When The Drums' Jonny Pierce was 19 years old, he did what many dreamers looking for escape, a new lease on life, and opportunity do: moved to New York City. Before that, Pierce did laundry during the graveyard shift at an upstate hotel, and lived with his parents. During bits of down time at work, he would record songs on his synthesizer next to the washer and dryer.
"I had about 18 songs done and my parents decided to get dial-up internet, and I snuck online and went into a gay chatroom, trembling and nervous that my parents would wake up," Pierce says. The first person he happened to talk to was a band manager based in New York. Pierce sent him a few songs, and the next day he took a bus down from his sleepy hometown to the Big Apple. Six months later, Pierce says, he was signed to Columbia Records, first as his former band Elkheart, then later as The Drums. He was soon traveling the world, and staying at hotels much bigger and fancier than the ones he worked in, like the Four Seasons in Paris, for example. "As soon as I figured my own shit out, I was gone," he says. "I found a boyfriend within a week of moving to New York, and that was that."
Fast forward a little over 15 years plus several grueling touring and album cycles later, and Pierce, now an industry veteran, has garnered a worldwide fanbase and widespread critical acclaim for his incisive mix of jagged rock melancholy, DIY electro, and crisp pop smarts. Keeping it all afloat were songs that worked well as studies of contrasts, like many a queer American rock star before and after him. His music held space for the specific loneliness of coming out as gay in a small town that loves Jesus and the exuberance to be found in the world's more panoramic views. His songs were also deceptively catchy — and achingly sad — as a result.
Now with his fifth album, Brutalism, Pierce is at a bit of a full-circle place. It's the first time he's stepping out as the solo star of his New York City dream, keeping the name that made him famous, and reclaiming it, too, even after a recent move to Los Angeles. LA is different for him, the start of a new era. Maybe it's the city's sprawl, or its wellness culture and sunshine, but Pierce says he's in a healthier place than ever — of radical self-acceptance of his past and present. And as his album's title suggests, he's practicing brutal honesty. "Blip of Joy" savors the last bit of a romantic encounter; "626 Bedford Avenue" righteously calls out a nightmarish dating scenario; "Body Chemistry" unearths how intimacy and the loss of it can heal (and lead to) depression. Throughout are references to his traumatic family history ("Loner," "Brutalism"). And somehow, Pierce sounds more comfortable in his skin than ever. See? No stone is left unturned.
"I'm in this new space of loving myself," Pierce says. And when I meet him in a Koreatown office building, we sit in cushy chairs befitting a therapist's office. it isn't long before finding out how and why he got there.
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On this album, you prioritize a self-care narrative, and you're totally solo as The Drums now. How are you feeling about this stage?
My last album [2017's Abysmal Thoughts] was the end of a chapter, and I would describe this chapter as one of seeking approval and belonging. [It affected] everything from the music I made, to things I would say in interviews, to things I would do in my personal time. It was all based around wanting to belong and forgetting that belonging to myself was the first step in doing that. I was raised with born-again preachers as parents and they, because I was gay, couldn't approve of who I was. They could, but they didn't. So every day for the first 19 years of my life I carried this feeling around my neck that who I was inadequate; that who I was wasn't worthy of love, that I was sick and that there was something wrong with me. For a lot of the time, I truly believed it, too. I was home-schooled and I went to church and everything was about the Bible, and that was it. So I didn't have the experience of maybe going to a public school and knowing there were other people like me and maybe that's okay! So I had this one narrative that I was living with and went through corrective therapy and it was just a pretty extreme way to live.
That's so intense. It's like the movie Boy Erased.
Exactly. My father would sit next to my bed every night, and for about a year he realized his son was actually homosexual. He had me listen to a recording of a pastor who was once gay but Jesus cured him, so that was the last thing I would hear as I went to bed. My dad would make sure I listened every single night. It was sort of this brainwashing thing and that's where I learned to behave in ways that would invite approval rather than criticism.
"[My father] had me listen to a recording of a pastor who was once gay but Jesus cured him, so that was the last thing I would hear as I went to bed."
So I carried that into my teenage years, then into my early adult years. Now, I'm in my mid-thirties and I still deal with it, down to being an artist. That's not to say that there wasn't a piece of me in all of the albums I've done thus far; I'm a pretty opinionated guy. I talk a lot. I have ideas and I go for them. But up until Brutalism, everything was still going through a lens of God. I hope critics like this; I hope my fans like this; I hope my band likes this; I hope my friends like this. We all want approval, but the need for it was running my life. On Abysmal Thoughts, my song "Mirror" is the beginning of confronting this.
