Leveling Up with Joystick

"A lot of music is sad and angry—not that ska can’t be, but it's OK to jump around and be silly and goofy. You don’t gotta be angry all the time!"

“I’m new and improved! I’m so much better than I used to be,” sings Paul “Duck” Tucker, an unmistakable figure sporting bright green hair, red glasses, and a t-shirt for locally-produced horror flick Stabbed in the Face. A frenzy of stomping feet skank across the pavement at Parisite Skatepark, under I-610, as people shout along. “I was an awful alcoholic! I was a shitty drunk and fucked up on drugs,” Tucker continues over a punky barrage of horns and power chords. It’s Joystick’s first show in 17 months. It’s also the group’s album release show.

Joystick has been one of New Orleans’ longest continual defenders of ska since the band began practicing in 2008 and started playing shows the following year. In April, the group released its fourth full-length album I Can’t Take it Anymore on Bad Time Records and Stomp Records, two well-regarded out-of-town ska labels. The band’s latest material focuses heavily on major changes in Tucker’s life over the past few years. While Joystick’s raunchy 2010 debut featured song titles like “Drink, Drank, Drunk” and “I’m Like A Chocoholic, But For Booze,” much of the new album reflects on Tucker’s transition into sobriety after years of heavy drinking and drug use. The group still has plenty of fun and writes songs that reflect that too, but they’ve matured a great deal over the past decade. If the warm reception at their comeback show is any reflection, ska fans are all for it. Joystick’s return to the road is eagerly anticipated after the pandemic hit pause on the band’s long history of consistent touring. With hopeful eyes set on going abroad for the first time once it’s possible, Joystick is back and, as Tucker sang, so much better than they used to be. I caught up with Tucker to discuss the future of ska, the hundreds of Joystick records stuck on a boat in the Suez Canal, and the deeply personal journey towards making I Can’t Take it Anymore.

How did it feel to play the album release show at Parisite?

It was awesome, man! It felt normal again. It felt hopeful. I can’t stop smiling about it. I feel like this weight has been lifted. Music has been the one thing in my life that has been a constant since I was like 10. Having a year without being able to play shows [was rough]. Now that I’m old, everything is online. We did the album release thing and we did all these interviews. I grew a lot! [laughs] It felt good to see everybody and that energy that’s only at shows. You can’t replace that. It’s one of the best feelings in the world.

I don’t think I’ve seen a local ska show go that hard in a long time. It felt like people were skanking off all these different feelings they’ve had over the past year and a half.

I hope it stays like this for a while. I hope it’s at least a couple of years before people start getting jaded again. It’s awesome to see everybody smiling and just so happy. There is no drama right now so that’s kind of fucking nice.

Now that shows are coming back, what do you think the future of ska shows is going to look like?

It kind of feels like how it was in the ‘90s. Trends go in circles anyways. I was talking to a couple of the dudes about it. We were saying that there was the Roaring ‘20s in the 1920s because there was a renaissance after the [1918 influenza pandemic] quarantine. I think there’s going to be an art renaissance, not just a ska renaissance. I think everything is going to be pretty good for a while. All these young kids and teenagers are discovering ska for the first time and it reminds me of when I was that age learning about ska. It’s just such a happy feeling overall. A lot of music is sad and angry—not that ska can’t be, but it’s OK to jump around and be silly and goofy. You don’t gotta be angry all the time! [laughs]

The new Joystick album definitely has a balance. There are parts where it is happy and then there are parts where you’re talking about some serious stuff too.

I always kept notebooks around that I would journal in, especially once I started getting sober. It was part of my recovery. That’s basically where all the lyrics came from on the new album. I just had to reword them so they would rhyme and fit into the lines. I like the juxtaposition of that too: the happy, upbeat music with darker lyrics. It’s fun to play around with that.

Yeah. Ska sounds really happy, but it can also be really serious or political. It can also just be stupid too. [laughs]

The last two Joystick albums have been a little heavy. When we start recording again, we definitely want the next album to be a little lighter. You can’t be all doom and gloom.

I don’t think you guys have written a song about hurting [bassist] Clay [Aleman] in a while.

