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Across the Universe

Joywave’s new album a cleansing trip through the car wash

joywave members crop
Evyn Morgan
Photo provided
Joseph Morinelli, Daniel Armbruster and Paul Brenner of Joywave.

Haven’t we been here before?

Yes, we have, we have been in exactly the same place. Twenty-three months ago, and the release of Joywave’s then-new album, “Possession.”

Now the Rochester indie-rock band is back at it, with a new, new album, “Cleanse.”

“The genesis of this,” Daniel Armbruster says, “is coming home in March 2020, and ‘Possession’ is dead on arrival. And half of our record label is furloughed, and there’s no one available to even work it. And obviously people are worried about, ‘Am I gonna get sick? Is my family gonna be OK?’”


“Possession” remains a smart, well-executed recording with a handful of brilliant moments: The stunning “Like a Kennedy,” complete with its haunting video of alternate takes on the JFK assassination. Yet, given the poor timing of its release, “Possession” is now a black hole in Joywave’s catalog. “Like, it’s not interesting when the whole world is falling apart,” says Armbruster, the band’s main songwriter and peripatetic lead singer.

So when “Cleanse” is officially released on Friday -- and given we’re closing out the second year of Life Under COVID -- what’s changed?

Perspective. Perhaps that should have been the alternate title for this fourth full Joywave album, a collection of songs that reflect the constantly shifting landscape of the past two years.

The Rochester band opens its national tour in support of “Cleanse” on Feb. 26, with a show in Pennsylvania, and wraps it up in its hometown with an April 8 show at Anthology. These plans are drawn with caution, bearing in mind that Joywave’s 2020-21 tour was mostly wiped out by COVID, with the exception of a handful of outdoor dates. Including the final night of last September’s KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival, when Joywave played a free show for thousands at Parcel 5.

The COVID numbers may be declining, but we’ve been fooled before. The Fringe Fest was fortunate in that its scheduling lined up with a decline in COVID numbers. Then the numbers shot up again. So, Joywave finds itself plotting an album release and tour in the midst of “peaks and valleys,” Armbruster says, “trying to aim your tour into the valley.”

“I also was aware that every artist in the world was making a record,” Armbruster says. “And probably so many of them were trying to figure out how to rhyme quarantine with COVID-19.”

“It was impossible to not feel the weight of that.”

They deflect that weight in part through irreverence in merchandise. Your vinyl version of “Cleanse” might come in pink soap color! Or yellow soap color! And the band stays on its fans’ front burners through Armbruster’s clever, often sardonic, Twitter posts: “Only 5 more years until I watch Squid Game.”

It’s the same old Joywave. Except this: Kevin Mahoney, who’s from Henrietta but now lives in Nashville, has joined the band on bass. Keyboardist Benjamin Bailey has departed, pursuing his own muse, although “sometimes Ben may still show up and play if he feels like it,” Armbruster says. Otherwise, keyboards will be a rotating cast that includes a Nashville musician, Connor Ehman, or Jason Milton of Rochester’s The Demos.

But for the making of the new music, “This record was just me, Paul and Joey,” Armbruster says of Paul Brenner and Joseph Morinelli.

Brenner came over to Armbruster’s home studio in Webster for two days early on in the process to record drum parts. Morinelli and Armbruster communicated over Zoom, with Morinelli recording his guitar parts, then sending them to Armbruster. “So, there wasn’t a lot of sitting in a room going, ‘What if we...’” Armbruster says. “It was just kind of like having a vision, and then it was done.”

This, he says, was “a recording process the most like it was 10 years ago.”

Like the old days. Three guys from Greece Olympia High School. One of Armbruster’s first jobs was at a car wash. So, the cover of “Cleanse” puts you in the front seat of an ’80s-era Ford Crown Victoria moving through a car wash. “That was the kind of car me and Joey and Paul got to be friends in,” Armbruster says. “Riding around the mean streets of Greece.”

OK, so what if the actual car they rode around back in those days was a 1988 Oldsmobile that Armbruster inherited from his grandmother? They couldn’t find one of those for the photo shoot.

Vehicle nitpicking aside, the songs of “Cleanse” run the last two years through a society-sized car wash. As Armbruster sings in “Every Window is a Mirror,” the grime you think you are looking at -- “a film that you just can’t wash” -- is actually on you.

“Cleanse” is music created in a basement by a socially distanced band. That pause following the demise of the 2020-’21 tour served creativity. “A moment of rest,” Armbruster says, “thinking about the band, and washing off everything from before times. And getting ready for what comes next.”

What comes next is a lush soundscape of pop and electronica. Lyrically, “Cleanse” is a product of the moment. The opening song, “Pray for the Reboot,” is exactly that; a cry for a return to normal.

Of course, normal behavior ranges widely. There is the disposable mindset of “Buy American,” as Armbruster sings, “When it breaks, we’ll get the whole thing replaced.” Or, he asks, “Why Would You Want to Be Young Again?” as he spends time “on an elliptical pedaling, extra life with nowhere to be.” Then he sits alone, pondering life’s lost moments in, “Have You Ever Lit a Year on Fire?”

Armbruster is a SUNY Brockport graduate, majoring in history, with a minor in economics. “The history major in me feels very observational,” he says. So, “Goodbye Tommy” is drawn from real random acts of violence, such as the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. Forty-nine people dead, 53 wounded. “That really shook me,” Armbruster says.

COVID, wanton consumerism, lost time, mass shootings. And yet, “I don’t want to be cynical” Armbruster repeats over and over in the cynical “Cyn City 2000.”

Yet, Armbruster claims to be “less cynical about my own life.” Perhaps it’s just the times that are cynical. He suggests that every point of view has its own advocates. Maybe a political scientist, or a historian, “explaining what’s wrong,” he says.

The solution? “Fire everyone, and get one really good therapist.”

Cleanse album cover -- Joywave
The cover of Joywave's new album, "Cleanse."

So much of “Cleanse,” he insists, is actually observational. As COVID collapsed our society, Armbruster says he’s tried to be “agnostic, not complaining, grateful for the time that I had before now.” Human history is fraught with disaster. But, “I grew up relatively peaceful,” he says. “I was never drafted into a war. Or, like, my family was so regular suburb, I was never food insecure or anything like… Just, the problems I had were not problems.”

He is grateful because without his songs, and without Joywave, “I never would have gone to Europe on my own, I would have been scared to. Let alone, ‘Hey, people in Europe want to hear your band play, here’s your ticket. And you’re getting paid, too!’”

He’s grown through life experience. But that experience runs in two directions.

“You have to go to a lot of different places and see how a lot of different people live,” Armbruster says. “That’s true no matter where you fall on the political or cultural spectrum. Your experience is only your experience, and you have to get outside of it….”

Get outside of it, to learn compassion. The idea of, “I’ve been where they’re from, now I see why they think that.”

And when you get outside of yourself, you feel a sense of mortality.

“What if this is the last time that I am speaking to the audience?” Armbruster says. “What if this is the last documenting of my thoughts? What do I want people to know that I think? Or what are the things I’ve learned, or realized on this crazy journey? Because I’ve gotten to live in a way that .000001 percent of people in history get to do? It’s like leisure and arts, and that’s it.

“And what have I learned from that?”

Building Joywave was always the priority. “That mentality served us very well,” Armbruster says.

But now? Perhaps there are other priorities. Armbruster recalls the day Morinelli called to say he couldn’t get to the band rehearsal; he didn’t feel like digging his car out of his snowed-in driveway. “With the weight of everything happening, getting to practice might not be important,” Armbruster says.

“With the world burning to the ground, it might not matter.”

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