The Pains of Being Pure At Heart are going back to their beginnings this week, playing the sold out Popfest at the intimate basement venue Cake Shop in NYC’s Lower East Side, which ironically, is where I first saw them live during CMJ 2008. It was the moment their buzz was gaining fast, and as the NYT Arts Beat Blog described them, they were “hailed for their smart sweaters and intense rocking.” Three years later, Pains are onto new heights (and more intense rocking) with their second album, Belong, and are jazzed at having just played their first Coachella, especially since the invincible Suede was one of this year’s headliners. During our recent chat, Pains’ frontman Kip Berman and I bonded over our mutual Suede fan worship, which led to tangents on being called “titanic”, record stores, labels, album art and pop aesthetics.

How was your Coachella, and most of all, how was Suede?

I’m glad you appreciate that.  The most exciting thing we saw was Suede.  It was really fun.  The fest itself is such a massive thing. We’re a pretty small band and we don’t play a lot of things like that, I don’t think anyone plays a lot of things like that, unless you’re U2 or Arcade Fire or something. It was an incredible feeling to play on a big stage. But at the end of the day, I was almost more excited to go see Suede since that was a rare, once-in-a-lifetime performance. I usually have a short attention span for music and can’t really watch anyone for more than forty minutes, but man, they could have played for four hours and I would have been really happy.  I was like, ‘why did you bridge ‘Asphalt World’ and not do the whole eight and a half minute version?’

Did you happen to meet them?

I’m a little scared about meeting Brett. He’s not the kind of person you’d walk up and give a hug to. Suede exists for me in such a perfect space that I don’t need to be confronted with a handshake. There are certain bands where you want to keep at that distance of idolizing, and you don’t want to just stand next to them and realize you’re just as tall as them.

I don’t feel “titanic.” Unless that means that through the hubris of our actions, we’re going to sink to the bottom of the sea; in that sense, maybe we’re titanic.

It’s probably for the best. And as far as your band and new album, you’ve definitely grown. But what do you think about the fact that you’re now being called “alt-rock titans”?

[big laugh] I don’t know. I guess there are worse things to be called, but it maybe not be entirely truthful. I don’t know, I don’t feel “titanic.” Unless that means that through the hubris of our actions, we’re going to sink to the bottom of the sea; in that sense, maybe we’re titanic. That might be an appropriate descriptor [laughs]. No, we’ve always just liked writing pop songs. The motivations for writing them have been pretty consistent since we started. For whatever reason, different sounds represent different things to people, but we think they’re pop songs and we’re a pop band.

You’ve made such steady progress since the first time I saw you at Cake Shop a few CMJs ago.

I appreciate that and we do try to get better, but at the end of the day, no amount of polish or poise can change a good song from being a good song. I’m proud of the songs we played at Cake Shop three years ago and I’m proud of the songs on this new record, but I’m not just proud that it was produced by so and so.  That’s cool, but what’s really meaningful to us is the quality of the songs. You can record a good song badly and it will still sound good, but you can’t record a bad song in the best studio to make it sound good.  It just doesn’t work that way.

Did you feel any stress about coming up with the second album?

There’s this sports phrase from basketball or something that says, “if you listen to people on the stands, you’re going to be sitting with them.” Everyone has their opinions. Ultimately, you have to make decisions for yourself that feel right and that feel true to the music you want to make, the kind of band you want to be, and the kind of mentality you want to represent. I’m not going to lie and say there’s no pressure in making a record. There was pressure making the first record. We’re music fans first and we don’t want to contribute to more crappy music in the world. The world doesn’t need our record to exist, and the world will go on just fine without it. If we really feel we have something that we’re proud of and if it means a lot to us, well, then we’re happy to record it and share it. But there’s enough bands in New York writing alternative rock, so we wouldn’t be missed if we stopped.
The fact that you stayed with Slumberland Records since the beginning is pretty great.
Oh, well, gosh! Mike’s been putting out records since 1989. He started by releasing his own band, Black Tambourine. He’s got a good, strong aesthetic, which is like noisy pop bands. Rocketship, Henry’s Dress… There’ve been so many good bands that are a part of that label, like Velocity Girl, at the beginning. Slumberland always represented a very cool aesthetic to us, pop bands that aren’t wussy. Indie pop without it being that “crying in my diary” kind of indie pop, which I also like, but I think it’s cool that Slumberland has some muscle to it. When we were approached by him to put out our first record, he was working with some local bands we really admired, like Crystal Stilts and Cause Co-motion. It wasn’t just us buying into our 90′s pop Slumberland nostalgia, but that the label was continuing to be a vibrant source for music we believed in. To be a part of a label with such an identity and aesthetic is rare.

