It’s understandable that Jonny Pierce, leader of jangly New York indie-pop outfit the Drums, would title his band’s fourth album Abysmal Thoughts. It was certainly an abysmal time in the 34-year-old’s life. During the album’s making, founding Drums member and Pierce’s childhood friend Jacob Graham departed the group, and Pierce’s marriage to Dutch artist Jasper Rischen also disintegrated. Pierce — who grew up gay in a small town raised by strict Pentecostal preacher parents, had struggled over the years with being gay in the public eye, and found himself estranged off and on from his family due to his sexuality — was suddenly forced to reassess his entire existence.
But from great pain often comes great art, and Abysmal Thoughts is the Drums’ finest album since their 2010 debut. Among the record’s many highlights are “Blood Under My Belt,” a heartbreaking divorce song disguised as a toe-tapping, hand-clapping, lightweight summer-pop singalong; and the devastating “Head of the Horse,” an ode to Pierce’s distant, disapproving mother and father, with lyrics like “Your sister got married 14 times/But if you fall in love, son, that’s a crime.” (“Growing up in that atmosphere led to a childhood that was riddled with self-doubt, confusion, and a lot of self-hate. I find that the past still dominates a lot of my daily experiences — sometimes to the point of feeling paralyzed. The goal is to heal, and I think I am — but at a much slower pace than I am comfortable with,” Pierce said in a statement introducing the latter track.)
And through the making of the album, Pierce has indeed started to heal — even finding love again with his new boyfriend, model Keon Smith (as seen on Abysmal Thoughts‘ cover), an ex-Mormon who has endured his own struggles while coming out and living his truth.
Yahoo Music recently spoke at length, and incredibly candidly, with Pierce about the Drums’ lineup changes, his bittersweet wedding day and painful divorce, his difficult childhood, his rejection of God and religion, Trump, Chechnya, the PWR BTTM sexual assault scandal, and his “steady, slow climb toward what hopefully is all-around healing.” This man’s thoughts, abysmal or otherwise, are pretty deep.
YAHOO MUSIC: The obvious first question has to do with the fact that this is the first Drums album officially done entirely by you, as a one-man band. How did that come to be?
JONNY PIERCE: Yeah, I’ve had quite a colorful past as far as the band members are concerned… I’m trying to still figure out why that is, why that’s the dynamic with the Drums. With Abysmal Thoughts, it’s an album of introspection, and rather than looking outward, trying maybe for the first time to look inward and see what’s going on inside of me and asking myself a lot of questions.
I think part of why the Drums maybe was not enough, or possibly too much, for [my bandmates] was I think it’s possible I was leaning on them a little too hard, needing more than they were ever able to give. I think a lot of it has to do with how I grew up, being gay, having two parents as pastors of a big church — a big, anti-gay, born-again, speak-in-tongues church. I didn’t have a happy home as a kid. It’s funny, you think you grow out of it and you move on, but you’d be surprised just how much of that sticks with you, well into adulthood.
I think I was sort of piggybacking, if you will, with the band. I wasn’t just forming a band, but I was sort of forming a family. For me I viewed these guys as what was going to fill the void in my life, as far as having a close-knit, supportive family. I think that’s kind of hard. That was hard for them. Maybe they realized it way before I did, because I’m just sort of putting it all together now. I think I loved them maybe too much. I think I was too excited about this union, and I never felt the excitement in quite the same way coming back toward me. Who really knows in the end?
Along with the Drums splitting up, you were having issues with your then-husband, Jasper, right?
Yeah, I was going through some serious stuff, with Jacob leaving, and simultaneously my marriage to my ex-husband was falling apart at the time…
I wanted to ask you about that, particularly about this album’s lyrics. The minute I heard “Blood Under My Belt,” I was like, “Hmm, is that about…?”
Yeah, it’s pretty literal, that song. Maybe not the blood part [laughs], but I talk about picking an apple from a tree that we planted together, and that’s quite literal. I thought we were settled. I thought I had found the guy for me. We were fostering dogs. We bought a little lake house. I was really feeling like, “Wow, I’m like a real person now! I’ve been hearing about being a real person, and I think I’m a real person now. I’ve been floating around my whole life, and I feel like my feet are hitting the ground. I’m starting to understand who I am!” I had this false sense of security. Then from one day to the next, it all just kind of imploded.
