In the early months of 2016, South Jersey pop-punk band Major League was getting ready to call it quits, but lead singer and guitarist Brian Joyce wasn’t done making music. He’d already booked studio time with producer Chris Curran at Reclaim Music Studios; without his former bandmates behind him, he was determined to create his next chapter. A few singles and videos – “Blow”, “Runway Love” – were released in the spring of 2017, and with Curran on guitar and synth, Matt Chila (Major League) on guitar, Mike Adams (A Loss For Words) on bass and vocals, and Christian Mullen (A Loss For Words, Handguns, I Call Fives) on drums, Communion played their first shows supporting Bad Rabbits that May.
Late last year, Joyce found himself at a turning point. As the driving force behind the project, writing the music with help from Curran, “I had this weird moment of just… I don’t know if I want to be a band anymore.” Inspired by the documentary Jim & Andy, which details Jim Carrey’s experience stepping out of himself to become Andy Kaufman for Man on the Moon, he decided it was time to rebrand. In Jim & Andy, Carrey discovered a “new sense of freedom” and “a clean slate” after coming out of the Andy role. “I tend to get lost in my own head sometimes and I bully myself a lot,” Joyce admits, “so not being Brian Joyce for a while and becoming somebody else… it’s a road for mental health that I haven’t taken yet, so why not try it.” Wanting “something that sounded European”, he chose “Astaire” as he’d always loved the dancer Fred Astaire, and “Val” as an androgynous first name. With the release of “The No Funs” this February, Val Astaire and the Communion was born.
Speaking with Circles & Soundwaves last spring, Joyce described the sound he was aiming for with Communion as “The Weeknd meets The Cure playing Breakfast Club soundtrack,” but now, “that’s definitely changed because – you know, there’s not really a band anymore.” The “Communion” is the live band, but the studio material is Joyce and Curran (Adams sits in frequently, as well). After releasing “Blow” and “Runway Love”, he turned inward and thought about “What do I actually want to do? What kind of sound do I actually want to go for?”. The music he creates now has taken a more eccentric and ambitious direction, “like a David Bowie kind of sound…. I think it’s a mixture of David Bowie meets Whitney Houston, kinda thing.”
Joyce had long been Major League’s primary songwriter, and in early 2014, stepped up to take over on vocal duties – though he was still playing guitar. For the first round of Communion shows in 2017, he was on stage as a vocalist only, sans guitar, though things have changed somewhat now. On a UK tour with Forever Came Calling and Handguns earlier this year and on the first of two weekend runs with Baltimore alt-pop band DRMCTHR, he was on stage completely by himself, and looped everything through his pedals while playing tracks. On the second run, which saw them hit the East Coast, Joyce was joined onstage by the same lineup that had played with him for the Bad Rabbits shows.
Joyce ponders about what makes a great frontman, offering that “you have to be ambitious. You just have to… let go,” but he admits it’s hard to come to a conclusion because he’s still cutting his teeth and learning how to be a good frontman. “I’m still figuring out what would make me a great frontman, what does separate me right now, still, from the David Bowies and Prince’s.” Though he’s not there yet, it’s this attention to detail in his craft that shows growth since his first show singing lead for Major League: at a college in Connecticut, he took to the stage, nervous, and was soaked in sweat before the set was done. Now, he believes that being “a little more ambitious, like whenever you’re kind of feeling like you’re in the deep end and you’re not really grounded anymore” is right when things get exciting and you realize that “weird is cool.” He shares a quote from Dr. Seuss – “You have to be odd to be number one”; maybe doing his own thing and having fun with it is exactly the key to becoming a great frontman.
Our conversation turns to the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody and its titular song. We discuss the scene in which the band presents the track to EMI, who were wary of releasing a six-minute operatic track; forty-three years later, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is now iconic largely because it was so out there. When it comes time to creating similarly memorable songs, Joyce reflects that “It is hard, especially nowadays, because everybody wants to think that they’re reinventing the wheel and then you kind of fall short.” Right now, “there’s a lot of the same stuff circulating”, and delayed guitars and synth have seen comparisons to current “go-to bands” like The 1975 and LANY, rather than icons like David Bowie or Prince. He realizes now that “maybe I should’ve gone a little more out of my comfort zone”, and been less afraid to push musical boundaries.