Yeah. I think we’ve kind of moved past it. That was mean! We put that guy through some shit! The really cool thing about being in a band for twelve years and basically having the same lineup for the last nine years is seeing how everyone’s grown up. We were shitbags! [laughs] We all grew up and it’s so cool that we stayed together. We can be parts of each other’s lives. People are starting to get married and have kids and settle down and buy houses. It’s really cool that we’ve still got the music and can be there for each other through it. I feel like it’s a pretty rare thing and I’m super happy to be a part of it.

It’s incredible for a relatively small local ska band to last 13 years. How do you keep a band together that long?

I don’t know. I’d say the music is more of an excuse. If we’re all going to practice then we all get to hang out together. We’re more like a family than a band. We’re all parts of each other’s lives and then we have the music thing too. It’s kind of an excuse to go on vacation together and get to hang out. Then there’s the creative outlet of course too. I can’t imagine my life without being in it at this point. I started the band when I was 29 and I’m 42 now.

These last two albums have been transitional, especially with the new one’s focus on your past history with drugs and alcohol. I remember the earlier days of Joystick when it was drunken dive bar chaos. Was there any pushback when you said you were going to write about different stuff?

No, because towards the end of my drinking and using career, it was getting real bad. I think it was getting to the point with the guys in the band where, if I was them, I wouldn’t want to hang around me anymore. It sucks when someone you really love is going through that because you can stick around and be part of their lives but, if you keep bailing them out, at a certain point, you’re helping their addiction. If I didn’t get sober, I don’t know if we would’ve been friends or anything anymore because they were getting their shit together and my life was ugly. I think they’re happy that I got sober. Now I can be a good friend to them like they were to me all those times. I can repay that because I was not a really good friend for a long time.

The band has matured in different directions, but you still feel like Joystick.

Yeah. We do still pick on Clay. [laughs] Maybe we don’t punch him anymore. I don’t think we’ve changed the core of ourselves. We’ve just grown up. It was something that we talked about a couple of years ago when we were about to start doing the album. We were like, “We should start holding ourselves accountable more for what we do.” We challenge ourselves to be better people and we help ourselves with that. I think it’s helped us to grow as people.

Still from the video for “Rinse and Repeat” (directed by Jeff Van Gerwen)

You recorded the new album at the beginning of the pandemic. What was that like?

We tracked the drums and then two weeks later everything shut down… so we didn’t record for a month or two because we thought the whole thing was going to last like three months and then it’d get better. Then it wasn’t and it was looking like it was going to be a long time. We would go in, one or two of us at a time. Mickey [Retzlaff] would go in and record his guitar parts. Then Clay and I would go in and record some bass or vocals. There was no hurry so we took nine or ten months to record the whole thing, which I think probably helped. We could go back and be like, “We don’t like this part so we’re going to completely scrap it and re-do it.” We could take our time and pick it apart. It was pretty nice to be able to do that. I think that’s how we’re going to do our albums from now on. If we’re going to start recording later this year, the album might not even come out until 2023 or something. What’s the hurry?

One of the singles is titled “7675.” What does that configuration of numbers mean?

Clay wrote that song and we couldn’t figure out a song title. He was showing Mickey the song and was like, “OK. It’s the seventh fret, the sixth fret.” That’s how you play the song! It’s just three chords. Power chords, of course. The song is so dumb. I love it though.

It’s great to be able to do songs like that and then do songs that are really serious.

That’s one thing I do like about Joystick that we’ve done from the start. We are a ska punk band but we don’t just stick to one “genre” of ska. We do some really slow stuff. We do some fast, heavy stuff—and everything in between. Maybe that’s a key to our longevity. It definitely doesn’t get boring. We even have a kind of indie song on the new album.

For those who don’t know, can you describe what the ska scene was like in New Orleans when Joystick started?

Dude, it was awesome! There were way more all-ages shows. I don’t even think there are all-ages shows in New Orleans anymore. There was The High Ground in Metairie. There were Fatter Than Albert, Angry Banana, and Samurai Deli. Fatter Than Albert and Angry Banana were pretty fucking big, at least locally when we started. There was a pretty big scene going and we were the new guys. We would play with them and there would be hundreds of kids at the shows. Slowly, both of those bands dropped away and then it was just us for a while. The all-ages spaces started going away. At that point, we were basically just a party band. We would get rip roaring trashed and then play shows. We played at some bars that didn’t ID, so some underage people could come, but everyone that grew up watching us either grew out of ska or stopped going to shows. That happens when people get older. We got a new scene and started playing with a lot of punk bands. A lot of older people started going to the shows around New Orleans. It’s been like that for a while, but it was starting to change right before everything shut down. We were starting to get some new younger people getting into ska. It’ll be interesting to see what it’s like now. I wish we still had some all-ages venues here.

