Three days following the release of Joyce Manor’s fifth record, Million Dollars To Kill Me — reaffirming the punk rockers’ rep of heavy, catchy riffs and teeming with emo tendencies — frontman Barry Johnson hops on the phone with me in the early afternoon. Much like his lyrical propensity for emotional honesty, with the occasional whacky or unexpected reference, we delve into gritty of baring your inner thoughts as an open wound, feeling lost in the false-intimacy of cyberspace, and belting it out to “Jack and Diane”. Hey, life goes on…
Have you guys already started the tour?
No, no, no. We have a few weeks until then. It starts like, October 8 or something like that.
I gotcha. What have you been doing? How do you prepare for tour normally? Any places you like to go to, or home cooked meals to get in before you get on the road?
Yeah! There’s like, this specific kind of Mexican food here in Southern California, kind of like a hot plate, family restaurant-style food that you can really only get specifically in Southern California, so I have definitely got to get that in. Then I usually go to a karaoke room, like a Japanese karaoke room, during the day for a few hours and sing for a couple of hours on end. That way I can practice and not annoy my neighbors or anything. It kind of gets me ready for tour vocally so I don’t lose my voice.
That’s actually really cool! I don’t think I’ve ever heard of, or interviewed someone before who has done that.
Yeah! It’s like really cheap…like five bucks an hour and it is kind of like a practice space. You know, you have like a P.A. and you sing along to the same 40 songs over and over again. There are only so many songs that I know of that are in my range and stuff, so…
Do you have a favorite that you really like going out and singing?
No, I like all that stuff. Well, I really like doing “Jack and Diane” by John Mellencamp.
That’s a karaoke classic. I think, also because it fits my voice and stuff, the Smiths and Van Morrison, and that kind of stuff.
Very cool! Well, I know it’s also been about 10 years since the band’s initial formation. Aside from lineup changes, in terms of members coming and going, how do you feel the band’s dynamic has changed over time? Whether it’s recording or playing live — or do you feel like it has remained kind of similar?
Well, I think we came out of the gate pretty strong. The first songs we wrote I think are really, really good. We still play them occasionally live and I’m still really proud of them, so it just kind of set a bar pretty early on for what we wanted to try to do. I think we’ve had higher watermarks, but not by much. We’ve written better songs since then…and we’ve written worse songs!
It’s just trying to maintain that level of quality in the songs that we’ve had since the beginning. It’s challenging finding new ways of trying to keep it fresh, but keep it really good. Yeah, that’s kind of forced us to grow, instead of always striving to write like our first good song. It can take bands 10 years to write just one good song. I feel like we were lucky because initially, we kind of had that good material right away.
I know a lot of people among your fans, even critics, have said there has always been an emotional honesty to your songwriting, and I think it has definitely evolved over time and with each album. What would you attribute that to?
When the band was first starting out, or even before the band first started out, when I would write songs, I would have a line or something that was maybe too cheesy or too emotional; even oversharing because it was too sappy or sentimental or corny or something like that. I would then always think about changing that line or getting rid of that line. Whenever I would show it to someone, they would be like, “I love that line!” and those were always the kinds of songs that had that stuff.
I noticed that those were the things that really resonated with people. It kind of made me feel like I should really trust that. If you’re a little bit afraid to show this to someone, that means that there is probably some truth to it and that’s scary, because you could be ridiculed or mocked for that. I think I kind of learned that early on. If you want some of that emotional honesty to be in the song to connect emotionally with people, then that’s kind of the point of music, to connect with people. I think that is one of the ways I am strongest: with my lyrics. I’m not like a super talented musician or anything, but I think I have an ear for melody and stuff, but I’m not like a shredder by any means.
I know what you mean. I think you’re doing pretty good for yourself, though.
Thank you very much!
You’re welcome! Lyrically, do you have a favorite track off of the new album?
Maybe “Friends We Met Online” because it’s really focused.
What spawned that?
I don’t know. I started playing a D-chord and then I had the first line. Then I was like, “Ok, what’s the next line?” In the second line and just in the title, it kind of says the entire sentiment of the song. The rest of the song is just me expanding on it and I was able to expand on it for the duration of the song, which can be difficult. It’s like, “Fuck, I don’t really know what else to say about this one thing.” You can move between different things that you want to talk about in a song, like one verse will kind of go like this and the chorus deals with that a little bit, but that song is really focused and just about one thing, which is something I’ve been able to do a couple times.
We have a song called “Heart Tattoo” that is just about dumb tattoos and why people get tattoos. Then, there is this song which is about Internet companionship, which I also think is kind of an embarrassing thing to write a song about. It’s kind of risky, but I think it is some of my strongest lyrics on record for sure.
It’s become more of thing since social media has grown, and obviously the Internet has become an integral part of our society, but people still have Internet friends they don’t even know in real life. I really think that that still resonates with people.
Definitely! I mean, especially with people my age. I was kind coming-of-age as the Internet was first around, you know? I was in middle school with AIM and high school with MySpace and stuff like that. It’s weird to have grown up with it and see it change and stuff.
One hundred percent. I grew up around the same time too, so I remember going from AIM to MySpace to Facebook. But I grew up originally playing like, CD-ROM computer games and stuff, and now I have cousins who have had iPads and iPhones since they were 7. Like I get it, but at the same time, I still didn’t have that. It’s still completely new to see them coming around.
In terms of the recording process, I know you guys worked with Kurt [Ballou]. What was that like? And how did that come about?
