JOYCE MANOR: LIFE JUST KEEPS GOING
photography by AMMO
Joyce Manor’s newest album Never Hungover Again (also their first for L.A.’s Epitaph) has a cover design winking at Big Star’s Radio City and a quick 20 minutes of songs about those nowhere nights where it seems like you’re the last person awake (or alive?) on the surface streets. By now, they’ve spent almost five years refining—as singer/guitarist Barry Johnson puts it—their not-as-pop-as-it-used-to-be Jawbreaker-vs-Lifetime punk sound toward some kind of highly personal document of life as it was lived by another four South Bay kids who didn’t feel like they fit in. And so, here and on record, they tell it like it happened to them. They play Friday, July 25, at the El Rey with Tony Molina. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
What was the first book you ever read twice? Or the first movie you saw twice? The first thing that you had to go back to for more?
Barry Johnson (guitar/vocals): I got really obsessed with Terminator 2 and Terminator. Insanely fixated. My parents let me watch or take in anything I wanted, so when I was 5 in 1992 and my dad took me to T2 in the theater … that was it. That was all I was into for years. Just that! At that age, where do you go from there? Your friends weren’t allowed to watch that. I didn’t have anyone I could talk to about it. So I’d have my friends come over and watch.
But they weren’t allowed.
No, I was that friend. ‘Come watch bad stuff at my house!’ Every neighborhood needs that kid. And then it was The Shining. At 7 or 8—that was just huge. There’s a lot of nuance, and a lot of that was lost on me. But I still enjoyed it. It was super, super scary. I had to go back a lot to it as an adult. I’ve been watching it at least once a year since I first saw it.
Are you able to mark your personal development by your changing opinions of The Shining?
Definitely. The Clash are a huge band like that for me. I’ve listened to them since I was really young. I like them more every year, for different reasons. It’s just great to marvel at something like that. Like I love how stressful The Shining is. Do you know the impossible loop? You know how Danny is on his tricycle going in circles? A lot of the loops he does are not possible. The movie is laid out so you can plot the floor plan, and the loops end up in places you can’t go. Or when Jack goes to the interview and there’s a window behind the desk. That window can’t exist either. Kubrick would never have let a thing like that slide. It’s very intentional. He was so obsessed that he’d create things that maybe would never get noticed, but the fact he put them in there is why they’d get noticed. I think he was a guy who was just into things people would freak out over—not like, ‘I want people to obsess over this later!’ Like he had no choice. I like the idea of someone being guided by something they don’t understand. A compulsion—and watching what someone else with a compulsion created.
What happens to something when it’s powered by compulsion, instead of technique or just an idea? Is that what it’s like for you?
The frustrating part about being the guy who obsesses over things and is just compelled to do it and can’t get a decent night’s sleep till it’s right … it’s like either A) other people’s work comes across as lazy and shitty. Like I think my own work is bad and then I listen to other people’s stuff, and I’m like, ‘This is horrible!’ Or B) it’s completely effortless and I’m jealous! Like they just did it and it’s perfect! It doesn’t sound like they were obsessed. It’s like they woke up, stretched, yawned and the first thing they played was perfect. Both are maddening, frustrating. ‘Why didn’t they work on this?’ or ‘Why didn’t they HAVE to work on this?’ I have to put a ton of work in. I take pride in that, but I don’t have a choice to not do it. I can just never relax again.
That’s like Jonathan Richman sings: ‘I never can relax.’
I really like Jonathan Richman! He’s fucked, though. His whole shit is super-fake—his ‘act’! The grandma shit he manages to make tight! I remember hearing him and thinking, ‘I can’t believe how much this is up my alley.’ Like it felt … perverse. Like weird porn I’d tapped into. I was almost afraid of it. Like, ‘I might join this guy’s cult.’
What would that cult be like?
You know the people in high school you couldn’t relate to even though you thought they were cool and really attractive, maybe people you wanted to even be like? This is the thing they’d find so offensive—‘This is the gayest, lamest shit I ever heard in my life!’ But I like it, and that’s what makes me different from those people. That’s what’s weird about it. You can see the thing that makes you different.
What was your favorite album ten years ago? What do you think your favorite will be ten years from now?
I was 17. I had a personality problem where every few months I’d decide I was gonna be into something different. I was one of those guys! The year previously I was really into indie rock—Weakerthans, Death Cab, Radiohead. Then next year I was so burnt out, so I was really into Rancid, Cocksparrer, and I didn’t listen to any indie rock shit. I was embarrassed. ‘I listen to punk, man!’ I had my nose up in the air at the stuff from the year before. Did anything stay with me? Not really. I’ll put something on every now and then. I remember once I turned 24, I started honing in on what I was actually into. Beach Boys, Guided by Voices … drunk dad shit? No, cuz that’s Wilco. But GBV, Beach Boys, Smiths, Toys That Kill. Stuff with punk leanings but a little more than that. I started fucking with things I thought were special. It’s gratifying cuz once you see it, you realize it’s possible. Once I saw how those bands did things, it was like, ‘Oh, I can do this!’ Not like ripping it off, but knowing you could be a punk band that did something a little more personal. I tried to understand it more so I could do it myself.
