Music is one industry in which genre reigns.
It’s funny, frustrating perhaps, that such superficial and seemingly insignificant decisions—how much distortion one runs through an amp, maybe, or the tempo at which one decides to record a track—can dictate a band’s “sound” or “style” and affect them in so many major ways; it can influence the label a band lands on (and what kind), how that label promotes and distributes the band’s music (and how much), whether or not the band’s records will sell (and to whom), and how much the band will end up making, which ultimately dictates whether or not the band will continue being a band.
In other words, it’s more than taste; the decision to play a certain style of music can be a strategic move—and can make a brave statement.
These sorts of thoughts—about style and musical substance—consume Ryan Nelson who, alongside drummer Alan Huck, started the band My Heart to Joy at the Same Tone with a specific stylistic direction in mind. “We were in a less-serious, Victory Records-esque kind of band with our high school friends at the time,” he explains. “One summer, Alan and I got together at his house when his parents went away to Lithuania and decided, after listening to a lot of Orchid records, to record a bunch of screamo songs and start a side project. That’s basically how it started; just he and I on drums and guitars.”
It’s at that point—the beginning—that the band began its subtle and everlasting evolution. Following the release of Heavenly Bodies, their savage and succinct debut, the band asked guitarist Greg Horbal to thicken their sound. “Adding Greg made us a lot more musically dense,” Nelson states, “which may have been the biggest catalyst of our musical change. That, and Greg had his style, which changed the whole dynamic of our sound.”
The day that Horbal formally joined My Heart to Joy at the Same Tone, the band began recording their frantic and fierce Virgin Sails seven-inch. Though the single’s three stormy, syncopated tracks epitomized screamo as the spastic genre it is, Nelson remembers feeling stylistically limited. So the band decided to simplify—not only by formally shortening their name to My Heart to Joy, but also musically; for their first full-length, the band was hoping the capture their current string of songs in a way that sounded simpler—more “indie,” maybe, or more melodic—but weren’t sure where to start.
They found their answer my simplifying their style of production. “We recorded with our friend Ryan Stack,” Nelson tells. “When we showed up there, because one of Ryan’s favorite records is Four Minute Mile by the Get Up Kids was recorded in a similar fashion, he suggested that we do the entire record completely live—instrumentally at least. All twelve songs were recorded in less than twelve hours.”
The resulting record, titled Seasons in Verse, is imperfect, cursed with unintended tempo changes and the occasional mis-stummed string. “There’s a few mistakes here and there,” Nelson admits, “but we were going for a more spontaneous, organic sounding record and to capture how we sound when we play live,” which gives this record a character that’s all its own.
But it’s in this character that Seasons in Verse seems to challenge a fundamental element of music. The record is too massive and moody to be deemed “indie rock” and, yet, not heavy enough to be called “hardcore” or “metal.” Likewise, it lacks the aggressive energy to be considered “punk-rock”, while “alternative,” which doesn’t seem specific enough to define any musical endeavor, feels too big, too broad, to capture what that intangible character.
It seems that, in an industry that thrives on definition, My Heart to Joy has made the dangerous decision to be “genre-less.”
“Giving My Hands Away”, for example, begins with the sort of drippy, syrupy lead line that could introduce any number of alt-country songs. Slowly, other instruments are stirred in; a second slow, twangy guitar spins above Huck’s hi-hat/snare drum shuffle. For about sixty seconds, this song feels easy to classify.
Suddenly, all these instruments combine, creating a congregate of thick, fuzzy chords on which Nelson’s husky howl seems to float; suddenly, the song ceases, leaving Horbal alone to shout, almost mic-less above the decay of a dying chord, “I can only see those eyes / Even when I close mine”; and, suddenly, this song feels stylistically difficult to define.
But, as Nelson seems to suggest, the move towards “difficult to define” was an intentional decision. “’For instance,” he explains, “‘Empty Homes’ [the album’s non-instrumental opening track] was the first song we wrote during for this record, and it’s the closest to our screamo/hardcore sound as heard on Virgin Sails. But ‘Giving My Hands Away’ was definitely the first song that we wrote that had a singing part and was less aggressive. That was us moving towards trying to be more melody-based.”
Though they may have set out with a particular sound in mind, My Heart to Joy seems more interested escaping (rather than replicating) a musical style. And, though Seasons in Verse seems like a record influenced, perhaps, by a particular sound (or, more likely, many sounds), it also hesitates to wear those influences on its sleeve.
Whether or not the listener can feel these influences in their music, though, doesn’t matter; in fact, My Heart to Joy seems better off being stylistically ambiguous. In this Darwinistic, “survival of the fittest” industry, being label-less helps the band find friends and make their way across the country. “Everywhere we go, we seem to fit into the scene, but in different ways,” Nelson concludes. “We luck out and can usually fit into the scene in just the right way.”
But this doesn’t mean that My Heart to Joy has finished evolving, or will ever. As the band enters the studio to record their next three-song single, they are already considering other influences that they can add to the soup that is their sound. “We’ve been saying it’s going to sound ‘poppy’ lately,” Nelson explains, “which I think it giving people the wrong idea. It’s going to be more pop-oriented—not in a pop-punk way, but more in a Guided by Voices kind of way. It will be all singing and almost no screaming, but not watered down.”
Whatever poppy-indie-post-screamo sounds like, it’s bound to be interesting; it's bound to make a brave statement.
My Heart to Joy intended to record these songs sometime in February but weekends spent on tour and in the studio recording their new EP (along with the obligations of being college students) made it difficult to find the time. Finally, after about a month of emailing and texting back and forth, Nelson, Horbal, and bassist Chris Teti recorded these songs together on a Saturday afternoon during one of the first spring-like weekends in March.
"All of Life is Coming Home" appears on My Heart to Joy's 2009 record titled Seasons in Verse. Instead of recording a cover, My Heart to Joy recorded "Farewell to a Rain Cloud", which will appear on their yet-to-be titled EP, which will be released later this year.
Visit the band's website for more music.