Kip Berman doesn't think his band is any more important than any other group of artists. And this doesn't appear to be a statement born out of false modesty -- for every band that brushes with success, there are dozens of talented artists who go unnoticed. The brains behind the self-described indie-pop outfit the Pains of Being Pure At Heart is conscious of his rather ordinary upbringing and doesn't overstate his place in the canon of independent music.
Modesty aside, Berman's got a knack for writing the sort of songs you find yourself humming throughout the day. The band's third album, Days of Abandon, drops April 11. If you are already a fan of the group, prepare for something a little different. Gone is the fuzz and feedback of the early shoegaze: Berman and company traded it in for a more traditional sound of succinct, polite post-punk.
Berman is currently preparing for the upcoming Pains of Being Pure At Heart tour that makes a stop at Off Broadway on Match 18. We catch him on a break from rehearsing to talk about why the band's third album is so different than his previous two critically acclaimed albums. He also touches on how he approaches songwriting, his familial connection to St. Louis and why Tom Petty is his musical spirit animal.
RFT Music: Your publicist sent over a copy of the album yesterday, and I've had a chance to listen to it a couple of times. It sounds very different than Belong. Can you talk a little about why you've decided to scale things back a little bit?
Kip Berman: The last album was one sound over and over again. I feel like these songs had a lot more range -- some highs and lows. Not just highs. It's a much more expansive sound. It's brighter and it has a fuller range of sounds. More importantly, I care mostly about the songs themselves more than the minutia of production details. This batch of songs is really the strongest we had to offer. I'm excited the album has a brighter sound.
Does that mean you were unhappy with your last album? Or would that be the right way to put it?
No, I think that'd be wrong, because we were really excited with the sound we accomplished on the last album. We thought it would be redundant. I feel, had we done the same thing again, it would have boring and redundant and boring. I feel like every new album is a chance to tell a new story and articulate new ideas for what we are.
You write all of the songs. How do you choose who is playing with you?
I write songs and my friends -- people I know who are available to record -- that's who I rely on. In the last album it was Peggy (Wang) and Kurt (Feldman) and Alex (Naidus). On this album, their availabilities change. That's understandable. I was lucky to work with Jen Goma (A Sunny Day in Glasgow), and Kelly Pratt (Beirut, David Byrne & St. Vincent). Jen's a good singer, and Kelly's a good horn arranger. I think it was a good thing. It helped develop things in a way that wouldn't have happened if we'd kept doing things the same way.
Where did you grow up, and what brought you to music?
I grew up in Philadelphia, in a normal place. In a normal suburb. I listened to a lot of punk and more melodic hardcore. Then I got into more underground indie music like Sonic Youth and Pavement and bands like Helium. I think I had a pretty normal American childhood. It wasn't bad. I was just a normal person from Philadelphia. We hung out at Denny's and talked about anarchy a lot and went to punk-rock shows at the YWCA.
Do you have any connections to St. Louis?
I really want to give a shout out -- a bunch of my cousins are actually going to school at SLU. Even if no one comes to the show, there's going to be a lot of Berman cousins there, and I think my uncle's going to be there.
How'd you end up in New York?
I was going to school in Portland. I moved after I graduated, to New York, to try to get a job and make a life. It wasn't like, "I'm going to move to New York and be a songwriter and be in a band." When I started Pains, I'd been in bands for years and years and never played a show outside of our own ZIP code. It was pretty shocking to think that people were responding to the music. It really wasn't expected at all. I wrote songs in my bedroom and asked the guy who sat next to me at work, Alex, if he wanted to come over and jam sometime. It just went from there. My roommate was Kurt. It was just a very natural thing. We just tried to write really great songs. We've just been very lucky that people have responded well to our music. More lucky than we deserve.
Continue to page two for more of our interview.
Music is so accessible -- people today have unheard of access to anything they want to listen to. Where does your music fit in and what do you think makes it important?
I don't think I can answer that. I'm a huge fan of music, and I think so much music is important. Desire behind it can be important. I don't have the sense that our music is the only music in the world that matters. I'm a fan of so many bands that don't get the attention they deserve. I try to write the best music that I know how. I look up to Tom Petty a lot. He's kind of my hero. He's not the most flashy performer. I don't think he's anybody's idea of a sex symbol. He's not even a virtuoso musician. He was able to play the Super Bowl halftime show because he kept writing good song after good song. That's not to take away from his musical accomplishments. He's just sort of an atypical person to be a rock & roll star. It's incredible, the kind of good music he produced. I know my own background is way different, but I hold on to the idea that songwriting is the most important thing, and I think good songs last a lot longer than cool fads or things that are rooted in other ideas.
He really is overlooked; whenever people talk about great American songwriters it's usually Springsteen or the Beach Boys. Then you go, "Wait, TOM PETTY."
I know. Bruce Springsteen has this bravado and Prince is just pure sex and virtuosity. If you want to play the game of who has it all, I probably couldn't think of anyone better than Prince -- even Bowie. But Tom Petty is overlooked in a lot of ways. There's nothing outsized or outlandish about his personality and what he presents to the world. He seems very quiet and removed. He used to just sort of come out with an album every two years.
"Simple and Sure," I think there was a little touch of Petty in that. Inadvertently -- I didn't sit down and say, "Let's record a Tom Petty song." I just listened to it and thought, "Oh, there's a little Tom Petty in there."
You've been to St. Louis before. How was your last experience?
We played at Off Broadway before, a little after Belong came out. We also played at a very good independent radio station [KDHX]. They brought us bagels. You remember that -- when you wake up first thing in the morning and someone brought you bagels, that's great. This is going to be nice. I have some family members down there. My family is from the rival beer city of Milwaukee. What's interesting is that Off Broadway, they were selling Miller and not Bud, in the shadow of Anheuser-Busch. But I'm not a guy who cares about fancy beer either. We have a six-pack of Bud Light Lime in the practice space right now.
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