If you think you’re excited for the When We Were Young festival going down at the Observatory in Santa Ana April 8-9, you’ve got nothing on Joyce Manor’s Barry Johnson, whose band plays the festival on Saturday. While you were jamming out to bands like Descendents, AFI, Alkaline Trio and The Get Up Kids in high school, Johnson was so inspired by those acts that he started a pop-punk band at the end of the 2000s — a highly unpopular time for the emo bands that are all hot commodities again today.
When We Were Young is arguably the best lineup of ’90s and 2000s pop-punk and emo ever assembled for a single one-off festival. Hip-hop, EDM, metal, reggae and even punk-rock festivals go on every year, but the wildly popular emo subgenre generally is relegated to multigenre fests and small to midsized venues. As Johnson sees it, the Observatory’s latest addition to its run of festivals is a phenomenal chance to see so many of the bands he’s always loved.
“I’m just excited to check out all these bands,” Johnson says. “I haven’t seen some of the bands, like Choking Victim, in probably 10 years. I’ve never seen the Descendents, but I’ve been a fan for almost 20 years and I can’t wait to see them. Then there are some bands that you might not be a fan of, but they might blow you away live. Like I was never super into Pinback, but they just blew me away live.”
As with any festival packed with aging and/or reunited bands, there’s going to be some uncertainty going into When We Were Young about which groups can still bring it like they did a decade or two ago. For instance, Morrissey is obviously a legend, but can a 57-year-old evoke emotions out of a crowd full of people who likely weren’t born when Viva Hate came out? In Johnson’s eyes, such uncertainty will just keep the weekend interesting — even if it’s ultimately disappointing for some fans.
“It’s cool to see which bands can still do it and which ones can’t,” Johnson says. “Some bands will blow you away and still be the best after playing for 15 years, and some bands are at their worst after playing for 15 years. Some bands are just untouchable because you can only get that good and have that kind of chemistry after playing together for so long.”
As for the act that affected the frontman the most? That’s an easy one. Long before Joyce Manor were Torrance’s favorite pop-punk act, Johnson was a kid heading out to punk shows all over the L.A. area. The very first one he attended was at the Majestic Ventura Theater in 1998 or ’99, where he first saw the band that convinced him he needed to create music — a band that also happens to be playing at When We Were Young.
“AFI was my first show,” Johnson says. "That was life-changing for me. That sealed the deal for me, and it made me want to do what I do. Sharing a bill with them is really, really cool.”
Considering that the bulk of When We Were Young's lineup is built on nostalgia and Joyce Manor’s self-titled debut dropped in 2011, there will probably be quite a few in the crowd who are unfamiliar with Johnson’s band. But as the songwriter sees it, his musical tastes will be in sync with the average attendee, and much of the audience may see and hear bits of their favorite bands in Joyce Manor.
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“I think it’s cool because a lot of those people who are coming out to see the Descendents and AFI might find something to like about our band,” he says. “We probably listen to a lot of the same stuff, so we’re going to be drawing from a lot of the same influences that they like.”
Those unfamiliar with Joyce Manor may like the band’s latest release, last year’s Cody, in particular. Rather than going with the relatively DIY approach they used on their first three records, Johnson and his crew — guitarist Chase Knobbe, bassist Matt Ebert and drummer Jeff Enzor — decided to use a producer who has worked with such legends as Elliott Smith and Beck, as well as quite a few bands who will be at the Observatory.
“It took us until our fourth album to really do the ‘big producer album,’” Johnson says. “That’s what Cody was. We went with Rob Schnapf, who did records for Saves the Day — who are also playing When We Were Young. I thought those Saves the Day records he did would be the perfect sound for us, and I think Rob did a lot to help us grow as a band. He pushed us out of our comfort zone, and it’s cool because we made a polished, real rock record. It’s maybe not what I want to do with all our records in the future, but it was a cool experience.”
Joyce Manor play When We Were Young at the Observatory on Friday, April 8. For the full April 8-9 festival lineup, tickets and more info, visit whenwewereyoung.net.