“You look really tired,” I told Kip Berman, frontman of New York-based The Pains of Being Pure at Heart when I was finally able to take a good look at him backstage before the band’s Kuala Lumpur show began. Exhausted and somewhat physically drained − thanks to a year on the road and countless flights − Berman commented on his scruffy facial and blamed it on a broken hot water knob in his hotel room last night. Too bad he was the only one in the band with room issue (and that also includes missing towels).
Since the release of the band’s sophomore record Belong in 2011, The Pains have been on a long-stretch tour that led them beyond home country. The quartet have since expanded their musical territory to the European region; major Asian countries like Japan, Korea and China and for the first time in their life − a tour in a region less-travelled that is Southeast Asia.
Best known for their twee and shoegaze-inspired indie-pop music, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart is made up of Berman on vocals and guitar; bassist Alex Naidus, drummer Kurt Feldman and the band’s sole female representative, Peggy Wang (who was very popular with the Malaysian crowds) on keyboards.
Formed in 2007, The Pains have come a long way since the release of their critically-acclaimed self-titled debut in 2009. Signed with iconic indie label Slumberland Records, the band have gone from another indie-pop outfit to a band on the Billboard Heatseekers Chart. Continuous success follows with Pitchfork’s Best New Music (for both The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Belong), performing on Last Call with Carson Daly and working with legendary producers Flood and Alan Moulder (Smashing Pumpkins, My Bloody Valentine, Nine Inch Nails) for Belong.
Added up at the very last minute; Kuala Lumpur was the band’s final Southeast Asia stop that saw them perform without an opening act in front of an enthusiastic Malaysian crowd. Happening at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPAC), the show have officially completed the band’s Southeast Asian musical quest besides other stops which includes Singapore (which saw them playing at the region’s much celebrated Laneway Music Festival in early February), Indonesia and the Philippines.
Joined by Naidus who shared about their exciting visit to the Batu Caves (one of the most popular Hindu shrines in Malaysia) earlier that morning, I sat down with these creative forces behind The Pains of Being Pure at Heart as the band talked about their cultural encounter in the East, touring life and a dream collaboration with Missy Elliott.
NAZIRAH: What did you have in mind about South East Asia before you got here? Do you have any sort of expectation of the region and its people?
ALEX: I didn’t have much, to be honest. I figured it would be hot and humid, and there’re gonna be palm trees and a lot of motorbikes, I thought. And there were… so I got that correct. Yeah, pass that I thought I’d just let myself be surprise.
KIP: I just went to the Internet and I learned about a couple of bands from this region. I can’t really judge whether it’s accurate or not but there seemed like a really good music community for the type of music that we play in Indonesia and Philippines. People write to us all the time from Indonesia and Philippines; “When are you gonna come play a show?” We’ve been wanting to do it for a really long time and I was really excited to come here cause people asked me to come but you don’t know if you would be able to. And when we really get a chance to do this tour, we got really excited to meet up with these people who’re really familiar with our music, hanging out and having a good time.
Actually, what I was really surprised about was I didn’t realize they spoke English in the Philippines.
NAZIRAH: Of course they do.
KIP: I know, you’re like “Of course…,” but we’re like… we have no idea.
NAZIRAH: I’d say, if you compare people in the Philippines with the rest of the Southeast Asian countries, they probably have the best English.
ALEX: It seems that way.
KIP: They speak like American English. We did this radio show and it sounded like you turned on the radio and it was… [In enthusiastic DJ voice] “Hey, we’re on jam 83.3 and we’re with The Pains of Being Pure at Heart.” It was kind of nice and easy for us to communicate a little bit better and that was just really cool.
NAZIRAH: What about the crowds? How are we different from the crowd in the States?
ALEX: The crowds that we’ve experienced in Southeast Asia have been really enthusiastic. I don’t wanna just sit here and took a guess like an armchair psychologist or something but it could be… maybe there are less bands coming through or they’re more excited than we do. [Or] people are just less self-conscious about bands in general.
That happens in random places and I never know what’s gonna happen. Spain is like one of our better places to play − I would’ve never guessed that. [In] Seoul − the crowd was like amazing. China, Indonesia, everywhere we’ve been in the last week or so have been… the people have been really excited and make it more fun for us too.
NAZIRAH: Did you guys go to Japan?
ALEX: Yeah, we did go to Japan.
NAZIRAH: I learned from my previous interviews with other bands about the crowd in Japan that they’re quite unique and different in many ways.
ALEX: It’s funny cause a lot of times during the songs, people will be nodding along, they’ll be clapping or something and then when the song ended, they will clap along and everyone would just stopped in complete silence but it was just respectful, you know. It’s just not something you are used to in America.
KIP: I even sense the enthusiasm for music is not the same. They really know about the music there. They really know more about the bands that I like than even I do. It’s really a lot enthusiasm but just the way they expressed this may be different and it’s just a cultural thing.
