During the peak of its popularity—the late '80s and early '90s—the New York band Too Much Joy made its mark marrying slick rock to a healthy mixture of brattiness and earnestness. Consequently, its career highlights are all over the place: Among others, there's the catchy (and strangely sweet) pop single "Crush Story," the supercharged anthem "Longhaired Guys From England," the jokey college-radio staples "Drum Machine" and "Take A Lot Of Drugs," and an inspired cover of LL Cool J's "That's A Lie." But Too Much Joy faced a strange contradiction as its career progressed: Some felt the band lost its sense of humor as its musicianship and production values improved, while others had already dismissed it as a novelty before hearing its slick, more musically accomplished later material. Now on a sort of hiatus, TMJ just released a collection of B-sides and outtakes called Gods & Sods, while most of its remaining catalog has fallen out of print. Frontman Tim Quirk, today the managing editor of the music web site listen.com, recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about his band's status and stories, from its infamous arrest in Florida to its curious (and temporary) endorsement by Newt Gingrich.
The Onion: Is Too Much Joy still together?
Tim Quirk: Too Much Joy will never break up. It may never make another record and it may never play another show, but that doesn't mean we've broken up. It sounds funny, but it's actually true. I mean, I'm in California and the other guys are in New York, so it's tough to schedule dates. Our new idea is to do a Branson thing, pick one place to play, and have the world come to us. Only the people who are still really interested would actually do that.
O: Your last few albums have been compilations and reissues. [Gods & Sods was preceded by a 1998 reissue of the band's limited-edition 1987 debut, Green Eggs And Crack. —ed.] Is there any intention of doing another record?
TQ: I don't know that I'd go so far as to call it an intention. It's different now that I'm in California when everyone else is in New York. There's still new stuff that hasn't come out, and there are the new songs that Jay [Blumenfeld, guitars] and I keep planning on getting together in L.A. to record. Bill [Wittman, TMJ's latter-day bassist] always wants to deal with Jay when Jay's in New York, and Bill sends me tapes, and I send him lyrics, so it's not a no. It would take a large number of interlocking occurrences for it to happen. I'm not trying to be diplomatic or anything; the thing is, if you go out and say, "Oh, we broke up," and then you feel like playing a show later on, all of a sudden you're like The Who. Who wants to be The Who? I want to be The Who in 1965, not The Who in 1999. I think in a way it's more respectable to keep going and sort of slow down.
O: There seem to be two schools of thought on Too Much Joy: There are the people who think, "Oh, the band was really funny, and then they got good musically and were no fun anymore." And then there are people who think, "Oh, their early stuff is really obnoxious and then they got good."
TQ: I feel both those ways, you know? [Laughs.] I mean, I really do. It depends from song to song and what kind of mood you're in when you put 'em on. But it's not like we started out wacky and then some tragedy occurred in our lives and we got all serious and mopey. I think we just became better at balancing the things that were always there and emphasizing the ones that were proper to emphasize at the right time. Also, you know, you think a lot less when you're younger, probably because you're more wasted. At that particular time, we were very suspicious of being pretentious. As we got older, we just learned to accept our pretenses and nurture them. [Laughs.] I mean, coming out of indie-rock, it's hard to remember what rock was like in the middle of the '70s—although we're getting back there now—but everyone was so pompous, and there were all these millionaires making really bad records. They weren't rock; they were simulations of rock. And then everyone just tried to get back to the basics, first with punk, and then in different ways in the indie scene. Especially after The Clash kind of imploded, it was like we'd been burned so many times believing that rock actually could change the world and do something. You wanted to believe it, but you also knew it was a pathetic joke, so we had filters up. It was really important to us that everything we said was true, and we were sincere about that, but any time we said anything, we had to second-guess ourselves and take another look at it and see if we were becoming the assholes we hated.
O: Well, you guys put out a couple of very slick rock records.
TQ: We were always trying to put out slick rock records. Even the crappily recorded stuff on Green Eggs And Crack was our attempt at being slick.
O: It's interesting how the late '80s and early '90s are littered with the corpses of bands that started out being funny and then alienated everyone by going serious—Dead Milkmen, King Missile, bands like that. Were you ever mindful of falling into that trap?
