Interview with Joy on Fire: The Joys of Making Music

Members of Joy on Fire
Courtesy of Joy on Fire

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing guitarist John Paul Carillo and saxophonist Anna Meadors of the jazz-punk trio Joy on Fire. Despite losing the ability to gig because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trenton, New Jersey-based band kept busy by releasing a new album, planning another one, releasing an EP, and making several spirited zero-budget music videos.

This was a lively and wide-ranging interview covering their origins, influences, songwriting, and album-making processes, how “joy” influences their music, and, most importantly, cats in music videos.

Nick: The instrumentation of the group is fairly uncommon for a rock band: bass guitar, saxophone, and drums. How did the makeup of the group come about? Was it a matter of, “We have these people who want to start a band,” or were there other influences or reasons for choosing the instrumentation?

John: I was influenced by Morphine, which is a bass, sax, and drum trio that a lot of people love, and deservedly so. We’re big fans of Morphine. I was coming out of a group that was guitar, bass, drums, but I was playing in a certain style where I felt that I could kinda take the rhythm guitar parts and the bass parts on the bass at the same time and just do something different.

So there was the Morphine influence working, but that’s only part of it. Anna walked into my life without me knowing what was going to happen. I wasn’t in the scene searching for a saxophone player per se. I was starting to get into the Baltimore music scene—I’m originally from New York—but I was hanging out with people I knew already. Anna showed up for rehearsal with a different group—I was living with a drummer—and I happened to be home and I happened to hear her play, and I was like, there it is! So after their session, I said to the drummer, “We’ve got to start a trio with Anna as the saxophonist.”

[To Anna] I’m not even sure that I knew your name that first day. I heard it before I saw any of it; they were downstairs, I was upstairs, and I was just blown away. So six months later the drummer, Cory, actually made the call—I asked him because they knew each other—and that’s how we had our first rehearsal. And that was the first incarnation of the band that lasted about a year. On Anna’s part, you weren’t looking for a particular group…

Anna: No, I’d found the band that his roommate/drummer was in on Craigslist. I was doing my undergrad in classical saxophone, and that wasn’t satisfying. I found that band, and that band only played one show and then fell apart. So when Cory messaged me, I thought it was for that band. He said “Hey, come over and jam,” and he didn’t really tell me what was going on so I was like, “Oh, it’s the old band getting back together!” So I show up and John’s in the car, and I’m like, “Hi, who are you?” I think John was surprised that Cory hadn’t said who he was.

John: Typical musician communication! You’re just supposed to start playing, which I guess is what happened once we got there. I remember the first song we played because it’s going to be on our next album actually, even though it’s 12 years old now. Somehow it never made an album. It’s called “Red Wave.” It’s modal, so Anna just tore it up. She doesn’t play the same exact solo 12 years later, but it’s the same vibe.

So it worked pretty quickly, although we’ve gotten to Spinal Tap territory with drummers. We’ve worked with over 20 drummers—not on recordings—but at somewhat serious gigs. A lot of good drummers, but there are so many people that play in nine bands, so we’ve played with a lot of them.

Nick: What is your songwriting process like? Is it mostly rooted in improvisation, or is there a lot that’s worked out beforehand?

John: Usually, there’s a lot that’s worked out beforehand, but some of our pieces have spaces that open up. It might be a three-minute vamp for Anna to solo over in some of the longer pieces, then we decide if it’s a double solo where Anna will overdub another sax part, and after rehearsing that, another idea may develop. But for the pieces I write, I often come in with a full structure, at least to get going. If that changes in rehearsals, great—that means the other musicians are bringing ideas. In the pieces Anna composes for Joy on Fire, most of them have started on MIDI, right?

Anna: Yeah, just like compositions for chamber groups—written-out things. John’s the lead songwriter, and the couple of things I’ve brought in, he hears and he’s like, “Oh, you should make that a Joy on Fire thing.”

John: It’s great to get Anna’s material in because there are different time signatures—I go to the Led Zeppelin/John Bonham beat 75% of the time. Anna is doing all kinds of different things rhythmically and with the drums. I think that on one of my favorite pieces of Anna’s for Joy on Fire, the drums don’t come in for six minutes?

Anna: Yeah, that was one I wrote at UNCG.

John: That’s a piece on our Hymn album, and there are almost no drums on it. It’s a nine-minute piece and there’s like a minute-and-a-half of drums.

Nick: Is that “Rhopareptilia?”

Anna: Yeah, I think I just took the scientific words for butterfly and reptile and smushed them together. But yeah, I wrote that at UNCG for one of the ensembles that came through for composition readings and then reworked it. It was for bass clarinet, sax, and piano.

