The Drums’ Jonny Pierce: ‘Being gay literally saved my life’

When indie-rock band the Drums, led by openly gay singer-songwriter Jonny Pierce, performed this month at the Los Angeles Pride Festival, it marked another major personal and professional milestone for Pierce, who raised in a small town by strict, unsupportive, Pentecostal preacher parents. The day before the Drums took L.A. Pride’s main stage, he posted the following emotional message on his Instagram:

“The truth is I’ve had a complicated relationship with my sexuality. Being raised by born-again parents f***ed me for a long time. I spent some years rejecting it, some years hiding it, some years admitting it to myself — but not owning it. The truth is that for a lot of my life I’ve celebrated homosexuality, but remained homophobic towards myself. This fear of who I was made me do all sorts of crazy s*** at one point I even called for an end to Pride parades. I was living in fear. I’m not anymore. I couldn’t feel more lucky to be gay — and I couldn’t be more excited to play L.A.’s Pride! It’s been a long road towards my personal freedom. I think I’ve arrived.”

After his Pride performance, Yahoo Entertainment sat down with Pierce, age 37, to discuss his long and sometimes painful journey from being a closeted kid to out-and-proud queer icon, and why he now believes that being gay ultimately saved his life.

Yahoo Entertainment: For years, you didn’t want to participate in any Pride events. What changed?

Jonny Pierce: I think Pride is ultimately a really good thing, but at the same time I don't always feel that my version of homosexuality is reflected in a Gay Pride event itself. I think a lot of times when people think of Gay Pride, they think of the most flamboyant, extreme version of Pride or being gay and you know, I just never felt like accepted in that community. … I sing songs about falling in love with guys who like work at tire factories who have shaved heads, guys that work on cars and stuff. And I don't see a lot of that in the Pride thing. So, two things changed for me. One is I've just decided to let go of caring so much about that. I want to celebrate everyone who's gay. I want to celebrate everyone who's alive, really. And so how I viewed Pride became so much less important to me than what Pride represents the world. I also realize that by me playing Pride, it's a way for people like me who maybe aren't all rainbows and glitter and angel wings [to be represented]. I was really glad to be able to play and bring a separate voice into that space.

Onstage at Pride, you told the audience, “I used to pray not to be gay. Now I pray to be more gay. Gay is good.” What made you say that? What was going through your head?

I just think I was in a really beautiful space. I was standing on a stage looking at all these people and celebrating something really beautiful, and I was free. We were all free in that moment. And I don't think I'd be standing there, you know, if it wasn't for being gay. I don't think I would've left my small town. I'd probably have 16 kids and have gone through four marriages. So being gay literally saved my life. It enriched me and gave me a creative mind. You know, when you're gay kid growing up in a hostile environment, you have to get creative about everything. You look at life from so many different angles. If you're gay and you have supportive parents from the get-go that’s great, but that’s not always the case. And when you're in survival mode… I don't know, I think it expanded my mind. It made me more aware of everything. I'm pretty hyper-aware person; I pay attention to details. I think it also gave me a great source of empathy. I'm constantly thinking about how the other person is feeling, and it's hard for me to be happy if I see someone who's unhappy. Sometimes that strength becomes a weakness, because I become so focused on helping another person that I forget myself. But I think I learned all of these ways of being from being gay. I think it all stems from having to look at life through a different lens.

Your Instagram post implied that there was self-loathing involved regarding your previous reservations about Pride. That is, you weren’t always so happy to be gay. Can you elaborate on that?

I still think I carry a fear sometimes. I was born in a small town in New York state, five hours north of New York City, to mother and father who happen to be born-again Christians and have a Pentecostal church — staunchly anti-gay. They support Trump with every fiber in their being. That was a really difficult place for someone like me to grow up in. I can say now that I'm not homophobic toward myself, but I think because of indoctrination for so many years — I went through some therapy trying to “correct” what they thought was “wrong” with me and all of that stuff — even though in the front of your mind sometimes just saying, “I know that's silly, that's bulls***,” sometimes there's still things lingering in your sub-sub-conscious you're not even aware of. I was still carrying a lot of fear that I didn't even understand.

So things like, for instance, this is my normal voice. But five years ago, if I would've done an interview, I'd probably be talking like this [speaks in a much deeper voice] without knowing it [in order to seem more masculine]. It took me going to a doctor to realize. I'd lost my voice on tour once we were in like Portland, Oregon. And I said, “I don't understand this. I'm not screaming through my sets. Why can't I get through like 10 songs without getting hoarse?” They brought me to a voice therapist and they took photos of the inside of my throat, and while they had the camera down there they had me sing a paragraph and then read it in a speaking voice — the same paragraph. And they said, “You are singing properly. It's when you're talking all day, you're talking in a lower voice than what's natural for you.”

