It’s not totally out of the box to have a horn instrument tossed in the middle of a band that leans more towards rock, right? Just look at the foundations of ska music, or – while not a horn – the violinist in Yellowcard. However, jazz-infused punk music? Now that’s new on my musical Bingo card, and that’s all thanks to Joy on Fire.
With their brand new album, ‘States of America,’ out June 11th, it was only fitting that we dive down their genre-blending rabbit hole with Dan Gutstein, John Paul Carillo, and Anna Meadors. We talked about how much the world’s changed since their debut several years ago, a dream locale in Seattle, and all that jazz in this back and forth.
Kendra: On the surface, many may not think Jazz and punk have a lot in common but they both have rebellious foundations and an ability to be a bit rule-breaking in terms of going against the grain of their neighboring genres. Do you think that’s what drew you to initially combining the two?
Dan Gutstein: As the wordsmith in the group, I’ll add that the group also features the rebellious, rule-breaking facet of nontraditional poetry. I’d like to think that what I bring to the table is not in one camp or another, but instead, fiercely resists precedents of any kind. I’ve been called a “beat poet” or a “spoken word poet” and while I don’t agitate against those tags, what I’d really say is – I just try to be surprising with the words. I’m not really gifted with a “great voice” so I try to be myself and try to be a character. Sometimes I reflect on the great Jimmy Rushing – raspy, growling, sometimes sweet, full of character. “Mr. Five by Five!”
John Paul Carillo: Many of our influences – King Crimson, Miles Davis, Morphine, Lounge Lizards – defied convention simply as a way of being, a way of doing things. One thing I like about punk is that post-punk if one sees 1976, or 1977 as the beginning of punk, began at the same time as punk. The band Television is considered punk by many, but the eponymous tune on their debut seminal album, Marquee Moon (1977), is 11 minutes long, with a bunch of guitar soloing and lyrics like, “Well a Cadillac, pulled out of the graveyard / Pulled up to me, all they said, ‘Get in.’”
Meanwhile, convention says punk songs are supposed to be short and angry. Miles Davis was criticized for nearly every advancement he made within his sound, and within jazz—be it his move to modal in Kind of Blue or his fusion freakout with Bitches Brew—to the point where some critics said what he was doing wasn’t jazz at all. So not only are we talking about rule-breaking with neighboring genres, but when it comes to punk and jazz, it’s rule-breaking within the genre itself. Greg Ginn of Black Flag says the Grateful Dead has always been his favorite band. He was also a fan of jazz-rockers Mahavishnu Orchestra, led by John McLaughlin, Miles Davis’s guitarist on Bitches Brew. And there’s the wonderful quote attributed to Miles: “There’s two kinds of music: good music and bad music.”
Kendra: Speaking of what initially drew one to someone…Anna, as someone who wanted to play the sax but couldn’t quite afford it back in third grade when they presented the idea of school band to my classmates and I, I’d love to know when and why you picked up the saxophone, and if you could’ve ever imagined it’d lead you to where you are today?
Dan: I know this is not my question, haha, but Anna can play any idiom on the saxophone that she wants. She has a rare connection to emotion, swing, and avant sounds – thus she can propel any song into new territory. There is nobody like her. It’s as if Big Joe Houston, Johnny Hodges, Art Pepper, Pharoah Sanders, and Willene Barton were present all at once, in one person.
Anna Meadors: My mom is a clarinetist (not professionally, but she has played her whole life) and my Granddad, her father, was a saxophonist and clarinetist. She always wanted me to pick up an instrument during grade school; I tried clarinet, piano, and drums, but nothing stuck. I went to a concert she was playing in during elementary school and told her that I “will never play on a stage like you” (she likes to remind me of this a lot).
Finally, the summer before 6th grade, she asked about trying the saxophone and I said okay. She taught me the first 3 notes every saxophonist learns, I played them once each, and started putting the sax away… she told me I needed to practice longer and I said, I played the 3 notes I know…confused as to why I would need to play them any more that day (this is another story she likes to remind me of…). So she taught me a few simple tunes and I ended up enjoying playing, then I started lessons, and by the time school started, I was excited to play saxophone in the middle school band. I had an incredible private saxophone teacher, Julie Robinson, and I also got to play with my Granddad a few times before he passed away.
By the time I was a freshman in high school, I knew I wanted to make music for the rest of my life, I just didn’t know exactly what that would look like. I played in small jazz combos and big bands, I loved improvising with friends, and I idolized John Zorn. But yeah, I don’t think 6th grade Anna (or my mom, haha) could have imagined being in a “punk-jazz” band like this.
Kendra: So let’s talk about the new album. Well, a little old and a little new because you dropped your debut back in 2015. Who would’ve guessed a year later so much would have changed. How do you think those changes – from the administration to the pandemic – helped shape your seventh album, ‘States of America?’
Anna: Most of the songs on States are by John and Dan, but ‘Dangerous Whimsy’ is one that I wrote right after the election in 2016. I had just started grad school, and one of my class assignments was to write a rock song. The basic synth melody came first, and I was just walking to school one-day post-election, depressed about it, but I was humming the synth line to myself, and the lyrics for the first verse just sort of came to me, which has never happened before and hasn’t happened since, haha. It is definitely about Trump, “Tell them what they want to hear / Tell them who and what to fear,” but open enough that it could be about any narcissist who spews bullshit.
Dan: I’ll only say, a bit selfishly, that ‘States of America’ is the first Joy on Fire album to feature vocals throughout. That said, the musicianship is more than outstanding, and it touches many different genres or subgenres. “Uh Huh” is probably a heavy metal song with avant screeches in its midst. “Thunderdome” is undeniably punk or “punk-dance.” A song like “Happy Holidays” is a bit gentler and may be our secret weapon; dare I call it “rock ‘n’ roll?” (Have you seen videos for these songs? We’re very proud of them.)
The title, ‘States of America,’ is important for its omission of “United.” Lots of punning, too. As if to say “Conditions” of America. Or fifty little fractured parts – even more resonant with the apparent demise of Roe v. Wade. Mostly, it was a reaction to the divisive, angry, felonious Trump administration. The country’s inequalities are many. Rather than cooperate many just want to roar, endlessly, without purpose, or worse.
Kendra: ‘States of America’ is out June 11th but fans got a taste of what was to come with “Selfies,” a song that reminded me greatly of my senior thesis from way back in 2009 about social media and its impact on narcissism. Years later though, I’ve found that while social media with the self-obsession and constant posting is highly narcissistic – at the same time we’ve also become more self-conscious if we don’t live up to others’ statuses online. Would you agree we’re dealing with an odd mixture of being too into ourselves as well as too concerned with the lives of others?
Dan: The song and the video was a critique of course, and we even mocked ourselves by including several “selfie videos” of the band. I agree with your assessment – of how we weigh ourselves against our online friends. I think the video and the lyrics point out the absurdity of it all, but we’re not trying to take the “high road” by saying somehow we’re any better.
If anything, I think by mocking ourselves we’re insisting on the lack of “purity” that’s out there. Too many people will remind you that they shop in a certain store, don’t eat a certain thing, and don’t participate in this and that, but we’re saying “nahhhh.” This kind of thing is pervasive – this narcissism. Even though we do very little of it ourselves, we still do it. And frankly – I feel like shit every time I go on Facebook or Instagram. It’s so gross.
Kendra: So I want to switch gears to touring. You’ve done an extensive amount of touring up and down the east coast, but with plans, this summer to hit the road again – are you heading out west?
John: We are breaking new ground this summer in terms of touring. We’re playing Kentucky for the first time—Louisville, home to 90s prog-punk bands like Slint and Rodan—as well as hitting new towns for us in Georgia, Athens, and Atlanta. We’re not going to make it out west this summer, but we plan to soon, as early as this fall.
Dan: We would love to go out west, and, like, stay there. I have an ex-girlfriend in LA who’d probably come back to me if we played an iconic venue out there.
Kendra: Do you have any bucket list venues on the west coast you’ve been eyeing to play?
Dan: We’d die to do a show at KEXP in Seattle. I think we’d really bring it if we had that opportunity.
John: I’m a big fan of the Seattle scene of the late 80s and early 90s—I like the term grunge, though some of the bands labeled as such weren’t so enamored with the term, haha—and I’d love to play some of those storied spots in Washington state like The Showbox. I’d also love to play in San Pedro on a bill with Mike Watt. On his last tour with the group MSSV, he played The Sardine. JoF at The Sardine. I like the ring of that!
Kendra: With Coachella still fresh on my mind and all these artists from today bringing out the likes of Shania Twain and Hayley Williams, I’d love to know what artist you’ve drawn inspiration from would you love to connect with if you had the chance to at a festival like that?
Anna: I would absolutely love to play with saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings. He is my favorite living saxophonist. I got into his playing through his band The Comet is Coming, and recently saw him live with his other band, Sons of Kemet. It was such a powerful performance (the ensemble is just sax, tuba, and two drum sets), and I got to meet him briefly afterward, he was super nice to me and we talked about his mic setup (just an SM-58 down the horn! Amazing!).
John: Well, I’ll mention Mike Watt again here, as well as Vapors of Morphine. And when it comes to newer acts, a stage with Viagra Boys, Joy on Fire, and Sleaford Mods would be a riot.
Dan: For me, I really started to make the transition from “writer” to “performer” through my admiration of Sleaford Mods. A band that has toured with them – Girl Band – is also an inspiration. If we could raise the dead, then we’d love to perform with Joy Division, too. But ultimately, what got me thinking about becoming more than just a “poet” or “fiction writer” was seeing the poet Amiri Barka perform with a jazz band at DC’s Bohemian Caverns some years ago. I wouldn’t say that Baraka was perfect in that setting, but he was very provocative.
Kendra: Lastly, with ‘States of America’ out June 11th and a tour planned for this summer – anything else you can share with us?
Dan: I haven’t said anything about John yet and it should be said that John deserves so much credit for the songwriting, and for propelling us forward. The tunes are fully-conceived, blunt, and nuanced alike, and they crunch HARD. When we get on stage, the sound is like no other. The music, John on either bass or electric guitar, Anna’s horn, our friendship for one another, our general iconoclasm. And – I think – the time is now.
John: We’ve begun work on our next album, ‘Scenes from an Unnamed Explosion,’ which is also to be the title of the third song on the record. Led Zep meets Coltrane meets The Clash. We’re ready to up the ante.