Nick: That was a piece I was definitely planning to ask you about. As I was going through your discography again, that one struck me as a departure from what I expected. When I think of your music, I think about tension between John’s bass guitar—which is a little more menacing and meaty—and Anna’s much brighter saxophone. Is that a tension that you’re looking to cultivate in a lot of your songs?

Anna Meadors of Joy on Fire playing saxophone.
Courtesy of Joy on Fire

John: Absolutely. Anna has said, “Why are you always writing battle music?” I think that’s a little exaggerated, but I think a lot of our music is narrative in a way. There seems to be a conflict that gets resolved, and there are sections in some of the longer pieces. I think narrative music can mean different things. I think that the tension between the bass and the sax—sometimes we play unison, and that tension changes or even goes away. Sometimes we play unison, and if I put my distortion on, it might blend with Anna’s harmonics, and it becomes one big sound, but then we split off again. So there’s this conversation that sometimes is an argument, and sometimes it’s an agreement. It’s exciting to play with those tensions and those textures, especially in long-form music. I was influenced by King Crimson and some Pink Floyd, and those are bands that do the “menace” thing very well.

Nick: And then Anna, when you take out the bari sax, how do you feel that changes the dynamic?

Anna: I definitely feel that I can honk a little bit more…

John: And it’s more menacing! [laughs]

Anna: Yes, definitely. I think I solo on it differently. Sometimes, back when live shows were a thing, Zach Herchen would sit in with us—he’s a saxophonist I know from Peabody—and we would do double-bari stuff, and that’s super-fun. The more bari the better! On some things, he would play bari and I would play alto, and just having another saxophonist…

John: It’s visually stunning just to see! It was going to be a little bit of a gag, but there was going to be a third bari who was just going to show up for three minutes just to play one of our shorter songs, and we were just going to have three baris. It wouldn’t be musical per se—you wouldn’t need it—but it would just be to close the show with it and have the three big horns on stage.

Anna: If we did that, we would have to do a cover of “Big Bottom,” just to bring Spinal Tap into it. [laughs]

John: There is a sax quartet piece on our Fire with Fire album [“The Spider’s House”]. It comes out of a proper rock song, but all the other instruments fade away, and as they do, Anna brings all of the additional saxes in for about three minutes…

Anna: Isn’t that more like eight-layered? I don’t remember, that was so long ago.

John: Was it really eight parts? We have to listen to it again, I thought I knew it pretty well! That’s good, we’re getting a pretty big catalog—to the point where we’re forgetting songs.

Cover for Joy on Fire's Another Adventure in Red
Cover of Another Adventure in Red, courtesy of Joy on Fire

Nick: Along the same lines, you’ve done a couple of album releases over the last few years. What is your writing process like? Are you taking things over the course of years, do you have more condensed songwriting sessions at points? What is the process of compiling an album like?

John: I’ll try to give an emblematic answer. With our newest album that came out two weeks ago [Another Adventure in Red], it has our second-oldest song on it, which I actually did with a prototype band three years before I even met Anna, and then our newest piece, which is a piece of Anna’s called “After,” which she actually wrote for Rhymes with Opera when it was a one-minute piece.

Anna: And Brian Lampkin of Scuppernong [an independent bookstore in Greensboro, North Carolina] wrote the words for that.

John: Anna let me hear it, and I said, “I think we can turn that into a Joy on Fire piece.” So that’s really our newest piece. So there isn’t a single process. As we start to realize that we have material for another album, we start to think about what else could be on it that would make it a better record. Anna’s piece is a great example. There’s dulcimer on that now—it’s the first time we’ve had dulcimer on a Joy on Fire record, and it’s just wonderful.

Another example: We put out an EP a little bit before the pandemic [Thunderdome], and since we put it out on a 45 record, we were figuring out what to do with the B-side, and we said “Why not remixes?” Those remixes were done with a lot of hard work over a three-week period because we were on a schedule.

So we don’t adhere to only one process. Even when you were talking about improv before, our new record has a piece that actually involves another band named 3rd Grade Friends [“3rd Grade Fire”]. We jammed with them for about three hours, and Anna and I found what we thought was a really good 14-minute section and we did some mix moves to make it more compositional. So it’s like, “Hold on, we have this older idea, would this be good for this record?” You get the foundation of the record together, and then you build on that foundation. We’re almost always thinking about it that way.

