Like the Cure did in the 1980s for melancholy young goths and alt-rockers, Joyce Manor soundtracked the formative years of sensitive millennial punk and hardcore fans all over the United States. And even though their fans' musical tastes have perhaps mellowed over the years, the band still draws them back in with each new album, alongside new generations of circle-pitting teens.
It all began on a whim just over a decade ago. In 2008, Joyce Manor co-founder and lead vocalist Barry Johnson got a call asking if his band could open a show. The only problem was that Johnson's band had just broken up. Not letting that minor detail deter him, Johnson did what any hungry musician would do: He said yes and made one up on the spot, calling it Joyce Manor, borrowing the name from an apartment complex across the street.
Johnson and guitarist Chase Knobbe formed what was at first an acoustic punk duo, then eventually recruited a bassist and drummer, and slowly but surely carved an indelible space within the emo revival movement and the oh-so-tormented hearts of their fans.
As 2019 dawns and Johnson looks back over his band's run with Orlando Weekly, he credits the group's perseverance to their gradual growth. "You gotta understand, we have never had a record that's been super popular at first," says Johnson. He then went on to name every one of their records in chronological order (including their 2018 release, Million Dollars to Kill Me) and emphasized how at first listen, nobody liked them. "First record came out it did OK ... second record, nobody liked it when it came out," says Johnson. "Never Hungover Again, you know a lot of people didn't like it; Cody, a lot of people didn't like it."
Joyce Manor didn't follow the traditional trajectory of rock stardom. They are not radio favorites, nor have they had a breakout record. For Joyce Manor it's been an enduring, organic growth fueled by the internet and word of mouth, and it's been largely on their own terms. "We've still done the same thing we've always done," Johnson affirms, "made the kind of records we want to make."
Their fifth full-length, Million Dollars to Kill Me, continues the band's musical evolution: more power-pop in execution, yet still emo in spirit. According to Johnson, it's a sound they've been refining since 2014's Never Hungover Again, with greater emphasis on Knobbe's guitar leads and with new drummer Pat Ware in tow. Johnson's urgent, nasal croon narrates the many nuances of the human experience. Whereas past records have emphasized the trials and tribulations of growing up, Million Dollars to Kill Me is Joyce Manor a decade on. Broken relationships, money, self-doubt, burnout and an abiding hope for an elusive happy ending take center stage on this album.
It's in these nuances that Johnson feels Joyce Manor finds their strength, in sound and ethos. Joyce Manor keeps each record to 10 songs, 20 minutes long; it's a self-imposed restriction that challenges the band to play with all possible variations and limitations. "I think that's just the mark of adulthood too," Johnson says. "Your feelings are not as black and white, not everything is the end of the world, you feel multiple ways about the same situation."
When asked to describe Million Dollars to Kill Me, Johnson pauses for a moment, then responds, "triumphant, but also defeated." Johnson is still shocked Joyce Manor can fill venues the size of the Beacham. "Hopefully we can continue that," he says, "or if it's been slow in growth, hopefully it's slow in decline."
Yes, this is an unequivocally emo response. But it's also human. Joyce Manor formed out of necessity; we would argue they're still making music for the same reason. We need music that speaks to these universal characteristics and contradictions of the human experience.
As the conversation draws to a close, Johnson reflects on what advice he would give to the 2008 version of himself, when he first formed the band: "Yo, don't drink so much. Don't drink Four Loko and shit, cause you kinda act insane when you're that drunk."
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