Interview with American Joy
Oh, the American Joy
Conversation with Carolina rockers “American Joy”
By: Patrick Gipson
American music. What is it exactly? Rock radio might suggest John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, to best express our deepest reverence for the stars and bars. But can we really rely on these icons of another generation to continually hold the flag, long after their gone? New genres have arisen, more fans have borne and more artists grown from them. Modernism has infiltrated our soundscape; popular music isn’t radio’s best friend anymore. The internet and MTV have given our artists personas and faces more recognizable than our most important government figures. This overwhelming offering of artistry blurs our conception of American music truly is anymore. It’s no longer the leather jacket wearing, Harley driving, Coca-cola drinkers, but the underdogs, screaming their sound proudly above the rest, refusing to succumb to overblown imagery and remaining faithful to the source of it all…the music. Hailing from the Greensboro and Raleigh areas of North Carolina, Sean Martell (guitar, vocals), Aslan Freeman (drums, vocals), Rett Lucas (bass), Curt Armstead (keys, vocals) and Chris Carr (lead guitar) are reminding fans that great music can be glitterless. With an old-fashioned rock and roll sound, much like the Hold Steady sticking a fork into an electrical outlet and delivering it to your ears with the patriotic energy of the MC5, American Joy are quickly building a reputation in the Southeast. The band has released an EP and is preparing to embark upon a tour of the East Coast this winter, but first, four of the guys took the time to share their thoughts on their earliest music fetishes, recording at home and the state of American music today.
Where did the name American Joy come from?
Aslan: We were originally The Young Americans, it was Sean’s idea. He wanted to pull from that Americana kind of stuff.
Sean: Well actually, there was this old band in my dad’s collection called Jay and the Americans, but I thought it was the Young Americans. We ended up sticking with it though.
Aslan: Unfortunately, we figured out that there was already a band called that. It’s like a children’s music group from L.A., like Menudo, rotating teenagers that tour the country and do musical shows for children. So we were like, ‘yep, can’t use that.’
Sean: “Oh, the Joy” was going to be our name, what Lewis and Clark supposedly said when they saw the Pacific; but that was taken too. We chopped off the first words and added “American.”
What is joyous about America to you?
Rett: A lot of driving.
Aslan: Let’s get ultra-political right now. (laughs)
Curtis: I mean, Rett likes college football.
Aslan: It kind of goes back to the original name, the Young Americans. That raucous, rude, in-your-face spirit of ‘we’re probably over-privileged kids in a pretty awesome country and can just do whatever we want,’ so let’s just f*** some s*** up.
Who are your greatest influences musically?
Rhett: I would say I hear a lot of Counting Crows in our songs.
Aslan: Sean, I remember, before I met him, listened to a lot of stuff that was pop and mainstream, like Mae. Definitely the better groups in pop/mainstream, not like All-Time Low or anything like that. I remember him coming to Greensboro to see these concerts and then I didn’t see Sean for six months and the next time I saw him, he was like ‘dude, check out Bruce Springsteen,’ all this old stuff I’d heard of.
Sean: I used to listen to all these bands from the past five years, new bands, modern pop and rock. One day, I wrote like two songs and we recorded it at Aslan’s house. I played them for one of my friend’s parents and they said it sounded like the Replacements. I was like, ‘who the hell are the Replacements?’ I checked it out, bought some CD’s and one thing led to another. I was discovering all these other bands that sounded like the Replacements, with the same vibe; it was like a Minneapolis sound from the mid-90s, Soul Asylum, the Jayhawks.
Was the mid-90s Minneapolis sound a congregating point musically for you guys?
Curt: When I saw Aslan over the holidays, when everything was starting between Sean and Aslan, they were all talking about the Replacements. I love the Replacements, so when I heard that was the case, I took an interest. I heard the songs and kind of forced my way into the band. (laughs)
Sean: Over winter break, Aslan and I wrote songs; we had about four songs for three months. I was going to ECU and these guys were in Greensboro. The whole fall semester, I was popping out songs like every week; I got fired from my job and had nothing to do.