Anna: Yeah, I was also just thinking that some of the older albums are things that you had written before the group or things that you had performed live a bunch before even getting into the studio. And then the Thunderdome EP is part of this larger group of songs. Some of it got recorded before it was performed live. That was a much more condensed writing process because it was with Dan Gutstein—the vocalist who joined two years ago now, maybe more. So it kind of depends on what John has written or if we work with someone new, but the process is pretty different. 

John: Some of our favorite groups do both instrumental and vocal material. I think my favorite album by King Crimson has three vocal pieces, three instrumental pieces, and we’re getting to emulate that more and more. The new album has two vocal pieces. I think when vocals get involved, it changes the process somewhat. You make a choice sculpting enough room for that vocalist and figuring out how to let the vocals come through. If that’s what you even want; I was thinking about Sonic Youth the other day and how on some of their records they don’t sculpt any room for the vocalist at all, they just keep the noise going. The vocals get buried, and that’s great, that worked really well for them. Usually, we don’t do that; usually, we create room so you can hear the vocals, and when the vocals lay out, the instruments take over, and then back-and-forth. We want the lyrics to be heard with the lyricists we work with.

Nick: Is it more like improvisation and album-building, where sometimes it feels right and so you add lyrics, or has there been a decision to move towards more vocal pieces? 

Anna: I guess one of the first things we did with vocals was “Night Sticks,” and that was an instrumental tune for a while, right?

John: We played it live instrumentally a lot, and I think live, it worked as an instrumental. It’s a verse-chorus arrangement, and I just felt that the right vocal part could make the song better. We reached out to a singer that we were working with in a different band called Three Red Crowns, but she couldn’t really find the vocal part, and that’s when we reached out to Brian [Lampkin] to write lyrics. I guess we just sent him a demo.

Anna: We sent him a recording, and then he had them pretty much written out. I think he did them with us once and rehearsed them with us as a spoken-word part. He came up with something immediately, and it just worked so well. We love those lyrics. So that was the first thing, and we recorded that a while ago, but it’s finally officially out. But then there was a big gap between it and other vocal material.

We met Dan maybe three-and-a-half years ago at a show. He was playing with a D.C. band that we shared a bill with. John and him hit it off immediately and started working on some stuff. John drove down to D.C., so I think that process was a little different because the songs weren’t set yet.

John: Dan sent me the track “McFlurry” by the British duo Sleaford Mods. Our list of inspirations—bands we love and music we love—is obviously an important part of the band. There’s a lot of instrumental music in there, but there’s a lot of vocal music, too, and there’s a lot of bands that do both. The live performance of that song is particularly great, it’s really vibrant, performative, aggressive in a way that’s enjoyable—I wouldn’t say threatening, but very in-your-face, a little bit muscular, but very funny, too. A lot of their stuff is one- or two-riff songs. When a one-riff song works, I really like that.

I just started messing around with the bass. I came up with a riff that I thought would work, and we just kept texturing the riff differently, and gave Anna a two-minute solo [laughs]! So that kinda started our path of working with Dan, and Dan and I wrote the majority of the album—six songs out of nine—in two sessions. The future of Joy on Fire is both in instrumental material and vocal material. I have some pieces that I know are instrumental, and double sax—I want to get Zach involved again. So there’s not one process. We’re not going to write the perfect pop song.

John Paul Carillo of Joy on Fire with cat sitting on an amplifier
Courtesy of Joy on Fire

Nick: You’ve also released a few music videos in recent years. Have these been your first forays into making music videos, and what has that process been like?

Anna: “Night Sticks” must have been the first one we did, and then “Punk Jazz” was the second one, so there was a big gap in between those first couple videos. When we started working with Dan, his brother and sister-in-law—Mark Isaac and Gabriela Bulisova—are video and multimedia artists, so he asked if they would make something for us. They’ve graciously made two videos now and are starting a third, so we’re really grateful to them. The first video they did for us was for “Uh Huh,” and they made a really powerful video.

After that, Chris, our drummer, knew a director and filmmaker through his job, Damien Davis, and he made the video for “Thunderdome.” That was filmed here in the apartment. That was a super-fun process, it was very different. We’re not in the one for “Uh Huh,” it’s all kind of found footage and animation, and the “Thunderdome” one is more traditional. Once we had those we were like, “We want to make videos for a lot more things.”

John: We filmed one four days ago in the room we’re sitting in. We turned it into a cheap movie set. We cleared all the furniture out, and we got the cat involved in the video! We actually got her to be in the whole video, with a little editing magic, too. I grew up on MTV, back when they had music videos, I’m not even sure what MTV does anymore! But when I was watching they had good shows like 120 Minutes which had some interesting bands on smaller labels. So I grew up on it, so to come back to videos and with YouTube being the format, the nice thing is that you can do things with no money sometimes, too. The video we just did is probably going to cost basically zero. We had to pay the cat in food!

