The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are preparing the release of their third studio record, Days of Abandon. The New York quartet is familiar with Birmingham, as they make their return to Bottletree Cafe, so much so that Kip Berman has boasted to publications in his backyard, like Brooklyn Vegan, that it’s the best venue in the country.
The show is on Friday, and Eternal Summers will open. Berman spoke to Weld about his love of Birmingham, his love of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and the new record.
Weld: Do you remember the last time you were at the Bottletree?
KB: We have been at the Bottletree Café twice in Birmingham, and it has always been such a highlight any tour we go on. It is a really phenomenal venue; the people that work there are just incredible, like the way they treat bands — it’s so nice. The atmosphere there is just amazing; it’s something we look forward to any time we are on tour and we are close to there, we’re always looking forward to that show. And this time we were really excited when we saw we got to play there. I was doing an interview with Brooklyn Vegan, a blog in New York, and they asked, “What is your favorite venue in the country?”
I had to say Bottletree Café. It’s an amazing place for music and they seem to be about the right things there.
Weld: You’ve said before that when you guys began all of this, all you had was the name. Can you tell me more about that?
KB: Maybe that was a little facetious, I don’t know. [Laughs.] When we started, I was writing some songs, I came up with a band name and we created MySpace profile — it was sort of a profile with no songs [Laughs.] for a little while. There were some songs, but we didn’t record right away. I sort of had the idea that the band would be called the Pains of Being Pure At Heart, and I was like, “Well, I don’t want to be the only one in this band.”
So I asked my friend — she was actually from Alabama herself — to play, so it was me and Elizabeth at first, but then I think she moved back to — I think she moved to South Carolina or something. She didn’t stay in New York, so that made it really hard. She was supposed to be the original singer, too. I didn’t want to sing. And then the guy who sat next to me at work, I asked him and he came over so it sort of formed from there. It was sort of like, “I’m starting a band called the Pains of Being Pure at Heart we will figure out all the other stuff later” kind of thing.
So I don’t know. We’ve been extremely fortunate that we are still a band and we weren’t just a MySpace profile with no songs on it forever, you know? It actually is kind of amazing.
Weld: How has that been, starting as an indie band in the social media generation and starting with MySpace? How has that evolved for you guys and how important has it been to grow and evolve through collapses of networks like MySpace? How did you grow in the time since then?
KB: Well, first, I think everything that has happened technologically in the last 10 to 15 years for music has been completely to the advantage of independent and lesser known bands and artists. It’s really spread the music industry wide. There is no longer the sense you have to get “the ideal” or hand your demo tape to some guy in Los Angeles with a ponytail. You really can create something in your own space, in your own way, that people can access without a lot of intermediaries like record labels or anything like that.
It doesn’t mean that record labels still don’t have role — we’ve been really fortunate to work with good people who have been able to do it better than we could have on our own. I think that at the inception of our band we were able to share our music so freely and so openly with people all around the world, while having very little profile. We played our first show in Sweden, like, when our EP came out. These promoters were like, “We love you guys. We want bring you to Sweden. We want to buy you plane tickets and in exchange to play a show.” And I’m like, “Oh my God, a trip to Sweden would be amazing.”
And we were playing and people knew the words to all of our songs. All we had was a five-song EP that we basically were just giving to anyone that wanted it for free at the time. It just allowed our music to spread so much faster without any kind of artificial barrier, without even a financial impediment. If people wanted to hear they could just hear it, which was really cool, and something we still try to maintain as much as we can. I think it’s been to the advantage of so many bands. While everyone is so quick to lament the decline of album sales, I think music fandom — it’s a great time to be a fan of music and there is probably greater diversity and opportunity for artists of all sizes and types now more than ever. I think on the whole, whatever transformation the music industry is experiencing is really to the benefits of fans first off, and bands. Especially bands that may not fit the sort of pre-packaged mold of what an ideal rock and roll band is supposed to do or say.
Weld: How do you feel you guys are most successful at introducing new fans to your music?
KB: With all that has been said about technology — and I think it is exceptionally important in terms of people being able to access to your music anywhere — I feel the tried-and-true method of going on tour and playing live is maybe not the best way to reach the most amount of people, but the best way to actually connect with people. I know as a guy that loves music — I hear lots of things that I like all the time. Lots of times I sort of forget that I even like them at times. But when I see something live, it connects with me and makes a real impression with me one way or the other in a way that simply listening to an MP3 or any recording of a band may not really cement what that fun is about or who they are.
There’s a lot of substance in experiencing and seeing something live. I think playing live and touring as best as you can and touring as much as you can, it creates a real meaningful connection with music, not simply exposure for exposure’s sake. I think people really get a sense of what your band is about and what you are trying to do.
Weld: How may shows are you guys playing in a year now?
