Tim Quirk, the singer and co-founder of Too Much Joy, readily admits they would not have recorded an album of new material – their first LP of all new songs in 25 years – if not for the global pandemic that essentialy shut down the world for nearly a year.
But forced isolation will make a person do strange things; Like reunite a beloved 1990s alt rock band over zooms, emails and texts and lead to a phenomenally strong album brimming with the whip smart lyrics and tight guitar pop.
The band just self-released Mistakes Were Made, a 15-track album, they crowd-funded. You can purchase a copy here.
Quirk was kind enough to answer some questions recently, discussing how this reunion came about, how they were able to record safely despite the ongoing pandemic, and why notes from your bandmates about their playing work better when given face to face rather via short texts.
Let’s start out with what everyone’s been doing since you last were on stage together – I think around 2007?
I’ve been working with various technology companies – first Real Networks/Rhapsody, then Google, then a start-up I co-founded called Freeform Development, and now Zedge, Inc., which acquired Freeform in 2017 – to build products and services that try to make it easier to make a living making art.
Bill (Wittman) has been producing and mixing records and acting as musical director and bass guitarist in the Cyndi Lauper band.
Sandy (Smallen)’s had his own misadventures in the music/tech world, at Spotify and now with his own podcasting company, Audiation, though when I asked him for any further details, he’d like to provide he responded with just, “Cashin’ checks and snappin’ necks.”
Tommy (Vinton) continues to play/record with several local bands. Currently writing/recording rock opera with a local musician, as well as doing private investigator/security work in his off time. Sandy and Tommy have released an album and an EP as Surface Wound.
Jay (Blumenfield)’s been producing reality TV shows for a variety of different networks. He and I have also put out a few records as Wonderlick.
I was stoked to hear about the new record. How did it come about?
First by accident, and then with increasing motivation and purpose. I’d put some Too Much Joy rarities up on Bandcamp for their first Friday (when they waive their commissions to help musicians out during the lockdown) last June, and the response was so enthusiastic Sandy suggested we try to produce a genuine new song in time for the first Friday in July.
That led us to write and record “New Memories,” a brand-new tune, and “Snow Day,” a song we’d written in the early ’90s but never officially recorded, and the response to THAT was even more overwhelming, so we set a goal to record at least one new and one old song each month for the rest of the year, since that would yield an entire album by Christmas. Once we started, the songs just started pouring out of us. Everybody was going stir crazy, I guess, and writing/recording provided an amazing outlet for all our pent-up angst and creative energy.
How did you go about writing and recording during COVID lock downs?
This record is 100% a product of the pandemic and its associated lockdown. On one hand, like I said, that provided a lot of inspiration and energy. On the other hand, it made actually writing and recording a huge pain in the ass – I don’t really recommend trying to make a record remotely, as doing so is mostly driven by endless text and email threads about when and where and which songs to record and what to change about them once they’re on tape; and having those sorts of discussions in writing rather than in person makes everything much more contentious than I’m accustomed to.
You really need to see someone’s face when he’s telling you how he thinks you can improve what you’ve just done; it’s too easy to project all your own insecurities onto a text message, and interpret them in the worst possible light,
Previously, Too Much Joy has always written as a unit, in real time, with everyone in the same room. One member or another might have come to rehearsal with a stray riff or melody, but no single member ever really “wrote” a song by himself. Lockdown changed that: Bill, Jay and Sandy would each ask me for lyrics and turn those into complete demos they’d then share with everybody else. So, it was a huge challenge as the lyricist, because I was frequently trying to finish three to five different songs at a time.
Whenever we had three or four songs to a point, they felt ready to record, Tommy (our drummer), Sandy (original bassist) and Bill (producer and multi-instrumentalist) who all live in NY would head into a studio wearing masks and lay down the rhythm tracks. I’d then drive down to LA and spend a weekend drinking good wine with Jay and his family while recording guitars and vocals (his son Leo engineered for us).
Jay was getting tested regularly for his day job, and I was being a hermit at home, so our families. were essentially in each other’s pod, even though we live 400 miles apart. Toward the end, we started having Bill join us via videoconference to produce the vocal takes, which wasn’t super convenient but did save a lot of time and reduced the number of text messages telling us what we’d done the night before was unusable.
Bill and Sandy would sometimes add more bells and whistles from their individual houses, then Bill would mix the results. I really can’t praise him enough for that piece of the work – he’d troll through dozens of different takes to find the best bits and turn them into a seamless whole.
I’m assuming this is the first record you guys have written when you were spread across the country?
