The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart have established themselves as one of the biggest names 1n indiepop on both sides of the Atlantic. Having formed in 2007, the band have released three albums to varying levels of critical acclaim. Having undergone several line-up changes since their formation as well as collaborating with artists such as A Sunny Day In Glasgow's Jen Goma and Jess Weiss from Fear Of Men, founder member and songwriter Kip Berman spoke to DiS about the band's progression, marriage and what the future holds for The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart.
DiS: You've just played a handful of shows in the UK culminating in headlining Indietracks later this evening. How's the tour been so far?
Kip Berman: This tour's been great. We've had Jen Goma from A Sunny Day In Glasgow playing with us. She sang on our last record so it was awesome being able to do those songs live with her. She also has another side project with our old drummer Kurt Feldman and A Sunny Day In Glasgow's Ryan Newmyer called Roman À Clef. We've played at some awesome festivals this summer like Latitude and Scotland's Wickerman and now here. I guess these are the music festivals for people that like music? They should all be for people who like music!
DiS: You last headlined Indietracks in 2010. Do you feel some kind of kinship with the festival?
Kip Berman: What's interesting is how are lives and the music we grew up with has changed since we last played here. Different bands have emerged, other bands have gone away. Friends have become enemies, enemies have become friends. The world shifts a lot in five years. When you look around and realise we're still here it's amazing considering a lot of the bands we loved from the indiepop world have disappeared. A band like The Manhattan Love Suicides for instance. They're probably a little unorthodox in how they conduct themselves but they were a major influence on me starting this band. They put out their first record in 2006 and me and Peggy (Wang, former keyboard player) heard them in 2007 which is when we started. I put on one of their shows when they came over to the States for the first time. It was just meant to be a house party but it gave me an excuse to put them on! And that ended up being our first show too. Nowadays that seems such a strange story. So yeah, coming back to the festival... I remember Shrag also playing the first time we played. I was a really big fan of theirs. And I also saw a friend from Sweden who spent most summers travelling Europe to various indiepop festivals. Her circumstances have changed now so I don't think she does that as much any more but it's so heartening to know that a festival like this attracts the same people year after year.
DiS: Indietracks has definitely grown over the past five years, certainly in terms of the number of attendees.
Kip Berman: I think interest has grown in the scene over the past few years. Certainly with some of the noisier bands like Evans The Death and Joanna Gruesome. And then the first artists we saw when we arrived on site earlier were Desperate Journalist, who I think are such a special band. It's also one of the healthiest scenes for female fronted bands or even just having a female member. Gone are the days when bands would have a token female playing bass and singing backing vocals, so it's nice to see such a shift change in that respect. Indiepop has always been disproportionate in terms of female artists having agency or being the driving songwriting force so it's great that most of the best bands around at the moment centre around that dynamic.
DiS: Why do you think this scene's developed in that way compared to say, mainstream rock or mainstream pop?
Kip Berman: I do think mainstream pop despite all its problems around image and how artists are portrayed is one of the few genres where female artists do better than their male counterparts. I'm sure there are sub-genres of pop that are almost exclusively male dominated but mainstream pop has more successful females. Beyonce is bigger than Jay-Z. Taylor Swift's a bigger star than Ed Sheeran. Nicki Minaj is doing better than Lil Wayne these days. There are still really profound issues about how women are treated by mainstream culture but I think mainstream pop does try to redress that balance, superficially at least. While indiepop still isn't quite 50:50 in terms of the male-female ratio I think most of its icons are females. People like Amelia Fletcher, Pam Berry and more recently Alannah McArdle. There's a heroicism to female fronted groups. At the end of the day, these are the people that are making the most important music. Which is why I was so excited by Desperate Journalist's set today. I hadn't heard their music before this weekend but they are so good live, I really need to listen to their records. I can't possibly imagine anything could convey how good are they are live but I hope they get a chance to come and play some shows in the States. Other bands like Fear Of Men - who are working on their second album now - and Evans The Death too. There's a really important movement happening and I just hope everyone takes the opportunity to listen and appreciate them.
DiS: The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart's line-up has changed significantly from your last visit to Indietracks and also between albums two and three. Is this the stable line-up going forwards or will there be different collaborators involved in the future?
