Last April, Kip Berman was in Baltimore, playing his first-ever set without his indie-pop band The Pains of Being Pure at Heart behind him.
It had been two years since the release of “Belong,” Pains' scope-widening second album, and a nervous Berman was unsure how the solo set would go. To his surprise, that Baltimore performance returned Berman to his simpler songwriting roots.
“The best songs are the ones you can play by yourself on stage,” Berman said on the phone last week from his Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment. “I really feel like that experience confirmed the idea that this is the format [I] should be writing for, and then just build it out for larger places.”
The result of Berman's return to form arrives on April 22 in the form of “Days of Abandon,” Pains' third album. Fittingly, the act will kick off its headlining North American tour at the Ottobar for Baltimore Popfest on Friday.
Like many bands that started in the mid-to-late 2000s, Pains first showcased songs on MySpace before gaining blog buzz and releasing a well-received self-titled debut album in 2009. Berman now admits the rush of praise was premature.
“We got a lot of attention before we were very good,” Berman, 28, said.
In the age of enthusiastic webzines, the charm and strength of Pains' debut led to playing in front of thousands at festivals, even though Berman said the band “had no expectation to playing the songs to more than 18 people at a time.” As the band played in front of larger audiences, Berman became convinced his jangly lo-fi songs needed more power.
“There was maybe a little more self-conscious effort to have a sound that was more sonically expansive so when we did play in front of more people, it would be engaging a little bit more,” he said. “There was a real sense of channeling a big guitar rock sound on the second record.”
In support of 2011's “Belong,” Berman toured the entire world, including far-off locations where he was surprised people had even heard of his band (“We have a lot of fans in Indonesia”). But once the tours were over, time passed without news of the next Pains record. Berman knows fans consider three years too long of a wait for a new album, but he refused to rush the process.
“You only get to make a couple records in your life that anyone ever really goes back and listens to,” Berman said. “It's not about trying to make 27 records. You just want to make a few really good ones and hope people appreciate that.”
While the new album still has festival-ready moments, it “has a lot more range and a fuller palette than just big guitar-rock for 10 songs in a row,” he said. The shimmering first single, “Simple and Sure,” was released last week, and it is proof Berman is not only comfortable again writing, but he is still improving, too.
Pains go as Berman goes, since it is essentially his project. This was not always clear, as the band appeared to be a fully formed quartet from inception. Fans will likely notice the absence of Peggy Wang, who sang and played keyboards on the first two albums, on “Abandon.” Berman said she left amicably last February to concentrate on her full-time job as an editor at BuzzFeed.
It is difficult, he said, to find musicians willing to match the time and energy he spends on the project.
“Music is my life and it's every day of my life,” he said. “It's hard to get a whole room full of people to spend five to 15 years doing the exact same thing with their lives when they have other ambitions.”
Berman's ambition is clear: Write the best songs possible, and not worry about expectations or anything else involving the Internet hype cycle. He has lived through that buzz, and come out the other side with a better understanding of what's important — the unwritten future of Pains.
“I feel happy that we're putting out a third record that I feel really psyched [about],” Berman said. “I hate when bands say 'our best record yet' but it feels like a worthy next step for the band. Every part of the process got us here.”
If you go
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart performs March 7 as part of Baltimore Popfest at the Ottobar, 2549 N. Howard St., Charles Village. Eternal Summers, Wildhoney and more will also perform. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15. Call 410-662-0069 or go to theottobar.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun