Grief and gratitude go hand in hand on Joywave’s fourth record Cleanse, and perhaps that combination was unavoidable. The Rochester alt-rock trio’s previous record, Possessionarrived on March 13, 2020, and as frontman Daniel Armbruster tells American Songwriter, “It was dead on arrival.”
The band’s tour in support of that record was nixed as COVID-19 lockdowns went into effect, and the trio—rounded out by guitarist Joseph Morinelli and drummer Paul Brenner—found themselves in a position they hadn’t been in since they started touring full -time, in 2014: home for an indefinite window, free from the demands of constant travel. Naturally, they used the opportunity to craft another record, and that record has finally arrived nearly two years into the same that dampened Possession‘s rollout.
Armbroster regards Cleanse First and foremost as a gratitude album, but the final product is equally gloomy and glistening. This is the type of record where a can-you-believe-how-lucky-we-are pop-rock anthem (“We Are All We Need”) gives way to a dark, dreamy new wave number inspired by a German television drama (“Goodbye Tommy”). “I had all this unstructured creative time and was alone with my thoughts as the world was falling apart around me,” says Armbruster, reflecting on the period when he wrote these songs in 2020. For the Rochester native, it was a period marked by despair (about the state of the world) but also joy (about being able to do what he loves, with people he cherishes).
Armbruster spoke to American Songwriter from his home in upstate New York about slowing down during the pandemic, trying to make sense of the tragedy, and why he’s excited about Joywave’s upcoming tour.
American Songwriter: You released your previous record just before the world shut down due to COVID-19. What was that like? Are you able to promote it or support it at all?
Daniel Armbuster: Honestly, we weren’t…. It was dead on arrival, which was pretty disheartening. We spent close to two years making it. We had done this really big tour with Bastille just before, where we were in all these big venues and it was going really well and I felt like we were really building something. It all got washed away, which really sucks, but Cleanse kind of came out of that because I had all this unstructured creative time and was alone with my thoughts as the world was falling apart around me.
And also, interestingly, with most of our records—and with Possession – we had these long periods of time to write. We’d thumb through like 40 demos and be like, we gotta have this one, we gotta have this one. We had just done that with Possessionso to turn around and make another record really meant starting fresh in a way that we hadn’t done [before]. For the first time, it really felt like a snapshot of the exact creative moment of the band. Whereas with previous records it was like, here’s where I was at for this year and a half.
AS: What are some of the main features of that snapshot?
DA: A lot of our first few records are, I’d say, a little complain-ier. [They are about] things I didn’t like in life growing up, or things I didn’t feel were going right for me. And this one is a lot more grateful. There were just so many things that I couldn’t appreciate in the moment before because I slept for three hours or was on a redeye flight or was pumping Dramamine to try to not throw up while in motion. And, when all that went away… As I said, I’m from Rochester, New York. Music has taken me all these places and given me all these experiences and I’ve met all these amazing people that I would never have if it weren’t for that, so there was a weird sense of gratitude as the world was ending.
AS: Are there any songs where you really hear that quality of gratitude?
DA: Yeah, a bunch of them. “Cyn City 2000,” for sure, is a song about comparing yourself to others and letting go of that, and finding in that. The song “We Are All We Need” is [about] letting go of the chip on your shoulder and being grateful. Me and Paul and Joey have been making music together since high school, so to be on this journey with your high school friends is really amazing. It’s something you shouldn’t lose sight of. There are moments where it’s like, oh, today kind of sucks, or this didn’t go our way, but [in the] big picture, to still be doing what you were doing when you were 16 years old is amazing.
AS: I’m glad you brought up “Cyn City 2000.” It has this refrain, “I don’t want to be cynical.” How do you fight that impulse?
