California Post-Punkers Joyce Manor Have No Desire To Break Into The Mainstream

When Joyce Manor’s self-titled debut album came out in 2011, it cemented the California quartet as one of the only bands perfectly bridging the ever-growing gap between punk purists and fans of Green Day-era pop punk. With every song clocking in at under 2:30, Joyce Manor has something for everyone, from the thrashing “Constant Nothing” to the party jam “Beach Community.” Four years after the release of their debut, the band has released the same number of LPs, each record showing an exponential growth in their lyricism and instrumentation from the previous.

The Torrance band’s latest album Cody is the biggest departure yet, with a focus on more vocal melodies and hooks, where their previous efforts were mostly fast-paced tracks that clocked in at less than two minutes. This new effort is immediately evident from the opening chords of album opener “Fake I.D.,” and Johnson’s vocals sound better than ever, thanks to producer Rob Schnapf, who anticipated the impact that doubling Johnson’s vocals would have.

The band has a new drummer with a more indie rock-oriented sensibility than the drummer that preceded him, and the songs are far more mid-tempo than most of their other work. In fact, there isn’t one song on Cody that’s reminiscent of the fast punk sounds of their 2011 self-titled LP. While this might have been something of a deterrent initially for longtime fans, Johnson’s focus on hooks pays off, making Cody the best Joyce Manor record to date, landing at number 10 on our best rock albums of 2016,

A few weeks after Cody‘s release, Joyce Manor frontman Barry Johnson and I briefly met in passing after a show in Detroit when the venue’s air conditioner broke, leaving condensation dripping onto the soundboard while the mics cut in and out. Despite this, Joyce Manor’s rabid following was raucous as ever. With the A/C out, the room was incredibly sweaty, leaving Johnson wondering to himself if he might be getting too old for this.

Last week I spoke with Johnson again, this time by phone and for a more extended conversation. He was en route to purchase lighter fluid to burn the first-ever Joyce Manor shirt, irked that he’d been offered $400 for it via Instagram direct message. We talked about everything from blink-182 to the making of the record that could help Joyce Manor break out of their “cult” status and more into the mainstream, even if they’re not interested in it.

I heard in an interview that you’re both a Blink-182 fan and an Alkaline Trio fan, so what are your thoughts on the latest incarnation of Blink-182?

Ah man, it’s still really strange to me. I really, really like Blink-182, and I think they’re a great band, and I like Alkaline Trio a lot, but I think it’s bizarre. It’s just one of those things, my mind is still kind of blown from it.

I feel like half the glory of that band was the banter between Mark Hoppus and Tom DeLonge in-between songs, and that was just totally non-existent between Mark and Matt Skiba. But Matt has a better voice.

I was just going to say that! Matt can f***ing do the songs! I was watching YouTube videos like ‘can he do it?’ and he can! And he sounds way better than Tom! Ever since [2003’s] Untitled record, Tom’s voice got weird. It sounds like he went and got vocal lessons, and they just f***ed him up.

But it’s also interesting that Matt doesn’t try to copy Tom’s vocal style, he does it his own way.

Yeah, totally. He just can do it. His voice is pretty rich and it sounds really full. It’s just weird to hear those parts not sound “reedy” in that Tom DeLonge kind of way.

So what bands are you listening to right now?

I got really, really into Converge, I’ve been listening to the last couple of Converge records a bunch. I got really into the first Bad Brains record. I hadn’t listened to Bad Brains in a while, and I’ve been obsessed with Bad Brains. I’m still really, really into the new Crying album that came out while we were on tour with them. That’s grown on me. I liked it when it came out, but I love it now. I got into the Promise Ring recently. I never liked the Promise Ring, because I always hated that guy’s voice, but they have some really good songs. I’m getting pretty into it. Other than that, classics. I’ve been listening to Odyssey And Oracle, the Zombies album a lot lately.

Did you know Bad Brains just got robbed for induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after being nominated?

Oh, really? Wow. Bad Brains got nominated? I listen to that first album and I’m like, “this is the greatest thing ever.” That should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Cody is obviously much more melodic that your previous work. Did you have a different approach to writing a song that’s more hook-oriented vs. a fast punk song?

Not really. We wrote it kind of the same way we always did, but I think when it came time to record it, we really thought about tempos a lot. Well, if you listen to Never Hungover Again, the first half of that record is really mid-tempo. So I think it’s kind of an extension of that. But then halfway through Never Hungover Again, there are really fast songs, which we didn’t do on the new album. We just ended up writing a lot of mid-tempo song. There was one pop-punk sounding song that just sounded weird. I think it’s just our age. Despite our best efforts, we’re mellowing and slowing down.

So you never wrote a song that sounded more like something off Joyce Manor or Never Hungover Again, then had a conscious thought ‘No, I want this to sound completely different from that stuff?’

No, I always start with the vocal melody, that’s always the idea that comes up first, then I build around that. So I was basically trying to build a song that was the best vehicle for the vocal melody. Should it be a heavy song, should it be a fast song? Which way does the melody sound best? Some melodies sound good sped-up with a lot of energy, and it doesn’t sound good if you slow it down. For this album, none of the melodies I was writing sounded good with brash drums. Also, we had a different drummer on Never Hungover Again. This is our first album with our new drummer Jeff [Enzor]. He has more of an indie-rock sensibility, where Kurt [Walcher] was definitely more of a punk drummer. So we wanted to put forward everybody’s strengths. Maybe I knew that subconsciously when I was writing and I wasn’t really trying to write fast punk songs.

Currently, hip-hop and pop tend to reign supreme in terms of success, do you think this album will help you burst into the mainstream? Do you even want to be part of that scene with ‘mainstream recognition?’