TQ: It's weird: Even before we got signed to Giant, we'd have long drunken philosophical conversations about the band, what we were trying to do, and what we could possibly achieve. And Giant's A&R guy was one of the early ones telling us not to emphasize the humor. At the time, I was always like, "Fuck you, that's bullshit, I'm tired of hearing people say that. Sometimes we feel like being funny, and we're gonna be funny. Sometimes we feel like being serious, and we're gonna be serious." The weird thing is that I refused to print the lyrics on the original issue of Green Eggs And Crack because, by the time the record came out, I was embarrassed by them. For the most part, they're heavy-handed, pretentious poetry crap. Not that I ever sat down and tried to write a poem, but there's some very undergraduate stuff on there. Most of it is just so mediocre that all that really jumps out are the gags. There's other stuff going on, but I just wasn't very good at it yet. We went out of our way to convince [Cereal Killers producer] Paul Fox to let us record "King Of Beers" and "Longhaired Guys From England." We just thought they were going to be novelty songs, but you get people around you saying, "This is bad for your career. Don't do that." And at the time, you're like, "No, you don't understand, this is an important side of the band." But as we went along, there were more and more times when other people in the band would say no to those things. It's not like I stopped writing them, and it's not like I totally disagreed; they'd go along with it more often than not. I have a soft spot for jokey stuff when it's done well. If it's so stupid that it becomes transcendent and beautiful, or if you write something and you're like, "Okay, I know I'm gonna hate this the 100th time we play it, but it's gonna be really good for 99," I lean that way. The thing that makes me wary about cracking jokes is that, with certain people, it's all they're going to remember. Those people are going to be impossible to impress anyway; they just think serious things have to be serious, and you must take them seriously. I can't stand people like that. I'm glad they don't like my band. Although, at the same time, I'll do interviews where I'm having what I consider a long, serious, philosophical conversation. Then I'll read them after the fact, and I'm like, "God, I sound like a frat boy." I sound like some shallow guy who's just cracking jokes when at the time I felt like I was being totally pretentious.
O: It's probably necessary to ask you
about bits of Too Much Joy lore. What was the deal with Bozo The Clown?
TQ: On the vinyl release of Son Of Sam I Am, we wanted to drop in samples from various things. We didn't have any samplers or anything, so we just directly scratched the stuff off the turntables onto our master tapes, and one of the things we did was off an old Bozo The Clown record. It was the perfect introduction to the song "Clowns," because he said, "And then I found something in one of my pockets. It was about as big as your shoe, but it was shaped like a rocket." We didn't make this shit up; Larry Harmon actually said this on the record, and it was sold to kids. It was frightening. That was back before Biz Markie got sued, so you didn't need clearances for anything. You could do whatever the fuck you want, and we dropped it in. It was the type of funny thing that got mentioned in various reviews and interviews, but what we didn't know was that Larry Harmon was apparently kind of vain, and has kept a clipping service going for all these years. Whenever there's a mention of Bozo, he gets it. So he [hears about] it, and not only is he vain, but he's also very litigious, believe me. After this happened, I heard all the "Bozo sued me" stories, and there must be a thousand of them. I guess he's got a lucrative little sideline in licensing the name out. Anyway, his attorney sent a cease-and-desist letter to Alias [the band's label at the time] saying, "You can't print any more of those albums, and we're gonna sue you if you do." Luckily, it just so happened to be at the time when we were doing the deal with Giant, and part of the deal with Giant was that Alias couldn't sell any more records anyway, so my understanding for years had been that it just worked out nicely and we said, "We cease, we desist," and that was the end of it. But it turns out, I learned after the fact, that we actually had to pay him. I'm pretty sure it was $200. [Laughs.] We had to settle with him for $200, and then we had to cut it out of the Giant release. It's weird, because you'd think that would make the vinyl version actually worth something. But it's worth nothing.
O: Let's see, TMJ lore… How about the 2 Live Crew thing?
