Tim Quirk talks at length with Rock & Roll Globe about the road to the band’s first new album in over 20 years
Three years ago, I was writing a piece about humor in rock and one of my go-to guys was Tim Quirk, singer for Too Much Joy.
Lord knows, I’ve a loved a lot humorous rock – Flo & Eddie, the Dictators, Ween, Sparks etc. – but it’s a hard trick to pull off, too. You don’t want to be known as a joke band.
Too Much Joy has been mining this field – and others mind you, it’s not all humorous – since four guys from Scarsdale, NY – Quirk, guitarist-singer Jay Blumenfield, drummer Tommy Vinton and bassist-singer Sandy Smallens – power-popped onto the scene in the late-‘80s, with the albums Green Eggs and Crack, Son of Sam I Am and Cereal Killers. (The latter is the upcoming subject of a Rock and Roll Globe 30th anniversary piece.)
As to humor: What works? What doesn’t?
“My quick take is anything can work if you’re a) skilled enough and, b) don’t give a fuck,” said Quirk, back then. “But there’s a downside, too. I also have the opposite take which is if you want to be taken seriously, you’re not allowed to make jokes. It’s a really tricky thing to pull off. The fact is I can say ‘art’ about what people consider to be joke-rock songs and not feel pretentious about it. Most people would feel the need to apologize, but we were making fucking art as far as we were concerned. It was art that could make you laugh but that’s not the only thing we were trying to do. We conceived of our songs as public swimming pools. There was a shallow end and a deep end and we invited the audience to frolic wherever they felt most comfortable.”
On the brink of Too Much Joy’s first album since 1999, Mistakes Were Made (out March 19), a 16-track outing with the cover a painting from the point of view of a driver looking through his windshield out onto a raging apocalyptic California fire, I thought I’d follow up with Quirk: Do you stand by what you said three years ago? How has your sense of humor changed – if it has changed – as you, ugh, have matured?
“I keep returning to that swimming pool metaphor,” Quirk says, “because it puts the onus of how our music is perceived on the listener. If all you hear are jokes, I humbly submit that you are the foolish one.
“That said, I do think we got better as time went on at using humor to throw the emotions inside any song into relief, rather than to deflect from acknowledging any emotions at all, which I was definitely guilty of on our first two albums. ‘Something to Drink About’ on the new album is a decent example, I hope – the title’s the type of pun that, in 1988, would have been the sole point of the song. But in 2020, with the world crumbling around us, it became a starting point to investigate exactly what was driving my wine bill into the stratosphere. The answer is not really a happy one.”
And so … the Q/A at length (a mix of phone and email chat) …
All right, then, let’s go with “Something to Drink About.” There’s that closing verse about America today: “You pretend everything is fine/While openly flashing white power signs/40 percent of the country cheers/I’m ashamed that it’s happened here.”
Tim Quirk: I should make it clear I’m speaking entirely for myself and not every band member, but for me the last four years I have found myself angrier at the people enabling Trump than Trump himself. At least he is who he says he is. An abominable horrifying excuse for a human being, but he doesn’t pretend to be something he’s not. In a way, I don’t want to say forgivable, but it’s one notch above fucking hypocrites like Mitch McConnell, or Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz who claim they have they have these conservative principles they don’t actually give a damn about. They just care about power. When Trump first got elected, I was naïve enough to think there would be checks and balances, that even a Republican Congress would hold him accountable and would say there are lines you can’t cross.
After all that talk about humor, the more I burrow into Mistakes Were Made – and peruse the lyric sheet – the more I’m thinking of Lindsey Buckingham’s song on Tusk, “Not That Funny” where he practically yells, “It’s not that funny, is it?! Do you know that song?
(Laughs). I do know that song. I would concur [with the band being darker], but this has been a pattern throughout our career from Son of Sam on. If you just read the lyrics in isolation, while there are funny lines and plenty of them, there’s also an undercurrent of depression and resignation and dismay. And there always has been. This isn’t that new of a thing, but it is absolutely the case with 2020 being what it was and us recording in the situation were in. It definitely amped it up a few notches to the point where I was getting worried it was going to be too dark and too depressing.
