The Pains of Being Pure at Heart: Alienation Pop

Music Features The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
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Kip Berman is the lead singer and guitar player for The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart. He is a dumb guy that steps on his fuzz pedal too much. All his band ever does is try to sound like their favorite artists “but we don’t sound like them because we’re not as good as them.” (He certainly could never be Suede, he insists.) He hates the way his voice sounds. He also hates singing karaoke. He especially hates trying to sing anything by Amy Grant, which doesn’t stop him from attempting a few comically strained lines of “Baby Baby.” To his credit, I completely believe him when he insists that that’s a hard song to sing, but I think he could have hit the high part at the end of “some devotion” if he tried a bit harder.

Berman and his bandmate, singer and keyboard player Peggy Wang, are gathered at an Applebee’s-ian New York BBQ establishment to drink patriotic red, white and blue margaritas and discuss the making of their excellent sophomore album Belong—and Kip Berman and their band’s many shortcomings. (That last part wasn’t a big concern for the quiet and polite Wang, actually, who had trouble making herself heard over the cheering sports fans a few tables over)

The Portland-born Berman comes by his self-deprecation honestly. He’s a ’90s kid through and through, and many of that decade’s key aesthetic values resonate through his music. In addition to the constant jokes at his own expense (Kurt Cobain had a similar tendency), he has a keen interest in gender dynamics (he cites Billy Corgan’s “femine, fey” vocals as a big inspiration, and goes on a lengthy tangent about the genius of Tori Amos). And Belong has a lyrical through-line about misfits finding strength in each other, best summed up in the line “I can tell you’re strange like me.”

“That’s kind of like a theme for our band in general,” Berman says. “Our first album also had ideas about, for lack of a better word, being slightly out of place in the place that you are.” He pauses for a second and then says with a smile. “Only Radiohead gets to say ‘alienation.’”

Both Berman and Wang credit Sonic Youth and Nirvana (“Do you think kids in America in 1994 would listen to The Vaselines if not for Nirvana? I wouldn’t”) for exposing them via interview shout-outs to touchstone artists like Beat Happening and Orange Juice during their misfit teen years. The pair bonded over a shared love of distortion-laden, wistful pop songs when they met at a dance party at the New York venue Cake Shop, which has since become a second home to the group. They recruited Berman’s officemate Alex Naidus on bass and, after a short stint with a drum machine, added Kurt Feldman on drums.

Berman might talk down his own talent, but he aimed big from the beginning. He emailed a Myspace link to Mike Schulman, head of the venerable indie-pop label Slumberland (home to band favorite Velocity Girl), and asked him to check them out. After catching their first show with Feldman, Schulman signed the group and brought in his friend and former Velocity Girl frontman Archie Moore in to mix their debut, which they recorded in a friend’s basement.

Their self-titled debut won them rave reviews from Pitchfork and The Village Voice and also earned them plenty of comparisons to golden-age alternative rock groups and the newly resurgent DIY bedroom recording movement. Which kind of rankled Moore.

“They don’t follow one line to shoegaze or jangly pop or anything like that, they’ve incorporated lots of different styles that all might fall under this broad umbrella of alternative or underground pop music,” says Moore about the band’s frequent comparisons to The Smiths, The Pastels and My Bloody Valentine. “I always get a little frustrated when I think people are putting an asterisk by The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, like there’s this frequent attitude of ‘they’re great but I’ve heard this all before.’ Well, you haven’t necessarily heard it before in this combination, because there’s obviously something resonating with people.”

For Belong the Pains wanted to leave those asterisks behind. “There was that idea that we wanted it to exist as good old American rock record, and not something that you have to be in the cool club to understand,” says Berman. “I think bands like Nirvana and Weezer and Smashing Pumpkins, they did a great job of almost the second you heard one of their songs, you not only knew who it was but you knew you liked what it was. The best rock to me is always the stuff that communicated on an instinctual level.”

Berman admits that it’s somewhat ironic that in order to achieve an American rock sound, The Pains turned to two high-profile English fans to produce and mix their new album, Mark “Flood” Ellis and Alan Moulder, who have overseen classic alternative rock albums including Depeche Mode’s Violator and PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love. As you might expect, it was not a cheap record to make. Moulder reached out to the Pains after he heard their first album and suggested working together, which Berman had a hard time believing would ever actually happen, as he “works with real bands.” The group still had to tour heavily to afford the pair’s services, even after they lowered their rates. But Schulman says he’s not surprised that the duo wanted to be involved, even if Slumberland couldn’t afford their usual fees.

“Not that I would put Slumberland on the level of Sub Pop or something but it does seem like a lot of the action and interesting bands are kind of on the bigger independents now,” he says. “Producers who want to be in the game and work with cutting edge bands or whatever, and be able to up their game artistically, they’re forced to look down the chain a little bit and maybe have to cut their rates.”

The Pains are now working with the sort of big-name producers usually associated with major label acts, and Berman has little tolerance for the sort of indie vs. major label sellout wars that often made the ’90s a drag (“Just look at the records on your shelf. I don’t think The Ramones are a bunch of corporate goons.”) But the band has no plans to leave Slumberland. “If something works then why change it?” says Wang.

“There’s a lot of prejudice like, ‘Oh you’re working with the guy that did this and this record, and he’s going to smooth out all your wrinkles that give you your identity,’” says Berman. “But it was actually the opposite. ‘Let’s exaggerate the parts that make you you.’ There’s a guitar pedal that I use all the time, and [Flood] said, ‘That sounds appalling.’ So we just put everything through it, because he was like ‘that’s your sound.’”

Flood pushed the band to achieve a more immediate, visceral attack and get rid of the walls of reverb that surrounded their instruments and voices on the first album, which Wang says was a bit of a shock at first. “I remember the first time I listened [to Belong],” she says. “That’s me singing? Crazy!” He also insisted the band leave parts from the rough, GarageBand-recorded demos in the final mix and pushed Berman out of his comfort zone. “He’d say ‘sing it two notes higher so your voice sounds more frail, and you can’t really sing that high but there’s something where it breaks up…’ We just wouldn’t think to do that.”

The result is a collection of open-hearted, instantly integrating songs equally suitable for swooning or dancing. Or, as Berman puts it, “We wanted to suck less and rock more, to sum up,” he says. “We wanted people to hear it and say, ‘This doesn’t suck as much as their last record.’”