KB: When the record comes out this year we are going to go on tour all of April, and then a couple of weeks off, and all of June and early July and then hopefully August and into the fall — I mean, it’s a very full-on experience when you have a release, but there is also a downtime where you are not touring, because you are writing a new record and recording.
I think it’s all a wonderful balance though, because when you spend too long recording a record or just writing, you’re so anxious to get to perform live. By the end of playing a year’s worth of shows almost every day, I think as much as you love it, you feel anxious to create something new again, to just be able to write songs and not simply to perform songs. So both things are so fun and so exciting and a really fun life. But I think it is important to have a balance between the creativity of writing and recording and the joy of performing and connecting that music with people.
Weld: It has been about three years since the Belong, and it seems like you guys work really methodically. What has been going on since?
KB: I guess we toured a lot with Belong, and we were really fortunate. We’re not a very big band and the kind of band to have a lot of great new experiences. With being able to tour parts of the world, maybe 10 years ago a band like ours wouldn’t even have had the chance to get a show. In addition to playing in the United States and Europe and England and places that are sort of also very normal for people with electric guitars who play music to get a chance to play, we also got to tour in Australia and Southeast Asia — not just Japan, but also…in Taiwan, we had two shows in China, one in the Philippines, one in Thailand — these places, like, it was a really big deal for us to get to go there. We’re not huge, but we still got a chance to play a show there and it was really awesome.
So we did that and we spent a lot of time making demos of our songs. I just feel no compulsion to release music for the sake of releasing music. There’s so many great bands and so many opportunities for people to hear cool stuff, you don’t need a new record from us every eight months or something. I’d rather take our time and make something that is really the best that we can possibly make it. I think people appreciate…that when we do do something, we really have put a lot of heart and a lot of time into making it the best that it can be. So there are some bands that can release really good records like every couple of years, but I am happy taking my time just trying to do something that’s special. Even my favorite bands, they might release a lot of records, but even if you have a favorite band, you might still just listen to two or three or four of the favorites over and over again. You don’t need to release 28 records in your lifetime, you just need to release a few really good ones if you can.
Weld: What can we expect from Days of Abandon?
KB: I think Days of Abandon kind of feels like we took the elements of what we thought, at least, was really positive about our first two records. I think the lyricism and the storytelling of our first record and how personal it was, was really refreshing. It still feels like that is the kind of music I like the most. And then with our second record, I think we really learned about how to make music sound better. Maybe “better” is the wrong word, but we kind of learned how to express ourselves in the fuller range sonically.
The first record, most of the songs sort of sounded like they were recorded in my friend’s basement — which they were — but it was a good vibe. I don’t think it is something that is associated with anything unsophisticated. I think it’s false to think the more fancy, the better. A lot of times the fancy thing actually just sucks. But I think we had positive experiences with both records, but I feel like the sound of the second record was kind of revelatory with what we can possibly do in a recording studio — kind of trying to take the elements of songwriting like we had on the first record and blend them with the more advanced sound of the second record.
It’s not as heavy of a record — it’s not all guitar, all the time. It’s not that I don’t like that sound — I love that sound — but I think it is important for us to kind of do something fresh and do something that was not just making another big huge guitar rock record, trying to get songs to be powerful in different ways, using different elements rather than relying on simply like, “Let’s make it louder and then it will, like, rock more.”
We can find other ways of communicating; there’s other instruments in the room, it doesn’t always have to be the big muff pedal. There’s a couple of songs that have the big muff pedal. I think you can hear it in the first single we did, too, “Simple and Sure.” I grew up with a lot of Tom Petty, and I think there is something really classic about his songwriting. It’s very — it’s not simplistic, but it is simple, and it’s direct, and he writes really good rock songs.
He’s a guy — when you start thinking of all the people that have played the Super Bowl halftime shows, he’s not as charismatic as Prince or Bruce Springsteen. He’s not the performer that Beyonce is or really almost anyone, but what makes his music special is based around good songwriting and consistency and over time, you realize like, “Oh my God. This guy has written so many great songs.”
He’s kind of underrated, I think. … He’s never mentioned in the same breath with the greatest of all time. It’s always the Beatles or the Stones or Hendrix or Neil Young or Dylan, but I think over time, his catalog is just so impressive. And I think what’s also impressive is his work with the Traveling Wilburys — all those classic people that are seen as untouchable, like Dylan and Roy Orbison and George Harrison — they all wanted to play with him. “Let’s be in a band with Tom Petty,” like, he had the respect of his peers in this cool way and he was not necessarily critically — like, I doubt he’s on the Mount Rushmore of rock and roll — but I always liked his vibe. He’s also understated; he’s not a very loud or obnoxious guy. I don’t think he wears leather pants, ever [Laughs]. He just seems like a guy who writes his songs on his Rickenbacker guitar and sings and smokes pot.