Kip Berman: Christoph (Hochheim, guitarist) has been in the band since 2009 and his brother Anton plays drums for us and has done for the past three years. Jacob (Sloan, bass) has been with us for a similar length of time. Certainly since before Days Of Abandon came out. I've known them all a long time. Anton and Christoph also played with The Depreciation Guild which was our original drummer's first band. I guess people think there's been no continuity because we became known when other people were in the band. We wanted Jen (Goma) to tour with us last year but she had a lot of commitments with A Sunny Day In Glasgow so couldn't really meet our schedule. If we'd hit the ground running with that line up last year it may have made more sense to people watching the music as well as hearing it. Jess (Weiss) from Fear Of Men filled in and she was great too, so I guess I'm quite lucky I can call on people from the indiepop world to help us out at short notice. Last fall we did a tour and my cousin-in-law came along and did vocals for us. She was great too. Drew Citron from the band Beverly has toured with us as well. She's working on a new record with Frankie Rose at the minute. I'm really grateful that all these people have contributed but at the same time it's really nice to do these shows with the actual line-up that made the record.
DiS: Has the dynamic changed within the band since you first started? Obviously you're the only remaining original member now.
Kip Berman: I don't think it has significantly but sometimes it can. Which is a shame because it distracts from the music. I don't think it's that important for people to ask who's in the band now. Does it really matter that much? I like the idea of a band being this group of people that make music and for me, that supersedes any notion of who those people might actually be. I write all the songs but I don't want The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart to be just about Kip Berman.
DiS: Do you think people have come to regard The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart as a solo project in recent years?
Kip Berman: I hope not, because a solo project would just be so sad. There's nothing worse than some guy just writing a bunch of songs than recruiting a cast of musicians to go and play them. That concept doesn't work for anyone other than Leonard Cohen. I like the idea of having a band around me to help create an idea. Part of the whole creation process is about involving the band to develop the songs. I know that people saw Days Of Abandon as a solo record because the band's personnel changed during that period, but actually it was probably the most collaborative.
DiS: Days Of Abandon received widespread critical acclaim in contrast to some of the unfair criticism bestowed on its predecessor, Belong. Do you feel vindicated to some degree by the media's response to your last record? Do you pay much attention to what the press are writing about the band?
Kip Berman: First of all, I don't think it's healthy to reflect too much on the immediate press perception of a record. Nobody really knows what a good record is until ten years after it's been released. There are some records - The Strokes This Is It for instance - that reflect a time and seem like they're going to be important forever. Looking back ten years later, it created a sound, it created an aesthetic. And it gave the impetus for kids to form bands. Tonnes of new bands formed off the back of that record. My only motivation for making music is because I like making music so I don't get too hung up over negative reviews of our records. Maybe the negative reception had more to do with the way people consume music nowadays? I don't know. When the first record came out I did read a lot of the reviews. I don't believe artists when they say they never read their reviews. Of course they do! I felt like we made the record we wanted to make with Belong. I wasn't going to be able to change anything or want to change anything. This is who we were at that moment in time and these are the songs I wrote. I don't want to dwell on the past. I'd rather think about the future.
DiS: Do you feel you've had to prove yourselves with every subsequent record?
Kip Berman: I'm not sure if we're constantly having to prove ourselves but we're not in a position where we can afford to make many mistakes either. I feel some bands view success as giving them leverage to make a couple of bad records and I don't get that. Fair enough, once you get to a certain level there's probably less pressure but I always want to make the best record I possibly can. Our existence is still quite tenuous so we always strive to do our best. We've been fortunate to have so many opportunities come our way but that's mostly down to making the absolute maximum effort in everything we do. We're always trying to push ourselves, and I think that's apparent on all three albums.
DiS: Has the writing process changed over the course of the band's lifespan?
Kip Berman: I always aim to write four bad songs to every six good ones! I don't know? Maybe that's the key towards people thinking you're good at something? I start off by writing two, and then I'll play them to my wife and family members. I think it's important for some kind of critique before my music gets out to the general public. You don't always know what your best work is. You may have five ideas but four of those could be really bad, or you be fixated on certain aspects. So it's important for me that other people see where I'm coming from and sometimes, for me to know what they see in it too. When I'm writing a new record it's a long-winded filtering process of trying to let the best ideas emerge. I know music isn't currently centered around albums but for me a record has to be coherent, and every song has to make sense with each other. For better or worse, I think each of our records are coherent. I've never gone back and wondered what a particular song was doing on a certain record. It doesn't mean I didn't write any other songs. There are songs I wrote around the time of Days Of Abandon that are more like Belong.