The boring answer is he started school at Columbia in journalism and was just nonstop absent because of the workload. They actually told him, “If you’re in a relationship right now, before we start this semester, I suggest you break up with whoever you’re with, because you’re not going to have time for them.” And that actually came to pass. But that’s not it. I was also on the road. I often say we got married and then we never saw each other again. That’s kind of how it felt. It just wasn’t sustainable. I think it made us both really sad. As much as we tried to jumpstart the relationship again when we could see each other, too much time had passed. But really I think if there was true love and it was right in the beginning, even with all that time that we weren’t able to spend together, I think if we were together it would have been enough. Love can be that strong. I don’t think our love was strong enough to begin with.
That must have been devastating.
It really destroyed me. In the spirit of being really transparent, I threw myself into really heavy drug use and really heavy alcohol use. I really became maybe more reckless than I had ever been in my life, I think sort of punishing myself for letting something like that slip away. Oh, and I didn’t tell you: In that whole swirly process, to try to save our relationship we actually moved out of New York City and had this kind of stupid idea that if we went to Los Angeles, maybe a new city would be a new start. Our problems got on the very next plane and followed us there. It just got worse. There I am at this apartment by myself, that we were supposed to be sharing, in a city that I am not that familiar with. I had a couple of good friends there, but it just wasn’t my home. That’s where I started writing the album. Those are the songs of real sadness and heartbreak.
And then what? Did you stay in L.A.?
When I finally had enough of L.A., I decided to come back to New York City. As soon as I landed, I kind of felt something starting to heal up inside of me. It felt less frantic and less crazy. I went up to my lake cabin, and I finished the album there. That’s kind of where I started writing songs where I’m sort of asking myself, “Who are you? Who do you want to be? How broken are you, and how do you get fixed?” It’s songs like that, this idea that maybe it isn’t all everyone else’s fault. Yeah, you have a s***ty upbringing, but there has to be a time where you start taking some sort of responsibility for yourself. I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t think I ever will, but just sort of being able to say out loud that you’re feeling really f***ed, and being able to admit it to yourself is a really powerful and healing moment I think in anyone’s life.
I used to have two modes. One was just self-sabotage, go crazy, be high all the time and make your life a big mess, and the other thing was kind of just as bad — it’s like, pretend that everything’s great. I wanted neither of those things. I wanted to stop pretending things were great, and I wanted to stop destroying my life on purpose. I just wanted to be in this beautiful middle space, this coveted “I’m OK with who I am” space. Easier said than done.
Are you there yet? Not to sound cheesy and New-Agey, but where are you in the journey to feeling like the middle ground of being OK?
Where am I? That’s a thoughtful question, thank you. I don’t know where I am. I know I’m not where I need to be, but I also know I’m not where I used to be. It’s just sort of like this steady, slow climb toward what hopefully is all-around healing.
It’s really interesting, because I had been assigned to write an article for the Talkhouse about [my journey and upbringing]. It was my idea. I wrote my PR agent and I said, “I really want to talk about when is it appropriate and OK and not crazy to close the door completely on a relationship in your life, where there’s somebody who isn’t supportive of you being gay, or just being who you are? … When is it OK to stop going home for Christmas and say, ‘You know what? I’m going to respect myself enough to say, you can’t have it all, Mom. You can’t treat me like s***, tell me I’m ‘sick,’ and expect me to show up on Christmas and Easter.’”
So when is it OK, and how many times do you try to win your parents over before you just walk away and start living your life? How much of your heart do you reserve for the people that you hope one day will turn a corner? I was so set. It was my idea to write this [Talkhouse] article, and I was going to say, “You should just give a big f***-you to anyone who doesn’t respect you for exactly who you are, as long as you’re not hurting yourself.” There’s a rule that I live by. It’s like, “I have the right to be me and fully me, up to the point to where it starts to hurt someone else.” If you’re not being a threat to anyone else in any way, then you should just celebrate who you are, and you should be celebrated as well by the people that love you or claim to love you in your life.
What is your life goal at this time, then?
