A Severe Joy: Going Solo to Make Touring More Practical

photos by Stephen Quirk

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José Ayerve (pre-anagram artist who is A Severe Joy) has certainly experienced his share of the severe, but instead of trying to hide from it, he’s tried to turn it into something meaningful.

Previously of Portland, ME indie rock group Spouse, Ayerve has upped the tempo, added drum machines, and gotten a bit artistic and, dare we say, sassy, on his newest self-titled release. Ayerve is a one-man party live, taking his masked alter ego into realms that only those who’ve really lived can do.

Since you are on stage solo much of the time, what equipment and methods are you using to try to make the fullest sound possible?

The fullness of my sound depends on the sound system and how it handles my backing tracks.  I process my live vocals (sung into a Shure SM58) through an old DOD DFX91 (Digital Delay/Sampler).  I use 3 DIs; two for the stereo backing tracks, and one for the vocal line.  For some shows, I’ll bring my guitar and a little portable amp with a strap so I can mix it up and perform a song or two out in the audience.

As I’ve continued developing my live show, I’ve thought about how, from an artistic standpoint, so much of today’s music culture references the 1980s.  Back when I was growing up, there was a show called Solid Gold that featured dancers performing to Top 40 hits.  Whenever there was a guest performer, he or she would sing to backing tracks as the dancers did their thing.  Arguably, it worked. I’m trying to modernize this model into performance art.  From a business standpoint, the practicality is obvious; I can travel more readily, more extensively, more frequently, and less expensively.  The challenge involves making it engaging and satisfying for my audience.  I would love to have a live band, but I cannot afford one.  If I can create some demand, then maybe…

With A Severe Joy, I wanted to see how exciting I could make the simplest of tunes.

What has been the severe of your musical world? What has been the joy?

For 15 years, I sustained a rock band [Spouse] with a fluctuating line-up.  I couldn’t gauge if my persistence was really paying off, so I put the group on hiatus.  I took inventory of my career and I found that my life was not unlike that of a protagonist in a comic book.  I was overwhelmed by an arguably underachieving music career, a lack of self-confidence, the shadow of untapped potential.  Most of all, there was a piece of my recent past that began haunting me.  I was having vivid dreams of a parallel universe.  In 2005 my father was shot and killed during a mugging; in this alternate world, he was still alive.  I wish I could express what I gleaned from that momentary recognition between him and me.  Beyond the sadness, I felt changed, inspired, fearless.

Your daytime and performing personas seem incredibly different – are they? How do you get to the place where you’re writing music for A Severe Joy?

A Severe Joy is a fresh start for me in many ways, and it is malleable.  My daytime persona, while having a lot of freedom, also has a ton of responsibility.  I have a demanding job, a busy life, and managing my time is key.  In that regard, I’m like anybody else.  When I put on the make-up, outfit, boots, and mask, I tap into a different part of myself that is very young and is really just developing. I take the heaviest parts of my life: the insecurities, the doubts, and they become the very issues I celebrate.  The point is: I’m alive, right?  Why not appreciate that? Why not make the most of it and create something worth sharing?

“Until I really establish myself as one of those [bigger] artists, my plan is to minimize my operating costs and make smarter choices.”

What song do you feel best embodies what you have to say? What did the process of writing that song look like?

My long-time band pre-ASJ made songs fairly complex because our goal was to make each as unique as possible.  With ASJ, I wanted to see how exciting I could make the simplest of tunes.  I wanted diversity from song to song without yielding sonic ground.  Complexity still exists in layers, but if you strip it all back, the chord structures are largely straightforward.  “Without” is the track that I think best embodies this approach.  When I wrote it, I wanted it to express a mood and allow the lyrics to really carry it.  The song is about withdrawal, and the beauty of it is that the song itself is withdrawing from extraneous parts.  There are two chords in the verse, two in the chorus, and three in the coda.

You said you felt fearless after the dream experience; how did fear hinder your writing and performing? How has freedom from fear fostered or changed it?

After my dad died, I became a very cautious person.  In my music career, I tried to follow the same paths as more successful bands.  I hired an assistant, a publicist, a manager, a lawyer.  None of that seemed to create more demand for my product.  I was pushing but the reward wasn’t there.  My honest opinion is that the music industry is flooded with talented and not-so-talented musicians all vying for a moment of your attention.  Artists offering something unique have the potential to create the kind of demand that justifies a larger operation.  Until I really establish myself as one of those artists, my plan is to minimize my operating costs and make smarter choices.  I think these dreams of my father in an alternate reality are very much about doing more with a whole lot less.  And with much less at stake, I find it easier to take risks, both creatively and in business.

So you’ve let go of the caution, embraced fearlessness – what’s next for you? Musically? Personally?

I have some ideas, but I really need to just get out there and promote the new album for now.  I’ll keep writing, recording, and incorporating new material.  I would love to do a concept album once I figure out what I want it to sound like.  I recently collaborated with The Milkman’s Union on a sample track for a children’s poetry album.  That may turn into something larger.  I may decide to get back into acting, or head back to school to get a graduate degree.  I guess time will tell.


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