Too Much Joy's Tim Quirk: The Culture Brats Interview

On December 10th, SideOneDummy Records will reissue Too Much Joy's 1991 classic Cereal Killers on vinyl. I caught up with singer Tim Quirk to talk about the reissue, KRS-One, what kept TMJ from being the biggest band of the '90s, and the five songs that define the band.

First off, I've got to tell you I was a huge fan of Too Much Joy, so I have to ask: why weren't you guys the biggest band of the '90s?
That's a mystery for the ages. I don't know. The honest answer is probably because we were funny. It's hard to be taken seriously when you're funny even though we always thought our humor was kind of dead serious. That's pretty much what it comes down to. We had lots of people advising us to cut down on the wacky shit as career advice and at the time we were like, "Fuck you." Not that I would've done anything differently, but maybe they had a point.

It seemed that you guys were always more famous for your exploits than your actual music which always seemed like a crime to me. Like the Bozo sample and the 2 Live Crew concerts and stuff like that.
It's hard to take that amiss. I think you have to look at shit like that and say, "Maybe people didn't feel like talking about the music." If they were talking about something other than the music, maybe it's because the other stuff was more noteworthy than the music we were making. I don't know. To me, it all felt like it was all of a piece. We said this before: it's not like we went out looking for this shit. This shit just tended to find us, with the exception of 2 Live Crew which was deliberate and I'd do a thousand times over. Everything else just kind of happened. We were magnets for that kind of thing for whatever reason.

You're going to reissue 1991's Cereal Killers on vinyl in December through SideOneDummy Records. How did this happen?
You know, I don't know. I got an email one day saying, "Hey, what do you think about this?" from the label. My answer was, "If you can talk Warner into it, we certainly have no objection."

I'm really pleased with the partnership so far. And the colored vinyl looks pretty.

I see that certain packages come with an issue of Joybuzzer. Is that a new issue or one from the archives?
I haven't seen it myself. My understanding, which could be wrong, is that it's a combination of some new stuff with some "best of," but I won't know for sure until they actually publish it.

Any chance the reissue of the album is your way of testing the waters to gauge interest for a reunion tour or album?
There's zero chance of that, unfortunately. Well, there's not zero chance of actually playing some shows, but it's not testing the waters. I was just minding my own business and an email popped up in the inbox and we were all like, "Yeah, go for it." We're proud of the music and we want it out there in whatever form is possible, but everybody's pretty much slammed with what's happened with the rest of their lives since then. While we were trying to make it work to do at least a handful of shows to celebrate this, nobody's looking to get back together for an extended period of time.

KRS-One guests on "Good Kill" on [Cereal Killers]. Around the same time that was released, R.E.M.'s Out Of Time came out, which also had him on "Radio Song." Were you guys ticked off or anything about that?
We were fucking furious. Not at the almighty Blastmaster, he can go appear on anybody's music that he wants. What pissed us off was we had done it well in advance of R.E.M.

Warner signed us and they reissued Son Of Sam I Am. Basically, we recorded Cereal Killers but we were touring on the reissue of Son Of Sam I Am. So Cereal Killers was in the can for almost a year before it came out. So we had this thing in our back pocket that we knew was coming out and we were really proud of it. We knew it was good and the label was just waiting for the right time to put it out. While we were touring and waiting, R.E.M. got KRS-One to come in and do a song and our albums literally came out on the same day. I've gotta say, I was and remain a huge R.E.M. fan and I can be objective about what's good of theirs and what's bad of theirs. It's a fine song, but I do not think they used him to very good effect on that song.

No. They didn't.
He doesn't really rap on it. He just goes like "Yo!" and "Hey hey hey!" If you're gonna put him in front of a mic, have him fucking say something, you know? [Our] next album, Mutiny, had a line on it that went "I'm ahead of my time, but only by a week." That's one of five times where something like that happened to us. We did a pop/punk cover of Tom Waits's "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" and the Ramones put out the exact same thing. We were doing it for years before they ever put it out. I don't know if they ever heard it, but it's not like it's an idea only one person in the universe can have. We were covering "Seasons In The Sun" before Nirvana did it. Shit like that happened to us all the time. You can tell I'm still bitter about it.

You do such a great job of detailing the thoughts, feelings, and happenings behind the band's songs on the website, almost to the point that it makes it pointless for me to talk about certain songs with you. What made you start the chronicle?
I don't know. That's a good question. Ego, probably. Part of it was when we created the website, we knew we weren't going to be making a ton of new music, but you need a way to keep it updated and fresh and since we don't have a lot of news, I guess the thinking was "Oh, well we can go backwards." When J.D. Salinger died, that was a good time to talk about "William Holden Caulfield." There was the Hartsdale Cheesery, this weird little store in the town where we grew up, closed one day and since we referred to the store in the lyrics to one of our songs, we went, "Let's talk about 'Pride Of Frankenstein.'" That's why we started it. Why we kept doing it is probably just ego and wanting to be understood and not dismissed as a joke novelty act.

