Bags of Haribo, scattered Kinder Eggs, chocolate fingers, a variety of biscuits, crisps, dips and fizzy drinks engorge the opposite end of the table we’re sat at with Kip Berman [vocals] and Peggy Wang [keyboards]; two fifths of New York City fuzz-pop outfit The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. The other three – bassist Alex Naidus, drummer Kurt Feldman and new guitarist Christoph Hochheim – are occupied with either trying to eat cereal out of a small plastic cup or playing with Kinder Egg toys.
“We’re pretty into sweets,” declares Kip with a mouthful of Haribo. “Sorry if I’m making chewy candy sounds. Nom nom nom.” He smiles playfully, revealing the entire demeanour of the band, which is one of cheerful, unadulterated fun. Throughout our chat they joke around, digress on random tangents and put on silly voices because, despite being in a band that get to tour the world, they’re still just a bunch of kids (albeit with an age range of 25-31) who go gaga over music. “Yeah, we dork out, why not?” Kip says matter-of-factly. “Technically, I know that we’re a band, but for most of our lives we were just people who dorked out about music, so our perspective is still from an ‘Oh my God, we get to be backstage at this festival!’ point of view. There’s still that sense of awe.”
Even when their paths cross with musicians they admire, Kip tells us that he still feels too shy to speak to them. “I met Jarvis Cocker briefly, he was signing autographs at Rough Trade,” he laughs before Peggy cuts in. “Wait, did you actually ask him to sign something though, or did you ask someone else?” He admits sheepishly that he asked someone else. “But he [Jarvis] did it and then he talked to me,” says Kip, proudly. “I couldn’t approach him, even though all you had to do was wait in the line and get to the front – I was still intimidated by that process, because, you know, he’s pretty God-like.”
While recording their second album, ‘Belong’, the band also met James Iha – Smashing Pumpkins guitarist and a feted hero of theirs – at Stratosphere Sound, a studio he owns in New York. “We got to say hi to him,” Kip gushes, “and he let us borrow his guitar to record, so if it sounds better than it does normally it’s probably because it was his guitar playing itself.”
‘Belong’ isn’t a huge step away from their previous work. It is essentially a creation born from an intense love of ’90s indie such as Belle and Sebastian, Pavement, Weezer and The Vaselines (ok, ’80s too), but there’s an injection of grunge in the guitars. The chorus of the opening title track is completely absorbed in a resonating cloud of riffage that contrasts excitingly with Kip’s echoing sigh. Even the poppier tracks, like ‘Heart in Your Heartbreak’, which has floaty boy-girl harmonies, benefits from the Biffy Clyro-esque husk of a guitar line (think ‘Ideal Height’). Kip explains that, due to touring commitments, this was all down to the fact that ‘Belong’ wasn’t recorded in one sitting.
“It was helpful because it gave us some perspective on things,” he begins, “and didn’t allow us to go down a one-thought black hole, which is easy when you’re in a studio all day and you don’t see the sunlight. It’s really easy to get distracted and think, ‘Maybe we should do all our songs on synthesiser’ and there can be weird moments where you lose sight of what’s fun about why you’re doing it in the first place – which is stepping on a fuzz-peddle for three and half minutes.”
As well as at Stratosphere, the band laid down parts of the album in Kilburn, London with Mark ‘Flood’ Ellis (Depeche Mode, PJ Harvey) and Alan Moulder (Jesus and Mary Chain, Smashing Pumpkins). “I did the demos for a week and a half,” Kip clarifies, “then we had a lot of touring to do and we came back to New York at the end of June and did the tracking. Then we went on tour again and came to London at the end to do a couple more weeks. Then all the tracking was done and we listened to it under a rainbow disco ball at five in the morning with Flood and walked out into the street and were like, ‘Holy shit we recorded a record, how did that happen?’ It was really surreal.”
Recording began on ‘Belong’ in May last year, but Kip had already written 25 songs for it before their self-titled debut LP was released in February 2009. “It was a weird thing because we finished the first record in the summer of 2008,” he says, “and before that we didn’t really have any opportunities to tour, to go anywhere or do anything, so we just kept on writing songs. It was good that we did, because we had a lot of them written earlier and as time went on we wrote more – it’s nice to be able to choose the ones you feel strongest about, rather than just put them all on the record. We’ve never had that experience before, usually it’s just like, ‘Ok, we have 10 songs, we have a record, we’ve made it’.”
But was it difficult for them to discard tracks?
“It felt weird because there were songs that I really liked and really wanted to be on the record,” Peggy mutters from behind her messy, long black hair, which is dip-dyed green at the ends and sticking out slightly to the right, like she’s just got out of bed.