Back to fun! One of my best Too Much Joy memories – hey, one of my best rock ‘n’ roll memories period – is you guys leading the parade of fans out the door and down the street at the close of a gig in Cambridge, Mass. I have this recollection of you guys leaving the stage to go through the crowd at “Theme Song” played out, everyone singing the refrain: “To create you must destroy/Smash a glass and cry ‘Too much joy’” Did you do that elsewhere? That is, was a sometime part of your shtick? That’s not a false memory is it?
How could I forget it? We didn’t merely march down the street, though – we marched our crowd into the Middle East [club] and down the stairs, where some other band was playing, before leading them back up to the street and back into TT the Bear’s [club].
I don’t remember anything in particular prompting it, beyond it seeming like a good idea at the time, which is what usually sparks all our inspired as well as all our terrible ideas. I can’t recall what band was playing at the Middle East, but it’s possible they had a big line outside of the club before our gig, and we were jealous, and the parade was our attempt to right the karmic imbalance in the world that our lack of such a line implied. That’s just a guess, though – I remember the parade very well, but have zero recall when it comes to how or why we started it.
While TMJ is not above repeating bits that work – for instance, at least 50% of the times that we played “Seasons in the Sun” live, I’ve asked the audience to sit on the floor of the club for the first verse – that parade was a once-in-a-lifetime event.
In a perfect world, I’d probably be writing something like one of the best and best-known pop-rock bands of the late-80s/early-90s is back! But “best-known” wouldn’t work, of course. You weren’t stars. Where would you place Too Much Joy in the great pantheon of bands people maybe once knew something about back in the day and then faded from memory – and NOW ARE BACK? What are the challenges?
OK, I’m gonna ramble a bit here, but there’s an end point, I promise. Have you read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? There’s a bit in that book in which we learn that in the future, there are no prisons. When someone commits a crime, he or she is simply placed into a machine which gives them a view of just how massive and infinite the universe really is, and then shows them a teeny tiny dot that says, “This is you.” Apparently, the effect of that experience reduces almost everyone who experiences it to a quivering mass of insignificance, incapable of ever committing any crimes (or really doing much of anything) ever again.
I mention this because I spent the aughts, and then half of the last decade, working for two different online music services (Rhapsody, then Google Play). Both roles gave me access to detailed reports about just how many people were playing exactly which songs by every band in our catalog, week in and week out. So, I can tell you with great precision exactly where Too Much Joy places in the pantheon of all musicians, as well as musicians playing our particular brand of punk-inspired power pop – or at least where we stood in that pantheon from 2002 to 2014.
Seeing that data isn’t exactly like going into the brain-melting Hitchhiker’s Guide machine, but it’s definitely humbling (I remain offended by how many objectively terrible, completely unmemorable left-of-the-dial-ish bands ranked ahead of us). But it’s also clarifying, in that many of the heroes who inspired me/us were farther down that list than we were.
At a certain point, as an artist but also as a human being trying to muddle through life, you have to stop basing your self-worth on how other people see you, and start judging yourself by how well you’re living up to your own ideals. So, my 100% honest answer to your question of where we place is: lower than I hope we deserve, but higher than my 14-year-old self would have dared to dream.
The biggest challenge for a band with such a ranking is that the most common reaction to news of your first new record in 25 years is less likely to be, “Hooray! We missed them!” and more likely to be, “Why?!”
We responded to that challenge by letting as many people who still care as possible know what we were doing before we’d really started, via an IndieGoGo campaign, and while our total number of die-hard fans would not earn us a gold record, they do love us more than the average pop star’s fan loves the average pop star, so the average donation our die-hard fans made to pre-order the record was $70.45.
So, I have learned to judge success not by how many people like my band, but by how much the people who have actually heard of us like my band. By that standard, our cup runneth over.
As you’ve said, the band never technically broke up, just scattered to the wind … what accounts for this re-assemblage of players? Did you record your parts separately – COVID-19 rock – or in a studio together?
