On Music, Authenticity and Heart
(Or, why I’ve become totally enamored with a band from Rochester, New York)
“Why do you like them so much?”
This was probably the third or fourth time I’d subjected Mark, my best friend, to listening to a band I’d recently become obsessed with. I’m driving him home after one of our dinners in Sacramento, a sort of middle-point between his home in the suburbs and mine in the extreme north-eastern part of the San Francisco Bay Area (depending on who you ask).
The background music for our commute is a homemade 20-track mix CD I’d burned earlier in the day. During the drive home, Mark’s trying to pull me into different conversations — about his job, a possible work trip to Canada, various girls in his life — and it’s more than a little obvious to him that I’ve zoned out.
It’s raining — a welcome sign in what has otherwise been a dry spell for Northern California — and it’s late, so it’s dark. My mind’s trying to be in three different places: on the road, on the music and on Mark. But only two of those things are winning.
Popping that question brings him back into my stream of awareness. I ramble for at least five minutes, completely uninterrupted, trying to articulate why I’d become smitten with this band. My brain’s on overload and I trip over my words trying to describe why I’m struck by their music.
Defeated by my own exhaust, I finally muster out: “I dunno man. It just feels real.”
This isn’t a story about a band. It’s not a story about an album, or a song, or even a concert — although to be clear, I am writing this while coming down off a high having just seen the band Joywave perform in San Francisco. And a good chunk of this story is about them.
But, no, those aren’t the subjects where I feel I’m qualified to write. If I wanted to critique bands and songs, I’d have studied the art of sound and worked my way into a music journalism career. Instead, I chose to literally make my living off the evening news. Six days ago, I covered what wound up becoming one of the most-damaging wildfires in California state history. My clothes still smell like smoke.
Music and journalism have a little something in common, though: Both things move and influence people. And if you’re willing to remove yourself from the equation, the product at hand can reveal a lot about the producer.
The radio turned me on to Joywave.
More specifically, a radio station in Los Angeles that, thanks to the magic of our globally-connected world, I was able to pick up in my car using a smartphone app.
I’d tune in to one of L.A.’s alternative stations to keep me company during a drive to the beach in March. Joywave’s single “Somebody New” was receiving somewhat-regular airplay down south — it hadn’t quite made it’s way up north yet, and if it had, I hadn’t heard it.
It caught my ear as something distinct. Aggressive. Punchy. Bold. It had a catchy chorus with a memorable riff. Hints of rock and electronica. The whole tune felt refined and rough around the edges.
(See what I mean about my inability to articulate sometimes?)
I saved the song to a growing Spotify playlist of songs I’d heard around the Internet that I might like to listen to again. A few days later, the song came on again while I was sitting at my desk doing some work. I did a Google search on the band, came across their YouTube channel and played the “unofficial” version of the song’s music video.
My takeaway was, this is definitely a band I’d want to see live. The video intermingled footage of the five-man band performing in various nightclubs along with pictures of their travels (presumably to and from the various venues where they played).
But before committing to any future ticket purchases, I wanted to see what else they had to offer. A YouTube search of the band’s name popped up with a couple of different music videos, some audio-only tracks, and a 30-minute-long concert the band had filmed at a planetarium in their native Rochester in 2012.
Watching a band perform live, especially on YouTube, has been my sort of litmus test for determining how a band sounds on an album versus how they sound in front of a crowd. In other words, whether their album is full of digitally-mastered, auto-tuned vocals and instruments, and whether they sound like absolute shit on stage.
I figured I’d skip around their half-hour planetarium concert — a chunk of which was filmed by GoPro cameras — to get a feel of how they looked and sounded live. I wound up watching the whole thing, and didn’t get any work done the rest of the day.
My first impression of the planetarium concert was that it showcased the band in their infancy. What I didn’t realize until after I’d done some research on the band is it was actually produced closer to their sophomore period of existence — one year before they signed with the Disney-owned Hollywood Records, but about two years after they’d formed in upstate New York.
The five band members — frontman Daniel Armbruster, known for his trademark mustache; bassist Sean Donnelly; drummer Paul Brenner; guitarist Joe Morinelli and keyboardist Ben Bailey — weren’t discovered separately by an intrepid talent scout looking to piece together a band. They didn’t form from a Craigslist or newspaper ad.
They were kids at school who liked to make music in what was otherwise a “hopeless” and, at times, depressing environment in the recession-stricken blue collar community that is Rochester.
It was software that brought the band together — initially just Daniel and Sean, and then the other three.
The band went through a handful of incarnations — including a “joke band whose songs satirized contemporary pop hits.” Some of those tracks landed on two digital mix tapes: 77777 and 88888, both of which are still offered as free downloads online.