DiS: Each of your three albums does seem to follow a theme or particular mood. Whether it be youthful exuberance with the first one, the assured sound of the second or the third which appears to document emerging from a bad place.
Kip Berman: I get that each one sounds like it follows a theme. I'm not entirely sure what the theme is! The first album is about reflecting on the past in the present, if that makes sense? There's a lot of that on there. The second record is more immediate. It was made at a time when none of us knew what was going to happen next. It was a weird combination of heavy and ambitious. Some bands would have played it safe and followed the same template on the second record as with the first, even down to the artwork. I get that to an extent as it's probably the most reliable way of consolidating your status. At that time we had the opportunity to make something a little different and we also got to work with a producer like Flood. It's like when you listen to the single version of 'Belong' on iTunes it doesn't even sound like us! I remember Alan Moulder standing there in the studio and me looking across in awe.
DiS: Having worked with Alan Moulder and Flood on Belong then Andy Savours on Days Of Abandon, how did they compare and would you work with any of them again should the opportunity arise?
Kip Berman: I think the main difference was us. We were quite intimidated by Flood's reputation and didn't realise until late in the process that the best record was going to come out when we pressed on with what we wanted to do. We were always on edge thinking he'd come in at some point and tell us we needed to do this or that to become successful artists or whatever. It wasn't until we started bringing our own ideas to the table that he helped us achieve them in the best possible way. In hindsight, we should have been up front with him from the start about how we wanted the songs to sound. But on the whole it went really well. I'm quite comfortable with how it turned out. Songs like 'The Body' for instance, and 'Anne With An E' especially, which wasn't even meant to go on the record. It was originally intended as a b-side and 'Tomorrow Dies Today', which ended up as a b-side was initially on the album. But the way it sounded and flowed with the other songs after we'd finished recording I knew in my head it had to be track 5 on the record. I think that can be the most important track when it comes to knitting a ten song album together because it effectively links the whole of side one with the second side of the record. Same with 'Coral And Gold' on Days Of Abandon. It pulls things back a little bit so we can start afresh on side two. But going back to Flood, it was him that initially suggested 'Anne With An E' should go on Belong and the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. I think we spent too much time apologising when making that record. It wasn't that we sucked but more about not feeling confident or dignified enough to be in a room with someone like Flood. With Andy (Savours), we approached it a little differently to the point where we genuinely became friends. Whenever I go to London I hang out with him. He's a really special guy. He's incredibly talented. He came from doing the new My Bloody Valentine record to working with us, but by that point I felt a lot more accomplished even though there was a lot of uncertainty around band members and who would be making this record. But the relationship grew to the point where he was like the calm at the centre of... I wouldn't say storm but he gave us the impetus to knuckle down straight away and within a month the whole album was recorded. He brought a different dynamic to the band. And we invited him along to our friend's club night Scared To Dance and introduced him to indiepop! He had a much more contemporary sensibility and wasn't too obsessed by indiepop. He wanted the record to sound like a mix of Outkast's 'Hey Ya' and Tom Petty. He brought new ideas to the table that weren't just purely rooted in noisy guitar sounds which made the record a lot different sonically to the one before it.
DiS: All three records show different sides to the band and from that point of view, stand up in their own right.
Kip Berman: That's kind of you to say. I'm not one for playing them off against one another but there are always moments where I wish I could have done something better. Like whenever we go on tour, we always figure out how to finally play the record we're promoting by the time the last show comes around. It always takes a full album cycle for us to finally be the band we should have been at the start of it. We often come off tour thinking if only the first show had been as good as the last one. It's really frustrating.
DiS: Are there any songs left over from the Days Of Abandon sessions that might be revisited in the future?
Kip Berman: I write a lot of songs and 75% of them are terrible! There's a couple of songs that just weren't right for the last album, so they're still around as I think they're too good to dispose of just yet. When I look back at a song like 'The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart', that was originally a b-side because we could not never get the recording as good as when we played it live. We still put that on the first record because it's such a meaningful song to us. The House Of Love did that with 'Shine On' and The Smiths did it regularly as well. I don't see why anyone would initially write a song if they weren't going to record it? The biggest problem I find is when I get into a rhythm it's hard to change tack. For example, when I wrote 'Masokissed' on the last record I immediately came up with another six songs that were very similar. There's always that thing where you don't want to become too good a band as more often than not you end up becoming a terrible band. Or for someone to say these guys have become better musicians but they have nothing to say any more. Bands that have something to say always sound good no matter how they're expressing it.
DiS: Are there any plans in place for a 4th Pains Of Being Pure At Heart record?
Kip Berman: I've written a couple of songs but I need to keep writing before I can say the next record is anywhere near complete. I want to take some time to breathe and reflect first but I'm pretty excited about what I've written so far. They're still only at the demo stage. I want to make sure that if we get chance to make another record it comes off in a good way. The logistics are a little difficult right now because Anton and Christoph are based in California and I live in New York so it's going to be a difficult process with the geographic disparity. It's weird that some people think of us as an old band and some people's expectations around the fourth record reflect this. In the States, there seems to be this culture whereby a band's relevance has expired by the time they reach the fourth album. Whereas the UK seems to be obsessed with finding the next big thing, which to an extent is natural. It's exciting to see new artists come along but that culture can be dangerous.
DiS: The increasing disposability of new music is somewhat disheartening.
Kip Berman: It's silly. We've never been part of that world and I think it's allowed us to keep making music. Maybe if our first record had been like The xx's first record it would have elevated us to another level? I don't know psychologically if I'd be able to deal with that kind of situation but it would be fun to try. I just feel grateful that we still get to make records. I just care about making good music and hopefully we can continue to do that.
DiS: You got married last year. Has that had an impact on your approach to writing and making music?
Kip Berman: I've never felt like I was allowed to be... or had the impulse to be a fuck up. I see a lot of other artists going through stuff, and I guess they're free to do as many drugs as they want or whatever. But for me that just distracts from making music, which is all I want to do without having it all fall apart. Maybe I'm in a fortunate position that we didn't start the band until I was older. When our first record came out I was basically about to turn thirty. I had my thirtieth birthday during our first tour. By that point you've had a regular job and experienced what life is like outside of being in a band. So you really appreciate the opportunities that come your way. All of the people I've played with in this band are smart, intelligent and engaged with what's going on in the world. Just because we're an indie band doesn't mean we're a bunch of dumb asses! I feel grateful the people I play music with are switched on. They know about things. It's not just a fashion thing or something that's cool for now. Christoph and Anton teach me about aspects of life I don't really know that much about.
DiS: Do you see The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart becoming more politically charged from a lyrical perspective in the future?
Kip Berman: I don't mind talking about politics. I guess there's a limit to the impact a band like ours could have when it comes to that kind of thing. I think the age of poptimism is probably coming to an end and it's because of reality. It's not just enough now to have nothing to say per se. I think poptimism has been amazing in the way it's celebrated artists from different backgrounds and given them a platform to spread their message all over the world. But at the same time, just because someone created a beat or a catchy pop hook doesn't mean they care less about their art. In the future, I believe artists will be measured by whether they have something to say or not. I'm not big headed enough to suggest what I have to say is more important than anyone else but pop artists do have something to say, even if they express it in a different way. Pop music will always be celebrated but I think there'll be a higher standard emphasized towards artists perceived to be saying something of importance. I think there was a really strong tradition with indie music in the 1980s where artists had something to say, particularly in the UK. But then a lot of that got diluted by Britpop over the course of the next decade. So it's great to see a new generation tackling subjects like gender politics and LGBT issues. And also that it's being celebrated in a positive way rather than ridiculed or belittled. That's where I see artists engaging politically in the future.
DiS: What advice would you give to new bands just starting out?
Kip Berman: When we first started this band, most of the advice we were given was very clichéd. I guess the main piece of advice I'd give is be true to yourselves and always do something that's interesting and innovative. I always think it's better to be the best at what you are regardless of whether people think it's cool or not. No one knows how history's going to turn or when fashions will change. There seems to be more of a copycat culture nowadays than when we started out. Our goal was to be the most famous band in the world to twelve people. Looking back it probably sounds cheesy but I think it fits in with our whole ethos. Art isn't a general election. You don't have to win 51% of the vote. You don't have to convince a majority of people what you're about. I know we've made some mistakes and I'm sure we'll make some more, but we're still able to play festivals like Indietracks where people only care about music. It wouldn't matter whether you were on the cover of the NME or Rolling Stone. They only book you if they're sure about what you're doing, and it's nice to be appreciated by those kind of people.
For more information on The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart visit their official website.
Photo by Stephanie Webb.