If there’s a band you shouldn’t judge by their name, it’s The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. It might have led you to mistakenly conclude that they are either an emo band or teen novel about chastity. Other than some fondness for the movie Clueless, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart have thankfully nothing to do with either. Even so they are a band with a lot of myths to dispel, unwilling gained from their associations to twee. Oddly for a band based in New York, the source of their true affections and inspiration is in 80s English and Glaswegian indie pop bands, popularised by a NME compilation cassette entitled C86, which became the shorthand for a certain variety of independent bands with “jangly” guitars and fey melodies. How an American band has found themselves so engrossed in such a localised music scene is a question I put it to singer, songwriter and guitarist Kip Berman.
“I think about that all the time, it’s like ‘how did I get into the music I like?’ I think there’s a couple things, early on when I was fourteen or fifteen and Nirvana was emerging and Kurt Cobain, used his celebrity in interviews to popularise bands on K Records like Beat Happening as well as covering bands like The Vaselines or talking about how Teenage Fanclub was the best band ever. It’d be like ‘Oh you know Kurt Cobain liked this band and they’re also friends with this other band and they say they’re influenced by this Orange Juice band’; it really set me on a course of discovery and curiosity.” While those influences can be heard on the band’s eponymous debut album, Kip is cautious of overstating their importance, “we don’t pretend to understand the social issues that gave rise to the music, we don’t pretend to know what it’s really like to grow up in 1987 – we’re just urban kids from America with guitars.”
For all their fascination with indie pop bands, from either side of the Atlantic, Kip admits that the band have always had a soft spot for alternative rock at their heart. “I think it’s pretty evident with our new record, maybe more than the last one, that as much as we embrace those Glaswegian bands and bands like Felt, we grew up with alternative rock music in America”. Since their debut, their musical heritage has seeped through, getting progressively louder with EP Higher Than The Stars and new album Belong, produced by legendary alt rock producers The Flood and Alan Moulder. “I think we really were drawn to that idea that on some basic level just turning it up and playing is a good thing and kinda letting loose is a good thing, and it doesn’t have to be this introverted, naval-gazing, bookish music all the time, it still can be at its core lyrically and but sonically we really wanted to give it that power.”
We’re not like these miserable sad crying anorak people, at least not all the time
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are band wrestling with a few contradictions, for one trying to balance their appeal to both nerdy record collector types and anyone with a love for pop. “There’s always going to be a part of me that’s a dorky record person but I also think, as you mentioned, on the most basic level pop songs should exist as pop songs and you shouldn’t have to know 1700 other bands to understand why you like something and with this new record I really wanted the music to engage intuitively on this direct emotional level.” There’s no denying Belong has a wider appeal with its anthemic choruses and brasher guitars, but at same time the band have tried to not lose their emotion resonance. “It’s like this weird contradiction of ‘we don’t belong, we’re outsiders’ and yet you listen to the music and it’s well produced modern rock music” explains Kip. “We split the difference and let the contradictions exist and didn’t try to resolve them artificially or force a narrative.”
Kip’s narratives are frequently about outsiders, relationship mishaps, wishful escapism, and weird sex; themes which have often been associated with a teenage voice. But it seems that what was intended as introspective has been misconstrued as adolescent. “Maybe what people perceive as teenage experiences are really just the processes of becoming the person that you are and developing thoughts on the world and experiences that shape you and define you and ideas of where you belong and what is meaningful to you. I guess in a lot of ways those experiences are associated with the teenage years, but I would hope that concept goes on forever for people. I mean I’m not fifteen, so either I’m extremely arrested in my development or maybe there’s some aspect of human life that continues on after the age of 19 that’s in our songs.”
If there’s one association the band are particularly eager to avoid, it is the twee subculture that surrounds indie pop, which with the band’s lyrics about incest, suicide and heroin addiction, is a hardly befitting comparison. “We’re not like these miserable sad crying anorak people, at least not all the time, we’re human beings and so much of our music is a rebuttal to indie pop. I mean we’re fans of indie pop, but it is almost also like a weird form of music criticism where we take things about indie pop and sort of reflect the opposite in a lot of ways.” Perhaps their slightly wet name has contributed to this assumption, but behind the corny moniker The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are a band willing to write songs about the less pleasant sides of human nature, often with a smutty pun or two.
Mind you, Kip does admit a liking for teen movies: “I know it’s cheesy, but I do like those coming-of-age movies, we had one of our songs in this movie recently, called The Prom, Peggy [keyboards and vocals] went to see it, it’s like a Disney high school movie. No one’s going to ever soundtrack a horror movie with The Pains of Being Pure At Heart much less a porno anytime soon – it’s only to annoy our parents that we’d ever do that.” They might not have a career in porno soundtracks but they seem to have picked up some odd sex toys while on tour, video documented for their comedy value only rest assured, from “travel pussy” found in a German petrol station to cockrings discovered in York’s own Duchess. “I think those videos are actually more popular than our music videos. If we could combine the two somehow maybe we could have a sex toy video for our next single.”