It’s been barely two years since the Pains of Being Pure at Heart made their live debut (at keyboardist Peggy Wang’s birthday party), but you wouldn’t know it listening to their self-titled, full-length debut, released this past week on Slumberland. It’s a record informed by a wealth of choice influences, but still bubbling with youthful exuberance—the perfect combination of wisdom of wistfulness. Cuts like “Come Saturday” and “Gentle Sons” revel in feedback ether while “Young Adult Fiction” and “A Teenager in Love” exhibit sunnier hues, but the Pains prove adept in either realm. It’s hard not to hear echoes of dazes past (The Vaselines, Pale Saints, The Jesus and Mary Chain) in the Pains’ mix of melody and maelstrom, but throughout the record’s 10 tracks, the band carves out its own niche as bright newcomers. Talking to Wang, singer/guitarist Kip Berman and bassist Alex Naidus (drummer Kurt Feldman couldn’t make it) on their home turf in Brooklyn, it’s obvious this buoyancy stems from a shared love of both their musical rearing and the sounds that they are making together.
Are you guys originally from New York?
Alex Naidus: I’m from New Jersey originally, the part that’s near New York.
Peggy Wang: I’m from New Orleans, born and raised.
Kip Berman: I’m from Philadelphia, but I lived in Portland, Oregon for a long time.
I know you guys started playing at a party, but was it just spur of the moment or did you have an inkling of being a band before that?
AN: It was somewhere in the middle, I think. We were friends, and we had similar interests and likes and dislikes with music so we decided we should be in a band specifically for this party.
KB: It got the ball rolling. We probably would have done it at some point, but because we had Peggy’s party coming up, we were like, “We should do it now.” It was nice to have a goal.
PW: I had been in bands before, but nothing that had been serious in any way at all. We would play shows every so often, but I had never gone on tour or anything like that, not that we formed with that intention.
And had you guys (Kip and Alex) done anything with music in a formal way?
KB: I played with my friend in Portland for awhile, because there it’s part of the citizenship requirement that you have a band that practices in your basement.
AN: I didn’t at all, just terrible high school and college bands.
KB: I was a super fanboy. I was really into local bands and would go to all their shows. I was really involved in music, but it was from the point of view of being an obsessive nerd about the bands I liked.
Did you know what you wanted to sound like at that point?
AN: Yeah. We all like lots of different kinds of music, but we bonded—not trying to sound like a specific song or band—on being loud, but poppy. It’s always been the general philosophy.
KB: Yeah, a marriage of being really noisy and really melodic at the same time. We’re not the first people to come up with that idea, but it always feels good when it’s done right—the idea of being super melodic, but because it’s noisy, it’s not totally saccharine.
So how do you go so quickly from playing a party to putting out a record?
AN: I guess it’s fast compared to a lot of other things, but thinking back to that party, it seems like a totally different universe. We went on our first tour in my dad’s stationwagon with 14-hour drives. It’s not about paying dues, but we kept doing what we wanted and it happened naturally. And with the internet, people heard it. and enough of them latched on. But I think everything is naturally faster in 2009 than it has been at any other time. The short answer is the internet.
How did working with Slumberland come about?
KB: It came from me ordering the Black Tambourine 10-inch reissue that he put out recently and saying that I was so psyched that it got reissued on vinyl. We were writing back and forth, and he (Slumberland head Mike Schulman) was putting on a show in New York for another band on the label. They were from Britain, and he came out to show them around. We got to open the show, and he was excited to see us play. It was our first show with a real drummer and he was enthused about it and asked if we’d consider putting something out on his label. It didn’t take us more than 30 nanoseconds to say “yes.” It was a dream come true.
Have you found it difficult to be a band in New York? Given the deluge of music that’s here, is it hard to make your mark?
AN: We haven’t thought of it that way. Other than having to pay for cabs to get to a show, it’s fun to be a band in New York. If we started a band with the idea of “making it” then it would be hard, but we just like to play and have fun.
