Sook Yin-Lee and Adam Litovitz are JOOJ, Jury, and Executioner
The former Much VJ talks about finding sweetness in tragedy and using Netflix as a source for inspiration.
Photo By Jennai Bundock
“It’s really a victory as an artist if you stand by your work,” says former MuchMusic VJ and current Definitely Not the Opera host Sook-Yin Lee. It is a rainy afternoon in May, and on this particular day the forces of nature are mourning a loss. Hours before our interview, the world said its final goodbyes to jazz legend B.B. King. In an eerie coincidence, a teenage Lee actually crossed paths with King while living in her native Vancouver. “He was such a generous and warm person,” says Lee recollecting the encounter. Sitting across from me in a coffee shop located in Toronto’s Kensington Market, Lee is joined by poet and multi-instrumentalist Adam Litovitz. Together the two form the band JOOJ, whose eponymous debut album was released May 26 on Last Gang Records. Although Lee has been releasing music since the late 1980s, this latest record has proven to be one of great affection. “I’ve made albums of music of which I can’t in its entirety stand by, but this album I can stand by front to back.”
Although JOOJ has its origins in Lee’s 2011 art exhibition We Are Light Rays, Lee and Litovitz’s passion for creation stems back much further than that. Growing up in a family of dissension and violence, Lee left home at the age of 15. Looking to funnel her repressed creativity, Lee joined the Canadian alternative band Bob’s Your Uncle, who released their first single in 1985. Three albums later the band called it quits, and Lee was once again searching for a new project. In 1994 Lee released her debut solo album Lavinia’s Tongue. With four albums now under her belt and various other projects, Lee had firmly established a name for herself in Vancouver’s underground art scene. Word of mouth continued to grow, and it didn’t take long for bigger players to take notice of Lee’s work. Come the summer of 1995, Lee was contacted by co-founder and former Citytv head Moses Znaimer. Looking to add someone exciting and new to the VJ roster at MuchMusic, Znaimer extended an invite to Lee to join the program. “I didn’t know much about MuchMusic at that point, but I just took it as a challenge from this disembodied voice on the other end of the phone and I thought ‘okay.’” With her mind made up, Lee packed her belongings and moved to Toronto. Meanwhile in North York, Ontario, a young Litovitz was busy reveling in his love of films.
When his babysitter would ask him if he’d like to watch the now defunct live dance music program Electric Circus, Litovitz told her he’d much prefer noir films such as 1944’s Gaslight. With a poet for a mother, and a father who would play the likes of George Gershwin and Fats Waller, it’s easy to understand where Litovitz gets his penchant for creativity. “His father realized he was writing with fridge magnetics when he was two,” says Lee. “Words are in his blood.” Aside from drawing inspiration from the movies, Litovitz was continuing to expand his musical library as well. While some kids might learn to play guitar chords from bands such as AC/DC or Metallica, Litovitz was under the staircases at school playing Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” or Yes’ “Mood for a Day.” His enjoyment of creating sounds flourished, often leading him to play repetitive trance-inducing riffs he’d get lost in for hours. Not wanting to play alone, Litovitz would join different bands to further satisfy his musical interests. “It’s just something I‘ve always gravitated towards,” says Litovitz on making music. “It’s not something I really think about too much, but it happens and then when it happens I’m happy.” With both Lee and Litovitz now on their own courses in life, it was soon time for their paths to cross.
