You either love indie pop—that C86-enshrined sound typified by brightly fuzzed-out guitar jangle, bashfully hopping backbeats, and fey boy/girl vocals—or you're just flat out wrong. (You jerk.) For fans of the genre, though, the past year has been a veritable dirty dream of twee, spearheaded stateside by the venerable and beloved Slumberland Records, and with no more perfect poster boys and girls than Brooklyn foursome the Pains of Being Pure at Heart (twee as fuck, they took their name from a friend's children's story). The band's self-titled debut full-length for Slumberland is one of the year's best records, indie pop or otherwise. Its melodies are familiar and effortlessly catchy, its sound is dreamy and sweet, its songs concise and clean pillars of pop songcraft, its lyrics clever and coy and sometimes just a tiny bit crass. Heaven(ly) help you if you haven't totally fallen for this band. Singer/guitarist Kip Berman spoke to The Stranger by phone from his apartment in Brooklyn.
I notice you have a Portland area code, were you living out here before New York?
Oh yeah, 503. I lived in Portland for seven years, from 1998 to 2005. I went to school in Portland at Reed College, and I stuck around, probably too long, after I graduated. But It was great. I actually interned at [Stranger sister publication] The Mercury. I love the Northwest a lot, and I'm really excited because I haven't gotten a chance to go back since I moved. It'll be fun for me to see some old friends, see how it's changed how it's stayed the same and all that.
Based on a couple of songs on the album, "Young Adult Friction" and "The Tenure Itch," I was going to ask where it was you went to school that everybody was fucking their professors in the libraries, but maybe Reed makes some sense.
For better or for worse, that's where I went to school. I grew up on the East Coast, but getting to go out to Portland was really eye-opening. There was a strong indie-pop community out there and great bands, and I got exposed to a lot of stuff I don't think I would have at that age had I not been in that part of the country. It's musically or at least geographically isolated, and it's hard for bands to tour out of that area. But bands from Seattle or Olympia or Portland or Vancouver tour pretty extensively up the coast right there. I got to see so many cool shows, and especially, because I wasn't 21 yet, I'd go to a lot of house shows and parties and stuff like that. It kind of opened my eyes, so much music I'd never seen and getting to experience it firsthand—the Aisler's Set down in San Francisco, the Gossip and the Need would play in Portland all the time, Dear Nora was one of my favorite bands there, the Exploding Hearts were a big band in Portland at the time, the Hunches and the Thermals emerged sort of right before I left. It seems like a lot was going on at the time. I mean, there always is, it's not like anything changed.
I think we're playing with the Thermals at the Capitol Hill Block Party, so that's going to be cool. The Gossip would play in Portland every other week, and they were really a fun band to see. It's a cool part of the country with a distinct music community, and almost more bands in Portland than people who lived there. And Seattle was probably the same way, like a really fruitful, culturally rich part of the country.
Portland seems like kind of a sister city to Glasgow in terms of indie pop. Like, Belle & Sebastian had a song named after the city.
Oh, Hefner actually had one, too. I saw Belle & Sebastian on 9/11 in Portland. That's my Belle & Sebastian story. But yeah, Hefner, the British indie-pop band, had a song called "The Heart of Portland, Oregon." I think Magic Marker Records was based in Portland, and that was a pretty good indie-pop label. There were definitely a lot of cool house shows—bands like the Lucksmiths from Australia, everything from Mates of State to the Aisler's Set and early Thermals shows.
Speaking of the Aisler's Set, how did you guys wind up on Slumberland?
Oh, geez. I don't know—very good luck? I was ordering records from Slumberland mail order at the time, and I must have mentioned, not in a "check out my band" kind of way, that I had some demos. And I guess I passed them along to Mike [Schulman, Slumberland owner] when I was placing an order at one point. It wasn't like cold-calling. We were writing back and forth about this Black Tambourine reissue 10-inch that I was ordering, because my bandmate Peggy [Wang, keyboardist] was a big Black Tambourine fan, and I got into them through her. So, Mike found out we had a band, and he wanted us to open for a Slumberland band called the Lodger when they were coming over to New York, and he was going to be at the show. I don't know if he was just intoxicated at the show or what, but he was really psyched on our performance.
This was a really big deal to us, because we grew up admiring Slumberland, which is just one of the great American indie labels. It's remained consistent and in business for a long time.
