The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Kip Berman on Finding Humor in the Dark Moments | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Saturday, October 19th, 2019  

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Kip Berman on Finding Humor in the Dark Moments

Welcome to the Jangle

Aug 05, 2014 Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern Issue #50 - June/July 2014 - Future Islands
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Kip Berman can speak at length about music history, eloquently mull over the idea of success, and articulately explain why the word "twee" has lost its power. But The Pains of Being Pure at Heart's frontman (and only constant member) admits that he also loves a good old-fashioned play on words.

"We were also going to call it Welcome to the Jangle," he says of his band's third album, Days of Abandon. "We picked the wrong [title]! But I can still tell the story. It is really a lot of chorusy guitars and fingerpicking stuff. R.E.M. would be proud."

Therein lies the appeal of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Mixing lithe pop with everyday, occasionally downtrodden emotions (or, as Berman describes his lyrics, "immersive in sensation and feeling without really processing itwhich can also be called stupid"), Berman has etched out a career paring contradictory elements and happily living in the spaces in-between. 

"It's almost cartoonish if you really think your whole existence is dark," he explains. "Unless you're in a refugee camp in Syria. There's humor even in dark moments."      

Berman wrote Days of Abandon alone, but previous Pains of Being Pure at Heart members Kurt Feldman and Alex Naidus appear on the album. Christoph Hochheim, Anton Hochheim, Drew Citron, Jacob Sloan, and A Sunny Day In Glasgow's Jen Goma, who guests on the album, were recently added as touring members.

Here Berman talks about scaling back on his band's third album, finding humor in dark moments, and why the "maturing artist" narrative needs to be debunked. [Note: These are extra portions of our interview with Berman, quotes that didn't make it into our main print article on The Pains of Being Pure at Heart.]

Laura Studarus (Under the Radar): How much do you think The Pains of Being Pure at Heart matches the idea people have of music in Brooklyn?

Kip Berman: Brooklyn is a city of transplants. New York is a city of transplants. No one who is actually making independent rock or pop music for the most part was born in Brooklyn and started a band there. These are all people who come from other places. Its sound is the sound of people coming from elsewhere to make music. I think you can hear it in the music. Maybe in the late '70s in the No Wave era there were people who grew up in Queens. But the bands that were living there were living in that environment to make music. They were very rough and jagged, like New York Dolls or The Velvet Underground.

But now the sound of Brooklyn is different, because Brooklyn itself is in a different place. In many respects it's more relaxed or refined or polished. I guess in those terms, I guess our sound is indicative of that. But we could have been born in Manila or Milwaukee or Gothenburg or wherever and had experiences in life that led us to make the kind of music that we make. I didn't grow up in Brooklyn; that's just where I get my coffee in the morning.

Tell me about the album art for Days of Abandon. It's gorgeous and disturbing.

I think those are the perfect words for it. It's gorgeous and disturbing, and then you realize that it's even more gorgeous as a result. They're these initially classical poses. Sort of a mental landscape that blurs dreams and trauma, and consciousnesses and reality in this interesting way. There's symbolism. So many of the artifacts that you notice when you look closer into painting.

The artist is named Lee Jinju. We've been communicating for almost half a year now, just trying to sort out how to work it out. It's hard to explain. "We're not a big band, but we're not going to make your art look bad by using it." But she was really positive. I finally got to meet her. She was showing in New York randomly in February. It was really nice to meet her and shake her hand. I don't speak any Korean and she doesn't speak any English. There was an interpreter there. She's an incredible artist...the piece we used for our album was perfect for us.

You've called this album one of your prettiest. Quite often people associate the idea of something being pretty or pleasing with not being "serious." Is that an idea you run across a lot?

I think that's a trap that a lot of bands fall into. Bands fall into it when they start getting self-conscious. After their first album they want to reveal how hard life on the road is. Or they want to do something that will enhance their artistic worth. And they always equate it with going dark. But that's a very limited view of the human experience. I think the best art and the best music take in the totality of what you live and what you feel. It's almost cartoonish if you really think your whole existence is dark. Unless you're in a refugee camp in Syria. There's humor even in dark moments.

You mentioned not being afraid of being sappy or a little funny at times. Is there any of that a part of Days of Abandon?

I think on our records there's always a lot of wordplay. Like on "Masokissed." "A constant aversion to forgo perversion." It's a very serious song and very heartfelt and sad. But there's something funny about that lyrical construct to me, that doesn't impact the song, which is one of my favorites on the album. Stuff like that, there are these little hidden gems of humor or shout-outs.