Any chance it would lead to a book one day?
I don't see very much chance of that at all.

You're still heavily involved in music as the man being Google Play. What current bands have your attention?
That's a really good question and I will answer it momentarily. But the fact is I've been listening for the past nine months almost exclusively to obscure classic soul from 1964 to 1972 or '73. I don't know what happened, I just got this obsession and now I've become this insane crate-digging geek. Pretty much all I do all weekend long is lie in my hammock, listening to classic soul and try and forget about work.

But when I'm listening to current bands... I'm a great admirer of Okkervil River and their most recent record is pretty awesome. I really, really like The Thermals. All their records sound very similar in a good way, kind of in that Ramonesy way. And they put on a great show. Titus Andronicus, I really, really like even though they cancelled on a Google Play event at SXSW a couple of years ago. I still admire the band. Dick move to cancel, but still I like Titus Andronicus. They haven't put out anything new in awhile, but Canada's Hidden Cameras--they're awesome. They're so good, you can be singing along to a song before you realize it's about pissing on your gay lover. But hey, it's so catchy that even once you realize that, you keep singing along.

Let's finish things off with the five songs that you feel define Too Much Joy.
Oh geez. I'd have to give that some thought. Basically, I'm going to answer your question, and then I'm going to be pissed at myself all day long as I realize I should've named five different songs. Let me do this: let me pick one from each album.

I'm going to skip Green Eggs And Crack because we were still trying to figure out what the hell we were doing.

Right. Although "Drum Machine" is very cool.
I get it. I would say "Drum Machine" and "The Otter Song" are the only two songs from Green Eggs And Crack that survived in sets to this day. We'll see. We'll circle back and maybe that will end up making the list.

Off of Son Of Sam I Am: "Kicking." That was among the first songs that we felt we were really hitting on all cylinders when we wrote it, to the point where while we were touring even before Son Of Sam I Am came out, we would literally open and close the set with that song because we liked it so much. We would play it twice. There's funny lines in there, but it's sort of a really serious song. One of the things that made me happiest in my career was when Robert Christgau wrote about that song. I forget what his exact line was, but it was something like "it might be about cancer and it's definitely about turning 23." I was like, "Oh! That's a perceptive rock critic there! That's exactly what that song is about."

Off of Cereal Killers... There's like three off of Cereal Killers that I could pick and I'm trying to limit myself to just one. I'm gonna go with "King Of Beers" rather than "Theme Song." "King Of Beers" is something that sounds like it's frat rocky, but there's actually a bit of self-reflection and depression and sadness in there. "King Of Beers" because it's not just a gag, although you can shout along to it drunkenly at a show and then regret it in the morning. That's pretty much what the damn song's about.

What was our next one? Mutiny. I'm going to say "What It Is." It's just a couple of chords and we weren't really a jammy band, we didn't really jam all that much, but that was one that I don't think we ever sucked when we played that song, even at the shittiest show. There were some nights when almost everything goes wrong, "What It Is" never went wrong. That song just felt right and I'm proud of the lyrics. And it's a true story. I was in Ireland visiting some site from prehistoric times. Literally 2,000 years ago, this fort had been built on the edge of the island.

And somebody actually wrote their name on it.
Yeah, some dick named James. He sees this thing that connects you to the history of mankind and makes you realize, "Wow, look at what we've done rising from savagery and now we have civilization and how weird and awesome that is." And some dude's reaction is, "I'm gonna write my name here!" I looked at it and thought, "Great. Now you're part of history, but your part of history is that everyone knows you're an asshole forever." I just don't understand that impulse. So that's "What It Is."

So our next album was "...Finally." I'm going to change my mind tomorrow, but I'm gonna say "Underneath A Jersey Sky."

It's gotta be that. I think that's the most beautiful song you guys have ever written. I love that song. I think it perfectly captures that suburban feel.
Thanks! We were literally in Jersey, we were in Hoboken. There was a studio we were recording at a lot, mostly because we didn't have any money at the time and the dude let us come in for free and it was an excellent studio. He was having a party, so we were hanging out with a bunch of Jersey musicians and people at the same stage of their career that we were at. We were in Jersey and we were looking up and it was a starry night, although not that you can see that many stars from Hoboken. We just had a sense of our place in the universe that was not necessarily awesome. So that's what that song is about.

So now I guess I either have to do Gods And Sods or Green Eggs And Crack. Yeah... I guess I gotta do "Drum Machine." Like a lot of things we did, it was a song we wrote while we were waiting to do what we thought was the real thing we were doing. There was literally another band in the studio and we were sitting outside the studio with an acoustic guitar and we were bored and we just started making fun of the other band in the studio that was ruining our day.

There was just something about it. It's simple, it's stupid, but you can sing along to it. That sums up Too Much Joy!

Pre-order the vinyl reissue of Too Much Joy's classic Cereal Killers at SideOneDummy Records!

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