Adventure of a lifetime: alt-pop duo joan launch a bold new era in the Philippines

NME meets joan in Manila to discuss their unlikely journey, which has seen them grow to become one of the most popular indie bands in Asia

“You want to hear one? Hold on,” Alan Thomas exclaims, before disappearing into a rabbit hole of voice clips. He searches through the files stored in his phone for what feels like an eternity, repeatedly tapping the screen and pressing it to his ear.

The lead vocalist and guitarist of pop duo joan is seemingly hellbent on looking for a rough demo that NME has asked to hear. Except, there’s one small problem he has to overcome first: Thomas estimates that he has about 10,000 voice clips stored in his phone, dating back to 2012. The band’s songwriting process often involves fine-tuning “eureka moments” in hopes of creating pop magic – and they recorded the latest voice memo moments before our interview.

“OK!” Thomas exclaims, pushing aside his coffee and leaning towards us to play the audio, in which he coos a catchy vocal hook. He immediately plays a second voice memo of him fiddling with two notes on a piano, singing a few lines for the same song. The two clips date back to March 2021, but the band – comprising Thomas and drummer Steven Rutherford – have since released the track. ‘Flowers’ – an uptempo pop gem coloured with rippling keys – stands as the triumphant lead single from joan’s forthcoming debut album, ‘Superglue’, released April 19.

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It’s early December, and joan are in Manila, speaking with NME in the lounge area of their hotel lobby, which overlooks the southern stretch of the capital. It’s the US duo’s third time in the Philippines, and later this evening, they’ll play at Salo-Salo Fest at neighbouring city Laguna’s Enchanted Kingdom. The three-day music event is billed as the country’s ‘first theme park festival’, featuring local acts including NME 100 graduate Ena Mori. Tonight makes for the last stop on joan’s Asia mini-tour, having played in Tokyo and Bangkok within the past week. It only feels right, then, that they choose to power through the set with ridiculously high energy, capping off a transformative year for joan.

The resulting show is electric: Rutherford supplies clean and punchy rhythms behind his kit, then switches instruments with his bandmate for the instrumental outro of ‘Right Back’ – springing across the stage with a guitar while Thomas takes on drum duties. The band blow air kisses at fans, who immediately rush to the stage post-set for pics with them. Their enthusiasm doesn’t go unnoticed: as alt-rocker Zild, who takes the stage after joan, exclaims, “How are we supposed to follow that?!”

Joan
Credit: Jacob Ruth

Asia is probably the last place you’d expect a pair of American pop artists from Little Rock, Arkansas to cultivate such a sizeable and engaged fanbase. Never mind that their hometown’s local music scene is comprised of artists making “a lot of country, rock and garage band music”, says Thomas. The duo instead craft vibrant, feel-good pop – and they don’t apologise for it.

“I feel like we’re the opposite of a lot of bands who are like, ‘Yeah, I do pop music but it’s like left-of-centre pop,’ or ‘I do pop but it’s alternative’ – I’m like, ‘You can just call us a pop band’,” Thomas says. He and Rutherford formed joan in 2017 after leaving their respective previous bands, whose other members at the time were more focused on “getting real jobs.” The pair became firm friends in college and initially set out to make music to license for film and TV, but took the risk of making original music full-time as Joan instead.

The band released three songs that year, and second single ‘Somebody Like You’ – which has now racked up over 20 million streams on Spotify – raked in a significant portion of listeners from Asia – starting with Manila and Jakarta. Four EPs and 11 singles later, joan’s top Spotify listeners hail entirely from Asian cities: Bangkok, Jakarta, Singapore, Quezon City, and Taipei.

This international phenomenon baffles the duo, who can only guess that their large Asian fanbase stems from the region’s appreciation for indie, alt-pop and synth-based music. In recent years, Manila has played host to international touring artists from these genres, such as London’s HONNE and LA-based artists Lauv and LANY, who all enjoyed sold-out arena concerts in the city. But unlike those three acts, joan don’t come from a capital city or major music hub.

“It’s not lost on us that we’re two guys from a small state that are playing songs in front of hundreds of people literally across the world,” Thomas says. “We didn’t really understand [our success] until we got here, but the fans actually know every word to the songs we’re playing. It was like, ‘Oh, they’re not just numbers, but real people who actually want to come to the show.’ The fact that we have so many active, invested fans here is just really amazing.”

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Joan perform at Salo-Salo Fest. Credit: Jacob Ruth

More surprises kept coming last February, when BTSJungkook posted a quick Instagram story of himself bobbing his head along to joan’s recent hit ‘So Good’ in his car. The K-pop giants’ fanbase, known as Army, subsequently began streaming the track, and went on to bombard joan’s social platforms for at least a week.

It’s fitting, however, that a member of BTS would take notice of joan’s music. Their meticulously crafted hooks and earnest lyrics paired with Thomas’ smooth vocals bring to mind BTS’ predecessors, the pop bands of the ‘90s – minus the choreography. Thomas breaks into laughter. “Oh, I take no issue with that [comparison]. I love *NSync!,” he says. But what he does have a qualm about is being boxed in as a ‘retro’ or ‘nostalgic’ artist by critics.

“We never sat down and said we want to sound ‘nostalgic’, but if you listen to our catalogue, [the past] obviously informs what we do,” says Thomas. “Synths and sounds from the ‘80s and ‘90s are just my go-to, so I gravitate towards them. It’s all natural.”

Both members of joan are self-confessed music geeks, Thomas specifically drawn to the work of famed Swedish pop producer and composer Max Martin. “I remember being 12-years-old and thinking, ‘How did Max Martin get that snare to pop like that? Let’s go search articles and find out the same drums he uses or whatever – let’s figure it out’,” he says. “And now those are the things that we chase in our songs.”

On ‘Superglue’, however, joan are looking to move beyond the tags that have been previously attached to their music. Thomas acknowledges that while it’s taken them five years to release their first full-length record, the delay had more to do with treading a necessary creative journey rather than being bogged down by a specific struggle.

“It was all about timing,” Rutherford adds. “We wanted to make sure that we knew what Joan was before we tried to tell the world what joan was. This new album feels like the start of a new era for us.”

Credit: Jacob Ruth

On the 13-track LP, the pair sometimes go off-piste, allowing themselves to ask existential questions while playing around with unusual production choices. On opener ‘Life Death & Everything In Between,’ Thomas warps his voice to a higher pitch to sound like a younger version of himself. On the track, he cries out: “God, everything seems random / I don’t know which way is up / Surely it all has some sort of meaning, right?

“For ‘Superglue’ specifically, we tried to be as honest as possible because everytime we did the opposite, it just felt wrong for the song. We consider our music very broad, as it can hit people in different ways,” Rutherford says.

“I think that’s what our end goal is, we want to write really accessible pop songs that people of different ages can latch on to,” Thomas concludes. “I trust our instincts. We’ve learned that if the music sounds cheesy to some people, then they’re not your audience and that’s fine. You have a million others out there that would be.”

Joan’s debut album ‘Superglue’ will be released on April 19

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