“From here on out begins the new chapter of the Drums,” singer Jonny Pierce told a small but devoted crowd packed awkwardly onto the rooftop of Manhattan’s Novotel for the Brooklyn-via-Florida duo’s first show in years. He and multi-instrumentalist Jacob Graham then left behind the frothy bounce of 2010’s “Portamento” and launched into the dark, reverbed twangs and theremin wails of “Magic Mountain,” the first single off the Drums’ forthcoming third album, “Encyclopedia.”
“Our new record sounds just like that,” Pierce laughed, illuminated by red stage lights and the bright billboards of Times Square behind him, featuring Pitbull endorsing Hennessy and Conan O’Brien in “Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda.” “It’s a rude awakening.”
The Drums’ first album in three years (and the first since their debut, 2009’s “Summer!” EP, with just founding members Pierce and Graham) was born out of a similar shock to the system. In September of 2010, while on the American leg of their tour for “Portamento,” guitarist Connor Harwick abruptly quit the band. “My heart was very broken,” Pierce tells Billboard in their hotel room before the Drums’ short set. “You build something with someone, a group of people, and to see that disintegrate, deteriorate, and fall apart was very painful for me.”
After embarking on solo efforts (Pierce has released one single but his album as Queen Nail has yet to be released; one of Graham’s songs, a folk “ballad” called “Wild Geese,” appears on “Encyclopedia”), he and Graham were ready to come back together and give the Drums another try. They holed up in a lakeside cabin in upstate New York and “went crazy,” says Graham. “That’s when it occurred to me that we can have fun with this and make a record that’s interesting and bizarre.'”
“‘Anne of Green Gables’ on acid,” adds Pierce, referring to those first test songs. “All these sounds coming, like, from fireworks effects.”
Following their cabin fever catharsis, the two returned to the city and set up shop — a folding table, laptop, and some other equipment — in Williamsburg’s Scientific Laboratories rehearsal studio. “It sounds a lot fancier than it is,” says Graham.
“Four walls and no air conditioning,” adds Pierce, who “hated” the space. “It was so depressing to me. But sometimes you have to go there to feel something. Makes me think of [Fleetwood Mac’s] song ‘Gypsy’: she had to leave that fabulous life and live on the floor.”
The resulting cathartic collection of tracks departs from the Drums’ signature “tonal palette,” as Graham calls it. With taut, spindly guitar lines, liberal sprinklings of tambourine, and uptempo kick drums that belie the brooding, thoughtful content matter of songs like “Best Friend” (“You were my best friend, but then you died”), or “Book of Stories” (“I thought life was getting easier, but it’s only getting harder”), both on their self-titled debut LP. Though the group held nothing back onstage — Pierce is known for his flamboyant dancing, which includes gracefully flailing of his impeccably clad limbs — their albums hewed tightly to a rhythmic and melodic aesthetic, a sort of restraint the Drums were determined to dispense with on “Encyclopedia.”
“When something got too majestic or too big, we’d tone it down, put a blanket over the whole thing,” says Pierce. This time, he wanted to “really go for it without worrying about anyone’s approval or anyone’s opinion.”
“This album doesn’t pass the Brooklyn cool test,” adds Graham, who may not be giving “Encyclopedia” enough credit. The line for the show that wrapped twice around the Broadway block between 51st and 52nd (“Are these guys really famous or something?” one passerby asked. “Kind of?” someone answered) demonstrated a fanbase willing and ready to hear what he and Pierce will come up with next. While new songs don’t always bop along at the relentlessly upbeat pace of the group’s older material, they’re still clearly Drums songs.
“With our past work, we’ve always let it exist in its own world,” says Graham, “and on this record we tried to do it more than we thought we were capable of doing.”