“I don’t think I’ve ever felt pure joy in my life,” says Jonny Pierce, laughing under a bright summer sun on a recent afternoon in New York City. “What does it feel like? Tell me all about it!” The fact of summer, that there is sunlight, that the man who says he has never known joy is boyishly-handsome, blonde-haired and laughing—if only this moment could be captured by a Polaroid and shown to him. Or, better yet, if the essence of it could be liquefied, extracted, and decanted into a test tube, you’d have the very substance that gives life to The Drums. It is a concoction of opposites. Not unlike the percussive instrument from which the band takes its name, it is the relentless beating down that brings out the music in them. Who will have the courage to let the laughing man know that he is laughing, that the feeling he might be a semblance of the joy he says he’s never known? It won’t be Jacob Graham. He’s had his whole life to clue in his friend. If anything, he’s Pierce’s enabler. Dark-haired, soft-spoken, and less prone to emotive outbursts, the other half of The Drums does his dutiful best to prop up his opposite, the miserable laugher who wears so much on his sleeve he’s likely had to make room on his collar too. “Jacob and I were born losers and outcasts,” Pierce says, recalling how The Drums were received upon the release of their debut EP Summertime! nearly six years ago. “We didn’t really have friends growing up. We were both home schooled. We both grew up in poverty. We were both very confused little boys. We met each other and connected because we were losers, pretty much in every category. Suddenly, to be on the cover of NME and have The New York Times praising this little EP we released, you suddenly feel the opposite. I think we really enjoyed that.” Of course, the enjoyment was fleeting, as befits Pierce’s morose outlook on life in its entirety. There were two wildly successful full-lengths (The Drums and Portamento), there were hits (“Let’s Go Surfing,” “Best Friend,” “Money,” and more), and for a moment, there was even the possibility of happiness. Then, managers left, band members departed, and The Drums nearly disbanded. Yet, Pierce worked through his bitterness with the kind of revelation only an artist truly in harmony with melancholy could contrive: they were better off broken than stuck in a rut. The two carried on, in their original form, the band of Jonny and Jacob. “It was a beautiful moment for us, and also a scary one,” Pierce recalls. “But we’d always rather do something that feels risky than do something that feels safe. That’s the dangerous area for us; when everything feels like it’s just chugging away on cruise control. We’re back where we started and the slate is clean. Jacob and I were the brains behind this in the first place and we can make any decisions we want right now.” That decision is Encyclopedia. For the band’s third full-length, Jonny and Jacob first had to reconcile their opposing impulses. Pierce had no-wave on his mind (“I wanted to make a garage record!”), while Jacob was wondering what might happen if they blended “The Sound of Music with obscure Japanese synthesizer pop.” In traditional The Drums fashion, the band decided to try… all of it. They holed up in a fittingly bleak rehearsal space and spent the next year composing and recording their most sophisticated and cohesive album yet. A dark miracle, really. “The space we rented was very doom and gloom,” says Pierce. “It felt like we were in a loft in the middle of nowhere. I got very depressed every time we set foot into this room. We could have done it differently. We could have done things to make it easier on ourselves, but I think there’s this self-imposed torture, that we don’t even understand why we do it to ourselves. In the end, it seeps into the record. When we get too comfortable, it sucks all the creative juices right out and we’re left with nothing. It led to some really great songwriting. For us to do something that is this super gorgeous and majestic, it maybe had to come from trying to climb out of that darkness.” It’s right there on album opener “Magic Mountain,” the song as near a call-to-arms as anything The Drums have done, or might ever do. It’s a dare almost, but defensive too. Like the opposing forces that comprise them, the band is both hiding and swinging swords. It’s not too difficult to read it as a warning to any lover of The Drums’ sunnier side to take heed or leave. “Let’s knock them over the head and see what happens,” Pierce says of the lead track. “It feels like we’re sticking our necks out. Three years is a long time to wait these days, for a band like us. I feel like we’ve been given an amazing opportunity. This is an album about being yourself and protecting yourself. We made this beautiful record, so why be timid now about what we want to say?” “It sounds like a record I would want to hear,” Jacob adds. “To have a song like ‘Let Me’ on the same record as a song like ‘U.S. National Parks’ is so strange to me, but I love both of them. I was so glad we found a way—in our minds, at least—to make these songs work together.” Nowhere are these opposing forces more in evidence than “I Can’t Pretend,” a song so steeped in melody and tranquility, you’d be forgiven if you missed its deathly resignation. As simple as the song’s sentiment might appear at first glance, the words betray all the complexity that makes the entirety of Encyclopedia such an immersive experience. It continues to yield its secrets over repeated listens, even when you think you’ve already absorbed every last bit of its hummable pop hooks. The album’s title might refer to a set of books attempting to contain all knowledge, yet to be encyclopedic is a very different thing. It’s a kind of devotion, the expertise of a scholar concentrating forever on the singular fascination that drives him to live. With Encyclopedia, The Drums have become experts of themselves, inching ever closer to perfection even as it scurries around the next corner. Reduced to their essence again, Jonny Pierce and Jacob Graham have never known themselves better and song after song resounds with this new confidence. And, of course, the beauty of it is that it also sounds as if it could all come crashing down in a light breeze. “As soon as we had ‘Wild Geese,’ we knew right away that the record was done and it had to be the last song,” says Pierce about finishing recording the new album. “How could we possibly write another song after that? “When we croak, our records will still be here,” he continues. “We want to have left great, conceptual, beautiful, glimmering records in the world. We’re thinking super long term, like dead-term.” Pausing and considering this idea for a moment, Pierce breaks into laughter. Who will have the courage to tell him that he might finally be experiencing joy? Who will tell him he’s laughing in the face of death? Who will tell him that he’s doing both at the same time and that he’s called it Encyclopedia by The Drums?
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