I don’t think I have all the answers, and I don’t know what the answers are. I don’t even know fully what I’m looking for. I know what I want. I want everything to just be OK, and I want love to prevail. I want a greater sense of self. I don’t know if these things are ever going to come to pass, but I certainly keep myself busy exploring all the options.
Is what’s going on politically right now triggering any of the stuff you went through as a kid? I see so much progress with LGBTQ rights going backward now, and it is frightening.
Of course there’s my life as an artist, and then there’s also my personal life, and sometimes they overlap and intertwine and sometimes they’re separate. As far as a day-to-day, personal level, I try to stay as active as I can. I feel in my lifetime I’ve never felt such a palpable, tangible threat to my rights and to other people’s rights around me — not just gay people, but anyone who’s in a minority situation. Their lives are being threatened in such a big way. It really feels like World War II kind of s***. I used to think that was trivializing what Hitler did, but now it feels not quite the same. It’s not an exact comparison, but it feels like we’re heading in that direction.
It’s really scary. It’s not just in America. In Chechnya there’s these concentration camps for gay men now that’s being protected by the government. This stuff is scary, and it’s all around us. What makes me almost more angry than what’s happening around us is the silence that is happening around us as well, from people that have a voice and could stand up. It’s been a real season of separating the sheep from the wolves for me, as far as people I know in my life. It sounds so cutthroat, but this is a cutthroat era that we’re living in. Anyone who doesn’t see that or understand that, I’m not sure if I can even go to dinner with these people. Where are their values? I can’t have a martini with someone that I know wouldn’t get out of bed to go protest.
It’s kind of poetic in a way, this sort of organic refining of who we choose to spend our time with. It sort of quite naturally exposes which people live with which values. I want to be with people who stand up every time that they see somebody’s rights being threatened. That’s the state I try to exist in. I’m not perfect and I don’t ask anyone else to be perfect, but I do think we should all be doing all that we can and living in the spirit of justice every day.
When I was a kid, my mom would always say, “Live in the spirit of prayer.” I was like, “What, I have to be praying 24 hours a day? That’s boring!” But we should be living in the spirit of standing up for other people. That’s what I got on that, anyway.
I was wondering if, because of your unique background, you kind of understood how Trump’s success came to pass, maybe more than the average person among your bubble of friends in Brooklyn or L.A., because you’ve seen this extreme in your childhood.
Well, I’m from small, dirty little town called Horseheads, N.Y. It’s upstate. Obviously New York is a blue state, but there’s a lot of red little pockets. It’s the polka-dot state. If you’re not in New York City or Ithaca or around the Finger Lakes — Rochester and Syracuse, Buffalo — it’s pretty darn red.
I went to a Bible school called Pine Crest in upstate New York. If you Google “Pine Crest Bible School” and read just a little bit, you’ll realize right off the bat that it’s borderline cult-y, if not a full-blown cult. It was there where they learned to hone in on their speaking-in-tongues skills. When we were little kids, they’d put oil on our foreheads if we had a headache — or anything. If we had broken our wrist or something, they’d put this little bit of “anointed oil,” they called it, on our foreheads or they’d speak in tongues. We never went to the doctor or had medicine. Jesus would heal you. There was all this stuff. It’s not casual. It’s very real to them. It is why they exist. It is every breath they take.
My parents, they’re pastors of a church, but it’s not about money for them. We grew up super-poor, and I know firsthand they could have taken more money out of the offering plate than they did. They raised six kids on like $400 a week. We were eating government-issued peanut butter and were just kind of the craziest family ever. It always boils down to gay rights and abortions with them. Those are the two things that it boils down to. You could say, “I want to give you the moon, but I also do believe that women should have control of their own body and gay people should be allowed to be married and live with the same rights as anyone else.” And if that were the case, then my parents wouldn’t want the moon. It’s always been those two issues. There’s not much budging going on, and Trump knows that and the GOP knows that. They know that the Bible speaks out against these things, or at least in their mind it does. If they keep hammering away at these quasi-religious issues and they claim these as their own beliefs, then people are just going to go for it. They’re going to vote Trump in. He actually isn’t a dummy. If you just say that you’re antiabortion and antigay, you’re going to get a lot of Christians voting for you. It’s that simple. Trump doesn’t give a flying f*** about if someone can get an abortion. He doesn’t spend any time, he doesn’t care about gay rights or not. It’s not important to him, but he knows that that’ll get him some votes. It’s kind of gross.
