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Life In A Whirlwind: Mt. Joy Discuss Their Startling Rise

Wednesday, 15 August 2018 Written by Simon Ramsay

Until a certain streaming service turned their lifelong musical fantasies into a reality, the members of folky Americana quintet Mt. Joy were on a very different path indeed. To retool an old saying, life as they know it happened while they were busy living other best laid plans.

The band’s story began in Philadelphia with Matt Quinn (vocals, guitar) and Sam Cooper (guitar), two high school friends who enjoyed playing music together during their formative years. After attending different colleges the pair ended up living in Los Angeles, doing jobs they weren’t fond of simply to pay the rent. Yet their passion for music remained and offered the duo a temporary escape from the drudgery of the rat race.  

Tunes such as Sheep, Cardinal, Jenny Jenkins and a quirky lil’ ditty by the name of Astrovan were created and placed on Spotify. To their amazement the latter exploded, notching a million streams quicker than you can say ‘we resign’. Which is exactly what Matt and Sam did.

Intent on realising latent teenage dreams that had never really died, they immediately made music their full-time pursuit. Bassist Michael Byrnes, drummer Sotiris Eliopoulos and keyboard player Jackie Miclau were recruited to round out the line-up of a band who subsequently began an intensive period of touring. Mt. Joy soon opened for acts like the Shins as well as landing prized slots at Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and Newport Folk Festival.

Back in the spring they released a self-titled debut album featuring sprawling, passionate indie-coated songs bursting with post-adolescent authenticity and drenched in gallons of soul. Amid their ongoing tour plans - firstly a run in North America along with an autumn trip to the UK and Europe - we spoke to Quinn about the band’s growth and what it's like to be at the centre of such a life-changing set of circumstances.

Going back to your ‘big bang’ moment, what was the exact point you realised Astrovan had taken off?

I was working a full-time day job and was also doing law school. I remember preparing for the first final, or mid-term of the semester, and trying to check the number of plays Astrovan was getting. It just reached this point where it was 60,000 plays a day and it was like ‘I could either take this test and dive into this further or I could jump into the music thing.’ I marched into the admissions office, dropped out of school and that was the moment I decided to go for it.

How did things progress once you made the band your priority?

We spent a few months writing and recording and, ultimately, the record that’s out now is a product of the Astrovan thing, in terms of realising we had to make more songs and then tour. We’ve hit the road pretty hard ever since, learning that lifestyle and improving our show. We’ve been lucky. The Head and the Heart Took us out. They play to pretty big theatres, at least in America, so our first five or six big shows were with them. We’ve had the opportunity to see bands who’ve had a lot of success do their work and it’s been really helpful for us, learning how to build our sets and make our shows as exciting as possible.  

Was there a feeling you had to get other songs out there swiftly after Astrovan so you didn’t just become a band with only one number everyone wants to hear?

Totally, especially because that song’s pretty tongue in cheek. There was this fear of just becoming a jokey band like Flight of the Concords, who I love, but we felt the other music we were writing wasn’t necessarily all funny turns of phrase. So we wanted to get other songs out there quickly. Fortunately we had some other stuff ready and it wasn’t too hard to come up with the rest of the album.

What was it like to be in the middle of such a whirlwind?

It was pretty crazy. Diving into the music world, if you’re connected to the non-music world, you have to let it go completely, which can cause a lot of stress. It can be good but letting go of a lot of stuff you previously did creates, like you said, a whirlwind in your life. Ultimately, I think it’s all been really good but it definitely was a big change.

It’s everyone’s dream to be in a band that makes an early breakthrough, but is the reality as wonderful as that or has it been difficult to process and accept?

I think it’s like anything else where you allow yourself to be super zoomed in and only see the trees before the forest, or whatever that cool thing is I just butchered. Then it becomes pretty mundane at times with all the driving and travel and can be pretty tough. There’s not a whole lot of glamour in that but we do sometimes get to step back. Like when we walk onto a stage and it’s a sold out place in a city we’ve never been to, like London, that is surreal and the dream part of it. There’s definitely two sides and it’s a balancing act, trying to keep everything in perspective.

Many bands grow together over time as they pay their dues and fight for their elusive big break. Do you feel you’ve skipped that step?

I guess it’s been a year and change since we’ve been touring heavily. It does seem like a long time sometimes but it’s been a relatively short amount of time compared to what some bands go through. It feels organic for us. We’ll go through a city and, to see that many people in some of these towns, if it’s the first time we’re there, is pretty surreal and we feel super fortunate. There is this part of us, for all of us, having been in bands our whole lives, that feels like we did pay our dues in bands that never quite made it.To finally have something happen so fast, it’s been pretty crazy.

