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Living in Their World 

After a couple of years of playing for friends, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart become an indie sensation

For Kip Berman, it was a pair of Saucony sneakers that signaled The Pains of Being Pure at Heart had come full-circle.

In a surreal role reversal, Berman found himself on the receiving end of attention from the marketing agency he quit to pursue his band full-time. Just months before, he had spent parts of his working days seeking out hot indie bands and sending them free shoes to boost Saucony's hip quotient.

When the band's self-titled debut LP was released in February, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart had the attention of tastemakers from The New York Times to Pitchfork and Stereogum, but Berman says it was hardly an overnight turn.

The band's sugary indie-pop was refined slowly—and blessedly out of the spotlight, Berman says—over two years of tiny shows, almost exclusively for friends in a Lower East Side club that's hardly a blip on New York's music scene.

"We were all friends here in New York long before we started playing music. We'd hang out a lot and go to shows together, and playing music came about as a natural extension of that," Berman says.

The band formed in March 2007, specifically to play at vocalist/keyboardist Peggy Wang's birthday party, racing through five songs in 10 minutes with Berman on guitar and friend Alex Naidus on bass.

"It wasn't like going to 'new band night' at the bar on Sunday night," Berman says. "It was all of our friends, and it was a really fun show, whether we were any good or not."

The members had all been in bands before, but as Berman puts it, no one "had ever played outside of the zip code we were living in." The band's early days were sans drummer, helpful for practices in Wang's office after business hours, but rhythmically limited to the few beats Berman knew how to program into a drum machine. It wasn't until Kurt Feldman joined on drums that Berman felt the band hit its stride.

"When we'd play a show, we knew everyone who was there," Berman says, describing the 80 or so people who'd catch the band at the Cake Shop. "It would always surprise us when somebody we didn't know would show up."

"It was low-stress, because you knew people were there because they liked you, and if you played a bad show, they wouldn't tell you that you sucked. A lot of bands now aren't so fortunate to have a long period of time to figure out what they're doing. They get immediate exposure before they're ready to handle it. We're lucky no one really cared about us for a couple years. It allowed us to get better performing and see what worked. It's a blessing that not everything we did had people watching. It's like practicing dancing in your bedroom and going out later."

Reflecting a heart-on-the-sleeve audacity that matches the band, the flashy name comes from the title of a short story written by a friend in Portland, Ore., where Berman went to Reed College and played in several admittedly small-time bands.

"We had the band name even before we had songs," Berman says. "I remember going and creating the MySpace profile, and we didn't have any songs. We all felt really excited by the name. It's something to rally around and live up to.

"If you're going to call yourself 'The Pains of Being Pure at Heart,' you can't be half-assed about it. You have to write songs that live up to the name."

The basic chords and lyrics come from Berman, but he compares the songwriting process to "building a Frankenstein monster."

"I supply the skeleton, and everyone else comes in with brains and flesh to make it a whole entity," he says.

"It's strange to think that a lot of the songs we wrote and played at our first band practice are on this record, and three years later, those are the songs that exist in the world," he continues. "Once our tour ends, toward winter, we'll start working on the songs for the next album. I have these other songs written, and I'm dying to learn them with the band, but we've been touring so much. It's exciting having the whole process start again."

The debut album—and follow-up EP Higher Than the Stars, being released the same day the band headlines at Club Congress—cradle a starry-eyed romance in fuzzy guitars, driving beats and boy-girl harmonies. Imagine the Jesus and Mary Chain revved up, or the Smiths brightened and updated as 2000s bedroom indie pop.

"We think, at the core, the songs are pop songs, with verses and choruses, and hopefully they're catchy, and people can sing along and dance," Berman says. "Playing music like this is so much fun on a nightly basis, watching people react in a visceral way. On a very simple level, it's fun for us to play it."

The band also shoots for a visual and aesthetic bull's-eye, citing Belle and Sebastian and the Smiths as bands instantly recognizable from their cover art.

"Something about their album art made me want to live in their world. It was so evocative," he says.

The visual calling card for The Pains of Being Pure at Heart happened by chance when the band was cruising Flickr and stumbled onto a collection of portraits from a high school girl—in Tucson. Kendra Rutledge's photos conveyed a romantic sense of friendship the band loves, Berman says. (See Nine Questions for more information.)

"The images presented that feeling, you and your best friend, young and together against the world," Berman says. "The (cover) photo relates to the feelings in the songs."

Having used Rutledge's photos for album covers, buttons and other art, the band plugged Tucson into its first full U.S. tour

"We're just really psyched," Berman says. "It's going to be nice to meet the two girls who are on our album cover."

More by Eric Swedlund

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