Photographed by Richard Kelly
I stumbled into The Strongrooms to catch up with Kip Bergman and Peggy Wang from The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. For being in a band that has this year been hyped to the high heavens and critically praised, they have an incredibly easy personal presence.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, consisting of Kurt Feldman and Alex Naidus as well as Peggy and Kip came together for Peggy's birthday party at a big warehouse in Brooklyn a couple of years ago. Having roped in a few other bands that they all collectively admired, including The Manhattan Love Suicides and Titus Andronicus, the band formed a month prior to it with the goal of performing five songs that they'd written. It made sense that since they were throwing the party, they could play at it too; enjoying the low pressure that the party setting would give. Since they didn't seem to ruin anybody's good time too much, it was deemed a success.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart emerged from the very bosom of the Brooklyn music scene, and what I'm coming to look at as a communal, organic kind of garden in attitude. A plot of land that all the little plants share, growing amongst each other, not too worried about who the biggest or prettiest flower is, cause everyone is a bit of an odd vegetable anyway.
The duo had only answered a couple of other interviews that day, so they weren't too resigned to answer my questions. In fact they were lovely. Kip and Peggy gave all the right answers; and in another case I might have been more skeptical of their apparent ingenuousness, but because they just seemed so, well, normal and sincere with their outlook on their circumstance that I actually believed them.
Do you tend to answer the same thing in interviews all the time?
KIP: Oh nah, we give different answers in interviews every time, sort of like a magic 8 ball, you shake it up like, "Who are your influences?" "Maybe."
Did you guys grow up in New York?
PEGGY: No, I'm from New Orleans.
KIP: I'm from Philadelphia. But we all met in New York, we didn't know each other before.
Did you have the dream of 'making it in the big smoke'?
PEGGY: Well, moving to New York WAS my dream in itself. I didn't care what I had to do, or what I was going to have to do, I didn't have any plans.
No thoughts for any kind of world domination then?
KIP: I don't think we have plans like that even now!
How far do your ambitions extend? The last year has been a great year for you guys, being all Pitchfork feted and storming SXSW and all that. Does that change the way you approach your music?
PEGGY: I only feel pressure if I think about it too much. So I try not to. Ever.
KIP: It's one of those things that are up and down in life. I always try to think that all these good things that are happening, there's going to be a point where everything bad is going to happen...I'm really into negative thinking. I'm always setting myself up. We never had any expectations going into the album, and everything has gone way beyond what we thought could be possible. Especially since a lot of the music we draw inspiration from was never really that commercially successful, or even that critically respected. So we're still kinda surprised about the opportunities really and we're just enjoying it as best we can.
PEGGY: I guess I just feel like we've been doing something right, or it feels right, and to change that, seems like going against the universe. We've been so lucky already.
There are so many bands that really feel the pressure to create hype, then to live up to it, and then start to believe their own hype. You've been back and forth from London and New York a couple of times now, what's the main difference?
KIP: I think if you ask any of the other Brooklyn bands, they'd probably answer the same way; I think there's a different mentality with hype and pressure to succeed. There is no actual success in America to be had, there's no vying for magazine covers. All those bands play music because they like the music they're playing, not because there's some pathway to actual pop stardom. Over here there's much more of a celebrity culture attached to young bands and there's a vying for chart positions and all that...And there's rivalry. We're really supportive of other Brooklyn bands, just from the perspective of music fans. We go to shows, and we really want them to keep putting out records and succeeding because I just like listening to their records!
PEGGY: I feel like it's not competitive at all.
KIP: It's totally not competitive.
PEGGY: That might grow out of a fact that it's like this effortless thing. It's not like the bands don't try hard or don't care...
Perhaps it's just the intention that's different, sometimes I feel like some bands/artists intention isn't to actually make music.
KIP: It's the European versus the American perspective. After shows, people will be like, "Oh man, you guys are going to be big!" And that's supposed to be like, a 'compliment' here? And in America you shy away from that, you would never want anyone to say "You guys are going to be the next big thing!" That would almost be, well, not insulting, but it would make most American bands - at least where we come from - uneasy to have people reflect their music in it's commercial potential I suppose, instead of just being music.
In one interview Peggy, I read that you said "We're kind of at the right place at the right time at the moment, but everything is fleeting, and it's good not to take anything for granted". What is it about these current conditions that have been good for you?
PEGGY: I think it does help that there are other really good bands coming out of Brooklyn and I think it's good to be identified with that I think.
KIP: I think if there were a formula, someone would bottle it, because so much of it is luck. There are bands that I love, and there are bands that were around in New York from where we're from that never got the recognition that they deserve. There are bands who are amazing, will write great songs and everyone's like they're gonna be the next thing and it just didn't really happen for them. And they tried at it so long, and it wasn't their fault, because they were really so good, there are a lot of better bands than us that don't get half the attention that we've gotten, and there are so bands that I don't understand why people like them. It's not based on talent so much in that way. You can work hard and try your best but it doesn't always mean it'll work.
What was your lucky moment then? The turning point as it were?
KIP: It's not like it was any one moment. Things just have progressed in a really natural organic way. It doesn't seem like a hype bubble as much. I kinda think that the best thing that's happened to us is that we had two years where no one knew we existed so we could practice and try to get better. A lot of bands get discovered so fast so early that often it hinders their ability to grow and develop. So it was like being a latch key child, we got to figure out stuff on our own for a while without an overbearing parent expecting too much of us. I can't think of any particular moment when, I dunno, Alan McGee was in the audience and said "I'm gonna make you a star!" [laughs] It's just been a series of not bad things happening to us. We've stayed safe and healthy, and the fact that we're all friends and still friends is great.
If someone did dangle a fat carrot of fame and fortune and huge success are you going to take it?
KIP: I like celery more than carrots. You know if you get a vegetable pack, I usually eat the celery and leave all the carrots. So it would have to be a pretty delicious carrot. Maybe a 24 karat carrot.
PEGGY: That's such a weird analogy!
KIP: I think every step of the way we've made choices that have turned out the right way.
That the universe will keep providing?
KIP: I dunno, it might not! The labels we've gotten a chance to work with have really been in it for the right reasons and aren't doing it for their own personal glory and just genuinely enjoy putting out music that they believe in.
If there's any one thing you wanna do to date, what is it? In terms of using your influence for good or evil?
KIP: I wanna do exactly what we're doing now. I don't feel like we have to cash in our chips or anything yet.
Such a healthy mentality with all your carrots and celery!
KIP: No really! Maybe it's cause we're a little older or something, but I've spent so much of my life seeing other bands to go on tour and put out records and feeling jealous of those opportunities and make music all the time. To have that option of being able to continue writing songs and stuff is all I need.
Here's a track from their forthcoming EP Higher Than the Stars due out on September 22 via Slumberland and Fortuna Pop.