I think hugs are not big in the region as well too. There are a couple people, I think in Korea or China − someone asked me when we were taking pictures, “Can I give you… a hug?” She was really earnest and scared and I gave that person a hug and everyone that stood around her was cheering. Even English people don’t hug us, but Americans, we’re like, “Hey man, what’s up?” We’re grabbing each other all the time. It’s definitely a different issue of personal space and how you interact with strangers, I guess. But it was really cool to see someone gets excited about having hugs.
NAZIRAH: You’ve been all across the globe, you’ve toured the world, been to most major cities in the world… you’re even here in Kuala Lumpur. What fascinates you most about having a career that allows you such privilege?
ALEX: I don’t know where to start. A lot of time it’s like the little things, you know, especially when you get into routines in a group. Sometimes you can almost hard to sort of forget where you at. [Cause] each day there’re new things, you’re on schedule… it’s a different place but there’re still sound check; waiting half day in the lobby and stuff like that. It’s a structured thing.
So you end up noticing if someone shows us a weird pack of potato chips or something and all started taking photos of it immediately. And a lot of time we’re trying to take a walk around the venue and taking photos and stuff. A lot of times we don’t have enough time to actually think of somewhere to go and go there like a tourist spot or something but… yeah, I mean… I think the thing that’s the most amazing is just the fact itself, I always come back to that… we’re in Kuala Lumpur right now… to play music.
NAZIRAH: A lot of bands and musicians tend to skip the city (Kuala Lumpur), avoid it for some reason…
ALEX: I don’t know why people avoid it. It’s just you have to be lucky enough to be offered to come here in the first place. If you’d ask us three years ago why we haven’t play Kuala Lumpur, no one cares yet [laughs]. I can’t speak for any other person or any other band but I know in our case, it’s something that we’ve always wanted to do and it’s a matter of the logistics and we’re really excited.
KIP: Bands can’t just point a place on the map and like, let’s just go play here and there. You really have the mercy of local promoters and it seems that what we’re experiencing in South East Asia especially is that all the local promoters know each other and they are fans of each other and they work together very well. They make it work to bring bands on our label to this region which otherwise would be impossible for just one promoter and one city. They’ve sort of work together very well and obviously Mak (of Malaysian organizer from Soundscape Records) is good enough to like, it was sort of like the last leg on our tour that came together where we got an email, “Hey do you guys wanna play a show in KL?” We were like, “Yeah, let’s do it!”
We’re just very grateful to the promoters. I mean they’re not making money of this stuff. They do it because they love doing it. That’s why we play music too and at the end of the day, we just wanna hopefully make music our full time life and at the most basic level, getting the chance to play music every day. To me that’s the best possible life we could have.
NAZIRAH: You’ve been places and travel the world but how well connected are you with what’s going on in the world these days?
ALEX: Minimally. I know a little bit about the debt crisis. But my thing is that I’m interested [in them] and I read in an okay-amount and not a lot but I’m interested to read them but I have a terrible memory. It’s like the thing about me that I get really annoyed really quickly with myself. Say it’s about Syria or something… you can ask me about it two days later what it was about or who’s the president of Syria and I’d be like, “Ah that guy’s really bad.” That would be my only retention of the whole thing. I am interested in it but if you quiz me on it, I will probably not do well.
KIP: Me and Peggy were up to speed with the Greece’s bail out and the European debt crises. It thought we’re like the funniest rock & roll band in the world where people were debating about the debt crisis in the band. Not that rock & roll though.
NAZIRAH: What are some of the things you dislike about touring? Do you guys have to deal with any hygiene or relationship issue or something?
ALEX: Yeah, we have girlfriends and stuff and it gets really hard cause we’ll be gone for long stretches. [It’s like] obvious little thing like your clothes get dirty really fast, and you have a small suitcase and you have to do laundry like five times or whatever. It’s not a problem really, just a small little thing. Sleep… that’s the thing, really… sometime you end up getting worn out or getting sick, cause it’s just one thing to the next but you just have to keep going.
NAZIRAH: Do you have any tour routine or ritual? Say, drinking herbal tea every day in the morning without failing?
ALEX: I wouldn’t say I have to do it like every morning or every day, like this time I will do this thing, but there are certain things that end up becoming part of your general routine like I listen to a lot of podcasts and stuff from different bands. Every time we get on the Internet I’ll try to update all of my podcasts. Really nerdy stuff…
NAZIRAH: What’s your most favorite podcast?
ALEX: My favorite one is Guardian Football Weekly podcast which is like a soccer podcast.
NAZIRAH: What about you Kip? Any must-do on-tour routine for you?
