A New Frontier
It’s 2:00 pm in San Francisco, California when Barry Johnson of Joyce Manor calls me. The singer/guitarist is in the back of a tour van and on the way to play the first of 20 shows on a month long U.S. tour. It was his birthday yesterday, so too drummer Jeff Enzor’s, while today it’s bass player Matt Ebert’s. In two days time their new record will come out. “We’re all going to celebrate today,” he beams down the phone line, and they have many reasons to.
Leading up to its release later in the week, unanimously positive reviews of the band’s fourth record, Cody have surfaced across print and online media, including from publications that have, up until now, largely ignored their music. Johnson freely admits, he does pay attention to them and has been warmly humbled by the response. “I’ve read all of them,” he says, without a hint of sarcasm. “I’m very happy.”
Happiness is a notion that underlies the record, particularly on the singer’s behalf. Sure, there are the ongoing themes of loneliness and feeling numb, there’s also the heartbreak of the death of a friend and dealing with the addiction of another, but there’s also love songs. In his own words, Johnson has called the album tender. “I think you just get softer as you get older,” he says in his wry sense of humor, less than 24 hours into his thirties. “I’m just a big softy now and that’s coming out through the songs. It wasn’t even a conscious thing but it wasn’t anything that I was afraid of. I wanted to embrace that.”
Lyrically, along with different moods, the album also sees Johnson embrace varied styles of writing. Earlier in the year he jokingly tweeted, “I don’t want a heart tattoo, I’m not in the army, I don’t own a pool (heated or not), but I DID know someone who got a leather jacket.” It was in reference to people taking his first person writing style literally and conversing with him at shows on topics that weren’t necessarily based on factual or individual experience. I ask him then, how much of Cody is running with an artistic license and adopting a character and how much of it is real, everyday occurrences? “A lot of the time the lyrics are cryptic. I don’t want to write just diary entry lyrics, but I think more so on this record there’s things that actually happened and I could tell you exactly which line is about which person. In the past a lot of the times it’s not about specific people or specific events, it’s just writing.”
The idea of trialing new ideas and embracing risks is something the band has done since day dot. Earlier this year Johnson did a stint of solo shows alongside Francis Quinlan, whose photo coincidentally features on the cover of Never Hungover Again and whose fellow Hop Along guitarist Joe Reinhart produced the album. Alone on stage and armed with just a guitar and his vocals, Johnson confesses it was excruciatingly nerve racking, but in hindsight, something that was ultimately rewarding. “They were great but they were also terrifying,” he reflects on the four show tour across the West Coast of America. “There were nights when I went on and I was so nervous. The first night I felt bummed that I wasn’t any good. I had people tell me it was good but I felt like I blew it. So going in to the second night I was just like, ‘this is going to be terrible,’ but it ended up being a lot of fun. Just the idea of having nothing to hide behind, I felt like I had to be a lot more on and a lot more present in the songs. I feel like it was definitely a good exercise for being a better performer.”
In the time between albums — two years, two months and 15 days to be exact, a fair bit changed in the life of Johnson, including developing an interest in meditation and teaching himself the techniques championed by the likes of The Beatles and director David Lynch. While by no means undertaken to enhance his music, he acknowledges there were many unexpected benefits that arose from the practice. “It made my intuition stronger. I feel like I knew when something seemed right and something seemed wrong. I could throw around ideas more clearly and stay focused for longer. It’s been great for me in a lot of ways. I think with songwriting though it wasn’t like I started meditating and then the songs just…” he pauses. “Actually no. The first day I did meditation, I went home and wrote a song instantly and effortlessly. It didn’t end up getting used for the record though, but I felt more inspired than I had been in a while.”
The album sits at just ten songs, however numerous others were written before committing to the final track listing. This time writing wasn’t laborious. Three songs; that’s 30% of the album, were written in one day. “I’ll write about 20 songs and they’ll be all bad and then I’ll write three good ones in a row,” laughs Johnson, in his typically self-deprecating humor. “Usually the good ones, the songs that are my favourite and the ones that tend to resonate most with people, kind of write themselves and all the pieces fall in to place naturally. Usually if the idea’s any good it’s kind of obvious where to go from it, but not in every case.”
What has allowed the songs to flourish this time around has been enlisting a producer, who also at times acted as a quasi-fifth member and critical friend. Being signed to Epitaph Records afforded the band the luxury of working with an industry big name, and despite Johnson’s initial pessimism, land their number one choice. “Brett Gurewitz from Epitaph has worked with Rob Schnapf a few times. He mixed the Rancid record a while back that Brett produced and Rob worked on the last Garden record which is on Epitaph. They’ve known each other a long time and are friends. When we sat down and started talking about producers, his was one of the first names that got thrown around. I was already a big fan of his work but I didn’t think he would be interested. Brett was like, “no, I think he’d want to do it,” which made me feel good. A couple of hours later I got a text from Brett just saying, “Yeah. Rob’s in.”’
Schnapf has worked with a vast array of artists ranging from Elliot Smith, Guided By Voices and Kurt Vile to Rancid, Jimmy Eat World and Osker. Johnson admits that it was his work with New Jersey emo band Saves The Day, and in particular their 2001 album Stay What You Are, that drew him to the producer. “For me the number one album that he did that I was like, ‘that would be a great fit for Joyce manor,’ was Save’s The Day Stay What You Are, just that kind of sonic quality. That album is upbeat and fun, but it’s also warm and timeless.”
As their fourth album launches, I ask Johnson to reflect on the band’s back catalogue and in particular one record that changed their trajectory. At thirteen minutes in running time, it’s hard to call their second album Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired a full length. The title itself has become somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy for Johnson who still harbours regrets about the album, but just as his lyrics often allude, he can be overly self critical. Sure the album has its flaws, but it’s the immediacy and the braveness to cut to the chase, that therein lies it’s charm and gives the album it’s point of difference. They didn’t know it at the time, but it’s the kind of album that needed to exist for Cody to be the masterpiece that it is. “In all honesty, I wish I could go back and do things a little differently,” he reflects. “I feel like at that point, all those songs went through so many different versions and there were so many different recordings. It was all over cooked and I could have used some help from a producer just to navigate my way through it all. I was trying to do all these ambitious things with very limited knowledge. To me, I can hear all those anxieties and uncertainties on the record. We made it in to something with this weird cut up and pieced back together thing. I’m really happy that people can enjoy it, but I personally can’t enjoy it in the way I do Cody or Never Hungover Again.”
That ambition has never dwindled, in fact it’s more prevalent on Cody as the four members strive to push their comfort zones. Take for example Do You Really Want To Not Get Better? the acoustic song positioned in the middle of the record, or Stairs, their longest jam at 4 minutes and 2 seconds, or the guest vocals of Fun’s Nate Ruess on the track Angel In The Snow, who also sung the hook on Eminem’s Headlights. There are also the simple intricacies of harmonies, different tempos, major chords and multiple verses in their songs, which they all pull off to a tee. Many have called it maturity, but it’s the combination of instinct and ambition, and ultimately the confidence to follow it through, that has seen Joyce Manor flourish on this record. “What I found with making this record is you can change one little thing in a song and it can make it a completely different song, which is insane to me. Sometimes by just moving one little thing around something completely different happens. It just takes time getting the songs where they need to go. It’s a little bit of trial and error, just having the time to try different things and not feel rushed, to have good ideas but not feel burnt out. Just being able to enjoy it, rather than having to knock it out in a certain amount of time,” he says of his two months in the studio making the album.
As much as the writing and recording is the album’s focal point, there are many subtleties, quarks and stories to go along with it that are just as fascinating; like the title and cover art. The album’s title, Cody has its own history. It was a name the band considered calling themselves when they formed back in 2008 before ultimately choosing Joyce Manor after the apartment complex Johnson would walk by in his hometown of Torrance, California. “The name sounded cool and it was a shame that we never got to use it,” he says. “For me, the main thing with an album title is I want it to go really well with the cover, and I feel like Cody just totally fit, so it was as simple as that.”
Certainly, there’s a great synergy with the album’s title and cover art with its artistic ambiguity, but it almost wasn’t to be. Instead of a drawing of potted plants, a photograph of a dog, affectionately known as Cheesecake, happily attacking at the ear of a mannequin, became Cody’s cover art at the eleventh hour. “Our friend Alex drew something for the cover which was really good. After we submitted it, my friend Adam sent me the photo and said, ‘Hey, I took this photo and I feel it totally has a Joyce Manor vibe.’ I was like, ‘We have to use this for the cover.’ So we had to go and stop the printers and we switched up the covers at the last minute.” The album isn’t out yet and a fan already has the cover art tattooed on their arm. “Is that real?” Johnson says, of a series of photos the fan posted on their Facebook page. “That’s really intense,” he laughs, perhaps with a proud sense of vindication for the art decision.
Another subtlety to the album’s artwork is their use of the old Epitaph tombstone logo — the same logo that featured on the back covers of Rancid’s …And Out Come The Wolves, Bad Religion’s No Control, The Offspring’s Smash, NOFX’s Punk In Drublic and countless other seminal records in its genre the label has released — as opposed to the newly stylized graphic font. “Honestly, I just like the way it looks. It looks drawn with a ballpoint pen or photocopied,” he says of the aesthetics. “And all those old Epitaph records that I use to buy had that logo, so that’s all I wanted to see when I looked on the back of a record.”
Earlier today, the band released a lavish film clip to their song Last You Heard Of Me. A fortnight ago, Make Me Dumb came out on the soundtrack to X Box racing game Forza Horizon 3. They’re being featured in Pitchfork, played on the radio and a sponsored advertisement for the album even just appeared in my Instagram feed. Their music is now reaching greater audiences, and in small part, it’s through the Epitaph networks. I ask Johnson, what the surrealist situation that has arisen from their exposure and being on the label is and he takes no time to answer. “It’s a friendship with Brett Gurewitz. Epitaph has so many records that are so important to me and he’s in Bad Religion, who was a band that I grew up loving. It’s just being able to talk to him as a friend and have him as a friend. Sometimes I just sit back and am like, ‘Man, this is such a trip,’ and I’m not usually like that kind of person.”
Ironically perhaps, Cody comes out the same day as fellow Californian’s Green Day and NOFX release their new albums. In a case of your idols becoming your rivals, pop punk has a new frontier and it’s Joyce Manor leading the way.