Barry Johnson is the lead vocalist and guitarist of Joyce Manor.
(Photo Credit: Allie Hanlon)
Barry Johnson is the singer of Joyce Manor, the California band that has released five full-lengths over the past decade, plus a new odds-and-ends compilation called Songs From Northern Torrance. Katy Davidson is the only permanent member of Dear Nora, which just re-released a compilation called Three States, capturing 60 tracks recorded between 1997-2007. The two are mutual fans and had met in passing before, but this chat is their first long one ever.
—Josh Modell, Talkhouse Executive Editor
Katy Davidson: Hello, Barry. How are you? Are you in Long Beach?
Barry Johnson: Yeah, I’m in Long Beach for life.
Katy: So the main thing I wanted to say to anyone who might happen across this article is to let them know that we’ve never actually hung out one-on-one. This is a pretty funny first way to hang out, right?
Barry: We’ve met, but it’s pretty inorganic to hop on the phone. It’s not a thing we normally do. You’re not catching a weekly phone call or anything.
Katy: Yeah, no pressure, just interview each other about our lives and say something really smart. Well, they asked us to do this because we both have rarities albums that are out this year. Do you want to just tell me how you came up with the idea to release that and why now?
Barry: Our first LP came out in 2011, but the band Joyce Manor started at the very end of 2008, so there was a little over two years of the band that happened before the first LP, and there was a few different incarnations — false starts, almost. It started out as a two-piece acoustic thing. And then we had a couple lineup changes before we settled on what is maybe thought of as a classic lineup of Joyce Manor, more of the aggressive pop-punk sound. But the very early stuff is almost like folk-punk, and then there was a middle period that was almost garage-y, like an indie rock/garage-y thing. And then, for whatever reason, it became emo-tinged pop-punk. I think when I was young I was just in a permanent identity crisis, trying to figure out what I wanted to do and how I wanted to express myself. I could just change gears really quickly back then.
I feel like there was a whole era of the band where were doing good stuff, some of my favorite Joyce Manor material. And there’s fan favorites that have been on YouTube for a long time because we put them out on cassettes or just put it up on Myspace or whatever. It was floating around the internet, but it never had a physical release. It’s something that I’ve wanted to put together for a while, and it just took all of a sudden having nothing to do to say, “Oh, let’s put together this collection of my favorite stuff from before the first record.” Sometimes bands do collections where it’s everything. It’s all the unreleased material or demos and stuff, and I don’t think of this as that. I left certain things off and tried to sequence it and get it to feel like an album with a definite side A and side B. I think of it as the prequel to the first record or whatever.
Katy: The energy is amazing and the songs are really good. I don’t know if you would agree, but it seems like it might even be more fun to put it out now than when you first made those because people know your band and can be like, “Oh, here’s another side of them.” Even though the style is sort of the same, there’s going to be more listeners who appreciate what you were doing when you were younger.
Barry: Oh, totally, especially just casual fans. I can’t tell you how many people reach out like, “I love the new album.” I’m like, “Oh, it’s not really a new album.” They’re not aware of the early stuff and they just think it’s a return-to-form record like we tapped into our youthful exuberance and made this album during quarantine or whatever. But, it is actual real youthful exuberance, just in a vault. I would love to tap back into that one day, but I have not figured out how.
Katy: Because you’re an old man now.
Barry: I’m old. I’m washed up.
Katy: Wait, are you in your 20s?
Barry: No, no, no, I’m 33. In pop-punk, I’m aged out by a decade. It’s a miracle that I’ve managed to hang on this long.
Katy: I like what you said about curating, because my rarities thing is much longer than yours. But I was so insanely prolific back then that I still omitted quite a number of songs. Some of my friends were like, “Why didn’t you include this or why didn’t you include this?” and I’m like, “Dude, I’m making a collection here. I don’t need to dump out every single thing I’ve made just for the sake of it.” I still want it to play like a cohesive work of art.
Barry: I have a couple questions about your collection. The first record sounds really good and it’s produced by somebody from the Aislers Set, is that right?
Katy: Yeah, Linton from Aislers Set recorded our first proper full-length album.
Barry: OK, and that was in a recording studio?
Katy: It was in Linton’s basement in their house in San Francisco. So a studio, not super technically pro or anything, but halfway decent equipment like a cool old vintage tape machine and stuff.
Barry: Did you feel like you were on the clock? Did you have to get stuff done in a certain amount of time?
