Interview: The Natvral

by Craig Howieson

Natural evolution: Kip Berman on the shifting perspectives and comforting solidity of home that informed his new record, Tethers

Following the widely lauded release of their self-titled debut in 2009, Kip Berman’s former band – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – quickly gained a level of exposure and critical acclaim that even talking to him today he views more as luck than anything else. ‘99.9% of bands like ours, you play a couple of shows in your basement for your friends and that’s usually it.’ Berman, in fact, is almost apologetic for the group’s success – believing that ‘being in the right place at the right time has so much to do with it, and not the quality of the artistry.’ This is something he attributes to the band’s good fortune of happening to be based in New York City. ‘It’s hard to catch a break if you are an indie-pop band from Germany or somethin,’’ he explains. ‘What happened to The Pains of Being Pure at Heart… it’s a lot easier when you do that in a place like New York.’

The band’s nostalgic distillation of indie-pop and shoegaze, largely indebted to the Glasgow and Manchester scene of the late 80s and early 90s, paired with Berman’s astute lyrics on the vulnerability of youth struck a chord with fans. Far from being confined to friends’ basements, the group – a rotating collective with Berman as the constant backbone – went on to record three further records and tour heavily across the globe. And still, Berman remained dogged by a sense of imposter syndrome – worried that the band’s success was a form of disrespect to the groups who influenced them and who they held in such high esteem. ‘You think about a band like The Pastels; they weren’t going on tours around the world and playing huge festivals and stuff like that,’ says Berman. ‘The Pains of Being Pure at Heart had this opportunity to do things that these bands never got to do. I was always very afraid that Steven Pastel would meet me one day and say “fuck you for getting to go on the David Letterman show and we didn’t,” but he never said that. It turns out that was just all in my head – all that feeling of guilt and neurosis about having good luck in life.’

But as we sit down to chat about his first full-length release under a different name – The Natvral – it is clear that leaving The Pains of Being Pure at Heart behind him is not as a result of feeling their success was ill-gotten, but instead that the themes of their songs and what the band stood for no longer aligned with his reality. ‘I feel pretty different in a lot of aspects of my life,’ he notes. ‘I don’t know if it’s rooted from where I live, or that I’m a dad now, or because I’m older, but I feel the things that animated The Pains of Being Pure at Heart songs just aren’t there in me anymore. I guess I could have kept on going in my old band and approximated something of that, but that wasn’t the point of that band. It was actually to express how you were feeling.’ 

Indeed, it would have been easier for Berman to continue to dine out on the success of his previous project and bend and shape it to his new needs. But it speaks to his artistic integrity and passion that he would choose to start something new rather than play out a role that was no longer written for him. ‘I see other artists that are fixated on celebrating a certain youth culture perpetually,’ says Berman, adding further credence to his choice. ‘That to me just doesn’t work. It’s a very limited view of the world – that’s not to say it’s a bad view of the world – but at a certain point, leave youth culture to the youth. I wanted to step away from that and try to make sense of what my life really is, and not just a perpetual yearning for being seventeen again.’

Berman left Brooklyn five years ago and moved to Princeton, New Jersey with his wife where they now have two young children. With his wife working full-time, Berman is very much a hands-on dad, and has had to give up, or at least pause his former life as a touring musician. To say that his life is now radically different would be an understatement. Describing how the past five years have been ‘a huge shift in what my life is and how I see myself,’ Berman goes on to elaborate that ‘it’s more than just inhabiting a new social role. It’s not like now that I’m a dad I’m a different person –  it’s the whole way I think about myself. And the way I go about my day and spend my time is just so radically different.’ 

But music is not something he has become adrift from, nor is his desire to create. It’s just that with two kids under five, time with which to pursue it has not been something he has been blessed with. ‘I want to get back to a balance,’ he laughs. ‘I started this record before my son was born. And you might then think I’ve been working on this record for three years, but it’s nothing like that. I literally spent seven days over the last three years making this record.’ 

Berman, though has no regrets in how he has spent his time, considers himself fortunate that he has been afforded the opportunity to focus on life at home. Then he explains, ‘I hope in time, as my children get a little bit older and a little more independent, that I can start to do some of the things with music again. I’d like to be able to resume some form of a life where music is a thing that is something that I do more than seven days every three years.’

Despite this, and his eagerness to return to what once would have been a normal routine of releasing and touring a record, he remains anxious at the thought of leaving a young family behind. ‘I know this is what I want – to return to making music and playing shows – and I know it makes me almost a better dad by having something I’m proud of and something I feel good about. But In my mind, I’m like, it’s gonna be so hard not to be there when my daughter comes home from school. I drop her off and I pick her up – we have a really close relationship, and the same with her little brother.’

