With The Drums’ new Abysmal Thoughts, band founder Jonny Pierce is making the exact album he’s always held in his heart. Of course, this is The Drums, so that heart is broken—but there’s beauty and even bliss in this kind of heartbreak, as well as that special kind of glorious delirium that comes from taking everything life can throw at you and still walking away triumphant. If Abysmal Thoughts doesn’t sound at all abysmal—really, Pierce has rarely been this irresistibly pop—that’s because this is a story about how to figure out what happiness means once the worst has already happened.
“Happiness can be confusing to me,” says Pierce. “It shows up out of nowhere, and before you can even get used to it, it’s vanished. But Abysmal Thoughts? I can rely on them—and with the political chaos that is raining down, who knows when these dark feelings will subside?”
As the last album cycle for The Drums finished and his long-term relationship with his former partner dissolved, Pierce took some time away from music altogether in hopes to reconnect with himself and find future inspiration. Determined to make a change, he ended up leaving his longtime home in New York and found himself isolated in a large empty apartment in Los Angeles, all his plans for life and love suddenly in shambles: “I said I wanted to let life happen?” he says. “Well, the universe listened and life began to fuck me real good! But honestly, I make the worst art when I’m comfortable. The stuff that resonates with me the longest—and that resonates with others—is always the stuff that comes out of my hardships and confusion.”
That hardship and confusion—and the clarity of personality and purpose it inspired—became Abysmal Thoughts, an unflinching autobiography with Pierce back in full control of the band. He’s back to not just writing all the songs by himself but playing every instrument, too, this time realizing exactly his own personal vision for the band. Not coincidentally, it’s some of the most revelatory work he’s ever done. The key was opener “Mirror,” and from there, Thoughts simply flowed: “It very much felt like I was releasing,” Pierce says. “I had this visual of turning a handle and watching steam just pour out of the valve, relieving a lot of my artistic and personal anxiety. I was dealing with so much loss and feeling unsure and scared—and if there’s one thing I can rely on it’s the healing power of being an artist. I’m falling back in love with music. Creating this album on my own was a full-on long-running therapy session.”
Across a year and three months of home recording—with the same guitar, synthesizer, drum machine and reverb unit he’s played since the beginning of The Drums—Pierce put together Thoughts, first in that apartment in Los Angeles and then later in his cabin in upstate New York. With help from engineer Jonathan Schenke (Parquet Courts, Mannequin Pussy and more) he gave Thoughts a pop sensibility that added color and contrast to an already vivid self-portrait alive with the hyperdramatic emotional potency of the Smiths, the arch literary pop moves of New Zealanders like the Verlaines and the Clean, and the riotous clatter-punk power of the UK DIY bands of 1979. And this time around he’s introduced an slight influence from early drum and bass as well, drawn from his adoration of Roni Size and other electronic artists from the UK in the 1990s.
Now the highs are higher than ever, and the lows absolutely bottomless, and it’s the last song—the title track—that makes everything clear. The Drums are back, and while there’s a heavy sadness here, Pierce is stronger for fighting through it. On possibly the loveliest and catchiest song he’s got, Pierce takes his listeners to the edge of the cliff, and then drops everything but his voice, singing “Abysmal, abysmal, abysmal …” Some albums might offer a happy ending—even some albums by The Drums—but here Pierce just offers an ending. Because that’s more honest, isn’t it?
“There’s something in me that mostly prefers a sad ending,” he says. “The other potential title I had was A Blip Of Joy, the opposite of Abysmal Thoughts—if those two things don’t sum up the emotional chaos that I feel every day, then nothing will! But Abysmal Thoughts wins because … doesn’t it always?”
Emerging from underground venues in Chicago’s Northwest side, NE-HI made its name on both its live energy and cleverly wrought guitar anthems. On its second album Offers(Grand Jury), the band takes those basement-forged instincts and refines them, lets its guitars explore new angles, and focuses its songwriting. The result shows there are a wide range of post-punk possibilities yet to be explored.
It all started at Animal Kingdom, a flash-in-the-pan DIY basement in Chicago’s Logan Square. There, in the summer of 2013, three friends from college, Jason Balla (guitar/vocals), Mikey Wells (guitar/vocals) and James Weir (bass) linked up with drummer Alex Otake to score a buddy’s film and decided to start bashing around together as NE-HI. NE-HI’s more ambitious sound and heady arrangements broke away from garage rock’s back-to-basic’s approach. The band’s disparate influences–Wire’s post-punk, Springsteen’s everyman anthems, along with echoes of dreamy atmospheres of Dave Roback’s Rain Parade and the jangly buzz of Kiwi pop legends The Clean–began burning through. The band attracted the attention of Dave Vettraino, who asked NE-HI to record at his Public House Recordings studio for posting on his website. Vettraino would go on to record the band’s debut album. The Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot gave the debut the #4 spot in his 2014 year-end list.
Offers is NE-HI finding that rising to the occasion means living up to your own standards, not someone else’s. The band entered Chicago’s Minbal studio in January 2016 to record ten songs with Vettraino engineering, but scrapped most of the session. To finish the record, NE-HI went back to touring, writing, rewriting and returned to Minbal in March more solid than ever. It recorded most of Offers live at Minbal to capture the energy–only overdubbing vocals.
Offers drones, it captivates with soaring pop, it shimmers with atmosphere, always changing, looking. The album veers from the staccato pop of “Palm of Hand” (which nods to Chicago’s Disappears) to the jangly pleasures of “Stay Young.” The off-kilter, ultra-catchy “Sisters” refines the carefree feeling of the band’s debut–picking up the spirit of New Zealand pop. Title track “Offers” feels like a slight departure, the band pushing its most abstract and unpredictable instincts. On “Prove” the band’s post-punk guitars come at blistering tempo, it’s the band’s most athletic moment yet. While the punchy drawl of “Buried on the Moon” conjures a less sleepy Let’s Active.
Offers finds the distant influence of forebears in cerebral guitar pop presented with a familiarity that typifies great FM rock hits. The Midwestern boys (two from Chicago, one from Wisconsin, and one from Minnesota) in NE-HI have a knack for knitting something comfortable and warm from those art school cast-offs and cult favorites. NE-HI’s music demands to be lived in. Chances are good that in the case of Offers, regifting will be rare.