Kip Berman may be one of the most pleasant people I’ve ever met, affable and talkative even at 10 a.m. on the fourth day of SXSW, when everyone’s more than a little worse for wear. The music he makes as singer/guitarist of the Pains Of Being Pure At Heart is just as easy to like–who could resist the charms of jangly indie pop? (Don’t answer that.)
The band’s self-titled 2009 album inevitably invited comparisons to Belle & Sebastian and My Bloody Valentine, but well-read, sweater-clad listeners wouldn’t have it any other way. 2011’s Belong was bigger and crunchier, but after a longer gestation period, the upcoming Days Of Abandon shows a more elegant side. The fuzz gets shaved back to reveal lushly detailed songs, none more gorgeous than album centerpiece “Coral And Gold.” It’s the record’s most obvious ode to isolation, though Berman readily speaks about its themes of loss–and the power of staying positive in its wake, as shown by singles “Simple And Sure” and “Until The Sun Explodes.” We also talked songwriting, the Pains’ shifting line-up, and how to redefine partying. Stream Days Of Abandon and read our Q&A below.
Congratulations on the new record. I had a good moment with “Coral And Gold” just before you got here.
I’m glad to hear that, that’s probably one of the last songs that came together on the record. It was a little more freeform, just something we kind of worked out right before going into the studio. I’m glad it all came together the right way.
Did you want to get more experimental?
No, never. I always feel like the thing I like about songs is immediacy and a sense of them being present. You can just kind of tell in seven seconds if you like it, and there’s room in the full spectrum of recorded sound for us. Some people go in all different directions and do something that’s true to their vision in music, but for me, I love pop songs, beautiful pop songs that are between three and four minutes. Not to be self-congratulatory, but that’s the kind of songs we try to write and hopefully sometimes succeed at. So I was really excited about “Coral And Gold.” The song sort of felt like true to the fragility and the power of it at the same time, which I think is good. I never like when bands get all-powerful or all-weak at once, I just think it’s an artificial ideal. Life is kind of complex. So that’s a good jam, I’m glad you like it.
What you do is so rooted in continuing a certain lineage.
Yeah, I think inevitably everything everyone does is drawn on the music they love and the music they grew up with and the music they will still go back to over and over again even if it’s been ten years since a record came out, or even longer. Or music they discovered from the past that means a lot to them. I think every artist is building on other artists of the past and to see influence or recognize an image as anti-creative is–to me, at least–wrong. The nature of creating is taking the things that you love and then putting them through your own experiences and creating something that’s new, but also made up of some of the same molecules.
To a certain extent, talking about anxiety is part of that lineage, too. Do you feel like that’s something you tie into as well?
I think it’s a fair question. I think anxiety or a certain fear of the unknown or fear of the future is something that people experience a lot in life when they’re young because it’s difficult to envision a future. It’s always been difficult for me to envision what my life will be like a week from now or a month from now. I don’t do a good job of that, and I feel very fortunate that I get to play music and hope I get to continue to play music. It’s the thing in my life that makes me really happy, the thing where I’m like, “Whoa, at least I get this.” I guess the experience of the past few years since Belong came out, there has been a lot of upheaval in terms of people that want to be involved with going forward. I think I was writing a lot of that. It might be in the songs, a fear of loss or abandonment, a sense of having to let go of things that had been so certain or relied-upon in the past. That’s really hard, and only now I realize that a lot of the changes that have happened have been good. Not just because they have to be, but musically. With this record, what we were able to accomplish with a lot of the vocal stuff with Jen coming in. She plays in a band A Sunny Day In Glasgow and People Get Ready and we worked on songs together and she came in and sang on “Kelly” and “Life After Life.” My friend Kelly came in and did horn arrangements on “The Asp At My Chest,” “Life After Life,” and a couple of the B-sides to “Simple And Sure.” They’re pretty sappy. But all of these things have opened up the music in ways that we never would have reached before. And so I think a lot of the songs were written in this place of fear of loss and isolation, but the reality of the album is actually redemptive and has overcome those feelings. I don’t want to say it’s a triumph, because that’s very self-aggrandizing, but it feels like we’re on the other side of those feelings and we can look back and see what they were. For me, it’s a really complete, good representation of our music now.