It’s a weird conversation to have now. If you know someone in your family voted for Trump and that vote directly affects how you’re seen by society and the things that you’re allowed to do, how do you look a family member or a friend in the face over Thanksgiving dinner and smile and have a nice time? How can you look past that? I’m trying to figure out if you even can. That’s a tricky one.
How are your family relations these days, now that your personal life and sexuality are out in the open?
My parents really built up my trust in them for the first time in my life with Jasper, by seeming to embrace him. My mom would tell me the few times that we hung out with them, “Oh, that Jasper is really a charming guy.” I would think, “What? Why is my mom saying that to me? She’s against gay marriage. She doesn’t want me to be gay. She doesn’t believe I actually am gay. She still thinks Satan has brainwashed me.” I got real excited. I thought, “Oh my God, my dreams are coming true.” My dad went and bought matching fishing poles for us. He loves to fish, so he wanted to take us fishing. Just all these little symbolic gestures, which for us, we took it as: “They’ve come around. They’re accepting.”
Then of course we were kind of shattered when they didn’t show up to the wedding. I got an email saying, “This all goes against our beliefs. We hope you had a nice time, but we couldn’t be there in good standing with God.” That was probably the saddest day of my life, my wedding day. I didn’t want it to affect me, but I think it really did. Then I’m sitting there at the end of my wedding day thinking, “Did I get married to Jasper because I thought he was the only guy that they would ever approve of? Was that a part of this, too?” I’m sitting there at the end of my wedding day just really feeling weird, for lack of a better term. I made the decision — we made the decision together — to just kind of cut that relationship off.
Was that a difficult decision?
Well, your heart is a house. You’ve got an attic and a basement and a couple bedrooms, you’ve got a kitchen and maybe a couple bathrooms. All of this space is really valuable — and it’s not unlimited space. We all only have so much. I realized that I was holding that “master bedroom” for my parents. I was keeping it empty, and I was letting people in my life that were great and who loved me, but I was holding a lot of other people at an arm’s length — people that were really good for me, but I didn’t want them to fill that void. What I wanted was my parents’ love and acceptance. I decided to just kind of, for the first time in my life, open that door and just finally let go of that idea.
Not soon after, I just felt a shift in me and a new openness. Believe it or not, wouldn’t you know it, people — some were older friends who I’d never let quite so close, and some were brand-new in my life — just kind of swept in. These were people that celebrated me for exactly who I was, whether I was damaged or not. It didn’t matter. There’s real love out there, but sometimes you’re going to sacrifice that real love that’s ready to be a part of your life if you are reserving space your whole life for something that may or may not ever come to pass. I was just done waiting. I had waited almost 30 years. It was time to let go and to really just love.
Do you have any communication with them now?
There were a few years where there was no communication at all. Just recently, there’s been some crazy stuff happening in my family. A niece of mine was abused by someone outside of the family, things like that I can’t ignore, and so I’ll drive upstate and try to help as best I can and I see them. If there’s a funeral or a wedding, I’ll see my parents then. Like I’ve done my whole life, I’m trying to do what’s right within the context of what’s going on in my life at the time. Here’s the thing: I feel strong enough to address my family again, I think because of all the love in my life and the support that I have with friends and my chosen family and my beautiful boyfriend.
Ah, yes, you have a new boyfriend — which is great, after all the stuff you were talking about being heartbroken.
He’s so much more than “new.” Well, we’re been together for eight months. He is new, but he’s also things like he’s charitable and supportive. I’ve been a frantic person most of my life, I think, and when he’s in the same room as me, I just feel calm. I feel such a connection with him. He’s also been so helpful on a creative level. He produced my last music video, and he helps me design T-shirts. He has a really beautiful visual eye. And guess what? Wouldn’t you know it: Eight months ago he was a Mormon.
Oh no! Well, not “oh no” — but oh my God. He comes from a religious background as well?
Exactly! I think “oh no” is appropriate! [Laughs]
So, he was a Mormon up until eight months ago, and now he no longer is?
He left the Mormon Church. He had his name removed from the records.
Yes, of course. But was your relationship a catalyst for that decision?