TQ: Well, we were mixing Cereal Killers, which means the producer and the engineer were in the studio and we were all watching Star Trek: The Next Generation in the lounge. I guess a commercial came on, we flipped to MTV, and we found out police in Florida had busted a record-store owner and then busted 2 Live Crew when they played a set, and it was on MTV News. There were all these people giving these editorials about how it was censorship and it was wrong, which—duh—it is. It was like, "Hello, Florida, are you part of the country or not? What the fuck is wrong with you? How hard is it to read the constitution?" But we're sitting there, and it seemed so hypocritical, all these people writing editorials in Variety and Billboard and shit, and everyone there already agreed with them. It's like, "You're not doing anything except making yourselves feel better." We were having this conversation around the TV and somebody, I'm pretty sure it was Sandy [Smallens, former bassist], said, "We should go down there and do a set of 2 Live Crew covers at the same club." And we all kind of laughed, because it seemed like a goofy idea, but our publicist was hanging out in the room. She heard that and went, "You guys have to do that." And she started getting really excited. I feel weird saying this, because there was always this perception that it was a publicity stunt, and in one sense, we probably wouldn't have done it if the publicist and the record company hadn't gone, "Yeah, we'll pay for it. Do it." There was certainly that aspect to it, but it wasn't the motivation. So we started talking about it some more, and the idea was to have a whole bunch of bands go down, like Red Hot Chili Peppers and Sonic Youth, Too Much Joy, and so on, and we'd all go down and everybody would do one 2 Live Crew song and the police would have to arrest 10 bands. They'd have to take 100 people to jail, and that would have been really cool. We sent out the press release, we sent out physical invitations to other bands, our manager was talking to other bands' managers, and all these people kept saying it was a great idea. So we booked the club and got the date, but no other band would commit. Two other bands had committed, but they were basically our level or smaller, and we really wanted the big names to come down. But there was a lot of this, "Yeah, yeah, see you there, man," and it just never materialized. We're like, "Well, do we call it off or just go do it ourselves? Oh, what the hell, these songs can't be that hard to learn." We did the same thing we'd done with "That's A Lie," where we turned rap songs into rock songs, so we played five 2 Live Crew songs and "That's A Lie" and "I Fought The Law" by The Clash and a few others, and we got a ton of press about it. We were going on all these talk shows and doing all these interviews with big-ass publications, being absolutely 100% sincere. I mean, I'm really proud to be an American, but not for any of the reasons that most people who say they're proud to be an American are proud to be Americans. I love the Bill Of Rights, but most Americans don't. And that's really true. I read this one thing in a newspaper once where they showed people the First Amendment and asked them where they thought it came from. More people thought it was part of the Communist Manifesto than thought it was part of the Bill Of Rights. That's just fucking scary. Anyway, I was getting kind of bummed out, because all these people were accusing us of being publicity whores. And I was like, "Don't they understand? This is really important. Nobody's doing anything. They're just writing editorials, and someone has to take action and show the world how dumb this is." So we went down and did it. And, look, we're little suburban kids, and the prospect of going to jail—even though you have ACLU lawyers behind you and you're not gonna spend too much time in there—is kind of scary. We spent the night in jail, and the hilarious thing was that there was this big holding pen with a TV, and we were heroes by the time we came in. Everyone was like, "You know Luther? Me, too, I'm down with him." One big convict stole Sandy's milk. Apart from that, it was relatively painless. It's weird: I had to transcribe the 2 Live Crew songs, and I'm here to tell you, they are crap. They have almost no redeeming value. They're just bad. They're dumb, they're not intelligent. They don't shine a light on anything, really; it's just poorly done and poorly made. What offended me the most about it wasn't the curse words or the way they talked about women; it was just the lack of any gleam of intelligence in it. It was just, "Hello, we're stupid, and if you buy our music, you are stupid." But that doesn't mean it doesn't have the right to exist. And actually, after spending a night in jail, I was like, "Wait a minute." After getting out, even though it was just for, like, nine hours out of my little ivory tower, I realized that everybody there was talking just like those lyrics I wrote down. In a weird sense, it became clear to me that while people thought they were offended by the language and the attitude and the cussing, I don't think they were. I think it was more like, "Oh, my God, this is a segment of society that we ignore. It gets pushed into sections of our cities and our states and we don't have to deal with it, and that's the way we want it to stay. But once you get a record like 2 Live Crew becoming popular, and you start getting glimpses of this aspect of American life, you're like, "That's not us! Get it out of here. I don't want anyone to hear this." It wasn't like they were trying to outlaw bad language; they were trying to outlaw a subculture. I felt that pretty strongly in jail. It was important to me, and that's why I'm going on about it for so long. Also, I really think it was inspired. It was the type of thing Too Much Joy always aspired to. It was funny, but it made a serious point, and it wasn't something anyone else would do. That's the type of thing we always try to do. We were successful a very small percentage of the time, but in that one instance, I think we nailed it.
O: Did you guys really feed hamburgers to Steve Vai's vegetarian dog?
TQ: Yeah, and I'm proud of that. People can do whatever they want, and I can make fun of them—that's America—but you cannot torture your pet. If you make a dog have a diet that's unnatural to a dog, that's torture. Dogs eat meat.
O: Did Steve Vai find out?
TQ: If he ever read any of our press, I'm sure he did, but I don't think he really followed Too Much Joy's career very closely. Steve Vai was on tour with Whitesnake when we were at his house. But his wife, who used to be in Vixen, was there most of the time.
O: Did she object to you feeding the dog meat?
TQ: We only did it when she wasn't looking. The only guy who knew was the administrator, the guy whose job was to run the studio. He was this nervous type: On a sitcom, he'd be the guy who was always going crazy that things were out of place, and then the wacky rock band would come in and do things behind his back. I think he's the only one who ever saw us, and we just looked at him like, "You can't do anything."
O: Now, you were detained by the Secret Service?
