Joyce Manor on Writing Songs From the Pop-Punk Subconscious

It’s easy to call Joyce Manor a pop-punk band. But it’s not easy to tell how the California group writes songs that are both 100 percent punk and 100 percent pop, or how the band seems to have as much in common with Arthur Russell as with Blink 182. Many times while driving around in my friend Taylor's car, we have tried to articulate why Joyce Manor is so far above other bands in its concise, potent songwriting. We'd try to explain how Joyce Manor writes songs with the energy and urgency that you wish your high-school punk bands had – while still articulating complex moments. The songs are simple yet gut-wrenching. We could never say it quite right, so we'd sit in the car, let the second half of the record play for the third time, and just feel it. After all, Joyce Manor plays music that just feels good to listen to, and to listen to loud.

We spoke to Joyce Manor lead singer and guitarist Barry Johnson about songwriting, tapping into the subconscious and not caring whether the band is ripping off Weezer. 

Westword: Joyce Manor just put out a new album, Cody. You talked about wanting to write ‘actual pop songs,’ and it feels a lot like you did. What does a pop song mean to you now?

Barry Johnson: I guess what makes a pop song a pop song is that the purpose of it is to be enjoyable. The singing is tuneful, it’s got a hook, it’s got a memorable lyric or something like that. And I just really like pop music, as opposed to growing up and having a lot of friends who were into punk and hardcore, I like some of that stuff, too. But you know, just regular pop music like Madonna or the Beach Boys or even like later Cure. And it’s ambitious to do that, because it’s pretty difficult to do it well. For me as a songwriter, it took me a while to have the confidence to really attempt it. It doesn’t take as much confidence to start a punk band or write a punk song, because if someone doesn’t like it, it’s like, “Well, you just don’t get it. You don’t get what we’re going for.” But with pop music, you don’t really have that to hide behind.

Pop songs are sometimes considered superficial. Do you think you lose anything in creating something that has a broader appeal?

I think you can. But I think that’s interesting, because pop music is such a good vehicle for lyrics, and I think that if you write thoughtful lyrics that you put a part of yourself in, it shouldn’t be lessened by the fact that it’s in a pop song. Because if you think about it, if the same lyrics were in a hardcore song, I don’t think that makes them better.

I think the vehicle idea is really interesting, because I feel like you do that a lot where you write something that's catchy, but the lyrics aren’t bubblegum at all. You’re really driving an idea home.

Strangely enough, a lot of the way I write, a lot of the times I’m using the way words sound. I think there’s a built-in musicality to the way certain words sound and I’m using that. So a lot of times I’m using imagery and stuff but where they originally come from is: I hear a melody and certain words sound good within that melody. Like where consonants land and what kind of vowels these words have. I’ve never been the type of person who writes in a journal or I experience something and I’m like, “Oh, I’ve got to write a song about this.” It’s always after the fact where I’m like, “Oh I think that’s what that might be about.” But really what comes first is the melody and then I kind of shape lyrics from there. So I guess when I say a vehicle, the vehicle is the melody, and then I toy with the imagery.

So a lot of your songs will start for you by thinking of a tune in your head, or singing something by yourself or while you’re playing guitar?

Yes, that’s how all the good ones start. They usually start without a guitar. I’ll just be doing something and then I’ll have it. And then I’m like, “Oh shit oh shit oh shit” and I have to figure it out quick. Usually it’s a melody and then as I’m figuring out on guitar and what chords go with it, [the melody] will change a little bit or I’ll tighten it up. I’ll be like, “I see what’s going on here.” And it usually has words attached to it, and then I make them better. But in some cases, the lyrics come totally fully formed. Like “Constant Heachache” I wrote all in one go. There were actually more lyrics. I cut some out, but I didn’t have to change any words around. But that melody came to my head and it had all these lyrics attached to it, and then I started writing it down and every single line seemed to already be there. A melody that’s in my subconscious, I'll pull from and have a song fully formed.

Do you ever have to run away from a conversation or something and go and record a song on your phone? And you’re just in the corner singing into your phone?

Yeah! It bums my girlfriend out, because I’ll have months like that. I tend to write in chunks when I’m writing good stuff. And we’ll be talking, and she’ll see my eyes glaze over and she’ll be like, “Are you working on a song?” and I’m like, “Yeah, just give me one second” and I’m totally not present. And it’s not to say I don’t work on them, but usually the inspiration, the spark, just appears out of nowhere. But I don’t designate time out of the day to go sit down and write songs in my little workshop and then crank out some songs. It has to happen naturally.

That has to be super-frustrating at times, though.

It’s terrible. For a long time I always thought every song I wrote was the last song I was ever going to write. Because you can’t rely on it. It’s not like I make fucking tables for a living, and I can just go make a table. I have to wait to feel inspired, to make something that I feel is worth making. I know how to fucking write a song. I can write down some lyrics and then put some chords together and then put together a song. But there’s something about the ones that seem to appear already written that just seem worthwhile. They just seem like they’re more special.

