In the last decade, the discussion around and acceptance of the LGBT community in America has shifted momentously. You can see it in the words of former President Barack Obama, who had a change of heart on same-sex marriage while in office. You can see it in the thudding punchlines of Dave Chappelle’s recent Netflix specials, where jokes about trans people that would have gone unremarked upon in the era of Chappelle’s Show are rightfully called out. Oh, and there’s the fact that marriage between people of the same-sex is the legal across the country.
But if you need another example of how far the Overton Window (the Obergefell Window?) has shifted in a relatively short period of time, you couldn’t do much better than the discography of The Drums. Since the group became MP3 blog stars via their buoyant Summertime! EP in 2009, mastermind Jonny Pierce has morphed the band’s sun-dappled Smiths tunes from pining odes to unspecified lovers and surfing to very pointed and unambiguous stories of queer love and heartache.
And to hear Pierce tell it, the vagueness of those early years was no mistake. When he spoke with Uproxx ahead of his latest album under The Drums’ moniker, Abysmal Thoughts, he revealed how he avoided questions on his sexuality during their initial success.
“We had this interview with The Times Of London and they flew their reporter to Brooklyn to talk to us,” he said. “And eventually the reporter asked ‘So…is anyone in the band gay?'”
Pierce knew unequivocally that he was. But the climate — or at least the way he perceived it — was different at the time. He balked at answering the question.
“We all just choked,” he recalled. “My face went red and I got dewy on my forehead over what was really a simple question. But I was truly afraid that if I said I was gay, it would cut into my chances of having a successful career in a rock band.”
Abysmal Thoughts suffers no such issues. The album was crafted almost entirely as a solo project by Pierce and its singular vision shines through on the first listen. Pierce isn’t hiding anything anymore and that’s partially thanks to the way that the country has changed.
“Same sex marriage is legal nationwide, which feels strangely progressive for America,” Pierce said with a laugh. “Suddenly, there’s this feeling that it’s not quite as bad as it was.”
That legal and, to some extent, cultural acceptance means that music produced by gay musicians can move beyond the defensive. As the attacking outside forces grow weaker,the default mode of queer music doesn’t need to be an overwhelming blast of pride and a shout of “get used to it!” There’s room to add shading to the art crafted by, to craft a humanized portraits instead of glittering caricatures.
And that’s great news for Pierce because happy-go-lucky isn’t exactly his style.
“I have always been drawn to tragedy in art,” he said. “I love songs about heartbreak, the sort of thing that leaves you feeling heavy… I kind of wear all of my emotions on my sleeve.”
While Pierce previously sublimated his feelings while writing to make the other members of his band more comfortable, the fact that Abysmal Thoughts is essentially a solo album allowed him to lay out his feelings with no filter.
“This is my fourth album. If I’m not being transparent, then what’s the point?” he said. “I’m If I’m going to go through the work and labor that I need to make an album, I’m going to go for it lyrically…It’s the only way to feel like its worth doing for me.”
In Pierce’s case, “going for it” meant leaving the beach behind. Thoughts is stuffed with songs of deep, unimaginable loss and nights spent alone, a far cry from their earlier work.
“I’d rather be authentic than make every song about dancing at clubs,” he said. “These days every song seems to be about having a great time. And I’m not always having a great time, you know?”
Abysmal stemmed from one of those not-so-great times. The story detailed in the album covers Pierce’s ultimately unsuccessful struggles to save a long-term relationship and the fallout from it. The songs within range from desperate attempts to salvage a relationship with his then-boyfriend to the hard work of putting himself back together.
“The album started after I went went through a huge breakup with someone I thought was going to be in my life forever,” he said. “I thought we were unshakeable.”
The singer grew up without a close family unit — in part due to his relatives reactions to his sexual identity — said that the doomed relationship at the heart of Thoughts gave him a “sense of family and belonging for the first time in his life.”
“I thought ‘This is what it’s like to be a real person’ and went that went away I experienced more loss than I ever had,” he shared. “That’s a weird thing to go through in your thirties, to be asking ‘What is my life?’ and ‘Who am I?’ You feel as if you should have it all figured out by now.”
In spite of all the hay that Pierce makes out of his head-spinning breakup — in gorgeous tracks and danceable tracks like “Mirror” and “Blood Under My Belt” — the most heartrending moment on Thoughts is about a different kind of separation altogether, the one between Pierce and his family.
