Band gifts universe with first full-length in 25 years.
(Thank the gods they're back.)
B Y C O R Y F R Y E
CLOSE AS EVER: Too Much Joy in full adult bloom, 2020.
— Too Much Joy, 1988
Who saw another another chapter coming in the story of Too Much Joy?
Oh, we know it was never, like, over over. Such bands, see — they don’t break up. Too final. The guys are sticklers for that. No multiple farewell or “Maybe This Time It Takes” retirement tours. If they splintered, you’d know. The noise would be deafening. I believe the word “hiatus” was invoked when we last truly heard from them in the late 1990s. As Groucho Marx once declared, it wasn’t goodbye, but auf wiedersehen.
Lobbed outta Scarsdale, N.Y., around the early 1980s, Too Much Joy crested under-the-radar waves with their debut album, Green Eggs and Crack, in 1987. Vocalist/lyricist Tim Quirk wasn’t quite a singer yet, but his patter game was mellifluous, his clever word-power fierce. (Check out “Bored with Love,” an “Institutionalized” for the more urbane and well-read, and tell me I’m wrong. Then admire the Georgian jangle and drang of “Grandma Went to Athens, Once.”) Son of Sam I Am (1988) producer Michael James made him sing, and the universe was better for it. Who could forget the riotous blast of “Making Fun of Bums,” the fearsome "Clowns," hilarious ode “If I Was a Mekon,” or a “Train in Vain” that had nothing to do with The Clash?
The four-man lineup in its major-label promotional glory, 1991.
Naturally, the band drew wider attention in the ’90s, where such outfits could persevere in a brave new paradigm. Giant Records, then attached by hip to major label Warner Bros., released Too Much Joy’s Cereal Killers (not to be confused with Green Jellö’s punnish 1993 album of a similar title) in 1991, featuring the angtsy hosannahs of “Crush Story” and “Long Haired Guys from England,” and the party-down hip rolls of “King of Beers.” Favorite title, hands down: “William Holden Caulfield.”
The biggie, however, was 1992’s Mutiny. Anyone with a working radio heard "Donna Everywhere" everywhere. And who couldn’t identify with a cowbell-punctuated flutter about a girl impossible to avoid, even though maybe you should? We aspired to such love in the ’90s.
Oh, dear reader. Forgive an old man’s august reverie. I’m losing my mind, but I don’t care. (“Is this real / or in my head? / DONNA’S DANCIN’ ON MY BED!”) Thing is, Too Much Joy should have been much bigger than they were. Ridiculously smart and enormously gifted, with a central tandem of Tim Quirk and guitarist Jay Blumenfield, two of the finest architects pop-rock ever pulled off the streets. Sadly, they had only one full-length album left, 1996’s … finally, then a long, long nap for the next quarter-century.
But they reconvened every once in a while, when they happened to be in the same city. Yanked obscurities from their ample vault, filled them with new life, floated fresh ideas into the fold, and sometimes shot them into the marketplace just to watch what happened. They enjoyed each other’s company. “It was just an excuse to drink beers and remember that we liked each other,” Quirk recalled in an enlightening telephone interview Wednesday afternoon. (Me, I couldn’t believe he was on my other line.)
Then a couple things transpired, both sucky and very good indeed.
First, the totally good. It began in 2019 with an email from the band’s original bassist, Sandy Smallens, who, like drummer Tommy Vinton and bassist/producer William Wittman (Smallens‘ 1994 replacement; they’re both in the group now, making the foursome a full quintet — imagine the Yes Union lineup on a much smaller scale), is based in New York. Quirk and Blumenfield both live in California, albeit five hours apart. (The duo also murders molecules in Wonderlick.) Smallens wanted to revisit an oldie called “Death Ray Machine,” originally written in 1991 but never recorded.
As luck would have it, Quirk, a senior vice president of product at content platform ZEDGE (his post-TMJ resume reads like an entrepreneur’s wet dream, featuring stints at listen.com, Rhapsody, and Google Play), was already planning a trip east from his home in Oakland. Yeah, what the hell, Quirk figured. “It came out really well,” he said. “So that was sort of in the back of my mind.”