Absolutely. When he met me, I was swirling around aimlessly and he helped center me a little bit. He was swirling around too, just not with drugs and alcohol. He was kind of in this deep, weird, mysterious, dark place where he didn’t know what he believed anymore and he was trying to figure out his sexuality. It was just really amazing to see, to be a part of his process of leaving a church that is fundamentally antigay and to make really quick progress. It took me a decade to get to where I am, to feel the strength that I do.
We were talking about it last night at dinner with some friends, just how his process seems to be almost expedited because he has somebody every second of the day by his side who’s been through it all. I try to avoid projecting what happened to me in my life onto his situation, but there are of course so many parallels. He can ask me questions, and I can be there as a guide. I know I don’t have all good advice. I’m sure some of my advice isn’t so good. But I think definitely it’s been really helpful to him. It’s just a comfort to me, to have somebody to vent to. It’s rare to find somebody who checks all those boxes and who can understand when you see something Christian in the news that triggers you at a gut level and to have somebody kind of hold your hand through the whole thing and calm you down. I feel like I really hit the jackpot with him. He’s a really special person.
Is his religious experience with his family at all similar to what you’ve gone through?
I think they are as extreme as my parents, and maybe even a little bit more so.
Do your parents approve of your relationship with Keon?
Well, two days before I sat down to write the damn [Talkhouse article], I got a text message from my dad. He never texts me. It’s just not a thing. He says, “I’m glad to see that you’re happy. Keon seems like a really nice guy.” Or something like that. It of course threw me for a loop like you wouldn’t believe and confused the hell out of me. Now, just from a small text like that, I’m trying to figure out if I’m just really fragile still and moldable, or if I’m empathetic and compassionate. There’s so much to consider and so much to explore.
What are your religious beliefs now, if you have any? Are you religious or spiritual in any way?
Well, you know, we used to have gills. [Laughs] Whenever someone wants to start exploring the idea of God and everlasting life or energies and all this stuff, I just think, we have so much to focus on, on this planet, stuff that we can taste and touch and smell and see and feel. There’s so much that needs to be done. There’s so many people suffering. I can’t justify spending much of any time at all pondering on what might happen after we die or if is there a God in the sky watching us. It’s like, “OK, cool. It’s cool if there’s a guy in the sky watching us. It’s cool if there’s not a guy in the sky watching us. Who cares?” Let’s just get to what’s important and make sure everybody’s living the best life they can live while they’re on this planet. We all used to be single-cell organisms. I just don’t think it’s that important. If anything, what we’ve seen if we study the influence of religion is a lot of bloodshed, a lot of wars, a lot of hate, and a lot of bigotry. I just don’t think the good outweighs the bad. I think it’s quite the opposite. I found a real peace with accepting this idea that I don’t care if there’s a God or not. Just by being OK with that, it’s really peaceful for me.
I know it seems like it would be scary to feel that way, but for me I remember when I moved to New York City, I was really kind of going [with being out in the open about my sexuality], and then I stumbled across a Gay Pride parade and got really spooked. I ran upstate and swore I wouldn’t be gay anymore and threw myself in the church and started dating women — or trying to, anyway. I failed miserably. I just really tried to throw myself into the Bible and all that. Then that kind of fizzled out, and I ended up coming back to the city and trying to live my life here as the “gay guy” again, but still always with that fear in the back of my mind that I was going to burn in Hell for it. One day I took authority over it. I just said, “Enough is enough, and I’m going to stop living this way. I have no proof whatsoever that any of what I’m afraid of is true or exists.” I just decided to let go of the idea of God. I thought that that would be a very scary thing, but I immediately just felt this calm wave roll over me. That’s been with me ever since. Whether I’m going through a hard time or not, I do feel calm about just letting go of wondering about that.
I think I read a quote where you said you were uncomfortable with being content. Do you still feel that way?
Yes, I do. I have a fear of feeling all right. I know how to navigate stressful situations. I know how to navigate heartbreak. I know how to navigate being confused and feeling anxious. These are all things that I’ve dealt with my whole life. When I have dipped into moments in my life where there isn’t a lot of stress and the anxiety is washing away slowly, suddenly I have this whole new sort of foreign anxiety that I’m not used to. That’s when things are just OK, and my artwork suffers. That’s when I start getting kind of depressed, when there isn’t a lot of tension in my life. It’s not healthy. I’ve got to figure out a way to be OK with being OK.
