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.