On March 19, 2019, Too Much Joy released “Death Ray Machine” on its Bandcamp page. The whole world changed less than a year later. The coronavirus crossed from China to the United States, throwing everything into turmoil. Lives ended, stores failed, shows shuttered; everyone went into isolation. Bandcamp launched an initiative in March 2020, waiving its revenue share to allow artists to benefit fully from site purchases every first Friday.
Too Much Joy seized their first First Friday that June. Quirk plumbed his archives and made a few rare tracks available, posting a link on the band’s Facebook page. The response was invigorating. “We were all taken aback by just how excited that seemed to make more people than we expected to give a damn,” he said. So they determined to reveal a new song the following month.
From here our story turns beautifully insane.
“It literally grew out of that, this challenge to create something new,” Quirk said. “[Sandy] had a riff he was working on, I had some lyrics lying around, and we turned it into a song called 'New Memories.’ He and Tommy were going to go into a studio in New York to lay down the rhythm tracks, and Jay and I were going to add our bits from California. Bill [Wittman] was going to add his bits.
"As Tommy and Sandy were going into the studio, I said, "‘Death Ray Machine’ came out really well. There’s another old song that never got the studio treatment, ‘Snow Day.’ Why don’t you see if you can bang that out while you’re laying down ‘New Memories’?” So they did that. And that led to a single that we put up in time for the July 1 First Friday [the two-part ‘New Memories’ b/w ‘Snow Day’]. We had so much fun.
“Then we said, ‘You know what? Why don’t we keep doing this and record one old song and one new song? If we do that once a month and we don’t get bored, and we’re continuously pleased by the results, we’ll have an album’s worth of material by Christmas.’
“So there was a certain point, somewhere between July and August, where everybody agreed that the results we were getting for what had started as a lark felt like something different to what we’d been doing previously when we’d gotten together. So we decided to actually go for it. That’s the point when we decided to make an official new record. But even then, even when we decided to go for it, I was thinking, ‘Maybe it’ll be good; maybe it won’t. No harm in trying.’
“I certainly wasn’t expecting to wind up with what we got. I was not expecting to be this proud and pleased with the results.”
The finished album, Mistakes Were Made, represents a triumphant epilogue. Gloriously rust-free, it fits the Too Much Joy canon perfectly: funny, thoughtful, deliciously profane. Yet it acknowledges that time has passed and has plenty to say about the still-current landscape.
Thanks to the pandemic, however, its birth was fraught with horror and frustration. Funding was the easy part; Too Much Joy raised nearly $20,000 through an Indiegogo campaign, offering fans goodies at different donation tiers. Nine people even surrendered $500 apiece for the honor of getting name-checked in a song, and Quirk obliged — the cut appears as a long, hidden track at album’s end and sounds musically as good as its predecessors.
As a band, however, Too Much Joy was accustomed to working together. That was no longer possible in the physical realm. Instead, they fled to their spaces on opposite coasts — even when close, they had to stay distant — and assembled it slowly over a five-month period in 2020.
ILLUSTRATION: TAVIS COBURN
While the New York contingent wrestled its own creative duties, the West Coast chapter huddled at Blumenfield’s Culver City home. Neither Quirk nor Blumenfield fretted much about the coronavirus. Quirk was well-isolated, and his partner, as a television producer, submitted to regular testing. They commandeered a room with a microphone previously caressed by the former Dixie Chicks, and enlisted Blumenfield’s son, Leo, as engineer. The duo would work their magic and Leo would upload it to the Cloud, where East Coast puzzlemeister Wittman, also the project’s producer, waited with angry texts at the ready as he struggled to toss massive piles of moments into a yummy, seamless salad.
“It was a surprisingly fractious process,” Quirk admitted. “Bill and Sandy would add additional sweetening from their respective homes and Bill would take dozens and dozens of different vocal and guitar takes and different bits from Sandy, and he’d add his own bits. Then he’d have to troll through all of that and winnow it down into what worked. It made him very, very cranky. I’m pleased, but he doesn’t ever want to do it that way again. I’m glad we did it that way. It was painful at the time, but what came out of it was an urgency and vitality from our frustration at the constraints we were working under.”
On March 19, fans will at last have the opportunity to hear the long-awaited album, though they’ve heard plenty of treasures already. Its delightful opener, “Blinding Light of Love,” was released as its first official single in January, and “Pong,” “New Memories,” and “Snow Day” have been accessible since they were recorded last year. But pain, pandemic, Uncle Watsons, and all, the whole shebang is worth the wait. No mistakes here, mister.
On 1987’s Green Eggs and Crack, you spoke more than you sang. Was that because of the material or did you feel your voice wasn’t ready?
It was just fear. It was fear and using people like Lou Reed and Jonathan Richman as an excuse to not even bother trying to sing. It was the result of taking those songs out on the road and learning how to work a crowd and getting some more confidence and then having an official producer for the next record, who kind-of forced me to sing. I got — well, I was going to say "better,” but I got more comfortable attempting to hit notes than I had previously.
I read a paper you presented a couple of years ago on “Seasons in the Sun,” which Too Much Joy covered on Son of Sam I Am. Maudlin wasn’t a language you guys often spoke. What was the attraction to that song and how did you decide on its rockier arrangement?
From the time I was a kid, I've been attracted to story songs that can make me cry: “Seasons in the Sun,” “The Night Chicago Died,” “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero,” “Run Joey Run.” Songs like that just move me, even though I know they’re manipulating me. I know they’re deliberately pushing my buttons, and it feels good to have those buttons pushed.
As I think I tried to get at in the piece, a lot of it probably had to do with the fact that I grew up in a fairly WASP-y family where emotions were things to be afraid of. That explains a lot of our early work, I think, where we were using humor to deflect from feelings and emotions, to avoid acknowledging them. Whenever we got too close to one, we’d turn it into a gag. As a kid I was super-attracted to literally sitting in front of a speaker and having tears stream down my face. As I got older and more cynical, I became less attracted to that and more interested in how a song like that works its magic or its evil incantations on you, depending on your artistic perspective.
I knew it was an effective song. I thought it would be good for us to do it. It didn’t seem like we could get away with doing a folky or a poppy version of it, so just punking it up was an easy choice.
TMJ in the 1990s.
You guys took a powder at a time the music industry was on its last, glorious, extended gasp before the digital age, which I seem to recall you took to rather quickly. How would you compare the culture Too Much Joy is re-entering to the one it largely left behind in the ’90s?
I’ve said for a long time that I wish all the tools available for musicians now were available to us back then, because what little career Too Much Joy had with its fans was based on getting drunk with them after shows. It’s a really effective way of bonding people to you, making them give a damn about you and follow you even when you become harder to find. But it’s hard to do at scale. (laughs) You have to go down and do it with individual human beings. The Internet and digital distribution in general give you a whole bunch of tools to do that virtually, to actually get drunk with your fans at scale.
It is true that we were certainly beneficiaries of the old system. I can’t imagine any multinational corporation today giving a bunch of jokers like us a quarter-of-a-million-dollar publishing advance for the words and music, let alone giving us hundreds of thousands of dollars to go make records with no real hope of recouping those costs. So that piece of it is gone.
But I’m not sorry to see it go, personally, because it’ so much easier to make a professional-sounding record cheaply these days. Really, all you need is a microphone, a laptop, and at least one person who knows what he’s doing. It’s being able to afford a good live room. If you’re a band like us that has a live drummer and getting that sound, that’s nice to have, but it’s not a hard requirement.
What’s ironic is we made this record for less money than we spent on Son of Sam I Am back in the ’80s. And Son of Sam I Am was not an expensive record to make. We had a $15,000 advance from Alias Records and actually went over budget. (laughs) Frankly, as much as I love Son of Sam I Am, I think Mistakes Were Made sounds better. No offense to Michael James; he’s an amazing producer who did fantastic things on a limited budget with the limited skills we had at the time. I think he extracted the best that he could out of us with the money we had. If he was able to take those kids today with what’s available to everybody, I shudder to think of the awesomeness we could have created and the effectiveness with which we could have connected with people across the planet.
