The songwriter's one-day bonanza of more than $1,000 in January 2001 occurred not from some lucrative licensing deal, but from a Web site windfall. Quirk and former TMJ bandmate Jay Blumenfield had launched the Susquehanna Hat Company site (www.sayhername.com) to sell off old TMJ merchandise. To give the site some current relevance, they decided to add a few MP3s of recent material the duo had put together under the name Wonderlick, along with a "donate" button to toss the artists some change if listeners liked what they heard. Call it cyberbusking.
"I thought that people would come to the site and download the Too Much Joy singles and maybe listen to a new song or two," Quirk says. "What happened, though, was that the new stuff was kicking Too Much Joy's ass from the beginning. We weren't trying to make any money; it was more like, "Oh, if people keep giving us money, then we can keep doing this.'"
People kept coming, and they kept paying -- to the tune of more than $12,000. Quirk and Blumenfield had stumbled upon a new way to record an album profitably, which isn't easy, considering that less than 5 percent of a year's releases end up recouping expenses. But even more gratifying to the pair was the fact that the way these new songs were recorded -- off-the-cuff and unsupervised -- had led to their best material in years.
Tim Quirk and Jay Blumenfield formed Too Much Joy in 1984, with the expectation that the quickest way to a girl's heart was through a guitar and a sarcastic lyric. The melodic pop band released five full-lengths before its dissolution, including two for Warner subsidiary Giant Records. Too Much Joy's witty, oft-surreal songs were college radio staples by the early '90s -- titles like "William Holden Caufield," "Making Fun of Bums," and "Long Haired Guys From England" hint at the group's cheeky frivolity. Sadly, the closest the band came to bona fide national attention was when it was arrested for playing a series of raunchy rap songs by 2 Live Crew in a Florida nightclub in 1990.
With the brass ring always just out of reach, Too Much Joy called it quits in 1996, but the members remained friends. When Quirk and Blumenfield, now pushing 40, found themselves living on the West Coast in the late '90s -- Quirk in San Francisco and Blumenfield in Los Angeles -- they started getting together for a couple of days once a year to toss off some songs. The occasions were merely a chance for the old friends to capture some of the Too Much Joy magic. "I had no expectations at all -- I just wanted to remember how to have fun making music," says Blumenfield, via cell phone from Los Angeles Airport. Besides, they both had time-consuming day jobs, Blumenfield as a film director and producer and Quirk as the managing editor at Listen.com.
But, after seeing the reaction to their new Wonderlick creations on the Susquehanna Web site in January 2001, Quirk and Blumenfield resolved to get systematic about releasing fresh material. "We decided that we'd release a song every month on the first of the month as a download, and at the end of the year we'd have created an album's worth," says Quirk. "Every six weeks or so we'd get together in the studio and bang out a couple of songs. And it was fun. Sometimes, literally, we would release a song an hour after it was finished. And you'd get this instant feedback -- you'd see how the song does. "Some dude in Korea is listening to that song I just finished!'"
The new tunes were decidedly lo-fi, featuring heaps of looped percussion, backward guitar, and multitracked vocals. Friends like bassist Steve Michener (Big Dipper), singer Wendy Allen (The Court & Spark), and magician Penn Jillette added the occasional part to flesh out the tunes, but mostly the songs were rough sketches far removed from the glossy major-label sound Too Much Joy had embraced.
"Despite our best punk rock intentions when we were younger, we got sucked into the music business," Quirk says. "When we went into the studio, there was a goal. It was going to be an album, and you were thinking about what was going to sound good on radio. And if you didn't have a deal, you were going to be shopping the demo to somebody."
"It's hard to stress just how astonishing being in the studio was this time," he adds. "To feel like I was 14 or 15 again and doing it for the sheer fuck of it all was amazing. We had no desire to go shop the thing, and no real desire to release it because we had an international distribution network at our fingertips."
But one day Quirk was speaking with Matt Johnson, the publicist for San Francisco's Future Farmer Recordings, home of local talents like For Stars, Joaquina, and Jackpot. When Johnson asked for a copy of the "album," Quirk resisted, since there was no completed effort to give him. Weeks later, when Johnson asked again -- now with the blessing of the label's owner, Dennis Mitchell -- Quirk began to think of the disparate songs as a coherent whole.
A deal with Future Farmer was eventually sealed during a six-hour boozing session at Cafe Du Nord, with the terms of the contract -- no advance, split the gross, Wonderlick owns the album outright -- jotted down on a bar napkin.
"All my best lyrics always started on bar napkins," Quirk laughs.
The resulting Wonderlick album, due in stores on April 29, is a shift from the happy-go-lucky wall of sound of Too Much Joy. Quirk and Blumenfield both admit that they wanted to make something more "beautiful" with their new project, but the result turned out decidedly darker. If there's a constant theme running throughout the songs, Quirk says, it's "that we're all gonna die."
As you'd expect, the lyrics are less irreverent than in the past. Instead of riffing on Elmer Fudd and Playboy centerfolds, as TMJ songs did, Quirk wrestles with mortality ("Donner Lake"), monogamy ("I Wanna Love You"), fatherhood ("How Small You Are"), and marriage ("The Right Crazy"). A simple, acoustic rendering of Joy Division's gloomy classic "Love Will Tear Us Apart" sits right at home among the originals, even if Quirk's adenoidal voice and hyperactive vocals still hint at the jokester of old.
"A lot of indie rock doesn't look much beyond its wallet-chain world," says Quirk. "To me, indie rock is that you write about your life. This is my life -- I'm a guy who owns a house who has a job and has a kid, and I'm basically trying to find the profound moments in that."
Musically, the record sounds like the offhanded pastiche it is, filled with the energy of two guys noodling around with drum machines, samplers, vocoders, and a few rock instruments. Quirk's vocals are blissfully unpolished as well; they crack and sputter with the type of honest yearning that's rarely heard on record these days.
Even as Wonderlick prepares to release its tunes in a more traditional format and play some live shows, work has begun on a second set of songs, tentatively called Topless at the Arco Arena. After all, Quirk and Blumenfield don't need critical acclaim or even high record sales to be "successful" -- they've already developed an online fan base that depends on them for new material.
"Obviously, you think any song you write should be the biggest song in the world," says Blumenfield. "I want people to like it, but I kind of don't care, either. We'd just like to continue making music."