The Pains of Being Pure at Heart have one of those band names that screams of being self-conscious, bursting with emotion and adolescent melancholy. And while their music is definitely all of those things, who ever said that was so bad? On March 29, the Brooklyn quartet will release Belong, the follow-up to their 2009 self-titled debut. Produced and mixed by industry legends Flood and Alan Moulder respectively (My Bloody Valentine, U2, Smashing Pumpkins), the album represents a giant leap forward for the group. Here’s lead singer Kip Berman on coping with their mind-boggling success.
You grew up in the suburbs of Philadelpia and went to college in Portland, Oregon. How did that experience shape you as an artist? I lived in Portland for a long time. I was exposed to a lot of music from the Pacific Northwest. Bands like The Gossip would play at our school like every other week. That was before they got huge. It was more of a garage punk scene out there than a twee indie pop scene.
Where do you live now? Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I’ve been there around five years.
Do you consider yourselves a New York band? We’re a New York band, but we’re actually kids from the suburbs. We don’t have a gritty, downtown edge. We’re just normal American boys and girls.
Is that how you think you’re seen? They think we’re a bunch of effete, literary bookworms in cardigans, but I love the Packers. Occasionally, at shows, I like to talk about football on stage. I don’t think people expect it.
They might also be surprised that your new album was produced by superstar producer Flood and mixed by Alan Moulder, leading to both a bigger sound and bigger advance buzz. We feel weirdly out of place. Even in our new song “Belong” the chorus goes “We don’t belong in their eyes.” You know, we’re this tiny band from Brooklyn. Do we really belong on tour with Kings of Leon?
Why not? I’m not a Bono. I can barely sing two notes in tune. I don’t have this larger-than-life identity.
Is it possible to go for more of an arena-rock sound without becoming bloated stadium rockers? We don’t feel like stadium rockers. I’m not one of those dudes who says, “Are you ready to rock tonight?!” I’m not even charismatic. I’m boring. I stand there and play songs I wrote in my bedroom.
So you don’t feel like you need to be a more outgoing, dynamic performer? I love the Rolling Stones, but I’d love them regardless if Mick Jagger was this outgoing dynamic performer or not. Listening to the record, you don’t know what he looks like. He could be this shy, overweight guy. But he’d still sing these great rock and roll songs. Pavement had a very introverted front person, but they’re good songs and at the end of the day, songs are what matter.
You say that now. Our band is not really good at anything but writing songs. We’re not even that good at playing songs. It’s not like people are calling us up to put us in fashion shows. We’re just dorky kids from the suburbs who like playing pop music because it’s our favorite thing to do.
How do you handle knowing the big time could be quickly approaching? We know it’s not going to be good forever. There’s going to be weird challenges and changes. What you do might become so unpopular, that nobody will want to come see your show forever. These moments are rare and fleeting, and you do your best and try to stay focused on why you play music in the first place.
You may not feel like self-assured rockers, but your album has a very self-assured quality. You may not be Bono but your sound is moving closer to U2. It’s still a ways off. But we love big rock and roll. We grew up in America. We grew up with bands like Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. Even Sonic Youth and the Pixies. It all had this fantastic visceral sound. It was expansive and it had volume in it.
The music was ambitious in scope. The bands themselves, less so. Nobody thinks of us like Weezer, but their first couple of albums had all the trappings of big arena rock. But they weren’t rock stars. They were dorky and diminutive in a good way. They weren’t like, ‘We’re the greatest, coolest guys ever.’ They were writing these big rock songs about how they were dorky kids who liked to hang out in a garage.
Don’t you think you could say that about a lot of the alternative bands of that era? Sure. I think that ambivalence towards success, and what that means, was a consistent theme in the ‘90s. Kurt Cobain could never really wrap his mind around selling 6 million records. He used his attention to get people to listen to other bands like The Vaselines and Beat Happenings. Which is cool because that’s how I discovered a lot of music. Sonic Youth was another band that were respected and never seemed like fame whores. The Pixies broke up before they got famous. They were the opening band for U2, they were going to be the next big band, but for whatever reason, they didn’t continue on. Even today, a band like The Decemberists might have the number one record in the country when their album comes out but nobody thinks of them as self-aggrandizing rock stars. As for us, I don’t know. It will be fun to see what happens.
I’m guessing that as a teenager you listened to albums that Flood or Alan Moulder had a hand in making. I totally remember getting Siamese Dream and listening to “Cherub Rock” in my friend’s bedroom for the first time. My friend also has some weird VHS tape of Nine Inch Nails’ “March of the Pigs.” Now the dude who made Pretty Hate Machine and Downward Spiral is in the room with us. It’s something to think about when you have beers with your friends. We just made a record with Flood and Alan Moulder. Holy shit. It kind of makes you believe in the power of America. There are still these weird opportunities in this country if you work harder, or get lucky.
What was the most powerful idea that Flood offered you during the recording of the album? He told us we were good. That was the most powerful idea that he gave us. He said, ‘Just be confident in yourselves.’ We are all, ‘Oh we suck/’ Whatever. But you can’t say that to Flood because he wouldn’t be there if we really sucked. And he made that clear to us.
Was it ever intimidating working with industry giants? They’re there to help you realize your vision. Just like they were there to help realize The Edge and Bono’s vision, or Depeche Mode’s vision, or the Smashing Pumpkins’ vision. It’s not like they wrote their songs. They just helped make their songs sound awesome. They offer feedback, like, I’m bored with this part of the song. And you think, Well, if he’s bored and he’s Flood then guess what? Probably everybody else is going to be bored, too. It’s very important to be making your own record and not trying to make Achtung Baby. They don’t want to make Achtung Baby, again. They already made it. For them, it’s not a fun thing to tell a new band how to sound like some album they worked on 15 years ago. It’s more fun to make that band the best band they can be. We learned early on in the process that the most important thing is to communicate what you want the record to be.
Any surreal moments? There was a megaphone sitting there in the recording studio with tape on it that said BONO’S. Then we found their Grammy. The four clicks at the beginning of “Too Tough.” That’s actually Peggy playing drums on U2’s Grammy.
So you’re taking it all with a grain of salt? It’s a funny, comical situation we find ourselves in. Hopefully, I don’t become too much of a douchebag and I don’t become one of those clichés of rock and roll excess. But I’m old. I’m 31. I don’t think I’ll be, like, what’s this magical white powder? Where does it go? Oh, the nose! Oh, that’s a great idea!
Can’t wait for the Behind The Music on The Pains of Being Pure At Heart. Yeah, we don’t want to end up one of those rock bands that took it too far and fame destroyed the bonds of friendship. It’s not about the music man. You’ve turned into a monster. Yeah, I hope we won’t be having that conversation. But even if we do all that Behind the Music stuff, there’s always a redemptive moral. So even if things do go bad, we’ll be able to right our ship and look each other in the eye and, say, you know what? I still remember the first day of band practice when were just jamming out. There were no models, there were no private jets. Let’s get back to what it’s all about – the music.