Katy: Kind of, but mainly because we didn’t want to bug Linton too much. It was quite informal, like everything I’ve ever made. I don’t even remember if money exchanged hands, maybe a tiny bit just for that experience. But it does sound more hi-fi than basically everything else I put out. For most of the years I was recording, I had this TASCAM eight-track cassette machine. I think it broke and I donated it somewhere, but yeah, that’s what I pretty much made all the Dear Nora stuff on was an eight-track cassette machine. The first Dear Nora album was sort of a little island. That’s the only album were we recorded with Linton. I pretty much recorded everything else on my own, so everything else feels a little bit more like what you hear on Three States.
Barry: If you were to do a whole discography, it would be pretty seamless with the stuff that’s on this collection and all the studio albums except maybe the first one, because it just sounds a little cleaner. Then the new one sounds really pro.
Katy: Yeah. I don’t know why it took me this long, but I paid my genius engineer friend Tim Shrout to mix Skulls Example, so I basically recorded that one on my own, too. I had Zach Burba and Tim help assist with a little bit of recording, but I basically recorded that one, a lot of which I did on a four-track cassette, and then part of it on Ableton. I don’t know why it took me basically 20 years to figure out that if you have someone who’s really good at mixing mix your album, it actually sounds good.
Barry: I love mixing. It’s kind of like the recording or the tracking is just buying ingredients, and then mixing is preparing the dish. That’s where the culinary art comes in: how much of this and how much of that and where to garnish. It’s a huge part of what the listener is actually presented with, is the mix. I love a good mix.
Katy: Thank you, yeah, that’s a great analogy. I wish I could go back and have someone be like, “You don’t have to mix this on headphones.” And a lot of those master tapes are destroyed, so it is what it is. I guess I could get it remastered, but they sound fine.
Barry: It’s crazy how much home recording has improved, especially if you get someone who knows how to mix it. There’s not a huge difference anymore.
Katy: Totally. Those Billie Eilish songs kind of sound lo-fi in a way.
Barry: It doesn’t even sound out of place on the radio at all anymore. Actually, the first time I heard it, it caught my ear on the radio. I was like, This doesn’t really sound like it should be on the radio. Weird, this sounds semi-local, but it’s really cool and ear-catching. I had the same experience with Lorde. The first time I heard Lorde, I was like, This is weirdly too minimal to be on the radio.
With the early stuff that’s on the collection, were you just immediately putting them up on the internet as soon as you recorded them?
Katy: Believe it or not, I literally don’t even think Myspace was a thing, yet. I had a Hotmail account, so I highly doubt they were on the internet anywhere when they first came out, but some of this stuff was released on some seven-inches that came out, and comps. So many different label comps or magazine comps would reach out and ask for a song. I guess the first way I ever put anything out is I would just dub a bunch of cassettes and give it to my friends.
Barry: When did it go from fairly straightforward indie pop, like great harmonies and stuff, to messing around more with atonal stuff or weird droniness. Where did that come from?
Katy: That’s a good question. I definitely hear the shift there, and I do think… some people just assume I’m a stoner. I do occasionally imbibe, but this is like … I don’t really know what to attribute that to, my shift. I think probably more than anything, getting out of college and just being so fucking sheltered in college and living in a real indie rock bubble, and then, basically, just in my early 20s, meeting so many influential, exciting new personalities in Portland that really opened my eyes to the wider world of music. I didn’t have room in my brain for those types of music when I was younger. It’s not like I didn’t like it, but I just was like, It’s Beastie Boys or Pavement or it’s nothing. And then, three years later, I was listening to jazz and Joni Mitchell and whatever else, lots of folk and reggae, even. It’s also just maybe getting a little bit older and being less young and dumb or something.
Barry: You can tell just looking at your career thus far that you’re always searching. The record is called Three States, so you’re always moving and looking for something. I don’t know you personally, but it seems like you have a hard time getting comfortable, and you’re always searching. It would make sense that you were doing that musically as far as what you were listening to. But I wasn’t sure if maybe you were like, “Oh, yeah, I started hanging out with these people who we were smoking weed and doing mushrooms all the time, and that made my music get trippy,” you know?
Katy: We did do stuff like that every now and then, but I wouldn’t really attribute it to that. I’ll have to think more about that. Your music has evolved though, too. If you listen to this rarities collection you’re putting out, when were a lot of those songs written, 2008-2009?
Barry: I had a bunch of bands before Joyce Manor that never went anywhere, and some of those songs ended up on the first record. Some of those are from 2004, even. But, yeah, for the most part, around 2008.