Yeah. The feeling is there.

Yeah, it’s hard to explain. Like musically, “Christmas Card” is a very simple song. It’s not really sophisticated. But it’s just a real thing. It feels inspired because it was. That’s one that came to me all at once. It just feels natural, and it feels good.

When it comes out of nowhere, where do you think it comes from?

I imagine it’s embedded in my subconscious somewhere. You tap into a “flow state,” it’s sometimes called, where you're just in the zone and you’re kind of doing it without doing it. And you can try and interject ideas, but for me I just tap into this zone where I can channel a song and it’s there. And our songs are very simple. It’s not like channeling these prog-rock masterpieces. They’re simple songs. But they’re honest in a weird way. Even melodically honest. And I think that’s maybe why they resonate with people is because they resonate with me. Because I don’t really feel like I wrote them. I feel it was just there and I uncovered it. That’s the only time I’m impressed with myself as a songwriter. I’ve never, with very few exceptions, sat down to write something and then been like, “Huh. Look what I came up with.” It’s this weird process of closing your eyes and stepping out into the middle of the street.

Is there one song where you do feel like, “I grinded that one out and I’m proud of it”?

“In The Army Now.” And it’s way weirder and it’s way different. Sometimes if I haven’t been inspired in a while or whatever, I will force myself to sit down and see if there’s anything in there, try and open up the floodgates. That’s one where I sat down with the intention of writing a song, and I came up with that. But you know what, though, I feel like I heard the first line in my head and it didn’t really go anywhere. And then I had to force myself to make something of it. You hear songwriters say this all the time, but some of them were written in the time it takes to play it. And for me, those are always the best.

I feel like Joyce Manor is such a big part of my friendship with some people, in how we’ve listened to it and discovered it together. And I feel like that’s true with you and other bands and some of the relationships you have, because I’ve seen you talk about how you geek about bands. How does it feel to be on the other end of that? To be creating these songs that become important parts of other people?

That’s like the best feeling. With songs I don’t see much point in communicating simple feelings, and I want to communicate things that are hard to put into words or hard to explain, and for someone to understand that, that’s the best feeling. When you talk to someone and you can tell that your band means a lot to them, it’s a great feeling. And I know it very well, because I’ve told people that and meant it. It’s something I’m really happy to be part of both sides of.

A few reviews have noted that your “Last You Heard of Me” sounds like Weezer and you sound like Blink 182 on “Heart Tattoo.” You seem to not be shy about directly sounding like someone or dipping in and out of a different sounds. Do you view this as a direct statement about breaking apart the often faux rules of copying someone? Or is accessing certain sounds a way for you to challenge “taste,” or does it just happen?

I write from this place – I’ve heard it described as writing from a place of freedom, which sounds kind of ridiculous, but I don’t tell myself “You can’t do this” or “You don’t do that” when I write something that’s genuinely inspired.... If it happens to sound like Blink 182 or if it sounds a lot like Weezer, who gives a fuck? It’s still an inspired idea. So I don’t mind at all. In fact, I’m glad. I mean, I listened to a lot of Weezer, and lot of Blink 182, and a lot of Green Day. When I see these things directly pop up in my songs and it’s not what I was trying to do, it means I really am tapped into my subconscious and my intuition. That usually means I’m doing a good job.... I’ve also had people tell me, “Oh, man, this sounds just like the Get Up Kids” and I’ve never fucking listened to the Get Up Kids in my life.

My friend who introduced me to Joyce Manor, Josh Wold [of Indiana band Pessoa], died earlier this year. And so hearing “Fake I.D.” come out and the turn in the song really spoke to me. Because I found it really hard to care about anything, even music,  for a while after he died. How has the role of music changed for you after dealing with heavy aspects of life? Is it more or less important?

I don’t think your relationship to music is ever as intense as when you’re in your late teens and early twenties. I don’t think I’ll ever be as intensely involved with music —  like, into my relationship with music and loving music and it being everything to me — like it was then. But I’m still obviously an active music listener. I love music. It’s what I do. But as I’m getting older, I’m sure there are other things — I know there are! But sometimes a song will catch me off-guard and I’ll just be bawling. And I don’t know that it necessarily lines up with heavy things happening or family members passing away or going through a breakup. You obviously turn to music in times like that. But I don’t like to think of myself as using music to cope with stuff — [or] it sneaking up on you, rather. It’s hard for me to answer, because music is such a huge part of my life. But I definitely feel like my relationship with it was most intense when I was nineteen years old. But who knows? Maybe in my forties, it will be twice as intense.

Joyce Manor performs with Hotelier and Crying on Wednesday, October 12, at the Marquis Theater, 303-487-0111.
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