Anna: John wanted the cat to be in every scene, without really thinking about what that would be like! And then the funny thing is that she was sitting on the amp while we were setting up, and that’s what he wanted it to do for the video. So of course before we’re ready, she’s sitting on it, 10 minutes without moving. We get started and she jumps down immediately.

John: No noise was being made, the amp’s not on, we’re playing to the pre-recorded track, she just sensed it! The pay scale was too low! [laughs]

Anna: I think it turned out OK. I just started learning how to edit videos last year because I made a simple video for “Hymn” for fun since that seemed like everyone was doing, since there were no live shows. We’re working with a couple of other people to make things, but we’re trying to DIY it.

John: Counting ourselves, we’re working with four different video artists, which is cool because we get different takes on it. Some are hands-off, like “Uh Huh.” Our singer, Danit was his brother and sister-in-law—so he talked to them about certain ideas, but we didn’t give any ideas, we just said go with it. I had a one-page script for the video for “Thunderdome,” and then the director Damien Davis and I worked on it and changed some things up, and Anna also made some changes before I even scripted it because the original idea took place outside and it was cold [laughs]!

But yeah, having different people do videos is really cool because you get different textures, different styles, and different ideas. When we do it ourselves, we have to rethink the space we live in: How can we turn this into a movie set? How can get away with one angle being the majority of the video? I think that the video Anna did for “Hymn” was the perfect video for that song—that’s the feeling of that song. I find that a less menacing piece. There’s a lot of nature in the video. My favorite videos—this is not very profound—bring out the music—the overall feeling, the structure, or both. For the videos that we’re doing ourselves, that’s where the initial ideas are coming from. Let’s bring out the music.

Nick: You have a lot of “sequel songs,” where sometimes across multiple albums there will be “Parts 1 and 2,” or the title will be similar, like in “If 3 was 8” and “If .3 was 8 Billion.” What is some of the thought behind some of these sequel songs and behind some of the naming decisions that you make around them?

John: I’m glad you mention “If .3 was 8 Billion,” because that was just a lot of fun. The second part of that was an in-studio process. The song I’m going to talk about is “The Complete Book of the Bonsai,” Parts 1 and 2. I used the same bass chord to get both pieces going, and I felt that there was enough personality in that bass chord that even though the songs go in different directions, there’s the feeling of how each one begins—there’s enough similarity that they seem to be of a sequence. Structurally, they both have three big parts, so there’s a structural similarity, so just to me, it made sense to use the name to point out the similarity.

Anna: There’s also something funny about “The Complete Book…Part 2,” that’s just a dumb joke thing [laughs].

John: There used to be a “Complete Book of the Bonsai Part 3,” but Anna was like enough of that, so we’re going to change the name of that. I think I might just call something “The Complete Book Part 4,” but leave the bonsai out!

Anna: Naming instrumental pieces is so hard. Whenever I write a composition, I’m like, “John, can you listen to this and help me come up with a title?”

John: She never uses my suggestions! She’s just weeding out the bad ones!

Anna: I used one, but then I took it from this one piece and gave it to another one [laughs]! But whenever we’re doing a show and I’m like, “This one is called whatever,” it feels weird to say that this instrumental song has this title…

John: In all seriousness, you start to understand “Untitled #7.” Anna and I are both fans of what people like to call minimalism, and that naming gambit is something easy to make fun of: “Music for 18 Musicians,” “Music for Changing Parts.” They say “Nothing changes in Philip Glass’ music, haha, why’d he call it that?” Jokes aside, I really like those names. It’s kinda like…

Anna: It’s just about the music, and you can come up with your own story for it.

Nick: You’ve gotten some really good publicity lately through NPR, with “Thunderdome” premiering on All Songs Considered, and you have a Tiny Desk concert scheduled, right?

John: We had a date, but it got canceled because of COVID. We’ve spoken to Bob [Boilen, host of All Song’s Considered], and he said he’s going to reschedule everybody, so we’re in the books, but we don’t have a new date yet.

Nick: How exciting has it been to see that relationship develop with a major outlet like NPR?

John: It’s great. We want the music to be heard, and the video component, since that’s a part of All Songs Considered, is cool. That kinda gave us a little kick in the ass to make more videos.