When I read that Peggy (Wang, former keyboardist) was leaving to focus on writing for BuzzFeed, I had a crisis over how that was probably better for Asian-American media representation than being in an indie rock band.
Actually, for the entirety of the band, she’d been working for BuzzFeed. She was the first employee at BuzzFeed. She’s incredibly talented at many things in life and there was a very great professional opportunity for her that I think she felt like she was falling behind on in life. It’s hard to explain this to people, but what she does professionally is more impressive and truer to her spirit and what makes her feel happy and accomplished and good about herself. I completely understand wanting to focus on that in this time in her life. Alex did the same, and that’s great, and what I want to focus on in life is music. That makes me feel good about myself.
Going back to what you were saying earlier, I was noticing that this one seems a little more morbid than the previous records.
I mean, there is a lot of imagery of loss. I have a hard time saying that it’s a morbid record, because I feel like when you listen to it, it expresses a range of emotion and it’s not just a Dark, Gloomy Record. There’s moments of levity, but it’s dealing with loss and romantic loss and personal, emotional loss and issues of death or whatever. It’s hard for me to talk about them as a person, and I think sometimes they only come out through music, but I don’t think I’m a depressed person, and I don’t think I would want to be. I know people who deal with legitimate issues of mental illness and depression and it’s frightening to see their world outlook and how impossible it is for them to see that there’s any positivity that can be gained from life. The album, maybe it deals with some dark subjects, but I don’t want that to be the last word. I want people to gain strength and have a sense that there is good in the world. A song like “Kelly” is so playful and light and fun. There’s serious issues there, where you shouldn’t content yourself to be someone else’s, or define your life by another person’s, but it’s a feminist song that is both playful and funny. So you like getting wasted and dirty movies, cool! Don’t do coke and come up with better jokes. It’s also there, too, it’s not didactic or overly “this is how you should live life.”
And then something like “Until The Sun Explodes” is still a pretty positive song.
That song is, it’s absolute devotion in the face of imminent awfulness. It still has a sense of finding some positivity in a bleak situation. Even if it’s misguided devotion, even if it’s a situation that’s bad for you, that still has a positive outlook.
That must have been one of the earlier ones you finished, because I went to that video shoot for it a year ago.
Oh, did you go to that thing in Bushwick? That was so strange. I don’t want to say it was a dark period, but it was definitely a period where we were like, “What are we doing as a band? MTV Iggy wants to film this thing, they want a new song, we’ll do a new song.” But it was strange. It was one of those experiences where you don’t know going into them, is this going to be cheesy and canned or is it going to be cool and something we’d never have access to otherwise? But it was definitely a song that’s much more reminiscent of maybe our first record, it sounds like something we would have done five years ago. I didn’t even want to really put it on the record, because I thought it was not where I was emotionally, but it’s an easy way to have something that’s fun to play. It is short and immediate and fun, and it offers a little bit of balance on the record. When bands are like “our new songs are going to be really sad and thin and noodly,” you don’t want to listen to that band. You still need some songs that are uplifting.
For the video, they put us all in this freezing basement and were playing Pitbull and telling us to dance to it and throw confetti everywhere, and I was like, “I don’t think this is the right kind of party for people who like this band.”