There wasn’t a vision for the band when you penned your first few songs. Did you have to come up with some kind of musical direction on the fly or was it just a case of writing as much as you could and then seeing what came out?

I think the latter. We put our heads down and wrote and the goal in everything we do is to keep it pretty simple, in terms of trusting our instinct about what we think are good songs, good sounds or good parts. Whether it’s for a live performance or for the studio, the best song, part or arrangement always wins the day. It’s trying not to overthink certain thematic things. There was no intention of making some sort of concept album. We were trying to put our best foot forward and that was the focus.

With most of the album being written after things took off, did you use the songs as a way of processing what was happening to you?

Totally. Like I said earlier, there’s so much that changes in your life when you jump into a business that has you travel so much. In music those changes happen quickly and a lot of the songs we came up with were reacting to what was happening around us. The daily anxieties of going through a significant change is definitely a theme that, not by accident, but in an unconscious way, is all over the record. Just in the sense that it was our moment of going for something professionally and I think that’s a classic coming of age tale.

Your record boasts a very immediate, spontaneous feel. How did you capture that?

With the help of our producer John Gilbert, who engineered it as well. We’d track as much as we could live because we were recording in a room in his garage and then running cables out to his living room. So that created a unique vibe. It’s sort of this classic garage recording but John’s so talented he was able to make his garage sound like a studio.

Who are your influences, because listening to your music I suspect they’re quite eclectic?

One of the really helpful and good things about this project is that everyone comes from a bit of a different background. I mostly draw from ‘60s, 70s folk stuff. Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Neil Young, that sort of era of music. Jackie is more of a jazz and classically trained piano player so she has a certain flair. And I think just various different types of contemporary music and it all comes together when we throw ideas out and creates a cool eclectic mix.  That’s something we’re constantly trying to do. Create something, stand back and be like ‘how can we turn it on its side just a little bit, or make it unique?’

You’re regularly described as folk and Americana, but I hear a lot of soul on the record too. Particularly Julia, which has a touch of Al Green in there.

Yeah, maybe I left that out. That’s a huge influence for all of us.  I grew up listening to a lot of that music and around the making of the record I got into all different kinds of soul and Etta James and was living in that world at that time. I still am.

Many of the songs aren’t concerned with doggedly following conventional structures. It feels like you have a story to tell and you’ll say exactly what you need to, in exactly the way you need to, and then move on.

The way I’ve come to write songs is, at times, trying not to get caught in the verse chorus verse chorus thing. Although that may be the best way to tell a story, just try to think of whatever it is you’re trying to say and say it in the most interesting possible way.

I’m Your Wreck is a case in point. Although it doesn’t sound the same it reminds me of Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road because of its forward momentum and the way it progresses without being tied to a central hook.

Thunder Road is one of my all time favourite songs. There’s something really cool about being able to leave those conventions behind and he was a master at that. So that’s high praise. I think someday we can write a song that feels more comfortable in comparison but that song, the idea of stitching two different parts together, is something we thought could be cool and we were pretty happy with it.

It also has one of my favourite lines on the album ‘monsters in my closet, using up the wi-fi’.  What’s the story behind that one?

Just the anxieties of so many things changing at once. Trying so hard to focus on the music because it feels like there’s this opportunity to ride and to have your dream be realised, but you have all these other things taking up the bandwidth in your head.

Sheep is an angry track but also defiant and rousing too. I believe it’s a protest song?

That pre-dated Mt. Joy. In Baltimore there was the death of a black man named Freddie Gray at the hands of the police and it sort of started what ultimately became – and remains – an epidemic in the United States regarding police brutality towards people of colour. Right as Mt. Joy started writing for the record the election was in full swing and ultimately Trump was elected President, as everyone is painfully aware, and it evolved into a larger protest at what felt like people swallowing an ideology of hate. Something that was a greater voice against all the stuff that was going on.  

What’s it like living in Trump’s America?

I think it’s affecting a lot of people and it’s definitely an embarrassment, a national and international embarrassment. It’s rare that you meet and talk to someone who’s really on board with what he’s doing. But obviously they exist. In November we have some big elections coming so hopefully we can start to turn things around and make it a better world.

A lot’s been said about how artists don’t benefit financially from Spotify, but for you guys the benefits of that service have been priceless.  