The shows with DRMCTHR included a stop at Arlene’s Grocery, a small bar and concert venue on New York’s Lower East Side. While Major League found themselves with “a ladder to climb” as they toured with progressively larger acts, the world of indie-pop is a different realm. “With this, it’s like… DRMCTHR and myself and Lizzy Farrall, and bands in that realm; then the next level up is like, Japanese House – so you’re going from 30 people a night to a thousand people a night to like, Pale Waves and stuff like that, and then LANY and The 1975.” Indie-pop is “kinda the cool kids’ table” now, so “there’s giant gaps in the ladder.”
We discuss his future in touring, and Joyce tells me that extended tours aren’t likely in the US in the near future (though they may happen overseas). January to April of 2019 will be a lot of time spent in the studio, and while he’s enjoyed being on the road for a few days of the time, right now, longer tours don’t make sense for the style of music they’re creating. While he wants to keep getting out there, “It doesn’t make sense to tour ourselves into the ground and beat ourselves up…. I love the project and the people involved with it too much to get to a point where we’re sick of each other a year from now and end up like every other band, where we need a break. I want us all to keep feeling like – ‘when’s the next…’- you know – ‘When do we get to do this again?'”
After years of touring and countless shows under his belt, Joyce has come to a better sense of self-awareness regarding how much touring is physically, mentally, and financially sustainable. One summer, Major League did a tour lasting over 90 days; another year, they spend 320 days on the road. It got to a point where he and his bandmates couldn’t recognize themselves or each other, and things felt “like Groundhog Day.” Older and more seasoned, he’s looking forward to returning to the studio to work on new music as well as “figuring out myself and where I want to go and who I am. That’s so enjoyable to me, as opposed to just not knowing who I am and traveling around aimlessly.”
On November 9, Val Astaire and the Communion released their first EP Yellow. When he’s in a bad headspace, yellow is “a color that gives me hope… it’s the opposite side of darkness.” For Joyce, who’s always expressed himself and his inner thoughts through his songs, “music is a journal; you write these songs, it’s your thoughts, it’s your feelings, it’s your emotions.” But the way he’s expressed his emotions has changed over time. On Major League’s second album, There’s Nothing Wrong With Me, he dug deep into his personal experiences with depression and his relationships and family life. Although he thought that getting it out there would be good for himself, by reliving those emotions every night on stage, “I’ve realized that really all I’m doing is keeping that wound open…. I have to regurgitate all these feelings and emotions because people wanna feel it live, emotion-wise, the same way that they felt it on the record. So I have to rehash it, I have to push that back out.”
With Val Astaire and the Communion, he’s still writing about his personal experiences, but with a poppier sound, “it lets me forget… I’m singing maybe darker words, but at the same time, I’m also shaking my hips.” Focusing on hitting the notes and singing the melodies, rather than exhausting himself to make sure a certain part is felt emotionally, is freeing. Joyce is still expressing himself through music, but now he’s finding joy and relief in the act of expression. Discussing Yellow, he says, “This is my yellow; yellow is a happy color, yellow is a bright color, and so this EP is my yellow.”
This new approach – of finding comfort and healing through a healthier approach to emotional expression – can be seen on Yellow‘s closing track, “Speaking Over You.” Rather than being about a specific relationship, the song sees Joyce looking back on all of his past relationships. He holds no bitterness or resentment to his former partners, and shares that they didn’t work out for one reason or another. By “speaking over” someone, he’s speaking into existence that he’s over that person and no longer mentally or emotionally attached. “There’s that old saying, ‘hating someone is like drinking poison and expecting them to die’, and that’s how I felt. I want[ed] to get it out there that I don’t hate any of these people, it just didn’t work,” he shares. He’s now moving forward with “somebody who is just the sweetest thing in the world and treats me well”, and adds that “You can’t go into new relationships holding against that person what previous relationships did. It’ll never work like that.” “Speaking Over You” was chosen to be the last song on the EP because “it’s [about] letting this go, and now I move on.” By leaving certain things and people in the past, Joyce is able to come into his own and walk forward with his new yellow.
Val Astaire and the Communion at Arlene’s Grocery in New York, NY – 11/17/18