I don’t have any desire to do that, but I would not fight if it happened — which is not going to happen. The people in music who become really successful like that work really hard, and have this giant team that makes them that famous. I don’t really have any interest in trying to compete on that level. We’re really a cult band. We write songs that are less than two minutes long. It’s my voice too: I don’t think I have a voice that’s universally liked. I think we would sound really out of place, especially on the radio, obviously. Yeah, it’s not a goal of mine; it’s not something I strive for.

You were talking about your voice — on Cody, is your voice completely natural on that or did you use some digital manipulation on it? Because it sounds really, really good.

Thank you! Well, when we were recording it, I did a bunch of takes. That was the thing: We’ll do a bunch of takes and then we’ll cull together a best of. Then [producer] Rob [Schnapf] found takes that he liked a lot, and then there would be takes where I hit the note better, but he was like ‘I like the character of this one.’ He also doubled them all; he would put takes on top of each other. So they have this weird quality where it sounds smoothed out, which is kind of cool. In the past, my vocals are never doubled, which I think is why I think it sounds different. But he thickened them up by doubling, putting the one that he thought had more character up front. He had me do way less vocals than producers in the past. I think he didn’t want me to overthink it or start overacting in the studio. I would do a couple of takes and he was like, ‘Yeah that was great, I think we got it.’ I think that my voice just sounds a little more melodic, and I’m a little more of a better singer than I was on the last record.

What about Nate Ruess? How much involvement did he have? How many songs is he on?

Just one, he sings the chorus on “Angel In The Snow.”

How did you even connect with him?

He heard Never Hungover Again and really liked it, then got my email from somebody and emailed me just to say, ‘I love the band and just wanted to say you guys are awesome.’ Just a friendly, nice email. So I emailed him back to say, ‘If you’re ever in LA and want to grab a beer and shoot the sh*t, that would be cool.’ And then we met up, had a couple of drinks, and talked about being in bands and stuff. He’s from Arizona, and booked a lot of shows, and played a lot of ska and early-2000’s emo. So we were talking about that stuff, and it was fun. Then he was in LA when we were recording, and he stopped by the studio just to see how it was going. I had been sending him demos and stuff, just asking him for feedback. Originally [bassist] Matt [Ebert] sang that chorus part on “Angel In The Snow,” and I told Nate to sing it. And he did, and it sounds great because he’s a phenomenal singer. It was cool. We just became friends because he reached out to say something really nice. I thought it was especially cool to have someone so removed from the world we exist in. It would be weird if we got Mark Hoppus or the guy from Jimmy Eat World, but instead we got the guy from Fun. It’s insane enough to work. And his voice is just so good.

Do you write all the songs alone and then come to practice saying, ‘This is how it’s going to go?’ Or do you come to practice asking, ‘How does this sound to you guys?’ and get feedback?

Usually the way it goes is I’ll start with something. All the good songs I’ve written start with a vocal melody, then I figure out the chords to go with it. Then I’ll take it to Chase [Knobbe], our other guitar player. And he’ll usually try to write something that makes it a little weirder, or more tense-sounding. From there, we’ll bring it to Matt and Jeff, who are either very clear on what’s supposed to happen, or we have to mess around with it to get something exciting going. But luckily, it’s really easy to read everybody in the band and see what they’re genuinely excited about. It’s very easy to tell which songs are worth spending more time on, and which aren’t. It exchanges hands a couple of times, and sometimes it’s more like the original idea, and sometimes it’s drastically different.

How many songs did you go into the studio with for this album?

I wrote a lot. But a lot of them I brought to practice and no one really seemed that excited about it. We’re trying different stuff and then every time we play it, we feel like we like the song less, and say, ‘Yeah, this song kind of sucks.’ And then I have to convince myself that they can’t all be good, and return to the drawing board, or keep a part of it and build something I like. I wrote maybe 30 songs, then we went into the studio to record 11 of them.

And there’s only 10 on the record, right?

There’s one B-side, but it’s not very good. It sounds like a worse version of “Heart Tattoo.”

I like “Heart Tattoo,” a lot!

Me too, man! But you don’t need a slightly worse version of it. We already kind of nailed that type of song. And it just didn’t fit on the record. There’s a B-side from Never Hungover Again, too, that kind of has a “Beach Community” vibe. And it’s really good, but it was just plain, and simple. We’ll probably put that one out.

Do you have plans to release B-sides, or is that just something that’ll come later?

Yeah, there’s stuff from before our first record that’s been laying around, and assorted stuff that we’ve recorded that we’re planning on putting together and doing something with before the next record comes. Before we start writing another record, I want to tie up some loose ends. They’re recordings and songs that I really like that are just sitting in the ether. I think now that I’m a little more removed from those songs, I can look at them and decide if they’re cool.

Are the lyrics on Cody mostly autobiographical or fictional? The real thing I’m wondering is whether you can actually do laundry or dishes…

I think that all of them are fictional, but some of them strike a nerve with me, for one reason or another. I usually don’t like to say things exactly how they are, but I feel like, with Cody, it’s the least cryptic. It sounds more autobiographical, but a lot of it is not. I don’t know anyone with a fake I.D. I’m thirty. Everyone I know has a real I.D. Yeah, I can do laundry, I can do dishes. I don’t have a brother. I like to write stuff that makes me feel a certain way, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be about what I did today or what I’m going to do tomorrow. I just couldn’t write a good song like that. Oh, you know what!? “Last You Heard Of Me” is pretty much play-for-play a night I had in Portland, which was weird. I purposely tried to write a song like that, and it came out good, but it was kind of bizarre.

Joyce Manor is set to head out on tour with AJJ and Mannequin Pussy, whose record Romantic also appeared on our list of 2016’s best rock best rock albums. Check out all the dates here, and don’t miss them if they’re coming to your town.