We’re certainly big fans and supporters of Spotify. It’s given us the opportunity to work on building a career in music. I think everyone, in anything they do, would like to be paid more and maybe there’s a conversation to be had about finding ways for artists to make more money in streaming. But in terms of the impact it can have on an artist’s career, in a way I just don’t think would exist without it, it’s definitely a really positive thing for music.

What’s your game plan going forward now, in terms of how you plan to keep building on that early success and how you’d like your music to develop?

We’ve been putting our heads together and adding more, whether improvisation or playing outside of the arrangements on the record, to the live performance. Just trying to have a really dynamic performance so that someone who enjoys the record gets even more out of coming to a show. Beyond that, continuing to – fingers crossed – keep playing bigger and bigger shows like we’ve been able to do in the States and keep writing.  

We just recently added a new song to our set and we’re really looking forward to eventually getting - I don’t know when - off the road for a little bit and starting to complete some of the ideas we’ve been working on. What we want the second record to sound like?  I don’t know that there’s necessarily a concrete thing but I know we’ve all grown as players and as writers. We love the songs on the first record but feel like there’s something much greater within us that we’re excited to bring out for the second.

'Mt. Joy' is out now on Dualtone.

Mt. Joy Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Fri August 17 2018 - SAN FRANCISCO California - Independent (USA)
Sat August 18 2018 - LOS ANGELES California - Troubadour (USA)
Thu August 23 2018 - CLEVELAND Ohio - Beachland Ballroom (USA)
Fri August 24 2018 - FISHERS Indiana - Nickel Plate District Amphitheater (USA)
Fri August 31 2018 - SEATTLE Washington - KeyArena at Seattle Center (USA)
Thu September 06 2018 - CHICAGO Illinois - Thalia Hall (USA)
Fri September 07 2018 - MADISON Wisconsin - Majestic Theatre Madison (USA)
Sat September 08 2018 - SAINT FRANCISVILLE Missouri - Festival Plaza on the Upper Muny Grounds (USA)
Mon September 10 2018 - DETROIT Michigan - Shelter at Saint Andrews Hall (USA)
Tue September 11 2018 - BUFFALO New York - Tralf (USA)
Thu September 13 2018 - BALTIMORE Maryland - 8x10 Club (USA)
Fri September 14 2018 - PHILADELPHIA Pennsylvania - Union Transfer (USA)
Sat September 15 2018 - BURLINGTON Vermont - Waterfront Park Burlington (USA)
Tue September 18 2018 - BROOKLYN New York - Music Hall Of Williamsburg (USA)
Wed September 19 2018 - NEW YORK New York - Bowery Ballroom (USA)
Tue September 25 2018 - PORTLAND Maine - Port City Music Hall (USA)
Wed September 26 2018 - BOSTON Massachusetts - Royale Boston (USA)
Thu September 27 2018 - WASHINGTON District Of Columbia - U Street Music Hall (USA)
Sat September 29 2018 - CARRBORO North Carolina - Cat's Cradle (USA)
Mon October 01 2018 - RICHMOND Virginia - Broadberry (USA)
Tue October 02 2018 - CHARLOTTE North Carolina - Visulite Theatre (USA)
Wed October 03 2018 - ATLANTA Georgia - Terminal West At King Plow Arts Center (USA)
Thu October 04 2018 - BIRMINGHAM AL Alabama - Saturn - Birmingham (USA)
Tue October 09 2018 - DALLAS Texas - Cambridge Room at House Of Blues - Dallas (USA)
Wed October 10 2018 - HOUSTON Texas - Bronze Peacock At The House Of Blues - Houston (USA)
Fri October 26 2018 - NEW ORLEANS Louisiana - City Park (USA)
Tue October 30 2018 - GLASGOW Poetry Club
Wed October 31 2018 - MANCHESTER Jimmy's NQ
Thu November 01 2018 - LONDON Hoxton Square Bar and Kitchen
Sat November 03 2018 - SOUTHAMPTON Heartbreakers
Sun November 04 2018 - BRIGHTON Prince Albert
Mon November 05 2018 - PARIS Les Etoiles (France)
Tue November 06 2018 - BRUSSELS Witloof Bar (Belgium)
Thu November 08 2018 - AMSTERDAM Paradiso (Netherlands)
Fri November 09 2018 - COLOGNE Artheater (Germany)
Mon November 12 2018 - BERLIN Badehaus (Germany)
Tue November 13 2018 - MUNICH Orangehouse (Germany)
Wed November 14 2018 - ZURICH Bogen F (Switzerland)
Fri November 16 2018 - NYON La Parenthese (Switerland)

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