Oh, we’ve been big fans of Kurt from his band Converge and also just his recording. I’ve been a big fan of his production for years, since the beginning of the band. We kind of have always had a short-list of people who we would love to work with, and luckily for us, we’ve just been making our way down the list. We’ve worked with Rob Schnapf on the last record, who has done Elliott Smith records. Now, we have Kurt Ballou who did like a lot of the late-‘90s screamo stuff that we love, like Orchid and Jeromes Dream and stuff. Also, like Page 99 and Pygmy Lush. He’s done a lot of really cool recordings over the years and now to be on that list is super cool. We’re a band that Kurt Ballou recorded. He’s just amazing to watch work. He’s such an insanely smart person, every piece of gear he owns he could pull it apart and put it back together and tell you all about it. He’s a genius.
Now musically, did you guys have an idea of what you wanted the record to sound like when you went into it? Or did it just come organically?
I’d say that most of the record was written even before we were near a studio. It was pretty planned out. I think last time we were so excited to work with Rob Schnapf, to see what he would bring creatively and do with the songs, so I think I maybe left the songs like 90 percent finished and left that room for things like, “What do you think we should do for a bridge?”, “Do you think that we should have another chorus?” I wanted Rob to have something to work with, rather than, “We’re finished. We’re going to record it like this.” Because what is the point of getting Rob then?
This time going in, I think we had the songs where they needed to be already, but there was still a little bit of room for Kurt to add in his own personality into the songs. Especially guitar textual stuff, he’s like a guitar wizard, seriously. In Converge he was a crazy guitar player, but he was able to put some textural, almost kind of post-rock guitar stuff over a couple of things. There’s a song called “Gone Tomorrow” on the record and he did these kind of like David Bowie swells that he did in “Space Oddity”. He put those things in there and I don’t even know how to do that. So, we’re not going to recreate it live because I don’t even know what he did. He just had his guitar in his lab and he had one of those metal things you put on your finger like a slide, and he was running through all of these crazy pedals and I was like, “Whoa, this sounds insane!” It totally worked for the song and it’s a cool thing. So yeah, he was able to totally put his personality in there, but not so much with the arrangement or really getting in there and changing the structure of the song.
Going off what you said before about the truthfulness and vulnerability in songwriting. Does it ever get easier on your end opening up on that level to not only strangers, because you guys obviously have family and friends who probably listen to your albums, about stuff like that. Does that still daunt you a bit?
Yeah, it’s hard. It’s hard to really find the thing that you don’t want to admit to yourself about yourself. It’s not a super fun process, but it’s kind of cathartic and feels good. I love writing songs and I like surprising myself with what I’m capable of thinking and actually feeling. I think writing songs is a good way to do that. It’s a good way to find out what you’re actually thinking and feeling, because on the day-to-day we are guarded by that kind of thing. Yeah, I don’t think it’s easy. It’s probably gotten harder, if anything.
I think as you become an adult you become more and more guarded. When you’re a kid, you’re kind of an open wound. Everything is the end of the world, so you’re maybe a little more in touch with how you’re feeling when you’re younger. It can get more difficult when you get older, but that’s part of the job of being a songwriter: staying in touch with your thoughts and feelings.
Absolutely! And before I let you go, what are you most looking forward to as you head out on tour for the new album?
I’m most curious to see which ones the kids like. I feel like I’m starting to get an idea, but you never know. Sometimes it’s just weird. Like off our third record, the second track, it’s called “Falling In Love Again”, I like that song, but I did not think that that was the song that kids would really like. It’s like the first record, I think it made sense. I think “Constant Headache” is the most dynamic and the strongest on the record. It made sense to me that people were into that one. But ever since then I’m always kind of surprised with what the hits are going to be, you know? Or will there be any? [Laughs]
I think you guys are safe on that end, but do you have an inkling of one right now as to what songs people are picking up on? Do you guys end up taking that into consideration for slating like the setlist?
Of course! Yeah, we always want to play the songs that people want to hear. There’s only 10 songs on our record, so we stand behind all them, and especially with a punk show or whatever. I think it’s getting further and further along for us to say that what we do is play punk shows … A great show like that is 50/50: 50 percent the crowd, 50 percent the band. We feed off of each other, so we like to make this really exciting, fun thing that’s what makes it really special.
If you’re trying to play songs that the kids aren’t into or the crowd is’nt feeling, then it’s just way less fun. There’s no magic. There’s less of an energy in the room because it is coming from the band only. I am always fascinated with what songs connect with people and what songs stay alive in an environment and keeping the energy up for a full set.
We used to play around the length of our record, like 20 or 30 minutes, and now we’re playing for an hour and it’s career-spanning. It’s trying to make a setlist that has a good, even flow when we can pick it up or slow it down a bit. You just keep the energy in the room going. It’s kind of like a standup set. You have to hit your points and stuff, the ones that the crowd really connects with, that’s really important. If the crowd isn’t connecting with it, then we’ll stop playing it, you know?
Do you take that into consideration when you’re doing your little karaoke binges? Song-wise, what songs you start with and then hit in the middle and then end with?
[Laughs] No, that’s just me by myself just going off singing The Killers or whatever. Just trying to get those high notes. Yeah, but I’m not putting on a show then.
Who knows! I don’t know if they still do it, but I think they used to offer you the chance to record yourself at some of those places. Like get video tapes of people doing it [karaoke]. But if you want to think about doing it, you could put it out at the merch table sometime.
Yeah! You guys want to see me doing hours of karaoke?
I’m sure some fans would definitely pick that up!
Oh my god, I know.
Joyce Manor are performing live at Brooklyn Steel on October 11, at Asbury Lanes on October 12, and at Union Transfer in Philadelphia on October 14.