Kip Berman ’02
Kip Berman ’02

Pure at Heart

Indie rocker Kip Berman ’02 releases fourth album with the Pains of Being Pure at Heart.

By Isabel Lyndon ’17 | November 14, 2017

Something was wrong with the drums. The indie rock band the Pains of Being Pure at Heart was 10 minutes into its set at the Doug Fir, a venue in Southeast Portland, this September. “Does anybody have an extra bass drum?” Kip Berman ’02, the band’s guitarist and lead singer, asked the crowd. After some confused muttering, a drummer from one of the opening bands made her way backstage to hand over her drum kit. The crowd cheered.

In September, the Pains released their fourth album, The Echo of Pleasure, the band’s most danceable, pop-oriented release yet. To promote the album, the band ventured on a tour starting in the United Kingdom, meandering through the United States, and ending up, eventually, in Spain. 

Kip appeared on stage, backed by Jess Rojas on keyboards, Christoph Hochheim on guitar, bassist Jacob Danish Sloan, and drummer Chris Schackerman. The band tore into “Anymore,” a searing, guitar-driven track off the new album. Kip wore jeans and a matching denim jacket, a sort of rock ’n’ roll uniform. Though he’s in his 30s, he looked younger, with his moptop and earnest expression. I elbowed my way through the crowd until I stood next to the stage, where a pink-haired fan danced alone, feverishly, next to me.

The Pains’ self-titled 2009 debut evoked shoegaze bands like My Bloody Valentine and the Jesus and Mary Chain, with plenty of twee influence and some shimmering Johnny Marr–ish riffs thrown in for good measure. The music magazine Pitchfork gave Pains an 8.4 rating and deemed it a “Best New Album,” while NME’s Nathaniel Cramp called the album “pure indie-pop to hold close to your heart.” 

I bought the album in 2009, when I was a high school freshman. Usually, I downloaded songs one MP3 at a time, but I liked Pains enough to get the vinyl LP, which I listened to while sitting on my windowsill, thinking about crushes and other teenage concerns. The album was nostalgic, both sonically and lyrically, filled with tracks about youth, longing, and love. There’s even a rumor that one song is about the Reed library. The band released two well-received follow-up LPs, Belong and Days of Abandon.

The Echo of Pleasure is different from the Pains’ other work. Mike Katzif of NPR described it as the band’s most mature effort yet. Crisp tracks like “When I Dance with You” encourage listeners to groove along.  

“You get so down

I try to comfort

Sometimes words, they don’t do anything much at all,”

Kip sings, adding a layer of complexity to an otherwise straightforward pop tune. He wrote these songs after marrying his wife, and recorded them while she was pregnant with their daughter. The Echo of Pleasure’s lyrics address relationships that continue and grow past the point of infatuation. 

Kip grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, where he attended a conservative, all-boys Catholic high school. At Reed, he was a DJ at KRRC, served as vice president of the student body, and booked performers to play on campus. And he played in bands—lots of them. The first, the Sporting Life, consisted of Kip, Kyle Johnson ’02, Constance Chang ’01, and Nicole Wiswell ’02

Portland wasn’t—and still isn’t—an especially hospitable city for underage music lovers, in part because of strict Oregon liquor license laws. DIY bands and house shows provide an alternative music scene for the under-21 crowd, and the early 2000s were an especially fruitful time for basement recordings and indie bands, some of whom would go on to be fairly popular. DIY bands like Dear Nora, All Girl Summer Fun Band, and twee legends the Softies played and recorded at the Magic Marker House, a Southeast Portland venue and independent label. The Sporting Life played a few shows in Reed’s Ping-Pong room, “and then had a show off campus at the Magic Marker House, which was basically our only dream—so, soon after, we broke up,” he says. As the signator of the on-campus booking organization Rock Kidz Rawk, he brought plenty of bands to campus, too, including Kissing Book, the Makers, the Prids, and the Gossip.

After the Sporting Life split, Kip played in a garage/glam-rock band called the Starve. “We always demanded our own encores,” he says. “I know it sounds silly, but that band was super fun.” After the Starve came the band Jackie, which “sounded like the Strokes if the Strokes weren’t very good.” 

He majored in religion, but, like most Reed students, he took classes across the disciplines. One was a “fantastic” Henry James course from Prof. Elizabeth Duquette [English 1998-2002]. Another was a literary theory class taught by Prof. Nigel Nicholson [classics 1995–].

“I don’t know if I deserved a good grade,” Kip says, “but I did play a capable third base for the classics department softball team at Renn Fayre and I can’t help but feel that the friendly nature of my final oral exam was somewhat informed by Nigel’s mild awe at my unlikely prowess on the diamond.” He also admired the “inimitable cool,” “sheer brilliance,” and “impeccable style” of Prof. Lena Lencek [Russian 1977–].

For his senior year, he looked for a thesis topic that would combine music, his passion, with religion, his discipline, and decided to write about the criticism contemporary Christian musicians face when attempting the crossover to secular audiences. He remembers his advisor, Prof. Steve Wasserstrom [religion 1987–], “almost like a family member—a deeply warm and thoughtful person.” 

Prof. Wasserstrom remembers Kip, too. Once, Kip arrived to a thesis meeting with bandages around his head. It turned out that he had been watching some friends play a show in Reed’s Ping-Pong room and decided to stage dive. “‘I jumped up on the speakers,’” he told his advisor, “‘and my head went through the roof.’” It also went through a fluorescent light fixture. He still has a scar. “That’s some serious music there,” Wasserstrom says. 

Kip met his wife, Cecily Swanson ’05, at an off-campus party. “This sounds corny, but I still remember it this way—this overwhelming sense of awe when I saw her,” he told me. “I instantly thought she was the most stunning person I’d ever seen.” They live with their daughter, Viola Swanson-Berman, in Princeton, New Jersey, where Cecily is director of studies at Princeton University’s Mathey College. 

After Reed, Kip played music, worked at a call center, and wrote about bands for the Portland Mercury. Later he moved to New York and formed the Pains.

“I used to live here,” he told the crowd at Doug Fir. “This city means so much to me.” Then Rojas played the opening chords of  “My Only,” a subdued love song from the new album. “See you like sea blue from a desert shore,” he sang, crouched over his guitar, “How much I need you, I just want you more.” 

After the set, I wandered over to the merch table, where Kip was selling T-shirts. A long line of impatient fans formed behind me. Quickly, I introduced myself and asked the question that hounded me as I researched his history and relistened to his albums.  “Is the song ‘Young Adult Friction’ about Reed?” I asked. 

He seemed surprised. But yes, the song was, in fact, about the Hauser Library:

Between the stacks in the library

Not like anyone stopped to see

We came, they went, our bodies spent

Among the dust and the microfiche.

Perhaps Kip was taken aback because his music has changed. He no longer writes songs about college romance. Or, if he does, they’re about what happens when a college romance transforms into something more complex and longer lasting. His early lyrics indulged in youthful yearning, and his 1980s sound reflected that nostalgia. This latest album digs deeper, into the complexities of ongoing, evolving love.

Tags: Alumni, Books, Film, Music