TQ: Oh, yeah. That was a really weird night. It was in D.C., and there were Secret Service men all over the club. There were lots of rumors, like, "Who is it? Is it the Gore girls? Maybe it's Chelsea. Who's here?" We heard the prime minister of Bulgaria, we heard the prime minister of Bolivia. The crowd was talking about it, and everyone was talking about it backstage. So we come out on stage and, you know, we've got egos. It's sort of distracting when you come out and you expect everyone to be looking at you, and you see these guys stealing your thunder, wearing sunglasses in this dark club and little clips in their ear and stuff, standing with their hands behind their backs and their legs spread. I was like, "People have to look at me!" We open with "That's A Lie," and it's one of those things where we always try to tell a different lie during the song every night, to sort of make it site-specific, so this seemed like a perfect opportunity. When we got to the stop, I started riffing about how you could see these Secret Service folks all over the place, and there were lots of rumors about who they were there to protect. And I said, "A little-known fact about the Secret Service is that they're allowed to arrest anyone who threatens the president. But Secret Service men have no sense of humor, so I'm going to explain to you that this song is a joke and the reason it's funny is because it is called 'That's A Lie.' And we say many things that are outrageous, and then we say they are a lie, and you're allowed to make jokes about hurting the president. So, if I were to say something now…" And then I did this long, political drunken speech about voting for Clinton the first time and hating his guts now and basically wanting to kill him. "There's nothing you can do to me, because the band would then say…" And with absolutely perfect timing, they kicked in, and everyone says, "That's a lie," and we finish the song. It was this really beautiful moment, and then I got arrested. Well, not arrested, but detained. They had the decency to wait an hour and a half until the set was over, and then I got taken into a room and interviewed for close to an hour by a guy who was pretty cool and wanted me to not leave town. I was like, "We're on tour!" He's like, "Well, give me a number where you'll be tomorrow." I was like, "I'll be in Columbus, Ohio. I'm sorry I can't stick around." But I had this really long, intelligent talk with him where he was like, "Are you on drugs?" I said, "No." He goes, "You looked pretty crazy and drunk up there." I said, "I had a couple beers before I went onstage, but you see how much I'm sweating. I'm dead sober right now." He wanted to know if I'd ever considered suicide, if there was any history of mental illness in my family, stuff like that. It wasn't that hard to convince him that I wasn't a threat to Bill Clinton at that point. The one weird thing was, he goes, "Well, you did threaten to kill the president." I said, "No, I said I wanted to slap him silly." And he goes, "Yeah, you said that, and then you went on a bit longer." I went, "I did?" He goes, "You said you wanted to strangle him until he was dead." I was like, "Oh, I don't remember that. I guess I got a little carried away." [Laughs.] I really didn't remember that at all.
O: What was this about "Theme Song" being a GOP fight song?
TQ: Oh, God, you're pulling out all the old ones. This is another true story. We have a diehard Too Much Joy fan who worked for the Republicans in 1994, when they took over Congress. He's more of a Libertarian, but he loves the Republicans. He was working for the Republican committee to help get congress re-elected, so he was constantly in meetings with Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey and the steering committee and all these people. There are a lot of these young, idealistic, ambitious people with lots of energy in Washington, and they get used by these old, evil scumbags. One night, Newt Gingrich was giving this rallying-the-troops speech where he was talking about how they were going to bring change. He was saying how some people said he was a destroyer, but that he wasn't a destroyer; it's just that sometimes you have to knock things down in order to build something newer and stronger and better. This guy, who's a big fan, got all excited and said, "Wait a minute, I have the perfect song for this occasion. He runs out to his car, gets Cereal Killers, runs back in, and starts playing "Theme Song." [The chorus: "To create, you must destroy / Smash a glass and cry, 'Too Much Joy'" —ed.] And, according to him, everybody loved it and basically put it on repeat. They kept playing it and playing it and swaying arm-in-arm and throwing glasses into the fireplace and singing along with "Theme Song." So he came up to us at a show in D.C. one day and told us this story. I just looked at him and said, "That's beautiful. It's also bullshit. Get out of here." I walked away and he came after me, like, "I swear to you, it's true." I said, "Bring me proof." And he goes, "What do you want? I can get you a letter from Newt Gingrich." I said, "Okay, if Newt Gingrich writes me and says he knows the words to 'Theme Song,' I'll believe your story." Three or four months later, this guy comes backstage and hands us each a letter from Newt Gingrich, thanking us for helping them win the congressional elections in 1994, and specifically mentioning "Theme Song" and the line, "To create, you must destroy." We promptly leaked it to the press, sending them all copies with a little press release saying that Newt Gingrich probably hadn't listened to songs like "Take A Lot Of Drugs." Then Gingrich had to back out; he never said anything personally, but his office had to say, "No, no, no, he didn't sign that." But we had the letters with his signature and the seal. I think it got reprinted in Time or something, which was pretty cool. But, again, no one had really heard from us in a while. We were touring behind a new album, but the thing that gets us in the magazines is Newt Gingrich.