Smile Politely

Weird Magic: Talking with Joyce Manor’s Barry Johnson

This Wednesday night, Joyce Manor will grace the stage of The Accord. The four piece consists of Barry Johnson on vocals and guitar, Chase Knobbe on guitar, Matt Ebert on bass, and Jeff Enzor on drums. Their sound is somewhere in pop-punk, power-pop, indie, emo territory. The lyrics are emotive and sharp. Johnson is one of those lyricists who is able to effectively conjure up whole scenes and vivid images with just a few words. The guitars are bright and jangly, with a lush, sparkling break-up. The vocals are the same, sounding natural, but often pleasantly strained, occasionally slipping over the edge, into something more like a scream, and occasionally pulling back into something softer.

In October, 2016, they released Cody,  a 10 track album that comes in well under 30 minutes. The album was released on Epitaph records, and produced by Rob Schnapf. Schnapf has an impressive resume, having produced virtually the entire Elliott Smith repertoire, as well as albums by Beck, Guided by Voices, and The Vines, amongst others. Each song on Cody is this satisfying little nugget of power-pop goodness. The album opens with “Fake I.D.” It’s a strong opening, and likely my favorite of the album. It’s close though. “Last You Heard of Me,” and “Eighteen” are strong contenders. In “Fake I.D.”, the protagonist finds himself in a brief relationship with an initially appealing young woman, who turns out to not run very deep. The song is 2:20 long, but you get this little snapshot that makes you connect. “Oh yeah, I know exactly what and who he is talking about,” you think. He sings, “Don’t be fooled. The first two hours rule. But then she seduced herself out of the room, singing, ‘What do you think about Kanye West? I think he’s cool, I think he’s the best. I think he’s better than John Steinbeck, I think he’s better than Phil Hartman.’” Personally, I find that to be an oddly stimulating selection of personalities. Granted, Johnson could have chosen those latter names arbitrarily, merely because they all shared three syllables, but even if he did–it serves as a excellent metric of vapidness. It’s weirdly perfect.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Barry Johnson for a few minutes by phone.

SP: In October of last year, you released Cody, right?

Johnson: Yep!

SP: How’s that going so far?

Johnson: It’s been going good! You know, I feel like we’re one of those bands where every time we put out a record, it takes a little while for people to get into it. So for the first couple months, when you’re playing the first couple albums, people are really into it, but then when you play the new stuff, it feels like you’re playing the new stuff. But I can already kind of feel people warming to it, you know. The same thing happened with our last record. You could definitely tell people weren’t as into it live at first. But gradually, it was like, “Okay, this song is starting to go over well. Okay, now it’s these three.” I don’t know if it’s that we get better at playing them or that people are spending more time with the record and starting to warm to it.

SP: Are there any particular favorites that you’re enjoying playing live right now?

Johnson: Yeah, I really like to play “This Song is A Mess but So Am I.” I just really like doing those chord changes. I like that it doesn’t use the loud/quiet dynamic, so we can just lock into a pocket and play. It’s kind of different from a lot of our other songs, so it’s maybe a bit of a challenge.

SP: I think one of the first things I noticed listening back through your catalog is how good your guitar tones are throughout. Are you a gearhead, or do you just kind of tweak knobs until it sounds good, but not think too much about it?

Johnson: Definitely the latter. I don’t know anything about that. We’ve been lucky that we’ve worked with people who have dialed good tones in for us recording, and then live, I just play a JCM800 and I turn all the knobs up all the way, and that’s it. I don’t know too much about guitars or guitar tone and stuff. But I’m lucky enough to surround myself with people that do.

SP: Oh really? I know I’ve seen pictures of you playing a diverse lineup of guitars…I think I’ve seen a Les Paul, a Tele, a Rickenbacker for awhile, and then a Peavey?

Johnson: Yeah, I played the Peavey for years, but then I went through a bit of a guitar identity crisis. For some reason I went from playing that Peavey T-60, which is just like the heaviest guitar, to a Thinline Telecaster, which is just like the polar opposite. Now I’ve settled somewhere in between. Now I’m playing an SG, which is just like no nonsense. The only other thing I could see myself playing is a Les Paul. The one I think you saw in that picture, I flew out for a show and was borrowing a friend’s guitar. A nice Les Paul would be really awesome, but until then, I’m super happy with my SG.

SP: What’s the writing process like for you guys?

Johnson: I find that the best songs just start with a melody, and not necessarily on the guitar. I’ll just have a melody come to me, and I’ll be like, “Oh, that’s pretty good.” And I’ll just develop it, and I’ll figure out the chords on the guitar. From there, I take it to Chase, who is our other guitar player, and he just tries to introduce something else that affects the mood, or like, does something to the song that adds this weird magic that I don’t understand, where he takes what I have, and makes it better by adding something that I would never think of. And then we just take it to our bass player and drummer and figure out how to play it. That’s probably where the punk thing comes in, we just just try to keep it direct and simple and exciting.

SP: Am I correct that you and Chase were the two original core Joyce Manor members?

Johnson: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I had some acoustic solo songs that I had laying around, but I was like oh, “We’ll just do a band with this.” I got a show for it, but I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare, so I was like, Oh, well I’ll just make it an acoustic band with Chase, and it will just be two acoustic guitars, because the idea of playing just by myself was like, I did not want to do that. I wanted it to still be a band. So, Chase and I found very quickly that we write very well together, so it very quickly transformed into a full band with bass and drums.”

SP: So have you been able to go back to that process on subsequent albums? Are you getting  live takes with the full band, or more isolated, multi tracking?

Johnson: The third record, Never Hungover Again, was recorded mostly live, with some overdubs. This last record, we tracked the drums, and then everything else separately. So this was the least live record that we’ve ever made, and that was because that’s what the producer wanted to do, and I wanted to trust his input. It comes out different. It comes out good in some ways and maybe lacking in other ways. Depending what you like, it’s good or bad, but I’m definitely interested in trying something more live sounding. I got really into Fun House, by The Stooges, awhile ago, and that’s just recorded entirely live. Vocals and everything. So when I was really into that, I was thinking, I want to make an album like this.

SP: Awesome! Well, that’s all I had for you. I really appreciate you taking the time for Smile Politely.

Johnson: Thanks so much man, it was my pleasure.


Joyce Manor is playing tonight at The Accord with AJJ and Mannequin Pussy. This is an early show, with doors opening at 6 p.m. and the show starting at 6:30. Tickets are $15 in advance/$18 at the door. 

All photos by Dan Monick, republished with permission from Epitaph. 

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