Song of the Week: Theme Song

December 1st, 2013 by tim

A lot of Too Much Joy lyrics were written separately from the music, and then either given to Jay and/or Sandy to see what chords and melodies they’d come up with, or recited straight from my notebook of possibilities as the full band worked on some new riff during rehearsals.

“Theme Song” was scribbled on a page before being handed to Jay, and I remember being disappointed when he played me the music he’d written, as I’d been hearing something fast, anthemic and Mekons-y in my head. “Trust me, this is better,” he said. If only he’d always been so right.

We recorded it at the tail end of the Cereal Killers sessions – after we were supposedly finished tracking, in fact, because Ed Thacker was mixing what was supposed to be the completed album in a separate room. Tommy had gone home months earlier, so there are no drums per se on the album version – the percussion you hear is Mr. Mister’s Pat Mastoletto hand-thumping on some two-inch tape boxes and various other implements.

The studio version is fine, but I don’t think anyone realized just what we hath wrought until we started playing it live. As Jay foresaw, the chorus lyrics lend themselves to drunken swaying, and the tempo he insisted on was perfect for deliriously exhausted audiences to slur along to – so perfect, in fact, that most nights the crowd would keep singing it for at least five minutes after we left the stage. The tune very quickly secured itself a place of honor at the end of most every show, and it never seemed right to repeat the same spoken bit before the final chorus rounds, so I did my best to come up with a new, site-specific spiel every goddamned time we played it. If you saw us more than a few times, you may have heard me repeat myself once or twice, but I think at least 90% of those spiels were one-time-only affairs.

I don’t know if this is the best song Too Much Joy ever wrote, but it is definitely the most Too Much Joy song we ever wrote, and it figures in several of my favorite-ever onstage memories. One time, at TT the Bear’s in Cambridge, we led the crowd on a parade during the song, straight out of the club, down the street to a different club called the Middle East, down the stairs inside that club to the bewilderment of the audience who’d gathered to watch whatever band was onstage, then back up and into TT’s. And the last ever time we played, at the Knitting Factory in 2007, we passed out several hundred mini-tambourines so the audience could play as well as sing along. I don’t think the sound of all those teeny tiny shaking cymbals will ever be equalled in my mind, and the one silver lining to the fact that we didn’t manage to arrange any shows to celebrate the pending Cereal Killers re-release is that I highly doubt we could have topped that noise.

Cereal Killers Vinyl Re-Issue

October 26th, 2013 by tim

The most excellent Side One Dummy Records will be releasing a limited edition, colored-vinyl version of Too Much Joy’s 1991 “hit” album, Cereal Killers.

tmj_bundleblueandyellowYou can purchase it in blue or yellow vinyl plus a T-Shirt, or both blue and yellow if you can’t decide which color is prettiest, or both with the T-Shirt celebrating its vinyl-ness (the album didn’t originally come out on vinyl, unless you lived in Germany, in which case you got a version which bizarrely included “That’s a Lie” from Son of Sam I Am. But even if you were a German TMJ fan with a turntable in 1991, you could not get the album in pretty blue and/or yellow translucent vinyl, sequenced as the band intended. So you still need to buy this).

The album comes with brand-new liner notes about the recording process, and why the album title and cover art are so terrible, written by Tim with surprisingly few band-mandated edits.

We are excited by all this. We think you should be, too.

Song of the Week: Goodbye Ohio

September 22nd, 2013 by tim

u.s._flag_on_moon__apollo_11_

Sandy, Jay and I all graduated from the same high school the same year. The former grad who gave the commencement address was an astronaut in name only, as he hadn’t yet actually been to space. It wasn’t the most inspirational choice. Usually commencement speakers have accomplished something substantial, and their job is to convince all of us who haven’t yet done much of anything with our lives that the potential is there, and to give us some advice from their own experience on how to make it blossom.

But this guy’s example was pretty much telling us that years from now we might still be waiting in line to realize our dreams.

That fear, coupled with the dawning suspicion that even if/when you DO achieve your aspirations the satisfaction might be very brief and fleeting, is the subject of the song. I really can’t imagine what a drag walking around on earth might be after you’ve semi-floated on the moon.

Producer Paul Fox got all mad scientist-y on this one, laboring over the vocal effects and background noises. I seem to remember him saying something along the lines of, “I want you to hear god’s face.” Have I mentioned how good the pot was in L.A. at the time?

Interesting might-have-been: my original desire for the cover of what became Cereal Killers was based on a lyric in this song. I wanted a shot of an astronaut standing next to that U.S. flag they planted up there, only holding a lighter to the bottom corner, with the flag just beginning to burn (yes, I know the physics of this are probably impossible, but still, sweet image, right?) and maybe a Too Much Joy patch somewhere on his spacesuit that you wouldn’t notice till the 5th or 6th time you looked at the cover.

