Junior Boys and the Liberation of Not Caring

It's been five years since the last Junior Boys record, but it seems the time apart working with others has been rather beneficial.

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06 February 2016, 3:00pm

"No you'll never see me go" is was the very last lyric left hanging on the edge of Junior Boys excellent 2011 album, It's All True, and it's a perfect way to describe what it's like to be a fan of their music. Whether it's the ruthless percussive basslines during "Itchy Fingers," or the delicate techno of "Kick the Can," Junior Boys music is in constant flux, through genres and styles. Back in 1999 Jeremy Greenspan and Matt Didemus started out making intricate laptop electronica bursting with jabbering synths that referenced techno, krautrock, and indie. But with every album the Canadian duo try and make outsider pop music with a nod to ambient electronica, prodding listeners to notice the significance in texture, subtly balancing dance floor bliss with an air of melancholy.

There's more here than the bleepy novelty of the sequencer modules, filters, and oscillators we heard on their 2004 debut Last Exit, or 2006's house-tinged So This is Goodbye. With their fifth record, Big Black Coat (out now), Junior Boys have transformed their compositions from indie-electro to full-blown R&B electronic pop. There's always been a murky, ambient funk pulsing through their fat, rubbery basslines, but here they hover beneath Greenspan's fragile croon. It's surprising how unforced the new material feels despite the album suffering a five year detour due to work commitments elsewhere.

It's All True draws on R&B and dance music with echoes of disco-pop sliced into Arthur Russell-like experimental new wave and forehead-slapping tech covers like their rework of Bobby Caldwell's 1978 gem, "What You Won't Do for Love." Their songs sound confident, no doubt aided by the fact that in recent years Greenspan has been working with Caribou's Dan Snaith and synth-pop star Jessy Lanza. On the phone from Hamilton, Canada, we talk to Greenspan about how working with Jessy Lanza made him reassess Junior Boys music, being inspired by the community of Hamilton, and having his punk moment when he heard techno for the first time.



Noisey: So, I didn't realize it had been nearly five years since "It's all True" was released. In my mind it feels like it was just a couple of months ago, I mean in my mind everything was just a couple of months ago. What have you been doing this whole time?
We haven't really stopped; in fact, I did more work in this period than I've ever done. I did a bunch of solo releases, worked on a couple of other people's records and with Caribou, but the main thing I've been working on is an album with Jessy Lanza. The first album we did was more successful than we ever anticipated it to be. Because it was such a stretch for us, it made me reassess Junior Boys music, so I started writing a whole new record because of it, and that's the new album coming out this week.

Your first release was in 2003 and those years give you so many moments to iron out the creases of your craft. Do you feel that you can get a clearer perspective now?
When a certain period of time goes by, you start to see the things that you did as being not really you, you know? I feel that way about our first few albums. Like, did you ever see photographs of yourself from when you were 10 years old? You identify it as you, but it's not, so instead you can comment and say, "Oh yeah that kid is cute," or "What a freak." I listened to my older stuff and it sounds like someone else.

Essentially, you started out in the electronic scene, but how has your music shifted over the years?
Music is super accelerated. Stuff happened in electronic music 10 years ago that we were really excited about and now no one even remembers it. We did this press tour a couple of weeks ago and I remember thinking when Junior Boys was starting out, I didn't feel like I wanted to have my face on things, that's not a part of what electronic music was. At this point, the fact that we're still around is our own good dumb luck. The new Jessy Lanza album gave me a new lease on life because I didn't have to rely on Junior Boys to pay all my bills, so it meant I was free to make whatever Junior Boys album I wanted to make. I actually scrapped a whole bunch of earlier material because it sounded much like what I think Junior Boys ought to sound like.

There were definitely pockets of sound akin to your last album, but it's certainly got more R&B and pop hooks.
With this record I wanted people to be kind of perplexed by it, but here's the thing, it's hard for me not to sound like myself, so I tried to make a conscious effort always to veer away from my instincts.

You've also been in a musical partnership with Matt for a long time at this point. Have you found that's changed your songwriting process? Are you hearing each other's minds now, or going over the editing process a little less?
We have a funny and weird relationship because he lives in Berlin. The way it's worked is I've done about 50 percent of the albums myself. The stuff we do together is always my favorite because I like his ideas. So, it works even though it doesn't happen as frequently as I would want it to.

I wonder if that separation fuels your creativity? If you're not smothering each other all the time, perhaps that gives each song the time it needs.
We're not involved in each other's lives very much, certainly not on a daily basis. Junior Boys is something we do that makes us come together, and while it would be better if he lived in Canada, you can't tell someone to live here just for music. It doesn't work that way.

Surely the kind of music and how you make it would be better if you didn't do long distance?Definitely! Things that are particular about our method and the way that we work make it so that it's not easy. We work in a way that requires us to rely on each other in a physical space and feeling that, not doing a lot of transferring, which sucks the fun out of records. Unlike the last two albums before this, where we worked on a small group of songs and made them complicated, we finished this album really fast.

Speaking of the other projects that you've been focusing on, in 2007 you were nominated for a Grammy for remixing, which you've done a lot of in the past few years. How does remixing inform your songwriting?
To be perfectly honest, I'd like to do less and less of it, only because I don't think I'm good at it. The problem with a remix is that if you like the song, you have the struggle of trying to do justice to it. What I like doing is mixing other people.