By nature, I’m sort-of hard-wired to look on the sunny side of things, but I really do feel that things that we’ve lost in the 21st century in terms of the music business are puny compared to the things we’ve gained. Which is really just a democratization of “death to all the gatekeepers.” The biggest problem these days is not the fact that Spotify and YouTube are paying fractions of a penny per play. I’m not saying it’s not a problem, but it’s not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is competition. It’s so easy for so many people to make so much music that it’s really hard to get noticed.
That was one thing Too Much Joy benefitted from in the ’80s and ’90s that is not available to artists today. We literally self-released a record and got it played on commercial radio. We got our video played during the daytime on MTV. It’s hard to imagine anyone pulling that off now.
What's great about this new record was that it was funded by people who would have likely bought it, anyway. No label budgets necesary.
You don’t have to have a massive following like this to be possible. I’ve said for a while that music is priceless. A song is not worth a dollar. There’s no inherent value to a song. It’s a fixed price that everyone must pay. It’s never actually been the case. It’s just deluded thinking that in the 21stt century, the music business was structured on that idea. But the same song has always been worth different things to different people, different contexts.
In the 21st century, what digital distribution does is it gives musicians, managers, labels, and publishing companies a way to recognize that and extract that value from different people in different contexts. The downside of that is even when people were paying $1 for a song or $10 for an album, that song and that album might have been worth less than $1 or $10. They had no choice but to pay it.
On the downside, you lose all the people who didn’t want to give you that much money in the first place, and their value to you goes down close to or at zero. But the upside is there’s all the people who like you more than $1 or $10 and have a variety of different mechanisms to turn that love into actual cold, hard cash. We’ve done this in a variety of ways since 1999-2000.
I didn’t realize this in the ’80s and ’90s, but I was already thinking this way. When I used to go into Amoeba and I’d see a new copy of my record in the “new” section for $18.99 or whatever and then I’d be happy if I saw a used copy of my record for $9.99. Because I knew a new fan and potential listener was way more likely to buy the CD for $9.99 than for 19 bucks. It was highly unlikely that either sale was going to result in actual pennies lining up in my personal pocket. I just wanted as many people as possible to get a chance to hear us and like us, because then maybe they’d come to the show. They might buy a T-shirt. They might follow us around.
I was happy to strike that bargain because I was supremely confident in our ability once we got into a sweaty club to have them fall under our spell and follow us. Not with huge numbers of people in the world, but with enough of them to sustain some sort of career momentum.
Was it difficult to bring everyone back together for Mistakes Were Made?
No, especially not during a pandemic. I don’t think we would have had this opportunity if it weren’t for everyone being locked down. Bill might have been on tour with Cyndi Lauper’s band; I definitely would have been spending half my life in Europe in my day job. Everybody’s busy, busy, busy. But now, all of a sudden, we were locked in our houses with nothing to do. We were running out of prestige TV to stream.
On to the songs. First up: Why Oliver Plunkett, the Irish saint [“Oliver Plunkett’s Head”]?
(laughs) It’s interesting. That’s a half-new, half-old song. My wife and I flew to Ireland back in the early ’90s. We just flew to the Galway Airport and rented a car. We had no itinerary; we had a car, a Let’s Go Ireland book, and a return ticket home three or four weeks later. We juat drove around wherever we wanted, and if we saw anything interesting on the side of the road, we’d stop and check it out.
Back in those days, there were all these abandoned castles, and you could literally pull over when you saw one and walk up to it. And if it was not open already, there was usually a sign one the door that read, “Ask for key at house next door.” You’d walk across the yard and they’d give you the key to the castle and you’d goof around. So we had a grand old time.
One of the places we went was this church in Louth. There was literally a desiccated skull in a glass case in this church. I saw Oliver Plunkett’s little old head. Lots of people come and they burst into tears when they see it. They kneel down and pray. I’m an atheist; all this stuff is curious to me. I don’t understand it at all.
