Currently based in Trenton, noise rock/no wave/experimental rock/art punk outfit Joy on Fire — founding members John Paul Carillo (guitar), Anna Meadors (saxophone), spoken word artist Dan Gutstein (vocals) and a drummer — can trace their origins to Baltimore‘s art scene, where the band’s founding members originally met and started writing material together.
“Baltimore is a city where musicians of different stripes come together quite readily. With the art college (MICA) [Maryland Institute College of Art] up the road from The Peabody Conservatory, trained jazz / classical musicians come together, in the city’s Station North Arts District, with self-taught musicians who bring other artistic disciplines into their music, a Talking Heads vibe,” Joy on Fire’s John Paul Carillo writes in a statement about Baltimore and its influence on the band. “In my case, while Anna was at Peabody, I was at The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, getting a degree in fiction writing. Anna and I met in a basement jam session, and the band began then. We still play the first song we ever wrote together, ‘Red Wave,’ which finally appeared on 2021’s Unknown Cities.”
Meadors’ background as a classically trained saxophonist collided with Carillo’s love of experimental art rock and punk and creative sparks immediately few between the pair. “I knew pretty early on that a career in classical saxophone wasn’t for me; I met John during my sophomore year [at the Peabody Conservatory], and the world of weird rock music opened up for me,” Meadows writes. “I had been listening to this Terry Riley album for saxophone quartet and vocalist, Assassin Reverie, and fell in love with it, and John introduced me to the music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, as well as the bands Morphine and King Crimson. There is this saxophone solo on King Crimson’s ‘One More Red Nightmare‘ that changed my life, it is so visceral, and it starts with just a long trill that is so simple and so perfect for the part. When Joy on Fire started, I was able to use the techniques I learned from jazz improvisation over this big chordal electric bass sound that John has, and it was such a thrill.”
Since those early jam sessions between Carillo and Meadors, the band has expanded to a quartet with the addition of Gutstein and a drummer while being remarkably prolific, releasing five full-length albums: 2015’s full-length debut The Complete Book of Bonsai, 2017’s Fire with Fire, 2019’s Hymn, last year’s Unknown Cities and Another Adventure in Red, which landed at #7 on Concrete Islands’ Albums of the Year list for 2021.
The Trenton-based outfit has toured up and down the Eastern Seaboard to support their recorded outfit with stops at Burlington Discover Jazz Fest, Boston’s The Middle East Café, Baltimore’s Metro Gallery, Asheville’s Asheville Music Hall and Shapeshifter Lab.
Joy on Fire’s seventh album, the Carillo and Meadors-produced States of America is slated for a June 11, 2022 release through their longtime label home Procrastination Records. The album’s material can be traced to a joint writing session between the band’s Carillo and Gutstein, which quickly “grew into monsters” as the duo turned loose song structures, ideas and lyrics into fleshed out songs. Most of the album’s material was recored at Princeton University‘s Studio B, where Meadows is currently a Ph.D. student in Music Composition.
The album will feature previously released singles “Anger and Decency,” “Thunderdome,” which originally premiered on Bob Boilen’s All Songs Considered and “Uh Huh,” which has an accompanying video that’s an official selection at 14 film festivals across the world, including LA Rocks Film Festival, London Rocks Film Festival and was a winner at the Obskuur Ghent Film Festival.
States of America‘s latest single “Selfies” is a neurotic, New Wave-meets-No Wave-meets-art punk ripper centered around a menacing Stooges-like groove, thunderous drumming, Gutstein’s sardonic, spoken word lyrics about the emptiness and vapidity of social media narcissism paired with Meador’s saxophone skronk and wailing that initially creeps its way into the arrangement and builds up in intensity as then song ends with an explosive and chaotic coda. The song captures the relentless need to be liked, seen as cool, successful and popular that’s inspired by the social media age in a way that’s startlingly accurate yet wildly hilarious.
“‘Selfies’ began with a riff I had hanging around for a while, a riff that has a bit of a Stooges vibe, especially with the reverse delay on it, and when lyricist / vocalist Dan Gutstein joined Joy on Fire, I arranged it for vocals,” Joy on Fire’s John Paul Carillo writes. “Dan has some great lines in it, displaying his edgy sense of humor: ‘Happiest,” goes the refrain, ‘we were happiest / Lying to each other.’ The piece is a critique of narcissistic culture, with ‘Love is like gazing everywhere / Catching an echo with your hands…Why not, why not, why not selfies!’ The impossibility, emptiness, and sadness of trying to catch an ‘echo with your hands’ is (not) relieved by taking selfies, would be one interpretation. Often in Joy on Fire songs, saxophonist Anna Meadors begins the song or at least jumps in pretty quickly. This time, she lays out for the body of the song, and then just kills it over a vamp that drives to the end of the tune, with Dan then sneaking back in, like the sax has driven him mad: ‘La-la-la-la-la Selfies!’ The wild saxophone is a further Stooges connection. The acidy vibe that Iggy Pop asked for from Stooges saxophonist Steve Mackay — Anna certainly has it here, and then some.”
The accompanying video for “Selfies” continues in a similar vein as the video for “Anger and Decency,” with heavy amounts of visual distortion and manipulation atop footage of the band performing the song and fittingly cuts to a number of video selfies.