KIP: This might sound really silly and not every place in the world has it and they definitely don’t have this in America. [But] in certain parts of Europe −and occasionally in Southeast Asia but not always− as part of staying in a hotel there’s also breakfast. You will never see me more sad in my life than if I missed breakfast. It’s the thing that will just ruin my whole… it’s like the thought that there have been free breakfast that I could have eaten and I didn’t get to eat it. That would have been the most heartbreaking thoughts to me. So I always tried to wake up early to have breakfast. It’s the most important meal of the day.
ALEX (to KIP): I thought you’re gonna say vending machine coffee.
KIP: Oh yeah! This is not really a ritual but one of the most wonderful things is that, sometimes when you travel, language barriers make you feel really uncomfortable. Not to say uncomfortable but you feel bad cause you don’t know how to speak French or Japanese. Luckily these cultures have invented vending machines for people too bashful to approach and try to order in whatever language they can’t speak. So in Japan they have all these vending machines, you can get any type of coffee and milk tea. I don’t think I have addiction issues but there’s something about… I can’t really walk past one if I have change in my pocket without getting a coffee or a milk tea…
ALEX: But the problem is in Japan, it’s down in every block.
KIP: Let’s just say, when we’re trying to walk down the street, it’s gonna be very slow.
NAZIRAH: What’s your three must have items that you can’t live without while on tour?
ALEX: I can’t figure out whether to be like really truthful and boring or close to truthful and interesting, what would you rather have? [Laughs] You know what I mean cause the answer will be like phones and all that.
NAZIRAH: OK, any items minus gadgets and the usual stuff.
ALEX: Crossword books, extra razor blades and universal power adapter. That’s really important.
KIP: Actually, I learned on this tour I forgot my deodorant. But I guess I don’t really need it [smelling his armpit and laughs]. So I guess deodorant will definitely be a must have item. Razor blades and I’m sorry I’m not shaving, there’s no hot water in the hotel. What else do I need on tour? I could say I need books but in reality I just read them on my phone to save space. I need high ratio of underwear and socks to the rest of the clothes. I only need one or two pairs of pants. As long as you have enough underwear and socks, it’s kind of okay. Pants, you can almost go six weeks with only two pairs of pants.
ALEX: Definitely easy. We don’t bring a lot of stuff.
NAZIRAH: By now you guys must be experts in packing?
ALEX: We might be good at it but then we just don’t bring that much.
NAZIRAH: Do you think Peggy – being a woman, might have trouble packing?
KIP: No, she actually has a small suitcase. It’s smaller than even mine.
ALEX: When we were in Japan we bought a lot of clothes and stuff and we shipped them back to New York.
KIP: That’s the hard thing you can’t really buy things on tour ever cause you have to carry them.
ALEX: It’s easier in the States cause you have a van and you can get clothes and stuff and most of the time you just dump them at the back of the van. You don’t have to think about it for two weeks until you get home.
KIP: Touring is like so different in the US; it’s just like a totally different world. There’s gonna be 20 flights we took on this tour. Normally we just rent a big van, throw all our instruments and amps in the back and you just drive. It’s just an interesting process and they’re totally different.
NAZIRAH: What is the one album that you’ve been listening to for the past month or so?
ALEX: I’ve been listening to the new Chairlift album in the past two weeks. It’s called Something.
KIP: The last album I was listening to was Tori Amos’ Little Earthquakes − pretty much an all-time favorite of mine. I come back to it a lot. It’s so good. I also listened to a band in the 80s called The House of Love. They have a self-titled record that I like a lot.
NAZIRAH: If you could collaborate with any non-rock artist, who would it be?
ALEX: That’s a good question. I feel like it would be cool to collaborate with The Field.
NAZIRAH: Say it’s not electronic… let’s go for something totally different than what you guys do like country or hip-hop?
ALEX: Electronic is not rock and it doesn’t count either? [Laughs] Okay, I take something really outlandish if you want. There’s this guy, Danny Brown, he’s a rapper from Detroit. He’s like really cool and eccentric and weird. He’s just really wild and inspirational, he’s good, and I’ve been listening to him a lot.
I don’t know how that would work. I get the sense that all that he does is smoke weed and play Playstation and somewhere in between there’s a rap song. That would totally be fun, we just hang out and the next thing we know we might have a song… but that might not gonna happen.
KIP: How about Missy Elliot? I like her. She’s good and she does productions stuff too. I could see her say, “Okay guys, let’s see what you got” and then we’ll play a song and she’ll go, “Hurm, I don’t know. Give me a day and come back.”
NAZIRAH: Describe your band mates in one word.
ALEX: Kip – brainy. Kurt – solemn. Peggy – fun.
KIP: Peggy – spontaneous. Kurt – artistic. Alex – great shirts. This whole tour, Alex has always got great shirts. When we got to Japan, he was like, “I’m gonna be great shirts guy this year.” Then I saw this shirt with red and blue buttons and I was like, “Ahh, check out that shirt!” But when you see that shirt on your band mate, it’s off limits. Even if I wanted that shirt, I would deny myself.