Kip Berman is naked, or at least partially so. He’s hungover and probably still intoxicated, but he’s working on that. This is what he texts me.
It’s past midday on the East Coast, but still very much morning in Portland, Oregon, where The Pains of Being Pure at Heart have performed the previous evening. Berman and I are scheduled to talk about his band’s latest record, Days of Abandon, but a time zone for our conversation was never specified, and it’s becoming apparent that he could use those extra hours. “I am half in the shower, trying to wash away a very drunken night of karaoke,” he admits.
I’m impressed that he’s even up. “Up, if not quite upright,” he shoots back.
“It was amazing. We had so much fun,” he’ll later say of the band’s slushy Sunday night singalong with English tourmates Fear of Men and some old Rose City friends. “Jen Goma did a spot-on version of ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Kate Bush. I’ve seen her do karaoke before and it’s almost not even fair how good she is. It’s not even a great karaoke song. ‘Wuthering Heights’ doesn’t really get the bar going, you know? But it was amazing to see.”
Goma is a member of Philadelphia dream-pop outfit A Sunny Day in Glasgow, but for the time being, she’s also a vocalist in The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. She’s one of a few relatively fresh faces surrounding Berman, both on tour and on the recently released Days of Abandon. Also joining him in making of the record was Beirut’s Kelly Pratt, who adds subtle horn arrangements to a number of tracks. Notably missing, however, was Berman’s foil on past records, Peggy Wang, who has moved on from the band.
Given the shake-up in the band’s membership, it’s tempting to view Days of Abandon as a transition of sorts. But while its shimmering exterior and more nuanced dynamics are a break from Belong‘s alt rock crunch and occasional whiplash, it’s no more dramatic a shift as the latter was from 2009 fuzzy self-titled debut. Like a lot of very good bands, Pains of Being Pure at Heart may be a band always in transition, and it’s all the better for it.
When I do get Berman on the phone, the group has begun the ten hour trek to San Francisco. At the moment though, they’ve paused outside of Salem to play some miniature golf while Berman fields some calls. “I’ll sit this round out for the good of the band,” he concedes.
A week after our conversation, Days of Abandon will see release to typically glowing reviews. Until then, Berman will have to rely on the feedback of the close ones who’ve heard it, even if he doesn’t fully trust them. “I know that my mom likes it, and my friends won’t say that it’s bad,” he jokes. “The circle of people you know won’t be like, ‘Hey, your new record, man: Really disappointing. You let me down this time.’ I’d be like, ‘We’ve been friends for fifteen years!’ And they would have to be like, ‘Yeah, I’ll still be your friend, but I think your new record sucks. Sorry.'”
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart play DC’s Rock and Roll Hotel tomorrow and a sold-out show at the Bowery Ballroom Thursday. Read BYT’s interview with opener Fear of Men here. Days of Abandon is out now.
When Belong came out, you told BYT that the title track was a “pretty good introduction to the album,” because it said, in part, “We’re gonna rock your face off.” Beginning Days of Abandon with “Art Smock” seems like an equally bold choice in a very different way. What sort of message were you trying to send?
I’m glad you picked up on that. I thought that it really captured the spirit of the record. It’s a lot more inward-looking. It isn’t about “rocking your face off.” It’s centered more on lyricism and vulnerability. Even though it’s a very small song, the themes in “Art Smock” are really complete. It’s only two minutes long, but I think that you get a full picture of that song in a short amount of time. It sets up the record as something that’s not about superficial volume bombast, but is hopefully colorful in a different way.
When we were making the record, the idea was: “Can we make songs that are powerful without turning the buzz pedal up to 9 every time? Is there a way to convey the things that our music is about – something very emotional and candid – without simply relying on making it louder?” It gets to be a trap if everything you do is simply, “Oh, we’ve got to make this record even bigger sounding, so we can play bigger venues and be bigger!” It’s a weird way of thinking, and I don’t think it creates good music all of the time to repeat that.
You mention “superficial volume bombast,” but an integral component of the first two Pains’ first two records was the crunch and distortion of guitars and, more generally, loud-soft dynamics. Do you have conflicted feelings with how those albums sound now?
That’s a good question. There were a lot of reasons why Belong was so sonically cathartic and big sounding that weren’t superficial. It wasn’t rock for the sake of rocking. After our first record, a lot of people thought that we were all just weird people obsessed with Scotland who cried in our cardigans all the time. I wanted to express a fuller picture of who we are as people. We grew up in America, in the suburbs. We listened to a lot of Weezer and Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana, and that big alternative rock sound was a huge part of our identity. It wasn’t simply, “Let’s rock now because we love making rock.” It was sort of captured a different side of our band that might have been under-realized on the first record, just because we didn’t have the ability to make a huge sound. We made the record that we could the first time, and the same goes for the second time – we tried to do the best that we could.
