“Joyce Manor die!”
That’s the narrative around Million Dollars to Kill Me, the new album out Friday (Sept. 21) from Torrance, CA’s finest rock quartet, as proclaimed by frontman Barry Johnson to Billboard from a hotel roof in downtown Manhattan. Not really: The band’s not breaking up, nor are they prophesying their own demise. But it’s hard for the now-veteran band to pin down another easily summarized hook for their fifth LP.
“Cody was the ‘Joyce Manor grow up’ record,” says bassist Matt Ebert of the group’s 2016 album, their most recent (and most polished) to date. “So like, where do you go from there?”
Joyce Manor formed nearly a decade ago in Northern California when its co-founders, Johnson and guitarist Chase Knobbe, met over the Internet and bonded over a mutual love of pop-punk heroes Blink-182. They eventually added Ebert and then-drummer Kurt Walcher and started playing gigs as Joyce Manor, and word of their flailing, frenzied live show spread quickly over social media, especially through Tumblr. “It was a lot of like, gifs of our live show, with one line from [early single] ‘Constant Headache,'” Johnson remembers. “That’s what got us really popular.”
Their self-titled 2011 debut album, ten blinding explosions of dry pop-punk wit — including “Headache,” soon to become their signature song — also helped build a cult following. By the point of 2012 second album Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired, Joyce Manor had grown enough of a fanbase that the band could feel their disappointment over the set’s more experimental edge. But legendary punk label Epitaph was still impressed enough to sign the band in time for their third album, 2014’s Never Hungover Again, whose more expansive production and sharper-than-ever pop choruses both re-enchanted old fans and enticed new indie audiences who’d never even been to a Cali basement show.
Then came Cody, the band’s even-shinier fourth set. It slowed the tempo on their previously pummeling, no-bathroom-breaks-allowed-length anthems and gussied up their pop-rock melodies with some of their most gorgeous, accessible hooks to date — the band even enlisted fun. frontman Nate Ruess for backing harmonies on one track. Many surrounding the band expected it to be a make-or-break record for Joyce Manor, either propelling them into the mainstream or alienating their fans altogether.
It ended up doing neither. Like Never Hungover Again before it, Cody scraped the lower half of the Billboard 200 albums chart, and attracted mostly strong reviews, but any hopes (or fears) that it would turn Joyce Manor into the next Weezer proved unfounded. “It wasn’t like the album that changed shit for us for good or bad,” explains Johnson. “It wasn’t career destroying or career making. It was just carer continuing.”
However, despite an initially chilly reception from some of the Joyce Manor faithful, the band noticed that the crowds at their live shows in support of the album were continuing to swell. It got to the point where, for the first time coming off tour on the end of an album cycle, the band didn’t need to get part-time jobs before getting back out. (“I can find a job, or I can get a PS4,” Johnson recalls musing, opting for the latter.) Next January, a leg of the band’s upcoming tour will kick off with a homecoming at the nearly 4000-cap Hollywood Palladium — easily Joyce Manor’s biggest headlining gig yet. “I hope it’s not half-full,” the frontman says.
But what’s really striking about the band’s gigs today isn’t the numbers of fans they’re attracting, it’s the type. The band’s initial following in their Tumblr days consisted, as Johnson describes, largely of “16-year-old and 17-year-old girls, with septum piercings and green hair.” While most would expect that fanbase to age with the band, particularly as their music has mellowed over nearly ten years and five albums, Joyce Manor have managed a feat that few rock acts outside of the arena-touring likes of Fall Out Boy and Panic! At the Disco can claim: They get older, but their fans seem to stay the same age. Not only that, but they’re going as nuts for the Cody tracks as they did for the band’s road-tested classics.
The band is flummoxed as to why. (“I don’t know how that’s kept going,” Johnson says. “Where the fuck do kids even find out about music now?”) But as a band whose roaring live energy has stayed consistent even as their on-record mania has chilled, they unanimously prefer it to the alternative: playing for a room full of head-nodding 30-somethings. “[My teens and early twenties] were when I enjoyed music and going to shows the most,” Knobbe says. “So being on the other side of that… it actually feels good and enriching.” (The four members — who range from 26 to 32 years old — are also all in relationships, which they say shields them from any of the more unsavory elements that could accompany such an age discrepancy between them and their fans. “It kind of feels more like being a camp counselor,” Knobbe jokes.)
While the band may be maintaining the passion of a fanbase mostly associated with pop-punk, they’re also achieving a stability more familiar to legacy indie acts. Million Dollars to Kill Me — named after an ancedote from Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker’s darkest days — is the first of the band’s five albums to not serve as a direct response to the one before it. It’s not a risk-taking follow-up to a breakout debut, it’s not a course-correction to win back old fans or a springboard to try to attract new ones. It’s just a really, really good Joyce Manor album.
That’s not to say that the band doesn’t try anything new on the record. The second half of Million Dollars finds Joyce Manor exploring their milder side in previously unheard ways, with Johnson in particular singing with almost unrecognizable softness. “Gone Tomorrow” lays Frankie Valli vocal phrasing over Teenage Fanclub-like power-pop balladry, while “Silly Games” marries buzzing guitar a la Muse’s “Starlight” to to a simple, cooing hook that could’ve appeared on a Jerry “The Iceman” Butler hit. The band also has a new fourth member this time out: Pat Ware, their third drummer in three albums. Ware, who also drums with Philly punks Spraynard, was nagged by Johnson to join two days after he graduated college. “I was applying for jobs, I was moving towards that life,” he explains. “And [Barry was] kinda like, “Coooome onnnnn!””
