Teen Confusion: An Interview With The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart

Words by Michael Cranston
Photos by Ben Crocker

“Do you want some food or some gummy bears or something?” I’m backstage with Kip Berman, front man of The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, as he offers items off their deli trey. “No, thanks. I’ve eaten.” They arrived at Toronto’s Lee’s Palace at 8:00 p.m., quickly lugged their equipment into the venue and immediately began sound checking. Now, the band is eating their dinner (sandwiches, bananas, Gatorade) in the 2-minutes they have to spare until, 1. the interview begins, and 2. their show starts. “Then want a picture of me eating my sandwich?” Yes, I certainly do.

The Pains of Being Pure At Heart are incredibly welcoming and grateful. It is easy to see an innate chemistry in the band’s dynamic, both on and off the stage. We spoke about their fantastic debut album, life as a teenager and the recent anointment of “Best New Music” by Pitchfork.

Tripwire: First question: the POBPAH experience a full-band metamorphosis 5 minutes before taking the stage. You become a different band completely and acquire their personalities, songs, fans, etc. What band do you want to become?

Peggy: Sonic Youth!

[The rest of the band debates the logistics of the question]

Alex: [Possibly sarcastic] Uhm, The Killers?

Kip: Smashing Pumpkins … but do I have to be Billy Corgan? I’d want to be Exploding Hearts, but they’re dead.

Kurt: I don’t want to be in a different band.

“You have five years to make your first record” -– are the songs on the debut a product of five years?

Kip: Some of them are, some of the songs on the album we played at our very first show. But we’ve been together for two years, so some of them were really early songs -- “This Love Is Fucking Right” and “Contender”. Stuff like “Stay Alive” and “Tenure Itch” came around a lot later and those are super interesting because they are much different than the others.

How long was the actual studio time?

Peggy: Two weekends.

[All laugh]

Kip: Probably four or five weekends. Mixing was a separate process. We knew all the songs really well so it was quick.

Alex: And we didn’t have that much money.

Kip: [Laughs] … that’s the reason.

Peggy: But we got “bro-deals.”

What’s a “bro-deal”?

Kip: It’s when your bro gives you a deal.

Who are the characters in these songs? Are they fictional or autobiographical? The album evokes feelings of being in a long-distance relationship, and it seems to mention the “asshole boyfriend” or “unappreciative girlfriend” a lot.

Kip: Well, they are autobiographical or about people in our immediate lives. Every song isn’t about a member of the band, but they are based on our experiences. “Come Saturday” is totally long-distance related: I have a long-distance relationship and my girlfriend visits me on Saturdays. [Laughs] And we usually don’t party, we just stay in. There’s a very simple explanation. I guess there are “asshole boyfriend” characters, like in “Tenure Itch”.

What is “Contender” about?

Kip: That’s about me being a loser. [Laughs] I was really into Exploding Hearts and my life totally sucked in comparison [to them], I’d see them and they were so awesome, and I felt like a total failure, working in a call center, and was really down. It’s about me looking at them and saying, “I wish I could be like that, but I’m not.”

My two favorite lyrics are “I’m a pretender, you never were a contender” and “if you shut out the sun/ the day will never come.” I saw those lyrics as conversing with one another – the first being a bit more down but the last finding a silver lining. It seems like a lot of these songs find silver linings.

Kip: Yeah, those are two non-exclusive feelings throughout the album, but there’s also a strong underlying positivity [on the album] and I don’t think the sum of it is sad at all. At the end of the day, I think it’s an uplifting album, not a “woe-is-me” album.

Do your seventeen year-old selves resurface in your writing? If so, what were you like? The album evokes a youthful sensibility throughout.

Alex: I was weird. I played varsity baseball, but had long hair. I was straight-edge and went to punk shows but wore Eddy Bauer sweaters. [Laughs] I didn’t fit in anywhere, I tried to but failed at that. I tried to go punk shows but couldn’t be punk. But I wasn’t hated either because I floated around. Basically, I listened to music all the time.

Kip: My experience is the same except for the varsity baseball and the long hair. It was the weird area where you’re definitely not cool but you’re in this other category -- you go to punk shows but you study and do your homework; you don’t go all the way, you don’t smash your mom’s favorite things. It’s the weird dichotomy of wearing khakis at a punk show and drawing anarchy symbols on your desk.

So it’s teen angst without the anger?

Kip: It’s more like teen confusion.

