Kip Berman makes unabashed, noise-pop. His latest release, “Belong” (Slumberland, 2011), speaks to our awkward teenage years - all exultant exploration and dogged idealism. “My So-Called Life” in album form. Accordingly, Berman focuses on the tribulations of youth: discovery (“It’s about our place and our existence within the world”), insecurity (“we don’t feel so confident that we do belong”) and assertion of identity (“I never really ran with the Jocks”).
After talking for twice our allotted time, Berman quips: “be grateful that our songs are short and precise because I never I am.” And yes – looking back at my notes – I have pages of tangents and non sequiturs. But that is wonderfully appropriate. Simple resolutions and instant revelations do not often feature in one’s teenage years. They do however, in ones recollections of them. It’s here “Belong” belongs: a dream-pop recollection of youth.
In terms of production, the vocals on Belong seem a lot less hidden then on your first album. Was that a conscious decision? If so, what drove that?
We wanted a sense of immediacy, a really visceral sound. We wanted the songs to be the focus, rather than the production. In order to achieve that, a lot of the decisions we made whilst recording involved taking away anything that may obscure the songs – taking away reverb, taking away delay – letting them stand on their own. It’s something we thought about whilst listening to bands like Weezer - that immediate rock, where the vocals aren’t buried in a sea of Cathedral re-verb. A lot of elements that had obscured the vocals – maybe the impact of the guitars – have been stripped away. We’ve let the songs just stand alone, this sort of unaffected sound is what came out of it.
Does that make you feel more vulnerable as an artist?
I don’t think I’ve ever felt like an artist. But vulnerable? Yeah! You can hear it and I think that is kind of cool. My voice isn’t a commanding “thirty thousand people are going to listen to what I say” kind of a voice. I’m not going to sing like Tim Booth or the guy from Stone Temple Pilots, I can’t. My voice is thin and it’s weak and it’s not the traditional I-am-the-lead-singer-of-a-big-rock’n’roll-band-and-I-have-tight-pants on kind of a voice. Everything is stripped away, it’s almost empty. It’s just drums and then the music comes in. I really like heavy music - with a sort of vulnerable, frail voice. Not like your traditional growled rock vocals.
I think the humanity of that is what is engaging.
I think that really speaks to what the album is about. The album is contradictory – it’s equal parts bombastic and frail . . . If there is such a thing! It’s visceral and it’s also shy and unsure of itself. It’s a weird kind of mix. It speaks to the kind of band we are, where we are situated in the world right now. It’s not like we are going to release this awesome-blow-your-head-off-rock record, because that is not the sort of band we are. At the same time, it’s not this sit-in-your-room-and-cry-into-your-anorak record, because that’s not the type of people we are. It’s this weird world in between. Our record is released on Slumberland, but it’s produced by these big rock producers. There are a lot of things that don’t really add up or make sense, but we just kind of left it that way.
It’s interesting you use the word visceral. The record does seem to engage with the listener in a very physical – rather than intellectual – way.
Well, I don’t have very much intellect [laughs].
I didn’t mean it like that!
[Laughs] Well I did! I think at its most basic level pop music –or rock music, whatever you want to call it– is best when it engages directly, emotionally. When you don’t have to think about why you like something. It feels immediate, it feels intuitive. It’s not like you have to think about seventeen other bands to understand whether it’s a good song or not. On the most basic level, when you first listen to Nirvana –well, the first time I heard Nirvana– you think “this is cool”. I mean you can go back and think of all the ways it draws illustrations to things –how it subverted ideals of gender and the traditionally hyper-masculine grunge rock world– or what it meant to work with a major label but also . . . there is a lot of ways you can intellectualise a band like Nirvana and Kurt Cobain’s legacy. But at its most base level – the first time you heard it in seventh grade – you just think “this rules”.
Yeah, it cuts straight to the core of your being. I think the best music does that. Sonic Youth does that. Sonic Youth are an extremely cerebral group of people, but I think they understand – as with all the music I love best – that it should be visceral and intense and totally emotional. The same thing with bands like The Pixies. I think that was the motivation behind “Belong”. Not to have words like literary used in reference to our music. Because, I mean, music is music and literature is literature. You don’t generally get such good music when you have an overly verbose, would be poet or author writing pop songs. It comes off as heavy handed.
You’ve mentioned a few bands that you enjoy and who perhaps influence you. If you could choose three records as your ‘desert island discs’ – what would they be and why?
Oh, that’s always an interesting one. First of all being on a desert island would suck. It would just be the worst. I am not really into deserts or islands. I would not want to be on a desert island. I’d say Felt, “Me And The Monkey On The Moon”. It’s a weird record – I guess all their records are, but it feels like the most emotional one. It’s reflective, it’s interesting. I can’t explain why, but it always stands out a little beyond their other records. I like to listen to them all –they are all great– but “Me And The Monkey On The Moon” just seems especially genuine. David Bowie . . . [long pause] . . . oh, my God. I can’t remember the name. This is one of the most horrible things! It’s one of my favourite records! . . . [long pause] . . . “Hunky Dory”! I think my third would be –oh this is so tough– you can’t go wrong with “The Velvet Underground And Nico”, it’s a pretty obvious one but . . . oh good, The Velvet Underground are from New York. I wanted to have at least one New York band on there.
In regards to your writing process, do you write collaboratively, as a group? Or do you write the songs and then give them to your band to play?
First of all, I am not some Brian Wilson genius. No. I have a really strong impulse for the music – but I don’t have the capacity to visualise how it all works together. I think that is a really special talent. It’s almost like I can imagine the crest –where I want the song to go– but I can’t conceptualise interesting parts and how they relate to each other. Which is fine – because my friends are good at that! The lyrics are the only thing which is not really democratic, or collaborative in any way. Those are the only thing I take personal ownership over. So I write the basics of the songs - I bring them to the band and we work out how to play them. By the time the process is finished the song has become better from everyone’s input into it. We really have the benefit of a load of people working on a song, but at the same time it feeling cohesive. There’s a cohesive point at the origin of each of the songs, but it is realised through a democratic, group effort. I think it’s good. Otherwise it would be weird and disjointed. A lot of it has to do with editing as well. A lot of people think that everything they do is good. I really rely on my bandmates for reflections on how songs will be perceived and received, what songs are actually like. I mean if I really like a song and everyone else is like “this sucks” we are not going to play it. It doesn’t matter how much I think a song called “Girlfriend In A K Hole” is a really good song – how much I feel like “yeah this is going to roll! I can’t wait to answer questions on “Girlfriend In A K Hole” on the phone to people!” – if everyone else is like: “Kip this is terrible, why are we singing this song called “Girlfriend In A K Hole”? What is this “Girlfriend In A K Hole”?! This is not a good idea”, I’m lucky that I have band mates that tell me when things suck. It’s great because I think it means we are good at editing ourselves before people actually hear our music. People think we are really consistent – but we have just as many really terrible songs as we have good ones, we just don’t make them available to be heard by the general public.
I understand you are touring at the moment. How’s that going?
It’s good. We’ve just finished our U.S. tour, with a band called Twin Shadow. We played Coachella and we got to do a lot of cool stuff. But America is so huge that we have to go back and play some other cities later. You can play for thirty days in a row and still only go to half the cities you want to. As for Europe, we just arrived at that point today. We play our first show tomorrow – in Dublin – then a couple of dates in the UK – then on to continental Europe. Then we return to New York in mid to late July for a little rest, before going out on tour again.
Talking of New York – do you feel particularly rooted in a scene there?
That’s a good question. Firstly, I think people’s conception of the New York Indie scene – as this gritty, urban, avant-garde reality – has to always be taken with regard to the fact that most of the people ingrained in that scene are suburban. With the exception of one or two bands, they are usually people raised in suburbia, who come to New York to live out this fantasy. So I don’t actually know if real New York is fake New York or if fake New York is real New York. I will say that our music is probably rooted far more in suburban ideas of pop and a more middle-class, American identity then some down-town, street narrative. I don’t think we really sound a lot like what is being presented as a New York – or Brooklyn – sound. We’ve always been more poppy. That doesn’t mean we are not fans of those bands – we really are – but we’ve just always been rooted in something else. Our approach to music has always been to try and make pop songs. Pop songs that will never get played on the radio [laughs]! We are definitely less abrasive. I don’t know. We’re not aiming to “keep things real”. I don’t know how to explain it. We are just kind of separate from a lot of the stuff happening among our peers. But at the same time we really love what is happening among our peers. So I don’t really know if I’ve even answered that question at all . . . but yeah: we are from New York, we sound like we are from the suburbs and we write pop songs, about our feelings. That’s very punk – and yet we are on an indie label and we are rooted to that as well.