Katy: If you compare those to some of the songs and arrangements on Cody, maybe it’s not quite as drastic, but you’re clearly evolving as a songwriter.
Barry: For me, it was mostly just getting more and more into melodic music. When I was younger, being from Southern California and into skateboarding, I was just into punk, and I wanted to hear music that was fast and aggressive. As I got older, I got more and more interested in melodic music and melodies and harmonies and stuff. I guess I always liked to listen to that stuff, but I didn’t really feel comfortable trying it myself. It took me a while to get out of my comfort zone of just knowing how to write punk songs and actually trying to write quote/unquote, “real songs,” or pop songs, which can feel scary. Trying to make listenable pop records was this whole new challenge that I’ve taken on maybe halfway through Joyce Manor.
Katy: Where’s your head now? Are you still into going deeper into slightly more baroque pop?
Barry: As far as my listening, I have some pop exhaustion. I’m really hook-oriented and I’m always trying to hear hooks and write hooks. I think my heart is not in it with hooks these days. I think maybe I’m searching for stuff that’s a little weirder, stuff that take a few more listens before it grabs you and maybe stuff that’s less immediate. I haven’t really seen it reflected in my music yet, but maybe other people will. I have a handful of songs right now, most of them not good. But, there’s a couple things that are good, and I’m trying to get out of my comfort zone and not necessarily do stuff that’s really high energy, but just stuff that’s, I don’t know, weirder.
I never liked Sonic Youth. I kind of thought it was, I don’t know, non-music. I didn’t get it. But they kind of clicked for me recently, so I’m hoping that that will show up. They have these things that you wouldn’t expect to be hooks that work or just songs you want to hear over and over again. Just more unbridled, I guess, is what I’m looking for. I’m kind of frustrated with just trying to write the right chord change with the right melody. I’ve been on the same trip for too long. It’s not really doing it for me like it was.
Katy: And if you’re trying to write a song and actually have it be good, if you’re feeling exhausted by the process, it’s not going to help. You have to go where your interest is no matter what.
Barry: I’m trying to push myself to see if I’m capable of writing something like that and just let it happen and see where it goes. A lot of it, for me, starts with listening. If I’m exploring or finding myself interested in different kinds of music, it’ll eventually show up in my stuff. But sometimes there’s an uncomfortable middle period where I’m still writing the way I did from the trip I was on, and I’m not fully on my new trip.
Katy: Do you have confidence that the people that listen to your music will stick with you while you explore?
Barry: Besides the first record, I don’t think we’ve ever done a record that our fans have liked when it came out. The critics always like it. We always get good reviews. But the actual kids… We’ll play a new song and it’ll just be crickets in the room. It’s kind of a bummer. For pretty much every record, Cody especially, I feel like, we’re just kind of too poppy or something. It’s only in the last year or two that kids have started to come around to that one. It just feels good to really be pushing yourself in a new space. It felt really good when I felt like I was really starting to write natural pop songs. But I kind of want to go to the next thing. I’m not sure what it is yet, but definitely just something weirder.
Katy: I’ll answer this same question inverted for you — what drew you to my band and why do you like my music?
Barry: My friends Justin Conway and Jeff Enzor were big fans, but I just wasn’t really on that trip. I was vaguely aware of what Dear Nora was. And then Jeff Enzor joined Joyce Manor, and, on tour, he played… I don’t know what record it was, but I was just like, “Yo, what is this?” He was like, “It’s Dear Nora,” and it just blew my mind. It was all I wanted to listen to for, I don’t know, sixth months to a year. It was kind of my main thing for a minute, and there was a lot there. I’d be like, “Oh, this record is very different from whichever else,” so I took on the whole catalog. Do you know the TV show Sealab, was it Sealab 2021? I don’t know the year. Do you know what I’m talking about? It was a Cartoon Network show, and it had a really good theme song. I was like, “I wish I knew more music like this, like this theme song.” It kind of sounds like earlier Dear Nora, so that was a thing I’d been looking for since I was a kid, and I didn’t find it until I got into your band.
Katy: Oh my god, OK, I’m writing this down. I have to find this.
Barry: I always liked the Gin Blossoms, and I was like, I wish I knew more music like this. Then I finally discovered Big Star and Teenage Fanclub, and I was like, OK, cool, this is a thing I’ve been looking for forever.
Katy: That’s tight. So Jeff’s kind of our connection, who drummed for you for a while. He obviously introduced me to you guys, because, let’s face it: We’re kind of in a similar scene, but kind of not, which, I think kind of makes it cool because it’s kind of boring to just operate within the same micro scene forever and only have the same 10 associations. That bores me, for sure. No offense to my beautiful and wonderful friends, but you got to branch out a little bit. OK, so you want to know what I like best about your music?
