"I feel like I'm one of those kids in the Make A Wish Foundation," laughs Joyce Manor's Barry Johnson. "Like, 'What do you want to do, little buddy?' 'Well, I wanna make a record with Rob Schnapf and Tony Thaxton."
Little about the last four years has been straightforward for Joyce Manor. After losing drummer Pat Ware when he decided to go to law school, the group – completed by bassist Matt Ebert and guitarist Chase Knobbe – had to contend with burnout before finally reconvening for their sixth record, '40 oz. to Fresno'.
But with a drummer's stool to fill, they needed a quick and productive solution. Step forward Tony Thaxton of Motion City Soundtrack, one of the best in the business and highly endorsed by Joyce Manor's label boss, Epitaph's Brett Gurewitz. Then, with a desire to reunite with 'Cody' producer Rob Schnapf – who helmed some of the group's best songs, including the enormous 'Fake I.D.' and 'Last You Heard of Me' – Barry had acquired the necessary dream team to take the band to the next level.
Yet, there's still a self-deprecating humbleness to Joyce Manor. Barry jokes about being undeserving of such collaborators – even though the end results on '40 oz. to Fresno' are yet another high-watermark for the Californian group.
Like all bands, however, the last few years have been challenging. For Joyce Manor – a group which had found comfort in a timetable that saw a new album drop every two years between 2012 and 2018 – the handbrake was something of a blessing and a curse.
While it meant everything related to the band ground to a halt, it helped give Barry the space he needed to write again. "I felt, around the beginning of the writing session for 'Million Dollars to Kill Me' that we needed a break," he explains. "I don't think I was feeling terribly inspired, and I was going through the motions a little bit. But there's this feeling that you can count on us for a record or count on us to tour – and we've had that momentum – like perpetual motion – for almost 10 years.
"It was great, and it was a lot of fun. But it's like if you write for a sitcom, you can't say you're gonna take a few seasons off. There's a new episode next week, and you have to come up with funny stuff, so you always keep writing because it helps keep you sharp. So we thought it would be beneficial for the band and our career to just take a little break – and by a little break, I just mean six months. So, we did six months without any shows. I had a fresh routine at home that had nothing to do with Joyce Manor. The guys were a little bummed, but they understood that it was good for the creative side of the band, and they respected that. So, my initial routine was to just listen to records, play video games, drink beer and smoke weed. I was having a great time. Then the pandemic happened."
While Barry found himself doing some bartending for a time prior to the pandemic, when that bar closed – and when he'd grown tired of beer and video games – he found himself getting pulled back towards Joyce Manor and songwriting.
But the seed was only truly planted when he started collecting songs together for their compilation record, 'Songs From Northern Torrance'. Released in 2020, it was initially set to include 'Secret Sisters', the closing track from '40 oz to Fresno', which was a 'Never Hungover Again' b-side. But that would have meant an 11 song album – something that goes against Barry's mantra that "no Joyce Manor record should have 11 songs."
Yet 'Secret Sisters' – despite the bones of it being eight years old – is also spiritually linked to the album's opening number proper 'NBTSA' - or 'Never Be The Same Again'. The album's second track, it follows on from a cover of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's 'Souvenir', taken from a 2021 split single with Jawbreaker's Blake Schwarzenbach.
"Those songs are a real good look into my process and how neurotic it was," laughs Barry. "I wrote 'NBTSA' and decided it wasn't good enough, so I reworked it completely. I changed the chords, I changed the melody, I changed the lyrics, I changed the guitar solo, and it became 'Secret Sisters'. Now, it's not the same at all.
"I mean, there are one or two lines that are that similar. I felt the first line of 'NBTSA' – 'Can I tell you a secret?' – was a little bit obvious, but 'Secret Sisters', that's a little bit weird, a little more cryptic. Then in 'NBTSA', there's the line 'I don't know why I want you to know', and 'Secret Sisters' has the line 'I want you to know'. I wasn't sure if they should be on the same record, but it looks like they're referencing each other. And that's as close to a Joyce Manor concept album that you're ever gonna get."
But that doesn't mean there aren't some interesting ideas lurking behind the songs on '40 oz. to Fresno'. Sometimes these are obvious. 'You're Not Famous Anymore' is the most "spiteful" Joyce Manor song ever, according to Barry, as it details the fall from grace of a former celebrity. However, it's also a cautionary tale with Barry turning the lens inwards as it discusses the fickle finger of fame, and the anxiety he feels about no longer achieving success.
"I had those hyped fucking hotshot indie bands in mind – you know, the types who thought they were heading towards the stars but who weren't the most humble? Like, you might have been the shit in 2010, but by 2016 it's time to get a job at Trader Joe's," he laughs.
'NBTSA', however, is far less obvious and highlights Johnson's ability to write about some emotionally complex and interesting topics, wrapped up in a 100-second pop song. In this case, it's about somebody being abducted by aliens, but struggling with the way such an encounter would be disclosed to friends.
"I feel like 'Aliens Exist' by blink-182 kind of addresses that, but it's not as angsty – like that song doesn't really go into detail about how scary that would be," says Barry. "If you got abducted by aliens, that would be fucking scary and traumatic. Have you seen Fire in the Sky? It's super fucking slow and boring, but the end is fucking incredible and terrifying."
Incredible and terrifying could both be equally applied to Joyce Manor. Yet again, they've produced an incredible record, and Barry's ability to world build in 90 seconds remains a terrifying – and awe-inspiring – skill of songwriting and editing. '40 oz to Fresno' is another addition to an exemplary canon and another fine collection of songs – even if little about its construction is straightforward.
Taken from the July issue of Upset. Joyce Manor's album '40 oz. To Fresno' is out now.
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