Why America needs hip hop more than skinny white boy rock – Kip Berman of indie rockers The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Indie rocker Berman is dismayed Donald Trump is president, but says rap and R&B stars are better qualified than rock bands to protest. He also praises his band’s devoted fans – especially those in Hong Kong – ahead of gig this month
But that is just fine with American indie rock darling Kip Berman. He is happy – actually, he is adamant – that the sort of music he makes with his band, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, should take a back seat for a while. The world needs rap more than it does skinny white boys with guitars.
“Hip hop is really important in America now because we have very pressing social issues that most indie rock doesn’t really address,” Berman says in an interview with the Post before his band returns to play Hong Kong for the third time next week. “It’s not even just having an overtly racist president, but broader problems in everything from criminal justice, police brutality, and discrepancies in educational opportunities and safety.
“It is a hard time in our country, and the language of dissent and critique naturally will come from communities that are the most oppressed by the racism and violence that is happening here. So, hip hop and R&B – art forms commonly associated with black artists – are pushing these issues into the mainstream in important ways.”
Fans fear not. This is not Berman’s excuse for bailing out of music. In fact, four months after releasing Pains’ fourth album, Echo of Pleasure, with the single When I Dance With You, he is on the road on one of his biggest tours ever and he is already talking about recording his next album.
Still, there’s no hiding his dismay at the world. He is uncharacteristically charged in his denunciation of what he describes as “evil in our country”.
By Berman’s logic, if any single person can be blamed for indie’s retreat into the shadows, it’s Donald Trump. “Indie music has a harder time [expressing anger], just because many of the artists are from backgrounds of relative privilege and the genre has not been very politically engaged until recently,” he says.
“It feels strange to an outsider that music here is often understood in this way – that the personal identities of the performers are just as important as the music itself.
“The real enemy to all people that want to believe in the egalitarian promise of America is that the opportunity to succeed here and live life to the fullest is not the same for everyone,” he says.
“And if this is the way to get to a fairer world for all artists – for all people – regardless of their background to have equal voice and opportunity, than that is the greater good we should be striving towards.”
Berman’s political side may be new to fans who have largely grown up with him as he graduated from a lovelorn twenty-something when he founded Pains in New York to a young man bewildered by the world as life unpeeled sometimes unhappily before him. Now they’re getting the politically active grown up.
With his eponymously titled debut album Berman was preaching to the converted when he sang of the excitement of those first naive flourishes of romance in songs such as This Love is F*cking Right. The album was infectiously lovable, its many flaws forgiven as the wide-eyed anticipation of life in a young man spilled out in joyful lyrics and jangly chords.
When the lyrics turned to darker ruminations on Heart in Your Heartbreak and My Terrible Friend in the 2011 follow-up album Belong, those same fans welcomed the songs, because in the intervening years they had also been through the same break-ups, disappointments and moments of despair.
Now in his mid-30s, Berman and his fellow millennials are at an age when the responsibilities of adulthood are dawning. For him and his generation, that is materialising in loud opposition to Trump and his right-wing ideology that is dividing the US.
“I think ageing offers a vitality to writing – provided you are honest,” he says. “My life is constantly changing, and though it may annoy some fans that want me to ‘stay the same’, it is better to acknowledge the changes and deal truthfully with the way that our perspective shifts.
“It is pathetic to impersonate youth – and young people can see through all that, because they are smart. If a young person likes my music, that is wonderful – but I’m not going to pretend to be a teenager to make that happen.”
That doesn’t mean he won’t be playing the hits when he performs at Kitec in Kowloon Bay next week. He may be grown up now, but he still enjoys playing the old songs of youthful exuberance.
“I actually love our old songs,” he stresses. “I feel not at all embarrassed by the perspective because that was how I felt at that time – and playing them, for a moment I step back into the moment of their creation. There’s something eternal and good about that music that can’t be corrupted, despite the imperfections. I would never change any of it.”
Berman is modest to the point of self-deprecation. “I think it is in some ways healthy not to feel too good about yourself, in order to go beyond your comforts artistically,” he says. “I’m not against people feeling good about themselves, it’s just that I find I make better songs when I feel I have something to prove.”
He is less modest in his praise of the organisers of Hong Kong’s Clockenflap festival, which Pains played during their first visit to the city in 2011 and later in 2015. “It’s such a wonderful music festival, and to be asked to be a part of it – twice now – is such an honour,” he says. “I have nothing but respect for the organisers, because they have gone from a very humble beginning to such a massive success.”
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, January 24, 7.30pm, Music Zone, Kitec, 1 Trademart Drive, Kowloon Bay, HK$490, Ticketflap