I've called Peggy Wang to talk about her New York-based pop band, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, and its second record Belong, out this week on Slumberland Records. She wants to talk about boiled crawfish and the Neutral Ground Coffeehouse. Fair trade.
"Is it still open?" she asks of the all-ages Danneel Street hangout, beginning a funny story about mistakenly covering the Vaselines during an open-mic night there as a 13-year-old ("We thought it was a Nirvana song"). A native of Metairie, Wang attended sixth through 12th grades at neighboring Isidore Newman School, and the Neutral Ground was her musical sandbox. (The band: Tabitha 101.)
Singing and playing keys in Pains — whose nostalgic self-titled debut was one of 2009's most celebrated LPs, awakening memories of indie-pop mixtapes from 1980s England — Wang now performs all over the world. But she's never far removed from home. This, too, leads to a funny story: "We recently played a show in Hamburg, Germany. We went to a bar across the street afterward and Quintron was there! I really, really wanted to say something, but I didn't want to be a dumb fangirl. My bandmates kept egging me on: 'You have to!'" She pauses. "I ended up not saying anything."
That relatable bashfulness extends to the Pains' aesthetic, all teenage angst and trebly melancholy. The band's storybook beginning was a birthday party for Wang in February 2007, opening (with pals Titus Andronicus) for Manhattan Love Suicides, a U.K. outfit Wang and frontman Kip Berman worshiped. Inside a friend's Brooklyn loft, Pains played "This Love is F—king Right!" and "Hey Paul," anchors of the band's first album. "Those were two of the earliest Pains songs," Wang says. "It's your first show, you're not really expecting anything. Five of your friends show up and no one really cares. But this was really life-affirming. It started everything off on a really good note."
The band's self-made debut was a first-take fluke, she says. For follow-up Belong, the band enlisted mega-producers Flood (U2, Depeche Mode) and Alan Moulder (My Bloody Valentine, The Jesus and Mary Chain) to expand its palette: Berman's vocals trimming their reverb bangs, overdriven guitars ripping through the fog, a battalion of layered synth sounds at Wang's disposal. "There was none of that on the first album — I just played the notes once and it got recorded," she says. "We were able to access a lot of equipment that we don't even know how to use."
The challenge of maintaining the band's scrappy, notebook-scrawled personality meant sparring with one of the world's top recording engineers. "There was a little bit of a push-and-pull," Wang says. "'Heaven's Gonna Happen Now' was one of the songs where [Flood] wanted to go in a different direction with it. But we were like, 'No, it kind of needs to be just a straight-up guitar rock song.' He was cool with it.
"I love Kip's demos," she adds. "I love the way the notes sound. It's crazy, going from hearing those to the finished product. It's cool how coherent it sounded. The songs are different; they're not same-y. Each song has its own signifier, but the way that it's recorded and produced, it ties it all together."