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It's your "Man In the Mirror."
Yes! I wrote a song about finally confronting myself or at least beginning to confront myself, and it started with a lot of questions like "Who am I?" "Who do I want to be?" "How do I get there?" So when I started Brutalism, I hadn't been going to therapy and I changed how I was eating. I moved to Los Angeles after living in New York for 15 years, and LA is very different. It's like a big suburb. You have your apartment, and it can feel really quiet, still, and scary.
The sun also shines more often in LA.
And the sun shines! [Laughs] But for someone like me, that's really scary.
"Getting used to chaos was a vehicle to not confront myself."
I imagine it's because you have more time with yourself in LA? It's easy to stay distracted in New York.
Getting used to chaos was a vehicle to not confront myself — distractions to your left, distractions to your right, distractions above you and below you. You can go out and party any night you want and fill your days with meeting up with people and just keeping it going. In LA, it's a different experience, so this is the first album where I belong to myself. It's been a lot of hard work and I don't do it perfectly everyday, but I'm so aware of who I am. I feel like I'm starting to finally love myself and belong to myself and guess what? Like clockwork, you find people — the right people, who recognize that and they want to be apart of it because they see you, not a version of you that you think might elicit praise or respect. I think vulnerability is key for me. On this album, I've been vulnerable before but on this album I've just gotten really direct and said how I was feeling rather than trying to romanticize it.
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Do you feel you've written around painful subjects in the past?
I used to really sugarcoat pain, and even romanticize it. I think a lot of artists do that, but for me it was a way to address issues without getting surgical. Brutalism represents a year-and-a-half of really confronting my demons head-on, and so I just feel like in a way this is like a debut for me.
Going back to your childhood, was there ever a time you didn't want to be who you were because of what you were taught?
I used to pray every night sincerely and earnestly for God to change me, and I just couldn't understand why he wouldn't. The math didn't add up: Being gay was thought to be a sin, but God made me. If God didn't want me to be gay, and I'm praying, crying, and begging to be made straight, why isn't he doing it? It doesn't add up. But the reason why is it's inconsistent logic. What loving God would create someone to be something they shouldn't be without a way of getting out of it, only to condemn them to hell for all eternity? You can have your God, you can have that whole thing, but it doesn't make sense. I know my story isn't unique, and there are millions of people who go through that and much worse. But something that's also true for me is, at one point, I had five siblings, a mom and a dad. They are still alive, but when you lose them because you choose to be you, it's almost like having a mass funeral for that loss. Losing one person is traumatic enough, but I lost seven in a day, and they were the only people I knew. Trauma isn't even the word, it's fully devastating.
"I used to really sugarcoat pain, and even romanticize it."
You explore the depression associated with loss in "Body Chemistry." Was this connected to your family?
It's about crippling depression in general, but I can say that the childhood trauma I navigated then is still a source of depression now. I suffer separation anxiety even though these people weren't good to me. But they were all I knew, and it was kind of ripped away, which causes anger, confusion, resentment. I was a really good kid; I was quiet and obedient. My brothers would be fighting or playing football and just being loud and I'd be at the table drawing all day. But I was gay. So it feels really cruel, but here's the other thing: if you're looking for sadness, if you're looking for things that will depress you, you're going to find them. It's really easy.
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And the world reinforces it, too.
It really does. On the same token, what I've been exploring more recently, if you're looking for joy and happiness, you can find that, too. And that's a new message in my world. My message has been like woe is me, since forever.
You do sound a lot happier on this album.
I just feel a real hope and when I was making this album, even the creative process I used to really be elbows out like, This is my thing. So I would do the bass, guitar, the synths, and the drums; I would write the lyrics and record it all myself. I mixed, engineered it all. This is how I've traditionally done it. I've realized this process was limited because it was based on a fear that I had to do it all or else it would all fall apart. Or I had to do it all to get the approval of critics saying I was a genius or something. It wasn't based in loving myself or even loving my craft. It was like how MAGA supporters are deeply afraid of change, so they become hellbent on keeping everything the same. And I don't want to be MAGA. My message is one of vulnerability, it's one of self-exploration. It's one of honesty and, hopefully, love and joy as well. So that's what I want my focus to be. So I brought in people to help me with the music. It doesn't sound like a groundbreaking idea, but for me it changed everything.
"If you're looking for things that will depress you, you're going to find them. It's really easy."
What's a question you get asked too often?
