It's a Trip" is all over alt-rock radio right now. The lead single from Joywave's new album, Content, kicks off with laid-back guitars and an underriding tension that builds into a fist-pumping, stadium-stomping chorus. The band sounds bigger than ever, like it's got a ticket stamped for headline slots at music festivals.
But the indie-rock quintet out of Rochester, New York, hasn't lost the sense of humor apparent in so many of its music videos. The one for "It's a Trip" shows the band riding jet skis and getting noticeably older (thanks to gobs of makeup) in every cut, while a bikini-clad woman on the back of frontman Daniel Armbruster's ride preens and flips her hair around even as the entire band dies and turns into skeletons.
"We suggested having a quote-unquote babe who stays the same age while we get really, really old," Armbruster says. "And I liked that — it feels a lot like touring."
Armbruster spoke to Riverfront Times as the band geared up for the second leg of its U.S. tour in support of Content, released in July. Joywave is slated to play the Firebird on Friday, November 24.
Armbruster says it's always a surreal experience to hear his own band's songs on the radio, but he tends to listen with a nitpicky producer's ear. "I'll usually leave it on, but I'm always worried about how the radio compressor is changing the mix and the master," he says. "I obsess over the technical side of things."
That's not to say Armbruster is a perfectionist in the studio — at least, not anymore. During recording sessions for Joywave's first major-label studio album (2015's dance-groovy How Do You Feel Now?), he was painstakingly meticulous: "I was very much like, 'Is the mic in the right position? What adjustments do we need to make? Am I professional now?' The further we got into the process, the more I realized the imperfections and the things I wasn't doing right led to a more unique sound."
Now Armbruster fully embraces a looser style of recording. For instance, on "It's a Trip," he recorded his vocal overdubs directly into the preamp, without any sound-proofing. "It's good enough and gets the idea across," he explains.
As the band's principal songwriter, Armbruster lays out the basics for each instrumental part with music production software and presents it to the other members. "I give them something to listen to and they play it much better than I do," he says. He developed that approach after years of working in bands where the creative process was much looser — like, someone would play a guitar riff and everybody would add instrumental pieces around it. But in those situations, Armbruster says, everybody usually tries to shine at once.
"When everyone is trying to play the coolest thing on top of each other, you're really just making a giant, cloudy mess," he says. "So it requires a certain level of restraint we didn't have when we were younger; everybody was trying to be in the spotlight. That's what led me to do things in the computer. Not being the world's greatest guitar player, I'm not concerned about shredding or making some kid say, 'I've gotta learn that song on the guitar.' Everything is serving the song I'm writing."
When it comes to composing, it helps that Armbruster has a diverse instrumental background. He started playing piano in third grade and learned the flute, bassoon and guitar in the years leading up to high school, where he met most of the future members of Joywave. The band went through several iterations due to its incestuous relationship with several other indie groups in Rochester, taking on its current form in 2010. But even before then, Joywave was drawing interest from music agents and other industry reps.
"Record-label people started appearing in my life around 2007 and were always telling me I was doing it wrong," Armbruster recalls. "For a few years, I was like, 'These guys are professionals; they know what they're talking about.' But the actual answer was that they didn't — and everything I did was failing." After a few years, he assumed that Joywave's music wouldn't go anywhere whether he listened to the "professionals" or not, so he started doing whatever he wanted. "If you fail that way," he says, "you still have your pride, you know?"
Eventually, the labels came calling and Joywave signed to Hollywood Records, which has granted the band total creative independence. Now, with its tracks popping up on radio stations across the country, it feels like the band is on the cusp of something big, and Armbruster finds it all exhilarating.
"This is what we've all wanted to do for more than half our lives now," he says. "I wouldn't want to be doing anything else."