What’s it like when people come up to you and are like, ‘You did that for me, man!’?
I’ve tried to tell people how their band is to me, and then kids have the exact same conversation with me! I’m trying to reassure them like, ‘Yeah, I know how you feel, I’ve done exactly what you’re doing.’
Do they believe you?
No, not really. I can tell they’re all sweaty-palmed.
What got you into music in the first place?
Punk-O-Rama 2! In fourth grade! Before there was kinda shit on the radio. Reel Big Fish and Goldfinger? But that comp had Poison Idea and stuff. My friend’s older brother made me tapes with AFI, Union 13, and I started going to shows in sixth grade. Like a treat—my stepdad would take me to two shows a year! Like AFI, Sick of It All, Hot Water Music … And then I started going to local shows like Rock Goggle Fantasy, Le Joshua … that was in my friend’s backyard. There’s a point where music and video games and movies are all just part of the same media entertainment thing, and then you find something you can be part of. It becomes more attainable and doable. I literally thought some people could play guitar and some people couldn’t. And I was just one who couldn’t. I didn’t look at it as something I could do.
What’s the positive part about being someone who takes a long time to decide what they’re into? How does going buffet-style help you out as a person?
I always wanted to play guitar and be in a band. And I always projected onto people in bands I was obsessed with, and went back and forth between a wannabe pop-punk band and a wannabe hardcore band. Pop-punk being like Beach Boys, Weezer, all the pop side of the brain.
You’d think those two things are opposite—but tons of people are super into pop and hardcore.
Yeah, that’s really common! Tony Molina has that exact thing—hardcore and pop-punk. I always go back and forth. Pop-punk band for three months, hardcore for three months. I was just more gifted on the pop side. I didn’t shine in the hardcore world. Early Joyce Manor is a pop-punk band that deep down wants to be a hardcore band. That’s why you say people wanna sing along. Cuz they’re hardcore songs. And our shows are full of hardcore kids. I was like, ‘Why do people I have nothing in common with respond so well to our songs?’ And it’s cuz deep down I was a hardcore kid. I think we lost some of that, and maybe not for the better. Especially on the second record! The first thing we did was pop-punk wanting to be hardcore, and we succeeded. That gave us the confidence to focus on more pop stuff, which we wouldn’t have had the confidence to do before—to really wanna write actual pop songs, for better or worse.
How did you learn to put more personal ideas in songs? When you aren’t in a hardcore band, you don’t get to hide behind fast-loud-can’t-understand-the-lyrics.
Absolutely. That’s where the hardcore side was. It felt more comfortable, more doable. We couldn’t be held accountable for what we made. We were just going for it. ‘Hardcore band’ shit! The point of a good song is to communicate something, and hardcore is not a typical … well, it can communicate something very simple. Maybe kinda adolescent? The same way a tantrum is a good way to communicate. But you just need something that communicates more complicated emotion, and melody can do that. If you combine melody with that tantrum, it’s satisfying in two ways at once.
Every song on this record is also about a ‘me’ and a ‘you’—it’s one person talking to another person. Why?
I hadn’t noticed a dialogue happening. My girlfriend and I broke up before this record, and I didn’t wanna mention that—‘This is a break-up record!’ We ended up getting back together before this came out—
Is that when you got super into Big Star?
Totally did. But yeah, it’s corny and played-out. Everyone’s been through a break-up. But maybe that’s what it is? Trying to understand how someone else feels—they tell me how they feel?
Is this two opposite things at once again?
Anything that has momentum needs two things at once. The conflicting ideas create the spark. If one thing sits idly, you need the other to create the heat. I took something from Kurt Vonnegut—writing a book is like building a car, and if the things aren’t in the right spot, it won’t go. And until it goes, it needs work! You can’t explain it to yourself: ‘Oh, no, it’s good cuz of this!’ You feel it—you feel it, like the track goes now. It’s horrible when it won’t go. You move shit around and it never happens.
Do you have a junkyard of broken songs?
Yeah—friends tell me those are the best parts. ‘I can’t believe that didn’t make the record.’ I dunno what to tell you. It didn’t go. Some people make everything go and it’s effortlessly good. But fuck those people!
What have you learned about making songs by making your songs? What are the blueprints for Joyce Manor?
The songs have to be driving. It has to all be going toward the end of the song. That’s why a lot of them end up being so short. You can’t do that for too long before you lose that momentum. When we tried to do stuff that doesn’t have that momentum, it doesn’t work. Which is maybe why we end up using the same kind of drumbeats and similar chord shapes or something.
Are you working toward the ultimate perfect Joyce Manor song?
Completely. I hear that in other bands, too. Tony Molina, same thing. People say it all sounds the same, but it doesn’t. Well, they do, but it’s not negative. It’s someone perfecting their craft. That’s why it took us two and a half years to write eighteen minutes.
