New York-based band The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, headed by Kip Berman, has been delivering wistful, fuzz-fueled indie pop gems since 2007. Following the departure of vocalist and keyboardist Peggy Wang along with bassist Alex Naidus, Berman was forced to reconfigure the band for the making of 2014’s “Days of Abandon.” What resulted was a thoughtful record that scaled back the guitars and streamlined the arena-sized sound of their prior releases.
Berman chatted with us on the phone a few days before their show at The Catalyst about the making of “Days of Abandon” and being a teenager in Philadelphia without a fake ID.
City on a Hill Press: Why did you decide to write the new album “Days of Abandon” alone?
Kip Berman (KB): I’ve always written the music for the band, so there wasn’t really anything different in the one [record] than in previous records. But it offered an opportunity to collaborate with different people this time around. Peggy Wang left the band about two years ago, so I just asked my friend Jen Gorma to work on some music together and come over and sing. It was really cool because we’ve never really worked with a different lead singer before. It opened up new possibilities in music. Her voice is so bright and wonderful and it expresses qualities in a song I probably couldn’t have expressed on my own. I was really grateful, it was one of those situations where it was out of necessity. It really benefitted the album and gave it a different character than anything we’ve done before. That’s always exciting, when you get to make something new and it actually feels new and it’s not just, “Oh let’s go back and put 100 guitars over this and do another 90s-greatest-hits kind of album.”
It felt like we were creating something fresh and new and that’s an awesome position to be in.
CHP: This album was similar to “Belong” and your self-titled album in that it was a collaboration between a group of friends. Did it just so happen that there was a similar group of people on the two previous records?
KB: I’ve always written the songs and then in the past we’d have band practice. It’d be the three people who were in the bands previously. Kurt and Alex still played on the record, but they just didn’t want to commit to touring it.
Getting to work with Jen Gorma and my friend Kelly who did horn arrangements opened up some different ideas we hadn’t explored before. It turned out in a way that I feel really happy about and proud of.
Each thing we do I feel is born of necessity. Our first album sounds in retrospect, lo-fi, but it wasn’t intentional. The second one we had the opportunity to go into a real recording studio and that’s probably why it sounded different from the first. And this one, the chance to work with different singers and my friend who does horn arrangements gave the songs a character they might not have had. It’s been really exciting.
CHP: That’s really cool. Did anything else change in your approach to making this album?
KB: Any time you make a record, you reflect on it in retrospect and try to figure out what you liked about it and what you thought you could’ve done better. I don’t think any of our records are perfect. After our first record, there were a lot of things I wanted to improve for our second record “Belong.” For “Belong,” living with it for a while, there was a lot of qualities in the music that I loved and was glad we accomplished but then I also felt maybe we had gotten away with some of the things I liked most about our music. We got really crafty on “Belong” with the sound of the record, the actual sound of the guitars and how heavy it was and how big it sounded when you hit play. We wanted to create a really visceral sense of the music, but in doing so, maybe we didn’t give enough time to the lyricism or the vocal delivery. We probably could’ve spent more than a day and a half on the vocals. We spent all our time trying to make the guitars [sound] cool, and were like, “Oh we should sing on this record too.” This time around we tried to get back to the ideas of songwriting that we love most. Good songs sound good no matter how they’re recorded.
CHP: Did anything shift thematically in terms of the inspiration for the lyrics on the new album? I noticed the material reads darker than your other releases.
KB: Dark is such a loaded term and I’ve probably said the word “dark”out loud but I always regret saying things like dark because there’s this false equation that something dark is somehow more artistically worthwhile. Like, “It’s dark so it has more meaning or it’s deeper.” But, I don’t know. I was dealing with a lot of issues and feelings of loss and alienation when writing the album. All the people I started the band with had left or were leaving and I didn’t know what to do. In some respects, it was a really isolating time. I felt really on my own trying to make sense of that.
The other side of that was a sense of freedom. There was a lack of inhibition or censorship in what we could sound like or what we could sing about. I didn’t have to worry about modifying the kinds of ideas I wanted to express to meet other people’s approval. That’s not always a bad thing or a good thing.
I was very alone and trying to make sense of seeing the people in my life I had been closest with for the last five years decide they wanted to do something different. It was like going through a romantic break-up without the romance or the make-up sex. It was sort of a fragile time in my life and I hope I was able to capture the dual nature of that, something that was painful and hard to come to terms with but also liberating and probably creatively fruitful. If I had kept on doing things the same way or playing with the same people, I might not have been able to grow or develop beyond who I was.
Being on my own forced me to change my approach to songwriting and how the songs came together. For better or for worse, it’s a different sounding record and I’ll leave it to other people to tell me if it’s better or worse, or any of that stuff. I can’t attribute artistic value to anything I created, that would be egotistically weird.
CHP: What kind of art, in terms of other bands, visual art or books were you consuming while creating the new album?