PW: In New York, you’re lucky because even if you play music that’s not trendy or popular, there’s still a niche. It’s been nice to play a few shows and get momentum where people come see us play. We never had to play Fat Baby, like the last band I was in that had to play there. It’s also nice because, while there’s so many bands, there’s quite a few bands with whom we fit and can play shows. There’s always lots of options as far as bands to play with and venues.
KB: I know there’s difficulties with practice space and the logistics of it, but in terms of the scene and culture being supportive of what we do, it’s been great. I think of bands that play in other cities that are really good, but don’t have other bands to play with and they feel really isolated. Here in New York there’s other like-minded people that come to our shows and we go to their shows. It feels like a really good community.
You did that tour of the UK with the Wedding Present. Given your influences, did you find them more responsive than American audiences?
KB: We actually met the bands we ripped off!
AN: It was a unique way to do that. The Wedding Present are a unique example because they’re legendary. They’re a cult band here, but a chart band there. Their fans are diehards who’ve been fans for 20 years. So it wasn’t kids who had read about us in NME. That would have been cool too, but it was very much not that. There’s more of an understanding, and it’s less verboten to say that we play “twee-ish” music. There’s a frame of reference for that. We were in Glasgow and they’d play Madonna then Belle and Sebastian. It’s not so weird.
KB: There’s an initial familiarity with the sound we have, and they’re very welcoming of it. In some respect, it’s weird to have that music be reintroduced by an American band, but since it’s from a respectful point of view, they were very accepting and eager to see a band that respects their musical traditions. In their own country, those bands, the ‘80s indie-pop bands, were derided so much. They were pigeonholed in a negative way in the press. It’s not the cool sound over there. If you were into that, you were a musical outcast. So I think they respect that it’s being re0examined in a more positive light.
Do you think there are particularly American aspects of your music that people overlook?
KB: People always pick up on mid-80s indie-pop stuff, which we like, but that’s not our only musical education. We grew up with Sonic Youth and Nirvana and K Records—more of the DIY American pop. We all had similar experiences growing up, going to hardcore fests. I mean, we got into the Vaselines through Nirvana. I had a Sonic Youth tape stuck in my mom’s Ford Escort. It wouldn’t come out, but it wasn’t a problem as long as it played. You guys went to Lollapalooza, right?
PW: I went to Lollapalooza three times.
AN: I went to Warped Tour. There’s no cred there.
KB: The DIY tradition isn’t a uniquely mid-80s British thing at all. They borrowed it from the punk tradition, and in the ‘90s there was a large American underground pop scene, and there was hardcore and emo and they held onto those ideas. They put out 7-inches and cared about zines and putting on shows yourself that were all-ages. Those ideals are more universal than any one genre, and we came to those ideals from different places.
PW: But I like how with that style of British music they weren’t afraid to be wussy, whereas in America there’s never been that outlet.
KB: Even with (American) indie rock, it was still dudes trying to act cool. It was almost an alternate form of rock & roll.
PW: Over there, it was okay to make sensitive music, which is something we have in our sound.
KB: There’s a difference between, say, Pavement and the Pastels, even though I love them both.
You mentioned meeting some of your idols and going to places where their music came from. Were any of your romantic notions about that stuff destroyed?
KB: I don’t know, Stephen Pastel was still cool. He had a really cool record shop in Glasgow, where he stood behind the counter in a sweater and would be like, “Oh yeah, this is really good.” So that’s a pretty romantic notion right there.
AN: We had an interesting time in Glasgow, though, because when we happened to be there, he said he couldn’t come to our show because he was deejaying at the Vaselines show, which was sold out. So if anything, it was unnaturally supportive of our crazy notions.
KB: You’d meet people casually, like people from the Razorcuts and Heavenly, or find out that Amelia Fletcher (of Talulah Gosh) was at your show—and no one bothered to introduce you, just like “Oh, Amelia was here.” Really? Or Pam Berry from Black Tambourine—all these people existed in the real world. They didn’t have to live up to a heightend expectation from a teenage record collector, just the fact that they existed in the real world and even bothered to come to our show was really cool.
