A little over a year ago, my twin sister, Colette, and I sat down with Jacob Graham of The Drums, a band that had been a favorite for the most formative years of our youth. As we were gathered into a small room backstage, we could hear the band prepping their instruments and vocals for the show that night at Star Theater in Portland, Oregon. We quickly introduced ourselves and whipped out a bottle of cheap brut champagne. Jacob lamented over how he wasn’t able to fully explore each city the tour landed in, and we agreed with those grievances.
Me: I was wondering while purchasing the beverage if we were dealing with Four Loko kind of people.
Jacob: I feel like I’ve had that but years ago. Those are intense right? I remember it being really crazy.
Colette: What about tequila?
He then popped the bottle and took the first sip, per our command.
J: We can just pass this around.
We all laugh and proceed to sip this champagne, a beverage that is definitely less worthy of The Drums.
C: This is your initiation into Portland.
M: Did you guys ever actually go surfing?
J: Uhh, no we never have..in all of our lives.
M: Do you have plans to?
J: No, life is too short. I try not to potentially do anything that makes my life shorter and that’s one of the things.
C: I want to know about some defining moments for you. When did you have that moment where you sat back and noticed everything about this band was successful?
J: It was very strange because Jonny [Pierce] and I have been making music together since we were kids, on and off. We just assumed “this is our existence”. We have day jobs and then work on music after so we thought maybe we could convince an indie record label to put out a 7 inch or something like that. We thought that was it. Then we started The Drums and thought that would be the same thing. It kind of took off overnight for us.
M: When would you say that happened?
J: We recorded a bunch of songs, kind of threw it up on the internet, instantly started getting all this amazing feedback from record companies, and started playing shows in New York. Within a couple of months, we were on a plane to Europe to start playing shows, and on the way there we stopped in Iceland to play at a festival called Iceland Airwaves. We just assumed we would play on a smaller stage since we were a brand new band, but they had us play on this huge airplane hangar and it was just, like, a massive crowd. We just asked, “what is going on?” It was the most we had ever played in front of before.
M: Did you feel nervous? Or do you ever feel nervous seeing people watch you play?
J: I don’t…
M: You kind of hang out in the back, yeah?
J: They move my area a little closer now, haha. If I had my way, I would be doing these shows via satellite. I don’t really like traveling.
M: Do Skype shows happen?
J: I think it has.
M: What is it about traveling that you don’t like?
J: Well, I don’t mind traveling if I were going to take a trip. I guess I don’t like touring. I mean I don’t want to complain…I’m very grateful. You kind of cram yourself into a coffin-size bed and you’re in a different city every day, and there’s not enough time to see anything or meet anyone when you’re on tour like this. You just kinda press pause on your life. It feels like you’re suddenly a transient being. I think a lot of bands really love it and the lifestyle, but I’m kind of like…I’m a homebody. I’m an old lady. I like to sit home and have my things with a cup of hot chocolate.
M: What’s your day job? Do you prefer that? Or have the music as a hobby?
J: I do prefer a day job.
M: what was it?
J: I did puppet shows at Walt Disney world for [pauses] my whole life… up until this band. About 10 years. And I did some puppet shows for different companies, and I love doing that.
I feel like this sort of thing..I need to do it now whereas puppetry I can do it when I’m 60.
C: Well you’re still, in the sense of creating scenes, you’re still doing that.
J: Well yeah, we are very much control freaks in everything we do. Like I design the album covers and merch and the videos, we direct ourselves. We annoy the directors that work with us.
He laughs and finally makes direct eye contact. You can tell that Jacob is a very shy man, and for him to start appearing comfortable meant a lot to both my sister and I. We continue killing the champagne and dive into more questions.
C: So you both [Jonny and him] direct and have the same control on everything?
J: Well yeah, we have been very close since little kids and met since we had a shared interest in music. We’re both from the middle of nowhere in the Midwest, kind of surrounded by farms, and we were both listening to, like, Pet Shop Boys in the mid ‘90s when all of our friends were obsessed with Nirvana.
M: Do you both discuss how you discovered that music organically?
J: [very enthusiastically] Yeah!
M: How did that happen?
J: In a really round-about way…and it was sort of the same for both of us. We both grew up in very Christian families. Jonny’s parents are pastors of his church and my grandparents were pastors of my church. We were both only allowed to listen to Christian music growing up, and I think they were very fortunate because in the ‘90s because there was a lot of amazing Christian music. There’s this label called Tooth and Nail, which had acts like MXPX and all these weird bands. This was a primarily punk and hardcore label, but they really wanted to have these weird diverse bands to make the roster more eclectic. There’s a band called Joy Electric that kind of sounded like Kraftwerk, but with like fairy-tale lyrics and Starflyer that sounded like Slowdive or My Bloody Valentine. Or the Danielson Family? They were on Tooth and Nail, and still to this day, people consider that band one of the most original bands of all time. There was a lot of really good stuff going on there. So we would read these bands’ interviews, and they would say like “we love Pet Shop Boys or we love New Order “ and that’s how we discovered those bands. Then we were, like, digging into those interviews of those Christian bands to listen to bands we weren’t allowed to listen to.
