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OMD fandom, alien abduction and an ode to “being young and punk and in love”–Joyce Manor lead vocalist/guitarist Barry Johnson Zooms in to chat about all things 40 Oz. To Fresno, while also touching on how “dangerously high” he felt walking off stage after a great gig for the first time, post-lockdown.
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Named after an autocorrected text message about Sublime’s debut album (40 Oz. To Freedom), Joyce Manor’s sixth record, 40 Oz. To Fresno, contains nine songs and clocks in at a snappy 17 minutes. “I come from punk and that is very normal,” vocalist/guitarist Barry Johnson observes of the record’s concise duration, “and if they’re not used to that, people are kind of offended, they’re like, ‘Why the hell is the song so short?’ They’re like, ‘What, do you hate me?’ It’s like, ‘Nah, man, it’s just that I grew up listening to that kind of stuff.’ It’s not that I’m trying to be contrarian or weird or anything, it’s just, I dunno, that’s how a song should go in my mind.
“I think sometimes people mistake it for–I don’t care about it. It’s like, ‘Dude, I slaved and worked really hard over this minute-30!’ It’s not like I’m being flippant or dismissive, I really worked on this!” Johnson then points out that “some of the best albums ever made are short”, in his humble opinion, and offers up Redd Kross and Operation Ivy by way of example.
Johnson’s memories of Joyce Manor’s early tours include “drinking a 40 in the van on a night drive blasting Guided By Voices and smoking cigarettes the whole way to Fresno”, which inspired the title of their latest record. And in case you’re wondering, a “40 Oz.” is the U.S. version of a longneck.
“The tour van was Chase [Knobbe, guitar]’s mum’s minivan,” Johnson shares. “Chase’s mum basically let him have that van, so it was his van, and it just always looked like it was on tour, you know, there was CDs everywhere and just some weird, random T-shirt on the floor and stuff. So it looked like a touring vehicle.” And was the floor covered in fast food wrappers? “Yeah, stuff like that.”
40 Oz. To Fresno opens with Joyce Manor’s rendition of Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark’s Souvenir, which originally appeared on a 2021 split 7-inch. “They have a bunch of great songs, but I’ve always had a really, really particular fondness for that song and, yeah! I love OMD so much,” Johnson gushes. “I’m big into a lot of that synth-pop kinda stuff so, yeah! I could just hear that we could do kind of a Rentals-style treatment to it, you know; with that synth hook kinda being the main refrain in the song, it’s almost like the chorus, which is pretty unconventional for Joyce Manor so, yeah! I think for that reason it was cool on the record, ‘cause even though the record’s super-short, I like there to be a lot of variation; I don’t really like ideas to happen twice or for two things that are too similar to happen on the same record. So that was kind of a gimme as a cover; it’s gotta feel or be different, you know.”
I like to think that performing is not part of my identity. I like to think I have an identity separate from being a guy in a band, but if I’m being real, it is a huge part of my identity, because it’s what I’ve done with my entire adult life and, you know, being a person in a band is different than being a person who’s not in a band–people treat you different.
[ Barry johnson ]
The retro-themed music video for Gotta Let It Go, 40 Oz. To Fresno’s lead single, is absolutely stunning–it looks like it was shot on film. “It was recorded on film, yeah; it’s got a lot of warmth,” Johnson confirms. And that location! The house looks like it belongs in an ep of Million Dollar Listing! “The house is in Malibu. Yeah, it’s beautiful, right? So the pitch for the video was that it was gonna be set in the late-‘60s–kind of like Charles Manson time, which, you know, I know Once Upon A Time In Hollywood just came out and stuff, so I didn’t even think about it when it was pitched. I really like that time, like, Joan Didion, [her book] The White Album–the end of the ‘60s, the dark side of the ‘60s, is really interesting. So I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m down for this.’ But the pitch was that we were gonna be playing at a house in, like, full-‘60s attire to these kind of like drugged-out, uninterested, rich socialites, and I really liked that, because the enthusiastic house party pop-punk video has just been done a million times–no one needs to see that ever again.
