Behind the Scenes of Million Dollars to Kill Me with Barry Johnson of Joyce Manor

Interview by Danielle Chelosky
Photo Credit: Dan Monick

It hasn’t gotten easier. The biting insecurity conveyed in Self-Titled, the inherent nostalgia attached to Never Hungover Again, the sad inevitability of aging looming over Cody—Joyce Manor only give the scene more to stress about with new overbearing concerns in Million Dollars to Kill Me. Nevertheless, this gloomy outlook is balanced with enough upbeat rhythms and catchy vocals to keep us from falling into the hovering abyss.   

Lead vocalist and guitarist Barry Johnson was in talks about production with Rory Phillips of The Impossibles for a while. While Rory works for Apple and has a kid, he proposed working via email and Johnson was unfamiliar with this type of craft.

I totally called his bluff and took him up on it and sent him acoustic guitar and vocals to kind of put on top and build a song out of,” recalled Johnson, who, at the time, had low expectations for ever hearing back. However, a few weeks later, a song appeared in his inbox. “He changed the arrangement, added drums, bass, harmonies, piano, all types of different stuff,” he said, in awe of the result and the whole process. “It was like mailing away for a song,” he described it. This back and forth online led to the creation of “Silly Games,” “Friends We Met Online,” and “Wildflowers.”

Consequently, the band was left the responsibility of making songs that blended well with the ones produced through the internet. “It’s like this is more kind of bedroom-charm home-recorded type of vibe and this is more like a four-piece rock band,” explained Johnson, finding it easy to distinguish the two separate sounds—even going as far as treating them as two EPs. “And I think that the challenge was to marry those things.”

Along with this diversion in sound, the tracks skip around thematically. Johnson, as per usual, played with a few ideas weighing on his mind, including facades and finances. “I talk about money a lot because I think these days it’s impossible not to fucking think about it,” he said, and this frustrated attitude saturates “I’m Not the One”—a sardonic track critiquing the infiltration of greed into mindsets and music. He takes a jab at the increasingly capitalist nature of what was once all about DIY—“Booking the shows where they sell the most clothes / ‘Cause they’re so limited”—and does so in a misleading lullaby-like manner. This doesn’t yield goosebumps until more haunting lines about death (“Baby when we die, yeah, we’re all gonna burn in Hell”) in which Johnson emphasizes the connection between the minor problem in the greed of individual to the epidemic of misplaced priorities in the collective people. Still, the song is soft and twinkly, and the tragic tale is shared indifferently—as if mirroring the universal indifference to the growing chaos.

That’s not the only frustration he has encountered. “Not being honest with yourself,” he pointed out as a theme on the record. “Not wanting to look at the truth.” On the slower track “Gone Tomorrow,” he laments about the superficial desperation individuals have to leave a mark on the world for the sole purpose of proving their existence. Johnson, repeating the words “Gone tomorrow” throughout the song, is one of the few acknowledging this truth that none of that really matters. “Some might steal and some might borrow,” he sings, and whichever one you might do will provide you with the same fate: gone tomorrow.

Similarly, he acknowledges the lack of realness in relationships in “Million Dollars to Kill Me,” a track that says it all with the third verse: “And one day you will realize / You are nothing, nothing without her” and, frankly, investing ourselves in others can’t fix our own internal struggles. However, and Johnson knows it, it sure is easier to pretend.

Even with all these dejected ruminations, Joyce Manor can’t help but include, the band has good intentions. 70s era Rolling Stones and Charmer era Tigers Jaw contributed to the inspiration, and even if the record is a culmination of punk attitudes and sinister atmospherics, the aim was to make the album fun. “Something like Weezer’s Green album,” Johnson envisioned. “Really fun, in this kind of 60s British Invasion way, where it’s infectious and makes you want to tap your toes.” The album definitely achieves “Hash Pipe” overtones in frivolous rock tracks like “Friends We Met Online” and “Up the Punx,” as well as dark Charmer reminiscents such as the chord progression in “Big Lie,” which was initially written during the Cody session.

“I wrote it in like two minutes—I was driving—and then we didn’t use it,” he said. “I changed the music—I kept the vocal melody and the lyrics—but I changed the music,” and since he had been on his Tigers Jaw kick, he had a better idea of how to sonically adjust it. Lyrically, the song stands out on the album with whimsical, irresistible lines like “Girls can be kind of controlling / I wanna be controlled, I think it’d be alright” followed by “Everybody thinks I’m joking / If it’s funny then hold me while I cry all night.” As much as Joyce Manor changes with each album, they will never abandon the clever one-liners that become the quintessential Facebook status opportunity.

Again, the band is able to accomplish all of this in the briefest amount of time. Johnson didn’t keep this album just over twenty minutes for the sake of tradition, in fact, he didn’t do it for any reason at all. “I naturally tend to edit a lot, and when you’re really into editing, you end up with short shit,” he explained. “I’ll have like a verse and I’ll only think one line is good, so then I went from having a verse to having one line. So you’re like ‘fuck’—it’s like three steps forward, two steps back.” All the commonalities from album to album are simply coincidental, considering 1. Joyce Manor is about moving on to new things as their discography progresses 2. Johnson takes extensive breaks in between albums during which songwriting does not even occur to him. “I’ll finish writing an album and I’ll say, ‘Wow, I never want to do that ever again’—so hard, so stressful,” Johnson said. “And then, about eight months to a year later, I’m like ‘I can write another record!’” Thankfully, up until now, this pattern has supplied us with more Joyce Manor records than he expected.

The band doesn’t anticipate for you to like the album right away, no matter how proud they are of it. “I think our records take a little while, which is never my intention,” concluded Johnson, based off of the amount of time it took for people to appreciate their recent four albums. Even if this record deviates in terms of the way it was made, he doesn’t think it’s a leap from Cody—but a smooth transition similar to the transition from Never Hungover Again to Cody. “I think they’ll think it’s okay, and then maybe a year from now they’ll be like ‘well, this is better than I remember it being,’” he predicts, and hopefully this time around fans will resonate with it sooner and break the cursed cycle. | Million Dollars to Kill Me