“We released them in different contexts,” Kip justifies. “We came out with an EP in 2009 after the record and we also did a stand alone single last summer. I mean, there were times when we thought, ‘Oh, this is great’, and it wasn’t, but the basic songs that we really, really like ended up being on the record; like ‘Belong’ and ‘Strange’, ‘Even in Dreams’, ‘The Body’. But some stuff turned out better than we thought and other stuff wasn’t as good. Songs like ‘Anne with an E’ and ‘Girl with a Thousand Dreams’, I initially thought those weren’t right for the record, but then we recorded them and they just made sense with the other songs; offered a balance and dynamic.
“Our first record came together from a bunch of singles and EPs – that idea of finding all the songs you know how to play and recording them – whereas this time, we got to think about the idea of what a record really is; pacing and a unity of spirit. The LP format is less and less important to how people view music [nowadays], except we grew up in a generation that really values that and holds records of coherent sets of songs to be really important. But I love EPs a lot.”
Peggy agrees and states that she loves how EPs are “no filler”, while Kip chatters enthusiastically away, happy to go on and on and on if you don’t stop him.
When describing the themes of the record he gets flustered and you can tell that he’s verbally vomiting every thought that’s running through his head.
“Well,” he starts, “I mean, the themes… there’s a lot of ambivalence and there’s not a clear… there’s a lot of ambivalence and a lack of… I don’t know if it’s moral direction or psychological clarity. Originally, three of the last five songs had the word ‘dream’ in the title and we had to take one out because we can’t have 60 per cent of side B having the word dream in it. But at the same time it sort of speaks on… you’re experiencing sensation very much. It’s an accidental thing. Things come out that you weren’t even aware were there and you can’t make sense of things until you wake up from them. But the writing process was very much not a state of being aware and understanding things. Now I can look back and be like, ‘Oh, that’s how that turned out’. I don’t know if that actually clarified things.” He laughs a stunted and awkward laugh, like a cartoon mule, at our complete and utter confusion. “Our whole album just doesn’t make any sense and I’ll make less sense of it by trying to explain it. You can tell me I’m just being contradictory and stupid and pretentious, it’s totally fine.”
What he does make clear, however, is that he had a strong urge to send across a genuine reflection of their identity as a band. “We grew up in the suburbs of America and we had similar experiences even though we lived in different places,” he puts plainly. “The language is evocative rather than narrative based. The [songs aren’t] trying to reflect on past experience and make sense in the present. It’s an expressive, hyper descriptive, intuitive way to describe the present and trying to emotionally connect to something in the immediate moment. It wasn’t like we had to know seventeen other bands first to understand why the Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Siamese Dreams’ sounded awesome – it was immediate in the best way that rock music can be.
“When you write a first record you look back on a lot of experiences in your life and reflect upon them to create songs, but once those experiences have been put into song and made sense of, what do you have left? Just the life that you’ve lived since July 2008 when we finished the first record. It’s [‘Belong’] a sense of expressing the moments where you exist – you can’t go back time and time again to the same area. Well, you could if you’re obsessed and demented and just can’t get over it, man, and you’re still bummed out after high school,” he laughs.
“On the first album there’s a lot of clever stuff, but it’s a way of being emotionally evasive, using humour to dodge culpability. I wanted ‘Belong’ to be more direct and naked in how it treats feelings, because I think 99 per cent of my life is dick jokes and I figured for one per cent I’d like to not make that many dick jokes.”
The dick jokes he’s referring to are the “doing it” songs on the first album, namely ‘Young Adult Friction’, which is about sex in a library. “It was actually the library bathroom,” Kip reveals. “It would have been cool if all those lines made sense, but that’s what I was saying; it’s bullshit. It’s clever to say ‘Backs to the spines’ when it was more like, ‘Bent over a toilet’, but that doesn’t sound as poetic in an indie pop song. On one hand it’s like, ‘Oh ho ho, look at what I did, ha ha, dick joke, ha ha, bad pun in the title,’ but on the other hand to me pop music should be meaningful on a level beyond dick jokes.”
Going back to the idea of the EP, Kip points out that their debut album was just an extended, extended play. “It was basically the same song 10 times,” he divulges, “but if you like something, just go with it. There’s something cool about that and it’s not a bad thing that there’s no change of pace, but this time we’re excited about shaping something that is a better, cohesive listening experience.
“And I agree with Peggy, EPs are good, there’s no heavy-handed pressure, like, ‘Oh, now it’s time to make…an album’,” he whispers in a serious tone. “There’s some kind of self-conscious act of self-aggrandisement that’s really dangerous to get into when you’re thinking about making an album, but EPs are fun and casual.” Here they branch off, discussing what they believe to be brilliant EPs, including all of the Belle and Sebastian ones, My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Sunny Sunday Smile’ and ‘Glider’, Voxtrot and just about any other indie/alt. band you can name, until we interrupt and Kip continues on track about the record. “It also has a weird flexibility and whatever-ness, which makes music fun and spontaneous and often opens the door to other ideas. Because we were able to do the EP and try a bunch of stuff, we learnt things about ourselves – what we liked and didn’t like. I don’t know…I really do like EPs,” he ponders. “And LPs. I like singles too.”
