Every musician dreads the moment that they play a new song to a previously enthralled audience, who haven’t yet learned the words and synchronously disengage. Joyce Manor frontman Barry Johnson patiently awaited the inevitable in touring their latest record, 40 oz. to Fresno. But that moment never came. “That’s a great feeling,” Johnson admits, registering it as a compliment to their sixth studio album. “It’s very much tangible, and something you can actually experience and feel, rather than if some music journalist is like, ‘Joyce Manor show a great amount of depth in the everyday ordinary minutiae of their lives…’”
Johnson has never been afraid to get cheeky with the truth, which is why he’s talking shit about music journalists while getting interviewed and why he tweeted that Joyce Manor had never really had a great show in Omaha the day we spoke despite gearing up to play there that night (later tweeting: “easily my favorite Omaha show last night. [S]pecial shout out to the girl that puked when we played Orange Julius!”) Johnson’s raw, radical candour – in life and musically – is also the reason that so many fans have flocked to Joyce Manor since the start. In describing My Chemical Romance’s ‘Helena’, which Joyce Manor legendarily covered once and are unlikely to ever again (“I think it would get old”), Johnson notes it as “impassioned.” He continues: “It’s exciting. It’s anthemic…I would trade every Joyce Manor song ever to have written ‘Helena’.”
But he doesn’t have to. Those exact qualities positively contaminate every Joyce Manor song ever anyway, distilled into sub 2-minute punk drops that make up sub 30-minute albums uncharacteristically (for our scene) consistent in the praise they receive. Having said that, while 2014’s Never Hungover Again appears to be the act’s most lauded album on the surface, Johnson points out that it was actually their self-titled debut that earned the warmest response until now. “I’d say it’s probably our best-received record [40 oz. to Fresno] since maybe the first record. It’s easy to misremember how Never Hungover Again was received when it came out. But I think our fans were not totally onboard with it when it came out, ‘cause I remember playing some of the songs and they didn’t really connect that well live. Now they do.”
Not in a sense that’s dissimilar to that shard of misremembered history, it’s easy to forget what’s beneath the surface in the life of a touring band. After roughly a decade on the road, Johnson felt his flame beginning to flicker, and on the verge of burning out, found reprieve in the otherwise bleak downtime offered by the dawn of the pandemic. It got old, of course – inevitably, distance makes the heart grow fonder.
“There are a lot of things that I liked though, about taking some time off the road and off being the guy from Joyce Manor. About living a kind of ordinary life,” he adds. “I went straight from my early twenties and did this, from my early twenties until my early thirties, just touring. And I didn’t figure out how to do the things that normal adults do, ‘cause I was just doing this instead. It was great, and I’m happy to be doing it again, but I was happy to have a little break.”
Content learning how to cook and intermittently heading out for walks with his dog, Johnson made the most of being off the road. But that transition from being the frontman of a prosperous band to a state of somewhat-retirement wouldn’t be easy for anyone, and for other artists, spawned a downfall that seems to be reflected in 40 oz. to Fresno cut, ‘You’re Not Famous Anymore’.
“I think it’s just like a meditation on the nature of fame,” Johnson explains, not directly inspired by his time in lockdown but perhaps unconsciously influenced. “Morrissey has a lot of songs about the nature of fame, and it’s something that’s interesting to me. I don’t think there really needs to be a bunch of songs about it, but I liked how spiteful it was, and it felt like something different for me…A lot of my songs are about being lonely, and I was like, finally for once something about fucking something else, for Christ’s sake.
“A lot of people have been asking me like, ‘Who’s that about? Who’s that about?’ But it’s just about anybody that was kind of doing well for a moment, and the fact that we kind of enjoy seeing people taken down a peg or two. That’s it.”
Johnson is proud of what he’s created, but he hasn’t yet drowned in the sea of bullshit that accompanies being in an industry fuelled by ego. His focus now is where it’s always been – on making really fucking good songs – with a nostalgic revisit of old tracks culminating in the Songs from Northern Torrance compilation propping up this new chapter for the band.
“I kinda think I was better at lyrics then,” he quips, referring to Joyce Manor’s earliest material. “I don’t know, like in the early days, I was super inspired, you know? I have to work a lot harder for it now, I write and I write, I rewrite and I try to get the songs the way they need to be, but I think I had just kind of a knack when I was younger.”
He continues: “Honestly, it doesn’t sound very modest, but I really liked the first songs we ever did – ‘House Warning Party’ and ‘Fuck Koalacaust’. They were the first two songs we had for Joyce Manor, and I think we came out of the gate really strong. I had those songs around for a little while, I just didn’t have a band for them. And I was really embarrassed to sing in front of everybody, anybody.” He continues: “I thought the first time I showed somebody a song I’d written that had a melody, they were gonna laugh at me and at my singing, you know? Singing in front of people is fucking nerve-wracking. It still is.”
Nerves aside, every Joyce Manor show is a celebration of the work and following that the band have cultivated, for now, evading the ghosts of the pandemic and returning to what they were before our global health crisis.
“I feel like if you’re gonna go out and get in the crowded room and go to shows, it’s like, you can’t do it halfway. You can’t go and not have fun and be worried about getting fucking COVID the whole time. It’s a very rational concern, but it’s like, if you’re gonna fucking do it, let’s go. You know what I mean? At least make it worth it. And people are definitely making it worth it.”