The Pains of Being Pure at Heart frontman Kip Berman talks to Cormac Duffy about working with his idols and the importance of nostalgia
Kip Berman has a pretty enviable life. As the lead singer of New York indie-pop maestros The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, the last few years have been a rags-to-riches story for him and his band. Their self-titled debut dragged them out of obscurity and into the unforgiving spotlight of the blogosphere. Critics and fans alike were drawn to the album’s charms when it came out in 2009.
Since then, there’s been growing audiences, tours and the chance to make their recently-released sophomore album with two of their idols. Yet, when O-two catches up with Berman during the band’s European tour, he’s happy to just talk about the simple pleasures of music.
The tour marks the first live performance of tracks from new album, Belong. “It’s an exciting thing because a lot of these songs haven’t been played live before. To see people’s reactions and see that it’s been so positive has been heartening,” he says. However, Berman becomes more candid as the interview wears on: “It’s a sense of relief if anything, like ‘OK, this doesn’t totally suck.’”
Belong, as an album, was moulded by two great inspirations of the band. The first is their label, Slumberland Records, who not only gave all the assistance Pains needed, but have served as a mentoring presence. Established in Washington, DC in 1989, Slumberland was home to many of the band’s touchstones and indie-pop forefathers such as Black Tambourine, Velocity Girl and Stereolab and according to Berman: “The sound of that label was really what influenced a lot of the first record.”
The second is the legendary production and engineering team of Alan Moulder and Flood. The duo, who have overseen the creation of releases from Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails and U2, changed the way they approached recording. “Alan has a great sense of what rock and roll should be. He gets it on a gut level. Flood has a more intellectual approach. We’re still a stupid American rock band, but he helped us think more creatively.”
Their working relationship began with an offer from Moulder to produce, but when his schedule prevented their collaboration, he made the band another proposal. “He said: ‘Would you mind if Flood produced it and I mixed it?’ And I was like: ‘Mind? Are you serious?’
“We went from ‘Holy shit, we’re going to make an album with Moulder!’ to ‘Are you fucking out of your mind? Flood made some of the coolest records of all time!’” For them, it was a chance to work with personal heroes. “Those guys have worked on not just great records in the abstract sense, but records that were great to us, that we listened to growing up.”
To truly get The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, one needs to realise that they are first and foremost music fans. Not just casual listeners, but full blown fanatics who wear their influences on their sleeves. “We’re always happy to tell people what they should be listening to instead of us,” he laughs. His suggestions have sent O-Two on the hunt for supposed lost classics from Teenage Fanclub, Orange Juice and Helium to name a few.
The group’s tendency to preach the indie gospel is merely an acknowledgement of the bands and artists that enlightened them to music’s virtues. “We totally learned that from Kurt Cobain,” he admits. “We’re always really eager to point people to the music that made us make music. Everyone’s influenced by stuff. The honest thing to do is be open about it and admit it.”
What strikes a lot of people about the band is the nostalgic quality of what they do, rooted in a mix of revivalist sounds and dreamy textural touches, but would Berman agree? “I think there is a sense of nostalgia, but not in the traditional way,” he responds. “The songs are in the past, the act of looking back is where they come from.”
They’re certainly not alone. The world of independent music has been taken over by those yearning for times gone by. For Berman, nostalgia is a fundamental part of music. “I think the artists are always writing in the style of the music they were listening to when they first fell in love with music.”
It isn’t a new trend either. “We’re not the first generation to do that, look at Creation Records in the 80s. They were fetishising 60s jangle pop to such an extent that we think of 80s jangle pop.”
Berman sometimes even verges on the philosophical. “In the act of interpretation of the past, there’s something new that’s created. Elements of contemporary life seep into that sound.” So as long as this phenomenon continues, there will always be great bands making music for music lovers and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart will be one of them.
Belong is out now.