Pierce’s parents are both Pentecostal ministers. He described them as the type of people who “believe in the power of laying on hands” and dole out harsh punishments for what they viewed as sinful behavior. Pierce — who was regularly punished for his identity and sent to anti-gay conversion therapy as a teen — takes a moment away from the breakup narrative to talk about a formative moment in his young life. “Head Of The Horse” is a straightforward telling of the first time that Pierce revealed to his father that he was “in love with someone who wasn’t of the opposite sex.”
“He pulled me in for a hug,” Jonny recalled. “And I thought it was one of acceptance. I thought ‘this is going better than I hoped. But then he let go.”
It was that moment that Pierce’s father decided to tell his teenage son that he could no longer hug him. What Pierce had that what he thought of as a breakthrough, an opening up for him to move through, was actually the last glimpse of light before the doors clamped shut forever.
“That’s one of those pillars, those big moments that really shape you as a person,” Pierce said. “How could it not be? What a blow.”
After being told by his father that he’d received his last hug, Pierce held out hope for years that his family would relent. He argued his case time and again to be accepted back into his family. He made excuses for the way he loved, painting it as something forgivable about himself, given how he lived the rest of his life.
“I was like ‘Look, I’m gay. But I’m a great guy,” he said.
But after years of trying, Pierce finally had to give in. He cut his family loose and, in his telling, instantly was able to see that he didn’t need them. A fog lifted to reveal that Pierce was surrounded by a community that loved him no matter what.
“The heart is kind of like a house,” he said. “You have an attic, a kitchen, a living room, a basement. But there’s really only so much space there. And the people who care about me all have a room.”
“I had a padlock on one of the doors, hoping that one day that space would be inhabited by my parents,” he added. “But I finally took that padlock off and other people rushed right in to fill that space.”
Sweeping out those rooms allowed Pierce to fully and completely come to terms with who he was and how he loved. It’s no surprise, then, that his new work focuses on his relationships in no uncertain terms. This isn’t the same man who balked at a British reporter’s needling. This isn’t even the same songwriter who hid the target of his love songs on albums like Portamento.
Pierce is done with “I’m gay, but…” On Abysmal Thoughts, he’s moved on to “I’m gay, and?”
“You have to love yourself for who you are,” he said. “How can you fight back on a general level if you aren’t being real on a personal level? What’s the point of being anything but yourself? You’ll just fill a venue with people who love you for who you aren’t.”
Luckily, Pierce has found a community of fans who not only accept him for who he is, but use his music to deal with their own struggles.
“This is going to make me sound like a cheeseball but I get messages on Facebook and Instagram every single day from people reaching out to say ‘Thank you,'” he said. “People who deal with suicidal thoughts specifically tell me that I help to keep their mind in a healthier place and make them feel less alone.”
Pierce’s turn toward real stories serve a purpose beyond the need to vent. He’s fulfilling a role for a new generation of fans, one that he found in the ’80s music that his synth-drenched arrangements ape.
“It’s like when I was 16 and I discovered The Smiths,” he said. “My family wasn’t accepting of me being gay and I just felt really misunderstood, but then I found The Smiths. It was like ‘here are other people who understand how I feel.’ And I felt… I don’t know if pride is the word, but I thought ‘maybe it’s cool to be confused and not have all the answers.'”
And having that community and space to express who you are in no uncertain terms is crucial, especially when people who believe in the hellish sort of “therapies” that Pierce underwent are holding the highest offices in American politics. Pierce said that Donald Trump and Mike Pence making their way into the White House, even after the shift in attitudes that allowed an album like Abysmal Thoughts to exist, was sort of like encountering a dangerous animal without warning.
“It’s like you’re walking in the woods and everything around you is peaceful and then suddenly you see a grizzly bear,” Pierce said. “You have to switch from this relaxed state to expressing who you are as loudly as you possibly can so you don’t die. We’re all making ourselves as big as possible. We’re standing on our tippy-toes and screaming that we’re here because we’ve been backed into a corner and we need to fight back.”
On Thoughts, Pierce has redefined what that big existence can sound like, expressing his humanity via the universality and depth of his emotions rather than the volume of his voice.
Abysmal Thoughts is out today, 6/16 on Anti. Get it here.