Barry: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Katy: There’s a lot of things, but I want to tell you something that maybe would be a surprise to you. I love your vocal delivery.
Barry: Oh, weird. I’m not into my own voice at all. I wish that we had a more relaxed sounding singer. I feel like my vocals are so strained. I wish it was more … I always hear the vocals to me sounding more like Weezer, like Rivers Cuomo, open and just prettier. I don’t have a very good voice, so I’m working with what I got.
Katy: Dude, I don’t know. I feel like it’s a really special thing about your band, the tonality of your voice, but also the way that you push it. It just puts you on edge in the best possible way. It kind of saves you from just being… it’s very visceral or something. You sort of force people to feel something. At least that’s my interpretation.
Barry: Huh, thank you. I remember trying to record vocals for the last five songs on that collection, and I was singing it less shouty, I guess, and our bass player was like, “Yo, man, you got to kind of yell it,” because when we play live, I would get kind of into it and it would be more, I guess, passionate. I would be kind of just yelling because I was excited. And so, when I was recording it live, I was like, “No, I want to sing the notes. I want it to be more tuneful,” I guess. He just kind of leveled me, like, “Bro, you got to yell these songs.” So there’s a little bit of direction, a little nudge like that. And then, I just really went for it. For a long time, I regretted it, because I felt like I had to do that live every time, because that’s how the songs went, now. But people really did respond to it. It keeps it from being background music in a way. If someone’s yelling at you, it’s very attention grabby.
Katy: I don’t interpret it only as yelling. I certainly wouldn’t want to pigeonhole you. I feel like I would be cool hearing whatever you would want to try as an approach, but there’s just … I could actually feel your voice sounds pretty smooth. It’s got a nice round tonality to it, but I think one of the reasons that “Constant Headache” is so popular, one of the things that at least keeps me coming back, is the way that you enter vocally after the breakdown is just like, Holy shit.
Barry: I think it was just kind of like they were blunt tools. There was no room for a nuanced thing. It was just: give it everything. It was that kind of a performance where I was just like, “I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m not comfortable in the recording studio, so I just need to close my eyes and go for it as much as I can.” At that point in my life, it was like more is better. Faster is better. There was no, “Oh, let’s figure out the BPM.” It was just like, “The more intense we play this, the more it will kick ass,” and that was where my head was at. It wasn’t really like, “What BPM allows this melody to breathe best?” So, I think in those parts that are supposed to be intense, that was something I got like, “Okay, it’s going to kick in right here? I’m going to just go for it.”
Katy: I love listening to vocalists that every now and then feel kind of unhinged. It just sort of blasts the world open a little bit.
Barry: Yeah, I think it’s fun and cathartic. It’s fun, melodramatic, a lot of things that make you vulnerable and make listening fun. I like it in other singers, too. When I hear it, I’m just like, Damn, they’re going for it. That’s tight. But yeah, it’s just the opposite of being too cool or whatever. When are you going to do a record where you’re just fucking going for it? That’s what I’m trying to hear.
Katy: My next album is going to sound like a full ripoff of your rarities collection. OK, so, you’re in Long Beach. You said Long Beach for life. Are you from Torrance or are you from Long Beach?
Barry: I went to high school in Torrance, but I grew up in Lomita, which is a little outside of Torrance. But once I moved out of my parents’ house, I moved to Long Beach in 2007. So, I’ve been in Long Beach now for 13 years. We still practice in Torrance in a garage. Our guitar player has been practicing there since he was in middle school. It’s his friend’s house, and they have a little jam space in the garage. The people who live there are super nice and have let us practice there the whole time. That’s kind of where the band is based out of.
Katy: That’s so awesome. I love Long Beach. What were you going to ask me about Long Beach?
Barry: Yeah, you lived in Long Beach?
Katy: Yeah, from ’06-’08.
Barry: We overlapped a little bit.
Katy: Maybe we were at The Pike at the same time or The Prospector.
Barry: Oh man, I’m a Prospector regular, big time. Prospector karaoke is a big part of my life on Wednesdays. I saw you play Long Beach twice, but it’s before I was a fan. You played a house on 4th by Golden Burger one time, in a living room. And another time was kind of in an industrial area. Was it a warehouse show?
Katy: Yeah, that was a trippy show.
