‘Drums’ takes RHS grad all over the world

JOHN NEELY PHOTO | Connor Hanwick playing lead guitar at a Brooklyn concert on July 22.

“Riverhead” and “pop star” are usually not spoken in the same sentence. And while Connor Hanwick doesn’t have the name recognition of, say, Lady Gaga, the Riverhead native is the lead guitar player for the Drums, a new indie pop band that Britain’s NME magazine has called “New York’s Official Coolest New Band.” Clash magazine went even further in a cover article, pronouncing the Drums “America’s best new band.”

They have toured almost every continent, been featured in a GQ magazine fashion spread and been hailed by music critics in the U.S. and Europe for what the New Yorker called a “balmy approach to timeless pop music.”

The Drums’ most recent NYC appearance was an evening show on the Brooklyn waterfront on one of the hottest days of the summer. Very few of the fans — who had turned out to see the headliner — had ever seen the Drums before. But after a few of the Drums’ infectious, high-energy numbers, the sweltering audience of mostly tattooed 20-somethings was obviously won over, giving the band a rousing ovation at the end of their performance.

After the show, looking across the East River to the New York skyline, Mr. Hanwick said, “It was hot, but it was cool.”

The last few years have been exceptionally cool for the 24-year-old. One of four members of the band, Mr. Hanwick joined the other three band members as drummer just hours before the group’s first major New York appearance.

But his path to musical fame was circuitous at best.

Mr. Hanwick moved to Brooklyn two days after his Riverhead High School graduation. He didn’t know anyone in the city, but was able to land a “not very nice, but very expensive” apartment, he said in an interview with The Suffolk Times. He painted houses to pay the bills. When it was suggested that moving to the city without any friends was a gutsy move, he said it “wasn’t so much gutsy as a lack of options,” adding, “I always figured I’d end up coming here.”

Mr. Hanwick’s next move was to Phoenix, Ariz., where he had vague plans to go to school, perhaps to study journalism or creative writing. “I was pretty aimless at that point,” he said. “I mean, I still am, but again I didn’t have much else going on. I didn’t really have some sort of trajectory … but I thought that journalism might be cool.”

After seven or eight months, Mr. Hanwick returned to New York, where he lived with friends and landed a job as a cook in a Tribeca restaurant. But he grew bored and after about 18 months moved to Los Angeles to live with friends from the restaurant.

What was originally planned as a few weeks’ visit turned into a seven- or eight-month stay. Speaking of his West Coast sojourn, Mr. Hanwick said he “hated L.A. I didn’t have a job out there and my friend’s girlfriend was supporting all of us.”

He then added, “Wow. This whole interview is making me sound like such a loser.”

Mr. Hanwick decided to return to New York, where he resumed his cooking job and spent time “hanging around with friends and working on various music projects and helping friends record stuff.” One of those projects happened to be the Drums.

Through a mutual friend, he was introduced to Jonny Pierce, the lead singer.

“We just kind of met up and we talked about music and we really hit it off on a lot of the back to mono Phil Spector stuff. We were really into the Shangri-Las, the Ronettes and the Crystals and the Cookies.”

At the time, Mr. Pierce and friend Jacob Graham had written a number of songs and put out an EP, but they hadn’t done any shows. They did have shows booked, however, and asked Mr. Hanwick if he’d like to play drums for the band.

“It was just supposed to be for four shows in New York,” Mr. Hanwick said, “but after the first show people in New York kind of got excited about it.”

The first of the Drums’ shows were at the Cake Shop in Alphabet City as part of the NYC Pop Fest. Then the group played some of the last shows at the Annex before it closed. “So we did those shows,” Mr. Hanwick said, “and we said, ‘This is cool. Let’s keep doing this!’ That was the summer of 2009 and we were playing shows almost every night.”

Soon, the band heard they were getting radio play in London, and people began asking them for interviews for papers and music blogs. Using their savings and some borrowed money, the Drums traveled to London, where they played six shows that were very well received. Asked to account for the band’s early success in England, Mr. Hanwick said, “A lot of our music is U.K. inspired. — ’70s and ’80s U.K. bands. Also, the whole Internet thing, the whole blog thing did a lot for us really fast. A band like us could never have done this without the Internet.”

In mid-2010 the band embarked on its first world tour, hitting Europe, Asia and Australia. They were the headline act at the London Forum and have since returned to many of the same locations.

Mr. Hanwick, who recently moved from drums to lead guitar, says he enjoys returning to places the band has played and reuniting with fans. “It’s kind of cool hanging with them and talking music.”

Asked whether he prefers writing music or performing Mr. Hanwick was emphatic: “I don’t like performing much at all. It’s nice. It’s fun. But I feel it’s kind of awkward. There’s nothing super-exciting about it. The whole thing is cool, but I take those parts with a grain of salt. Also, I do that every single day. I know that sounds lame, but we did something like 260 shows last year. Playing the shows is cool, but touring is boring. It’s tiring and I don’t like traveling — and it’s a lot of traveling.”

Mr. Hanwick played sports in high school, but music was a big part of his life. He studied both piano and violin and played the trombone from elementary school through high school, where he performed in the band directed by his father, Lee Hanwick, who recently retired as Riverhead High School band director.

The Drums even asked Mr. Hanwick’s father to sit in on one of their recordings, and when their new album comes out this fall, the retired band teacher will be heard playing alto sax on the song “What You Were.”

Connor Hanwick attributes his love of music to his father’s career.

“It’s probably why I started playing music,” he said. “There was a lot of music around. There were lots of instruments around the house. And a lot of my pop sensibility comes from stuff that he was playing.”

Asked if he had any formal training on the drums he admitted, “No. I’m not that good a drummer. But I’m good enough. The stuff we’re doing is pretty simple. And I’ve played in other bands starting way back in middle school.”

Mr. Hanwick has collaborated with Mr. Pierce on a number of the band’s songs. But when asked about Mr. Hanwick’s most important contribution to the group, bass player Myles Matheny said, “A smile. He just has a great attitude.”

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