Where did the title of the album – “Belong” – come from?
It was Peggy and Alex’s idea. There was something that was good about that song, and good about naming an album after the first track! I normally don’t like naming albums after a song – it places too much emphasis on that song: “now this is the song you should really pay attention to”. But I think the song itself is a good litmus test for people’s perception of us. The track is called “Belong”, the album is called “Belong” and yet the chorus of the song goes “we don’t belong, in their eyes, in the sun”. We like the contradictions within it. It is this big bombastic rock song, but we are not really a big bombastic rock band. And there is this big seeming statement of arrival – but it’s not a “we belong, we are so cool” kind of a record. It’s more like – “we don’t feel so confident that we do belong”. It’s about our place and our existence within the world as a band, alongside finding our place as people, on a personal level.
It’s interesting that the emphasis is on “We” though. There seems to be a duality to that: “We” don’t belong – you are existing as an entity, together.
Absolutely. I always feel bad when I talk like that. All: “oh no one understands me”. Often my grandparents will read something and then say “I never understood how alienated you were!” and I’ll be like “oh, no, Grandpa. I wasn’t like carrying a gun to school or anything”. I never want to present myself as tortured. All of us come from backgrounds where we enjoy punk and independent music – sub-cultures which exist outside of the dominant social circles of our suburban identities. Which isn’t unusual and isn’t unique. Most people in bands all have similar experiences and it’s probably boring to talk about. You know: “I never really ran with the Jocks”, and you’re like “whatever”. That’s a narrative that becomes boring, or repetitive, almost predictable. At the same time, coming to New York, I did find people that shared my interests, who liked noisy indie pop records and would hang out with me and talk to me about bands most people probably didn’t care about; go to shows all the time and –you know– be friends. It’s nice to have a certain community. I mean indie-pop-noise is not what people care about. People say “how is it to have a critically acclaimed record?” and I am like “no one bought our first record, no one will by this record, no one will be any record that we put out” [laughs]. To talk about how people receive us as notable is funny. We’ll get the album sales and one mid-level R&B singer will probably sell more records in a week than we do in a year. So this perception of acclaim or recognition is in a very small and narrow world. So much so that it’s almost comical to think of it as noteworthy. 99.9% of people in this city live and work listening to music that isn’t ours, or even remotely close to music like ours. There are bands that are recognised and important. There’s Beyonce, there is Jay Z and maybe The Strokes and MGMT in New York – but by the time you get down to us it’s always a small niche audience. Even though we call it pop it’s the most unpopular pop imaginable.
But you have a committed and appreciative fan base!
Yeah, we have about thirty-seven fans. Forty-nine on a good day, if you count our parents. What we do has never been a universal gesture. We get confused. We are all like: “we are going to record this record and it’ll be like the most amazing pop record” and then we are like “oh wait; this isn’t what music is now”. We have this weird perception of what pop music is and then we turn on the radio and we realise that what our music is still not even close to what most people perceive as modern rock music. Which is weird. We are just . . . delusional. At the same time: we enjoy being delusional and I think it makes for a better reality, even if it is an un-reality.
Yeah! It should be celebrated!
All I’m saying is, we don’t take ourselves too seriously . . . and we like playing two and a half minute pop songs.
Kip Berman claims he doesn’t have much of an intellect? We don’t believe that. Besides, he has a deep sensibility that flourishes within each of TPOBPAH’s album. The new one, “Belong”, shows a new departure in the sound of the band. We talked to him to find out more about touring, the creative process and his desert island discs selection.