The Clash’s sprawling 1980 triple album “Sandinista!” looms large over Too Much Joy. As kids growing up in Scarsdale, N.Y., it was the album that band members bonded over and learned their instruments (or, in the case of singer and attempted guitarist Tim Quirk, didn’t) by trying to copy it. One of its songs — the charged-up version of the Equals’ “Police on My Back” — remained a staple of the band’s chaotically energetic live shows for years. And Quirk references it in discussing the massive number of songs the band ended up recording for its new album “All These [Expletive] Feelings.” So naturally, when the opportunity arose to record a Clash song for a covers album, Too Much Joy jumped at the chance . . . to record “We Are the Clash,” from notorious clunker “Cut the Crap.”
“You know, we have a perverse streak,” says Quirk. “And when we found out that a label . . . was putting out a tribute album to the Clash’s worst record, we were like, not only do we have to participate, we have to record the worst song on the record.”
That, in a nutshell, is Too Much Joy, which comes to Sonia in Cambridge on Tuesday. The short, three-city tour marks the band’s first live shows in 15 years, its first playing new material in 25, and the first time the band will play the songs from “Feelings” and its 2021 predecessor “Mistakes Were Made” — both written and recorded virtually during the pandemic — together, in one room, at the same time. But for more than a decade, Too Much Joy played a smart and funny blast of punk-fueled alternative pop that embraced, in early-’90s college-radio staples like “Long Haired Guys From England” and “Crush Story,” both a beer-fueled smartassery and the melancholy buzz that follows. And through it all, Too Much Joy rarely missed an opportunity to shoot itself in the foot.
A thorough recounting of the band’s acts of self-sabotage goes beyond even the section on the band’s Wikipedia page devoted to them, but a few highlights will suffice. There was the time Too Much Joy got sued by Bozo the Clown. The Florida arrest for performing 2 Live Crew songs in protest of the rap group’s then-recent obscenity arrest. (Drummer Tommy Vinton was an active-duty New York City cop at the time.) The interrogation by the Secret Service at a D.C. show. Complaining about the pay-for-play nature of alt-rock radio festivals from the stage of the very alt-rock radio festival they were complaining about.
When asked where the band’s penchant for misadventure comes from, Quirk chuckles. “If I knew, I could stop it, possibly,” he says. “It’s gotta be wrong to say that trouble finds us. It must be us making the trouble. But it never feels that way in the moment, right? It just feels like we’re having perfectly natural reactions to circumstances, and those reactions then sort of blow up from there. It may just be that where a different band would let some of this [stuff] happen and then just focus on the music and move on, if we get a letter from Newt Gingrich saying he really likes one of our songs, we’re not filing that away in a drawer. We’re sending that to Time Magazine. That’s our instinct.”
The same impulse can also be found in Too Much Joy’s songs, which can be easily confused for bratty, drunken anthems if you don’t notice the frustrated empathy, existential panic, and dawning realization that the narrator just might not be the main character of the world around him. One of Too Much Joy’s defining characteristics as a band has long been that it was too dumb to realize that it shouldn’t be so smart. “I have never in my life understood how and why people use ‘clever’ as a putdown,” says Quirk. “This is just who we are. We’re slightly over-intellectual, over-educated, overfed dudes with a sense of humor, so that comes out in the music.”
The title track to “All These [Expletive] Feelings” is a case in point. It’s easy to get caught up in the blunt profanity of the title and laugh at the sound of a grown man breaking down because he can’t regulate his emotions. But deeper than that lies a picture of the struggle of being human and how things can come to the surface despite all the rational efforts in the world to stop them. Quirk — who often describes Too Much Joy songs as having a shallow end and a deep end and leaves it up to the listener to decide where they want to swim — explains the song as a reflection of his own repressed upbringing.
“I grew up in a specific John Cheever-esque milieu. I’m a northeastern WASP. I grew up in a household where ‘love’ was a dirty word,” he says. “I still struggle with that. So there’s a line in there, ‘I wish I was 4 and I could just cry for no reason.’ That’s the thing I have been saying out loud for decades. Literally, any time I hear some kid screaming, I basically turn to whoever I’m with and I say, ‘We all feel that way.’ In a way, Too Much Joy has been my way of being a screaming 4-year-old throughout my life.”
That ability to see the virtue in immaturity has maybe been one reason why Too Much Joy’s idiotic youthful blurtings have somehow matured into the wisdom of age. “My entire life, just as a human being, is ping-ponging between self-loathing and self-worship,” says Quirk. “So that hasn’t changed. Hopefully, I’ve reached more of an equilibrium in my dotage than I had when I was an adolescent. But I will confess that from time to time, if I look back at the old stuff and I find something unhateful, I’m pleasantly surprised and a little pleased that we got something right sometimes.”
Marc Hirsh can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @spacecitymarc
TOO MUCH JOY
At Sonia in Cambridge, Tuesday, Nov. 1., 8 p.m.