Music » Interviews

Joywave on Big Data, theatrical vocals and stupid whistling


'I'm basically the opposite of a purist. I'm waiting until I can use an Apple Watch to deejay.'
  • 'I'm basically the opposite of a purist. I'm waiting until I can use an Apple Watch to deejay.'

Joywave clearly have a fondness for messing with people's heads, indulging in the kind of blank parody that leaves victims guessing.

There is, for example, that all-too-clichéd whistling refrain on the otherwise cathartic "Destruction," a track that's more early Queen than latter-day Lumineers.

And then there were those matching pastel outfits, complete with black socks and white sneakers, they wore during their Jimmy Kimmel Live performances of "Somebody New" and "Tongues," both from their recently released Hollywood Records debut album How Do You Feel Now?

Combined with frontman Daniel Armbruster's semi-ironic mustache, black-rim glasses and side-parted bangs, it's the kind of sartorial touch that makes you wonder if this band can possibly be serious.

"That was kind of a reaction to 'Somebody New' getting played on a lot of alternative and rock stations, which is not something we really identify with that much," says the singer. "All of these people were hearing our song on the radio next to, like, Disturbed, and we figured 'What can we do that's the opposite of that?' So we thought soft Easter-pink matching outfits would do the trick.

"And if you look at the YouTube comments, it certainly did."

The Kimmel videos also hint at the diversity of Joywave's repertoire: "Somebody New" has the kind of lower-register guitar riffs and soaring pop payoffs that alt-rock radio loves. By contrast, the electro-pop "Tongues" slips between vocal sampling that rivals the worst Radio Shack synthesizers, and melodic choruses more evocative of Ryuichi Sakamoto's Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.

Between a major-label album, TV appearances and their first headlining tour — which will include dates in their upstate New York hometown Rochester, Colorado Springs and the U.K.'s Reading Festival — Joywave are beginning to garner serious attention. They've also gotten a boost in name recognition from "Dangerous," their No. 1 alt-rock collaboration with the more electronically inclined Big Data, a project Armbruster started with producer Alan Wilkis during weekend trips to see his girlfriend in Brooklyn.

"Joywave had signed with Hollywood by the time 'Dangerous' started getting played on the radio a lot," says Armbruster. "But when I got the opportunity to make this Joywave record, it was a no-brainer. I mean, I'd derailed my friends' lives to make them do this thing with me. So I left Big Data and that was that."

Given his ability to reach into a falsetto range with far more fluidity than, say, Radiohead's Thom Yorke or Sparks' Russell Mael, it's easy to imagine Armbruster being a trained vocalist who grew up with a vocal coach always nearby. Instead, he stumbled into the lead singer role unintentionally after he and Joywave drummer Paul Brenner started playing together as high school students.

"Basically, every singer we tried out was someone from choir who had this terrible theater vibrato thing happening. And we couldn't get them to stop it. So it was just like, 'You know what, I'll just sing.' So it's more of a situational necessity that I ended up being the singer. I just decided I'd figure it out eventually."

A decade later, and in spite of Armbruster's weekly sojourns to Brooklyn, he and Brenner — along with Joywave guitarist Joseph Morinelli, bassist Sean Donnelly and keyboardist Benjamin Bailey — remain committed to Rochester, even though its location on Lake Ontario leads to brutal near-Arctic weather conditions. So why stay?

"We were all born and raised here," says the singer. "All of our parents worked at Kodak at various points, which was kind of Rochester's claim to fame. And now Kodak's gone, and everyone's parents have been laid off. I always refer to it as like an economic Cheronobyl. It's like the catastrophe has already happened, and weird things are kind of growing back."

Joywave being one of them. "Yeah, I think so. It's actually exciting to be part of it. There aren't 500 other bands like us here. It's like this creative island where we get to do what we want to do."

That includes club deejaying, which Armbruster does a lot of, despite having minimal turntablist skills. "I'm really a hack at it," he admits. "I just use iPad software when I deejay. I'm basically the opposite of a purist. I'm waiting until I can use an Apple Watch to deejay."

Joywave's performances have, from early on, been both sprawling and meticulous, as evidenced by online video of a 2012 show at Rochester's Strasenburgh Planetarium. But while it may seem like a perfectly crafted performance, the singer says the concert contained "tons of mistakes."

"Our guitar player at the time, Travis, used to have an amazing penchant for being a half-step off. We eventually started to call it 'Trav-stepping,' and it was always a note where he would just be playing straight sixteenth notes on, like, a single fret, but doing it one fret off."

Armbruster insists that he himself is no perfectionist either, partly because there's really no need to be.

"I think like 80 percent of the population is actually tone-deaf," he laughs. "It's like, I know when I miss a note, but I don't care anymore. Because I'm positive that no one else knows. And anyone watching who does know, doesn't actually care, even if I did. Once you've overcome that fear, it's a fun thing to embrace."

All of which leaves just one lingering, although possibly insulting, question: Why does everyone keep whistling on records?

"Well, we did whistling on the record because everyone else did whistling on their records," says Armbruster. "No, I'm joking. After the song 'Destruction' was basically finished, Sean and I stared at each other and said, 'What is the stupidest thing we can do?' And then we thought about all these bands whistling and stomping and yelling 'Hey!' on every song, and we just couldn't stop laughing. So if you listen to the song, there's the whistling, and then, in the middle of it, there's one unenthusiastic 'Hey' and some handclaps. And that was a giant middle finger at radio."

"So that's actually an awesome question, that's not insulting at all," adds the singer with somewhat questionable sincerity. "I'm glad you asked that, I wish more people would ask me about that."

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