Obviously, a lot of the bands on the label are influential to our music: Rocketship, the Aisler's Set, Black Tambourine, Velocity Girl. We thought if we could put out a 7-inch someday on Slumberland, that would be pretty much a dream come true. I don't want to say we're not ambitious, 'cause sometimes that's overly self-effacing, but to us the idea of just putting out a single on Slumberland would have been like we'd done something important with our lives. So the fact that he really wanted to do an album was great. He wasn't overly pushy; whenever we were ready, he was down. It took us a while to get to a point where we could record and make it the way we wanted to, and we didn't try to rush it too much. We wanted to make something we were proud of. It was fun knowing that when the time came, we would have the outlet we were excited about.
And not just historically like, "Oh, this reminds me of when I was young and the records I bought"—more like he was putting out other contemporary stuff that we were psyched on. He put out the Crystal Stilts' album, which is a Brooklyn band that we really love—in fact, we shared practice space with them for a while. He had a singles series that released a record by a band called A Sunny Day in Glasgow that I really like a lot. He was revving up to put out a lot of contemporary bands that we were psyched on. So it wasn't just a nostalgia trip for us, it was like being part of the history of this label was really cool, but also being part of something contemporary felt really... it still felt like a meaningful vibe that a label was putting out a definite aesthetic and sound. It was a really perfect fit.
And beyond the back catalog or whatever, Mike is just one of the tremendously good guys in independent music. He's been in the business for as long as there's been a business, since the late '80s. He's a wonderful, hard-working, good person, and he's always so supportive of us when we want to do things. He loves putting out vinyl and loves putting out 7-inches—obviously he doesn't make any money off of putting out elaborate, colored 7-inch singles, he's just one of the genuine music lovers and record appreciators. I feel like we just lucked out to find such a wonderful person to work with on all that stuff.
The label went on sort of a hiatus for a minute, didn't it?
It didn't stop, but I think around the late 1990s it really slowed down, or it wasn't putting out as much stuff. In fact, the Lodger release was the first release in a couple of years. I think he put out something by the Saturday People, which was Archie Moore from Velocity Girl and someone from Black Tambourine. The label had a peak of releases in the early and mid '90s period. [Mike] does work a full-time job, and he just had a baby. Other things get in the way of putting out records. As people get older, their priorities change. But it was really wonderful to see him come back so strong, with not just our release but the Crystal Stilts release. And that Cause Co-Motion! release he did was great because they have a ton of 7-inches on labels that just didn't really exist or were really hard to find. They were always like, not the elder statesmen of the DIY Brooklyn bands that are gaining attention right now, but they were always a big deal—but their records never were released in a way that anyone could actually hear them that wasn't living within a 12-block radius of them. He's also putting out a Dum Dum Girls single soon.
It seems like the label has come back coinciding with a surge of appreciation for the style of music it's always championed.
Yeah, everything's kind of lined up in a really good way. I don't think it was calculating or cashing in or anything like that. Just by accident it seemed like people started to appreciate the kind of thing he'd been into for a really long time at the time he started reissuing records and putting out new bands again. It was kind of cool from a vindication standpoint for him, like people cared about what he'd been working so hard on for so long.
I think technology has changed how people can appreciate it as well. If people had the internet around in the mid 1990s, I think a lot of those releases would have had a more classic status. At that time it was all mail order, and the distribution was really limited to certain record stores, and not all that stuff was really accessible. But I think that the first Rocketship LP is just so good and it blends the gauzy, dreamy, loopy qualities of a band like Stereolab with a very concise pop sound—it's hard for me to think that album isn't a classic album that's held up in that pantheon when magazines put out "20 Great Albums of 1990s" or whatever. That Rocketship album fits in, or that Aisler's Set album, The Last Match, is also just a really classic album that is every bit as good as some of the Glasgow things like Camera Obscura or the Belle & Sebastian of that same period or slightly later.
It's hard for me to think those records went unnoticed—I mean, there's people who really value that stuff, and it's not like they're totally unknown or rare. Even now, with stuff like Black Tambourine, everyone is discovering Black Tambourine in 2009, but I'm sure [Slumberland] only sold about 50 Black Tambourine records in 1989. You know, it's like everything is taken for granted. People take for granted that "Oh my god, this band is a total Black Tambourine rip-off," but the fact that anyone, even in 2009, calls something a total Black Tambourine rip-off is amazing, being that probably only 57 people were hardcore Black Tambourine fans between 1989 and 2004. So it's cool that this music has gotten to the point where people think it's ubiquitous, because I don't think it ever really was, and now that people maybe overappreciate it, it's cool that it's gained a permanent status as something that people can look back on as classic.