When Joystick started, you could flyer everywhere in New Orleans. Any kid could see that and decide to check out the show. Now, everything is hidden behind cryptic social media posts. Unless you’re in the loop, you just don’t know.

That’s true. I didn’t think about that. I do miss those days. I used to really like going to shows and standing by the front door, handing out flyers. That’s how you would see all your friends. That was so fun! Maybe we could try to bring those back.

What was it like when you would go tour other places?

Up north, the shows are huge, huge, huge, and in Florida too. I guess that’s probably why we toured so much. Not that the shows here aren’t amazing, but we would go other places and play for hundreds of people. That’s always really fun, especially because after you go back a couple of times, people start to know your stuff. A lot of places we go, we’re so familiar with the area that it’s like a second home. I miss touring. I’ve been touring pretty consistently since 1997. Last year was the first year we didn’t get to go anywhere, so that was a pretty big bummer. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Now, we have a couple of tours booked. I can’t wait until we can announce them.

You’ve been into ska since you were a kid growing up in Texas in the ‘90s. How did you get into ska?

I think the first ska band I heard was probably Less Than Jake or it might’ve been Reel Big Fish. It was back in the ‘90s when there was that ska boom for like two months. The [Mighty Mighty] Bosstones and Reel Big Fish were on the radio. My brother got a Voodoo Glow Skulls tape. They were more towards the punk side of things. I remember being like, “Holy shit. What is this?” I already liked punk music, but you could put horns on it? This is freaking crazy! We wanted to start a band, but we didn’t have too many friends that played instruments. The ones that did were horn players so it was a natural thing. I love the sound of brass and I like being able to have another instrument that can add another melody that’s not necessarily vocals, lead guitar, or keyboards. I guess my brain is just wired that way. Whenever I write a song, I can just hear it in my head and translate it over to the instruments.

How old were you when you started playing in bands?

I probably started my first band when I was 13 or 14, but it was just me and my brother with a keyboard and he used pencils to play drums on a bucket. We would record onto a cassette tape. We wrote original songs, but they were all about boogers and aliens. I still have those cassette tapes. It was really fun. I didn’t start my first real band until I was like 16. My mom would rent out a VFW hall and we would have a show. We’d play in people’s backyards and stuff. That’s how it all got started.

I remember once we were hanging out with [Alternative Tentacles owner / former Dead Kennedys singer] Jello Biafra and you surprised him with a split seven inch your old band Better Than Nothing did with Wesley Willis. How did that record come about?

That was the first or second band I was in that would actually go on tour. We had this friend that was starting a record label and he was like, “Let’s do a seven inch!” I was like, “Yeah!” He said we should do it with Wesley Willis. I said I’ll send a letter to Alternative Tentacles because they would always brag about how they were punk and supported the DIY underground. So I was like, “Yeah! They’ll do it! I’ll just send them a letter.” I said, “Hey. I’m in this band. We want to do a split seven inch with Wesley Willis. Can we have a couple of songs?” We got a letter back and it was like, “No! Absolutely not!” I wrote a letter back. I was pretty young so I was basically like, “Fuck you guys. You said you’re DIY and support the underground.” I just called them out. They wrote us back and said we could have two songs. [laughs]

It was funny because Jello Biafra didn’t even know it existed.

Yeah. For like 20 years, I thought he was who I was corresponding with on the letters. When we were hanging out with him, he was like, “That must have been Jeff or whoever.” I can’t remember whoever he said it was. Now that I’ve released some stuff on a record label, it makes way more sense. How would he have all that time and run a label? That dude is busy. Of course I wasn’t talking to him. It was still pretty cool. It was actually the last thing that Wesley Willis released. It came out and then he passed away like a month later. There were only 100 or 150 of them. Every once and a while, I’ll see one on eBay and it will be like 300 bucks! I wish I still had some of those.

Did you ever get to see Wesley Willis?