The fact that a new Too Much Joy album exists is Bandcamp’s fault. The fact that it’s any good is the pandemic’s fault.
We had no plans or desire to make a new record. But a month or two into the lockdowns, after Bandcamp had started doing their First Friday thing in which they waived their commission on any sales for that day, I figured I should do what I saw all my fellow musicians doing and start putting some rarities up for sale on BandCamp. So, I assembled a few different tracks that had come out before on B-sides and Record Store Day compilations but weren’t available in any of the streaming services, and published them all on the first Friday of June.
The response from old fans was pretty overwhelming, and honestly a bit surprising. So, Sandy suggested we challenge ourselves to see if we could give fans an actual brand-new song for July’s first Friday. He had a riff he liked, I wrote some words for it, then he shared it with the other three guys, who started tweaking it (all of this was done with each band member recording his suggestions alone at home then emailing them to the group). Once we had something everybody liked, Tommy and Sandy went into a studio in New York together to lay down the rhythm tracks, and I suggested that while they were there they might as well try banging out a version of a song we’d written way back in the ’90s but never officially recorded called “Snow Day.” Jay, Bill and I each added our own parts to both songs separately from our respective homes.
We released that single in July, and we were pleased enough with the results (and all bored enough in lockdown) that we agreed to keep going, writing and recording at least one new song and one old-but-never-recorded-or-released song per month, with the goal of having a complete album by Christmas. As we got more into the idea, we did less in isolation – Sandy, Tommy and Bill would record the basic tracks as a trio in NY, then Jay and I would add our bits as a duo in LA.
So, the current lineup is …
Us four plus William Wittman, the guy who produced Mutiny then replaced Sandy on bass when Sandy left the band. Sandy has returned to the fold, so sometimes he plays bass, sometimes Bill does. But everybody writes and sings.
You guys are obviously – like me – out of the prime rock demo (and of course everyone tells us rock is dead and hip-hop rules), so the question arises of motivation: Why do this? Why do this now? Are there ultimate goals?
An old gal pal of mine had a beautiful phrase to describe what we sometimes did together: non-goal-oriented sex. This recording process was like that. We just started writing and recording again as a way to reconnect and pass the time during the pandemic, with the the vague idea being, “See if we can finish something we like enough to release in time for the next First Friday,” but also with no pressure if we failed – if we didn’t like it, or didn’t finish in time, nobody was really sitting around waiting for it, you know?
But something about that process, plus the fact of the pandemic and the overall apocalyptic vibe of 2020, started informing the songs themselves, and new tunes just started pouring out of us. More importantly, the songs felt vital, somehow. What started as a lark became important because we were surprised and pleased with the results, and wanted to find out what would happen next.
Now that it’s finished, of course, we want as many people as possible to hear it, but that was never the goal during the recording process. The only goal was to find out where the fuck we were going.
Of course, touring is a non-entity now. Are you planning virtual shows to try and re-introduce yourselves? If so, how are you thinking about the presentation?
TMJ would never work virtually. You really do have to be in the same room for our caterwauling to make any kind of sense. Pre-pandemic, we’d actually been discussing trying to arrange a couple shows to celebrate Cereal Killers’ 30th anniversary, so genuine live shows aren’t out of the question once that becomes a thing people can do again.
Mistakes Were Made does sound like classic TMJ, which I put in my Cheap Trick file of great pop-hard rock, often with a smile or subtext in the mix. Fair comparison?
Fair comparison? FLATTERING comparison. Thank you. Dream Police was the last Cheap Trick record I bought, ‘cause I wasn’t down with their Dianne Warren-hit-chasing phase, but I still own and love those first four studio albums plus At Budokan. “Southern Girls” sounds like the song Robert Pollard keeps trying to write.
VIDEO: Cheap Trick performs “Southern Girls” at Budokan
The closer to Mistakes Were Made is “Just Around the Bend,” which my computer tells me clocks in at 10 minutes. But then it stops – normal-ish length and there’s a long pause – and then we seem to have something else. Not a coda, a new song. Which is? You name-check your own “Crush Story” in it. I think Justin Bieber’s in there but I can’t catch ‘em all. Who’s in your laundry list and why do they make the cut?