But I wrote that lyric way back in the ’90s. We could never get it to work musically. I have tapes of five different arrangements we tried. So, in the process of making this record, because while we were writing brand-new material, we were also trying to save old songs that never got the love we thought they deserved. Sandy finally cracked the code on this one. It took him a couple of tries, but he finally came up with an arrangement. I think Bill and Jay added some bits to it. Finally, we said, “Whoa! That works!” I really love the lyric and I’d been wanting to sing it for over 20 years, so I’m glad we finally got some good music for it. Plus, it seemed to fit in with some of the other things on the record.
You have a song whose focal point is the Atari game Pong, and it includes such ’70s references as The Last Waltz, The Gong Show, the Battle of the Sexes, and Patty Hearst. How did you arrive at Pong as the connective tissue?
Well, it started with Pong. Everything came after Pong. When I was in grade school, Pong was such an astonishing invention that my third-grade class took a field trip to a kid’s house because his family had it. He lived about a block away from our elementary school. It seems absurd now, but back in 1973, it was amazing enough that a teacher thought it would be educational to take a bunch of 8-year-olds see a game of Pong. We were just amazed by this modern, futuristic way of entertaining one’s self, which is so funny now because it’s fuckin’ Pong.
So I was thinking about things that once seemed astonishing and how quickly they can not be seen that way. That was the seed of the song. Then I started thinking of other things from that time period: OK, what else was going on? It’s stringing together a whole bunch of ’70s references that hopefully cohere in some manner to make them grander than the sum of their parts.
What was the issue with “Something to Drink About”?
You mean the internal band warfare? It’s an ongoing thing with us. Our drummer, who’s a former New York City police officer, certainly does not share my personal political views. As a general rule, he does not like it when we are political and does not think that’s what we should be doing or what Too Much Joy fans wants to hear.
Going back to Cereal Killers, we had a song that was vehemently anti-death penalty [“Good Kill," with KRS-One] and he described himself as being very, very pro-death penalty. So political disagreements are nothing new to us. He disagreed enough with the sentiments of that song and with the notion of having a political song. He argued very forcefully for it to not make the record. But the rest of us were insistent that it go on. Having a disclaimer in the liner notes was the compromise he suggested, and I was fine with that.
I have to say I was weirdly affected by “Flux Capacitor,” which we know makes time travel possible. I don’t know if it’s the melody or the fact that I’ve grown more sentimental as I push at 50 a little harder. The lyrics are completely absurd, operating on dream logic. Could you take me through the process of writing that song?
My guess is the thing that makes it effective is a combination of Jay’s melody and Bill’s production, Bill’s harmonies on the chorus, in particular. That’s him stacking himself singing the words “Flux capacitor” over and over again. I think it’s beautiful.
The goal with that one was sort-of twofold. The starting point for the lyric was this notion — and I find this amazing — that no matter how mundane, unliterary, or inartistic any individual on Planet Earth might consider him- or herself, the fact is every single human being, when he or she goes to sleep, becomes a poet. Our subconscious speaks to us in the language of poetry, using metaphors and analogies, trying to make sense of whatever events we went through during the day. I just find that fascinating, that our brains are shouting at us while we sleep, trying to tell us things that we don’t want to acknowledge. Important truths it feels it has to reveal to us, that we resist. That’s an amazing dynamic to me. Not just that it happens, but it happens to every single person on the planet, on a daily basis. That was the starting point: your brain is sending you messages.
I have a bad habit of getting stoned and watching old Star Treks. When you binge-watch one of those shows, the scientific jargon that’s really just a crutch starts to stand out. You realize there are only three plots, and they just make up something like a flux capacitor, like “Oh! We’re running low on dilithium crystals” and they come up with a set of circumstances. And all they’re really doing is setting up a clock: “We have 10 seconds to do X.” They just drop in some jargon for “X.” But it’s storytelling, and it works. You find yourself really caring about whether or not they’ll be able to do “X” in the 10 seconds that remain.
