Pains of Being Pure At Heart: An interview and opinion

The upcoming Jue Festival (March 9-25) was primed last night by Brooklynites Pains of Being Pure At Heart at Yugong Yishan, their relatively short set finally giving some context to the hype and many reviews.

Fortunately they don’t care about either of those things, and frontman Kip Berman provided a thoughtful interview on getting reviewed, songwriting in the internet age and how the big city affects small bands.

Q: From afar, the NY scene seems like a paradox: It’s both extremely inspired and jaded, an easy place to find inspiration and get burned out. What do you think NY did for you guys, for better or worse?

Kip: I think you’ve hit on something very true – it’s easy to get inspired or jaded in New York because there are probably 100 great bands and you can either be inspired to create great art or feel that there is no point, that your voice will just get lost.

I guess for us, we found the other bands around us that we admired really inspiring. Bands like Crystal Stilts, Vivian Girls, Frankie Rose, My Teenage Stride and caUSE co-MOTION. Seeing them make great records and tour forced us to focus and spend our time wisely. We all had full time jobs, so it wasn’t like we could rehearse whenever we wanted and play music full time. I spent a lot of time on my own writing the songs and, when we did get the opportunity to come together, we concentrated on learning those songs, without a lot of fooling around. I mean, we weren’t like a machine – we did drink and watch Youtube videos of Teenage Fanclub half the time, but we realized we only had a couple of hours each week to really work and get better, and I think we used that time as best we could.

Q: A lot of you have backgrounds in either media or marketing: does knowing how you’ve perceived professionally from a media standpoint make you think differently about what you do as a band, creatively or otherwise?

Kip: To me, my background is musical – I’ve been in very unsuccessful bands for 10 years, but like anybody in New York I needed a job. It’s never been my passion to do anything other than what I’m doing now, but life isn’t just about doing what you want to – so you have to work and struggle and hope that someday you’ll get the opportunity to realize your dreams.

Q: I’ve always wondered how good reviews from outlets like the NYT to Esquire changes things for bands? What kind of pressures did it create, good and bad?

Kip: It’s important to remember that some of the greatest artists of all time were never recognized in their time. Some of the greatest bands of more recent times get terrible reviews, and some awful bands get endless accolades. We make songs we love with all our hearts, and while we appreciate it if anyone thinks it’s worthwhile and can relate to our music, we’d keep making the music we love regardless of outside opinion.

Q: What is the coolest compliment the band has received that you’re most proud of?

The coolest compliment was when Nitsuh Abebe (New York magazine music critic) said we “weren’t a cool band.” If you know him, that’s a good compliment – he’s a writer I really respect a lot, and our whole band is built around writing good songs, not being the cool band of the moment. For someone to see that and say that– especially someone as knowledgeable as Nitsuh, it means a lot.

Q: During their review of your debut, Pitchfork lumped you in with “other bands of the internet era” and it got me thinking about how the Internet changed the way music is made. What do you see are the costs/benefits of having the history of popular music available at your fingertips?

Kip: I think the benefits are immense and the costs are negligible. If you don’t mind not getting paid for your albums, you have access to people who’d never hear of your band in far away places listening to your music – and that opens up amazing opportunities that never would have existed 10 or 15 years ago– like a band like ours coming to China.

The incredible access to music of the past also allows our generation to draw on inspiration from all over the world and all over history to create something new and special in the present. I’m really excited when I see new bands start referencing stuff that was never popular when it was around, and all of a sudden a new audience learns about really awesome groups who were never properly acknowledged in their time. Bands like Close Lobsters, The Wake and Black Tambourine are probably more popular now than they ever were – and that’s awesome.

Q: Many of your songs have pop sensibility, which can be a big risk. Indulge in it too much, and it becomes repulsive. If there’s not enough, it remains on the fringe with its coolness intact. Is this a balance you’re conscious of?

Kip: I am pretty unconscious when writing, actually. I think the best music should be made intuitively, not intellectually. The moment you become too self-conscious, or try to balance this with that to appeal to this or that, you lose what is special. I know our songs may be too emotional for those who are jaded, or too noisy for people who just want chart pop – but I like them the way they are, and I hope there’s always a handful of people who truly appreciate the music we make.

