It’s nearly dusk when I find my way to the entrance of Lido, an inconspicuously drab concert hall in Berlin’s equally drab Kreuzberg neighborhood. In a few hours, the venue will buzz with a sold-out crowd of minimally dressed Europeans who’ve come to hear Jonny Pierce live. As the last remaining member of queer rock band The Drums after keyboardist Jacob Graham left earlier this year, Pierce has stepped into his role as the heart and soul of the cult band he began in 2008.
As he moved around the stage that September night, the 36-year-old singer and OUT100 honoree showcased the swaggering confidence of an artist set free. It’s just one touchstone of what has become Pierce’s most formative periods. In the three years since he and his former bandmates released their third album, Encyclopedia, he’s been married, divorced, and found new love with Keon Smith, a former Mormon and graphic designer who’s become a near-constant fixture in his life since meeting by chance in a New York sake bar.
Related | OUT100: Jonny Pierce, Musician
Now, with the 2017 release of Abysmal Thoughts, a fourth album entirely his own, Pierce has settled into his place as a voice for disillusionment, depression, and, ultimately, hope. While he admits that he can’t bring himself to write a happy song, the tracks on his latest record still feel hopeful, though that may because of The Drum’s signature surf rock sound.
While he lounges with a radiant sense of joy before his show and, later, as he stops the music to give an impassioned monologue about self-love to a teary-eyed crowd, it’s impossible not to notice how much has changed. As abysmal as his thoughts may have been over the course of writing his new record, Pierce has found his peace.
OUT: On your album cover for Abysmal Thoughts, your boyfriend Keon is sniffing a shoe on it. It got me thinking about how older generations of LGBTQ people were so focused on heteronormativity and marriage and fitting in, and our generation, by comparison, has become so queer and radical.
Jonny Pierce: I think the internet has just sped up awareness that there’s other freaks out there. You know what I mean? I think about me growing up in a small town before the internet. You didn’t dare do anything out of the ordinary. I mean, I did because I’m a freak but most people would not. It’s a huge safety net just to know that I’m into smelling gym shoes and I can look online and find thousands of other people who share that interest. It emboldens you and suddenly you have this courage to talk about it or whatever. I think it’s wonderful.
Of course, there’s a downside to everything but I would never want to go back to this repression. People are expressing themselves in a way they never have before and there’s always a fan base for it.
Abysmal Thoughts was one of my favorite summer albums, but it’s interesting to hear your surf rock sound paired with these really dark lyrics.
I never sit down and decide to write dark stuff and match it with a joyous sounding melody, it’s just always something that has naturally happened. In the case of the new album, I made a choice to really honor how I was feeling, which happened to be dark. I open up more than I ever have and I’m more explicit and vulnerable—I’ve learned there’s no real point in anything if you’re not being yourself. No more, no less.
It’s really hard to say, but the absence of Jacob, my long-running synthesizer player, really was such a gift. It sounds like I’m being mean. He’s a lovely guy, but it was a gift to have this newfound freedom at a time when my life seemed to have been really disintegrating before my eyes.
Do you think that being in a group with another member added to that disintegration?
I don’t know. The main thing was that I was going through a divorce. It wasn’t so much the divorce, it was more that the divorce was a symbol, to me, that I didn’t really have my shit together. Not in the sense of having a house, a car, two dogs, and a white picket fence. It was in the sense that I thought that was going to make me really happy and it ended up really falling flat and I was disappointed in myself and in the relationship. I had such high hopes and I fell into a deep depression. On paper, this was what everybody wants so I started thinking, am I just a total freak?
Really, the issue was that I didn’t really love myself. I actually hated myself up until recently, and I still have days where I feel weird. I spent 30 years pleasing people around me while I laid there staring at the ceiling. It’s not about saying ‘fuck you’ to everyone, but it’s about respecting myself, which ultimately is better for everyone.
Something I’m learning is that it’s really empowering to let your inner child come out. With Instagram and the internet, you have to come across as having it all together and nobody shows their vulnerability—everybody’s showing the best moments of their life. It’s highly curated and life isn’t curated. Life just happens so I wanted to allow myself to say that I’m a grown man who doesn’t really know who he is. I feel ashamed of it and weird about it, but I also feel okay about it. Every day is different and it’s okay to not have all the answers.
What’s been the best part about relying solely on yourself on tour instead of worrying about your old bandmates?
It’s just been an opportunity to do what I want to do—everything from artwork and music to how I perform on stage. I was always the one writing all the music and working really hard and not sleeping at night trying to get this band off the ground. I kept quiet about how much I actually did in the band. Most people assumed that I just did the lyrics, but 90 percent of every record we ever put out, I’ve been sitting there with the guitars recording the bass and synth and everything, then I’d show the band the song, they’d learn to play it, and then we walked on stage and played it. That’s how it’s always been but I just stayed quiet about it.
That’s also another part of this new journey of mine—I’m just going to say what I do. Why have I been holding back? I think it’s because I wanted them to feel involved and that sounds like a nice thing, but I was actually just insecure and felt like I needed people around me. This is me stepping out and dropping the stilts and saying wherever I land, I land. I’m just going to trust myself and go for it.
I never believed that my life could be this beautiful. Thank you for all who came out to last nights show. I felt very real love coming from London last night. so a month long tour of Europe is over now. I’ll go back to New York and rest for 3 weeks - and then we hit the road again in North America.
I wanted to ask about your boyfriend Keon, actually, since he’s almost always by your side. You met him when he was still a Mormon and had just come back from his mission and you’ve obviously come from a deeply religious family. How has religion impacted both of you?
My dad’s a pastor and when I left my father’s church, it took me ten years to really shake it all off and it’s almost like [Keon] flipped a switch. There was a small period of change for him and there will probably be more that shows up later, but we’ll get through it together. That’s what’s so beautiful—I have someone to talk to now. You meet a lot of people who are like ‘oh my parents are Christian’ and I’m like, yeah they went to church on Christmas, [but] every decision my parents made in their life was about pleasing god. [They are] hardcore Christian and preached at anti-gay rallies.
His parents aren’t preaching at anti-gay rallies, but they attend a church that is fundamentally anti-gay. They’re very sneaky and, in the public eye, they throw LGBT music festivals with all gay bands, but in the Mormon church, you’re allowed to be gay and attend but you can’t get married or have sex or be in leadership. If you and your “gay friend” adopt kids, those kids cannot be baptized until they’re 18 and if your kids decide to get baptized at 18, they have to also denounce you as a parent. It’s disgusting and the message at the end of the day is that gay people are second-class citizens. That encourages hate speech and bullying. They put on a smiling face but they’re fucking wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Keon came from all that and actually did his two-year mission in Germany and was going door-to-door in Berlin. I met him shortly after his mission and, since then, he’s pulled out of all that. He’s a real hero of mine.
What’s been your most memorable fan experience with the new album?
The other day we played in Spain and we learned that at a previous show we played there, a boyfriend and girlfriend who were two of my biggest fans were driving to the show and got into a car accident and died. They told me about it before I went onstage and I got really sad so I got on stage and started talking about life and death and what’s really important and talked about loving yourself. It was a really beautiful moment and there were a lot of tears in the audience and since that show, I’ve been stopping the concert to talk a little bit. I want things to be meaningful and I want my life to be meaningful. I want every day to count.
Especially now with the political climate. There’s a lot of hopelessness in the world.
I take it one day at a time and try not to think too much about what could happen. I was told by a therapist that our brains are literally not designed to process grief in the frequency that we are trying to process it. If you pick up your phone, there are ten or twenty articles all about something else that’s awful. It’s nonstop and it’s actually unnatural to try and grieve for all of it, so I’m trying to stay informed but figure out what the grieve for and where to focus my energy to be able to help. You can’t help everyone but you can help a small group of people or a specific cause if you just really focus and put a lot of energy into it.
You have to find joy to combat it, too.
Yeah! If all you’re doing is weeping, you’re going to crazy and be really exhausted. Self-preservation is important because you can’t help if you aren’t helping yourself.
The Drums are currently on tour in the U.S. and Canada. For information and tour dates, check out their website.