Jonny Pierce of The Drums (Photo: Nicholas Moore)
Jonny Pierce of The Drums (Photo: Nicholas Moore)

Wow. The Drums have been playing for a decade, but I’d only say it’s been in the last three or four years that you’ve become so vocal in interview and onstage. Sometimes you will give these speeches that make it seem like you’re really a mission to evangelize.

Yeah, I'm my father's son. I just have the right message. [laughs]

Do you have any stories from fans who have told you that your words have helped them?

I get DMs every day from fans who are there actually make themselves pretty vulnerable to me. And sometimes I get asked questions, but a lot of times people will say things like, “The Drums is what kept me from suicide” or “You helped me come out with my parents.” … So the reason I'm becoming more vocal is because that makes me feel like what I do matters. I don't want to just put out songs anymore. My goal has never been to be in the top 10. My goal is to be effective, even if it's to a smaller audience. I really want to make music that touches people and helps people. … I remember being 16 clumsy and shy and running into the Smiths and thinking, “Whoa, this is the first time in my life that I feel a connection with someone else. There's someone else out there that like really kind of on a pinpoint level like feels how I feel.” And there was a real joy in that, because I was a pretty sad kid. This is something that I try to offer, a little bit of hope, even if I'm singing about sadness or depression. That's the world I want to live in, where we're all being vulnerable or we're all connecting with each other. And so I'll be damned if I'm going to write another song about surfing [like the Drums’ lighthearted 2009 hit “Let’s Go Surfing”].

What is your relationship with your parents like right now? Are you estranged?

Not estranged, but close to that. Believe it or not, Trump had a lot to do with that decision for me. I just felt I couldn't make an exception, not for even my parents. If people are going to support someone who I believe is so terrible and someone who is doing all he can to hurt people and the planet, I don't know how to reconcile that for myself. I had to ask myself… who am I trying to be close to? People who are anti-woman, people who are anti-gay? Are these people that if they weren't my parents, would I want them around? And the answer was no, not at all.

I'm just not willing to compromise. I want to be surrounded by wonderful people with loving hearts who live with compassion every day. And so if my parents don't fall into that category, then that's that. I mean, there's always going be someone who's like, “Oh, but it's your mom! You only get one mom.” But it's always someone who has like a perfect family. It's always someone who's just really lucked out. I think family is life's greatest lottery. You know, some of us scratch the ticket and we win, but I think if we're all honest with ourselves, most of us kind of get a sucky deal. You don't choose to be born, and you certainly don't choose what family to be born into. And so sometimes it's wonderful, and if it's not that’s really unfortunate and it's not fair, but you've got to face that and make some real decisions.

Didn't your parents rally against a gay bookstore or something crazy like that?

Yeah. I was like going home to visit my parents every once in a while, and once when I arrived my mom said, “Jonny, I have great news!” And she pulled out this envelope and she began reading it to me. It was a letter from the owner of a community bookstore that has just opened in the town. My mother went in there, saw that there was some like gay books there, and she told them if they didn't remove those books that she'd call for a town-wide boycott of the store. And so the store listened to her, removed the books, and sent this letter. She read it to me: “Dear Mrs. Pierce, per your request, we've removed that literature.” It felt like a screwed-up mind game, because how am I supposed to react to that, you know? Like, she knows my deal. This is partly why I stop my shows to [give speeches]. I feel like I'm trying to balance out all the damage that people like my parents have done.

Your songs can be very sad, but sometimes that’s not entirely clear upon first listen, because they are so poppy and melodically upbeat.

Yeah, I have always sugar-rolled my subject matter in a danceable beat. Part of how I survived when I was a kid is to try to keep everyone happy around me: “Don't mess anything up. Be as good of a kid as you can, because you already have this gay thing going on and you don't want to make them even more mad. So just please, please, please everyone. Make everyone happy.” And I think sometimes with my songs, there's a sadness at the core and I sort of sugar-roll it to make it more digestible, to make it a sweeter pill to swallow. That’s never been something I've set out to do, but it's something that's just kind of happened.

A lot of the Drums’ latest album, Brutalism, deals with matters of mental health more frankly than you ever have before.

During the making of this record and the last record [Abysmal Thoughts], I was finally starting to take myself seriously, and trying to combat some of the inner demons that have been kind of festering for a long time inside of me — a lot of the self-sabotage behavior and things like that. I wanted to talk about that. A song like “Body Chemistry” is a song of real truth for myself. … I'm doing all of this to try to make things better for myself, and still I wake up sometimes with dread, or I'll go through a whole day feeling depressed or sad, or I'll be in a room full of people that I love and I know love me but I can't connect to anyone. And so the song kind of asks the question, is this something that's just in my DNA? Is this like part of my body makeup, or is it something that can ultimately be cured? It’s just kind of dealing with that sort of frustration. It's not the sexiest subject matter, but by talking about it, maybe I'll end up in a sexy place later in my life.

The above Q&A is edited from Pierce’s appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Full audio of his frank conversation is available on demand via the SiriusXM app, on Volume channel 106.

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