FISSURE by Joe Billy | INTERVIEW
Author: Sean Manuel
Some musical elements remain relevant in perpetuity. These include chord progressions like the harmonically-seminal I-IV-V (i.e. The Isley Brothers' "Twist and Shout," Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds," or Buck Owens's "Act Naturally"-among many rock 'n' roll, blues, and gospel works) and the colloquially-dubbed "doo-wop" I-vi-IV-V (i.e. The Marvelettes' "Please Mr. Postman," Dion DiMucci's "Runaround Sue," or The Police's "Every Breath You Take" - among others). Wielding a "dusty old acoustic guitar" in 2016 and mastering several chord voicings, Clifton-based acoustic punk artist Joe Billy honors the harmonic tradition and keeps his progressions easily-accessible; however, his sophisticated lyricism tackles societal issues and renders his original output piercingly effective. Fissure, Billy's first full-length album release since 2018's Don't Mind Me, marks a radical departure from his previous three albums. While the previous albums feature Billy performing solo on vocals and guitar with light auxiliary percussion, Fissure features dynamic arrangements from the Joe Billy Collective: a full ensemble composed of two guitars, bass, drums, violin, and trombone. Inspired countermelody efforts on violin, trumpet, and trombone augment Billy's signature sometimes-cynical-others-whimsical prose to create a complete package indicative of Billy's artistic maturation. Prior to the Joe Billy Collective's February 5 show at Rockwood Music Hall (196 Allen St., New York, NY) commemorating Fissure's February 6 release, we caught up with Joe Billy.
Congratulations on the forthcoming album release! Tell us about the Joe Billy Collective and Fissure. How did the Joe Billy Collective and Fissure materialize?
So my solo project, Joe Billy, originated in 2016 after I got fed up with trying to form my
own punk band, to no avail. For one reason or another, it just became hard to find band
members that would want the same thing out of it as me. And so after some time I just
said "ynow what, I'll do it solo".
But then after a few years of doing that, and becoming somewhat established, I had this
craving to add more elements into my music. So I asked a few friends of mine to be my
band for one of my birthday shows in 2019. Every so often we would have a show like
that, but then eventually it became a much more desired thing to do, both from myself,
and from those who have played with me. The reason it became more of a "Collective"
than a "Band" is because I understand everyone has stuff going on. We're all working
musicians with our own lives and not everyone's always around. So as time has gone
on, I've found more and more musician friends that want to play the occasional show
with me. So depending on the date and who's around, different members play different
shows, and thus became the "Joe Billy Collective." There's only been a couple shows,
in fact, that have been the same lineup of members!
As for "Fissure" it was pretty much the same thing; I wanted to not only take my live
shows to the next level, but also my released material. The songs I ended up writing for
this album needed far more instrumentation and musicianship than I could do by myself.
While I was still able to track the drums, the guitars, the lead vocals, and a couple songs
on bass, I hired some friends who play in the collective to add their own layers to the
album on instruments like Violin, Upright Bass, Trumpet, and then some.
Your past album releases entitled Censor This (2016), Let 'Em Fall (2017), and Don't Mind Me (2018) feature you performing solo on vocals and guitar with auxiliary percussion as needed. Can you compare-and-contrast your creative process between your previous efforts and Fissure's full ensemble effort?
While I did still write the songs myself for "Fissure," I think the main difference was what
I had mentioned about wanting more. For the first couple years of Joe Billy, I was
completely content with just doing what I can all by myself to see how much I can do
with a song with just my voice and my guitar, and some extra layers. I also had this
intense desire to just get my art out into the world that I didn't care AS much as I do now
for how it sounded or if I considered it "perfect" or anything. I just wanted to do
SOMETHING. And so I think after 3 albums of doing that, and experimenting with a
song like "We All Die Eventually," I wanted to really take it up a notch haha.
What aspects of the full ensemble were empowering?
Honestly for what it's worth, this album is the best collection of material I have ever
written thus far. I am super proud of where I've gotten both as a person, and as a
musician, and that is apparent with these songs. The meticulous process of carefully
thinking about every word and every note and being completely honest with myself and
others about how it feels and sounds was quite different and an incredibly fun and
reflective experience. Plus the songs are just so fun to play, tracking them on any
instrument I tracked, or sang, was just fun the whole time haha. And it was so awesome
to bring my friends into that fun. When we would do tracking sessions we just had ideas
bouncing around like "Oh what if you did this, or this, or what if it sounded like this?"