I wish we’d done that. But Tommy was against burning the flag. Even when I compromised and said the flag didn’t have to be on fire, the astronaut could be just on the verge of lighting the flag, he was still against it.

These are the compromises you make, in a band.

Speaking of Mr. Vinton, here are his own recollections of the song:

This was one of the more stranger tunes on CK. Although at first listen it appears to be a straight ahead rocker, there are some really cool changes throughout the song which really don’t mess with the tempo that much to be noticed. I absolutely love the B parts of the verses with Tim singing falsetto, and the way the drum beat and bass changes makes the part that more special. The end of the song includes an outro of us just going crazy. We never really played this song much live, but when we did it was a free for all at the end. It usually culminated in some combination of Jay writhing on the floor, Sandy hitting someone with his bass (accidentally), Tim jumping into the crowd, me destroying my drums…anything would go. I do remember our good friend/roadie Mike Arata creating a mic stand he called “stand o’ death”. The mic stand would be crudely set up with pyro/fireworks/shrapnel (who knows what he really packed in there). He would then instruct Tim to light it at a certain point and that would be our Kiss portion of the show. This certain point (from what I remember) would sometimes happen during “Goodbye Ohio”. I’m still amazed we never caused a fire or injury doing this…but we did piss off a bunch of club owners. 

Oh, one other footnote: that commencement speaker, I’m told, actually did make it into orbit, eventually.

Song of the Week: Gramatan

August 10th, 2013 by tim

gramatan plaque

My last year in grad school I lived with my girlfriend (the inspiration for “Susquehanna Hat Company“) in Tuckahoe, right on the border of Bronxville. My walk into town always took me past this marker, which commemorates the spot where Mohawk chief Gramatan sold the land to some enterprising Dutch folk.

I always found this triply ironic. First, because Bronxville was very notoriously a “closed” community that actively kept out minorities well into the ’60s, so if Gramatan’s descendants had wanted to live there they probably couldn’t. Read the rest of this entry »

Song of the Week: Nothing On My Mind

June 30th, 2013 by tim

stampede

As a title, “Nothing on my Mind” practiced truth in advertising, since the lyric is the result of an experiment in sitting down to write a song without first having a title, a single line, or any idea of what I wanted to say (I’d recently read that Paul Simon went to an office from 9 to 5 every day to compose, which made me feel a little lazy just sitting around drinking, waiting for inspiration to strike).

That explains the stream-of-conscious nature of the words, and also why I tossed in the bit about the coloring book — the idea being that any interpretation a listener might impose was going to be a lot more significant than the mostly random outlines I’d provided.

Or so I thought at the time. Read the rest of this entry »

Song of the Week: King of Beers

June 8th, 2013 by tim

tiffany

That’s Tiffany Levine. Now she’s a rock climber of some renown, but way back in 1988 she was the woman who inspired “King of Beers.”

Jay and I were killing time in L.A. with our friend Joe Williams, who had brought along his friend and that friend’s sister, Tiffany, who was gorgeous and funny, and who politely pretended not to notice as Jay and I fought all night over who got to sit next to her in Joe’s car, or at the first bar we went to, or at the second bar, and so on. At one point, in an effort to save some modicum of self-respect for both of us, Jay and I huddled, each of us trying to talk the other out of his hopeless pursuit.

“Tim,” Jay said, “she’s so beautiful, I’d sleep with her brother.”

“Great,” I said. “You do that, because I’m going to sleep with her. By the way, that’s a great line. We have to call a timeout so I can write that down.”

Because Jay is an honorable man, he helped me find a napkin to scribble the line on. Then we went back to our war, which I cannot tell you who won because I am a gentleman (Jay lost, though).

The rest of the lyric was inspired by and written during similar nights. It became such a staple of the live set that I’m not sure if there’s a night we didn’t play it, once it was released. It might be one reason we got a reputation as a frat-rock band, but at least one friend told me, “The thing I like about that song is it’s actually pretty honest about drinking. It’s not exactly a celebration.”

Since I tend to overemphasize lyrics, let’s see what producer Paul Fox and drummer Tommy Vinton have to say about the production and the music. Here’s what Paul sent me when I asked him if he wanted to contribute to this post:

2:20
What a great band, so different at the time from most anyone else.
The guys who could come up with stories inside their songs that could last for a lifetime.
And I guess that has come true, because here I am again looking at
“King Of Beers” one of the best of their tracks.
A driving track that reeks of the smell of beer, an acoustic guitar,
a band with no fear, a love of girls that they will never have,
but with a guitar that sometimes sounds like hell and then is saved,
by a solid drum kit and player who can’t drink beer, because he was also a cop !
Crazy fun !!
We had fun packed into 2:20, and to this day I love the crazy sounds,
the switch of the guitar to a nylon guitar and back again to the crazy
roar of Tim Quirk, the bass of Sandy Smallens, and the rest of TOO MUCH JOY….
Whooooooooo yah !!!