DA: Oh, man. Mental gymnastics… It’s really easy to feel sorry for yourself or that things never work out. But you’ve got to look at all the times that you beat the odds. What are the odds that we’d be doing what we’re doing now, being that we’re from the 52nd largest metro area in the US, you know? The odds are, like, zero, and we’ve been able to do that. So the times when that [cynicism] creeps in, you’ve got to tell yourself, no, I’m really, really lucky. Before the band started to do well I was working at Staples. That was not cool. Now I don’t have to do that.
AS: That perspective is huge. Do you hear that gratitude sonically, as well?
DA: Yeah, I think so. There’s some more major-key activity happening on this record. “Cyn City 2000” is probably the prime example of that. I think all of our music has some societal observations to it as well, and that’s certainly still present, but I think previously those observations were in there and it was like, “Doesn’t that suck?” And this time it’s kind of more agnostic. Like, yeah, all these things are wrong and terrible, but again, I’m in this fortunate 0.000001% of people who have ever lived. I get to live my dream – that’s incredible.
AS: How else would you compare the sound of the record to your previous ones?
DA: I think it’s a lot more consistent, just because it’s happening all in the same moment. The definitely pandemic put some personnel restrictions on us where the drummer and I were able to quarantine and then get together wearing masks to track drums for a couple of days early on, but Joey, the guitar player, had to communicate over Zoom because his son was in school…
And I think there’s this thing that you can hear on the previous records of us sitting in a room and trying to make each other laugh, and when that happens saying, okay, that’s definitely staying in the song. There are these winks here and there. I think of the song “Destruction” [from How Do You Feel Now? (2015)] or the song “FEAR” on the last record. We were laughing hysterically making them. That didn’t happen this time because I was just sitting alone in the studio. It felt like there was a lot to be grateful for, but maybe not as much to laugh about.
AS: What does the title Cleanse evoke for you?
DA: A purification process of washing the dirt off. We started touring full-time in 2014 and we were pretty much on the road – with breaks on the schedule to work on a record here and there or get a few songs done – pretty consistently from 2014 [until] the pandemic. [Cleanse] is washing away everything from before and emerging out the other side ready for whatever’s next.
One of my first jobs was working in a carwash, and I had this 1980s Oldsmobile that my grandma gave me when I was old enough to drive and it’s the car that me and Paul and Joey all became friends in. So I thought about us, in that vehicle, going through the carwash and coming out the other side, ready to go.
AS: What do you make of the darker songs on the album?
DA: I think it’s me trying to make sense of the chaos, but maybe not be engulfed by it. One of the darker moments is definitely “Goodbye Tommy.” I got really into this show called Deutschland 83 during the pandemic, and there was this episode where there was this Pulse nightclub shooting-type event and it really hung on me for days. I couldn’t shake it. We were in Paris shortly before the Bataclan attack happened in 2015… A virus happens, right? That’s something that happens however many years. You hope that what we’re going through now is something we go through every once in a hundred years, but if you look at history, you’re like, okay, that’s a thing that happens. But then you get those events like [the Pulse nightclub shooting or the Bataclan attack] and you can explain it in an infinite number of ways and none of them will ever make sense to me. It just hurts… so [the song is] trying to make sense of that through this fictional narrative.
AS: Do you often use a fictional lens to write?
DA: I actually almost never do. That’s one of the very few times in the catalog. It’s the only song on the record [that was written that way], for sure. Everything else is very “I have noticed…” or “I am grateful…” in my own life.
AS: You mentioned that your last big tour was with Bastille. When was that? Do you have a different vision for your live show now?
DA: That was in the fall of 2019. We haven’t been able to do a headline tour in a really, really long time. The pandemic was obviously a wash. But I think the last true headline tour we did was in 2017 or 2018. We’re up at least one room size since then, so there’s more we can do with production. Last time we were headlining it was pretty close to put-your-stuff-on-stage-and-play, and there’s a backdrop or some minor level of production. I don’t want to say exactly what we’re doing yet, but we’re trying to bring some of the visual elements of the record to life for the tour.
Cleanse is out now via Hollywood Records. You can stream it here and order it on vinyl here.