“And then when we shot the video, the people in the video just looked like they were having fun! They were smiling!” he says, with an exasperated chuckle. “Looking dejected and disinterested is harder than being like, ‘Alright, yeah! Party!’ you know? And so, yeah, I don’t think they necessarily got the memo. So when we got the first cut, I was like, ‘Fuck, this is not what I pictured,’ you know? So I went in and edited it with the director, and any time someone was smiling we took it out. And [the director] was so annoyed, he was like, ‘Oh, but that shot is so good!’ I was like, ‘No, but they’re smiling. Take it out,’ and that really changed the tone of the video. And he got away with a couple of kinda half-smiles and stuff, but a lot of it we ended up leaving in was, like, before he said, ‘Action’. So he’d be filming someone and they would just be kinda like waiting to start reacting, and then he’d say, ‘Action,’ and then they’d be like [smiles in exaggerated, stoked fashion]. Is this gonna be written? ‘Cause I just made a face,” he guffaws.
The “grim” nature of the global pandemic really inspired Johnson to make 40 Oz. To Fresno “exciting and fun”. Melodically and in terms of the SoCal pop-punk band’s fast-paced, energetic playing, the album definitely sounds like a party. But lyrically, and in terms of the subject matter explored throughout, Joyce Manor’s trademark underlying anxiety simmers threateningly beneath the surface. “Oh, yeah, I mean, that’s always there–that’s just who I am,” Johnson explains. “Lyrics are a different thing. The subject matter is probably always depressing, for the most part.”
Although the explosive chaos of NBTSA (Never Be The Same Again)–Joyce Manor’s contribution to the 2017 Polyvinyl 4-Track Singles series–is sonically exhilarating, the situation depicted prickles with unsettling uncertainty. “That one’s about alien abduction–‘I think it did something to my brain,’ you know? ‘And I may never be the same again.’ So, I mean, blink-182 have touched on that topic and, yeah, it was just my turn in the lineage of pop-punk songs about alien abduction.”
Johnson’s diction is excellent throughout the course of this album, which really lures listeners in. Is enunciation something that Johnson really focuses on? “I think I want to deliver the lyrics with emotion and, in order for that to work, a lot of times you have to say things clearly,” he tells. “If you hear amateur singing on a record, it’s usually ‘cause it’s either out of tune or it’s not delivered well, you know what I mean? Like, a good rapper or a good hardcore frontperson will deliver things in a way that’s clear, and I actually think that’s not my strong suit so thank you for saying that. But I do work towards that … I just want the lines to connect, and a lot of times that means I’ll listen back to a take and be like, ‘Okay, I’m kinda marble-mouth or it sounds mushy. I need to tighten that up and hit the consonants better’.”
I’m also a boyfriend and a dog owner and a neighbour and stuff so I like to be a number of things, because I think If you’re too much of a guy in a band it can turn you into kind of an asshole.
[ Barry Johnson ]
When told this scribe’s favourite song on the album at the moment is Did You Ever Know?, Johnson enthuses, “That’s my favourite, too!” On how this particular song came together, he shares, “The first chord progression I think is A to E, to B minor to D, which is kinda like ‘baby’s first chord progression’. So I was just playing that and singing this really kind of–it almost sounds like a nursery rhyme, you know? It’s a really, really bubblegummy melody. But immediately I was just like, ‘Oh, this is something!’ And I had the lyrics right away.
“There was actually a chorus that I had originally that I got rid of, ‘cause I realised that it worked better if it was just the subject matter of the verses. So it’s kinda like this nice little snapshot. And the second verse goes to the F-sharp minor to the F, which is really tense. So I think going from this really bubblegummy thing to when the second verse kicks in and the story of the song unfolds a little more–the second half is a little bit more tense, you get this Pixies kinda thing where there’s this tension over this really, really sugary melody. But then the harmony comes in and the harmony’s kinda dissonant. And so I think, for me, that’s why it’s one of my favourites.
“It’s just this really sweet snapshot of–I picture this younger kinda punk couple, walkin’ around a not-so-great area with, like, stray cats and trash and a lot of activity happening around them, but they’re very focused on their little romance of, like, cigarettes and being young and punk and in love, which I was, you know? When I was young and punk and in love. So it isn’t about any particular relationship that I had, but I also just see it like – you know, you walk by a young punk couple and it kind of makes your heart flutter or whatever and you’re like, ‘Naw, those little weirdos–I love it!’ So that’s why that one’s my favourite.”