Pretty much. We’ve done stray tracks for tribute albums and such, but those usually started with most of us in the same room, and maybe one guy would add his bits later on. We’ve certainly never attempted to WRITE songs with everybody in separate houses before. It’s kind of funny: everybody’s really thrilled with the results, but nobody wants to do it this way again. This record wouldn’t have existed without the pandemic, some of it is a very literal response to being cooped up and scared and overcoming the complications of being scattered across the country and literally unable to get everybody together in one place became a challenge that leant the record a visceral anger and energy I frankly find thrilling. But none of that feels repeatable, and even if it were, why would you want to?
Were you surprised by the crowdfunding response to this record?
Hell yeah. I had no real idea how many Too Much Joy fans were left, or what subset of them would still feel like spending their hard-earned simoleons on new music from us. So, we just asked for $5,000 initially – enough to master it professionally and hire an actual artist to do the cover and lay out the lyrics/liner notes. I had a vague hope that maybe we could double that. But we quadrupled it!
It’s really heartening to know that, even if we don’t have enough fans to get ourselves a gold record, the ones we DO have love us a LOT. If all someone wanted was the finished album, she only had to contribute $10. But the average donation was over $70. It’s humbling and made us more determined than we already were to make something that didn’t suck. Happily, that enthusiasm seems to be carrying over into actual sales now that the crowdfunding campaign is over: because Bandcamp lets us sell deluxe packages, and also allows fans to pay MORE than the list price if they so choose, our average Bandcamp sale for the album is $25.68.
That’s one of the positives about the newly digital music business: songs have never been worth exactly one dollar. The same song has always been worth different amounts to different people, it’s just that in the 20th century there was pretty much a single price everyone had to pay. I recognize that Too Much Joy songs are worth zero dollars to most humans on planet earth, but to people who know us, they’re worth a hell of a lot more. Digital distribution gives us a lot of different tools to help fans pay us what the music’s worth to them. Our job is to turn as many of the human beings who currently value our songs at zero dollars into super fans who will happily pay us $10, or $25, or even $500 dollars to go make more music. That’s a challenge I relish.
As a band that has experienced being on small indie labels, one of biggest major labels and now going it alone. What are your thoughts on the current way bands make records and get them out there?
Depends entirely on what the artist in question is looking for. Back in 1999, I was telling young musicians contemplating signing with a major that they should only do so if their goal was to be mega-famous; if their goal was to make a living making music, signing with a major was LESS likely to achieve that goal. But if they wanted to be Madonna or Lady GaGa, a major was the most likely way of getting there. These days, you pretty much need to have built a significant audience online before a major will even consider you, which makes me wonder what the point of signing with one even is any more. If you have a decent microphone, or know someone who does, it’s a lot easier to make professional-sounding recordings these days with just a laptop, so it’s entirely possible to self-fund your recording, then hire a team of publicists, digital marketing gurus and radio/playlist promo people to spread the word. We never even had a conversation about looking for a label for this record — even an indie one. The only thing we’re missing out on is physical distribution to brick and mortar record stores, but if we thought that was going to be critical to the success of this particular release, we could’ve made that happen, too.
I know that not every musician wants to be bothered with all the details about how a record gets distributed and promoted, but I’ve always thought the notion of a tortured artist who just creates and never even thinks about the commercial side is a bullshit, harmful myth perpetuated by mercenary businessmen who WANT musicians to feel helpless in the marketplace. Even if a particular musician wants to be less involved in that side of things than I personally think is appropriate, he or she will still be better served by hiring their own team and recognizing those people work for the musician, rather than signing with a label and having to fight for attention from them.
Are these all-new songs or some that were started years ago?
While the original plan was to record one brand new one for each one, we’d written in the ’90s but never got around to recording, only three of the 16 songs on the final album actually count as old ones (“Snow Day,” “Camper of the Year” and “Just Around the Bend”). A few of the others had been started but never finished – the lyric for “Oliver Plunkett’s Head,” for instance, was mostly written in the early-’90s, but we never found an arrangement for it that worked, so the music’s brand new, and that music required some additional words that just got written this year. Similarly, “Hairshirt” and “Shouting Across the Ocean” were begun in the aughts but didn’t get finished till 2020. All the others are brand spanking new.
After having gone through the process and come out it with a fantastic record, do you wish you had done this sooner or was now just the right time?
It was just the right time. Like I said, if there were no pandemic, there’d be no new Too Much Joy album. We’ve put out stray tracks here and there over the past 20 years, but none had anything like the urgency of this collection. Those were mostly done for the fun of getting together and hanging out. These were done because we did not have the option of getting together and hanging out.
Any plans to play shows online once this record comes out or even eventually play these in front of an audience once the world goes back to normal?
No virtual shows, because Too Much Joy only makes sense in person. We’d absolutely suck if we were trying to synch ourselves up in real time over vast distances. But we very much hope to play these songs live in real time, for real people, in real clubs, once that’s a thing we can all do again.