April 23, 2009

Interview: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

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The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, a NYC band, will be playing at Risley Theater on April 25. Kip Berman, lead vocalist and guitarist, spoke to Sun Staff writer Will Cordeiro about his influences and aspirations. Will Cordeiro is also the Artist at Residence at Risley Hall and was involved in booking the band for the event.

SUN: How does it feel now that your first album came out? Are you happy with it and pleased with the success that it’s finding; how have you been dealing with success?

Kip Berman: It hasn’t really changed us: we’re doing what we always wanted to be doing. We just have more opportunities to tour and travel. It’s more just a change of venue. I mean, I’m still sitting in my same messy bedroom with the same piles of dirty laundry.

SUN: Do you guys still have day jobs?

K.B.: Actually, I lost my job in November. My employer was nice about it [since] I’d been traveling a lot. Peggy’s bosses are cool with it, but it’s unpaid, of course. We all really enjoy what we do. Alex works at a site called Emusic. Kurt works at a kind of “School of Rock” camp. Once all the touring stops, we go back.

SUN: Is this the first time that you guys are on a tour this extensive? Are you exhausted yet?

K.B.: People make a big deal about the internet, but you really have to play. Touring is like a road trip with your friends. We’re touring as much as possible; we’re really psyched about the opportunity. We have a busy summer lined up. Obviously, we’re coming to Ithaca really soon! Then, we’re heading to Europe for like a month. Then we come back.

SUN: What are your influences? The Smiths, C-86 and twee bands, obviously, shoegaze. But I suspect you guys listen to harder stuff, older stuff, are more eclectic than that? I mean, like, here’s your chance to share some gems we might not know about.

K.B.: Really, I had the normal teenage experience with punk, Sonic Youth, and Nirvana. I love pop music a lot. I wasn’t always into obscure indie pop. I like the noisy kind of pop music, where the personality of the people making it comes through. We want our album to sound like us: not super polished or professional. It’s us. I mean, I’m a big fan of the Pastels, late 80’s early 90’s Glasgow scene. Orange Juice. A more recent band like Camera Obscura. I like Teenage Fan Club. Strawberry Switchblade. They’re these two girls, kind of a Cindy Lauper-esque synthy pop band. They wore crazy Renaissance Faire outfits. Scottish bands, like the Vaselines are so genuine and good: it’s about songwriting and not about production values.

SUN: Do you think that the C-86 sound is finally striking a nerve in the zeitgeist? Or is it becoming popular now because it’s more widely available to a new audience due to the internet? Why might these bands be experiencing a revival, d’ya think?

K.B.: I don’t have a cultural memory of the mid-80’s. C-86 is about British teenagers rebelling against punk. But that’s not who we are: we like Smashing Pumpkins. So, that’s removed from our cultural experience. In 1986 I was five years old, begging my mom to let me wear a bandana. Every band loves other bands — so it’s not anti-creative or derivative. The whole history of music is about imitation and connection to other artists you love: what other bands are they friends with, or what do they listen to? I mean, if there’s renewed interest in bands that were once ridiculed or ignored, that’s nice because they weren’t popular. Jesus and Mary Chains, maybe the Wedding Presents in Britain, were [popular]. But the Flatmates, Talulah Gosh were low-impact and not household names. So, if it means that earlier bands are getting re-appreciated—if people are appreciating Meat Whiplash or something — that’s great. Now everyone knows who Black Tambourine is. They were not well received at the time; now people go back and appreciate the band. Bands like Belle and Sebastian and Franz Ferdinand brought a band like Orange Juice to the fore, gave them attention. But Belle and Sebastian don’t sound like Orange Juice as much. Early Orange Juice is naïve, and innocent — they have a defiantly innocent sound to their music. The Killers sell a lot of records, but that makes sense. I’m more surprised by how popular Franz Ferdinand is. 5 million records worldwide. They took a punk base and organized that [C-86] sound and made it sexy.

SUN: Are you working on another album yet? Do you have new songs? What’s your next project?

K.B.: We’re working on a couple singles. We have one coming out this summer and another one by September when we go tour the West Coast. We’re big 7” vinyl enthusiasts. Our next one’s a 7” single: “103” with Falling Over” on the B-side. Slumberland is supportive of 7”singles, which is great. The medium is important to us. We had an early 7”, “Kurt Cobain’s Cardigan,” released in really small numbers. I saw it on e-bay for $170! I think I’d want to sell my own copy for that price. We sold it for four dollars at concerts. But it’s on free internet sites so the stuff is still available.

SUN: How did you guys meet? I read that you threw a birthday party for Peggy and hosted bands so you could sneak into the line-up yourself for your first gig?

K.B.: We were friends before the band. Alex and Peggy were old friends of mine. I worked with Alex and we met Peggy, I think, at a dance party. She was too cool to be my friend. She probably still is. For her birthday, we got these bands to play for us, which we liked: Titus Andronicus and Manhattan Love Suicides. And we played at the party, too. We did a 10-minute set. This was before we had a drummer so we just used a drum machine. It was a fun experience. We’re just playing the music and having fun. We’ve been working hard the last couple of years, but we genuinely enjoy what we do. We’re not oppressed; unlike some bands we don’t think we’re not doing the world a favor. We just find it absolutely enjoyable.

SUN: I heard you explain that part of your aesthetic was about “sincerity.” Can you explain what sincerity means? Maybe I’m being too ironic in asking that question? But what does it mean in terms of the music?

K.B.: Be the band you are. Be genuine. If you’re not the kind of band that smashes stuff, don’t smash stuff. If you grew up in the suburbs and don’t hate your parents, then — don’t pretend to hate your parents. We’re making music that sounds like our lives. We’re not trying to make it dark or smart, just emotionally and intellectually honest with insights that reflect our own life. We wouldn’t try to write Leonard Cohen songs, as much as I like them. Or Nirvana, for that matter.

SUN: What musical background do you guys have?

K.B.: I got a guitar for my thirteenth birthday, and basically taught myself. I’m not that technically good. Most of our stuff is pretty easy to play. Peggy plays keyboard, and she took guitar lessons. Alex is self-taught on bass. Kurt, our drummer, is even better on guitar. He’s technically proficient and knows his theory. He probably has more musical skills than the other three of us combined. But sometimes too much talent can get in the way. We make simple music. It’s important to work with the tools you have. Making it musically interesting in a different way; it’s not always a handicap. As far as musical background, I don’t know how much it counts or influences me, but I did take violin lessons growing up.

SUN: Have you ever thought about playing around with any other instrumentation — winds, strings — or is your low-fi, garage rock aesthetic opposed to that? Where do you see your music going? I heard that Peggy was going to play some guitar on the new songs?

K.B.: Well, winds or strings — that’s like for the third album, you know, when we’re looking around for something new or feel a need to change. Like: Dude, what we need now is strings! I like acoustic songs with cello in them, deeper string instruments provide a rich sound. As far as putting violins on stuff, that sound can be created through a synthesizer: basically, it’s a high pitched whine. But Kurt is really good solo [on guitar], so maybe we’ll tell Kurt: Hey, it’s time for you to shred!

SUN: Last question: there’s a Kierkegaard quote that goes, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” If you guys could collectively will one thing, what might it be?

K.B.: A deli plate. It’s kind of our running joke. We’d love to have a deli plate because we get really hungry on tour, driving all day. Snacks! So, yeah, we’re very ambitious as you can tell.