Joy Subtraction? Its members just enjoy screwing with Joy Division.
What we've found is that most people hate the name," says Joy Subtraction's singer and guitarist, Abe Brennan of his band's humorous moniker, adding, "but we hate most people, so it ends up working out."
"We had a huge argument what to call the band," interjects drummer Brian Polk. "I wanted to call it The Devil in Spanish and then have our first album called El Diablo Inglés. But I got outvoted in favor of Joy Subtraction. Then I said, 'Okay, as long as we call our first album Hate Will Keep Us Together.' But we called it The Essential Joy Subtraction."
This central element of irreverent and acerbic wit comes naturally to the two founding members of this band, who came together a handful of years ago with former Matson Jones bassist Matt Ragan and Polk's high-school friend David Lamothe. Joy Subtraction's members grew up on punk with a special affection for Minutemen, Black Flag and Canadian jazz fusionists-turned-punkers NoMeansNo.
"I played in school band in middle school, and I was in the jazz band," notes Polk. "So I listened to a lot of jazz and played a lot of jazz. I played jazz before I started listening to punk, so I can appreciate where they're coming from. I appreciate the musicianship and the lyrics — they were well-read. A lot of sarcasm."
"The lyrics are optimistic bitterness or something," observes Brennan. "My old band, My Name, opened for them in '87. In that era, they were the tightest band I've ever seen. They just destroyed the place every time. It was awesome."
Brennan was born in San Francisco, but he moved to the Puget Sound area with his father and became involved in punk during high school in the early to mid-'80s. He played shows at legendary venues like Industrial Noise and Community World Theater in Tacoma (the latter was where Brennan's old band opened for both DOA and NoMeansNo). "For a while, every band I had ever played in had opened for NoMeansNo," says Brennan. "I still hope for that to continue and I can get Joy Subtraction to open for them."
Brennan moved to Fort Collins in the mid-'90s to play music with his friend, Jason Livermore, whom he'd met when the latter was a student at the University of Puget Sound. Livermore, who was working at Owned & Operated Records with Bill Stevenson at the time, offered to play music with Brennan if he moved out here. So Brennan, who had nothing keeping him tied to the northwest, made the move. Initially, he did odd jobs and worked for All and the Descendents, but he later went on to form Wretch Like Me, a punk outfit christened by Fast Geek Boutique's Vincent Fasano.
After putting out some records and touring around the country, Wretch broke up in 2003, and Brennan kicked around for a short while before becoming involved in the experimental punk band The Things They Carry. "I saw them play and basically joined their band whether they liked it or not," declares Brennan. After two years and some touring, The Things They Carry also dissolved, and Brennan spent some time writing and recording to FourTrack in his basement.
Joy Subtraction's co-founder, Polk was born in Memphis, but moved with his family to Parker when he was six months old. He started the punk band Four Times Fat in high school, and as soon as he turned eighteen, he left the suburbs and moved to the city, where he and his bandmates played shows wherever they could. After playing in the vibrant punk scene in and around Denver for some time, Four Times Fat broke up. With one of his co-workers from Wax Trax, Polk joined a pair of bands: The Gravity Index and the short-lived Stab! Stab! Stab!
When those outfits folded, Polk gave up music for three years and focused on his long-running zine, Yellow Rake, and that's how he came to know Brennan. This was right around the time that Brennan had moved to Denver and the pair's mutual friendship with the Fasano brothers, Vinnie and his twin brother (and renowned poet) Charley, brought them together. By the time Brennan approached Polk, he had already been writing songs and wanted to put a band together. "I remember you came up to me and asked, 'I heard you play drums. Is that true?'" recalls Polk.
"Then it was awesome because when we finally decided to get together and jam," says Brennan, picking up the story, "I went over to his house, and I looked at his record collection, and it was basically like my record collection, and I thought, 'This is going to work out.'" That record collection included NoMeansNo and Minutemen, of course , as well as art-punk weirdos Alice Donut.
The band the two put together is one that pulls no punches in its critique of the current political landscape and cultural climate of America. With songs like "Kill The Blue Dogs," "Dignity is a Luxury," "Investment Bankers Unite!" and "Welcome to the Upper Lower Class," Joy Subtraction leaves no false impressions about the leftist political orientation of its lyrics. Even the dark humor and sarcasm underpinning the lyrics only amplify the strength of that criticism of conservative America.
"My first political memory, actually, was when I was living in Berkeley with my mom," recalls Brennan of his political awakening. "At the time we had a little apartment off Telegraph, three blocks from campus. The night Reagan got elected, a mob marched up our street yelling, 'Ho, ho, ho, Reagan's got to go!' and turned and went up towards the campus. I wanted to go down there, and my mom refused — although I get my left-leaning ways from my parents. I was twelve and I made 'Fuck Reagan' signs and put them up all over our building. I didn't know anything about Reagan, but I was right! Both my parents went to Berkeley. My dad's parents were Republicans, but they were more along the lines of pro-business but not fundamentalist nutjobs."
This base of iconoclasm clearly runs through more than just the band's name and lyrical content. "It's not like we hate Joy Division," quips Brennan. "We're just fucking with them. We do have a noose on the cover of the record. We're not going to be mistaken for Nazis, so that's cool. Communists, maybe."
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