How do you feel about the word twee?

I think that word is much more loaded for people who live in England where it's used as a term. People here don't say twee, so when they use it they don't understand that it's a charged term. People there spend a lot of mental energy on twee. It's kinda like the "Are you a hipster" question. They doth protest too much, these bands. I think it's fairly irrelevant to the landscape of America. People will just use a homophobic epithet to describe you if they don't like you, which to them will probably mean the same thing. But the idea of twee was originally meant to juxtapose macho rock posturing. It's masochistic and dumb. It's a way to invert or celebrate bands that are made up of women and men together, or woman as the front people of bands. Songwriting is more gender-equal and not about the notion of what rock and roll is.

So people will subvert that rock culture, by amping up the perceived level of antipathy towards that by dressing like they were celebrating innocence or whatever. I understand the point of that, but it feels like they forgot what the point was and it's just a bunch of 25-year-olds dressing like five-year-olds. "I never had sex before!"

I think it's important to blend the visceral side of music with indie pop and maybe that's reflected in our music. We're always the loudest soft band or the softest loud band. We play a pop fest and it's like, "Oh shit! Pains are here. They're going to fucking turn it up." And then you play a big rock show and we're really jangly or pretty or whatever.

I feel like that might not necessarily be the case with this new album. Was there a desire to strip back a little?

I think I misspoke when I had to write those two sentences about what the record was. It's trying to do something that's powerful and immediate, but not doing it by stepping on the distortion pedal. It's got more synth and vocal harmonies going on. So I'm really proud of how the sound of this record is. It is more varied; there is dynamics of loudness with places in between. Even bringing in Jen Goma, who plays in A Sunny Day in Glasgow and is really involved in this record and sang on a couple of songs, is something that we've never done before. She's a great singer. Even the stuff we did with my friend Kelly [Pratt] who did horn arrangements is something that we've never done before. It's not just stepping on a guitar pedal and sounding like grunge. So I hope peoplewell, I don't care if people understand it or not.

So you're just using a different set of tools than you have in the past.

I think it made me realize, and maybe we always have realized but wandered a bit from on the last record, it really is all about songwriting. If it sounds good to 12 people it's going to sound good in Tokyo at a big show. But we shouldn't prioritize bigness for its own sake. Bands do that. They do a big record and then they have to do an even bigger production. "We need a bigger this!" At the end of the day, good songs are the most important aspect of music. If you have those, I think that's what people hope to see when they pay 12 dollars to see you in a concert.

That's a really good way of looking at it.

I hope so. There's some times when people say, "Is this the most arena-ready record?" I'm like, "Maybe some day we'll play arenas and these songs will sound good in arenas. But the reason I got to play in arenas is because I sat in my bedroom and wanted to play guitar for a while and sing some songs."

That's true. If you didn't love it, there are easier ways to make your rent.

Well, when we started we weren't making our rent. There are a lot of people making music in the world. There are a lot of great people making music. The world doesn't care. You have to do something that's genuine and worthwhile. No one needs another bland rock band. There's plenty of that. I think in the era where anyone can make a record that sounds like a million dollars, people really want stuff that's personal and distinct and not radio rock. I think that's why Mac DeMarco is so popular. He has a special worldview. He's funny and engaging. Or Destroyer. He has a very esoteric vision. But he can play with just a guitar in a coffee shop, and the lyricism alone in those moments, even if it's in Spanish, are amazing. I hope that's what music is about.

Did the idea of monetizing it ever seem like something that you could do? Would it have been okay to simply write and record music and have that be enough?

There were a couple of years before our record came out where, like most bands, we had jobs. It wasn't like a hobby, because a hobby sounds pejorative. But no one really likes doing something that isn't what you'd be doing if you had the full day to yourself. But there's moments in music that makes it all worthwhile. I do this during the day, and I resent it, it's my job, but as long as you have an outlet for your true self, even if it isn't seen or just seen by a couple of people. It's what all of us were expecting when I started the band.

Tell me about the album title, Days of Abandon.

It's taken off the title of an Italian novel written by Elena Ferrante, called The Days of Abandonment. It's a narrative about a woman's divorce and mental unraveling and coming to terms with it. But not fully ever coming to terms with it. It's how your entire life can be undone by someone leaving you. And the descent into madness. There's recovery, but the recovery is sort of that you have to pretend that things are normal. It's a very powerful, dark, unrelenting narrative. It's incredibly dark and incredibly well-written. It's not long. I had a translation because I don't read Italian. It's a woman who's extremely reclusive who wrote it. No real public profile.