You said you’re a little mean on some of the new songs—like ‘Christmas Card.’ Is it easier to write meaner?
The people you’re writing about are gonna hear it! I’ve had people I know ask if it’s them? And I say no … but it totally is. It’s too uncomfortable to talk about—no one wants to fess up to that. I don’t wanna fess up to that! But any good artist is gonna face that. When you do it in a way that’s not cryptic, it’s not as effective. Or cathartic.
What’s this record say about where you are in life?
Especially on the first record, I had this really weird complex where I felt I was owed more than I had, whether it was relationships with women or jealous of the success of my friends. It felt like I had been shortchanged in some way. I was kind of entitled. Listening to it now, I feel like, ‘Man, I was such a jerk.’ An entitled crybaby jerk.
That’s the foundation of a lot of music.
I don’t think I’m like that all the time! I think I allowed myself to be that for writing songs, cuz it felt good. I think there’s less of that on the record now—I hope that says something positive! I hope airing it out helps me be less like that? Maybe I’ll listen to this in a few years and think, ‘Nope, still an entitled dick who feels he deserves everything!’
What changed? A lot of people love living like that.
People say I’m so angsty. It’s just trying to deal with that and become a better person! And not live my whole life selfish and entitled and being okay with that. That creates that frustration with yourself, that desire to not be so much like that. Which is hard! And it’s one thing to want that, and another thing to actually do something about it. Which I almost never do, but at least I feel bad about it! Hopefully it leads to proactive measures.
Self-improvement through self-loathing?
And what’ll I do once I improve myself? No more tunes! Maybe part of me doesn’t wanna improve. ‘People seem to love this, I’m paying my rent!’ Reap the benefits!
‘Heart Tattoo’ seems to be one of the most positive songs—‘I know it looks bad, it’s the only one I have.’
I love that song cuz it’s about one thing only. It doesn’t ever stray lyrically from that exact thing. That’s the first time I’ve ever successfully done that. I had that first line: ‘I want a heart tattoo, I want it to hurt really bad …’ and it just kinda started. It wasn’t all one go, but I wrote that in about twenty minutes.
What’s the landscape of this record? You sing about these empty homes, climbing over backyard walls, parties you don’t wanna be at—it kind of reminds me of ‘Bikeage.’ South Bay suburban desolation.
It’s taking a bus home from practice. From Del Amo Mall in Torrance, goes through Carson and then Wilmington, the crazy industrial part of Harbor City and into Long Beach. The 232 bus. There’s these weird blue lights on the 232 at night, and I’d come home from practice after a few beers. I’ve taken that bus a billion times. The song ‘Schley,’ that’s a stop on that bus—Anaheim and Schley.
Nothing, literally nothing. It’s completely desolate. I grew up in Harbor City and Lomita, went to school in Torrance. I read interviews with the Descendents or Black Flag and it’s exactly the same.
Is that comforting or disturbing?
Comforting! Cuz I love it too! It’s a weird source of pride that I shouldn’t be proud of. There’s nothing to be proud of!
What was going on the night your album cover was taken?
The lady in the picture is Frances from the band Hop Along. We were hanging out in Philly after a show—it’s a green room. We’re all partying, having a great time and my friend snapped that photo. I love that it’s posed but it also feels candid—really natural. We’d done our first attempt at tracking the album then, but it was different songs. Only ‘Heart Tattoo’ and ‘Schley’ are the same. And we hadn’t written ‘The Jerk’ yet. That’s the one that set the bar. ‘This is what we need to strive for.’ I came to practice and Chase [Knobbe, guitarist] had been visiting his girlfriend in Santa Cruz and was like, ‘I wrote a riff!’ ‘Oh, cool, I got one too! Wanna try and play ’em together?’ So 1, 2, 3, go—we play at the same time, and it’s ‘The Jerk.’ Same key, different notes, and they sound totally different independently but together create this emotion we want captured. The rhythm guitar is mean, or sad and angry-sounding, and his guitar is really pretty. Together the two things at once create a totally different feeling that I can’t pin down. It’s not ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ or ‘whimsical.’ It’s a weird feeling hanging over my life that I can’t really say.
It’s like the ending of The Graduate—where the shot just lingers a little too long.
Too long—a perfect example. I love that movie. You feel like you’re in their life at the very end. Like, ‘Oh shit—now life just keeps going.’
GOLDENVOICE AND FYF FEST PRESENT JOYCE MANOR WITH TONY MOLINA AND WINTER BREAK PLUS DJ BENNETT (KXLU) ON FRI., JULY 25, AT THE EL REY THEATRE, 5515 WILSHIRE BLVD., LOS ANGELES. 8 PM / $15 / ALL AGES. GOLDENVOICE.COM. JOYCE MANOR’S NEVER HUNGOVER AGAIN IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM EPITAPH. VISIT JOYCE MANOR AT FACEBOOK.COM/JOYCEMANOR.