M: Were they [the records] ever taken from you? Or did you have to hide anything?
J: No, I don’t think I ever had anything taken. But I do remember when I was really really young I had a dubbed copy of Ace of Base, signed, and I, like, hid it for years. Somebody told me “Did you know they’re satanic?”
M: Are they?
J: No, I don’t think so, it’s just one of those rumors that little kids say.
C: Tell us about your getaway at the lakeside cabin for your latest album [Encyclopedia]
J: Well we just kind of wanted to get out of the city to start something. It’s hard sometimes in New York because there’s a lot going on there. So we just said, “let’s load all of our junk in the car, drive upstate, find a place that looks nice, and rent a cabin”. So we did that. We set up our little studio there, which isn’t much.
M: You recorded at that cabin?
J: Yeah, like two or three songs there!
M: I was really interested in this particular album because it jumps around from genre to genre, which is different to me. Every song has a different mood, and there have been a lot of vibes going on.
C: I do appreciate the level of sadness that goes throughout the album.
M: It also seems that with each album, the sadness progresses.
J: I think when this band first started, we felt very misunderstood. We didn’t know anyone would hear this stuff, let alone everyone. When we made the Summertime! EP, we thought “wouldn’t it be weird if you went into a record shop and found like an Echo in the Bunnyman-beach-themed EP?” but no one really took it that way. People just thought we were obsessed with the Beach Boys. So we feel like we’ve been spending our entire music career trying to dig ourselves out of this hole we put ourselves into. I feel like we have been progressively putting out music that we are really about. We like all of our early stuff, but it was more like just a fun weird thing we were doing.
M: Do you guys still enjoy playing it? Like the fun songs?
J: We like making the crowd happy and having a nice time, but to us, it’s like singing happy birthday. We don’t hate those songs, we think they’re fun. We made them! But as far as the variety of Encyclopedia, when the band first started we wanted to be super consistent. We like bands with such a consistent sound like The Ramones or The Zombies. We like that if you never heard a song before and you heard their sound, you would think “oh this is clearly a Ramones song”. So we loved that idea, and we were really stubborn about that and pretty much all of our reviews was that everything sounded the same. That’s not why we did that on Encyclopedia. We just wanted to keep things interesting for us. We did that on two albums and an EP, so we just said, “let’s make this album like a musical adventure”. We can never predict what people are going to like, what’s going to be trendy, we don’t care, you know? All we can do is make things interesting and fun to listen to. So that’s what we did. We just said “let’s do whatever sounds interesting” and this album will have all these twists and turns.
M: Do you have a favorite or favorites?
J: I think right now my favorite song on there “USA National Park”.
C: In an older interview, you mentioned you care more about being interesting and having the character to music than instrumentation…like being an amazing musician. Do you still feel that way?
J: We do, we feel that way to an extent, yeah. We aren’t your traditional band guys. Neither of us actually know how to play guitar. We grew up playing these old synthesizers, and that’s what we were obsessed with. When we started, The Drums was an experiment on “let’s try to play guitar”, and that’s why there’s never any chords…just like one note at a time. We both come from musical families, and we are probably the least musical in our families. We were always so much more obsessed with the craft of songwriting and making interesting sounds rather than sort of the other musicality stuff. But I will say everything we released before Encyclopedia was very rushed. The label was always like “get this out, we gotta keep this going”. With Encyclopedia, we had no deadline. No one knew we were making it. We spent about two and a half years on it. I think that is why there is a lot more synthesizers stuff. I do a lot of that, and I’m not a fast worker. So when the label was rushing it, there just ended up being minimal synthesizers parts. We had all the time in the world. I am just so thrilled with it the way it sounds because it’s still us but it now it has the proper ornamentation I’ve always wanted our album to have. There are just little sparkles all over it.
Jacob has a visible smile on his face, and you can really tell he’s proud of what the band put out. Encyclopedia is something they should be proud of.
C: Who or what has kept you holding onto this band, or to keep pursuing this band?
J: I don’t know, I kind of ask myself this question every day. I don’t know, I think it’s just that it’s an internal need to outdo ourselves. We released Portomento, and we really loved it. Then a couple years later, we thought we could one-up that. It’s this idea that we got to this level we never expected to be at, and now we are there. It’s a phobia almost..that this is what I am going to be remembered for in my life because it’s the most popular thing I’ve done in my life, even though I’ve done a lot of little artistic things. It’s a constant “its gotta be better” drive.
M: As an artist, you are terrified of the last one being your best”?
J: Yeah, and as soon as we start making music that isn’t as good as that last one, we are gonna stop. We think every band should stop when they are done. We don’t want to put noise in the world. Leave room for people that are taking it seriously.
The conversation died down a little, but we began discussing our favorite typefaces. He mentioned a preference for Serif Gothic and the typeface used on actual checkbooks. We both agreed on Futura being superior. After a bit, his manager came in red-faced and grabbed the tipsy Jacob out of our hands.