By Bob Vielma
In the mid-late 2000’s I worked at an anime video rental shop in San Jose’s Japantown, spending many a slow day curating Winamp playlists and chatting with friends on AOL Instant Messenger. It was during this time that a teenaged Barry Johnson found my AIM screen name on my band Shinobu’s website and began messaging me; sometimes about music (I may have been the first person to tell him about Toys That Kill), sometimes about whatever inane stuff people talked about on AIM. At one point he had even asked me about potentially recording his band at the time, though part of me felt guilty asking for $100 to do it, as my mediocre talent probably didn’t even merit that.
Hearing “Friends We Met Online” for the first time, the standout track from Joyce Manor’s latest album Million Dollars to Kill Me, I was reminded of our early conversations, but also that Johnson had first met album collaborator Rory Phillips on AIM as well. Johnson explains:
“There was this ska guy in Orange County, I think his name was Beamis, and he was an Impossibles super fan, a real big nerd. His other claim to fame was that he was in a New Found Glory music video for one second. I think somehow he had Rory’s screen name, and Beamis was a guy who Rory didn’t even know, so it was like ‘I got your screen name from a guy you don’t even know’, and I would talk to him. Sometimes he would respond, sometimes he wouldn’t, but I remember he was always really nice. I can’t remember what type of punishing shit I was saying, like if you could dig that up somehow I’d be mortified. We’re ten years apart, so I would’ve been like fifteen and he would’ve been like twenty-five. Some fifteen year old kid hitting you up when you’re twenty-five is probably pretty annoying.”
Given Johnson’s deep knowledge of and love for niche and overlooked ska and punk bands from the nineties and aughties, it makes sense that Phillips would be on his shortlist of dream collaborators all these years later. Johnson cites the Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ prom-scene performance of “Someday I Suppose” in Clueless as one of his earliest musical loves. He eventually discovered lesser known bands like Slow Gherkin and Mu330, who along with Phillips’ band the Impossibles really pushed the sonic and intellectual boundaries of third wave ska, challenging many of their young listeners at the time to evolve along with them. (When I mention that the melodic sensibility of “Up The Punx” is reminiscent of Mu330’s Dan Potthast, Johnson recalls that the earliest acoustic incarnation of Joyce Manor covered his song “Hula Hoops”). As the turn-of-the-millenium Pitchfork-era began and took critical snobbery to new heights, kids who had grown up loving this now deeply uncool music were starting smart and provocative bands of their own. Many of them like AJJ, Bomb The Music Industry and Lemuria were fostered by Asian Man Records, who would later release Joyce Manor’s second album. Alongside other bands with varied influences and styles like Good Luck and Algernon Cadwallader, this generation quietly built up an unpretentious and thriving underground scene, punk rock in spirit, yet sonically diverse and open-minded.
Joyce Manor emerged as part of this scene in the late 2000’s, playing pop-punk that was loosely inspired by the “mid-tempo stomp” and the “ugly and diminished” chord progressions of bands like Jawbreaker and Toys That Kill. “I thought it’d be cool if there was a band that sounded like Weezer, but pissed off,” Johnson half-jokes, despite it being a remarkably apt description of how his raw vocals ride over their big guitar hooks. “You know the band that we really ripped off was Summer Vacation,” the unhinged pop-punk band with whom they released a split 7-inch in 2010. “When we played with them [Summer Vacation singer] Mark Chen blew my mind.”
Joyce Manor’s 2011 self-titled debut was a weird, feisty affair that could coexist alongside the beard-punk that had dominated the prior decade, but whose intensity and emotional candor helped them crossover with emo and hardcore crowds in a way not seen since Alkaline Trio a decade prior. From the harsh opening guitar hits of “Orange Julius” the record painted a picture of frustrated, suburban malaise. “Constant Headache” became an undisputed part of the punk canon, and “Derailed” snuck a few upstrokes in under the hardcore kids’ noses.
In the summer of 2011 Shinobu spent four days on the road with Joyce Manor, seeing the crowds grow in the course of a weekend from thirty people in the back of a Mediterranean restaurant to a packed house at 924 Gilman St. It was during this short run of shows that Asian Man Records owner Mike Park met Johnson for the second time, not remembering the previous time when a young Johnson had volunteered to drive him to the airport from a performance at San Pedro’s Sunken City. A week later the two spoke on the phone (Park told me then that Johnson spent half the call raving about Mu330) and set in motion the release of their 2012 album, Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired, on the respected ska-punk label. This willfully challenging record set the template for each of the band’s subsequent releases with songs as indebted to Bob Pollard as, say, Paul Westerberg, maintaining the band’s punk roots even while expanding their palette. “I wanted to prove that I was indie rock. Like, ‘Yo, I’m into Guided By Voices and the Beach Boys and the Smiths, dude. I’m not just into fucking American Steel.’ I like American Steel but not American Steel only.”