Peggy puts on a child-like accent and imitates Kip, saying, “‘I like everything! Do you like pizza? I like pizza.’” Which starts them off on another wild tangent of cute and scrummy things. “I like pizza, I also like hamburgers,” Kip double imitates Peggy. “I love dogs,” she proclaims.
“They’re so cute.”
“Alpacas are the best.”
“Pandas are really cute,” Peggy adds as Kip suddenly shifts straight back into earnest mode and talks about various mediums of music serving different purposes. “It’s easier for an album to be disappointing,” states Peggy and Kip agrees. “You have no expectation of the EP.” They then begin discussing the writing process, which was done in Kip’s “messy-ass room, which isn’t as messy-ass any more” and get lost on the topic of a new mop that Kip bought. But once they’ve exhausted all avenues of that, Kip describes the shift in writing.
“There was a more immediate feeling in the songs we were writing after our first album,” he makes clear. “I don’t know why or how that was, but things started to come together in this way that was kind of cool and surprising. We didn’t have our first album out and all of a sudden we had all these songs and were like, ‘Wait, should we not put out our first record and make these songs our first record?’ There were elements of doubt, but I’m glad we took things one step at a time and didn’t second guess everything.
“The other thing was, we had no expectation that we’d be able to tour after our first record, so the next summer we thought we’d start recording these songs. There was no sense that there’d be a year and a half period between those things, but I’m glad we waited. It was really fun to make the first record because we’d never made a record before, but this was so different that it felt like we were making music for the first time, it was just an exciting, giddy feeling. Like that feeling of real hyper excitement and hyper giddiness. You’re not in a manic-ness, but when you’re in the moment of creating something and actually making songs, if you love music, then it’s the coolest feeling. When we were making the record this summer it was the happiest time of my life.”
“When we were in London recording, I felt like I was at summer camp,” adds Peggy. “It felt really intense – a completely different living experience compared to doing it the first time around,” (when they all had day jobs to fit recording between), “and I remember the last day we recorded felt like the last day of summer camp when you have to go home and leave all your friends. It was kind of bitter sweet.”
Now Pains are established enough to leave the day jobs behind – although Peggy writes for the blog Buzz Feed whenever she’s home – but they had no idea this is what they’d be doing when they were younger. “Oh man, I wanted to be a bus driver,” enthuses Kip. “I was really into different coloured buses and driving them.”
“Really? That’s bizarre,” counters Peggy, whose ambition was to be on The Real World. “Ok, the New York Real World had just aired and I was totally obsessed with it,” she says. “They were doing cast auditions and you had to write in and send a picture of yourself. I was 13 years old and I wrote in and I told them all the bands that I liked and then when I was eating dinner with my mum someone from MTV actually called me to tell me that my letter was really cute but that you had to be 18.” She chuckles at the memory as Kip sighs a surprised, “Awww! That’s so cool that someone phoned.”
You can tell that these guys have known each other for a long time, as they comfortably tease each other, but surely spending so much time with someone has got to take its toll eventually?
“It’s totally gonna jinx us,” says Kip, “but the way we formed wasn’t because we’re good musicians, it was because we liked hanging out. I’m sure in five years we’ll all be suing each other, but we respect each other as people. We’re not like, ‘Fuck you Peggy. Fuck you and your stacking of candy things on the table. It’s so fucked up!’” He laughs and as we look round Peggy blinks innocently behind a little pile of Haribo gummy rings. “But also,” she adds, hesitating before putting the next Haribo ring in her mouth rather than on the pile, “we don’t have personal beef. It gets messy in bands if people are fucking each other.”
“…in the library,” Kip jokes in a sleazy voice and they both erupt in giggles.
“Every college that we play, we fuck each other in the library,” Peggy announces. “King’s College you’re next!” Kip exclaims. “But no, we’re lucky. I think the lack of drugs and sex makes for arguments about who gets the wi-fi password,” he grins.
“I’m not responsible about my used gum,” confesses Peggy, regarding another argument. “I chronically chew gum and then I just stick it back in the package, but when other people want some and they reach for it, it’s just drooly globs of used gum.” We visibly wince with Kip.
“These are dark times,” he deadpans.
“Well, then I get annoyed,” Peggy defends herself, starting to get a little riled up, “and I’m like, ‘Don’t eat my gum!’ It’s my gum guard,” she declares. The fact that this quintet’s worst tiffs are over internet usage and chewing gum shows that they not only have the winning formula to make successful upbeat, yet dark and meaningful pop music, but a formula to happily sustain the hectic lifestyle. Of course, you can decide for yourself whether they’ve still got it when their new LP is released at the end of the month. There’s a good chance that it’ll become your album of the summer. “Maybe the summer’s here are kinda shitty, though?” Kip laughs. “It’s only 55°f [12°c] and raining.”
By DK Goldstein
Originally published in issue 26 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. March 2011