By Steve Weinstein
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"There were reporters there from the papers, and the next day, we had all these write-ups," says Jacob Graham, guitarist, keyboardist, and founding member of the Drums. "And it was strange because we had just got into New York the day before and had one rehearsal, and then the gig, and then those reviews started rolling in. And the next day, we were getting phone calls from managers and booking agents and record companies and things like that."
They were at the right place. But they were perhaps the wrong band to seize the spotlight.
"I think the record labels realized how difficult we were to work with," Graham recalls. "We refused to go into a professional recording studio because we were so intent on maintaining our vision that we wouldn't let anyone else touch it."
The Drums' first single, "Let's Go Surfing," is one of the most jittery songs to ever feature a whistle-led refrain. It was recently named one of the best songs of the past 15 years by NME; its popularity crested in 2010, just as "a bunch of bands started using summer or beachy imagery. We were completely unaware that was about to happen." The band promptly quit playing it.
"We were pissing a lot of people off," Graham says. "Something like this happens, and you start thinking about your legacy."
Graham and Jonathan "Jonny" Pierce met as preteens at a Christian summer camp. They quickly bonded over loving the Pet Shop Boys amid a sea of DC Talk fans and remained friends over the years. After performing both together and apart, the pair came up with the idea and name for the Drums. A year later, Graham persuaded Pierce to move down to Kissimmee, Florida, to record the songs they had talked about. (Pierce was hesitant because of "a bad experience with the music industry" while in the electro-pop group Elkland.) "From the moment we started the Drums, we had a very clear idea of what we wanted to do with the band, and it definitely involved a militant devotion to pop songs," Graham says.
When the two moved back to Pierce's stomping grounds of Brooklyn, their band became part of New Yoark's indie pop scene, which has been quietly booming recently.
Indie pop is traditionally described as a subset of indie rock that filters the 1960s pop songwriting of the Beatles and the Shangri-Las through the hazy reverb used by nervy cult-crushes like Orange Juice and the Durutti Column. It has deliberately been a hermetically sealed genre, filled with wistful alienation, barrier-to-entry twee tendencies, and reference points designed strictly for the loyalists. (Fans of this music view C86, the name of an influential NME compilation, as a holy word.)
"It has been a nebulous concept for quite some time because I don't think any indie pop bands or fans really cried out for 'attention,'" says Clyde Erwin Barretto, organizer of the annual NYC Popfest and owner of twee outpost Twentyseven Records. "For me, there was a similar vibe to punk rock—the whole DIY mind-set and just playing music because you love it and not just because it's the flavor of the month is what drew me to it. A lot of the fans truly do love the music and are loyal." With the help of venues like Cake Shop and events like NYC Popfest and the dance party Mondo, the purposefully demure genre has established a sweet but firm beachhead in New York and is starting to reach beyond the diehards. Within a seven-day period, both the Drums and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart will have played high-profile New York festival gigs, and "Surfing" has won new converts since getting placed in a series of Volkswagen advertisements.
Indie pop's rise has been in part the result of tenacity on the part of its supporters. "The first Mondos were often disheartening," says DJ Miss Modular, the monthly party's founder. (She's too shy to give her real name.) "I started it because I was frustrated by going out to 'indie nights' that were completely ignoring a significant segment of indie music. [But] getting people, and even bar management, to accept hearing something other than the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs was difficult."
It's getting easier now, as artists like the Drums, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Vivian Girls, Allo Darlin', Veronica Falls, and Hospitality have gained a level of popularity and acclaim that '90s indie pop acts like Unrest and My Favorite never achieved. Part of this success is because the Internet makes it easier for bands to find their niche; part of it is because some of the artists have been waving the flag for craftsmanship while breaking some of the genre's bylaws. The Pains' songs have a Smashing Pumpkins–on-a-budget scope; Hospitality dials down the reverb fuzz and focuses on the hooks.
"We weren't consciously trying to avoid current trends. We just wanted to go for a sort of classic sound. I'm not sure if we achieved that. We only had about a week to record and mix, so there wasn't a lot of time to play around with the sound," says Hospitality singer Amber Papini, who points to Elvis Costello, Neil Young, and composer Igor Stravinsky as guideposts for their recently released self-titled debut. "With that amount of time, all you can do is just move forward without hesitation. But I think having limited time to create is helpful. Sometimes when you have too many choices and a lot of time, you can get overwhelmed and not make anything."
Perhaps the biggest reason New York is seeing such a boom is the support of industrious diehards. The center of the new class of indie pop was Cake Shop, where Hospitality, the Drums, and many other popheads played crucial early gigs. "We did set out as a place to house that style of music, which we felt for a time was a little underrepresented," says owner Andy Bodor, who is quick to point out that his club's name is a reference to original janglers Swell Maps. Shortly after it opened, Vivian Girls and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart were popping up and playing the club regularly.
"From all the music I've been exposed to, I still get enraptured in some new hook I haven't heard before," Bodor says. "I totally feel in love with that Hospitality record. 'Friends of Friends' was in my head for . . . well, it's still in my head!"
While the Drums, the Pains, Hospitality, and bands of their ilk have all found fans and received a healthy amount of critical acclaim, none of them have been subjected to the "coolest band ever" levels of hype that, say, Grizzly Bear, the Strokes, and Odd Future have received in recent years. Which is probably just fine with them.
"I think all you can really do is make songs that are pleasing to you and you're proud of and kind of keep going, and eventually people will understand you," Graham says. "It is just pop songs, y'know?"
The Drums and Hospitality play the 4Knots Music Festival on Saturday, July 14.