Generally, the set completes the band’s evolution from a pop-punk-based act to a mostly power-pop one, while suggesting there might not be that much difference between the two sub-genres to begin with. But if you’re looking for anything to mark a big left turn or bigger doubling down for the group — or really anything that might change your opinion on Joyce Manor in a significant way — you’re likely to be disappointed.
For their part, the band couldn’t be more thrilled to be this boring. “I think it’s great to get to that point as a band, where it stops being a reaction,” Knobbe says. “It’s cool when you can kinda just turn inward and just…”
“…Just Yo La Tengo out,” interrupts Johnson, citing the beloved New Jersey indie trio who have been releasing consistently acclaimed albums for over 30 years. “Like, ‘Hey, Yo La Tengo did another good record. Who gives a shit?’ I’m happy to be at that point, where it’s like, ‘Surprise surprise, the new Joyce Manor is good.'”
The band’s quality control resulted in some of the best songs of their career on Million Dollars, including the advance single “Think I’m Still in Love With You,” whose massive guitar riff, irresistible refrain and not-as-sentimental-as-you-think lyric make it arguably Joyce Manor’s greatest pop song to date. And not only is the song reminiscent of any number of ’90s alt-radio classics, it’s got a Buzz Clip-worthy video to match: a funny, densely plotted and visually imaginative clip helmed by Christopher Good (Mitski, Perfume Genius), which wouldn’t be out of place on the Director’s Label DVDs for MTV auteurs Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze. (For their part, Joyce acknowledge Good’s genius but actually prefer the less-ambitious, Ebert-starring and karaoke-styled lyric video for the set’s title track. “I don’t give a fuck about music videos,” Johnson admits. “I had to fucking act. I hated it.”)
And while the set resists easy narratives for the Internet to consume, it does throw the social mediaverse one pretty meaty track to chew on: “Friends We Met Online,” which might be the first (mostly) straight-faced ode to web culture to appear on a major rock record. (“You and I are members of the same online community/ I know that it sounds kinda lame when said out loud,” the song begins, amid chugging guitar and double-claps.) “I’m proud of it, because I really hate the Internet,” Johnson explains. “But I think it’s difficult to try to write a song that talks about something positive about the Internet, where it helps some people be less lonely.” In typical Joyce fashion, though, “Online” features a late-song twist, with Johnson asking “How can we mis-remember/ Such sad, horrible times?”
“I think that’s me just trying to be like, ‘Look, I get it. The Internet, it sucks,'” he acknowledges with a laugh.
“Friends” was one of several songs from Million Dollars that Johnson originally wrote in an email collaboration with Rory Phillips, former frontman for ’90s Texas ska-punks The Impossibles. The project was originally meant to result in a seven-inch release outside of Joyce Manor, until the frontman decided he wanted to preserve the sanctity of only releasing material through his band. “I didn’t want to do a fucking solo record, I didn’t feel like I was being creatively stifled in my band — in which I am the songwriter,” he says. “I don’t do projects, I have never done it — anything musically outside of Joyce Manor. It’s already my fucking thing.”
Even if he doesn’t record outside of Joyce Manor, it’s still easy to see Johnson following in the footsteps of pop-punk predecessors like Mitch Allan of SR-71 and John Feldmann of Goldfinger, and transitioning into a late-career gig as a songwriter to the stars. Johnson wonders if “Still in Love” could’ve been sold to Taylor Swift. (“She’d have recorded it, and been like, ‘Yeah, I like this!’ and then lost interest in it and not put it out,” he guesses.) He even jokingly introduced a recent performance of the song on a Paste acoustic livestream as being specifically written for her. “I would totally do that,” he says of the move. “I think if someone at Epitaph had heard [Million Dollars‘] ‘Big Lie’ and been like, ‘You know what, this song is amazing — let’s see if, like, Carly Rae Jepsen wants to use it or something…'”
He never quite finishes that thought. “I love Joyce Manor, though,” he stops himself. “I’m really precious about my songs, and I’m not extremely prolific [like] Ryan Adams.” He also doubts whether he’s quite top 40-ready yet: “I really don’t think I have that level of songwriting chops, honestly. I think I can write a memorable tune, but I don’t think I’m to the level of being able to compete with the big boys or whatever, the upper-echelon career songwriter people.” He pauses. “But I dunno, I’d be open to give it a shot, and if there’s someone who wanted to pay me a bunch of money to do it…”
Until then, Johnson and Joyce Manor will most likely keep pumping out albums that capture fewer and fewer headlines while attracting more and more fans, keeping on the slow-but-steady progress they’ve made over a decade in the industry. “I’m so happy for 22 year olds to come to our shows and lose their fucking mind, because they work at the fucking Olive Garden and they don’t know what they’re doing with their life, forever,” Johnson raves. “And I will continue to not know what I’m doing with my life, with them, till I’m fucking about to die.”