Anna: Yeah, the first time we were on there we didn’t have one, and we were the only band on the blog without one, and we’re like, “We’ve got to get on this.” I’m so grateful that he featured two things on there. We met because we shared a bill with him and Dan’s band in D.C. I was so nervous to meet him, to be honest, because we kind of knew ahead of time that he might be there, and then I saw him and we were talking, and he was like “I’m Bob Boilen, you may…” and I’m like “I know you!” [laughs] Luckily I didn’t scare him away.

Nick: Anna was telling me that you have some live shows coming up. Obviously, you’re excited to get back out there?

John: Yeah, we have a show in Ocean City [Maryland] in June, and that’s a real show with real people there. First time playing Ocean City.

Anna: I used to go there as a kid every summer, so this will be fun for me to reminisce. I have no idea what to expect, but I feel that way about every show. We never know how people are going to react to long-form instrumental music.

Nick: My last question—I’m not sure that I’ve come up with the best way to ask it. I guess…what has being in a band based on “joy” been like during a really pessimistic era in our history over the last five years? I know that’s a meaty question…

Anna: That’s such a great question. It’s funny, I think that yes, a lot of our music is intense, and maybe some of it has more battle-y sounding things, but I think like John said, there’s a lot of narrative, and I think there’s a lot of celebration of making music. There’s just the joy in being loud and in-your-face and having sections that are a little more open and reacting. Everything is structured out, but when John opens it up to solos, we can really feed off each other.

John and I have played with each other since 2009, and then Chris, our drummer, for several years, too. You get to the point where you know what the other people are going to do. We could come in, even after not playing for a really long time—even before the pandemic, if we went a couple of months without shows if things got busy—you come back, and it just feels like returning home. You get to just shout through your instrument with these people that you love. It just feels great! I think it comes across in the music—I hope it does. People usually tell us that they like the name, so that makes me feel a little bit better about it.

John: Sometimes they ask if Anna’s name is Joy [laughs]! Along with what Anna is saying, I don’t think that art should always respond exactly to the times. The pandemic came, does that mean that the group has to drop its whole aesthetic? That doesn’t make sense to me. But on the other hand, with Trump, we responded directly to certain political issues with lyrics.

Anna: Dan is just so good at that kind of thing, too. He just did such a good job.

John: So “Thunderdome” has a political element, “Uh Huh” has a political element, both of the videos brought that out to an extent, but not only—there are other aspects. For the “Thunderdome” video, we build a sort of mural on the wall as the video goes, and there are political figures—some of whom we’re against, but there’s also John Coltrane and Jamie Muir from King Crimson.

All of these things still exist; to try to get an exact angle on the world, like, “Here it is,” for me, isn’t exactly how it works. I think we all felt the depression, but I felt more of the depression that to me, Bernie Sanders was unjustly shoved aside. To me, as depressing as Trump is, the fact that we had a candidate of that ethical caliber pushed aside by the system twice…if I wrote lyrics, and I’m not good at it, so I rarely do, but if I wrote lyrics, I might try to write something about that, because if there’s something that I want to speak to directly, it’s that. You know, the problems in this country go beyond Trump, obviously…

Anna: Yeah, the pandemic highlighted everything that has been wrong all along, and people say, “Oh, maybe things will get better,” but…I think we all want things to get better, it just feels hard when Wall Street…

John: I don’t know if you’re watching these Adam Curtis documentaries on the BBC. They’re very much worth checking out. But yet another thinker who has really said that the bigger problem is the financial industry. He points out politicians who maybe had a good idea, and had their minds and hearts in the right place for a moment, but the financial industry just steamrolled them.

When it comes to Joy on Fire’s music, I think that we can joyously celebrate that we’re angry at some of these things. Like Anna said before, I think that the lyrics—at least for the way that we write—are the better way to get at that. The way I write, I pick up a guitar or bass and I start something, and if I like the way it sounds, and feel like I can develop it, I do. I’m not sure if there are politics in my chord or texture choices, at least not in a conscious way. But then when we work with Dan, he might hear an inkling of something where we’re talking about a band we both like, whether it’s the Mods or an old Clash song or something, then that can come out in the lyrics, and I think that’s wonderful.

There’s plenty to say politically lyrically, and there always will be. We’re excited that that’s part of the music now, because political punk is part of the music.

Note: this interview has been edited for clarity and concision.

Written by Nick Luciano

Nick Luciano received a Master’s in Music Theory from the University of North Carolina Greensboro. An avid film fan, Nick loves Tarkovsky, Tartakovsky, Tchaikovsky, and everything in between (stylistically that is, not alphabetically).

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