You have a song called “The Pains of Being Pure at Heart.” Do you think that song especially encapsulates what the band is about?
PW: That song is really dynamic and really simple, but it’s something that anyone can sing along to—it’s immediate. Even though it’s a simple song, it’s an epic jam.
AN: It’s everything we want to be in one song: It’s short, fun, simple, loud.
KB: I like how powerful it can be without doing all that much. There’s maybe three notes and five words, but if you hear that song and that was your impression of the band that would be a positive thing to us. I remember when I wrote it, we played it 15 times in a row.
Is there a leader of the band? What’s your process like—collaborative?
KB: I don’t like the idea of bands that exist out of help wanted ads, like “We need a sick drummer to join the ranks.” Music’s best when it’s made by people who know each other in the real world and those relationships are genuine. I write songs, but Peggy has full veto power that she uses. Everyone is essential to the way we sound.
PW: We get ideas just from hanging out.
KB: It’s really organic and just happens. Like someone will grab your genitals in Sweden and then someone will say, “We should write a song about that,” the Gothenburg handshake.
I just want to be in a band with my best friends and make music and have fun together. When we’re stuck on the road for 25 hours and haven’t had any Dairy Queen in a long time, we’re still happy to be together. It’s really genuine, and I don’t feel a lot bands are like that. People are stuck in a band where someone annoys them because he won’t play Boggle or his mix sucks. Those are the things that make being in a band fun and a wonderful experience. And none of us are that good at music. Actually, our drummer is really good, but we pretty much only play three chords. The effects pedals cover up a lot.
I think the name of the band and some of your lyrical content conjures a certain amount of innocence or naivety. Is that reflective of a certain world view?
KB: Not naivety, because I feel it’s artificial when people act like they’re 12-years-old when they’re not 12-years-old. It’s one of my peeves about some indie pop, when there’s this forced naivety to express an adolescent ideal of life, like all picnics and hand-holding. I feel like (the name) is more just a positive statement about life. It says so much and expresses feeling and struggle. It just sounds like the band should have three-minute blasts of noisy, fuzzy pop songs. And yeah, it might be kind of wussy, but it’s okay. Naivety is not it, but more purity of spirit. “Being Pure at Heart” means really believing in something and standing for something and caring about things. A positive affirmative feeling is more what the name expresses.
I get the impression that you’re pretty obsessive about records. Was it important how the album looked? The aesthetic reminds me of old Smiths singles or Belle and Sebastian records.
KB: To me, it’s really important. I mean, you’re making a record and it’s on Slumberland—it’s a huge life event and you don’t want to slap some blurry picture of a squirrel on the front. The whole experience of records—how they look and how you have a relationship to them—is a pretty big deal to me so we didn’t want it to be any less than that. You spend so much time making a record—every band practice, recording session and mixing, and practicing at home and writing—there’s so much that goes into it, why not make the whole thing as good as you can on the budget that you have?
I wanted to ask you about “Teenager in Love” just because that line, “a teenager in love with Christ and heroin,” is a pretty powerful juxtaposition.
KB: It’s important to me that people come to terms with lyrics on their own and not have them be explained away. But that song sounds a lot different than the others on the album. I’ll just say that people hold pop perfection in the highest esteem. Everyone talks about writing the perfect pop song, everyone talks about perfect beauty and neverending love and these absolutes. Lyrically it’s all absolutes and no subltety and no holds barred positivism. The idea of Christ and heroin points to other kinds of absolutes and the opposite side of that. Those are also absolutes of beauty and truth in their own way, but it also reminds people of the dangers of over idealizing perfection. There’s other forms of perfection, and they’re not all admirable. At the same time, the song’s not judgemental. The narrator defends the protagonist and doesn’t condemn the person. But there’s a lot of ideas in that song and is difficult to explain in a sound bite.
Also it sounded like “Dancing Queen” and Peggy wanted to play it 10 times in a row. That’s how we know songs are good, Peggy says “Let’s play that one again!” That’s how I am about writing songs. I don’t write stuff down that much. If I remember it the next day, then it’s good enough to play.