KB: In terms of books, we can start with the book the title is taken from. It was based off of a novel called “Days of Abandonment” which I’d read. “Life After Life” has elements of “Our Lady of The Flowers” by Jean Genet but it’s all hard to tell if the culture you consume has an explicit effect on the music you write. I’ve never sat down and said “Oh, I read this book and now I’m going to write a song about it.” With books there are ways and the dynamics of characters and how they interact with how you see yourself in those characters in literature or film. You recognize a certain dynamic that you didn’t even notice in your own life being portrayed elsewhere. If anything, consuming literature, pop culture or film is a window into your own experiences. You can identify with certain things.
Mostly, the things that I like are music. Musically, “Belong” was a very heavy record, so I wanted to create something powerful without the traditional trappings of power — it’s more about melody and lyrics and the weight of lyrics and not the weight of distortion pedals. The artists I was listening to while we were making “Belong” was a sort of an antidote to the cacophony of that record. An English songwriter from the 1980s and ‘90s, a band called Felt. It had elements of Television and Bob Dylan, all through this 1980s, very clean, jangly guitar music. It was outwardly gentle but very powerful and emotionally resonant music with me. Felt came into it a lot and of course there are parts of culture that are going to influence you, whether you think they’re going to influence you or not. Early records by The Cure and some of our albums referenced some of the pop-ness of Outkast.
CHP: Really? How’d that make it in there?
KB: I know, but it was more in the likeness. In a song like “Hey Ya,” it’s really infectious and it stays light. There’s a brightness in the production and the sound of the drums and the spirit of the song. It’s lyrically nimble. Especially in the sounds created in a track like that when we were doing “Simple and Sure,” that was something we had in mind — not making it a big heavy rock song like we’d had before.
CHP: What an interesting place to pull from. Switching gears a little, you grew up in Philly right?
KB: Yeah, I grew up near Philadelphia.
CHP: At what age did you move to Portland? How long were you in Philly?
KB: When I was 18 I went to Portland to go to college and I stayed there for a couple years after I graduated. I lived in Portland for like seven years.
CHP: How did the two scenes differ for you?
KB: It’s hard to compare because the difference is really age. In Philadelphia, I’d go to a lot of all-ages hardcore shows and punk shows and emo shows. The kind of bands I liked at that age didn’t overlap with the bands playing all-ages shows. I liked Yo La Tengo in high school, but I couldn’t go see Yo La Tengo because they only played bars.
In Portland, for the most part, it was a similar thing. I tried to seek out all-ages venues because I wasn’t 21 and I didn’t have a fake ID. Portland was really good for that — there was a lot of DIY community there and a great house show community. There was one house in particular, the Magic Marker house. They’re a record label called Magic Marker Records that would get a lot of cool bands to play there. Everyone from like, Mates of State to The Lucksmiths to Iverset would play there. I could walk there and I wasn’t 21 and it was a place to see shows in someone’s living room.
I learned about so much stuff in the Northwest. There was a cool indie pop and garage rock scene in that part of the country at that time. When people always ask me about Philadelphia, they’re like, “Did you ever go to this or that?” and I’ll say, “I was 15.” I borrowed my mom’s Ford Escort. I wasn’t discovering the cool underground psych shows and partying all night with adults. I was watching pop-punk bands at the YWCA.
CHP: I definitely relate to that. It’s interesting how being a teenager and not having a fake ID can shape the kind of music you’re consuming just because of what you’re limited to seeing live.
KB: Yeah, that’s the thing. I don’t think I had any great love for hardcore, I was more into the melodic hardcore bands that were called “emo” at the time. Bands like Braid, Promise Ring and Get Up Kids — stuff that wasn’t strict, traditional hardcore. Stuff like Chisel and Chet Leo’s band, they shared the values and politics of hardcore but they’d be straight up melodic pop bands. I thought that was incredible and that’s the stuff I really loved. Just because you want to identify with the politics of a scene, which is cool, you don’t have to sound exactly the same. There doesn’t have to be an orthodoxy to the sound.
I remember one show where there was an alt-country band playing. Everyone was like, “What the fuck is this?” but it was cool. Everyone was totally mind blown, but then it was also kind of like, “That wasn’t bad. They’re here playing with a bunch of hardcore bands and they must be friends with them.” I loved what that scene was about but I loved the bands that were more sonically adventurous.
CHP: Were you playing in bands at the time?
KB: I played in a lot of bands before The Pains of Being Pure At Heart and it makes me realize how lucky and rare the opportunity to tour and play outside of your zip code really is. When I lived in Portland, I was in so many bands and never played a show outside of Portland. So few bands even get to the point where we are, where someone wants to talk to them on the phone while they eat an ice cream cone. I’m very aware how rare and special that opportunity in life really is.
CHP: Wow, that’s great. Your band has been around for a while and your music has been circulated pretty heavily. It’s nice to hear that you keep that in mind.
KB: Oh my god, yeah. I still think it’s just a dream. It feels like a strange dream and I hope it can go on. I just try to work hard and appreciate every moment of it as best I can.