Gee, thanks, Paul. Cops can drink beer, though — I was  always a bit worried when we played NYC, because Tommy’s cop buddies would get plastered and do things like tear the sinks off the wall of the bathroom. In fact, Tommy’s recollections jump pretty quickly to memories of being drunk:

King Of Beers is one of the straight ahead rock songs on CK. I think Sandy and I did our basic tracks in one or two takes. Love Tim’s lyrics on this one. So much so that when playing this song live we emphasize the “why am I such an asshole, why am I here alone” lyric by dropping out all instruments. Always works and feels great as a live song. On a side note and not really related to the song, we were asked by Budweiser to do a radio commercial which we all reluctantly agreed to do. Once done it was played on all the big commercial radio stations, a first for TMJ. I actually did the speaking part, but it didn’t sound like me due to the large amount of jagermeister and beer that was consumed while recording…we were the literal kings of beer that day…and not in a good way…

If you want to hear Tommy’s drunken spiel on that Budweiser commercial, and read about  just how reluctant some of us were, I embedded the audio in a long post on my personal website about how that radio spot nearly broke up the band.

Song of the Week: Pirate

May 19th, 2013 by tim

Pirate might be my personal favorite song on Cereal Killers. Even the fact that Tommy Vinton just told me, “The two cymbal hits I do before the choruses and the cymbal swirls in the beginning of the song were inspired by Motley Crue’s Tommy Lee” cannot diminish my affection for it.

The bit about everyone being crazy was based on all the people I met on our first couple of tours. I had a habit of befriending female fans in different cities and going on long nighttime walks with them. Perhaps because I (almost) never made a pass at them, or perhaps because we were usually drunk, or maybe because of both they would share all kinds of details about their lives, which were invariably fucked up. It was uncanny: everybody I met, no matter how normal they acted in the daytime, seemed to be nuts.

And that seemed worth celebrating.

Pirate has all the elements that should make for an amazing live song: power chords, stops, “whoah oh oh!” bits that everyone can shout along drunkenly. But I don’t think we ever played it more than twice on stage for some reason. Maybe it was too complicated, as Tommy kinds of hints at with his recollection of writing it:

“The four of us were very unique in our own ways, which made for interesting songwriting. When the four of us were in a room trying to come up with cool riffs and ideas, it would usually result in a song that took crazy rights and lefts, ups and downs, short stops, you name it. Usually the song would then be dissected by either us or a producer to make it more cohesive, or dare I say ‘listener friendly.’ Pirate was one of those songs that never went through that process. The song starts weird, has different tempos, takes those crazy unexpected turns, but worked just the way it was originally written. The lyrics and singing, along with underlying music and rhythms just seemed to work. And I’m glad we didn’t fuck with the original arrangement. Song still stands strong today”

Sandy has this to say:  “For me, on a very short list of songs we didn’t play ENOUGH live — perfectly captures that rootless, post-college head space and one of our more fun vocal arrangements. I remember trying to do the post-chorus bass bit with a fancy (rented) fretless bass, as I always wanted to use one, but it just didn’t work out. Probably the last time I attempted to play/write with one. Don’t worry, it only had four strings.”

Song of the Week: Long Haired Guys From England

May 5th, 2013 by tim

This week’s Cereal Killers’ selection, like pretty much all our songs, is based on a true story. Or series of stories, as the phenomenon described in the tune happened to us repeatedly.

The title and the first line were Jay’s. I remember him singing me his original couplet and punchline as we walked across Kraft Avenue in Bronxville to rehearse or record at The Loft: “All the girls in the music biz/are high class whores with a business whiz/but they only wanna fuck/long haired guys from England.” I don’t think we ever debated the second line — I’m pretty sure I just said the title was great but that line had to go. While I’m not particularly proud of what replaced it, I do find it endearing that possessing a credit card once seemed like a sure sign of adulthood to us.

When I asked Jay if he minded my sharing that original lyric with the world, he said only this: “Why would I object to the sharing of artistic genius?” But there was a smiley face emoticon at the end of his email.

Sandy reminded me of something I’d forgotten: that we wound up touring with several long-haired guys from England after the song was written but before it was released, leading to some misconceptions about its intended target. I’ll let him explain:

“Even though the song existed long before we crossed paths with The Wonder Stuff, no band better embodied its true meaning. In the few shows we did together before they dumped us from their bill, they would even introduce themselves as ‘the long haired c***ts from England.’ Some say that song had a lot to do with their ‘firing’ us, but we prefer to think it’s just because they were tired of being out-rocked each night.”

