Crush Story: Cereal Killers at 30

Three decades on, Too Much Joy look back on the album that almost murdered their cult status

Too Much Joy 1991 press photo (Art: Ron Hart)

The question of how much joy is too much still hovers over the heads of the four best musicians ever to come out of Scarsdale, NY (with apologies to onetime residents Al Jolson, Judy Garland, and Yoko Ono).

Modestly self-described as “a punk-pop band of some minor renown”, Too Much Joy – who for the first time in nearly 25 years have a new album out – are frequently pigeonholed by writers and reflectors as some kind of comedy act. Allmusic.com puts the phrases “Dead Milkmen” and “King Missile” in the first sentence of a bio; AV Club’s interview with frontman Tim Quirk opens by suggesting their later albums’ fainter humor alienated their fans. Nearly everything Google turns up kicks off this way. See: this piece.

The band is realistic, if palpably frustrated, about this. In the late-‘90s wake of their most recent album, they’d catch high-rotation videos of better-paid groups with mild recognition and less mild chagrin. And while gratefully noting shout-outs from the likes of Blink-182, they’d also trade a rueful wisecrack or two about maybe being owed money. Still, all agree that Too Much Joy was, and is, a more complicated animal.

“It was never OK for a rock band to be funny,” surmises Sandy Smallens, their bassist. “They could be funny off-mic, in their publicity, like the Beatles. And there were some like Cheap Trick that played at it, but some people considered Rick Nielsen’s image, and the fact that the drummer looked like an accountant, as demerits. If you tried to do something conceptually funny, like the New York Dolls, you weren’t taken seriously. Until the pop-punk explosion, you didn’t get a lot of mainstream funny.”

“If you saw us live,” passionately insists drummer Tommy Vinton, “We were the Clash. We were the Who.”

 

VIDEO: Too Much Joy “William Holden Caufield” live 1991

As I chat with the original quartet via Zoom, I discover that they all do, indeed, have jokes. But as one of many fans who loves their music mainly for its idiosyncratic writing, cleverly contextualized emotional depth and joyous, thunderous shifts, I note a four-way chemistry not unlike the aforementioned greats. There’s Quirk, their effortlessly erudite lead singer and primary lyricist, who comes on with an affecting vulnerability that’s sort of surprising in light of his unflappable, fixed-grin voice. Guitarist Jay Blumenfield exudes a beguiling, albeit completely unpretentious, mystique. Smallens, replaced on bass for a spell by still-resident producer and band member William Wittman, looks and sounds a bit like David Johansen, but more approachable and urbane. And Vinton is a surefire candidate for the friendliest cop in NYPD history, though he’d be quick to redirect the credit to his precinct buddies. Watching them riff off one another and reminisce, teasing out new thoughts about old memories, is just the right amount of joy.

The occasion is the 30th anniversary of their arguably best and factually most successful album Cereal Killers, whose March 12th birthday comes precisely a week before the release of their reunion record Mistakes Were Made. They’re still a little starry-eyed about the time surrounding the LP that launched them the furthest they ever flew into the famously unforgiving rock ‘n’ roll stratosphere – “our biggest video budgets, our nicest hotel rooms” – though I’d be remiss to omit that they sound just as excited about Mistakes. The rush that accompanies certainty over achievements enlivens their voices as they revisit the halcyon Hollywood days spent finally getting the sounds in their head on record. And when they talk about the pride they share over the new one, Cereal Killers is the old one they compare it to.

The five original Too Much Joy albums form a kind of rainbow-shaped arc, for which Killers marks the peak. Playing together in some configuration for the first time as far back as 1980, when the bands that most electrified them were the Clash and Gang of Four, the nascent, willfully obscure, and sometimes self-consciously silly recordings Too Much Joy had been stockpiling for years finally numbered enough for a debut album seven years later. Green Eggs and Crack generated just enough college radio buzz to win the group the chance to book a tour – “and being on a tour is when you actually start writing as a band a lot,” explains Sandy. “It’s the fact that [you’re] fucking together all the time. You can either go back to your van and get drunk before soundcheck, or you can work on some songs. And we did both.”