Sometimes, a solid home base makes it simpler for us to open ourselves up to the wider world. A settled, happy family instils us with the confidence to go out and pursue dreams, and experience life in its many forms. Berman is attuned to the fact that there is as much to learn about the intricate intimacies of humanity in a domestic setting as there are out on the road, and it is the experience of both that he now draws from in his music. ‘In order to feel the fullness of life, I need both the comfort of having this home, but then also the ability to be apart from it,’ he concludes. ‘I both need to be home and away to have the fullness of life. I want to experience as much of this world as I can – at least the good parts of it!’

His new record, and first full length as The Natvral, is sonically far removed from anything Berman has released to date. Rooted in 60s and 70 folk-rock, and buzzing with an unvarnished classicism, it is a clean slate thematically, but also in the freedom it has given Berman – providing a stark contrast to the way things have always been. ‘We basically recorded it live. And I could say we had a great intellectual reason to do it that way and we were trying to capture the reality.. .but we didn’t really have that much time. It’s literally just plugging in and playing the song.’

‘It was so liberating and freeing because with The Pains of Being Pure at Heart it was always a sense of trying to do something better than we could actually do – of striving for a goal we couldn’t achieve. It became about so much more than “was that a good song or not?” Which I think is kind of noble in its own sense, but with this, it was nice to just write a song, play it with your friends and push record.’

For years, Berman’s often whispered vocals battled walls of distorted guitars, and despite the charm in the melodies that could be mined out from the mire, on Tethers he steps from behind the blustering noise of his previous project to make a more instantaneous connection with his listeners.’After years of trying to deny the way I am, I could just be myself and sing the way I wanted to sing, and sing about the kind of things I wanted to,’ he reflects. ‘My favourite part of music is just writing a song and playing it for people on my guitar.’

This approach to writing and the lack of adornments the songs have, or require, means that Berman can be more adaptive when he can finally get back to touring and playing these songs live. ‘I don’t think these songs are better or worse for how they are presented. I think they make sense as songs I just play for people on my guitar, and they make sense if you want to hear the full on rock band version of them too. There’s something freeing about that; I can say yes to anything. If someone says, “hey do you wanna play a show in my basement on Tuesday?” so long as someone can watch my kids, I can say yes.’ 

As Berman continues to adapt to the new shoes he finds himself wearing, coupled with the fact that Tethers is technically his first solo release, you could be forgiven for expecting a highly personal record of songs – directly addressing the minutiae of his innermost thoughts and feelings. In reality, the album is something entirely different. ‘You expect it’s gonna be contemplative and inward-looking and peaceful and meditative, but I don’t think that way,’ explains Berman. ‘I think this record is kind of outward-looking.’ Berman’s songs are filled with a host of characters and names similar to a collection of short stories – a peek behind the curtain to see how others make it through on a daily basis. Or as Berman describes it, ‘checking in with old friends and old characters I’ve known, and seeing where they are in life.’ Berman, however, is quick to point out that ‘they’re not tragic stories.’ He is not gloating over a cast of characters who have found themselves in less fortunate circumstances, nor is he claiming that the life he has chosen for himself is necessarily the right one. Instead, he finds that ‘there is something about coming to understand how I feel about myself by looking at how I feel about other people.’ 

As time has passed and more distance has been generated between him and his ties to his former group, Berman’s outlook has also shifted. He is no longer as worried about how his new project will be received or whether he is deserving of the position he finds himself in. When talking about The Pains of Being Pure at Heart success, Berman jokes that ‘maybe I was too unfun when I was younger!’

‘It wasn’t lost on me that they were very rare opportunities and I probably was a little too uptight about making everyone else realise that as well. I wasn’t truly appreciating the fun we were having because I could never really enjoy it. I was too afraid of messing it up.’ He now seems more at ease. More willing to allow himself to enjoy any of the positives that come from making music – the thing that he loves to do most. 

Becoming a parent has also instilled within him a liberating freedom and a confidence to be himself and create a set of meaningful songs that he can share in any form.‘I thought being a parent would make you more narrow in your thinking about how you should conduct your life, but it actually made me more open to the vast possibilities of what life can be.’ 

It is something that has made him more open to the wider world in general: a world full of intricate beauty and complexity that he unpicks through the eyes of others in his music as The Natvral. ‘I feel more open-minded and eager for my daughter to have the freedom to make her own choices and decisions. It has actually made me more accepting, and I guess that’s in the songs too. These are different lives, different paths and different choices, but I’m not here saying one is better than the other. I’m just trying to make some sense of my own life in relation to some other lives.’

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