There was a lot more opportunity to be creative with the songs.
Did you face any new challenges?
Well, the main one definitely would have been 2020 as a whole haha. We started the
process of this album, I believe, in very late 2019. Then in March, at the end of the week
that we had finished tracking all of the acoustic guitars, our state went into lockdown.
And at that point, there really wasn't much that the producer and I were able to do apart.
All of the songs were written, I had already decided on what my other parts were going
to be. So we were just kind of stuck, waiting to be able to meet up again. After a longer
amount of time than we hoped, we started it back up. But even then we had some
challenges. For instance, Billy Smolen, who tracked most of the bass on the album, felt
more comfortable recording from home, so he sent us a bunch of different takes and we
took bits and pieces from each one that we felt fit each part. Which, to his credit, still
turned out great, it was just more editing.
Any other obstacles really stemmed from me personally, as this was the first time I had
been trusting this many people with my own music. From production, to instrumentation,
to even some lyrical editing, that was for sure a personal exercise for me.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Dropkick Murphys-esque opening track "Here I Am, Vulnerability," for you make the unconventional choice to highlight the acoustic bass and violin in devoted instrumental sections and (for the violin) a melody above your lead vocal. Can you expand on the rationale behind that choice and tell us about the inspiration behind the song?
Oh I love that song. I think it's legitimately my favorite song I've written yet. Lyrically, it
comes from reflecting on my own personal journey I've been on, unpacking many of my
habits and tendencies and getting to the roots of some issues I've dealt with for much of
my life. All the while, having this reassurance that, while it will be difficult, I do have the
power to make things better.
As for the instrumentation, I felt this topic needed a very intense and chaotic feel to it.
So I pulled a lot of inspiration from bands like Flogging Molly and Larry and His Flask for
instance. The more I listened to the demo, given its very celtic vibe, the more I felt it
needed an upright bass and violin, which turned out SO much better than I expected.
That song would have sounded pretty different with an electric bass I think. And the
violin parts that Jason Biggs added on really gave the song the higher pitch energy it
needed, it really made the song "scream" in a sense.
A somewhat deep cut: "Fuck My Pride." The song is "vintage Joe Billy" featuring you on lead vocals and acoustic guitar. Is there any continuity between this song and "Pride" from your debut album Censor This (2016)? Does "Fuck My Pride" expand on "Pride?"
That is a very good and interesting question! While I didn't have any conscious effort of
correlating the two, now that I think about it more, they definitely derive from a very
similar place. My older song "Pride" is all about how pride can lead people to caring
about no one but themselves and in turn leaving the whole world to waste while they
stay comfortable in power; in their bubble. And "Fuck My Pride" is honestly not too
different. I think it expounds on more nuance than the first song, I think it asks more
questions, and demands more reflection from the listener, and I think it gives a good
amount of food for thought on how much control we actually have over certain things.
From what I remember, "Pride" was more of a direct accusation to the people who
embrace the effects of prolonged narcissism, while "Fuck My Pride" offers more of an
honest and vulnerable pondering point about our own, including my own, human
conditioning and where we decide it will lead us. That song was originally called "Fuck
Your Pride" actually, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I also get caught
in my own toxic forms of pride that lead me to being selfish or close minded, and so it's
a moment of vulnerability, as with much of my music, to say "I'm an imperfect human
just like you, but we can try to be better together.
In your December 19, 2020 Bassey Noise feature, you explain the drums are your primary instrument; however, lineup troubles motivated you to exclaim, "fuck it, I'll learn a few chords on guitar and just try it solo!" I find your guitar performance highly-percussive. Does your drumming background factor into your approach to rhythm guitar?
Absolutely! It's funny, I've gotten that a lot over the years, where if someone
compliments my playing they'll say "Wow your right hand is so fast!" or "You're such a
percussive guitar player, it's like I can hear drums even though there aren't any." So yes,
that was one of the main things I had early on, because I didn't know much about guitar
at all. Hell, to this day I probably don't know as much as I should haha, but it's always
been about the energy for me. Plus being inspired by bands like Days N Daze and
Mischief Brew helped me understand how much is possible with very little. It goes back
to the "how much can I do with just this one guitar to get the message across."
