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There was never any real question of whether or not Barry Johnson would fully dedicate himself to Joyce Manor; he knew it, the band knew it, and the hype surrounding the leaked copy of their self-titled debut eventually settled the matter. Yet, Johnson admits being spooked at the time by a frightening vision of his mid-30s — burnt out on music and barely employed, spending his waking hours playing video games with only the daily beer run breaking up the monotony. This future had indeed come to pass for Johnson over the past two years and he couldn’t be happier — but only because leading a highly successful pop-punk band had done the opposite of extending Johnson’s adolescence.
“We had no home life,” Johnson explains, having spent nearly all of his 20s “in Joyce Manorland 24/7” — “you’re either unemployed or out on the road being an alcoholic Chuck E. Cheese cartoon.” The need for a hiatus and the fear that a hiatus might jeopardize the band’s livelihood were rendered moot by the pandemic. So, after a brief stint bartending in Long Beach, Johnson took advantage of California’s generous unemployment benefits and renowned community college system to get caught up on his unwasted youth. “This is exactly how it was when I was 8 — I’m in school, playing video games, I have three friends, I’m doing homework,” he beams from his Long Beach home while he and his girlfriend wait for a Doordash order. And then he qualifies a bit — “I didn’t do any homework when I was a kid, but I’m doing it now.”
Despite being Joyce Manor’s first studio album in four years, 40 Oz. To Fresno arrives more like a sigh of relief than a painstakingly constructed comeback. But it’s still a statement of intent, that after a decade of increasingly professional and proficient albums, Joyce Manor has earned the right to revel in a bygone, SoCal pop-punk delinquency. The title itself — taken from an autocorrected text about Sublime’s debut album — is the sort of in-joke that Johnson used to propose to the band before retracting at the last minute, i.e., Born Again In The USA, Self-Titled II, and Songs From Northern Torrance, a Teenage Fanclub spoof that ended up gracing their 2020 singles compilation. Still, 40 Oz. To Fresno was significantly less in-jokey than the previous frontrunner — Hungover Again. Johnson decided not to evoke his band’s 2014 masterpiece, but only shortly before the record pressing. So there will be an alternate version with the original cover: Johnson, indeed hungover again, eating a burrito.
It’s unlikely that 40 Oz. will unseat Joyce Manor or Never Hungover Again as a consensus choice for the band’s definitive work, but that was kind of the point; since signing to Epitaph in 2014, Joyce Manor albums have often been accompanied by extensive profiles that both celebrated their success and tried to unravel the mysteries of why they had yet to reach the rarefied commercial peaks of, say, Blink-182 or Weezer, bands which they’ve covered. By 2018’s Million Dollars To Kill Me, Johnson acknowledges, “It seemed like we were trying to make it or transcend the genre, like we were trying to become a big radio rock band, which isn’t really true because I know how ridiculous that is.” Nevertheless, Epitaph owner Brett Gurewitz claimed it was one of the best albums ever released on his label, right up there with Rancid’s …And Out Come The Wolves. As with Never Hungover Again and Cody before it, Million Dollars To Kill Me saw Joyce Manor playing to bigger rooms without cracking KROQ — they headlined the Hollywood Palladium twice, accompanied by Tumblr-era day ones like Jeff Rosenstock, Tigers Jaw and AJJ. But Johnson had begun to feel like Joyce Manor’s pivot towards power-pop had reached a dead-end — “I wanted to make a weirder Joyce Manor record.”
From the moment 40 Oz. To Fresno’s details were revealed, there was a safe bet that Johnson would make good on his word. After two records which started creeping towards a half-hour, 40 Oz. is classic Joyce Manor time management — nine songs, 17 minutes. It begins with a cover of new wave icons OMD’s “Souvenir,” which is followed by “NBTSA,” a 73-second blast of melodic hardcore originally recorded on 4-track for a 2017 Polyvinyl series. The album ends with “Secret Sisters,” a B-side from Never Hungover Again that Johnson debated releasing as a standalone single or tacking onto Songs From Northern Torrance. Neither option satisfied, and while “Secret Sisters” didn’t fit the timeline of Songs, it sparked a desire to revisit the days when Joyce Manor veered more towards “Teenage Dirtbag” than Teenage Fanclub. “We’ve never tried to make a specific sounding record, but I thought maybe it’d be cool to make a record that all sounded like that,” Johnson says. “It slams…like an emo, fuck this slams.”
Lead single “Gotta Let It Go” is the one song Johnson abides by that goal, but otherwise, 40 Oz. To Fresno still demonstrates the breadth of Joyce Manor’s craft and their dedication to brevity. “Reason To Believe” honors the Britpop influence of their previous two albums and the concision of their first two. Broadly inspired by our collective schadenfreude at fallen indie stars, “You’re Not Famous Anymore” is a throwback to the adolescent spite of Joyce Manor cuts like “Call Out” and “Leather Jacket.” “Don’t Try” serves as proof of concept for 40 Oz., a quintessential “don’t bore us, get to the chorus” heater that Johnson claims was “Frankensteined from four songs in the Joyce Manor graveyard,” with producer Rob Schnapf adding guitar to a new bridge.