When asked whether he realised how much performing is part of his identity when touring was put on hold during lockdown, Johnson ponders, “That’s an interesting question. I like to think that performing is not part of my identity. I like to think I have an identity separate from being a guy in a band, but if I’m being real, it is a huge part of my identity, because it’s what I’ve done with my entire adult life and, you know, being a person in a band is different than being a person who’s not in a band–people treat you different. And I just know that you can become a fuckin’ asshole if you start to think you’re special, you know?
“So I think I’ve actually tried to stay grounded. And I’ve worked jobs–I’ve also been a bartender and worked at a juice place. Chase, our guitar player, worked at a silk screening shop … So, you know, I’m also a boyfriend and a dog owner and a neighbour and stuff so I like to be a number of things, because I think If you’re too much of a guy in a band it can turn you into kind of an asshole.
“I hesitated to answer the question, because once we started playing shows again–or, yeah, even going to gigs or just being in that environment–it really was validating in that this is what I’ve dedicated my life to and I’m really glad that I have, because not having it for a few years really highlighted how–it un-jaded me a little bit, you know what I mean? Like, I really didn’t take that experience for granted maybe for the first time in a few years where I was so–you go to a lot of gigs, but my life is a fucking gig, you know? So I feel like I got a little numb to it, or began to so, yeah! I saw a couple of great shows once the restrictions started to ease up and it’s fucking spiritual.”
So what was the first show by another band that Johnson attended, post-lockdown? “My friend Todd [Congelliere] has a band called The Underground Railroad To Candyland and they’re a fucking great band, and they did a ten-year anniversary for one of their records. They’re still a band, but they got all the original people back ‘cause it was kind of a magic lineup. And I saw them play at a bar in San Pedro and, yeah! It was transcendent. I was so fucking happy and singing my ass off and dancing around and just buying seven beers and passing them around to people I don’t even know,” he recalls, laughing, “and just really partying my ass off to this band that I love. And I was just so happy to see those dudes playing together again, ‘cause they are just interesting people, you know, they’re kind of weirdos who don’t come out much so, yeah! That was a really special experience and I love the record that they were playing, and that was my first post-pandemic show where I was just like, ‘I fucking love rock’n’roll so much!’ Yeah, I was having a blast.”
Now that live shows and touring are back, Johnson makes a promise to himself: “I’m gonna make an active effort to not take it for granted and really appreciate it. But is it part of my identity? Yeah, but I try to not make it my whole identity, just like anything. You know, if you’re in a relationship, you can become too codependent if you’re just focused on that relationship and kinda shutting out the rest of the world or neglecting the other facets of your personality, and it’s healthy to keep those things in balance and not become too much of any one thing but, yeah! I missed being in touch with that part of who I am.
“Oh my god, just playing a show and the give-and-take between a great crowd–like, that’s an insane drug … I can be elated, like, so happy and fulfilled, and it’s extremely validating and you’re not getting that for a few years. It felt kinda scary, ‘cause, it’s kinda grim, but you know how people who relapse on heroine and shit–they use the amount that they used when they used to use a lot, and that’s when they end up OD-ing! So it kind of felt like that, I was like, ‘Fuck! I dunno if I can handle how amazing this feels,’ you know? Like, when you’re used to it, you walk off stage after a great gig a lot, but the first time I walked off stage after a great gig, post-pandemic, I was like, ‘I feel dangerously high right now!’”
If we’re searching for silver linings, many musicians, songwriters and producers–lol over the world–suddenly noticed their schedules clearing once borders snapped shut, which opened up windows of opportunity for artists keen to collaborate remotely over the last couple of years.
“I mean, a good example of that is the guy who played drums on this record [Tony Thaxton] is from the band Motion City Soundtrack,” Johnson points out. “So had it not been for the pandemic, he could have very well been on tour, or recording or writing with them, and would’ve had to pass on the project, which would’ve been a drag, because his contribution to the record is immense.”