A couple of times. He was an interesting man. He was really nice the two times I met him. Those were shows I will never forget. He was incredible. He worked a crowd. I’ve never seen people mosh so hard over the demo on a keyboard—crowd surfing and stage diving! He would get up there and yell at people. He would tell them to shut up. [laughs] One time, he was singing a song and his choruses always repeat, so the whole crowd was singing along. He stops and goes, “Quit fucking up my show! Quit singing!” He started the song completely over and everyone was just silent.

Did you get one of the infamous headbutts?

I did. That callus [on Willis’ forehead] was pretty dang hard. He would hit you! The one thing I do regret is he sold his artwork at the shows I saw him at. It was like 20 or 30 bucks. I wish I would’ve bought one! They were pretty good!

How did you wind up linking up with Stomp Records and Bad Time Records for the new album?

Sinceriously [Joystick’s 2017 album] was released on Stomp. [Former Joystick drummer] Dante [Graziani] was on tour with PEARS [as their tour manager]. I think they played Pouzza Fest up in Canada. Dante knew some of the dudes that ran Stomp. We had finished recording the album and were just going to release it ourselves. We sent it to Dante and were like, “Hey, we finished. Check this out.” He didn’t even ask us. He played it for Stomp and they were like, “Holy crap. Let’s put this out.” Dante told us Stomp wants to put out this record and we were like, “What? No way!” That is how we released that one. Years later, we went on tour with Kill Lincoln, which is Mike [Sosinski] from Bad Time’s band. We recorded the new album and sent it off to Stomp. They were like, “Yeah. Let’s do it.” We sent it to Mike too and he was like, “Dude, this is good. Please let me put this out.” We told him about our thing with Stomp and he was like, “Let me talk to them please! I want to do it.” They worked out something and we worked out something with Bad Time. The thing that sucks is that everyone in America still hasn’t gotten their vinyl yet because it got stuck on that boat in the Suez Canal.

It got stuck in the Suez Canal?

Yeah! Everyone in Japan already has their records. Everyone in the U.K. and Canada too. Everybody except America. There are a couple hundred people who are just like, “Where’s my record?” It’s on a boat somewhere in the middle of the ocean! Sorry! [laughs] That’s why we didn’t even have records at the record release show, because they’re on a boat somewhere… I hope we have them by the time we go on tour because that would be a bummer if we didn’t.

I feel like that’s the kind of thing that would only happen to Joystick.

All the other countries got theirs because it went by air but the shipping costs way, way more. There were so many copies sold in America that it wouldn’t have been worth it so it’s just stuck on a boat.

How has New Orleans changed your life?

I feel like I found myself here. I know that sounds kind of cornball, but I moved around. I lived in Texas, San Francisco, Colorado, West Virginia, and Georgia. I moved around a bit for whatever band I was in at the time. I would live there when we weren’t touring. I don’t want to say I didn’t feel at home, but I didn’t really fit in or feel comfortable. Even in Texas, growing up as a kid, I was like, “I can’t wait to get out of here.” There’s something about here. There’s no other place I’ve been that is like this. There’s a culture here that makes me happy just thinking about it. I loved it here and I felt like I fit in. I felt at peace. Now that I’ve gotten sober, I can remember more things that happen and be more of an active participant instead of just taking in things. I can actually give back to the city. It’s been super awesome. I want to live here until I’m dead.

Is there anything else you want to say?

We really tried to push ourselves [on the new album]. As far as the lyrics go, I really tried to be completely out there as much as I could. I was talking to Mike when it was already at the press. The records were already being made and it was a week before we were going to announce it. I was like, “Oh man, I don’t know. I’m starting to get cold feet.” I’m talking about how I contemplated suicide and stuff on the album. I don’t know if I want everybody knowing my business. [laughs] Mike was like, “No, you’re doing good. You’re going to help somebody.” It’s out there now and I’ve only heard wonderful, good things. I’m glad people are getting something out of it. We started writing the songs within my first year of being sober, so it was almost like therapy for me. It was nice to be able to work through a bunch of stuff through music, which is something I’m comfortable with. If somebody else can get something out of it too, that’s awesome.

I Can’t Take it Anymore is out now on Stomp Records (stomprecords.com) and Bad Time Records (badtimerecords.com). For more information, check out joysticknola.bandcamp.com. Joystick will perform at Gasa Gasa on August 29 with Flying Raccoon Suit, The NoShows, and Rich Octopus.

Top Photo: Joystick’s album release show at Parisite Skatepark, June 6 (Photo by DC Young)

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