There are some things in Belong that I wish that I could have done better, and feel like now I could do better. But they’re things like singing better, which you can’t control at the time. [Laughs] You make a record and you’re not that experienced singing. I mean, I never sang before this band, so I just didn’t know, like, what note to start the songs on. It’s basic, small, technical stuff like that. But if you were to ask if I was happy with the first two records, I’d say, “Yeah.” Those are the best songs that we had and we played them the best that we could. There’s no way that they could have better.
It was the same thing this time around. There were different challenges, but there were also different opportunities. I was excited to be able to involve Jen Goma, who sang on the record, and not just with the lead vocals on “Life After Life” and “Kelly”. I think that those songs came out really well and are highlights on the record, but there was also the stuff that she was able to do with her voice and backing vocals on “Simple and Sure” and “Eurydice” and “Art Smock”. It really brought a different character to the music. It made the record a lot stronger than if it had been just me singing ten songs in a row.
My friend Kelly Pratt did some horn arrangements on a lot of the songs. A lot of the songs he did ended up as b-sides, but he’s there on “Asp at My Chest”, “Life After Life”, and a little bit of “Kelly” as well. By the way, my friends name is Kelly – it had nothing to do with Kelly [Pratt]. It was just a coincidence. Kelly [Pratt] used to be in Beirut, and he’s toured with Arcade Fire and David Byrne. He’s a very good musician, and it was fun to work with him, and sit at his house and work up parts for the record.
Each record present a different challenge, and we were just really lucky to have great people around that made it possible. I think that the songs really benefited from the unique situation of how it was recorded.
How did it feel to turn your lyrics over to someone else entirely?
It was a strange thing to hear songs that I had written sung by another voice, but it was good. They sounded a lot better when Jen sang them. [Laughs] And it was exciting. Coming to the band practice room and hearing her sing the songs, and inject her own character and musical impulses into them was an amazing thing. It energized me in a strange way to realize that there’s no rule that if I write a song, then I have to sing it.
In the future, I might even write differently, because when I write a song for myself to sing, it usually has three to four notes to it. I’m like the indie pop Eddie Vedder. I know my limitations and I work within them. But working with Jenn, I was like, “This person doesn’t have limitations.” It was exciting to hear the songs come alive.
There’s a b-side that I wrote with her singing in mind. I’m sure it will be out in some weird format – a bonus track in the Philippines or something. It’s called “Your Poison Touch” and it has a much different vocal melody than I would have written if I had written for myself. But the songs that made the record were ones that I could have sung but just sounded a lot better with her singing the lead.
With “Life After Life”, there’s an element of drag in that. I like a male voice singing it, with those lines “And he made me play girlfriend” – this idea of performing a gender role that biologically might not match up. But I think that even if there is an element of drag, it almost doesn’t matter if there’s a female or male voice – the meaning can be read in lots of ways. I really thought that she knocked that one out of the park. It’s one of my favorite songs that I wrote for the record, and I was really happy that she did such a better job than I would have done on my own. It was sort of an account of a relationship that I had, but through the lens of Jean Genet’s “Our Lady of the Flowers”. I was blending the two.
It sounds you’re compatible with your new bandmates too.
Oh yeah, but the vibe has always been: “I’ll write some songs, and hopefully my friends will play them with me and make them better.” Nothing has really changed. In fact, Christoph [Hochheim] has played with us since 2009, and his twin brother [Anton] has been with us on a lot of tours with this other bands, The Depreciation Guild and Ablebody. He’s playing drums with us now. It’s a pretty familiar cast of characters. It’s not like I placed a “Help Wanted” ad or anything.
Is it odd to be touring with Days of Abandon not yet released?
It would have been ideal to have the record release kick off the tour, but it’s still great to tour, and we get to play new songs. Because we haven’t toured in a long time and we haven’t released music in three years, people are anxious to hear us do new things, so there’s still been a lot of good attitudes towards us performing new music. And when the record comes out, it will be all the sweeter. In fact, we have a couple of early vinyl copies that we’re selling on the down low.
Why was the record delayed?
Record Store Day! All of the vinyl plants were booked solid leading up to Record Store Day. We could have released the record on time, but we wouldn’t have had the vinyl version of it for a couple of extra weeks. It was more important to us a band that the vinyl came out the same day as the record, so we agreed to push the album back, even though it kind of messed up the tour. Ultimately, no one will care whether our record came out on April 22 or May 13. [Laughs] It just needs to exist in the world. So, yeah, good old Record Store Day: A noble endeavor, but it really messed up our record this time.
What attracted you to the legend of Eurydice? There’s been a wave of Orpheus songs lately.