Seems like you’ve always done a lot of soul-searching.
When you’re gay and in a small town where nobody else wants anything to do with you, you have no other choice but to look at life at all these different angles. I think your world just is so much bigger by default because there’s no blueprint for you. It’s not just set up like, “This is what you do: You go to school, hang out, you’re a cheerleader or you’re on the football team, you go to college, you get a nice job and get married.” For gay people who grew up in these small towns, it’s not always that easy. You’re forced to sort of flex your creative muscles and stretch your mind. What am I capable of? How do I work within these boundaries? Can I move and push these boundaries? I think there’s a lot of introspection, and there’s a lot more questions and more challenges.
I assume you must have some stories of gay fans who’ve told you they look up to you?
Yeah, I find that the more open and transparent I become with my art, especially with Abysmal Thoughts just really kind of putting it all out there, the reaction that I get is sort of a mirrored reaction. People listening to my music kind of open up back toward me. I have kids writing me saying that they’ve been feeling suicidal and have just been playing my music nonstop, and it’s the only thing for them that gets them through each day. I get a lot of kids writing me saying that they’ve been trying to come out of the closet, and they don’t feel safe enough to do it. It’s a really beautiful moment that I’m in, in my career. Eight years ago, it was a bunch of kids at Coachella who were wearing funny sunglasses who wanted to hear the “surfing song” [“Let’s Go Surfing,” from the Drums’ debut album]. Now the fanbase throughout the years has refined itself into people who when I go out and play a headline show, these kids sing every word to every song. There’s kids crying. They’re singing the album cuts and the B-sides. I feel really grateful. I’ve always felt this way, but I hear people tell me that they rarely see fans that are so devoted to a band. There’s a real intense loyalty that my fans have toward the Drums. I think it’s because I’m willing to say that I don’t feel good and that I feel like s***.
It seems like your fans are growing up with you.
I’m in my 30s now. I think society puts a lot of pressure on people in their 30s to at least come across as having it all together — and I don’t. I’m a full-grown guy in his 30s who sometimes feels like a 10-year-old, with no idea what’s going on. I think my message right now is, it’s OK to say that. It’s OK to admit that to yourself. Really, to not admit that is a disservice to yourself. It’s just going to stunt your growth even further, I think.
While I’ve got you, and we are talking about bands with LGBTQ fans, do you have any thoughts on the scandal that happened with PWR BTTM?
I don’t know fully what happened. There were some allegations of sexual abuse. I of course condemn any sort of behavior like that, and I want to figure out if it’s all true. If it is, then I can’t say anything but shame on them… I do also want to raise a point that I do think it’s peculiar how fast that PWR BTTM was decimated — like in a day, they were completely destroyed, and in the most public of ways. Yet you have Chris Brown, who literally beat Rihanna up — and then won a Grammy afterwards, had a standing ovation! “Chris Brown, you’re wonderful!” Why is it that a queer band gets utterly obliterated in a moment’s notice without anyone doing any real investigation? I don’t want to play victim, but I do just want to raise a point that I think if it was a straight white dude who was already famous or had a big career, people would think twice about talking s*** or condemning. I just think it’s a little odd, though not altogether that surprising, just how quick they were taken down. It felt like people were almost relishing in it, how good it felt to point this out.
I have no place in my life for people or organizations that bring abuse on anyone, so I’m against that. But I just want us all to also consider what happened. If you pull back and look at the big picture, how they were judged so quickly — and maybe for good reason — but somebody else gets to keep enjoying a lavish lifestyle when they have been proven to commit some pretty serious crimes. Anyway, I’m probably going to get a bunch of s*** for saying that.
I agree that it is interesting how quickly it all went down.
Absolutely, and the president of the United States talked about grabbing… you know. We don’t exactly have the best example to look up to. It’s pretty gross. If anyone else was caught on tape that wasn’t as rich and powerful as Trump saying those exact words, everyone would call for them to be burned at the stake immediately. It’s just something to consider, I guess. If that’s what we’re going to do, if we’re going to destroy someone’s life and career in five seconds, then I sincerely hope that that is the precedent moving forward, no matter who it is [not just LGBTQ celebrities].