Q: What is the next step after touring?

Kip: Well, I’m going to write more songs and work on them with Connor. Peggy (Wang) will be there to offer her insight, and we do have a band rule called, “Peggy is Always Right.” Generally, she’s the best editor in our bunch, and her approval is pretty essential for any song of ours ever being released.

Dazenote: Removed 1 question/answer at the band’s request.

Quick review: It’s difficult to hate on power pop, especially when done well. But for those without a sweet tooth, fatigue sets in rather quickly. Pains leans on a well-crafted aesthetic rather than songwriting substance, so if you didn’t find yourself moved by the sunny sheen and jangles after three songs, they’re not for you.

Perhaps having world-class producers diddle your sophomore release can be a double-edged sword. Of course hearing single “Belong” and “Heart in Your Heartbreak” through Yugong Yishan’s PA is going to lack the sparkle punch of an Alan Moulder/Flood production, but since the live show didn’t follow with an uppercut, I found myself muttering that worn adage “they don’t sound as good as on their record.”

Overall, Pains gave a solid evening of expert New York pop, notably held together with some great in-the-pocket drumming from Kurt Feldman. However, the real reason I left smiling was the thought that if Pains is the benchmark to hit for international attention, Beijing bands aren’t that far behind.

jtdj

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27 Responses

  1. josh says:

    interesting assessment. who is the author?

    how was skipskip benben as an opener?

  2. Archie says:

    I’m obviously bias as we brought in the band, but to my mind, they exceeded all expectations. I wasn’t a big fan before Shanghai, not on record or in terms of the name (I mean, c’mon), but what I saw in Shanghai changed my opinion completely. There have been lots of complaints about Yugong recently, so perhaps that has something to do with it. Certainly, improved sight lines, less intrusive bar chatter and a marginally better PA in Mao Shanghai might have something to do with it, but the performance in Shanghai was exemplary – tight, full of emotion, crescendos and most importantly a crowd (predominantly Chinese in the front) going bat-shit crazy for the band. Lots of hungry autograph hunters in the backstage afterwards.

    My thoughts were entirely contrary to yours, namely how few bands in China have that combination of songs, stage craft, production, and attitude to work (they carried all their own gear, set up their own stage and share rooms, having been on the road for 3 months straight). For sure the gap is getting smaller, but there is still a ways to go IMHO.

  3. Beijing Daze says:

    @josh. jt is one of the contributors at ‘daze. Doesn’t write often but writes well!

    @archie, I didn’t make the show but I can tell you I’ve seen more bands than i care about being undone by the sound at Yugong. It’s actually not an equipment problem, theirs is one of the better ones in Beijing. Problem tends to be the sound techs who generally can’t work things out.

    Interesting gig for sure.. I’m almost sad I missed it! But we had a great time at Mao.

  4. Jaime says:

    Yugong’s main problem— They bought Meyer MSL4’s which are for long throw applications in large concert rigs… their horizontal dispersion is really narrow… like 40 degrees. For a club, it should be 90. This is why when you are in the center up close, you can’t hear the fukking thing and only hear the one sub they have… MUD…. then you step back or to the sides and can have your face blown off.

    In layman’s terms, you got a PA that is like a flashlight where you really need a floodlight.

    And yeah, then there are the operators which may not always be the best but are also having to pound in a nail with a screwdriver… wrong tools. At least they bought a new mixing desk!

    There, I geeked out now go and ROCK!

  5. Archie says:

    Thanks man. Good to have the pro’s opinion. Hard to RAWK when you are listening to a flashlight, or something. I’m confused…..

  6. Jaime says:

    OK, confused heh? Hmmmm… think of a deathray you want to use but can’t aim it at who you want… that makes me very frustration!

  7. jtdj says:

    @josh unfortunately I came too late to see skipskip benben. I was looking forward to seeing how they filled out a venue like Yugong.

    @beijingdaze thanks for the kind words, and I agree about the root of YGYS’s sound issues. MAKO and MAO Live always sound better.

