Interview: Joywave and the art of being ‘Content’

“Success is good content,” says Joywave drummer Paul Brenner, putting the emphasis on the front end of the word, pronouncing it CON-tent as defined as “the things that are held or included in something.” It’s not to be confused with Joywave’s new album, Content, pronounced con-TENT and carrying a definition of “a state of peaceful happiness.”

The wordplay running amok here during our interview before Joywave’s recent Boston show at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion is a perfect example of the Rochester band’s tongue-in-cheek universe. It’s where things are very rarely straightforward (their prior “album,” last year’s Swish, for instance, is the same song repeated nine times, plus one “bonus song”), where everything demands a second look (or listen), and where interpretation rules the day.

But July’s Content is more than a ploy to make people actually talk about music again instead of staring into the depths of Spotify’s endless abyss; it’s a complete reflection of how the general population handles media in 2017. “It’s going to just sit on a playlist somewhere and it’s going to be gone in one week, and for those people, the record is long gone,” says lead singer Daniel Armbruster. “It came out six weeks ago — they’re never going to go back and check it out, and to those people, it is content [the noun] and it is just a piece of the sea that we are all drowning in.”

Following the success of songs like “Now,” “Somebody New,” and Big Data collab “Dangerous” is Content lead single “It’s a Trip,” an inward-looking tune about what the hell comes after reaching your ultimate goals.

“We beat the game one time — how many times are you going to beat the same game?” Armbruster asks, pretty much the non-song version of his lyrics (“When you’ve gotten what you want/There’s nothing left to want”).

There’s a lot left to want, actually, or at least a lot to keep pushing forward for. The band is currently on tour with Young the Giant and Cold War Kids, and come November, they’ll be headlining their own North American tour.

Before Joywave maxxed out their “fun meter” onstage at Pavilion, Vanyaland sat down with Armbruster and Brenner to discuss the process of making Content, living out of an AirBnB barn for four months, and why they they’ll always identify as a Rochester band.

Victoria Wasylak: Why did you pick “content” specifically for the name of the album? I know you’ve discussed the fact that it can be pronounced two ways, but why that word?

Paul Brenner: It very much has to do with the nature of the album itself, lyrically.

Daniel Armbruster: It’s the most overused word in society right now, the word content [the noun] and I correctly assumed that everyone would see it because they’re so used it, but no, it’s content [the adjective], and I love the idea that a human being, at least in the English language, has to explain to you the title and say it out loud. If you google it, those two things are identical.

Brenner: Without caps or italics, you’d have no idea [what] the emphasis [on the syllables is].

Armbruster: And even then, it’s questionable. You have to say content the adjective or content the noun for people to really understand it. It’s a very personal record, it’s partially an answer to the first record, which is How Do You Feel Now? It’s kind of reflective on the past two and a half years of our lives. But to other people — we’re not oblivious as to how people consume things now. It’s going to just sit on a playlist somewhere and it’s going to be gone in one week, and for those people, the record is long gone. It came out six weeks ago — they’re never going to go back and check it out, and to those people, it is content, and it is just a piece of the sea that we are all drowning in.

You’ve got this very Matrix-y album art and website, it’s all very technological.

Armbruster: That’s one side of it. It’s really “what makes me, me?” And can that be broken down into a series of true statements, where if you ask 55 yes or no questions along the way, do you end up with a person exactly like me? I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s like struggling with individuality.

There’s one lyric on the album “When you’ve gotten what you want/There’s nothing left to want.” Where did that feeling come from? Is it from the success of the first album?

Armbruster: Yeah, totally. That’s been a driving thing in my life. I figured this out a little bit ago, but Paul and I have been playing together for over half of our lives now. [looks at Paul] We’ve been playing music together in our lives longer than the time that we didn’t, which is pretty crazy.

So for us, it’s been a pretty driving force in life for better than half of it — “we’re going to make this thing work.” It’s been the end goal, and the way that I live my life and the decisions I’ve made around that to allow myself to get there. I feel like on the first record cycle, we ended at a point where I thought we had achieved more than we had thought possible as teenagers.

Brenner: How many singles have we had on alternative radio? Four?

Armbruster: We have five Top 25 alternative singles, six if you count “Dangerous.”

Brenner: So that’s amazing, goal achieved. Achievement unlocked.

Armbruster: Of course there’s always another scale. We’re not the biggest band in the world, we’re only the second or the third, but we’ve achieved it to a level that we didn’t really expect or think possible. It’s like “alright, now what’s that driving force?” The chip on the shoulder thing only works for so long. It’s like, “oh, I’m gonna prove everyone wrong!” And we already did that. We beat the game one time — how many times are you going to beat the same game before you’re playing a different game?

Do you know what your next goal is now?

Armbruster: The record kind of attempts to figure that out but it doesn’t end in a definitive place. For me personally, it’s just to create things that matter as long as I possibly can, and to make things that are going to outlive me that people can hang onto for at least five to six years after I’m dead.

A lot of times, songs that are about success go something like “I want that, but now that I have it, I want more,” and this is almost in the opposite direction.

Brenner: We never really [thought] “shoot for the moon, and if you miss, you’ll land among the stars” — we never aimed for the moon, we just aimed upwards. We always thought the stars would be great. I guess I’m trying to say is we weren’t shooting for first place/gold trophy from the beginning, we were just shooting for making music, being happy, and not working 9 to 5 jobs.