Barry: That was a trippy show, yeah. It was Key Losers stuff, which I feel like was maybe over my head at the time. I like it now, but it kind of took me getting into the early-mid period Dear Nora and into later Dear Nora, and then into Key Losers.
Katy: Those were definitely the weirdest, maybe darkest years of my musical career. I was just totally weirded out with just about everything. I mean, I like the Key Losers recordings a lot, but I was a little bit feeling my way through the dark.
Barry: That’s where I’m trying to go right now. I’m trying to get into that era, that period.
Katy: So when COVID hit, you were working at a bar. Do you have unemployment? Are you just doing your band stuff? What’s going on?
Barry: Yeah, I got the sweet-ass unemployment. That was basically for my touring income, so I got $400 a week from that, and then the $600. So, I was making good-ass money off unemployment. Then me and some friends opened up a bar in San Pedro, and I’m just a part-owner, investor, whatever. It’s my friend Todd from San Pedro and my friend Isaac opened up a spot in December. It’s a really bummer of a time to open a bar. So I’ve been bartending there a couple days a week. Lately, I haven’t because we moved everything to the back patio. We kind of have a little setup out there, but I’m just trying to stay home and not get COVID. But I’ll occasionally cover a shift if they need me. I really like bartending. I’ve waited tables a shitload, but this is my first time bartending. It’s cool, and I like being in San Pedro, so that’s cool.
Katy: Me too. Maybe I’ll go there someday if anyone can do anything ever again.
Barry: We have shows there, but it’s kind of like a bar show.
Katy: If a band can turn up enough and have enough energy to carry that environment, it’s one of the most fun places to see shows. I saw some awesome shows at The Prospector in Long Beach. It can be so fun. It’s not always right for me.
Barry: A lot of it has to do with volume, honestly. Our place is very much like a PBR rock, you know what I mean, punk bar, so it doesn’t really lend itself to…
Katy: Well, I’ll definitely go there for fun.
Barry: I don’t know why I know this, but do you write music for commercials?
Katy: Technically not really. The job I have on a daily basis is I’m a commercial music producer, meaning that I work with other composers. They’re the composer and I’m the music producer, and I work with them to create songs that eventually end up in commercials. I give them ideas on what to write, and they post a first draft. And then I give them feedback about what might work better. And then we just go back and forth until it’s done. My music, most of it’s so lo-fi that it hasn’t really worked well for commercials, which is probably a good thing. I don’t know.
Barry: That’s what I was going to ask, well, kind of.
Katy: Like do I feel conflicted?
Barry: Not “Do you feel conflicted,” but has it negatively affected your own relationship with music or your own output maybe?
Katy: One would expect that it might have a negative impact on me, and I’ve heard other anecdotes of people who used to just do it for the love of it, and then they got into commercial music — and then it ruined their relationship with music. But I have actually had the exact opposite effect. I feel like, because of my involvement with producing commercial music … this might sound funny, especially given the way it sounds, but I think a lot of that shaped how I made Skulls Example. I think it’s a much better album than it would have been because of my involvement in the work that I do. I don’t know exactly how to explain why, but it’s worked out in a positive sense.
Barry: I think you have the record to back that up. It’s a really great record, so whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. I just was curious if you ever felt like you need to stop doing it or you’re really happy. I guess, in some ways, making music or working on music is this muscle, and you’re always exercising it because you’re always thinking critically about music.
Katy: One piece of clarification I’ll offer, which I think helps me stay true to who I am musically is that I actually really love being the producer and not the composer. I wrestled with that for a while because I was like, “Oh, I’m a composer in my normal life. Why wouldn’t I be a composer for what I do in my work?” But I’ve figured out that I almost like being a producer more than a composer. Don’t get me wrong. I still love writing songs and I still will do that, but I’m more interested in the realm of production than even songwriting at this point. I think if I was in the mindset of actively composing for commercials on a daily basis, that might taint what I do. But I just get to help people shape their compositions, and I think that kind of helps me keep things as separated as I need them to be.
Barry: Yeah, totally. I didn’t know that you were in more of a production sense. That totally makes sense where you can keep your own stuff pure or whatever. If you were always pitching songs, I feel like maybe you’d get your wires crossed.
Katy: Yeah, and I’ve heard it happen to people. It doesn’t surprise me. I could see it getting a little confusing. So, for now, I’m very happy to create that delineation.
Joyce Manor’s Songs From Northern Torrance and Dear Nora’s Three States are both out now.
(Photo Credit: left, Andrea Zittel; right, Allie Hanlon)