    @jamie thanks for shedding light on the equipment issues – not right for the space. I wonder who advised them on those buys?

    @archie First, thanks for bringing them over and starting the conversation on your dime. They’re an entertaining and critically touted band kept at a reasonable price, which is also braggable. Plus, you know your target audience well.

    As for the level of Chinese bands, I will agree – the majority cant even play in time let alone think about the sounds violating their amps. They have all the tools, the venues and crowds they need. They just don’t have the fight and moxie a place like NYC brings out in musicians.

    However big strides have been made in China. Haters love to hate, but Maybe Mars at the very least has put effort and money in cultivating bands and a scene ready to come off life support. And though not my favorite, having Re-Tros present at SXSW this year may yield some good. Hopefully they’ll play at right place/time.

    Also there are those ramping up to challenge the stereotype of the lazy Chinese band. Last night for instance, Residence A put on an encouraging CD release show at MAO Live and makes a good case study.

    Sunday night, 150 people. It was clear they have paid attention to their sound, arrangement, and the understated charisma from frontman Zhaozhao was fun to watch.

    Plus like an increasing number of bands, they’re willing to work – They’ve got a 30-date China tour starting next week, which will most certainly see trains, four to a hotel room, lugging their own equipment and getting paid nothing after “management” takes a cut.

    Their songs need landscaping and they’re not comfortable in their own skin yet, but my point is the material is there, and they just need some luck. I mean, if their first show was opening for Titus Andronicus in NY, while Slumberland and Flood had a crack at them, how big would that gap between these bands be?

    • Archie says:

      Pleasure is mine. Always nice to shoot the shit in a civilized manner :-)

      Yeah, ResA are one of my favorites of last year: we are helping them with their Shanghai show as part of our JUE Festival. They are the exception rather than the rule though – in my experience, some of them start off well, but get heads turned quickly and become divas in an instant. What I enjoyed about Pains was that despite their relative successes, they had very few dibs on themselves, complaining not at all about lugging around backline, sharing rooms, and the general DIY nature of things here.

      Compare that to the incredible levels of shit that we get from Chinese indies that have “made it” for things that inevitable don’t go according to plan, well it’s depressing. Allied to a complete lack of loyalty (we help bands for years for free only for them to turn their backs without a backward glance once they’ve got a few corporate/ festival paychecks under their belts) plus the fact that the majority of tier 1 Chinese indie bands cost 3-4 times what Pains did, well, the equation doesn’t really add up.

      Anyway, probably already said enough. I love the pace of change here and I hope it continues. I genuinely believe in the Darwinist nature of music – good will prevail….

  8. Jaime says:

    Just out of curiosity, who put together this 30 city tour? Touring the clubs around China is part of the business that I truly do not have a grip on and something I am asked about quite frequently… and who do you guys in the know think is the best at it with all parties interests considered?

    • Archie says:

      J, most bands put these tours on themselves. There just isn’t enough money to pay a 3rd party. We tour bands when it makes sense and we’ve done up to 16 cities, but only when there is some external support. Abe dog does some interesting touring, but he’s slowed down because he usually ends up footing quite a large bill for doing a lot of work…..

      Thinking of getting on the road?

  9. Ruby says:

    @jtdj Missed you at both of these shows! But agree with your take on Pains, I was saying the same thing about their album sounding better too. Still glad to have had the chance to see them here though.

    @archie Thanks for bringing Pains, and thanks for putting Skip Skip Ben Ben up there with them. While their music is not always my style, but it’s great to see them play for a bigger crowd than the old what shows I’ve seen before. BenBen is a such huge talent in a tiny package!

    @jaime I’m guessing the band put the tour together themselves, as far as I know they don’t have a manager, Xiao Bing organizes all their shows.
    Tom @ This Town Touring arranges tours for mainly Aussie rock/punk bands coming here. I can put you guys in touch if you want?

