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Indie Interview: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

The tension in music between innovation and devotion is particularly tight on Indie Avenue, where a band's work can be harshly evaluated based on its influences, while a simultaneous pressure to define a unique sound is undeniably stronger than in the Top 40 universe. This need to be original while maintaining a faultless, identifiable pedigree is a tough line to walk, but Brooklyn's latest It Band, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart—guitarist and singer Kip Berman, keyboardist and singer Peggy Wang, bassist Alex Naidus and drummer Kurt Feldman, as well as touring member Christoph Hocheim—keeps an admirable balance on its Slumberland Records debut. The 10-song set touches on shoegaze, reverb-heavy twee and '90s alt-noise, and showcases an admirable tightness of songwriting. (Put simply: They make a lot of musical subgenres sound uncommonly direct and fun.) Fresh off a 14-show marathon at South by Southwest last month, the band invited NEWSWEEK's video team to their Williamsburg practice space to film two songs (including the brand-spankin' new "103"), and also spoke with Seth Colter Walls. Excerpts:

Walls: Success has come pretty quickly. Your debut album was only released in February, and yet you're the talk of the blogs, in demand at South by Southwest, etc. When did you get the sense that things were going to blow up?
I think it was kind of gradual for the first year and a half [of the band's existence].

Berman: We've been around for slightly over two years. Our first show was in March 2007, to play at Peggy's birthday party.

Wang: And we were not known then!

Berman: Yeah, so we were throwing Peggy's party, and we invited bands like the Manhattan Love Suicides, and Titus Andronicus from Jersey. And we thought, "Hey, if we formed a band, we could open for them." Which maybe seems kind of sneaky. But we learned five songs, and it was a super fun time and a really positive experience that we wanted to continue.

You put out a couple seven-inch singles after that. But did you have any sense before the debut CD that people were going to eat it up?
When all of a sudden people cared, and people began writing reviews? No.

Naidus: It was definitely a surprise. You know, you hear that it's 2009, and there's blog hype and bands who get huge without an album or whatever. But if you think about it, [for us] it was still relatively traditional. We were a band having fun playing shows, and some people knew about us, but most people didn't, and then we put out an album and it got reviewed, and then people started hearing about it.

Berman: And we toured. It was the first time we did U.S. touring, and we're going to do more. Everyone makes this big notion of this new model for bands. But honestly, it's just practice and playing shows and touring and working hard. You still have to work for everything; it's not just handed to you on the Internet or something.

Do you think a blog backlash is coming, due to your quick rise?
Um, we're just not super-aware. We're not on the cusp of knowledge about our band. We just genuinely like doing what we do.

I think backlash is probably inevitable, though, in this day. I wouldn't be surprised if there was one.

I feel like it's normal. This music isn't for everyone. The more people who hear it, there's going to be people who like it and people who don't. When you're small and the only people who find it are people who are looking for exactly what's yours, there's no reason [to criticize]. Once more people hear it, they're inclined to pass judgment.

But hasn't part of what's surprised you been the fact that more than the hardcore indie set appreciates this record? That it has a constituency outside the usual suspects?
With a lot of bands we draw inspiration from, none of them were super-well-appreciated during the time they were around. You know, Rocketship, Velocity Girl. Black Tambourine was very cult. The Pastels. We liked Nirvana, and they did pretty well, I guess, and Sonic Youth. But it's kind of surprising when people outside of that very small, narrow community that's always supported noisy indie-pop bands started to appreciate us and enjoy it. … We think of what we do as pop music, as not inherently limited. It's not deliberately obtuse or meant to alienate at all. I guess it's hard perceiving what you do when you're in the storm.

How was your first experience at South by Southwest?
I was surprised that I didn't feel tired or bummed out at all. People kept telling us [beforehand], "You're playing 14 times; you're going to be exhausted and start hitting each other."

I thought I was supposed to feel tired and be hating life. It was actually really fun. I didn't feel fatigued at all. It was fun to play for decent crowds.

It was great to feel that there was this energy, and people were interested in what we were doing. It was exciting to show up beforehand and overhear people say, you know, "They better not suck!" It was fun to feed off that audience expectation and enthusiasm. … It definitely was not, you know, playing for a hometown crowd. Which is a thrill, because playing is the most fun thing. If somebody says you can play six times and it's fun, then 12 times is twice the fun. The experience doesn't degrade; it's just more stuff to do besides standing around eating tacos.

You're going to hit some more of the country later this year, right?
We're doing two weeks in the U.S., mostly in the Northeast and South. We're going to go out west this summer, and try to do as many all-ages shows as possible. ... It's not like we're 18 and this has just been handed to us. We're a little bit older than the fresh-out-of-high-school bands, and this is our first experience being in a band that tours.

You guys still hold down day jobs?
I have a full-time job working for a Web site called

Naidus: I work at full time.

I think I bought your mp3s on that site, because you didn't include a download coupon with the vinyl.
We really wanted to do that! It's easier for Matador records to do that than Slumberland. My general rule of thumb is that if someone buys the vinyl and emails me, I send them the files.

Do you have a day job, Kip?
I lost my job in November. It was a combination of a bad economy and me asking, "Uh, can I take the next three weeks off to tour with The Wedding Present?"

[Pretending to be Kip's boss] Take all the time you want, you're fired!

But it's cool. We have so much touring to do; we're going to Europe after the U.S. dates. It's a totally ideal thing to be able to do. At this point in my life, I'd much rather be playing music than forwarding PowerPoint [presentations] around. [Pause.] Which was also really fun!

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