Weld: What’s your favorite Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers record?
KB: You can’t go wrong with Damn the Torpedoes; it was almost like a constant soundtrack when I was growing up because my stepdad was huge into Petty and it was just always on. You can tell even the later era Petty stuff — I think all the way up through Wildflowers — just untouchable, like, great. But actually, Full Moon Fever, I think, is more in the vein of a Tom Petty that is approachable — it was a very, like, ’80s-produced Tom Petty record. It wasn’t with the Heartbreakers, but it had really cool guitar, and it is like sort of less traditional rock and roll and a little bit more of ’80s pop. I think that is a great one. “Dancing at the Zombie Zoo” is a great way to end a record [Laughs].
It’s also great driving music. If you’re on tour driving to Alabama from Charlottesville, you can put on Tom Petty for a while and no one is ever going to complain. There are very few bands that you can put something on in the car and everyone is like, “Yeah, this is good. I like this.” And I think that is kind of like a testament to the fact that he wrote in a very classic way, but not in the middle of the road or sort of watered-down style of music.
Weld: If John Hughes were alive and making movies today, would Pains of Being Pure at Heart be able to score that?
KB: If he’d let us! It’s not a question of if we’d want to or if we admired his work. I mean, obviously, I think his films are just huge touchstone of not even his own generation, I feel like they become a vocabulary — an adolescent vocabulary — that extends beyond people that were adolescents at the time of those films being made. I think they have become timeless; they are childhood, they are coming of age, they are the experiences and those experiences, they aren’t those experiences in 1983 or 1993, they just seem to be the standard for that time of life, and I also think they are the standard outside of the time of life.
In strange ways, the questions and ideas that he brings into his movies, they’re kind of the questions you face your whole life: who you are, what do you want out of love and your sense of identity and your social surroundings. I don’t know. I often tell people, because they say to us all our songs are about being teenagers — and it’s something that I don’t think it’s an insult — but I also feel like what it means to me is that our songs are about experiences of adolescents, but those experiences don’t stop at the age 18 or 25 or whatever. Trying to figure who you are, what you want to do with your life, what kind of person you want to be — those are questions that people ask themselves I am pretty sure their whole lives. At least they’re questions I have asked myself my whole life.
After Belong — I’m proud of Belong, but I felt that maybe I was not being completely true to myself. Maybe I had sort of written a record that was big and very superficially beautiful in some ways, but kind of cut some corners in terms of being emotionally candid or writing in a more personal style, and I felt with Days of Abandon that I wanted to make sure like if we never get to make another record — I hope that is not true — but I want to make something that is reflective of who I am and not just who I want to be, or who I would rather I be.
Weld: Who are the top five American rock bands of all time?
KB: That is a tough one. I’d like to get some people from all the eras. It’s so hard — in the ’60s, most of the bands were not American. But the Rolling Stones sounded more American than most American bands, to their credit. Well, I guess I am going to use rock by broadly and I think you can’t look at the history of Western — whatever we listen to pop, rock — without thinking Dylan played a pretty essential role in everything.
So Bob Dylan is always there like around 1977 to 1992, I’m going to say Tom Petty. That’s a 15-year range of being amazing. Another band that’s very dear to my heart, we’ll go with the Ramones. I am going to go with Hole over Nirvana, because I think Nirvana could never enjoy being a rock band. Nirvana was self-conscious about being a rock band; their issues with success and fame prevented them from really embracing the possibility of their situation, and tragically so — and I think Courtney Love really wanted to be a rock star and she really was, in this kind of straight-up amazing way. She was, like, one of the great American rock singers of her era. You can tell someone is good at something when they piss everyone off, and I think she never hesitated to do that.
I’d also say the other American I never really feel gets the credit that she deserved — and it’s not a rock band, but I think there’s a lot of things that came after her that were sort of a lesser version of what she represented — I am really a huge fan of Tori Amos. I just think she was such a powerful songwriter, and there was a lot of adult contemporary stuff that came in her wake in 1990s. Obviously she is indebted in some respect to Kate Bush, but Kate Bush is not American and Tori Amos is, I think, from North Carolina. So yeah Tori, Courtney Love and Tom Petty and the Ramones.
I think if you went to a concert and that is what you saw, you would be pretty happy right? The Talking Heads are great. Nirvana is obviously great. I have a really soft spot for the Strokes. There’s a million great artists, but I guess that would be my Mount Rushmore. But the thing about Rushmore is that I don’t actually think it’s finished — I think they were meaning to put more people on it, so I don’t believe this is a definitive list of worthy icons.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart will perform at Bottletree Cafe on Friday, March 21. Eternal Summers will open, and Berman insists that they’re terrific and patrons should arrive early. (He’s correct.) Doors open at 8 p.m., while the show begins at 9 p.m. Tickets are $12.