I get asked about contrast a lot. People ask: "Why do you write songs that sound joyful, but then the subject matter is sad?" It's never something I do on purpose. But this is what comes out and I think it's because in my world, joy and sadness are a lot closer to each other than we think. In joy, there's always a little sliver of sadness. Joy is something that's a little more fleeting — it kind of flashes, and then it's gone. You can't wait for the next moment of it. There's something sad or almost scary about letting yourself experience joy. On the other hand, sadness is so universal because it reminds us all in a subconscious way that we are human, that we have a beating heart, that we are alive. It's this reminder that life can be so rich.
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This shift into a solo career seems like a second coming out. Does that scare you?
I don't know if there's a fear. I'm more excited than anything to start living the life I've always envisioned for myself, which is just stepping into who I am. Who I am is someone who doesn't ever want to compromise. I have a value system that I really try to adhere to. I don't have tolerance for people who are careless toward other people. I really want to live with compassion and I want to be effective so that me being me is speaking out when I see some bullshit. I'm willing to be the squeaky wheel, but I understand that sometimes this means I might make an enemy.
Has speaking up more gotten you in trouble?
I posted something about Karl Lagerfeld after he died about how a lot of the things that he said when he was alive were actually pretty terrible. I'm convinced that if he wasn't making clothing then we would say that he was as bad as Trump because literally what he said is interchangeable with what Trump says. But because he's fabulous we turn a blind eye. But you know, I speak out against that and I have a lot of friends who really love Karl Lagerfeld. Sometimes I think my biggest fear of stepping into who I am is that I'll be totally isolated in doing so, but I have to be willing to be okay with that. I know that when I speak my truth, other people can identify. Then before you know it, those who don't share your same value system will naturally fall away.
"This is the most powerful truth I've learned: if you are uncompromisingly yourself, you don't have to weed people out"
It's nice when that happens. You don't have to waste energy unfollowing or blocking people. Hence "626 Bedford Avenue," which is like, calling out fuckboys?
[Laughs] Yes, I'm calling someone's shit out. This song was just me being like no actually I think you're a narcissistic asshole, and I'm being kind. It's sort of the first time in my five-album history where I'm not actually totally blaming myself for someone else's defective behavior. Plus Williamsburg is a whole other animal these days, let's be real. There's a reason I was willing to put the address down. Listen, this is the most powerful truth I've learned: if you are uncompromisingly yourself, you don't have to weed people out. They'll just go away or lose interest. Then your whole world shifts organically, and suddenly you're surrounded with people who you can share beautiful ideas with.
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Sometimes I apologize for feeling too much, which is sort of like being sorry for existing. I think so many queer people struggle with that, especially being taught that we're blemishes on society. Do you ever feel that way?
I think empathy is a strength, but it becomes a weakness when it's taken to excess. So this is all stuff I'm learning, too. Like it's that big question: where does this kind of empathy and care end and where do I begin? Where is the line? Sometimes, though I'm a really giving person and I'm really loving, I like to nurture, I'm sensitive, a lot of the energy goes outward. It's why I sometimes feel uncomfortable when someone offers love or kindness. Deep down, it's like I fear I don't actually deserve it. It's my life's work to learn to be more empathetic toward myself. I've had this discussion with my therapist if you want the real tea.
Spill it, sis. We've come this far.
Well, my parents haven't done much for me in my life other than bring me a lot of sorrow. I don't know why but every so often I have this thought, it's the same sort of vision of my mother on her deathbed. This is the woman who told me she could never love me and I'm sitting with her in her final hours. And the context around that moment for me is I dropped everything when she got sick, and I'd been taking care of her and making sure her end-of-life experience was smooth, as comfortable as it can be. My therapist was like, "That all sounds really nice and really lovely, but make sure that you're not trying to clear a faux deficit." Do you know what I mean? It's like the kind of deficit someone carries their whole life based in guilt. I felt guilty for so long and thought I owed them something to make up for being gay. There was a time that I'd have given to bring the "balance" to zero. I realized that I held onto that vision of her because I wanted to be thought of as a good son in her final moments. Maybe that's when the debt would clear. But I finally realized that I don't owe her that; I don't owe anyone that.
"I sometimes feel uncomfortable when someone offers love or kindness. Deep down, it's like I fear I don't actually deserve it."
Wow. That's really powerful. Would you say that where maybe your family saw sickness you see something far more inspiring in yourself?
I'm getting there. I'm always getting there, one day at a time.
Stream Brutalism by The Drums, below.