As Joywave was finding its groove, the band’s members were juggling the reality of the present with the possibility of the future. One was DJing at a local club a few nights a week; others were holding down retail jobs.
That’s not unique to Joywave: A lot of bands take entry-level jobs to make ends meet early in their budding careers. That, by the way, is also true of most professionals: You do what you can to earn a dollar, and hope you have enough energy saved at the end of the day to pursue your passion.
(That was true for me: Before landing a professional news job in 2008, I spent a half-year working for a major department store, and another half-year working for a local amusement park. Both jobs sucked.)
You spend your entire eight-hour shift thinking about what you’d rather be doing at that very moment, counting down the hours, and then minutes, and then seconds to freedom. The constant feeling that you’re wasting your time at a go-nowhere job when could be out doing what you love is a message from your soul that your life is going in a direction contrary to fate.
“My post-college adult life was nothing like I’d imagined growing up,” Daniel says in the first part of a multi-part essay for the Huffington Post. “I was in my late 20s and still living at home. I had worked an $8-an-hour retail job for several years before deciding that $8 was pretty close to $0, so I might as well choose the latter. Contrary to what I was told for 13 years in school, a degree did not guarantee me a job, success, or happiness.”
Their instantly-recognizable song Tongues, Daniel explains, was inspired by the people he had met while DJing at a local club, “seeing the same fun-time people week after week, and having them describe in detail all the things they wanted to do with their lives, but never did.”
It takes someone who is very aware of what they should be doing to say “fuck it,” quit their job and explore their passion — even if it means living at home, or in your car, or at the YMCA.
And that passion doesn’t morph into something right away. You don’t cash your last dead-end-retail-job paycheck and then become an internationally-recognized alternative rock band (or, in my case, journalist) in the span of 24 hours.
Sometimes you’re aware of what you should be doing — but you aren’t quite sure how to get there yet. It takes a lot of experimenting, a lot of exploration and a lot of fine tuning before something “clicks.” Once it does, everything becomes a little bit clearer, and the months and years of effort of going from Point A to Point B becomes sentimental experience that you pride yourself on going forward.
When you listen to the mixtapes (and, again, remove yourself from the equation here), you get a little bit of insight into that journey from Point A to Point B. That period when the band was tinkering with the idea of making this kind of music or that kind of music. An experiment using only the resources at their disposal — a Macbook, a handful of instruments, some software and whatever space they could find to make it all come together.
Their freshman EP Koda Vista is the second leg of that journey, the moment when the picture and the purpose becomes a little bit clearer. Again, the album was mixed somewhat limited resources, but perhaps with a bit more cash on hand — Joywave was starting to become something of a serious band, and they were committing themselves to serious gigs, mainly around the Rochester area.
It was around this time they began harnessing the open distribution platform that is the Internet, setting up MySpace, Bandcamp and Soundcloud profiles to help their more-refined music reach a broader audience. Scattered on Soundcloud — even to this day — are remixes of songs produced by other artists. Joywave’s take on how a song might sound if they’d gotten their hands on it first, and a throwback to a time when the five men were more recognizable as a collective of sound hackers than a band.
Sometime around the planetarium concert, Joywave’s publisher sent a copy of their 88888 mixtape to some bigwigs at the Disney-owned Hollywood Records. The label few Daniel out to Los Angeles for a meeting, the takeaway of which was, “We’ll give you money, you go make a record.”
Unusual for an industry that, thanks to the Internet, is struggling to re-gain control of nearly everything. But not entirely unheard of — when someone is willing to create a unique product, and they know exactly what they want and how they want to get there, it’s not hard to find people willing to give that person the means to achieve their goal.
Sometimes the investment is the method, not the product.
There’s an interesting thing happening right now in the alternative and indie music space: Many bands that fall into one, or both, of those genres are harnessing the power of the Internet as an open distribution platform to get their songs in front of as many people as possible.
That democratization is being tapped into by streaming music services like Pandora, Spotify, Rdio and SoundCloud as a way of retaining listeners to their service. In figuring out how to keep people tuned in longer, they’ve adjusted algorithms and launched new features designed to blend what’s familiar with what’s new. In the process, they’ve remove the role of a music programmer away from radio stations and instead assigned it to computers and amateur tastemakers — the result of which has been exposures for up-and-coming artists and musicians in a way that just 10 years ago was nothing more than a crazy idea.
That is a really good thing. Until you have artists and bands start to recognize how those algorithms and tastemakers work, and try to break into that space by cheating the process. The result you end up with is music that sounds different, but similar: Similar chords, similar progression, similar whistling, similar children’s choirs. Similar electronic beats that inspire someone to sit-dance while in traffic. Similar mellow vocals that persuade stoners to light up.