We’re out in Seattle right now, and Sub Pop, as an example, just sort of throws everything up against the wall and hopes some of it sells. It’s nothing against Sub Pop. They’re a great, legendary label and they’ve put out great stuff and have taken risks on a lot of music… but at the same time, a lot of labels these days are unified by almost a commercial interest rather than a definite aesthetic. We’re not self-righteous and think only indie labels are great and majors are so bad. Most of the records I love and admire were released on major labels, and there are plenty of sketchy, dishonest people who work for indies. It’s not the point that one is morally right and one is morally wrong, but it’s important that a label allows you to make good music that you’re proud of. If this was 1995 and we wanted to work with Alan Moulder and Flood then, we probably would have had to sign to a larger label to do that.  We would have had misgivings but would have still rooted our decisions in making the best music we can, and not all about cred or self-righteous snob points. We’re never going to be “The cool New York band” but we do care about making the best pop songs we can. Sometimes it’s worth taking a risk to do that.

Your album was available as a free stream on your site the first week or so.  Do you find it hard to make money on album sales these days?

I think people who like our music are responsible. They’ll download it for free and then they’ll buy tickets for a show and then they’ll buy the vinyl at some point. It’s just the order by which they come to the music, and that’s totally fine. I do that too. I’ll download something and if I don’t like it, I didn’t lose any money. Then, I’ll just totally delete it. But for the things I do like, I might download them first and then when I’m in a record shop, I buy the vinyl. It’s exciting. It’s a way of experiencing the music before making the actual, physical purchase, but it still is a process that’s important. Independent retailers do have a place in the contemporary music landscape and they do serve as places where you can discover new music and have access to things you don’t know you liked. Sometimes you don’t know what you want until you’re flipping through a bin of records and see stuff.

Definitely! The art of the shopping and the hunt. Sometimes even the art on a cover catches your eye and the music inside turns out to be good too.

Yeah, I feel like I’ve bought Sacred Bones records since the layout of their albums is so cool. I was actually in Amoeba and got the Zola Jesus record because it looked cool. I thought, ‘I’ve heard her before, she’s good, I’d like to buy that.’ It was a great impulsive thing. I’d heard and liked the music before but the the overall aesthetic of the art pulled me in. We try to be thoughtful about the visual aspect of what our records look like. I can also understand not giving a shit and just realizing, ‘it doesn’t matter, man,’ but there are different schools of thought and they’re both valid. I like pretty things, so I guess I want our record to be pretty.
Is the painting on Belong by a friend of yours?
He’s a young artist in Brooklyn, Winston Chmielinski, www.wi-ch.com.  I’m probably butchering his last name, but he’s a young artist, like 20 years old. He’d done our Say No to Love 7″ in 2010. We asked if we could use one of his new paintings for this album, and it’s used for the ‘Belong’ single. I think our next single is also going to have one of his paintings on the cover. I really like having that coherent aesthetic. I like that idea of consistency and uniformity to a series of releases. I think there was a shift with our Say No to Love 7″, in terms of how our sound might have progressed, so we wanted a visual style that sort of reflected that awakening.

You’ve definitely upped the ante in terms of a bigger sound and a lot more nuances, and the art is a nice fit.

We’re totally fine if some people loved us then and hate us now, since that’s a natural thing. There are bands I love, but I might love their first two albums and don’t love the third. That’s the peoples’ choice. We’re excited about the music we’re making.  We didn’t want to go back and try to recreate our first record. It seemed like a contrived gesture to try to recreate this thing. That’s not the point. You should keep trying to get better and try new things and hopefully they’ll work. But if they don’t, the world won’t end.

Live photo taken May 6, 2011 at Webster Hall, NYC by nyctaper.com