Joywave Pivots from Indie Pop to Cryptocurrency

Daniel Armbruster of Joywave talks blockchain, content/Content, and what keeps the band living happily in Rochester, N.Y.

Earlier this year, quietly and without any leaks, the members of Rochester, N.Y. indie pop outfit Joywave did something familiar to consumers of quality content out here in the land of startups. They pivoted from alternative music to something totally different: cryptocurrency. Now known — on Twitter, at least — as Joywave Blockchain LLC, Inc., the former band decided to hitch its collective wagon to a get-rich-quick star.

Or at least they did so in late January, when frontman Daniel Armbruster spoke with SF Weekly and Bitcoin had yet to plummet from its stratospheric valuation to something closer to $7,300 (but only when you convert its cosmic splendor into musty old fiat currency, which hardly anybody even uses anymore, really). This came about largely because Eastman Kodak, the ailing film-and-camera giant, had made a similar move, trying to woo photographers back with KODAKcoin, a cryptocurrency designed aimed at giving them more control over their work.

“I was like, ‘All right, if we’re just printing money, I might as well get in on this,’ ” Armbruster says. “Joycoin! It’s definitely crazy and such a bubble right now. I assume your Facebook page is a lot like mine, in that there’s people you haven’t talked to in 10 years or since high school, and those are the people who are posting about Bitcoin or Ethereum or blockchain.

“It’s like nobody realizes that not everyone’s going to get rich,” he adds. “That’s not how wealth works — and if that happened, that would be the worst thing in the world because no one would work anymore, and there’d be no one doing their jobs — for society to function.”

An economics minor in college, Armbruster then compares blockchain to the 17th-century Dutch tulip bubble and to decentralized technologies like Linux, which seem to hold revolutionary potential until you realize there’s no call center to ring up when you need support (or to dispute a transaction).

But really, it all has to do with Rochester, the postindustrial city in Upstate New York that Joywave continues to call home. Instead of decamping for Bushwick or Silver Lake, its members stayed put. Famous as the home of Kodak — Xerox, too — and for having an abandoned subway system laid over the former route of the Erie Canal, Rochester would seem to be a backward-facing kind of place. But it’s integral to Joywave’s identity as the band sets out on its “Thanks. Thanks for Coming” Tour (which brings them to Swedish American Hall on Friday, Feb. 16).

What do they know that we non-Rochesterians do not? For one, Armbruster agrees that by the time hipster metropolises like Austin or Portland embark upon “Keep [Austin or Portland] Weird” campaigns, that alluring weirdness is probably gone forever. But it’s also because Rochester is cheap.

“It’s not like we as musicians would make more money in a larger city at this point,” he says. “We spend a ton of time on tour, so why do I want to pay rent to live in Williamsburg or Echo Park?”

Rochester, he says, is an “economic Chernobyl.”

“The meltdown happened in the ’90s,” he says, years before the 2008 crash decimated other places. “It never got as bad as Detroit got, or like Flint, but everyone here had to figure it out from themselves, had to start small business.

“A lot of people are coming back after they spend time in New York or L.A.,” he adds. “They’re bringing new restaurants, new coffee philosophies. A lot of people who moved away 10 years ago come back and visit and they’re like, ‘It’s actually really awesome now!’”

It’s getting harder and harder not to conclude that indie rock, however defined, is a genre staring down terminal exhaustion. But Joywave is an exciting band, possibly because Rochster’s newfound sense of promise is infectious. Joywave’s latest album, 2017’s Content — which is pronounced like the synonym for “happy” or “at ease” and not like the soul-crushing replacement term for culture — is a genre-defying indie-pop record that’s less obsessed with keeping listeners’ heads bobbing on the dancefloor than 2015’s How Do You Feel Now?. Live, particularly at festivals and venues with big screens, Joywave has perfected an art-nerd synchronization, a cross between OK Go’s technical precision and Weezer’s goofy affability. And Content’s gotcha name was a deliberate prank, Armbruster says.

“I say ‘con-TENT,’ but the entire idea was to describe the discrepancy behind what you think,” he says. “We were aware when making this record that it was going to hit on the Spotify new music section for a week, and the next week it’s going to be buried by this person and this person, lost in the shuffle, forever lost in the ether. That is the ultimate definition of content, to me: stuff that exists.”

Within weeks of its release, the band knew people were content with Content’s content, as audiences were already singing the lyrics back to them. There’s plenty to work with, too, even if live performances carry constrictions. Album closer “Let’s Talk About Feelings” is straight-up lounge music, something that’s effectively impossible for Joywave to perform because they have neither a piano nor an upright bass player on the tour (although that would be great at Swedish American). Armbruster says he was happy with the jubilant range, because he never intended to “gerrymander the body of work into something cohesive.”

“One of the best pieces of advice I ever received as a writer was 10 years ago,” he says. “A producer that I was working with at the time [said one song] was a little out of left field compared to the others, and it wasn’t going to fit on the same record. This particular producer said to me, ‘You don’t have a record; you’re an idiot. Stop trying to write to a certain way. Just do what feels natural and you can decide what things belong together later.’ And after that I decided, ‘OK, well if something comes out of me, fine.’ ”

In light of that, why pass up the opportunity to capitalize on a digital currency now?

Joywave with Sasha Sloan and Kopps, Friday, Feb. 16, 7:30 p.m., at Swedish American Hall, 2174 Market St. $20;

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