Peggy: I was a weirdo. I wasn’t popular but I wish I had a clique and never did because … well, I went to high school in the south and no one was into the same things I was. I had a lot of pen-pals and people I’d trade mix-tapes with. Now, I feel like I’m still in high school but cool, [laughs] not that I am cool. But now I have friends, and friends that I really love. I have that sense of inclusion I always wanted.

Kurt: When I was seventeen, I was in a band and was friends with them, and I had a girlfriend who went to a different school. We would hang out, but I didn’t fit in with the cool kids or anything. I listened to Built to Spill and Supertramp.

What does the band name come from?

Kip: It’s based on an unpublished children’s story that a friend of mine in Portland wrote. I really liked the title and sentiment of the story, which was about experiencing life with your friends when you’re young, and appreciating that, and traveling and having adventures. And that sort of makes life worthwhile. That’s the short moral of the story. It never got published but once I heard the title I thought, “that’s it.”

How many months have you guys been doing constant interviews?

[The band looks collectively incredulous]

Alex: Uhm, one? [All laugh] Nothing that could be considered “constant.”

How have you found you’ve been stereotyped so far?

Peggy: People definitely throw around the same words -- shoegaze, Twee, ’86 revival.

Kip: People are always going to find adjectives to describe music, and that’s what journalism is about; finding new hyphenated terms. We just think of ourselves as a pop band. Some people play up certain aspects of it, and it’s not for us to deny them. I’m not going to be like, “I only use three guitar pedals, I don’t even think I’ve listened to Slowdive all the way through.” I don’t want to tell people not to think that.

Kurt: It’s human nature for people to want to compartmentalize things. You have to deal with that. Whatever you think it is, that’s fine.

I think Peggy described it best as a band of “teen non-runaways.”

Kip: I think that’s a really apt way of describing the tensions of our lives growing up. I listened to that Ladyhawk song, the one that goes “I’m not a run away,” and I thought that was totally prescient. We wrote a song called “Run Away” about not being a run away and not having the courage to do it, I really like the idea she captures.

How’s the tour been?

Peggy: It’s draining but I love it. Playing a show every night does not get old, it’s an adrenaline rush.

Kip: If I could do this 365 days a year, I probably would. It’s worth driving from Chicago to Toronto because then you get to play a show. Sitting at home playing video games is … well it’s pretty fun, but it’s such a privilege and honor to play music. Whatever you can do to make it work is worthwhile.

Alex: It makes all the difference that we’re friends. If we’re in the middle of an 8-hour drive, I don’t have to sit there by myself with some dude I met on Craigslist looking for a band “that sounds like Franz Ferdinand.” I can do crosswords with Peggy or play Boggle or give Kurt wet-willies.

Kip: I think that’s the most overlooked factor -- start playing with people you could be trapped in a car with for 9 hours in northern Michigan and still be totally happy. That’s the perfect band to be in.

Have things changed since Pitchfork awarded you the “Best New Music” title?

Alex: We went on the road the next day, so it’s hard to keep up. It’s always good to see good press. It sounds obvious, but we’d be lying to ourselves if we said ‘it doesn’t matter,’ it was really cool to see.

Peggy: People who completely forgot about me came out of the woodwork and were contacting me on Facebook. [Laughs] … It seems like a lot of people read it and came to see us play. So it definitely made a difference.

Kip: It’s wonderful that it exposes our music to a wider audience, but we still have to go out and do the work and play shows and do the work.

Are you willing to sell your music?

All: Yes.

What if the producer of Gossip Girl

Peggy: [With extreme enthusiasm] Yes! To any MTV show, like The Hills

Kip: Any teen drama.

What were you doing a year-ago today?

Peggy: In England, I was really sad.

Alex: It was all basement shows … it was a worthwhile trip.

Kip: We bought our own plane tickets, rented our own cars, carried around all our gear …

You’ve come along way.

Kip: Every successive thing has been super fun. I’ve never felt that there’s been a time when things haven’t been fun. Even when I drove to Chapel Hill and played a show for five people, then got into the car and immediately drove to Tallahassee and got lost ... it was still fun. There’s nothing that can beat that. Playing music is so much more fun than what I’d normally be doing.

Any last words?

Peggy: I’ve been watching all of Degrassi Junior High.

Kip: There’s one show called Da Vinci Inquest that comes on at three in the morning on Sunday nights; it’s hard to find on TV and I get sucked into it. Every time I meet someone from Canada, I ask them about it, and they’re like “that show’s lame.”

Teen Confusion: An Interview With The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart