Lead singer Daniel Armbruster dives into the transformative experience of making Joywave’s debut album How Do You Feel Now?, going No. 1 with “Dangerous,” sampling Disney animated classics, growing up in Rochester, and dealing with the bumps in life.
You are from Rochester, New York, and I had one of my best friends graduate from Rochester University there this year. He’s from the West Coast and was always complaining about how bad the weather was. What was it like growing up there?
[Laughs] The weather is definitely terrible. When I was really little, it was extremely cold all the time and terrible with a lot of snow. Then we had this weird decade when I was in high school and college that wasn’t so bad, and then the last two years have been horrible.
When we were making the record, I guess it was two winters ago now, it was just ridiculously cold. We did not want to leave the studio. We would stay inside as long as we could, order in any food we could, anything to avoid going out to a car, cleaning it off and driving.
Does that weather affect your songwriting and the feel of the music?
I think so. Another big part about Rochester is the only claim to fame here, really, is Kodak. Watching what’s happened there, the recession got really bad for everyone in 2008, but in Rochester it’s been terrible since the mid-‘90s. The film business went off a cliff and Kodak wasn’t willing to cannibalize their own product of film with digital cameras and stuff. The result was everyone’s parents getting laid off from work.
For generations, it was like you go to high school, you go to college, but you get a job at Kodak. Kodak is the place you end up at. Suddenly when that wasn’t available, everyone has to figure things out for themselves. I think that was a huge part of us being in a band and not being afraid to stick with it and take chances, and take chances musically, too.
Most of this year you have spent almost entirely on the road so far. What has that been like?
It’s good. I always miss being home, because we do have a studio here that’s ours now. Being creative is my favorite part of being in a band, so it’s pretty tough to do when you’re in a sprint.
I get motion sickness really easy, so I’m usually taking a bunch of Dramamine trying to combat that. The things you make when you’ve taken Dramamine are different and pretty low key [laughs]. I don’t know. It’s a mixed bag. I do like performing and I do like seeing new places, but I miss having a studio at my disposal.
I was able to catch you earlier this year when you opened for Bleachers. One thing that was unexpected to me was how much harder you rock live than on the studio versions. Is that something you focus on doing with the live show, expanding that rock sound more?
Yeah, we try to make the recorded presentation and the live presentation different. It keeps things interesting and it’s more fun for us. When we’re making a record, we’re not thinking about playing it live.
Generally when we’re in the studio I’ll write the song, and then Sean, our bass player, and I will produce it together. We’re not even thinking as a band, or what does a band sound like, or anything like that when we’re making something. We just want to make what we want to make in that moment.
Then when it comes time to turn it into a live thing, it’s like, you look around the room. Ben plays keyboard. Joe has his guitar. Let’s make it work with these instruments now. I don’t know. It’s always different live, but it’s fun to present it in more of a rock fashion live.
I remember you opened with “Destruction,” which is probably your heaviest song, and it was like, whoa.
Yeah, yeah [laughs]. That’s so much fun to play live. That’s my favorite one to play live. It’s like an assault on the audience [laughs].
What was it like writing that song and at what point did the whistles become involved?
So that song is very unique on the record. I think the musical bed is doing most of the storytelling in that one. It’s kind of a reaction against clichés, I guess. We wanted to make something that was scary.
We made that song after “Tongues” had been sent to radio. Someone decided that we were an alternative radio band, and we were like, uh, OK. I don’t think they’re going to play “Tongues,” but some of them did and stuff.
A lot of people listening in the Midwest were probably driving in pickup trucks and like, [in Southern accent] “What the hell is this? You need to get this shit off my radio. Keep playing Disturbed.” Stuff like that.
We were like, it’d be really funny to just adhere to the things that are played alongside our song on the radio as kind of like a middle finger. So, that is the whistle. Literally, we were like, what is the dumbest thing we could do? Whistles became part of the song.
It’s funny because the song was so scary without it, and then adding just that little bit put it into alternative radio’s wheelhouse, I guess. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with that. I don’t know if that song will end up going to radio, but if it does and it works, I will be laughing gleefully.
Most people are probably going to be most familiar with you from the song you did last year with Big Data, “Dangerous,” which was a huge hit and went No. 1 on the Alt charts. What was it like seeing that song blow up? When you were working on it, did you think there was something special there?
No, I didn’t. I was actually thinking about that the other day. Alan, who is Big Data now, when we were finishing it was like, “Man, this is a big song.” I was like, “OK, dude. Whatever [laughs].” It was good. I don’t know. I don’t really know how the radio works, I guess. I didn’t know if it would catch on and be something that people wanted to listen to.
As far as the collaboration and stuff, I was actually in Big Data. Me and Alan started the project together at the end of 2012. It was an EP that we made together. I think “Dangerous” is the only one that survived onto his new record, but we made this EP together called 1.0.
The idea behind it was people’s relationship with technology and how it affects everyone’s lives. Then I’ve been doing Joywave for a very long time and we had the chance to make a record. I was like, all right. I have to go do this. So Alan went on as Big Data by himself.
It was this weird weekend thing I did when I was visiting my girlfriend in Brooklyn. I’d be like, “All right. I’m going to go over to Alan’s for a few hours and churn out a song.” It was something I was doing for fun, so the success of it definitely caught me off guard.
I think it’s that thing where you try really hard at something, which is Joywave, and then the thing you put no effort into, which was Big Data, is the thing where people are like, “Yeah, this really resonates with me. I love this.”
It was weird. I thought I might actually be an idiot for a second for working hard and trying to make something real, when this thing I spent very little time at was very successful, very quickly.
Do you think you and Alan will get together and collaborate again at some point in the future?
I don’t know. It might be kind of weird now, being I was part of the project at the inception. We did do four songs together. I feel like everything I wanted to contribute, I already did conceptually. So, I don’t know. Maybe.
You usually don’t play that song live and turn it into a joke tease, where you’ll play a little bit of the bass riff and then stop. Why don’t you play it live and how did you end up turning it into that joke thing?
I guess we don’t really play it live because with Joywave songs usually it’s a song from my brain. It’s like, this is my song. We get in the studio and we do it a certain way, and then we assign the parts live and everything.
“Dangerous” isn’t like that. Alan did the musical bed, and then I did the vocals. It feels weird to play a song that you didn’t write the music for, I guess. I’m sure that’s not weird for a lot of artists, but it’s strange for me.
To me, that’s what’s exciting about Joywave. Everything feels so real and so authentic to me. If someone doesn’t like it, that’s fine, but I feel like they’ve rejected me as a person, you know what I mean? But I’m like, whatever. It’s real to me. It is what it is. When you’re playing something that someone else wrote for you, it’s more complicated and less cut and dry.
“Tongues” and “Somebody New,” which were the first two singles off this record, weren’t quite as huge as “Dangerous,” obviously, but they were pretty decent-sized on their own. Was that on some level a relief or validation that you weren’t necessarily just going to be known as the guy who sings on “Dangerous?”
Yeah, but it’s like, I don’t know. What gets sent to radio and what’s decided on as a single seems really arbitrary. We didn’t make the record trying to make any singles. There was no song where we were like, all right, this one has to be this certain way, outside of “Destruction.” The spots that we made quote-unquote “catchy” in that song are a joke. It’s tongue in cheek.
The fact that those two songs did well, that’s cool, but I really want people to consume the whole record and not just be attached to one song. It’s been interesting. When we’re shown that a song is doing really well here, or this single is selling well here, I’m like, OK. That’s cool, but I really want people to consume the entire record.
One thing about the record I noticed is it almost seems to be split up into two sides. The first half is the more upbeat, energetic side with the quote-unquote “singles,” while the second is a little more moody and atmospheric where you get a little more personal with the lyrics on something like “Nice House.” What that intentional and how you structured it?
Yeah. I spent a long time DJing in Rochester to pay phone bills and such. Transitions and the way that something flows, that stuff is very important to us. We really wanted, especially with the title of the record How Do You Feel Now?, something that felt transformative.
You start in one place and you end up somewhere else, if you sit down and put on the record and listen the whole way through. It’s taking you from one place, and then by the end it does kind of tone you down. Hopefully, you feel a little affected.
So the audio clips on the album, did that come from you doing DJ work?
Disney owns our record label and there were two reasons that we ended up signing with them. The first was that every label we talked to got excited when they heard “Tongues,” which was originally on our mixtape 88888. Most labels were calling us and were like, “Hey, we want to get you in with this producer. We want to get you in with this person.”
I’m like, “Wait, you already like it, so why don’t you let us do it?” The label we’re on now, they were the only ones who were like, “Yeah, that’s fine. You can spend the whole budget on equipment and just make the record yourselves.” That was very exciting to us, and that’s how we have a studio now.
But beyond that, we were like, maybe, just maybe, we can get them to clear samples from Disney movies for the record, which no one has ever been able to do. So we finished the record, and the president of the label came out to a show in L.A. I was having a whiskey with him, and I was like, I’m just going to ask him. The worst he can say is no.
So I’m like, “Hey man, can we sample Bambi and Fantasia and Peter Pan, and a couple others?” He’s like, “Yes, that’s fine. I’ll get you all the stuff on Monday.” I was like, whoa. OK.
Everything came together very serendipitously with that, because we were watching in the studio a lot of Disney animated classics and stuff. At one point at the end of “Bad Dreams,” the crocodile theme song from Peter Pan starts playing. When we were watching it, I edited it a little bit, but it’s basically one note off from the bass riff in “Somebody New.”
When we heard that, we freaked out. Me and Sean just looked at each other, and our jaws hit the floor. We were like, that’s unbelievable that this happened. We have to put that at the end of the record. If you’re listening to the CD in your car, the record ends there, and then it loops back around and immediately goes into the “Somebody New” bass riff. It’s cool.