If by “lately” you mean in the last 500 years, then, yeah, you’d be right. [Laughs] It’s one of the most cited reference points – I think there are, like, 800 operas and epic poems. Every musician seems to write himself into Orpheus, probably because Orpheus was a musician. At its very core, there’s an egotistical identification with Orpheus, the most renowned singer-songwriter of the classic world. [Laughs]
But for me, it was about the idea of expressing irrecoverable loss, but I didn’t want to use the names of people explicitly, just because I thought that was tacky. The Orpheus myth kind of stood in for somebody that I lost when I was younger. It’s a recognizable myth, and it deals with loss and regret and maybe even the limitations of what music is capable of. Music almost brings Eurydice back from the dead, but it’s not really possible. Superchunk had this song on I Hate Music recently, and it was something like, “I hate music, because my friend is dead and music doesn’t change that.” I think that was a powerful statement. Too often you see all of these videos with, like, Thirty Seconds to Mars or something, where the fanbase just sits there like, “Music is the only thing that’s important to life, and all that life is is music.”
It’s a romantic thing to write articles about bands that only care about music, but there are other things in life that are important, like being alive. [Laughs] Music is the thing that I care most about in life, but it’s not the only thing that I care about. There’s something hollow about how Orpheus thinks that a song will let death bring someone back to life. No matter how good a song is, there’s something that it can’t reach.
You’ve been known to put your curatorial skills to work as a DJ. Anything that you’ve been spinning as of late?
Well, first of all, I am definitely not a DJ, but I do play songs when friends ask me to do stuff. I would use the term “selector,” because I don’t even know how to spell the word beat-matching. I just show up and play a bunch of songs that I like without a ton of thought being put into the equation.
But I’m really excited about this band from Gothenberg, Sweden, called Makthaverskan. They sound like they should be a hardcore band that burns down churches and wouldn’t be my friends, but they actually play this really emotive high-energy indie pop with great vocals. They have a new record coming out I think this spring. They’re incredible and I love them. I’m DJing an after-party in Phoenix and I was thinking, “I definitely need to play Makthaverskan.” I hope more people get to hear them.
I was watching the Spin tour of your house in Brooklyn and saw your Pulp poster. Top three Pulps songs?
It’s hard to say what’s the best, because obviously Different Class is an amazing record, and it’s a knee jerk thing to say, “Oh, maybe the most famous one isn’t truly the best one.” But the streak of four record towards the end of their existence is amazing. I mean, Separations is good, but His ‘n’ Hers is just incredible. Then, obviously, Different Class is a great record.
This is Hardcore is very self-aware, but great too. Its opening line is “You’re gonna like it, but not a lot.” [Laughs] It’s sort of the best follow-up record. I thought of that on Belong. When our first record came out, people were so unrelenting about saying it wasn’t original, and I was always thought, “Well, if that’s the worst thing that somebody could say about you, then that’s alright.” The opening line of Belong, is “What to do? Nothing new.” [Laughs] It’s sort of like, “Here we go. We have not learned our lesson.”
We Love Life is maybe their most underappreciated effort.
We Love Life is great too! And his first solo record was great. I got to see him live on that tour, and he was an incredible performer. That’s not a secret. No one’s like, “Is Jarvis good live?” [Laughs] Jarvis could just come out and eat an apple, which I think he did at the beginning of the set and people were going crazy. It was an amazing performance to see.
There are a lot of posters on my wall. I had a Suede poster in my bedroom. I love Suede too. There might be a Belle & Sebastian poster in there too. That Pulp poster was so good that I wanted it to not get destroyed.
I wasn’t insinuating that you had an altar to Pulp. They’ve just been coming back onto the radar lately with the tour and the documentary.
Oh, there’s a Pulp documentary coming out?
Yeah, it’s about the last show on its reunion tour – in Sheffield.
That must be amazing to see. I’m really sad that I didn’t get to see the reunion tour. It was just because we weren’t in New York when they played. But I hope that they dust it off and come back every two years. I know that people give bands shit for that, but there are lot of band that I haven’t gotten a chance to see and I would like to be able to see them. Like, I saw Jesus and the Mary Chain play, around the time that we were starting Pains, and it’s kind of referenced in “Art Smock”.
I’d settle for new Jarvis in any format.
I got his autograph once. We were playing an in-store [performance] at Rough Trade in London, and it was same day that the Jarvis’ solo record had come out, and he was working the cash register. It was a publicity thing – he was working at Rough Trade for the day. There was a really big autograph line and I was kind of scared, but I waited and got the Jarvis autograph.
What did you say?
I was getting the autograph for my girlfriend, and he asked if it was love. And I said, “Yes.” [Laughs] It’s sort of tough to be clever around Jarvis. It’s, like, let him do that and play the straight man and have a good experience.
I feel like he should do kids’ birthday parties. He should just be a professional entertainer. It doesn’t even have to be music. Just hire him for the hour, and he’ll show up in a corduroy suit with elbow patches and sing for your toddlers or whatever. He could probably tie up balloons into interesting shapes. And even if couldn’t, I’d like to see him try.