It didn’t take interviewing Kip Berman to realize that Kip Berman was tired of talking about the lineup changes in his band, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Scanning through early features on the New York City outfit’s third LP, the terrific Days of Abandon, Berman seemed turned off at this topic from the get-go. For one, Pains is not a typical band that runs as a democracy, but it is Berman’s project, with regular contributors who in some cases have moved on to fresh endeavors. And secondly, these departures didn’t have much impact on the album that was made, so too much discussion could easily feel pointless for the songwriter.
Most significant for fans is the departure of Peggy Wang, the keyboard playing foil to Berman’s lead vocals, as her warmth was a significant part of the group’s live success in their early days, when their show was sprinting to catch up to their increased popularity of their debut. But for Berman, the essence of Pains lies in something different.
“I’ve always prioritized songwriting as the most important aspect of any band,” Berman says. “At the core of all types of music, of any genre, is if a band has good songs. That’s really what differentiates them. There are all sorts of ephemera of music, like how a band looks, but at the core of everything is songs. It’s something that has always mattered to me and the artists I look up to, and I want to carry on that tradition.
“Instead of putting 15 songs on a record or putting out a record every eight months,” he continues, “take the time to really reduce all the music you write into the most immediate and personal and powerful moments. Putting out those 10 songs when you are ready to put them out, not just to have a record out so you can go on tour.”
Priorities aside, Berman’s role in the Pains of Being Pure at Heart means not all his time can be spent on songwriting, which is clear when he answers my initial phone call and reschedules for an hour later, because he is driving the van in Minneapolis for a load-in they are already late for. In conversation, he mentions everything from their album artwork and naming of the album to answering the emails that come in from the generic “contact us” page of their website. But this is how it has always been, and Berman is matter-of-fact in his acknowledgement that all of these are just parts of the job, and that the workload hasn’t changed with the lineup. And even though it is tempting to view his misspeaking of the title as a Freudian slip when he calls it Days of Abandonment, he tells a different story.
“There are more ways to interpret the album title to get the full range of emotion that the words carry,” Berman says. “There’s that sense of loss or isolation, but also freedom, exhilaration, or even loss of inhibition or not holding anything back. This record we were able to do things that just were not in our vocabulary on the last record or the one before that.”
One of these new words, to borrow Berman’s metaphor, is the horns employed on multiple tracks (and a number of the b-sides and outtakes from the sessions). Arranged by Kelly Pratt, who has worked with Beirut, Arcade Fire, and on the St. Vincent and David Byrne album and tour, the horns are a subtlety on “Simple and Sure” and “Kelly,” but on closer “The Asp at My Chest,” they feel like a revelation. Though the Pains of Being Pure at Heart have never felt limited by their own self-definition, never before have the possibilities of the band seemed so open. Berman agrees with this, noting that the band’s lineup change facilitated the collaborating with Pratt, allowing Berman to be more open with who he worked with in general. This is why Berman concludes that the development of who he plays with has ended up “entirely positive” and “a more collaborative process than ever before.”
“The album starts and ends in a distinctive way,” he says. “Three years ago, if you would have said this record was going to have a beautiful horn coda on an acoustic song sung in a high register, I doubt anyone would have thought it was a good idea.”
Pratt and Berman have been friends for a while, with Berman claiming some ignorance to what Pratt was capable of until he worked with him, with the singer of the opinion that Pratt “made the songs better.”
“It wasn’t that it was so out of character,” Berman says about the closing song, before trailing off into a memory. “I remember listening to the Spacehog record when I was a kid, and it had a trip-hop song on it. So, this isn’t really in the neighborhood of Spacehog, because I think it’s still in the same idea of the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, which is these immediate, emotional pop songs. We just weren’t trying to tread too heavily on things that were done on the last album or the album before.”
The other link between Berman’s songs comes from an instinctual place, which, as the mind behind the project, stems from his personal philosophy, which he jokes is shaped to cover up his laziness. Berman believes the first and last songs written for an album tend to be the strongest and that, despite the recording the album in 30 days, on 12-hour days without days off, “if you are working too hard on something, it tends to be bad.”
“If the music doesn’t come out of you naturally or you are toiling with something and struggling, it might not be a good pop song,” he says. “I also don’t write the songs down initially, but I see if I remember it the next day and still want to play it. If I’ve forgotten it the next couple days, I don’t think it is that memorable. So, I write a lot, but I throw away a lot. You can tell the gems by the ones you want to work on and hear again.”
“It sounds like some abrasive slackerism, to claim not to try too hard, and there are a lot of bands that could stand to try a little more, but I think with pop music, the things that come naturally tend to be the best. It shouldn’t be burdensome. It’s not about showing off or a display of musical talent. Pop music is the opposite. It’s the ability to do something concise and clear and simple. I think people confuse complexity for depth a lot of times. If something has a lot of parts or a lot going on, people think the writer must be really smart or the song must be really good. The most natural songs are usually the best, at least to me.”
Berman speaks often in these bumper-sticker phrases that might not read as well as they come across when he says them. He slows down his sentences when saying them and searches for the right words, often choosing what isn’t an overly complicated word, but a massive concept that he settles on, like “beautiful” or “best” or “love.” When he thinks about his wording, you get the sense he is asking himself if what he is saying is what he actually believes, and the words actually leaving his mouth ring more true because of that.
He also seems happiest or most comfortable talking about other music he likes, from Johnathan Richman to Destroyer, and he mentions reading interviews with other bands to see what their process is, and whether he thinks they are honest. Three albums in and Berman already resembles a lifer, someone you couldn’t imagine doing anything else, equally able to handle working in groups or alone, with the musical world an open park to get lost in and not worry about the looming night and dangers it brings. Yeah, these are days full of potential for Kip Berman, and the last thing he is doing is dwelling on the past.