 

VIDEO: Too Much Joy “Innocents Ablaze”

Or as Jay puts it, “The biggest leap we went through from Green Eggs and Crack to Son of Sam I Am was puberty.” By the sound of Sam, that figurative drop in balls and voice was a cliffside plummet. Crack has its charms, and a kind of Meat Puppetsy surreal awkwardness. But Sam is the righteous noise of a great group sweeping into its own, teeth cut sharp on the road. Arriving to demo new material at Radio Tokyo Studio, they hoped founder Ethan James would produce, only to find his brother Michael at the boards.

“We were originally bummed out, because we didn’t have the guy whose name was on all the records we loved,” Tim recalls. “But then we had this amazing session.” Recently-founded Cali label Alias gave the band a budget. Their James brother wasn’t always in tune with them – Tim recalls him calling up his future wife Donna, who worked for Alias, to ask if it was OK that Quirk cursed in his lyrics (yes, she said) – but the final result crackles with anarchic spirit, searing wit and a gleaming, super-tight sonic profile.

Son of Sam I Am is archetypal TMJ: tongue-through-cheek humor, abundant hooks, bursts of disarming pathos, and unexpected but hugely endearing conceits like their cover of LL Cool J’s “That’s a Lie”, the video of which featured an appearance by the superstar author himself. Meanwhile, their reputation as must-see live act was spreading at wildfire pace. “It was so important for us to put on a show, because we were so grateful to have a show, so we’d go out of the way to do crazy shit from day one,” recalls Sandy. “One night, Tim ran across the stage and broke my bass in half. And I was like, ‘great. That’s what should happen’.” Not that such intensity – or insanity – ever came at the expense of their music. “It didn’t just mean jumping around and being crazy. Deliver the songs, and jump around and be crazy.”

Tim remembers a New Music Seminar show at CBGB as a pivotal moment. “Normally, in a situation like that, we would drunkenly fall flat on our faces and blow the opportunity. But that one night, everything clicked.” As the band was leaving the stage, Mike Bone, president of Chrysalis Records, accosted Quirk, putting his hand against his chest and pushing him into a wall. “You’re signing with us! Don’t sign with anybody else!” Tim recalls him saying. “Less so than actually signing a label deal, that moment of being wanted, and one person saying ‘there’s other people in this room who want you, but I want you more’ – that, to me, was a high point.” In short order, a Chrysalis rep would step in to change the band’s lives.

 

 

Tim says that Danny Keaton was actually interested in Alias labelmates the Sneetches – and that his wife covertly replaced their LP with Son of Sam I Am when obliging Keaton’s request. Whatever the case, the Sneetches were soon shifted to Keaton’s back burner. “I was at my parents’ house,” Jay explains. “I was homeless, and was living there between tours. I remember I’m in the kitchen, just fuckin’, I don’t know, eating a bagel. And the phone rings. I figure there’s no way it’s for me, but I got it, because I’m the only one lounging at home.” It was Keaton. “He proceeds for the next 20 minutes to tell me how he dances around alone in his underwear to our music, and he’s never been this excited about a band.” He grins. “I’ve had many phone calls since. That was the greatest phone call. It’ll never get better than that.”

“It was the days when major labels were suddenly scooping up indie rock bands,” says Tim. “Nobody wanted to sign anybody until one person wanted to sign someone, and then everybody wanted to sign that band.” At one point, Seymour Stein sat forbiddingly before them in a folding chair. But then Keaton was offered a job with industry veteran Irving Azoff’s Warner Bros. imprint Giant, and Azoff gave him the green light. Too Much Joy was the latest hot indie rumor turned major label sensation-to-be.  For the first time, the band had their pick of producer, an enviable budget, and the promise of a booked-and-paid-for LA adventure. Smallens confirms: “that whole experience making Cereal Killers was what we all imagined it would be like, if we ever became famous enough to get signed to a major label”.