Why do you tend to enjoy mixing at this point in your career?
I've always liked collaborating. If you work with talented people you're going to make better stuff. Two heads are better than one and that's how you learn. If you look at music from the process of learning, it's impossible to get to a stage where you've learned everything you can. So to make sure your process keeps evolving, you must see how other people create art.

I think a lot of artists, particularly Aphex Twin and Bibio, tend to squirrel away and create art separate to society, which is a method conducive to the type of music they make, and it works.
I can't quite believe that they learn by osmosis the same way I do. But on the other hand, being out in public and making yourself well known should not be a concern too. Anytime you're thinking too hard you'll invariably start making boring music, which is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I think that's a human concern, not to be oblivious but to dim the mind when it comes to outside ego and noise.
If you are in the creative arts it's a good idea to think about other ways to make money than the thing you do creatively, because everything might suffer for it.

I agree, you have to be concerned with devaluing what you value so high by even valuing it in the first place—if you don't focus on your art for monetary value then the essence is saved somehow.
I think people have this weird thing in the arts where they think someone owes them something, and no one owes you anything!

The press and marketing cycle of an album offers insight into the type of artist you are and how broad they want their reach to be. Ten years ago in support of your 2006 album, So This Is Goodbye, you launched a fan-submitted video contest to use any song from the album as a soundtrack for fan-made films. Was that ever a consideration this time around?
That is something the label came up with. They just said, "Hey, we're going to do this thing," and it ended up being quite a success. My feelings with record labels and marketing things has been pretty contrary to what musicians will probably tell you. I just let the label do whatever the hell they want! I trust that record labels know how to sell records. If the idea doesn't completely embarrass or humiliate me, then I tell them to do whatever the fuck they want.

I suppose solely focusing on the music is the goal, but the important thing is how to stay relatable. Like Hot Chip and Caribou, you write personal dance songs, which the press tends to be very interested in.
Stephen Sondheim, who is a great lyricist and wrote West Side Story, has a famous quote: "Lyrics, even poetic ones, are not poems." They're words set to music, and they both live in a space that's outside of the context of music. That's an important thing for people to bear in mind when they listen to dance music to find meaning; words can become pregnant with meaning because of the musical context they're in. In disco, you have people singing the same thing over and over again, "Move your body," it doesn't look great on a page, but it has a sense of emotional resonance and meaning when you contextualise it with the music.

Much in the way your last album was very autobiographical, I take it this album isn't coming from your perspective, but the people around you?
Absolutely. I wrote this album thinking about the kinds of people in my hometown. It's a typical rust belt, post-industrial city where 80,000 people were employed by the steel mills, and now there's only 4,000 people employed, so it's a run down, depressive city with lots of lonely resentful men wandering the streets. The songs tended to be from their perspective, filled with men dealing with emotionally complex lives that they don't want to articulate, so it just comes across as loneliness. There's actually a little thread of misogyny, because it's men dealing with being creepy toward women because they have nothing left.

The other thing I noticed is how pre-2011, your vocals weren't at the forefront of your composition.
On the last album, I wanted the voice to be up front because I felt like that was the trend in modern R&B music. That was the result of working with Jessy, she wanted to capture her singing really fast and then treat her vocals like another instrument, which she found liberating. On our third album, we went to this studio in Germany with awesome microphones where they've done vocals for Motown, but for this album I totally abandoned that.

Do you feel like you were able to tap into those characters by changing your voice? And did you wonder how fans might react to its subject matter?
Yes, in so far as I didn't feel self-conscious about saying the things that I was saying. This is our fifth album, so I really wanted to challenge what people thought of a Junior Boys record. I don't think the people who like us want us to make the same record over and over again. I'm gratified when people like the stuff but I've come to a point in my life where things have gone well and I just don't really care. If you care, you're going to get an inflated sense of yourself. I think people who make art should always have a sense that they are struggling, a feeling of desperation like you're compelled to work and there's a whole world out there against you.

The indie-electro scene has undergone so many changes over the last few years. So where the hell do you see it going?
When I heard techno for the first time, for me that was my punk moment. All the music of the past was obliterated and nothing to do with rock 'n' roll and guitars mattered. The only thing that mattered was dance music. When I heard Timbaland in modern R&B, which then changed my interest in modern dance music. The promise of dance music that I felt in the early 90s, which was to make electronic music that was forward-thinking and futuristic, doesn't exist in dance music as much anymore. Dance music now is too rigidly defined and dependent on its own history. I think the promise of dance music now is actually actualized in R&B.

I think progression happens when the scope of what you've done in the past informs what you're doing now. Where would you say Big Black Coat fits in the genre of music?
I see myself as part of the tradition of outsider pop music, like Todd Rundgren or Arthur Russell. I'm not trying to make pop music and I like the fact that if someone were to ask what kind of a band Junior Boys is, you could probably come up with a bunch of descriptors. Sonny Bono once said, "I had the good fortune of being a bad singer." He had a bad voice, but everyone knew it because it was distinctive. I've had the good fortune of not really knowing what I'm doing, so if I go home and try to make pop or R&B music, I'll always just sound like Junior Boys.

Big Black Coat is out now via City Slang

Lior Phillips is a South African writer living Tel Aviv. Follow her on Twitter.