Interview: Jacob Graham and Jonathan Pierce of the Drums at Split Festival

By on Thursday, 29th September 2011 at 11:00 am

TGTF caught up with Jonny and Jacob from the Drums over a Sobieski and Sprite at the Split Festival in Sunderland earlier this month. A highly appropriate name, Split, as when another member of the band appeared at the door, he was swiftly shooed away. Clearly the band has two core members, and dare I say a revolving door policy for the rest; Jacob admits split rumours have plagued the band from the beginning. The duo have plenty to talk about: from being a dedicated synth fan in the grunge era, through lazy musical comparisons… to apiphobia?

Cheers, and welcome to Sunderland. How have the UK festivals treated you this summer?

Jacob: We were a little alarmed by the bees everywhere at Bestival – but we’re both from the country so we’re used to that.
Jonny: At UK festivals, everyone just wants to party with their friends. At US festivals, everyone just goes to see the bands they like and stays in hotels. Camping is very much a UK thing.

On to the new album, ‘Portamento’ (review here). The lyrical themes sound very much like one man’s opinions.
Jon: I write the lyrics, then we get together to write the music. Almost every song that we’ve ever released has been about the same person; we’re obsessive people in this band. [I note an exchange of not exactly cordial glances between the two at this point….unrequited love maybe?]

The themes on the new album change from very much being in control of a relationship to self-doubt and needing a doctor. There’s certainly some raw emotion on display.
Jon: I don’t see it as therapy. Decided the only option was to write an honest album, after all the things we’ve been through in the last year and a half: an album based on reality. There’s some whimsical aspects of the last album that I don’t believe in any more. We’re suckers for heartbreak, it’s the only thing that touches the two of us.

There’s a nice moment in the record where it breaks into a choral synth piece. It reminds me very much of Tomita. Is this a hint of a new direction?
Jacob: It’s interesting and wonderful that you bring up Tomita; people here who talk about us using synthesisers say the craziest things like Searching For Heaven sounds like New Order, which to me is totally absurd, such a limited frame of reference. I listen to a lot of Tomita, Jean Michel Jarre, and Wendy Carlos, that’s what we’re interested in as far as synths go. We specfically hunt down vintage synthesisers with a lot of fervour – that’s actually how we met each other, we were obsessed with old synths, around the age of 11 or 12, we were collecting as much old analogue gear as we could!
Jon: Do you want to hear the song that was playing when Jacob and I met each other? [A Macbook appears, playing ‘The Electric Joy Toy Company’ by Joy Electric: think Nintendo soundtrack with reverby, childlike vocals.] This was our favourite band for 10 years. Everyone else picked on me for listening to it. We were shipped to the same summer camp, and he came over and said, “who’s playing this?” I thought he was gonna make fun of me, but he was like, “it’s my favourite band!” I said, “really? Then look at this!” I pulled out a Joy Electric t-shirt, he asked if he could touch it, I said sure you can touch it, and we became pen pals. We were the last to get email.
Jacob: It was very strange for us growing up in the middle of America, being 12 years old, right when grunge music was at its height. Nirvana was the rage, and we were listening to this [Joy Electric]. It was not cool. It’s still not cool! [laughs]

It sounds like a toy sound. In fact, you seem to make guitars and drums sound like this, the opposite of Nirvana, when they turn everything up to 11.
Jacob: It’s always one note at a time – we never knew how to play guitars, we can’t play any chords or anything, so when we played them we knew how to sequence notes on a sequencer, so it’s the same mentality on a guitar.
Jon: We grew up on monosynths so we tend to just play one note at a time – like a mono guitar.
Jacob: The night we met, Jonny wrote down his address for me, and signed it Electric Till Death! It wasn’t a joke to us, we were like, Yeah! Synthesisers! As much as we’ve used guitars over the last couple of years we’re over that too, it’s all just one big blur. I think that’s why we used synths again on ‘Portamento’.
Jon: It’s like going back to a past lover: it’s comfortable, but kind of boring.
Jacob: [indignant] It’s not like that for me!

I want to pass on a complaint from a friend of mine. He wanted to hear ‘Let’s Go Surfing’ at Bestival, and apparently you didn’t play it. Is that deliberate?
Jacob: [sarcastically] We just forgot to play it!
Jon: It’s strategic – the words in that song are empty at this point. The show can only be as good as the level of sincerity; if I’m standing there singing, and the song is void of anything that I’m feeling, you go away with less of a feeling of potency, like you witnessed something special. At the risk of losing a fan who likes us for that song, I’d rather play something that every word that I sing I can feel when I’m singing it – I think it heightens the energy and intimacy of a show.
Jacob: I don’t want to discredit your friend [personal note: discredit him as much as you like!], but anyone who says ‘Let’s Go Surfing’ is their favourite song of ours has failed to check out the rest of the catalogue. There’s loads of special moments there – we’re happy to lose the fans who don’t want to dig any deeper.
Jon: I don’t know if we’re really a festival band anyway – we really record stuff bit by bit, it sounds like it’s made in the basement of a house in Ohio with a shitty lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. We are very much an indoor band.

They really don’t seem like an indoor band when they take the stage to headline Split… although we’re in a tent, so, technically, we’re indoors. Jonny flounces around the stage like a stroppy diva, Jacob conducts the band from his bank of synths, the two of them defining the sound of the Drums. Tension is never very far away; it’s built into the songs, it’s built into the band. There’s no denying the rawness of emotion on offer within ‘Portamento’, and it continues the sound of a band who love their electronic music but seem able to cross over into the mainstream guitar band consciousness. Direct from the Joy Electric dating agency.

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