The wistfully, if hazily, remembered nights between sessions, plus a gleefully name-dropping paragraph in Killers’ booklet, suggest the Joy boys took full advantage of it all: catered lunches, swank hotels, stolen moments of discreetly-alluded-to debauchery. Hanging with Mike D at a kickass Beastie Boys party, or in hot tubs with Anthrax (“the band, not the disease”); lucking into a private preview of Cool J’s Mama Said Knock You Out on a boombox at the bar in the Mondrian; kissing Martha Quinn – those days were a blur of joys probably, but welcomely, verging into the too much. Yet by every account, the band sustained a keen awareness of the big-league singularity of the moment. “We weren’t being too naïve or ignorant about what we were in for,” Tim says. “We actually had discussions about [how] this may be the only chance we get to do this. A lot of bands would’ve split up some of that recording budget to live on. We’re like, ‘no – we’re spending every fucking penny.’ You hear the entire budget on that album.”

Integral to their goal was a figure they still speak of almost reverentially: producer Paul Fox. According to Quirk’s notes for the Side One Dummy reissue of Killers – still in print, on blue or yellow vinyl – “we’d chosen Paul after interviewing a long line of contenders, all of whom lost the job as soon as they said some variation of, ‘my job is to capture what you sound like live’.” Fox had recently come off of having shepherded into fruition the swirling soundscapes of XTC’s Oranges and Lemons, a masterclass in neo-psychedelic pop. TMJ sensed that Fox was the man to help buff out the rough edges they exploited for their wild gigs, to reify the glow and allure of the music heretofore imprisoned in their collective head. All agree that Fox succeeded – and that they were less than completely prepared for the work it took.

 

VIDEO: Too Much Joy “Crush Story”

“Positive conflict” is how Tim describes the tactful, effortful back and forth between producer and artist – the deft and sometimes desperate dance between careful persuasion and faithful submission, all in service of a common goal for which there isn’t always a shared language, with the final result an elusive and slowly-emerging point on the aural horizon. An early hiccup came when Fox expressed skepticism over “Crush Story”, a Love and Rockets-inspired valentine Quirk was most enthused about out of all the songs they’d demoed. This put a dose of uncertainty into the two weeks of rehearsal Fox subsequently insisted on, which left the band paring down and fine-tuning their material amid uninspiring Burbank trappings. Fox presumed the band could come up with something new and radio-readier. Ultimately, Tim had to push for Fox to agree to apply his expertise fleshing “Crush” out into the hit it became.

“[‘Crush Story’] is the one I never get sick of people telling me is their favorite, even though I haven’t asked,” boasts Tim. And though so many Cereal Killers cuts are emotionally resonant in a way they’d only tacitly explored on earlier albums, there’s a universality and winning simplicity to “Crush Story” which merits its proud standout status. Lines like “I am the smallest giant ever” and “you could power a city with this” are worlds away from cliché, but get to the point without labored poeticization. And I doubt there’s a more word-perfect summary of that glorious first infatuation stage than its irresistible chorus couplet: “everything you’ve ever said is brilliant/everything you want to do is fine with me…”

Next came an staggeringly meticulous tracking process. “We spent two days just setting up the drums,” Tim recalls. Tommy still seems mindblown recalling the almost endless array of snares and cymbals he had at his disposal. A certain intimidated tension began to creep into the process, as Paul guided Sandy and Tommy into his vision of unassailable rhythm tracks, splicing takes himself when he didn’t hear what he was after. Tim and Jay, already nervously attuned to the stakes, were soon sent away. “I’ve always ping-ponged between self-worship and self-loathing,” Tim says. “My life [is] trying to find a balance between those two unhelpful poles. And there’s nothing like knowing people are spending a million dollars on you to really amp up the self-loathing and ‘I don’t belong here’ feelings in you.”