The puzzle-piece approach to “Don’t Try” and 40 Oz. as a whole immediately recalls that of 2012’s Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired — an oddball in the Joyce Manor discography that experimented with a Buggles cover, Smiths fanfic and raw, acoustic folk-punk, bridging the time between Joyce Manor and their signing to Epitaph. Johnson had described it in the past as a form of self-sabotage, a way to get a step ahead of the backlash he anticipated after Joyce Manor’s unanimous acclaim. It only sorta worked. If Of All Things is the least-loved Joyce Manor album, it’s the most passionately defended by those who do love it; sometimes, including Johnson himself. But while its 10th anniversary came and went without much fanfare, Johnson began to recognize how Joyce Manor had lost touch with that mischievous streak amidst two-year cycles of releasing an album to polite acclaim and touring until it was as loved as the one before it. “I just wanted to make sure we weren’t on autopilot like, ‘Oh that record sucked? How are ticket sales doing? Really bad? We really f*cked up?’”
Million Dollars To Kill Me holds up pretty well four years later, though it’s clearly the work of artists who couldn’t quite articulate their visions. “I really needed a break and we probably should’ve taken one between Cody and Million Dollars To Kill Me,” he admits. Here was a conundrum that flipped his original fears of what dedication to Joyce Manor would mean for his security; that stepping away from the band would be a surefire way to torpedo any kind of financial stability he could hope to achieve. “I was starting to feel like we were in perpetual motion — ‘You got a good thing going! Don’t let it slow down!” Johnson had initially intended some of Million Dollars’ songs for a solo album before taking Matt Skiba’s non-Alkaline Trio projects as a cautionary tale. The band might have indeed taken a hiatus before they linked up with Pat Ware, drummer from the erstwhile, sorely underappreciated pop-punk rippers Spraynard. “He’s a killer drummer and a great guy and it’s like, ‘Let’s do some tours with Pat. And then we started writing with him and it’s like, ‘Let’s do a record.’” The band brought in Converge’s Kurt Ballou to produce, and Johnson envisioned a gnarly rejoinder to Cody, which was helmed by Schnapf, a seasoned vet best known for his work on Mellow Gold, Elliott Smith’s X/O and several The Vines albums. Meanwhile, Joyce Manor had reminded Ballou of hearing The Cars in constant rotation while growing up in Boston. “I was hoping he was gonna make it scarier but he thought, ‘I get to not do the thing I always do,’” Johnson recalls. “And I was like… aw, man… do the thing you always do!”
After the touring cycle for Million Dollars ended, Johnson eventually convinced the remaining original members — bassist Matt Ebert and guitarist Chase Knobbe — that taking a step away from the band was in the best interest of everyone’s mental and creative well-being. Ebert, who Johnson credits with being the brains and hustle behind the Joyce Manor operation in its earliest days, became a day-to-day manager for bands at Sargent House. Meanwhile, Joyce Manor found ways to stay busy with their catalog, bundling their formative singles and EPs into Songs From North Torrance and releasing a 10th-anniversary version of Joyce Manor last year, one of the most radical remasters I’ve heard in a long, long time. “Wouldn’t you like to hear what this would sound like if it was recorded on earth?” Johnson asks, albeit rhetorically. “Apparently not. People were deeply offended by it.” While he sees both projects as creatively rewarding, he’ll allow that they also provided them to buy some time while they plotted LP6. “When the pandemic’s over will anyone care about Joyce Manor? Is this still something people are gonna fuck with?”
Looking to reintegrate themselves into 24/7 Joyce Manorland without the anxieties of obsessively following hard ticket sales, the band took an opportunity that hadn’t been on the table for at least a decade — opening for one of their peers. Johnson has nothing but positive things to say after finishing a deeply satisfying one-month run with The Story So Far, a modern pop-punk institution that Johnson describes as a “bizarro version of us.” They do have most of the important stuff in common — both are from California, emerged as teens from late-aughts hardcore scenes, and have similar influences, though Johnson notes “they’re more New Found Glory and we’re more Blink-182.” But while Joyce Manor have received widespread critical acclaim and outranked Watch The Throne and The War On Drugs on Pitchfork’s 2010s album list, The Story So Far have been virtually ignored by every indie-leaning publication and have about twice as many monthly Spotify listeners — “The big difference is that they did Warped Tour,” Johnson shrugs. “We didn’t want to be a Warped Tour band, we were really self-conscious about that.” Granted, it’s easier to be nostalgic for the Warped Tour when it can’t be actively problematic, but for Joyce Manor and many other punk bands, its symbolic weight seems absurd as the pandemic continues to accelerate the music industry’s collapse. “That’s what I was worried about? Cred? Something I’m not doing making me cool? Get some real problems.”
But in the process of deconstructing the pop-punk orthodoxy that had governed his life to this point, Johnson had to confront the root cause — “I kinda thought secretly deep down, maybe I’m kinda dumb.” Johnson had never been much of a student, which he feels is largely responsible for his predisposition to the genre’s tropes. Even though Epitaph Records is built on a foundation of bands with literal PhDs and Ware enrolled in law school after departing Joyce Manor, “pop-punk isn’t known for attracting brainiacs,” Johnson jokes. “Lemme tell ya, there’s some fucking dolts out there that do what I do.” But as the pandemic dragged on, Johnson enrolled at Pasadena City College and excelled in online courses with names like “Explorations in Quantitative Reasoning.” Johnson is quick to note that Rivers Cuomo infamously followed a path from Los Angeles community college to Harvard. And, he’s even quicker to joke about it — “That’s what I’m gonna do, things worked out for him — he seems pretty normal.” Still, as much as he enjoyed acing tests on the logic behind calculating loans and mortgages, Johnson laughs that “after a year of that, I’m sick of fucking homework.”
“I’d love to rip a gig and crush a beer, that really sounds a lot more fun.”
40 Oz. To Fresno is out 6/10 via Epitaph Records. Pre-order it here.