That’s a bonus hidden mystery track, “Modern Day Medicis.” The song was a perk from our IndieGoGo campaign — donors who contributed $500 or more received the following: Please Sing About ME! Package Everything in the Something to Hold package PLUS TMJ will write and record a verse about you (or anyone you wish, should you choose to make this a present for someone else) in a song Tim’s working on called “Modern Day Medicis.” The song may or may not wind up on the record, but it will exist, and you and all the other Medicis will receive it. There are so many lyrics because 9 different people bought themselves or a loved one a verse. We liked the music so much we briefly debated using it for a “real” song, then we realized this was actually as real as it gets.
Oh, that’s not Justin Bieber, by the way, it’s an actual TMJ fan named Justin Beland. I sent all donors a questionnaire, and used their answers to write each verse, which contain a bunch of easter eggs about past TMJ exploits. We decided to include it on the record after all, since we think it stands on its own as a decent example of what we do (and why).
I’ve always liked your Clash stuff – starting as a Clash cover band, and your quote about a band should be shot before making its Combat Rock, and your double single “We Are the Clash”/”We Are Not the Clash.”
Me too! I will say, though, that “We Are Not The Clash” was a spur-of-the-moment lark, written and recorded in an hour or two while we were all together in a studio laying down the A-side for a Clash tribute album. It was fun to do, because even pre-pandemic it had become a rare treat to get all five of us in the same place at the same time. But even so, it didn’t feel vital, the way these new songs do. Something different happened in 2020 – we were writing and playing as furiously as we had in our teens/twenties, without trying to. I don’t really know how or why that happened, I’m just glad it did, and that we managed to capture it.
You have had adventures in indie land and a bit of a major label flirtation. What were the pluses and minuses of each?
Best thing about being on a major is they give (or rather, they once gave, as I don’t have any idea what it’s like in 2021) you enough money to get the sounds in your head onto wax as closely as possible. Worst thing about being on a major is that it’s just a shitty deal to begin with: all that money they give you goes to making the actual record, which they own in perpetuity, and you don’t get any royalties until that advance has been paid back from your tiny percentage of total sales. So, the label has actually broken even long before the artist gets a royalty, but the label still owns the album forever. It would be like paying off your mortgage after 30 years, but the bank still owns your house. Makes no sense at all, especially in the 21st century when it’s now possible to make a decent sounding album on a laptop, so long as you have a good microphone (and better ideas).
Best thing about being on an indie is they generally leave you alone to do whatever the hell you feel like. Worst thing is you still don’t get any royalties, but you also don’t get any advance.
That’s why Mistakes Were Made is self-released. Our generous fans funded the recording in exchange for various perks such as being listed in the liner notes, they gave us enough to not only record and master the album, but also to press up vinyl and CDs, and to hire some folks to help us promote it. So, it’s already profitable and it hasn’t even come out yet, and we own it forever ourselves.
We started with humor so let’s circle back. You guys have always had to wrestle with /explain the misconception that because you use humor in your music, you’re ephemeral, not to be taken too seriously.
Yeah, it’s our cross to bear, but it’s a self-imposed one, so I shouldn’t complain too much. I will admit, though, that it mystifies me how anyone could listen to “Blinding Light of Love” and say, “Oh, Too Much Joy returns with another humorous track.” We take what we do very seriously, but we also take not being pretentious assholes very seriously, and we try to make music within those parameters. I love my wife deeply because even after thirty years she can still make me laugh out loud daily. That strikes me as a deep well worth drawing from. I don’t know why so many people are afraid of it. Humor’s an essential part of our personalities, and our approach to life, which just gets sadder as you age. Why wouldn’t you spit and laugh in the face of tragedy? It’s fucking noble, man. Seriously.
VIDEO PREMIERE: Too Much Joy “Uncle Watson Wants to Think (featuring Joan Osborne)”
AUDIO PREMIERE: Too Much Joy “The Glory of Badminton”