But the band was already growing more in awe of Fox’s methods, however difficult to comprehend, the more attention he lavished on the minutia of their music. “He made the talent feel great,” remembers Sandy. “He made us feel like we were entering a cathedral every day, and everything we did was a gift.” One of Killers’ most rewarding aspects is the richness of the rhythm section – Tommy’s drums cavernous and relentless, his interplay with Sandy contagiously invigorating. The music was their most inventive yet – listen to the pair’s breakdown in “Crush Story”, or their funky accents through “William Holden Caufield” and “Pride of Frankenstein” – and it stands to reason that the time Smallens and Vinton spent in isolation put an audible camaraderie in the music’s base, and strengthened their sonic presence in a way the first two records’ thinner sound had unfairly dimmed. Amid the rush of Jay’s guitar, which rings and roars throughout with a new beauty and abandon, the fruits of that first labor are plenty audible.

Compounding the Wonderland strangeness and sudden privilege of the ongoing major-label saga, the action was subsequently shifted to Steve Vai’s house, where the band whiled away fitful moments of between-overdub downtime by liberating the superstar guitarist’s dog from his imposed veganism, and watching tapes, more often than not NSFW, sent to Vai by his fans – including a memorable birthday greeting concluding with its talented nude sender blowing out a candle on a cupcake (“but not with her mouth”, Tim explains). A lion’s share of the work was put into “Crush Story”; Fox’s plan to meet TMJ’s faith in it halfway included take after take making sure its waves of beatific harmonies were flawless.

“[Paul] was a well-paid Hollywood producer. He did well paid Hollywood producer things, and he had well-paid Hollywood producer expectations,” Tim says. “He wasn’t a taskmaster, but he would make you do 100 takes until he felt you’d gotten the part. But not like in a Phil Spector, pointing a gun at you way.”

“He’d point a joint at us, though,” Sandy adds.

Too Much Joy Cereal Killers, Giant 1991

As the latest phase stretched on and on, the proceedings grew looser, more collaborative. Fox joined his wife, prolific songwriter Franne Golde, on backing vocals, and festooned songs he felt needed more with rippling overdubs – evolving from encouraging precision to encouraging utter madness, at least when it seemed appropriate, such as inviting a coterie of exotic dancers to juice up a session for “Long Haired Guys From England”, a good-natured plaint about the preferences of certain industry eligibles. In one of Tim’s fondest recollections, with the rest of the band on a break and the studio lights all extinguished, the producer strategically goaded him into the arresting, uninhibited coda to “Nothing on My Mind”. “To this day, that vocal is one of my personal favorite things I ever did with my mouth,” he declares.

Another highlight on Killers came from a coup of a guest spot – KRS-One, who shared a publicist with Public Enemy at the time. That publicist happened to be Sandy’s girlfriend, and something inspired the longtime hip-hop fans to climax “Good Kill”, a bold polemic decrying the death penalty in increasingly direct lines, with a stanza from the rapper. The song has already hit its target before the music suddenly drops away, and KRS barrels in to push it even further. It’s an unbelievably beautiful moment, and a far cannier deployment of the Blastmaster than the odd way R.E.M. used him to furnish their “Radio Song”, which was released the exact same day. Smallens recalls running into KRS later, and asking him how he enjoyed the result. “It was interesting,” came the response. “I would’ve put my verse in on the beat.”

 

AUDIO: Too Much Joy feat. KRS-One “Good Kill”

The band remembers their reactions to the final product as unreservedly ecstatic. Tommy: “We were with our girlfriends at a listening party at Paul’s house. It was the greatest feeling. Everyone had these big smiles on their faces.” And when they went to tour it, “this was the first album where, almost every city we’d be driving into, we’d put on the radio station and we’d hear our song on it. It was so cool: ‘our song’s on the radio, and we’re about to play a gig!’” (“No records in the store, though,” Sandy quips.) All surviving press attests to this response as universal, with the resulting sales easily their strongest. While the group still prefers the original title – Despair, Inc. – it would’ve proven inapposite to the moment.

