few times in my life. I’ll release an album or a song, and it’s compared to another artist. Someone will say, “Oh, he must be a fan of Orange Juice or something.” [Laughs] Then I’ll go and check them out and think, “We must be like-minded.” That does happen. But New Order was huge for me as a teenager—probably my biggest influence.
You reemerged a few years later as the front man of The Drums. The Drums’ eponymous debut album reinforced a commitment to dance music.
The Drums was its own weird animal. I was in a different place than I was with Elkland. I was much more seasoned—just as a living, breathing person living in the real world. When I wrote those songs for Elkland, I was living at my parents’ house in this weird, sheltered, home-schooled space. By the time I started The Drums, I’d been living in New York City for a few years. I went down to Florida to start The Drums, because New York was a little too distracting for me to get anything done creatively.
When I went to live with Jacob [Graham, my gay bandmate] in Florida, we almost immediately started this concept of The Drums. Jacob had been falling for the Sarah Records and C86 bands like Blueboy and early Factory Records bands like The Wake. A bit more fragile, glimmering, sad guitar pop music, essentially. True independent music [from] bands that used off-brand guitars and weird synthesizers. But the songs were beautiful and vulnerable and genuine. He was introducing me to a lot of that stuff. At the same time, I was into this Swedish band The Tough Alliance. They had these big, go-for-it choruses.
That was always the push and pull with Jacob and me. He wanted things to be linear and sweet and delicate, and I always wanted big hooks. These two different ideas of what a good song should be melded together. It was truly a meeting of the minds.
Is there any significance in you going from “Jon” in Elkland to “Jonny” in The Drums?
I never liked “Jon.” Maybe because when I was growing up, everyone called me Jonny. I think when I left that place, which was a dark, abusive place for me, I think I wanted to not hear that name anymore. People started calling me Jon or Jonathan in New York City. I think I went by Jonathan for the first Drums EP. When we were going to release the first album, it was a much bigger deal. We were on Island Records and Downtown Records. As we were going to submit the artwork, at the very last second I shot an email to Jacob (who was in charge of the artwork) saying, “Put my name as Jonny.” It’s an interesting question. I’ve never really dissected why that was important to me. Part of it was that we were going for that 1950s/1960s Americana. In my mind, “Jonny” plays that part more than Jon or Jonathan. Now everyone knows me as Jonny, so I guess that stuck. [Laughs]
The “Abysmal Thoughts” cover photo, which is credited to you, may do more to introduce the queer foot-fetish community to cool music than anything that came before.
Yeah! One thing I’ll say about Jacob is that he never wanted to grow up. He wanted this band to always have this air of innocence. You can hear that when you listen to the cute and sweet love songs on the Summertime EP. The first album has songs about hope, as well as sadness, but there’s nothing really too descriptive—saying something that might push some boundaries.
I remember writing a song called “Instruct Me” for the first album, about the first time I’d ever had sex. I remember showing it to Jacob, and he said, “I don’t really want that to be on there. It’s about sex.” I thought, “Are we home-schooling again? In that Christian household we both grew up in? What’s this about?” Jacob told me he didn’t ever want to read a newspaper. He was literally afraid of facing reality.
I always felt a bit handicapped artistically, like I had one hand tied behind my back. I was unable to say what I wanted to say or do what I wanted to do. When Jacob left the band, I had about 30 seconds of fear and shock, but that quickly subsided.
Jacob and I remain friends to this day. I have to be honest and say that this newfound joy and bliss washed over me. On “Abysmal Thoughts” I would be able to be myself. I was ready to say a lot. So this idea of my boyfriend, Keon, smelling a sneaker on the cover of the album, that’s stuff I’d been wanting to do and had never been able to. It wasn’t just me—for years I’ve had to represent other people, other voices. Now it’s just my voice. So yeah, there is a boy smelling his gym shoe [laughs] on the cover. There is that ugly, drippy orange font. There are songs about being entirely depressed and feeling like total shit. And there are songs about being transparent and descriptive about my life and how I’m feeling.
“Abysmal Thoughts” features some breathtaking moments, beginning with “Head of the Horse.” Have the people you sing about in the song heard it, and if so, what do they think of it?
I don’t know if they’ve heard it. The last time that I had confirmation that anyone in my family heard my music was the first [Drums] album. I haven’t had any feedback at all. I don’t really have a relationship with my family in the way that most people have a relationship with theirs. I’ve gone years with no contact, and then suddenly there’ll be some communication, and that feels a little scary. I pull back because I’m afraid of being hurt. It’s a dynamic that I’m trying to feel out every day. I try to be open, but I also want to protect myself. There are days when I wake up thinking, “I don’t ever need to speak to them again.” Then there are days when I wake up and there’s a primal longing to be close to them. It’s this balance that isn’t so balanced all the time. I would assume, with the Internet and all of that, at some point they’re going to hear the song.
“If All We Share (Means Nothing)” and “Are You F–ked” are some of the rawest, most emotional songs I’ve ever heard. Would you say that those songs, and others on this album, resulted in a beneficial catharsis?
Writing this record was more healing for me than any therapy session I’ve ever been in [laughs]—and I’ve been in a few [laughs]. Each of these songs was like sitting down with the greatest listener of all time. I was sitting there pouring my heart and thoughts out and committing them to these songs. As soon as these songs were finished, I just felt lighter. I felt like I had gained a new sense of who I was, or who I’m becoming. People always ask me what they can expect from the upcoming tour. I always think, “Expect to watch a man who’s finally starting to find himself.”
Last year and this year are turning out to be amazing times for queer musicians, especially for gay male acts (in addition to The Drums) such as Car Seat Headrest, Perfume Genius, Frank Ocean, Arca, Xiu Xiu, and The Magnetic Fields, as well as Erasure and Bob Mould, to mention a few. What do you think of the current state of gay male performers?
It’s such a fascinating study, isn’t it? You mentioned Erasure. I actually toured with Erasure when I was in Elkland. We were the opening act for one of their U.S. tours. It was full of weird and funny experiences. I was talking about Erasure the other day in the context of what you’re talking about—being gay and being accepted and respected as a musician. We’re in a time now where if you’re not queer, you have to work extra-hard to get people to care about you. [Laughs] The tables have turned, almost. Who knows how long this phase will last? I certainly appreciate this new excitement for these different points of view. I think it’s really beautiful. I don’t consider myself over the top or extravagant or anything like that. But back in the ’80s, you almost had to be…
You had to be Boy George.
Yes! You had to almost be clownish or queeny for people to say, “Okay, I can deal with that.” The scariest thing was for a normal guy to say, “Hey, I like dick.” That could be your brother or your uncle. You could be gay, as long as you literally looked like a rainbow. Then everything was fine. Now we’re more like, “I play guitar and I like c*ck.” [Laughs] That’s a real scary thing to a lot of people. It’s taken decades for people to say, “I’m not going to die if my uncle’s gay. I’m not going to die if this person who makes music I love happens to sleep with men at the end of the day.” I’m thankful for how far we’ve come. By no means are we done with this battle.
The Drums perform on December 6 at White Oak Music Hall Downstairs in Houston, and December 9 at Emo’s in Austin.