    @everyone AGG are one of the best up & coming bands around, it’s great to see their hard work finally paying off. They’re young and still have a long way to go yet, but they’re passionate about staying independant and charting their own course. And they’re genuinely a nice bunch of guys as well, no big egos there yet! I would have liked to see more people out at the album launch last night, but it was a Sunday, and I feel like the show didn’t get enough promo. Can’t wait to see the improvement when they come back to us from 30+ days on the road!

  10. jtdj says:

    @Jaime – Archie’s right, Residence A booked their tour themselves. It took the guitarist about a month of calling. They got the contacts while on a shorter tour last year.

  11. Jaime says:

    Thanks Arch and jtdj…. I had a pretty good feeling that was the answer…. this industry here is still a little baby so I was just asking if it finally got out of it’s nappy’s yet. guess not…hehhe

    Horns up for you guys taking all this risk…. stay crazy!

  12. Jaime says:

    @Archie —Oh, and us? BMS? Well we just play to cause a scene and a big party that won’t stop all night so touring doesn’t make sense for us….we wouldn’t make it past city #3 hahahaha… ask the Black Cat Bone guys! Also, we ain’t Chinese so that’s 100% against us getting any support from anybody. Want us to come down to SH sometime Arch? Sure, that’ll just go in the party/model rocketry budget…. We hope to be going to Hanoi this Spring to rock out and that’s just the same… a Heavy Metal Vacation… That’s how it rolls for the Laowai who aren’t just jobbers… play for the LOVE of it… probably kinda what you guys are doing in this nuts business as well! Promoters are crazy if you ask me..hahaha…GO GO GO!

  13. jtdj says:

    “plus the fact that the majority of tier 1 Chinese indie bands cost 3-4 times what Pains did, well, the equation doesn’t really add up”

    @archie – Im curious, why is there such a huge difference in price? Does this have to do with Chinese band management and agent fees? Were prices driven up by the festival glut? I mean, is the market that healthy for Chinese bands right now that they can demand certain prices and conditions?

    • Archie says:

      It’s a combination of all of the above. Labels/ management have been spoiled by the proliferation of brands wanting to spend $$’s on bands, and let’s face it, there is still a very limited pool. That and the crazy number of festivals that don’t know how to book a foreign band (and don’t see the point) and don’t seem to have to make a profit anyway, and yeah, a band that we booked for 800 RMB back in the 2006 we can’t touch for less than 30k these days. Yeah, they sell a few more tickets (actually, not that many more) but most aren’t that much better and they are certainly more overexposed than their international peers. Ironic that way back when we were laughing about all the brands that chased the same pop artists – well, now that has switched most concretely to the indie bands. This has a lot to do with the risk profile of people working at brands and agencies. They would rather rely on “safe” artists that have already proven that they are a good fit, but hey, that’s a whole other story…

      At risk of spamming, we argue a bit back and forth over here

      http://www.chinamusicradar.com/?p=3160

  14. I think the real issue in China is a lack of focus on playing live. Most of the bands here are stuck in a model that doesn’t exist anymore: making albums and trying to sell them.

    The only thing that makes sense from a business perspective is becoming so good live that people have an insatiable urge to see you. In the US, Wilco is a band like that.

    If you’re an amazing live band people will pay to see you no matter how awful the sound is or how much the venue smells like piss & qingdao. There is something about a great live band that can’t be diminished by external factors.

    Most Chinese (and Western) bands don’t even try to be great live. They play the same show night after night with little variation in their set-lists. Couple that with the fact that a lot of indie musicians (whether in China or the West) aren’t really that technically accomplished and it’s very hard to put on a compelling live show.

    Residence A are an exception. They play their asses off. I can’t think of too many others off the top of my head.

  15. Beijing Daze says:

    wow.. this discussion has gone on so far beyond the scope of the post! I love the exchange folks! this is enlightening and encouraging. Loving it.

    @Jonathan: that might be true in some cases for indie but not the majority! most bands have given up on releasing records from what I can see and might do one every so often. In Metal, some of the bigger names have been living off the success of 1 album for 15 years or so. It’s always good to relativize.