You released that EP last year, and then the new full-length obviously came out this year. I think there’s even some songs on it that are from before the EP, like you were saying. Was the timeframe for this record really spread out then? How do you think that impacted how things turned out?
Yeah, so as far as the songwriting, some of the songs are really old. “Traveling at the Speed of Light” was written, I think, in 2010. Some of them go back pretty far. “Destruction” was the last song we wrote for the record, and that came together pretty much while we were in the studio. I had a rough demo, but we ironed it out in there. So yeah, I lived a lot between those times.
At certain points, I was like, I’m really in a rut in life. I have nothing going on. I live with my parents. I’m DJing one night a week. My income is $100 a week. That’s terrible. Why did I go to college? Why did I make any of the decisions that I made? A lot of songs on the record reflect that. As things progress along, you end up in a different headspace when things start to go well for you.
By the time we were wrapping up the record, “Dangerous” had already been on the radio. People were excited that we were going to make a record and were starting to look forward to it. The EP came out when we were still working on the full-length, so people were consuming “Now,” “Somebody New,” “Tongues” and “In Clover” in anticipation of a full-length.
It’s really a look at the past 10 years of my life, post college existing in Rochester, and coming to terms with the fact that you don’t just go to college and get handed a job, and a family and a house. That’s not realistic anymore. It probably never was, but it’s not something that’s available to our generation. There’s a lot of dealing with that, and a lot of ups and downs on the record. It was a turbulent time. There’s a lot of bumps in life.
As far as when you’re writing lyrics, what do you tend to draw from? Is it mostly autobiographical?
Yeah, it is. With anything we do that’s an official release, it always is. We’ve done these mixtapes in the past. There’s one called 77777, and then the 88888 one. Those I try to make the opposite. I try to keep those fiction and almost like fantasy.
The first one is this giant space odyssey, and then the one after is like a James Bond novel. I try to live in fantasyland when we’re doing mixtapes and the real world when we’re making actual releases.
Apart from the music, it seems like you have a very thought-out aesthetic, in terms of the artwork and videos and stuff like that. What goes into creating that extra content?
If you look at the back of our record or anything, Cultco is our company/imprint. We have the five guys in Joywave, our tour manager, and these four guys in another band called Kopps. They’re featured on “Tongues.” We have this Rochester-based crew. They handle all of our artwork, and we handle all of their production and recording. We have, between the two bands, this big collective kind of thing.
We were looking at each other the other week and were like, man, if music never works out we should open an advertising firm or something. We have music, video, art –everything on lockdown between the 10 of us. Most of the visual artwork and stuff is the friends in our crew.
Then the videos, we’ve been fortunate to pick directors that we like their body of work. The DANIELS did our video for “Tongues.” They did this awesome Chromeo video a couple years ago that we really liked. They did the “Turn Down for What” video. We got to work with Keith Schofield too, who did “Big Bad Wolf” for Duck Sauce, which is another video we really liked. We’ve been fortunate with that.
I know you just released “Now” as the third single from the record this month. Are you going to be doing anything special with that?
We had a video that went up yesterday on Apple Connect that’s just a tour-related video. Joe, our guitar player, does all our video stuff, and he put it together. We’ve done these videos called “Joy Meets World” for the past year and a half now. It’s kind of a documentary, but kind of not.
It’s about everything that we’ve done and experienced, starting with the first time we went on a tour that was longer than three days. It’s kind of a collection of footage from the “Joy Meets World” series, set to “Now.”
Looking forward to the rest of this year, are you pretty much just going to be on the road then?
Yeah. We’re home for the next week or two, and then we go back to Europe for Reading and Leeds. We’re playing Lollapalooza Berlin, and then we’re back to the U.S. for a headline tour in September and October.
Is that going to be the biggest headline tour you’ve done so far?
Yeah, yeah. We actually haven’t done a headline tour. I think the only show we’ve ever headlined, outside of Rochester, was we did Rough Trade last fall in Brooklyn. I think that’s pretty much it, so we’re really excited about it. The L.A. date is already sold out, and a lot of the other ones, like Chicago and New York, are getting close, too. We’re very excited.
So looking ahead to the future, where do you see Joywave progressing from here? Do you see yourselves going in more of a rock direction, an electronic direction, or keeping it a combination?
I think both. One of the things we try to do is stay outside of genres and try to make good music. I think it’s going to be whatever we’re feeling in that moment. The last song on the record, “Bad Dreams,” the album version has me singing on it, but we had an alternate version of it come out where Mick Jenkins did a verse and Little Simz did a verse.
That’s what we felt like was right for that song, so I don’t want to rule anything out. I’m not even going to rule out country. We’re going to make a country record… No, not really.
That would be very, very interesting, I’m sure [laughs]. I bet that Southern guy from earlier would be pretty happy about it, though.
[Laughs] He definitely would be. Freedom Isn’t Free, by Joywave.