The Pains of Being Pure at Heart stand strong as indie-pop’s bastion of sincerity; each release and every song blisters with an open-ness that brings to mind a group of friends, together on tape, hearts on sleeves – eliciting something of that first feeling on listening to Neutral Milk Hotel’s first. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart link arms with these, the Andrew Birds and Sufjan Stevenses that pull away from the fictive confines of their alleged genres in search of the genuine, the real, and the heartstrings. With the release of their third album Days of Abandon, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart crept yet further into that search, pulling away from the Smashing Pumpkins comparisons and into a place of melancholy as much as the romanticism for which they are perhaps best known. They bring this discographic discussion to UK stages over this July – we spoke to frontman Kip Berman about the new album, touring and the future.
TSOTA: There are some real moments of musical nostalgia on Days of Abandon – ‘Simple and Sure’ and ‘Eurydice’ evoke Springsteen; ‘Kelly’s production brings The Smiths to mind. Was nostalgia a conscious thought in the album’s conception and production?
KB: I never think of the music I write as from an era other than the one I’m living. But when I turn on the radio, the artists and style I hear are very different than the kinds of songs we make. By sheer ubiquity, those things define this time and the songs I make live outside of it. So I tend to see our music more as anachronistic than nostalgic – I have no desire to create (or re-create) anything from the past. I admire artists like Chaim Soutine, Henri Rousseau or Balthus who were in many ways out of step with the world they inhabited – but somehow created enduring works that were all the better for their distinctiveness. I don’t think there’s another band happening at this time that we’d be confused for, though there are many other artists that I admire that sound very different than us.
TSOTA: Abandon’s songs are perhaps more plaintive than songs on previous records. Was there a different approach to writing this time round, or was the shift more personal?
KB: It’s just accidental – I try to write songs about my life, and maybe I was going through a plaintive patch. It’s hard to think of anything beautiful – in the sense that it moves you – without a sense of loss, longing or heartache.
When you see Carli Lloyd place the captain’s armband around Abby Wambach’s arm in the final minutes of the Women’s World Cup final, it’s moving because you know Abby Wambach, for all her greatness, will never again step on the field on the sports highest stage. You sense a lifetime of inimitable dedication and sacrifice approaching a moment when even her great powers can’t stop the inevitable. Her body – that fearless, brilliant and exemplary body that she had honed to athletic perfection – begins to betray her. Carli Lloyd, though the hero in that moment, can understand the enduring greatness and selflessness Wambach represents. Aware that someday she’ll stand where Wambach stands, they share the glow of a torch that’s already been passed. As heartbreaking as that moment is, there is great beauty in seeing two lives coming together with such grace and magnanimity. You feel proud to be a human being.
There is so much beyond your own control life – so much that you have to accept. It takes courage and grace to know your own mortality and still push on and give all you have. When Belong came out, some people thought we were going to be “the next thing” – but it didn’t happen. But you can’t give up; you must do your best to make things of worth while you still can.
TSOTA: While writing Abandon, what were you listening to?
KB: We made the record in 2013 and I wrote a bunch of the songs in 2011/2012, but I was really into the idea of an antidote to heavy guitar saturation. I remember listening to a lot of Felt, Margo Guryan, Bad Dream Fancy Dress, (and a lot of other El Records artists), and The Drums – music that was clever and evocative, without relying on a 90s kitchen sink approach like we did with Belong.
TSOTA: Once an album’s been released, it can often become quite a precious thing to artist and audience alike. Was it difficult translating the material to a live setting, and did anything new result from the process?
KB: One thing I’ve really loved this time around is not having to sing lead vocals on every song. It was always my hope when we started that there’d be a more co-ed spirit to how singing was handled in the band, and with the help of Jen Goma (who sang on the record and is joining us on this tour), as well as Jess Weiss (Fear of Men) and Elspeth Vance, we’ve been able to play songs with a strong female lead vocal and even do a cover or two.
TSOTA: Since Abandon’s release, you’ve toured fairly consistently save for a few months at the beginning of this year. Has the show’s dynamic, and your feelings for the material, changed over that time?
KB: I am proud of the songs on the record, and I know they have a more ornate arrangement as recorded music – I think generally we play them a bit rougher live.
TSOTA: Many of the venues you’ve played have been fairly intimate considering the strong fanbase you have; do you prefer the smaller show? And what would you consider your favourite venue?
KB: We play where they’ll have us, you know? I’m happy anyone pays their money for the chance to hear our music, so if there’s more than 12 people there I’m pumped. When we started, we had shows where we’d play to not that many…
TSOTA: How much older material has made it into your live show for this tour?
KB: Our set is divided pretty evenly with songs from each of our albums.
TSOTA: Do you have any particular favourites in terms of new releases this year?
KB: Them Are Us Too did a self-titled record that is really incredible. It’s “dark” – which is a horrible word to describe music, but I saw them live and it described the color of their clothes perfectly. As for the sound, it’s something I’d recommend to almost anyone that’s ever worn an unnatural shade of lipstick.
TSOTA: After this tour you’re heading off to Asia and Australia; beyond that, are there any vague ideas for you about Pains… future?
KB: LP4 (fingers crossed).
TSOTA: Thanks again for your time!
KB: Thank YOU!
Interview by James Grimshaw
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart play the Brudenell Social Club on the 26th July. Get tickets here.