Once in a while, Spotify or Pandora or the radio hits on a song that moves the needle from “similar” all the way to “different.” And if you’re lucky, the entire album feels that way.
How Do You Feel Now? is one of those albums — not just a collection of songs randomly placed on a CD, but a callback to a time when artists used diligence in creating something meant to be enjoyed from the first second of the first track all the way to the last second of the last track. There aren’t too many groups making deliberate decisions about which song goes where, how each instrument should sound, pushing themselves beyond “acceptable” to “perfect” — or, imperfect, if that’s what the art calls for.
That’s not to say How Do You Feel Now? doesn’t fork some of the sounds heard on catchier alternative songs that enjoy near-endless rotation on the radio. But that isn’t simply to make the song sound more appealing to the listener. Each choice is made to convey some kind of thought, feeling or message.
“After the song Destruction was basically finished, Sean and I stared at each other and said, What is the stupidest thing we can do?” Daniel said in a recent interview. “We thought about all these bands whistling and stomping and yelling Hey! on every song, and we just couldn’t stop laughing. So if you listen to the song, there’s the whistling, and then, in the middle of it, there’s one unenthusiastic Hey and some handclaps. And that was a giant middle finger at radio.”
There’s some subtle, personal references too: Sounds from JetBlue planes (the airliner is based in New York), a Brooklyn choir, and samples from various Disney movies all made it onto the record in one way or another. Preservations that recall a time when Joywave produced their album in a small plumbing-challenged studio bankrolled by a handful of cash and some faith.
(An aside: The plumbing was so bad in the studio that at one point, the band members had to pee inside milk cartons. Which they recorded. The sound of the pee stream made it into the beginning of one of the tracks on the album, though I haven’t been able to figure out which one.)
When I learned a few months ago that the band would be promoting How Do You Feel Now? with a nationwide tour this summer, I set an alarm with the exact date and time the tickets would be on sale, and cleared my schedule for that morning.
That might sound sad, but I was excited.
June 25th, 10:02 AM, an e-mail popped up with an order confirmation. The date was set: September 18 at Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco.
The next three months became a countdown to the moment when I’d see Joywave in person. It was brought up at nearly every dinner or conversation with Mark; eventually I secured a ticket for him too.
The most-anticipated night in Matthewland came on Friday. Mark and I emerged from an Uber to find keyboardist Ben Bailey taking a smoke break outside. Other band members inside were getting drinks at the bar or casually talking with one or two fans.
In this moment, it became clear where the band was in their journey: Big enough to sell out a venue like Rickshaw Stop (capacity: 199), small enough to get a drink at the bar without being mobbed for autographs.
That became evident after the show when I stopped by the souvenir table to pick up a “Coffee with Joywave” coffee mug (I collect coffee mugs the way people collect postcards or magnets). I’d actually purchased one a month earlier, but it arrived broken because of some mishandling by the postal service (luckily, it was insured, and the postal service cut me a check a week later).
Instead of re-purchasing the mug, I e-mailed the band’s indie label Cultco to see if any would be on hand at the show. Paul Brenner, Joywave’s drummer, wrote back, apologizing for the shipment and promising one would be on hand at the show.
I didn’t expect anyone to remember — mostly because I’d completely forgotten about it until I saw a coffee cup on their merch table. But the band’s staff did remember and, true to their word, they had one saved for me at the show.
At different points in the evening, Mark and I chatted with Ben, Paul and Daniel. Each one mentioned the coffee mug and the e-mail I’d sent — I guess word got around. They all apologized for the mailing mishap, and each said they were glad I’d finally gotten a mug that didn’t require some assembling.
If you’ve read this far, and you’re wondering why I just committed four paragraphs to talking about a souvenir coffee mug instead of the experience of seeing Joywave perform live (the show is awesome, by the way, and you should definitely go see it), the point I’m trying to make is this:
They have a lot of natural heart and soul in an industry that can, at times, feel artificial. It shows in their album, their command of the stage and their interactions with their fans (especially the ones who incessantly tweet about them and stalk their every Facebook update).
Their product is the epitome of a true group of artists who have struggled more than a bit to get to where they are, and are still trying to get to where they’re going. And what’s going for them is their partial awareness of where they want to go and how they want to get there. Not everyone has that perspective. It’s something I can identify with and, because of it, appreciate.
So, to answer your question, that’s why I like them so much. And while I probably didn’t come off any more articulate than that April night in the car with Mark, at least I’ve got a frame of reference for the next person who asks me that question.