Aslan: Rett started as a vocal major and I started as a guitar performance major. My dad used to do live sound for bands; he was actually in a bar band called Spiral. He still had all this equipment, he does private DJ professional work for weddings, dances and stuff, so I was exposed to that stuff most of my life. We’ve been building a studio in our basement for the last three years or so.
Sean: I went over to Aslan’s house and was like, ‘let’s just record all the stuff we’ve done.’ They were o.k.; we had recorded them very fast. For about four days straight, we just woke up whenever we woke up and recorded. Half of that time, I wrote like four or five songs that Aslan had never heard.
Aslan: We wrote Turntable, The Way I Found You, All I Write, Want to Know and Hold On to Me. Sean wrote and I arranged.
What artists are you listening to right now?
Sean: The Jayhawks.
Aslan: Color Revolt.
Curtis: Saves the Day.
Rett: The Beatles…and to speak for Chris, Chris says Miley Cyrus’ new CD. (laughs)
I go to a bar and order an American Joy. What’s in it?
Aslan: Totally whiskey; whiskey on the rocks.
Curtis: Well, this isn’t very American of me, but I like Jameson. You can’t go wrong with Jack Daniels though.
When you examine today’s music scene what do you see?
Sean: It’s kind of like the 80s.
Aslan: Yeah, the late 80s. We’re in Glam Rock II right now; everything is about image, not music. The whole glam rock situation, everybody was trying to get big hair, look as ridiculous and fancy and glittery as possible. I look at bands today, it’s just the same thing; you’re just about your image. The mainstream at least.
Sean: I can’t remember the last time I heard a really good mainstream band. The 90s had all these bands that were poppy and mainstream, but they were bands, with hits and records.
Aslan: As depressing as it is, it excites me at the same time. At the beginning of the 90s, grunge, the beginning of the indie label, the do-it-yourself scene really exploded.
Curtis: There are some bands now that are getting really big that aren’t on a major label. Arcade Fire, Spoon; Phoenix is great.
Has technology and the do-it-yourself mentality created a beautiful disaster of sorts for the music industry? Is it harder now to break free of all the horrible music constantly churning out?
Aslan: I think it’s becoming more challenging now for the listener rather than the artist. We have to have more discerning fans now that these things are becoming so readily available. We need people to go out to shows and have some virtue in musical taste.
Sean: I definitely believe in the whole “video killed the radio star;” I think that applies to the internet. The internet loses the fun of music.
Curtis: But you wouldn’t have the opportunity to hear a lot of things that were really good. If things were the same way they were 20 years ago, Arcade Fire wouldn’t be the top-selling independent band of all time. Everything back then, you had to fall into the system.
Sean: I just sort of liked listening to music when I was a kid and imagining what these guys look like. Now there’s internet, blogs; there’s no mystery anymore.
Curtis: It’s a double-edged sword. Over the past ten years it’s been steadily changing. Nobody really knows what works anymore.
Aslan: The reason there’s all these press items about the scene’s going downhill, record sales are down, is because nobody cares about major labels and major labels can’t figure that out. They can’t figure out how to adapt to the situation. Look at the success of iTunes; that’s clearly the direction music is going. I don’t know why more labels aren’t setting up their own distribution sites, making online catalogs of their artists where you can buy music. For a label you could even do a subscription-based thing and download for lesser fees, artists on their labels. I’m not a label executive, but somebody’s got to do something.
Without thinking, who is the ultimate American band or artist?
Rett: Johnny Cash.
Curtis: Bruce Springstreen.
Aslan: I’m going to go with the Jackson 5.
Sean: Creedence Clearwater Revival.
What’s the next step for you guys as a group?
Curtis: Fading away. (laughs)
Aslan: We’re just finished our CD; we’re doing a tour in the winter some time. We’re looking at going north; Sean’s from New York and we got some friends helping us out, passing out music. We’re just looking at going up the east coast and back, see what happens.