I thought it was a shame, because while PWR BTTM are not, obviously, the only queer band out there, they were really high-profile with a lot of critical praise — so for this to implode just fed into the worst beliefs people have about people who are queer.
Right, and it’s not just them who will suffer from it. It’s all of us. It’s a sad situation all around.
Do you feel a sense of responsibility? I don’t think of the Drums as primarily an LGBTQ band — it’s just part of your story, particularly since it wasn’t part of your public story when the band first started — but do you feel like you need to be a role model to the gay community, in terms of how you conduct yourself or anything like that?
Well, yeah. I’m all about intentional living in my private, personal, and public life. I want everything that I say to have purpose and everything that I do, everything that I buy, everything that I look at, to really line up with a set of values that I hold close to my heart. Those values are compassion, empathy, and love. That’s what’s important to me. When I started this band, I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t feel comfortable coming out. We were on the cover of NME as “the new American rock band that you’ve always dreamt of,” these big silly things. Everyone saying we were “the new Strokes” or “the new Beach Boys.” One thing nobody seemed to want us to be was a band with a gay lead singer, let alone also a gay co-writer and synthesizer player.
You were worried about not being accepted?
I didn’t feel that in 2010 that there was a lot of space for queer or gay artists in that sort of New York/Brooklyn indie scene. I maintain that today. I felt like if I were to come out in 2010 as the gay singer of the Drums, I had a real fear that people wouldn’t want to listen to the Drums or that people would lose interest. I don’t know if that is what would have happened, but that’s how I felt. The fact that I felt that way is kind of f***ed up, that I didn’t feel a sense of community and I didn’t feel like I would be loved no matter what. I think it goes all the way back to my childhood, this fear of acknowledging who I am and being OK with it. I think from 2010 to now, in seven short years, so much has changed. Gay marriage is legal nationwide. It’s a big step forward. Some small steps backward here and there, too, but overall, PWR BTTM was having a moment and there’s Antony & The Johnsons. There’s Hercules & Love Affair — that was really big for me and a real encouragement. The list is kind of endless now. It’s really big. It almost feels like now to come out and say “I’m gay” is almost like a leg up in this industry. It’s almost like if you’re straight you kind of have to work a little harder to be interesting. [Laughs]
Maybe, but the concern is then your sexuality becomes the front page of your story, forever, even for a mainstream artist like Sam Smith or Adam Lambert.
There is a real fear there, too. At the time [in 2010], I was just coming to terms with being OK with being gay for myself. Then to just kind of also proclaim it to the world, it’s all scary. I was homeschooled, and I didn’t go to college after that. I just went to the city. I was go-go dancing…
Yeah, not for very long, but at this little bar called Happy Ending on Tuesday nights. I was sort of this host/go-go boy sort of thing. I guess the reason I’m mentioning that is I’m to try to paint a picture: I didn’t have things to fall back on. I didn’t have wealthy parents. I didn’t have a higher education. I was raised on Mennonite textbooks that literally preached that God created the Earth in seven days. It was not looking good, résumé-wise. I also had a very real fear that this is my one chance. People were getting excited about the Drums, and if I screwed this up and told people that I’m gay, if I told the press I’m gay, I could really be shooting myself in the foot. I may just be throwing this one chance that I have away. I’m ashamed to say I felt that way, but I did. I don’t think today I would. I think I would almost be excited to say it. If I was the same age I was then, now, and presented with the same opportunity, I might just have an easier time at it.
Hopefully other bands will follow suit, or other people will follow suit.
Part of my whole thing is I don’t want to be a grand marshal at a Gay Pride parade. That’s not my scene. For me, I feel like I’m more effective as somebody who just happens to be gay, puts out records, and then at the end of the day when he gets a little horny, he’ll sleep with a guy instead of a girl. What’s the big deal? I’ve never really liked the “who you sleep with defines who you are.” I’m not so hot on that idea. I think we all have so much to offer, and to be reduced to who we f*** is just kind of a gross idea, and it’s really unfair. Look, if the New York Pride Parade says, “We want you to be grand marshal,” I’d probably say yes! But it’s not a goal of mine.