    • Archie says:

      Ha, just defending my bands like any good mother :-)

      I think the problem here extends further than not concentrating on becoming good live. I agree with Badr that bands actually spend more time playing live than anything else. I think the reasons that they don’t improve as much as you would expect are twofold

      1) very few bands can be full time, or even most of part time and there is very little future once you are bored of being broke and staying on friend’s sofas. Allied to crazy parental pressure beyond all rationality and the guilt of having to repay parental sacrifice, and the lack of a visible future where you can actually pay your own bills and your parents, it’s very rare for kids to stay in bands for any significant length of time, to hone their craft and become truly excellent. How many 3rd or 4th album bands can you point to in China’s nascent indie scene? The Black Keys only broke after 6 albums and their 7th is their first real commercial success.

      2) a lack of outside influence. If you are a band growing up in London/ NYC/ LA/ Berlin, there are literally hundreds of options every single day to see/ hear/ experience different perspectives and styles. While Beijing and Shanghai are getting better, there is really still no comparison to other major creative centres (and beyond BJ and SH there is practically no outside influence at all). Therefore, influence is practically a closed loop which is why you have mainstream, derivative and then wildly experimental with nothing much in between.

      Does this mean there is no hope? Not in the slightest – I think that if China continues along this current trajectory, her big cities will become hubs for cultures to collide. Increasing numbers of passionate and experimental foreigners alongside a genuinely interested and open Chinese population should see creativity on a mind bending scale. The big caveat is “if China continues along this current trajectory”. That is the elephant in the room but let’s not go there….

  16. jtdj says:

    Thanks everyone, I’m getting a lot out this. Shedding misconceptions and gaining insight.

    I agree with Jonathan’s points except one – “Most of the bands here are stuck in a model that doesn’t exist anymore: making albums and trying to sell them.”

    As Archie’s observation counters it – “How many 3rd or 4th album bands can you point to in China’s nascent indie scene?”

    In fact, one could argue that by not releasing albums, Chinese bands are setting themselves up for the new market model of less physical product/more playing live.

    Sasha Frere-Jones wrote an interesting article in the New Yorker

    http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/musical/2010/08/16/100816crmu_music_frerejones?currentPage=all

    about the changing role of recordings and record labels that I think applies. The advice he gives for indie bands and smaller rap artists alike (the latter traditionally have abysmal sales) is to play, play, play.

    Apart from a few labels he admires for staying light with a solid, small roster (XL an example), it’s time to own your own shit and stay away from the 360 deals offered by most majors and even larger indies (where they recoup their advance by taking a cut from everything the band does, including tours and merch). I’m assuming, most Chinese labels do this?

    Generally, the recording has returned to its roots – the musician’s business card – mp3s as marketing tools, not an end product. So for Chinese bands going on tour, its wise to have something for the few fans that still want to connect with the music in a physical way. (I had recently had a cool discussion with Josh Feola about how physical product is extremely important to the noise and avant-garde scene.)

    It’s also nice to have something besides a Douban, or worse, MySpace page.

    As for Chinese bands improving, perhaps what we are seeing is the negative side of having a positive and welcoming scene. Audiences in a jaded town like NYC would crush most of these bands in a New York minute. There’s no time for tenderness – Sleigh Bells are playing next door. In turn, the ones that had it in them would fight. Survival of the fittest and craziest. Beijing doesn’t seem to do that for bands so much. Opinions?

    My questions are: what do Chinese labels offer to nurture bands? Do they just broker corporate sponsorship and licensing deals? Can bands with a single agent/manager in China get those gigs that pay? And are there other factors that are stunting musical development?

  17. josh says:

    wow, great discussion!

    i want to reiterate Ruby/Jonathan/jtdj’s praise of Residence A. i agree they’re an exception, not the rule, but they’re a very hopeful sign. style-wise, I could easily see them fitting in with both the Maybe Mars and Modern Sky rosters. i am sure they had offers to work with a label. but they basically self-released (with 乔小刀 of Little Salt helping) and, as mentioned above, put together a 30 day tour by themselves. 30 days!!!!! you can barely do that in the US. as jtdf said, they sounded great at their release show. they’re a super tight band and play with the same energy whether there’ 10 people or 500 people in the audience. i’m very hopeful more bands will follow their lead.

