Jay Joyce found out that the easy way isn’t always the best way. Four years ago, he gained a lucrative publishing contract on the merits of a collection of rock songs he recorded at home. Then, .......after one show, the band he assembled was presented a record deal by MCA Records. The red carpet was unfurled. But just as he made his first step, it was jerked from under him.
Despite all of the money and all of the promises, MCA withdrew support just as the group’s album was released. A massive shift in the company’s rock division left Joyce relying on a set of new executives, none of whom considered his band, Bedlam, their project. The band was cut from the roster before the album even had a chance to get stocked in record stores. “We were completely dependent on the record company,” Joyce says. “Once they dropped the ball, there was nothing left.”
Painful as it was, Joyce now believes everything happened for the best. “Bedlam was never really a band,” he says. “It was pretty much a bunch of songs I’d written and recorded with a bunch of my friends, who I’d been working with on another project.” His new band, Iodine, came about differently. He set up his basement studio to work on new songs, calling in bassist Chris Feinstein, who had been a member of Bedlam. At first, they worked out drum parts themselves. One day, Joyce invited drummer Brad Pemberton to drop by. As Feinstein explains, “The first song he played on was ‘Flyboy,’ and me and Jay looked at each other in amazement. The perfect guy had shown up. It instantly sounded like a band.”
New band intact, Joyce decided to follow a different route. Rather than record songs to seek music-industry backing, Iodine hit the club circuit, playing throughout the Midwest and the South. Nearly two years after forming, the band released its first album, Maximum Joy, on No Alternative Records, a Twin/Tone subsidiary.
Even with the new contract, however, Iodine’s livelihood is in their own hands. They recorded the album without outside advice and even put together the artwork themselves. “Iodine is a real fucking band,” Joyce says in a raspy whisper of a voice. “This isn’t a bunch of songs I wrote and found some guys to play. We worked everything up together. We’ve been going out for a year and a half, playing shitty gig after shitty gig. You can’t rehearse enough to learn those things that make you a band. You’ve got to get out there and see what happens. The worst possible situation is really the best. That’s how you learn what works.”
He points to the same process when explaining why Iodine rocks more fiercely than Bedlam. Before, his songs were wordier, balancing social commentary with personal revelation. He built songs more conventionally, with sing-along choruses and the occasional acoustic introductions. With Iodine, however, everything is raging groove and ringing distortion. “Because we’re a three-piece, everybody has to play as hard and as loud as they can,” Joyce says. “I think I’d gotten lazy in the couple of years before that. Now nobody can be a slacker.”
But Joyce is too intelligent, and too restless, to stick to conventional formulas. Iodine’s hard-charging rock contains elements of grunge, punk, metal and pop, but they’re all contorted with surprising freshness. “Turnpike,” a song that talks about highways, Mexico, escape, and lying passed-out in a Camaro, blends punk energy and pop melodicism. The provocative, sketchy story is built around the shouted line, “Maybe the freaks are all out!” “Bells Ring,” meanwhile, ascends with a sunny melody that ruptures into a noisy din reminiscent of Sugar or Hüsker Dü.
“Under the Same Rain” and “Flyboy” display Pemberton’s strong influence; he drives the tempo while at the same time contributing crashing textures. His dexterity and Feinstein’s stout bass melodies allow Joyce to concentrate more on adding unusual sonic flares rather than playing customary leads. Still, the Iodine guitarist occasionally sets up a catchy hook, as in the anthemic opening of “Rosie’s Funeral,” which breaks into an extended guitar coda that is as fractured as it is elegiac. It’s like hearing Eric Clapton playing with Sonic Youth.
Joyce flatly refuses to analyze the motivations or meanings behind his songs. Chain-smoking, pacing about his Green Hills home, and running his hand through his short, unkempt hair, he caustically discusses the nature of songwriting and recording. “A lot of it is that we just jam, and I throw some stream-of-consciousness lyrics on it,” he says of the band’s songwriting process. “It leaves a little more to the imagination that way. That’s what’s weird about being in Nashville, where lyrics are so important. I used to write songs that had double-meaning and all this shit, and who cares? The silliest, most abstract stuff we write is the stuff people end up loving, outside of songwriter town.”
To keep the right attitude, the band demanded their debut album be recorded by longtime collaborator Rick Will. In what Joyce describes as an “only in Nashville” possibility, the band rented equipment and had it set up in Joyce’s home rather than going into a formal recording studio. Joyce had used Will as an engineer in the ’80s with his band In Pursuit, as well as with Bedlam. As bass player for the Questionnaires, Feinstein had also worked with him. All of these bands earned their record contracts after recording their initial demo tapes with Will. “Then [the label would] put us with some big producer and spend a lot of money, and the music would get buried,” Joyce says. “All of us sounded best with Rick. So that’s what we did this time.”
The band knows about studios and producers. T-Bone Burnett has hired Iodine several times to back other singers, and producer Peter Collins used them on an album by the October Project. Joyce played guitar on Iggy Pop’s American Caesar album and produced tracks with singer Lisa Germano. He recently finished producing the debut for another Nashville band, the Lounge Flounders. Most recently, Iodine went into Woodland Studio last month to rerecord a song with singer Heather Nova. The resulting track will be her next single, the follow-up to her recent rock hit, “Walk This World.”
But Joyce and his mates hope they can leave the work-for-hire world behind. “Don’t get me wrong, we’re very grateful,” he says. “It’s paid the rent, and we learned some things. But we want to be out there doing our own thing. It’s funny that we had to go all the way around to come back to thisjust playing clubs for rock fans. I think it had a lot to do with living in Nashville, where it’s all about deals. It gets to be all about pleasing people in the business. We’re having a lot more fun pleasing 18-year-old kids in Dayton, Ohio.”