Armbruster: There’s been some occurrences along the way that were things I didn’t think about. The thing I like doing more than anything else in the world is making things, and taking inside feelings and pulling them out and saying “hey look at this!” Obviously, none of us are famous people, but it’s strange to be at a bar and have some come up and just start talking to you, or to think that they know something about you because they’ve seen your face somewhere before. Those are things I didn’t expect and they’re not really things that I like or ever wanted. I don’t think any of us desire to be famous — those are people that can’t live their lives. They go out places and get bothered all the time. If people talk to us because they genuinely care about our band, then that’s great, I’ll talk to anybody who wants to have a real conversation, but as far as people just running up and being like “can I take a picture? can I take a picture?”, that’s not a real interaction, that’s you becoming a piece of furniture in somebody else’s life.

You’ve talked about that on Twitter before, and a lot of people were like, “what do you mean?”

Armbruster: A lot of people were deeply offended by that. If someone cares about our band, then that’s amazing, I care about that. But that’s a different thing from people being obsessed with celebrity culture. I hope that we don’t end up in a place like that in the future. I want people to connect with us, but I want it to be real. I want to talk about the things we’re making, not like “what’s your favorite color, Paul?”

We love fans and talking to them — I don’t want to sound ungrateful. The only thing that’s annoying is when people don’t actually care about you.

The process of making this album seemed a lot different than making the first album, because the first album is a culmination of what you’d been doing before that — so it’s years and years of material. And then you did everything in four months for this album. Did that include writing the songs?

Armbruster: No, there were songs that I had written in between records. I’m always writing a little bit, but it was a different process because before, on the first record, we were dealing with demos that were pretty close to done, that we were pretty much set on. But this time, I wrote a lot of it on an iPad and GarageBand where everything sounds terrible and you do with the intention of re-doing everything later. When we got into that barn and lived there for four months, we re-did almost everything, and in doing that, you end up with a very cohesive record. The first record, we did drums four different times in four different studious.

Brenner: In four different years.

Armbruster: And this one was like, we did all the drums in one week in the barn.

Why did you want to do it in a barn?

Armbruster: We wanted to do it somewhere where we could live and record simultaneously. It was 40 miles outside of Rochester, where we’re from, but it sounded really great, it was a big open space.

Brenner: It had different levels, but they were all loft-style, so the main room was just open.

Armbruster: Towards the end of the process we went into Rochester to eat dinner every night, cuz we were like “alright, enough is enough.”

You guys still identify as being from Rochester. That’s really interesting, because once a lot of bands get to this level, they say “oh, we’re from New York City now.”

Armbruster: The world has enough New York and L.A. bands, and nothing against New York and L.A. bands, but there’s a lot of ’em! If we ever move somewhere, I’m still from Rochester. I spent all my life there. It’s also way cheaper to live there than New York [City] or L.A. or Boston.

Brenner: I’ve literally been told before — we’ve been told before — that we wouldn’t make it if we didn’t move out of Rochester.

Armbruster: Yeah, we got told that a ton! “You can’t be in Rochester and blah blah blah.” We’re six hours away from New York [City], so at one point, once every six weeks, we were driving to New York [City] to play. But you can live outside of there and still show up to play. It’s not like we had a huge following there or anything, but we would do it so industry people could come out to shows.

Brenner: And also our city has a lot to do with why we are a band. That’s where we’re all from and we have pride in it.

Armbruster: All of our parents worked at Kodak, which is what Rochester is known for, and we all lived near the smokestacks where they manufactured the film and dangerous byproducts [laughing]. The more you see, the more you understand what makes the place you’re from unique, and you can kind of appreciate it.

You guys tour a lot — how did you find time to make this album?

Armbruster: We had time off in the schedule for it. We flew to Seattle in the middle of it and played Bumbershoot, and then we played one random Buffalo show in the middle of it too. I was annoyed that we had to stop and play shows [laughing] but once we got to them, it was great. I was like, “I don’t want to play a show tomorrow! We haven’t practiced in six months, we’re making new songs!” And then you show up and play the old record.

Are you happy to be done playing your old sets [from past tours]?

Armbruster: On this tour, we only have a 30-minute set. This is the fifth single we’ve had that’s gone well, so in a half-hour set, we’re kind of obligated to play most of those, so we don’t have a lot of time to play other stuff. We’re doing a headline tour in November, which will be a longer set, and we’ll probably start to cycle in the new stuff.

I really wanted to ask you about your Swish album. I mean — why?

Armbruster: It’s twofold. We were about to release “Destruction” as the fourth single from How Do You Feel Now?, and everyone at our label was like “guys, just so you know, it’s very uncommon for a band like yours to go four singles deep — [we have] low expectations, it might not go well, people might be tired of you guys.” We were like “okay, why don’t we release a new album made up of only ‘Destruction’ and it’ll be the first single from that album?” So that was kind of the idea behind it. And basically, as we were getting ready to do that, the Kanye West artwork came out for The Life of Pablo and we saw that and we were like “oh my God, that’s basically verbatim our fall tour campaign from a couple months earlier, and the things around ‘Destruction’ when ‘Destruction’ became a single.” He was originally going to call The Life of Pablo “Swish,” so we figured since he wasn’t using that title anymore, he wouldn’t mind us using it since he had borrowed our artwork. It was kinda of an unspoken trade agreement. He seemed fine with it, and we are fine with it so — good deal for us.

Featured Joywave photo courtesy of Hollywood Records.