  18. It’s one thing to set yourself up to become a live focused band in terms of business model etc., it is another thing to be able to pull it off. To make money off the “live model” you have to be good enough to inspire a devoted following that can’t live without your show, and I don’t think anyone in China is there yet. Few in the US indie scene are either, which is a big reason why we’re seeing so few 3 or 4 album bands. The culture moves quickly and people forget you if you don’t stand out live.

    Modern Musicians learn their craft at home, recording with computers, etc. Studio skills and playing live are totally different. Being in the studio is all about playing precisely, mixing well and composition. Playing live is about emotion and spontaneity–giving the audience the feeling that they are experiencing something unique and in the moment. No one cares if you fuck up if they can feel what you’re playing.

    Personally, I think a lot Chinese bands are too conservative live. They’re afraid to take risks or make mistakes. It’s cool when music is tight, but to be great live the music also needs to feel alive.

    When I watch a lot of bands in Beijing, my impression is that I’m watching a group of musicians reciting rather than playing. Like it’s the 1000th time they’re playing a given song and if they make a mistake the world will end. Of course the opposite extreme exists too: there’s a lot of experimental music that is all risk-taking and rule breaking. There just isn’t much in-between.

  19. Andy Best says:

    I want to just chime in on Jonathan’s point about being able to play live.

    There’s a large internet discussion current going on across many sites after, strangely enough, a slew of recent SNL shows. The most recent ones were Lana Del Rey, Karmin, Bon Iver and Sleigh Bells.

    Here’s the AV Club article:http://www.avclub.com/articles/why-its-still-important-for-bands-to-do-well-on-sa,69836/

    There is just a different set of skills, and songwriting components between a modern indie band that works with home studios and Youtube – and a band that can hold down a stage in the old way. Just what Jonathan said. I dun mean better or worse, just different things. But how is this reflected in the Chinese scene?

    With the lack of time and organisation, I personally thought there would be an explosion of the net based duos and new indie acts. Simply because of convenience. Also, electronic producers. But in Shanghai, most seem to go for the traditional rock models (albeit in various genres). I am genuinely perplexed as to why people like Pause don’t have to fight off hordes of local producers with a stick, so to speak.

    Douban is now an excellent platform for one or two people operations but it hasn’t taken off with any significance yet.

    We’ll see sooner or later I suppose.

  20. davidk says:

    This is a great conversation that’s winded into some really interesting places from the original subject… great to read.

    A band that is great live has a particular skill. If a band isn’t great live but plays 1000 shows, they will get tighter, more pro… but they probably won’t transform into an emotional explosion, but rather just become that boring, “tight”, “pro” band most people find a bit boring.

    Echoing Andy’s point a little… maybe the way the environment has changed allows us to acknowledge that under the umbrella of “musician” is a spectrum of different types of artists. The old school environment conditioned us to think of a good musician as the “complete package” – a brilliant songwriter who could make fascinating records and who could also rip it up live, whether in a stadium or on MTV unplugged. It’s like expecting a photographer to also be a skilled painter.

    Perhaps the internet and changes in what we consider “live” performance (electronics, loops, DJs with CD-Js) allow musicians to identify their strengths as an artist without necessarily having to be a renaissance master of all forms. This isn’t just an argument for people who can’t blow people away live to hole up and release tracks online – bands that rip live (I’m thinking of about 1,000 forgot punk and hardcore bands from the 80’s) can buy good, cheap live recording gadgets and pump themselves from the stage to people’s eardrums without having to completely train wreck in an expensive professional studio.

  21. @Davidk

    Most bands in the US make a soundboard recording of all of their gigs anyway, so its very easy to master & mix a decent live recording.

    One option is to let people tape & trade your shows which broadens your reach and acts like an ad for your gigs. If a band pays attention to how their shows are traded on a site like archive.org or through torrents, they’ll have a good idea what to release.

    It’s basically a freemium model. You get a big group of people interested then hook some of them enough to sell premium content.

    DJs could do something similar if they vary their sets enough.