Our subconscious minds speak to us in a similar manner as we sleep, so all that stuff was bouncing around in my brain as I wrote the lyric, which was an attempt to use actual things I dreamed or general themes from common dreams that mankind has. Not try to write a story, but to see if I could use dream logic that told a story in a way a Star Trek episode would, where something has to happen in a certain amount of time. But the thing is it doesn’t actually matter. That’s not the point. There’s something else that the story is trying to tell you.
The album concludes with that ’90s mainstay: the hidden track.
We’ve always been fans of bonus mystery tracks or some kind of extra goodies. It’s not like we always have to have one, but when it feels right, we will include one. In this particular case, because we fronted the album through an Indiegogo campaign, the highest-level donors, the people who paid $500 or more, were buying themselves a verse about themselves in a Too Much Joy song. We made it clear on the Indiegogo page that we weren’t promising the song was going to be on the record, but we were promising that we would write it, record it, and send it to them when it was done. So the song’s really long because nine people ponied up, so I had to write nine different verses about different Too Much Joy fans.
As we were writing it, there was a point where I was at Jay’s house and he had come up with the riffs, so we were working it out together. At a certain point he looked at me and said, “This is kind-of good. (laughs) Maybe we should write a different song for them and turn this into a real song.” But then the more we talked about it, we realized, “This is a real song. It just happens to be using details from our fans’ lives. Why should that be anything less real than some song that details our own lives?” So we wrote it and recorded it, and were really pleased with it. We figured that if it belonged on the record, why not make it a bonus hidden mystery track?
What was it like as a writer to have such specific prompts?
It was fun. I sent everybody who bought a verse the same questionnaire. But everybody filled it out differently. Some people went on at great length; some gave me two- or three-word answers. What I tried to do while writing was to not make the song to be a throwaway, but I also realized if I labored over any one verse too much, I wasn’t going to get good results. So trying to straddle that line and just come up with something that felt like a Too Much Joy song — that's a way of honoring these people. Frankly, I felt a lot of pressure, right? If someone gives you $500, you don’t want them to say, “I wasted my money; that sucks.” But I also didn’t want to succumb to the pressure. It was this weird dichotomy where I wanted to do right by them, but I didn’t want to overthink it.
Luckily, Jay’s house in Culver City is a beautiful house with a lovely backyard. It was a gorgeous, sunny day. Excellent wine collection. There may have been some edibles involved. I can’t quite remember. Put all those things together and I think I started with a verse about his mom, because I know her. I didn’t need prompts; I could just write about her. When I got to the line — as I was writing it, I knew his dad was going to be pissed if she got a verse, but I just mentioned him. When I came up with the spouse line, I felt like I was getting somewhere.
And then I did the first verse, which became the first verse of the song — it wasn’t the first verse I wrote — about the guy who lobbies for amputees. When I got to the “I’m going to go out on a limb” gag, I was stoned, and I made myself laugh. That’s it! That’s how you honor a Too Much Joy fan in a Too Much Joy song. Those two things, the “limb” gag and the “spouse” line, I was like, “If I can give myself the same feeling for each person who bought a verse, that’s when I know I have completed their verse and their verse is ‘good’ or pleasing to them. That was how I approached that. I think it came out OK.
Finally, with a full-length and a promotional blitz, is Too Much Joy back back, or will we need to endure another sociopolitical hell to see you again?
(laughs) That’s an excellent question. I don’t know the answer, and it’s not an answer I could predict or force. For the last 20 years, we have recorded when we felt like it or had a reason to. I think that it feels good to make music again and have it be heard. Like all human beings, we like good things, not bad things. We want there to be more good things, so it’s a reasonable bet that we will try to continue this until such point as the fractious nature of doing it becomes more trouble than it’s worth.
That’s as complete an answer as I can give you. I know we absolutely want to play these songs live for people when that becomes possible. I confess that I’m a bit worried that once life goes back to “normal,” it will become much harder to get the five of us at the same place at the same time. Although, I will say this record just proved we can make a good Too Much Joy record without the five of us being in the same place at the same time, so maybe that no longer has to be a constraint.
(Special thanks to Chris Estey.)