Bio : Mt. Joy
"Heard joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he's depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, 'Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.' Man bursts into tears. Says, 'But doctor…I am Pagliacci.' Good joke. Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains." — Rorschach, Watchmen
“In effect we had run away to join the circus,” says Mt. Joy’s Matt Quinn. “People romanticize being a musician — and it’s amazing to be able to do it — but in reality we’re truckers by day, musicians by night. A lot of your life gets displaced. You end up celebrating birthdays in an Ohio dressing room.”
When Quinn and his Mt. Joy bandmates (guitarist Sam Cooper, bassist Michael Byrnes, drummer Sotiris Eliopoulos, and keyboardist Jackie Miclau) came together to record their sophomore album Rearrange Us, the band was in rough shape — adrift in a miasma of situational and romantic agony, digging themselves out of relationships that had soured in the harsh light of a life permanently spent in a van somewhere between Stockton and Peoria. Even producer Tucker Martine’s (My Morning Jacket, The Decemberists, Modest Mouse) Portland studio had recently been burglarized.
Not that Mt. Joy wasn’t grateful for the opportunity to live out even the most wayward chapters of the archetypical rock-and-roll narrative. The band’s 2018 Dualtone Records debut was, for Matt Quinn and his bandmates, nothing short of life-changing. Dream-addled while wracked with a particularly millennial anxiety — over the opioid epidemic, fading youth, political recidivism — Mt. Joy played like a road trip mixtape of forgotten folk rock anthems that bridged the gulf between the Allman Brothers and Broken Social Scene. It reacted in a big way.
Over the course of a year, what was first a bedroom project was now a band that Rolling Stone called “your new folk-rock heroes.” Industry publications called the album “a major breakthrough” (Billboard), and single “Silver Lining” hit #1 on the AAA Radio Charts, with “Jenny Jenkins” following it up by hitting #5. New fans — earned ear-by-ear with every tour stop, festival set, early morning radio session, and moment of internet discovery — were singing along at sold out club dates.
As band members coped with relationships that had literally disintegrated mere days before the beginning of sessions for Rearrange Us, they found comfort in their makeshift family of circus runaways — and, in suffering together, set about writing an album that looked themselves in the mirror and asked, “Are we all right?”
The resulting album is a triumph of spirit and self-knowledge: Throughout Rearrange Us, Matt Quinn’s songwriting is at once more painterly and less precise, like perfectly rendered vignettes from a largely disjointed memory of a dream. There’s a sense of grasping at threads: The desire for love, for a fulfilling life’s calling, for a meaningful holiday season, for a great night out to forget all the bullshit that you can’t otherwise figure out. It’s a friend pouring their heart out about their fears and troubles, interrupting themselves only to play air guitar along to a Clash song or to revel at a particularly inspiring Joel Embiid post move.
Rearrange Us is ultimately about finding ways to work past one’s emotional and mental struggles with intentionality; about realizing that sometimes you’ve got to force yourself into the right headspace to find some form of solace. The counterintuitively rousing “Death,” inspired by a particularly desolate interaction with an unnamed radio DJ, tries to make sense of a predilection towards depression and despair. The shuffling, lightly funky title track begins with a flash of a memory set to the glow of a phone screen before applying the theory of relativity to life’s many moments, both short and long. Meanwhile, “Every Holiday” examines the myriad afflictions that arise around Christmastime: Seasonal Affective Disorder, the weight of familial expectations, and attempts to persist through failing relationships. The album-closing trilogy of “Us,” “Become,” and “Strangers” is an Abbey Road-style three-part suite excavating a crumbled relationship. When Matt Quinn sings “I am over you” in its climactic final chorus, you can tell he knows he’s lying to himself just to get through it all.
“Leading up to us hitting the studio, Sam and I were sharing an apartment together and we just got into this great creative rhythm,” says Matt Quinn about the songwriting process before hitting the studio. “Bouncing ideas off of each other, salvaging little acoustic snippets. Jackie and the rest of the band would come over and help build a real architecture around these ideas — putting together parts that now feel instrumental to these compositions. It felt like a real collective, heartening effort.”
While Quinn’s songwriting and that band’s arrangement chops matured, getting to work with Tucker Martine and his state-of-the-art studio offered Mt. Joy the opportunity to explore a fuller, more technicolor sound than ever before.
“Tucker’s such a wizard with sound, and he’s got an incredible ear for song structure,” says Matt Quinn. “We knew we were getting somewhere when we’d finish a take and he’d say ‘I felt things.’ It was a good barometer that we were on track and creating something that felt meaningful.”
Rearrange Us presents an embarrassment of sonic riches. “My Vibe, Your Vibe” blends psychedelic affirmations with a rootsy stomp and a swirl of synthesizers, while “Come With Me” goes from a decayed choral elegy to a breezy, Allen Toussaint-indebted barn-burner — a battle cry for pushing yourself to have a good time amid new company. And “Have Faith,” a southern gospel-influenced duet with singer Liz Vice, flexes Quinn’s newfound mastery of his voice. Here as throughout the album, he quivers and creaks almost as much as belts, imbuing his words with wisdom and weariness.
All of this ensures that “the difficult second album” showcases what Mt. Joy has learned since running away to join the circus. From Matt Quinn’s eye for emotionally resonant detail and the band’s road-tested chemistry through to the adventurous arrangements and tonal richness of the album as a whole, Rearrange Us is the sound of a band growing into themselves both musically and personally. It’s an ambitious and welcome success: Pagliacci learning to live life a little more mindfully, and a little more artfully, too.