Killers is so cannily constructed, so sonically diverse, so shrewdly infused with the band’s trademark wit, it’s practically their Rubber Soul. Keening out from glistening shards of late-‘80s pop are the shrieks and squalls of the meatiest, most passionate ‘90s alt-rock. The music stirs with complexity, while the sound treads a gorgeous line between live and produced – harmonies and surging guitars jubilantly hugging Quirk’s gutsy, wry, suddenly tender growls, leaps, and other feats, as Fox’s various keyboards and Pat Mastelotto’s percussion tumble kaleidoscopically overhead. Even the jokes come slightly askew, like the Abbott & Costello bit to which “Susquehanna Hat Company” tips a trilby. Light years from glib, the lyrics burrow with eccentric valiance into the heart of the human condition, profundity in no way undercut by perfect asides like “I can’t get a decent haircut to save my life.” They’re full of love, from “we can all share a jug of cheap red wine!” to a spirited pose of life’s great mystery: “why am I such an asshole?”

In between Killers’ recording and the release came an episode so spectacularly memorable it can’t go without mention – the crowning achievement of the copious heroic footnotes scattered throughout the band’s reliably rebellious history, which include getting sued by Bozo the Clown (for an unauthorized sample), Quirk being detained by the Secret Service for threatening physical harm to President Clinton (in the middle of a monologue explicitly discussing free speech), and the winsome, shambolic mock-folk-rock singalong “Theme Song”, Cereal Killers’ fabulous finale, temporarily becoming Newt Gingrich and several Republicans’ favorite song one inebriated night (they have the fan letter to prove that one).

Incensed by 2 Live Crew’s obscenity arrest in Florida – not as fans of the group, but diehard opponents of censorship – TMJ decided to visit the Sunshine State and play a set of covers in solidarity. “Welcome to our political protest,” said Tim at the top of the show. “We’re not really ones to make speeches. This is the only kind of protest we’re comfortable with: one where you can dance.” They manfully charged through the offending material, and once complete, were immediately arrested, except for Tommy, who was whisked away to an undisclosed location – his exclusion due to not having actually sung the lyrics, though his mouthing them gave authorities pause. The others got a night in jail, and with it a glance at the class system that steeled their convictions, even if Sandy still smarts about his milk getting stolen.

The burden of proof being as high as it was for obscenity, Tim’s concern that they’d lose a year to jail was minimal. “The only point during the trial when I had any sense of fear that the jury might just get pissed off and convict us, even as the law clearly stated they couldn’t, was when they played the tape of the performance. Because we really sucked that night. It was not one of our better nights.” The band all credit Vinton, who’d juggled his time at the Killers sessions with his work with the force, for putting the most on the line: his career. “Nah, we all did,” Tommy demurs. “We didn’t have careers!” laughs Sandy.

 

 

A year after Killers came Mutiny, their first working with William Wittman, to whom they attribute a looser, more organic sound without slighting their achievements with Fox. It’s a denser and somewhat more downbeat album, yet whose lead single, pop gem “Donna Everywhere”, superseded “Crush Story” commercially. The band’s boyish self-effacement had given way to a fiercer, harder way of coming on, though “In Perpetuity”, another highlight, was their prettiest, most delicate track to date. Still, their cute but beleaguered rewrite of the Records’ bemused-insider chestnut “Starry Eyes” was telling. And on the very day Mutiny came out, Danny Keaton passed away, just 33. Their biggest Giant advocate was gone.