UPDATE: Continuing his tradition of sending in his rememberances AFTER I’ve published that week’s song, Tommy just emailed me this:

“Our producer Paul Fox had this great idea for us to get drunk, bring in strippers and attempt to perform “Long Haired Guys From England”, which he thought would capture the true essence of the song. Who were we to disagree? We did what our producer told us to do. As the tape rolled, we were having the time of our lives and really believed we were recording an awesome rendition of the song. The next day we listened back. What we thought was our recording masterpiece sounded like….shit. Being kinda pissed that we didn’t nail LHGFE in our fun stupor, I remember arming ourselves with our instruments and banging this song out in one or two takes. The only way this song was meant to be recorded! A basic straight ahead rocker that to this day never fails to charge us up, or the crowd. “

Song of the Week: Sandbox

April 28th, 2013 by tim

Our Cereal Killers celebration continues with “Sandbox,” one of the songs on the disc that earned cries of “overproduced,” even though all the bells and whistles were put on there at the band’s insistence and, in a few cases, over producer Paul Fox’s strenuous objections.

This was one of the hardest to nail down during the couple weeks of pre-production in L.A. during which we played each song live for Paul over and over again, finalizing the arrangements. I remember Paul telling Jay the guitar part should sound like an Al Green number, and Jay’s repeated inability to mimic Teenie Hodges was a source of much frustration. All of which may explain why the song never made into the set on tour.

But I adored the finished product, and still do, as all the accoutrements — those horns, the effects on the harmonies, that odd guitar broing! in the “where is the sun?” bit — are exactly what major label production budgets are for, as far as I’m concerned. Plus, I love any excuse to attempt a falsetto.

Lyrically, the song owes a huge debt to Paul Quarrington’s novel, Whale Music, which itself owes a huge debt to the life of Brian Wilson. I can’t recommend the book highly enough: it’s funny and sad and incredibly wise about the creative process and what happens when it runs headlong into business concerns and an audience’s expectations.

I hadn’t encountered any of that, myself, but the mere act of Christmas shopping in a mall was giving me an existential crisis, so I found myself wishing I had a better excuse to go crazy.

UPDATE:  Drummer Tommy Vinton just sent along his own memories of this one.

I was definitely the “anti-production purist” in the band. Give me raw drums, guitar, bass, vocals, and I’m a happy camper. Enter Sandbox. Not the Metallica song, but the TMJ song. I remember having to go back and forth between LA and New York to play cop in the Bronx, all while the CK recording process was going on. Each time I would return to LA to continue recording, it seemed “Sandbox” was growing producer tentacles. Horns, bells, whistles, keyboards…you name it! Being the purist I am, I suggested (it might have been Sandy and I that suggested) we do this off-tempo breakdown part in the middle. It was a cool 3/4 to 4/4 time signature, back to 3/4 and 4/4 and so on (a half-assed attempt at trying to be like Rush). Nothing that complicated, but complicated enough to cast doubts in the mind of our producer Paul Fox as to whether or not it should be part of the song. Paul reluctantly agreed to the part, and it soon became this part of the song where Sandy and I, drums and bass, stood alone for a few seconds, away from all the crazy other production going on in the song. That, mixed with all the other cool stuff going on made me like the song. A lot.

Song of the Week: Susquehanna Hat Company

April 20th, 2013 by tim

Bill says, “It was always nice to start a live show by yelling, ‘Fuck this town.’”

I love that line, too, and it’s not braggy to say so, because I didn’t really write it so much as I misheard it. I was playing a Dinosaur Jr. album (very loudly) while in the shower, and could have sworn J. Mascis sang, “So she said, ‘Fuck this town.’” “What a brilliant lyric,” I thought. Once I dried off, I picked the needle up and dropped it back down, trying to find the line again, only to discover it didn’t actually exist.

That made me sad, for like one minute. Then I realized if J. Mascis hadn’t used the line, we could. The title and the rest of the lyric were inspired by an old Abbot and Costello routine, which you can see above, and which still makes me laugh out loud. It seemed like a decent metaphor for the way you can feel about an ex after a break-up, when any mention of the person’s name can turn an otherwise fine day into misery and woe.

Here’s what Sandy remembers about the song: “I believe Jay stole some of the chords from his college band, and I remember playing it through at the Loft in Bronxville during rehearsal one night and all turning to each other and saying, “Holy Shit!” At the time, some of us were dating or had dated ladies with three names, like serial killers or mass murderers might have. I realized shit was going to get real when we added the glockenspiel with Paul Fox. By the time we’ve played the first notes of this song to open a gig, we can tell how that entire gig will go.”

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