Oh my God. It’s really hard to convey what our band is about. We were gonna do photos for this album and the photographer was great, but his assistant was like, “Oh hey, since you put naked ladies on the cover of the album, we’re gonna get naked ladies and have a party scene and people are going to be passed out.” That is the furthest thing from what that album art is about, and it’s certainly the furthest thing from what our band [represents]. But it was well-intentioned, if you’re used to working with rock bands, there are certain tropes of expression where it’s all decadent and vaguely misogynist or whatever. It’s just like, these guys are dudes, they want to have boobs around or something like that. This is a party, and this is how they party. I’m not against partying, but when other people’s visions come into it, it’s like you don’t have control over it. In all fairness, no one even watched that video. It’s one of those things that lives on the internet and it was fun to do for a day, but it was also gross because we were also in the basement doing stuff afterwards.
So you’re pro-partying, anti-misogyny?
Yeah, that’s my vibe. I don’t want anyone to think that I’m not into fun, I just don’t like it when it’s a very contrived rock ‘n’ roll perspective on what partying means. Come on, you can find better ways to destroy your brain cells. It’s so easy.
What is your ideal party?
I don’t know, Bud Light Lime and no confetti? But I guess that’s not that awesome. We were in Mobile, AL, and they have something called blue drinks there. You say, “Hey, I want a blue drink,” and they bring you a drink that’s blue and you don’t really know what’s in it. There’s a certain mystery in ordering drinks by color, it can be a rum-based thing or whatever. It’s interesting. Then we sang karaoke, and it was really fun. It was surprising, such a good time on tour.
I think there are plenty of legal, good ways to have fun. I’m not like anti-sex or anything, I just didn’t want a naked lady photoshoot. That’s all. If I was a lady and wanted to be naked, I would totally do it, that’s great. But just having four dudes with naked ladies, that’s kind of satirizing the nature of naked ladies, I suppose. It’d be pretty weaksauce.
I will say there are ways of reclaiming nudity that are completely legitimate. You should never see an image of a naked lady and think, “That’s objectifying.” I think our culture’s advanced enough that we can see levels of meaning and what all of that is, and if people need to confront my own body, that’s awesome. I love naked ladies, that’s fine in proper spaces.
I wanted to ask about the statement in the press release for this album about getting back to your “original ideals.”
I think it was just one of those things where you have to say, “Why has this record taken a while?” I just think the emphasis of our band has always been on songwriting over production. That doesn’t mean we don’t care about our songs sounding the best they can, but maybe on our last record, people were perceiving that the production was more important than songs themselves. I just really wanted to make sure that the lyricism and the actual music was what people noticed the most. This album isn’t stripped-down or bare bones or anything, it’s still very expansive and a kind of ambitious-sounding indie pop record. I hope it’s really nice to listen to from start to finish and not just all one dynamic. If anything, on this record, the lyricism is more in line with a truer sense of what I would write. I think the second album is a little more broad or wanting to capture a moment of immediacy rather than peculiarities of mine. You pay a price for it, everything you do, you live with for so long that you see the small fractures in it. Over time, you realize what’s wrong with it more and more. That just makes yourself more committed to do it right the next time.
You’ve always had great song titles, and “Masokissed” is the clear standout on this record.
I’m surprised Lady Gaga didn’t get to that one first. I had to Google it, because now you have to Google things. I was like, “‘Masokissed,’ this has to be a Lady Gaga song, right?” But no! So I’m glad you like that, that’s probably my favorite song on the record. It was one of the first ones I wrote, and it made me really excited to get the rest of them made.
I think that’s how I started listening to you, like “This song is called ‘This Love Is Fucking Right,’ that’s awesome.”
And then also our band name doesn’t shy away from it. It’s hard to fit on posters or 1″ buttons sometimes, I regret it when you have to fill out a form and write down your band name, or when the people at customs are like “What’s the name of your band?” and you tell them this long thing and they’re like “What?” and you tell them again and they’re like “Never heard of it.” But to me at least, if you want to live your life, you have to take chances and be willing to do something that isn’t just trying to win 51% of the electorate. That’s the great thing about music and art, you don’t have to make everyone like you. That’s not even the goal of it. You just do something you think is awesome and hopefully recognize that and agree. If they don’t, it’s not that bad, it doesn’t diminish the quality of what you do.