I thought the idea is more about the Days of Abandon. It's a term that can mean a lot more things than Abandonment. Abandon is freedom, it's exhilaration. Being unrestrained and being capable of expressing your life to the fullest. But it can also be fear and isolation and anxiety. I think that the sense of Days of Abandon captured, in as full a range as possible, my mental state in the years following the release of the last record. It seemed to work really well with these songs. We were also going to call it Welcome to the Jangle. We picked the wrong [title]! But I can still tell the story. It is really a lot of chorusy guitars and fingerpicking stuff. R.E.M. would be proud.

You do seem to love long titleswell save for Belong.

Originally we were going to call it Everything's Cool in America. But you can't be called The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and call your album Everything's Cool in America. We've got to keep it to as few words as possible. Just for the layout! You can't have the whole cover covered in words. Words words words. Whenever I make one-inch buttons for the bands I'll just make them say "Pains." We usually say Pains among ourselves. We don't say "Are you coming to The Pains of Being Pure at Heart practice at 7 o'clock tonight?" You really earn the band name when you have to explain it to customs. You say it three times and they say, "Never heard of it." We should bring CDs and pass them out to the TSA.

Tell me about the song "Art Smock."

I think it's one of the best songs on the record. It's natural. It's not forced. It's not longer than it has to be. It's one of the songs where you write, and you don't even know how you wrote it. It just comes out of the facet.

Do you have those moments often?

Yeah. My method for self-editing is that I don't write anything down. If I have to put the lyrics down for recording I will write them. But if I remember something I think it's good. If I forget something it was worth forgetting. If something is interesting enough for me to want to play it again and I remember how it goes, there's something inherently memorable about that act of creativity. If I forget about it or don't go back to it, there was no use of saving it anyway. Not everyone works that way but the art of writing is editing. Anyone has the ability to create. But the ability to refine and figure out what's worthwhile is harder. I probably wrote 50 songs for this recordand a lot of them are bad.

It's not that we're a band that doesn't write bad songs; we're lucky that we haven't put the bad ones on the record. Or figured out early in the process what's good and bad. You rely on your friends, too. I didn't want to put "Until the Sun Explodes" on the record. But then people were like, "Why? That song is so immediate." "But it doesn't reflect, mentally and intellectually, my art!" "Yeah, but it should be on the record. It sounds like other songs that people have liked." "But I want to break free!" Sometimes you do need a perception outside your own to make sure that you don't get your head too far up your own ass. If you write something, you don't think it sucks. But you need to know that most of the stuff you write sucks. You have to at least try to think critically. "What is really worthwhile? What do I really say on this record?"

When you say "What do I want to say?," do you feel like there was some kind of overarching theme?

Not like a concept. But I think this album deals with abandonment. I don't think it's a depressing record. I don't think it's a downer. But I do think there is a string of isolation and fear and freedom that I think you can see in a lot of songs. It's accidental. It's not self-conscious.

You shouldn't force it. It's what these songs are about. But then there's a song called "Simple and Sure" which is a different sentiment altogether. It's a love song but it's saying that the things in life that are seemingly most easy are actually really difficult. It's harder than it looks. Fidelity and all that stuff. In the beginning there's a guy who can't make up his mind and he's so complex. But it just involves a fucking cold sore on his girlfriend's lip. But she's in love with a complicated man. No! He's just a dick and the thing he thinks is simple is just more complicated over time. But it's lighthearted and fun. I don't think the message is heavy-handed. It's a pop song.

How much of this is specific to this record, versus themes that you've been attracted to your entire career?

I write songs and they're about my life. I don't draw lines in the sand and say that I'm going to only write about these few months of my life. There's a sense of being in the present and not reflecting on the past. I don't like the "when an artist matures" narrative. It's false. What does maturation even mean? Your band gets better at arranging horn parts? I think that notion of maturity is overrated. Or that idea that you're supposed to get more and more mature with each record. Then what? Write songs about nursing homes? Or write songs about how you itemize your taxes? Or about how mature and responsible you are? It is the same kinds of themes. I think about the songs on this record. They could have been songs written on the first record or the second record. There's no chronological order to how you address ideas.

[Note: This article first appeared in the digital/tablet/smartphone version of Under the Radar's June/July issue (Issue 50).]

 



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