You're a self-described "acoustic punk" artist. Describe the genre mix within this designation.
Growing up on punk rock, I always wanted to start a punk band, as I said, and it's
always been a type of genre that resonated with me a lot. When I play punk music, I feel
I can get not only my message across, but my emotions, my energy, my passion, etc.
When I picked up the acoustic guitar and started learning, I was also discovering more
and more "folk-punk" artists, which many people consider me as well. And while I'm
totally fine with that, because it does make sense, I never wanted to limit myself too
much in terms of what kinds of songs I will end up wanting to write. I know I will always
write what I consider punk music, to some extent. But I also try to write with a very open
mind of what will work for the song rather than what will work for a certain sub-genre. I
felt giving the description of "acoustic-punk" describes what I do enough without putting
myself too much into a box. That's why I have songs like "Half Here" or "Bad Habits" but
then also songs like "No Sympathy." But for all I know, maybe I just wanted to be a
What artists do you actively channel through your music?
Frank Turner, Mischief Brew, Against Me, AJJ, Days N Daze, Anti-Flag, Flogging Molly,
Alkaline Trio, Larry and His Flask and then some. I like drawing inspiration from a lot of
different bands and artists, but those would definitely be the most inspirational for me.
Tell us all the details about your February 5 Fissure release show at Rockwood Music Hall!
Oh I'm super excited about that show! I recently got in contact with someone at
Rockwood, and since I don't really have much footing in NYC yet, they were telling me
about their "Stage 1" which is their smaller, donation based room. Where bands can
basically book a 45 minute set for themselves, and it's free to get in. Not even thinking
about it, we confirmed the date Feb 5th, the day before "Fissure" is fully released on
Feb 6th! So I thought, why not make it a "Pre-Album Release Show?" So at 6pm, the
collective will be performing "Fissure" in its entirety for the first time EVER. Some of the
songs have never even been played live yet, it's going to be awesome.
What plans do you have for 2023?
Plenty! We already have some awesome shows coming up, which you can stay up to
date on through my site or socials. I definitely plan on putting together some touring
because I miss touring so much. I recently just signed on with Dirty Scoundrel Record
Collective as one of their artists, so I'm excited to see what kinds of new things will be
possible through them. We've already been working on physical copies of "Fissure" to
be available at shows. I have another birthday show here in NJ on March 24th, which is
always a good time. And most likely new music, new merch, and new collaborations in
the not too far future! I already have a bunch of new songs ready to be fleshed out. So
ya, lot's of new and exciting possibilities coming this year!
What is the best way for your audience to connect, interact with, and support you?
Folks can find me on social media @joebillymusic, and you can also find pretty much
everything that has to do with "Joe Billy" on my website, joebillymusic.com.
In terms of support, folks coming to shows, like that means the world to me, it's so nice
seeing people at shows. But even so, any amount of listening or purchasing or support
you give my music is so appreciated, I really can't keep doing this without you all.
Is there any other information we should know about?
I actually have an email list as well, which is a great way for people to get direct
announcements and updates on Joe Billy things. You can find a way to join on my site, it
pops up and tells you. Or feel free to just message me, my DMs are always open! And
again, thanks so much. I'm endlessly grateful for those who support me in any way, and
for people like Sean who allow me a chance to ramble about myself for a bit! Much love
Joe Billy is the angsty introspective soundtrack to your everyday existentialism. His acoustic punk style sound is taken to the next level with intelligent lyricism, energetic and upbeat music, and passionate authenticity. With intent to provoke thought, open your mind, and feel like you belong somewhere in this crazy world, his whimsical, self-aware cynicism and uplifting compassion bring you in and unify us all. Established in 2016, Joe Billy has since released three full length albums, a live EP, and several singles. Recently, he has been releasing new singles every three weeks that will eventually culminate into his fourth full length album, "Fissure," which will be fully released on February 6th on all streaming platforms and for purchase on his website, Bandcamp, etc. Come join the fun, and welcome.
About the Author: Sean Manuel is a Senior enrolled in New Jersey City University's Honors Program. A Music Business major, Sean specializes in the piano and bass guitar. Outside of academia, Sean performs in and manages the Bayonne indie-pop group BreakTime: a four-piece writing modern pop tunes with generous vintage allusions to artists such as The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. Are you interested in their music? Follow BreakTime @breaktimelivenj and stream their releases on all platforms.