By the time Johnson began writing the songs that would eventually become Million Dollars to Kill Me, the band had already released their Epitaph breakthrough Never Hungover Again and its “grown-up” follow-up, Cody. (“I don’t know what the fuck people are talking about. Just because there’s an acoustic guitar in one or two parts people think it’s a sign of wisdom or something.”) There was even a scrapped idea for a remix album somewhere along the way (“At the time I was really into that band the Knife”) that as rumor had it might feature contributions from Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart, and Freddie Ruppert, whose bleak electronic act This Song Is a Mess But So Am I was endorsed by Cody‘s closing track. Million Dollars however, was the unintended byproduct of one of Johnson’s sillier ideas — “I thought of doing a solo record called Welp! and it would be me on the cover four times doing the Beatles thing.” Before deciding to turn it into the next proper Joyce Manor recording, Johnson worked over e-mail with Phillips who helped him flesh out several of his bare bones, British Invasion-inspired songs, including the woozy, dreamy “Silly Games.” “What I sent to Rory was super Beatles-y, and when he sent it back it sounded like early 2000’s indie rock and I was stoked! Then when we recorded with Kurt [Ballou] he added that nasty-ass fuzz guitar and it almost had a little bit of a Blue Album-type of thing.”
Indeed, Million Dollars hearkens back to the “Weezer, but pissed off” aims of the group, with some of Johnson’s most intense vocals since the self-titled album (see the manic second half of “Big Lie”) over some of their most polished hooks. Conversely, and counterintuitively, Ballou’s production is lush yet reserved, allowing the album’s prettier moments to breathe. This all belies what may be Joyce Manor’s darkest record thematically; even with our nostalgic and anecdotal connections, “Friends We Met Online” still asks “How can we misremember such sad, horrible times?” “Gone Tomorrow” even more bluntly indicts the illusory nature of online communication:
Everybody wants to tell a story
But no one’s got a thing to say
Everybody’s scared of saying nothing
How else would they prove that they’re here today?
When Johnson sings “Nobody tells you it hurts to be loved” on the album’s title track, what could otherwise be a typical breakup song sounds more like real human intimacy losing its battle with immature distraction. Terse album closer “Wildflowers” barely veils the image of a terrible roadside accident with its light springtime imagery and jangly guitar.
Johnson is a little evasive when asked about his lyrical inspiration. “For this record, I would buy weed from [Joyce Manor guitarist] Chase, then just get really high and start playing guitar and start spouting off nonsense.” When pressed further, his explanation is still pretty vague: “Sometimes I feel like there’s a little bit of a song sticking out from the dirt, and then I can just pull it out. Sometimes it comes out really easy, sometimes I get off track. ‘Friends We Met Online’ is a perfect example of that. I had the first two lines and then I was like, there’s a whole song here. You just gotta relax and let it happen. I know that sounds weird and fucking spiritual, but I swear that’s how I do it.”
Just about a year ago, Joyce Manor played two triumphant hometown shows for 2,000 people at Union Station in downtown LA. Just a few months later, they played a raucous set to a lowkey crowd of fifty just seventy miles away on a beach in Ventura. When bassist Matt Ebert dropped his bass mid-set and dashed for the bathroom, a fan picked up the bass and joined the band in a sloppy, improvised Ramones-core song about Ebert peeing himself. Joyce Manor are a band that are just as at home commanding huge crowds as they are feeding off of the intimate energy of a house show. It makes perfect sense that, on the verge of headlining the Hollywood Palladium, they’d enlist support from old friends AJJ and Bomb the Music Industry’s Jeff Rosenstock (whose band includes Shinobu’s Mike Huguenor and the aforementioned Dan Potthast), two acts whose paths up and out of the once invisible punk underground nearly parallel Joyce Manor’s (Rosenstock’s set at the Pitchfork Festival would’ve been nigh unthinkable just five years ago).
Ska-punk’s unsung influence on the greater indie rock world isn’t such a foreign thought after all, just ask Johnson: “You remember the Dismemberment Plan? They’re really into [the Bosstones’] Joe Gittleman. The bass player of the Dismemberment Plan, his favorite bass player is Joe Gittleman. And Joe Gittleman is an amazing bass player.”