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The Drums, an Intimate Reflection on the Uncertainty of Life

How have The Drums come to represent the contradictory nature the highs and lows of life?

Jonny Pierce performs at San Miguel Primavera Sound Festival
Credit: Shutterstock/ Christopher Bertand

Jonny Pierce’s The Drums open their standout hit “Money” with the lines,

So before we die, I’d like to do something nice

I want to buy you something

But I don’t have any money

No, I don’t have any money.

The Drums, “Money”

Released in 2011 on their sophomore album Portamento, “Money” is a testament to the uniquely awful experience of wanting to express your love but being unable to. “Money” and Portamento, at large, begin to introduce audiences to themes of love, loss, isolation, and a desire for connection which the Drums explore throughout their discography.

The Drums is an American indie band formed by Jonny Pierce and Jacob Graham in 2008. Since the group’s inception, their music has been symptomatic of the wider cultural disillusion of optimism in a hyper-capitalist world. However, it also serves as a beacon of hope and acknowledgment for all those suffering. Their music is simultaneously haunting and affirming.

Throughout their various projects, the band reflects the paradoxical nature of youth in the 21st century. There is an acknowledgment of the dire hand we’ve been dealt, including increasing isolation and unacknowledged trauma. Yet, hope still remains by forming personal connections rooted in love and understanding.

Jonny Pierce performs at the Heineken Primavera Sound 2014 Festival
Credit: Shutterstock/ Christopher Bertand

The Drums, Portamento, Desire, and Decay

Arguably their most influential project, The Drums’ Portamento takes audiences on a journey of loss and self-discovery. The inescapable nature of death and our innate desire for connection permeate the 14-track album. There is a palpable need to not only acknowledge the futility of life but precisely why this transitory futility makes life all the more worthwhile.

Portamento refers to a musical technique of transitioning from one note to another. Pierce and Graham along with then bandmates Connor Hanwick and Lee Hanwick take this concept, transforming it to vocalize the transitional emotional highs and lows of love and loss. Released in late 2011, Portamento is an emotional rollercoaster made special by its haunting degree of intimacy.

On Portamento’s opening track “Book of Revelation,” Pierce affirms

And I believe

That when we die, we die

So let me love you tonight

Let me love you tonight

The Drums, “Book of Revelation”

The song’s title references the last book of the Christian Bible in the New Testament, the Book of Revelation. Revelation is an apocalyptic text detailing the second coming of Christ resulting in the end of the world. Like its namesake, the song references an ending that will, in turn, lead to a rebirth of sorts. Pierce grew up in a deeply religious community and was abused and ostracized for being an atheist and gay. “Book of Revelation” sets the tone for an album that rejects conventional systems like Christianity or Capitalism in “Money.” Instead, emphasizing the importance of love and forming authentic connections, that in a sense, feel like heaven.

And, despite all the drama and tortured sentiments, that’s what the Drums are all about: real life, and the pains and pleasures (mostly pains) that come along with loving while you still have fresh breath in your lungs.

Larry Fitzmaurice

Real life is incredibly painful. And what makes the Drums so special is their steadfast commitment to recognizing this anguish, never shying away from life’s brutalities. They make you feel seen in their music wanting to experience the simultaneous “pains and pleasures” that come with trying to not only love someone else, but also yourself.

Jonny Pierce’s Haunting Meditations

Pierce expands on the idea of self-love to its furthest limits on his latest album self titled Jonny. The project was released on October 13, 2023, with Pierce as the sole remaining member of the group he helped form. Yet, this solitude adds to the cerebral and solemn nature of the album.

Jonny ups the ante on all of the band’s previous work, taking an unflinching view of all of Pierce’s bruises, cracks, and fractures and gently mending them back together to form a new whole, a new person, and a new outlook. The project becomes a step-by-step view into how Pierce processes his extensive trauma offering a ray of light to those who may share similar tragedies. At the center of the album is the self.

‘This album is actually the self.’ This is why I called it Jonny.

Jonney Pierce

Jonny suggests that only by accepting the self, in all its beauty and ugliness, can one truly begin to heal, and ultimately grow. It is a terrifying process. Yet, Pierce is there every step of the way with his audience.

Near the beginning of the album, in “Harms” Pierce emphatically testifies

For all the motherless sons

I can’t speak for you I only have my stories

I only hold my harms

But I’m angry for you And I’m angry for me

The Drums, “Harms”

Over a haunting wailing, Pierce both exposes his vulnerabilities and affirms his desire to reach out to those suffering from isolation. Jonny offers a respite to the pain of loneliness. But it also conveys the possibility of growing around grief. Your pain may never diminish, but at least you can try to build a life and self around that pain. And, as you grow and mature that suffering will seem smaller and smaller.

The anchor of Jonny is interestingly near its end, “Teach My Body.” Juxtaposing an evocative electro synthesizer beat with the pleadings of someone desperate for love, Pierce confronts his demons head on. The track is, in a certain sense, a tribute to defiance. Throughout the song, Pierce acknowledges his suffering and how it has deprived him of forming an authentic human connection.

And I’m sorry when my body isn’t ready

There are things that have happened long ago

But if we’re gentle, we’ll heal these insecurities

I promise you, I can give you everything

Just teach my body

Oh, help me, teach my bodyl

The Drums, “Teach My Body”

Yet, despite of all that he has been through, he still chooses to try. To try to heal, to try to be intimate with someone else, to try to love himself. There is something so beautiful about Pierce’s perservance and persistence. No matter what he at least wants to try, even if he may fail and hurt himself in the process.

Pierce ends the album with the repeated phrase

Like a flower falling upwards

The Drums, “Pool God”

To me, this is the thesis of Jonny and the Drums as a whole. No matter how awful life becomes, even when you feel like you are falling to rock bottom, remember to hold on to hope. Things may get better and fall upwards into new heights.

Written By

Hi, I'm Ryan (he/him)! I'm an art history and English literature double major at the University of Maryland, College Park Through my writing, I focus on how engaging with art and broader cultural productions helps us to better understand ourselves and our place in the world.

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