When did you get the band together?
I guess it was February of 2007, two and a half years ago. Peggy's birthday party was coming up, and we wanted to throw her a party. We wanted to get bands that we really liked to play at the party, and two of those bands were Titus Andronicus and the Manhattan Love Suicide. And it was just like, if we learned some songs we could play at the party, too, and we could open for bands we really like. It was kind of sneaky, I guess. So we had like five songs at that time, and we only had a drum machine, but we played at the party. It was actually really fun, and all our friends were there, and it felt really life-affirming and positive. It was a really fun first musical experience to have. Eventually we added a live drummer, about six months in.
Is there anything specific that you do gear-wise to get that sort of classic indie-pop sound that you do, any pedals or what have you that are absolutely essential?
My gut reaction is always to think that good equipment doesn't make good sound or good songs, and the focus should always be on whether the songs are good or not, and not on whether you have really cool guitars or cool gear. But the one thing I could say is that my friends did make me a special pedal. It's called "the painbow," it's rainbow-colored and see-through, and it's pretty cool. It's basically just a Big Muff pedal that he modified a little bit to sound more like the Smashing Pumpkins.
I don't know if someone else played with this pedal, if they would discover the secret to life and the universe. But it makes my guitar sound really fuzzy. I would say focusing on gear misses the point of what we're really interested in. We're just trying to write really good pop songs, that's kind of what we're into. There are some bands that utilize equipment in really cool ways, like A Place to Bury Strangers, they build all their own pedals and they push the boundaries of sound. But for us, we're more focused on songs.
Yeah, the flip side of that is that I don't think I've ever had a A Place to Bury Strangers song stuck in my head. They might get a great sound, but I don't know... I couldn't hum you one of their melodies if you paid me.
I'm not wealthy enough to pay you to hum melodies, but there are different kinds of music, and there's different stuff. I like a lot of different stuff, and I don't feel that what we do is the most important thing ever. I really love other bands that sound different than us or do different things. I'm psyched to play at the Capitol Hill Block Party, on the same stage as Sonic Youth, who are basically gods, and Gossip and the Thermals, who are both bands I'm really psyched on. It's really fun to be part of it.
It's kind of a ridiculously good lineup this year.
Yeah. The fact that two and a half years ago we were playing at a warehouse for a friend's birthday party with a drum machine, and now we're sharing the stage with some of the most legendary bands of our and previous generations—it's pretty mind-blowing. I don't want to have that stoner moment where it's like you stop and think about it, maaan, but it is kind of unbelievable to me that this has happened to us. We're really psyched on it. It's sort of that feeling like I can't believe this is our lives.
At this point, are you all doing the band full time?
Peggy and Alex [Naidus] still work. Their bosses are pretty cool about giving them time off to tour. I lost my job in November, so I'm focusing on the band full-time. We're just trying to find a balance where we can play as much music as we can without being homeless. They're still working as much as possible, and we're just pretty grateful that their situation allows them to take time off to travel. It's pretty rare. My old job was not so psyched when I would be like, "Can I take the next three weeks off, and then can I take the next month off, and can I take the two weeks after that?" And in a tough economy, it's not the best time to ask. They gave me infinite time off as it turns out. They were like, "Why don't you just take all the time off you want and not come back to work?"
A couple of your songs have lyrics about being a teenager, teenage years, what have you. Were these songs that you wrote a long time ago, or is it just good songwriting sense to appeal to the youth?
I don't know, I'm pretty immature. I have a messy room. I feel like the songs from the album are kind of about growing up and the stuff that happens to you when you're growing up, but I also feel like that process doesn't really stop at 18 or something like that. The experiences that shape you aren't limited to a specific adolescent age range, it's a constant process of becoming the person that you are. Sure, a lot of the experiences you have when you're young are pretty formative, whether it's traumatizing or it just colors how you perceive the world, those experiences are really vivid in your mind for most of your life regardless of if you're no longer the age that you were when they happened to you.
With "Everything with You," the lyrics are "strange teenager/waiting for death at 19," and the next verse it's "strange teenager/you'll never know death at 19." It's not written from the perspective of being 19, it's written from the perspective of being older and giving some kind of insight or advice to someone younger. You think the world's going to end, and you think you're going to die immediately, but life goes on, there's hope, there's some reason to keep on going. A lot of the songs that deal with teenage experiences are not always written from a first person, in the present, "I'm a teenager." It's kind of written from an older point of view, reflecting on it, or singing to a younger self. They're not intentionally adolescent or forced, they're kind of about experiences that go beyond the ages of 13 to 17.
There was this Deerhunter interview where he said he writes songs for his 17-year-old self. Which I thought was interesting, because we always think about it in terms of we wanted to be the band that we would have loved when we were 17, when music does mean everything to you, and it's a really idealistic time in your life. You discover who you are by the music you listen to. We were all kind of nerdy kids who hung out at diners and talked about bands that we like all night. The bands we liked would really shape how we thought of ourselves as people; the music and who you were were almost one and the same thing. I think it's important to hold on to the reason you loved the music so much that it meant everything to you and to not ever lose sight of the experiences. When you drive around with your friends listening to a Sonic Youth tape all night, and that was what you did with your time, and that was a perfectly fine thing to do.
Besides Sonic Youth, what were you listening to when you were a teenager?
I listened to a lot of stuff that sounds weird and inconsistent now. Me and my friends were really into local pop-punk bands. We'd go to a lot of pop-punk shows. Some of my friends were more into hardcore, I was never that into it. Also, there'd be like, obviously, Nirvana and Sonic Youth, because Sonic Youth were punk, too, but in a different way. I sort of started off with pop-punk bands, then moved to Sonic Youth and through them discovered more of that classic period of American indie rock, like Yo La Tengo and Pavement and Helium and bands like that. Now they seem like classic American indie rock, like, "That's when indie rock was indie rock, man," but those were just cool bands, and I still love those bands. But there were also '90s emo bands that we'd be into, like Promise Ring, Braid, Mineral, my friends were more into Sunny Day Real Estate. But it wasn't like you could only like one thing. It wasn't like, "Oh, now I'm into indie rock, so I can't like emo." And emo meant something different back then—but like early Get Up Kids and all those Jade Tree bands, pop-punk bands like Weston or whatever. I think it was a pretty healthy mix of stuff that sounds cool now, like, "Yeah, we just listened to Sonic Youth all the time," but we also listened to pop punk and Promise Ring and other stuff. It wasn't like any of that stuff was more important to us than any other. It'd be weird and revisionist of us to say we only liked Sonic Youth. We were teenagers, we listened to normal suburban teenager music.
You have a couple lyrics that seem like intentional nods to other indie-pop bands. There's a line about "crashing through," which was the title of a Beat Happening song, and one about "another sunny day," which was the name of a British band.
I feel bad about the "another sunny day" one, because I realized after the fact that Belle & Sebastian did that, too. And not everyone has to name-drop Another Sunny Day to get anorak cred. "Stay Alive" originally was going to have a Velocity Girl reference in it, but I couldn't say "crazy town" in a song without cracking up, so that one didn't actually make it. "This Love Is Fucking Right" is kind of a reference to a Field Mice song, "This Love Is Not Wrong"; it's kind of the flip side of the coin. The B-side to the 7-inch for "Young Adult Friction" is called "Ramona," and the first lyrics are like, "Nothing to do, nothing to be done," and that's kind of a reference to that Pastels song that's like, [singing] "Simply nothing to be done."
To me it's fond and loving. Everyone tries to act like they've made the most original music ever created, and I'm like, I love other bands, and I'm not afraid to say it. I've always loved other bands, and I'd like to be in a band like the kind of bands that I love. Sometimes it's fun to leave little love notes to the bands that have allowed you to make the music that you do. It's just fun to reference the music that you love, when you're making music—just a little bit, not to the point of plagiarism, but leaving little clues for people.
Half the time it happens accidentally. It's not like, "Oh I'm going to be clever and make a reference to some obscure indie-pop 7-inch B-side." Half the time it's a reference that I've heard a lot or some lyric that I've heard a lot, and it's the first words that come to my mind when I describe something. We have a song, it's not on the album, called "The Pains of Being Pure at Heart," and "we are too pure" is in the lyrics, and people ask if that's a reference to Too Pure records. And I'm like, no, it wasn't, but I like Too Pure records. So maybe somehow that got stuck in my head, and it just came out in the song, and I wasn't super aware that it was happening. It becomes part of your vocabulary, the language that you learn to speak, and when you express yourself it's sometimes what you use. I don't think it's a bad thing.
On a similar note, the keyboard part on "Teenager in Love" I swear is from some other old song, and I've been trying to place where I think I recognize it from, but I've been unable to do so.
I have a lot of different theories on that song. People say it kind of sounds like David Bowie's "Modern Love," and other people say it sounds like the Strokes' "Someday," which sounds like "Modern Love." It kind of has that same beat. Peggy would always say it reminds her of "Dancing Queen" by Abba. I wish it sounded as good as "Dancing Queen"; they're more talented. But now that I think about it, it sounds like, [singing] "Cherish the love we have"—that song, I don't know who it's by. Luther Vandross? Some smooth jam. That might not even be the keyboard part of the song. It definitely sounds kind of like a smooth jam. If you do figure out what song I hideously ripped off, you can tell me, and I won't be bummed out. I'm curious. It sounds like something. But the record went to press, no one sued us in the first six months it's been out, so I guess it's like that Texas Is the Reason song, "If it's there when we get back, it's ours." So I guess it's ours now. That's right, I did quote Texas Is the Reason while talking about wussy indie pop—that's kind of my life.
The cover of the record reminds me of the old Cometbus zines crossed with the Smiths. What's the album artwork?
Originally we were going to call the album "Romantic Friendship," but everyone we told that to rolled their eyes. When we say our band name, a lot of people roll their eyes, but if we called our album "Romantic Friendship," peoples' eyes would roll right out of their head, there would probably be a medical danger. I feel the album is kind of about when you have a really intense, romantic best friend, and you have a sense of isolation together against the world. I feel like the themes of the album—it can't all be reduced to that—are about this feeling of intense friendship. I think the song "Everything with You" really embodies that. There are so many songs about true love, but I feel like that song is about "true like." I think that's really cool that you can have an intense, pure relationship that's not even, but might be, about sex, or it might not be—like, the lines between really intense friendship and love are blurred. I just felt like that image on the cover evoked those feelings to me, it felt so much like these are two best friends hanging out with nothing to do, and it just captured the moment and looked really cool. I'm a big Belle & Sebastian fan, and it kind of reminded me of that, too. In fact, when I was putting the font on the album, you know how every band has, like, some small font in the upper-right-hand corner and maybe in all lowercase letters? I was kind of looking at that for a while, and then I went and looked at my Belle & Sebastian records, and they just put their band name in huge font across the top, like, fuck it, that's the band name. And then I took the drag-and-drop tool and dragged it across the cover, like, yeah, it shouldn't be fuckin' emo font in the upper-right-hand corner, it should be big and proud.
And you know the band Comet Gain? Not to bring up Comet Gain when you were asking about Cometbus, but on the Comet Gain album Réalistes, that's sort of how it was, just black and white and really direct and really simple. And also I thought it might save printing costs if we didn't use too many colors. I'm really happy with how it looks. I don't feel regrets that we didn't put, like, a blurry picture of a squirrel on the cover or something, something more alternative.
So, we've covered "alternative" and "emo" now. What are your feelings about the term "twee"?
I think people get bummed out by this term way more in England than they do in America. All the original indie-pop bands would literally crap their pants if anyone called them twee, and I'm just not really that afraid of it. I think I would describe our music as gay, but sometimes people take that word the wrong way. As far as twee, it doesn't really bum me out, because when I listen to the record, there's a lot of noisy parts and songs about sex and fucked-up stuff, and I don't think people are going to hear a lot of songs about picnics and bicycle rides on it. So you can call it twee, but I think it's wussy, but wussy in a different way. It's hard to explain. I love that trick, like with Nirvana, where you can sing about really fucked-up stuff if it's a catchy melody. It's good to have a good balance between darkness and poppiness.
Well, like the Vaselines were really great at balancing out the cutesy with the rauncy.
I love the Vaselines! I was so sad that I haven't gotten to see them on any of these tours. Every time they come to New York, I'm not here. This is my theory: Every band from Glasgow is pretty much awesome, but I think the Vaselines have that perfect combination of not giving a fuck but being awesome at the same time. I know it's easy to mythologize them, because Kurt Cobain was like, "This band rules." And I did a lot of stuff because Kurt Cobain told me to, so don't get me wrong—I wrote a song called "Kurt Cobain's Cardigan" for Christ's sake, it's okay—but they wrote these awesome songs where they didn't care but they still cared enough to make them good and catchy. They're kind of dirty and raunchy but also sweet and endearing, not like they're trying to shock you. They're just a really great band. I guess their stage banter now, they just tell gross jokes and talk about perverted stuff between their songs. A friend told me that's what Peggy and I would be like in 20 years if we're still playing music—that wouldn't be the worst way to go.