“Losing Danny was like the death of our whole LA bubble,” concedes Smallens. “He was our champion,” Jay agrees. “All of a sudden, we’re with the wolves. He was protecting us from everything.” Nirvana’s anomalous success just prior to Mutiny had already complicated TMJ’s place in the firmament of punk-inflected rock bands with conceivable commercial potential, changing the rules of a game they’d just seemed poised to win, at least for a few more rounds. Both Giant and Smallens were out of the picture before Finally finally followed Mutiny in ‘96. While just as potent an album as its predecessor, the wind had gone from the band’s sails somewhat, and before too long, Too Much Joy was a dormant concern.

There were conceivably some sadder, more contemplative nights in the decades and change since that temporary pause. But in the wake of Mistakes Were Made, which they’re clearly as proud of as anything they’ve ever put together, the whole group seems perfectly sanguine. Not that they haven’t done well for themselves in the interim – Tim and Sandy have quite enviable résumés in digital media, and Jay in television production, while Tommy retired from his beloved NYPD in 2007. The whole band marked his milestone with a lovingly received reunion show. Today, they’re older, wiser, and as unified as ever.

 

Nothing about that ostensible decline from Cereal Killers, any descent from what seemed at the time like the pinnacle of success, feels ignominious to them. “The wind-down took a long time”, explains Tim. “Even after Danny died, we might not have been Irving Azoff’s priority, but we had enough fans at the label and in the press and at radio. The fans that we had at the label tended to be the regional promo people, and so even when we were touring, the Midwest reps would come out and buy us dinner, and get drunk with us, and we’d have misadventures. So, the fun continued for a good couple of years.”

Jay agrees: “All we ever wanted was to be able to tour, hang out with our friends, and eat. And we were able to do that and even more. So, after that album, life was good for a while.” Sandy adds a key point: “We weren’t a good live band until after we made Cereal Killers, in my book. I’m not saying we didn’t entertain audiences, or didn’t do really well on our tours. But what happens is, when you make the record, and you take the material out on the road, it comes to life in a different way. Many of the high points in our set come off of that record. So it really put us on this trajectory to take ourselves more seriously, not just as this upstart band that’s able to open for the Go-Gos, but as a headlining act.”

Too Much Joy 1991 (Art: Ron Hart)

The band kept in as much touch with Paul as they could. Tim speaks of a fond New Years’ Eve where he and his wife found themselves with Fox and Golde in New York, watching fireworks burst over Central Park from a hotel balcony. Sadly, Fox’s storied career has been slowed for some time by a struggle with early-onset Alzheimer’s; Golde provided an affectionate window into this in the Huffington Post. Still, his memories of Too Much Joy remain buzzy and enthusiastic: “What a great band, so different at the time from most anyone else,” he wrote to Tim, for a great blog series on key CK songs. “Guys who could come up with stories inside their songs that could last for a lifetime. A band with no fear, a love of girls they will never have, with a guitar that sometimes sounds like hell, and then is saved by a solid drum kit…”

On a whim, I pose a final question to the band: do they really believe, per the credo put forth in “Theme Song”, that “to create, you must destroy”? For the first time, I earn a smile from 75 percent of these jokers at once. Characteristically, Tim tries his hand first. “I think we’re living proof of that fact. We’ve destroyed relationships, we’ve destroyed other people’s careers, we’ve destroyed our own careers.” “Waistlines, hairlines…” Sandy offers. But Jay jumps in, acknowledging the one thing that hasn’t met the same fate.

“Just to be clear: this band has never broken up. We’ve taken twenty years between albums and tried other things in life, but we never broke up, and I’m proud of that. We’ve always been a band, whether we’re actually being a band or not.”

Smash a glass and cry – Too Much Joy are still spreading same.

 

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Ryan Maffei

Ryan Maffei is a freelance writer, musician and actor in the Dallas area. He was a member of the lost punk group Hot Lil Hands and the lost pop group the Pozniaks. He loves the Go-Betweens and was lucky enough to write liner notes for their box sets.

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