In the mid-2000s, both Lee and Litovitz were asked by a mutual friend to be part of a play called Cocklength. The encounter was brief, with Lee helping to wrangle production and Litovitz starring as a ghostly version of Yes’ drummer, Bill Bruford. The pair would eventually meet again at a John Zorn concert in Toronto. It was here that their relationship was cemented, with Litovitz asking Lee what made her happy. “I’d never even thought to think about what makes me happy,” says Lee. A powerful bond was ignited in that moment, one that would go on to fuel JOOJ’s inception. With her sister battling cancer, Lee and Litovitz moved back to Vancouver to help support her. “It was a brutal regiment that she went through,” says Lee. “We realized very early on that the only way we could escape that [pain], was to create art that had nothing to do with sickness itself.” This idea of healing through creation went on to form We Are Light Rays. Weaving together video and photography, the exhibit needed a score which ultimately formed the basis of JOOJ’s sound. Often times when music is described, the words “haunting” and “cinematic” will inevitably appear. Although both are used far too frequently, the songs found on JOOJ truly are both. Startling, sombre and sweet, the band’s self-titled looks to explore all of life’s many mysteries. Consisting of ten tracks, JOOJ is one of those rare albums that bravely confronts uncomfortable and painful situations, regardless of the consequences. Whether it’s a decaying love or learning to make peace with saying goodbye, the songs on JOOJ provide fair assessments of each scenario. Not one person is bad, not one person is righteous. Everyone is just trying to make it in their own way, and although the album goes to some dark places, Lee and Litovitz ultimately provide a feeling of comfort and understanding. Neither claim to have all the answers, but both do offer their support in not knowing what lays ahead. Seek not hollow guidance from JOOJ, but companionship and sincerity instead.
Noisey: Throughout the album and the accompanying videos, there’s a great emphasis on the distance between people. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that?
Adam Litovitz: It’s both at the same time I think. It’s both inability to be together and inherent togetherness. There’s a built-in tension to it. Even physically in the “Shoulders and Whispers” video, something is holding them at bay. If they touch each other, there’s tension to that touch, or to that sound. The intimacy of something like a whisper is there and present, but it’s something that you still feel and question and are at odds with.
“Jessica” deals with feeling out of place and wanting to escape. When in your own lives have you felt the need to uproot?
Sook-Yin Lee: I was just hanging out with Ryan from the band S.H.I.T. who I feel is a kindred spirit. We were talking about growing up Chinese-Canadian. I myself came from a very restrictive family with many conflicts inherent to new immigrants. On top of these pressures of coming to a new country, my mother was also battling a myriad of mental difficulties which were a byproduct of squelching. There were a lot of rules and regulations. Do not speak, or you will suffer the consequences. I just needed to escape from that. When my parents divorced I high-tailed it out of there. My younger sister and I found our separate ways to get out of that situation. It was a very early rite of passage and it was a result of being unable to communicate, and being a kid who was extremely shy and felt like a freak. Specifically with the song “Jessica,” it was deeply inspired by a young woman that I know who had found herself in a very difficult spot and was not able to continue being in that spot.
My stepmother and dad have this one plant in their house that very rarely blooms, and when it decides to bloom, it blooms in the course of one night. It blooms entirely and then by the morning collapses and dies. It’s this incredible natural phenomenon that sometimes our lives are short, and in the case of my friend’s life it was very short, and does not take away the splendor and incredible beauty of her existence. So there’s a celebration of her as well. It’s interesting that you picked that up.
Where did the idea to name the band Jooj come from?
Litovitz: I just thought “jooj” was this extremely special word to both of us and had been for a long time. We talk about its malleability, but among other things it’s something that we started calling each other. I think Sook-Yin started that. It’s just this morphing thing that we always play around with. It turns into “judge” and “judgerton” and other things. We talked about it and it was just this thing that stuck with us. We like the openness of it too, and that it doesn’t necessarily have to be a term of endearment for each other. It’s something that I think is evocative. If you look it up online or Twitter, you come across Saudi princes and hair salons. It really is something that leads to a world within worlds.
Photo via JOOJ's Facebook
When it came time to record the album, why did you two decide to work out of your house?
Lee: Because I’ve done studio albums before and for me they can be creative, but when you’re clocking in and being fretful of the time and the money you’re spending, it’s just antithetical to free creation. We have these machines at our disposal now and so I just like the process.
Litovitz: And we didn’t have a big band and huge amounts of gear that needed to be set up in a vast space. It’s something you can do in an intimate way with just two people.
Lee: If we had a full band we would have decided on a different construct, but because a lot of it was MIDI equipment it was completely doable within our means.
How do you balance your professional relationship with your personal one?
Litovitz: We’ll be hanging out watching something on Netflix and midway through we’ll come up with an idea, or Sook-Yin or I will want to development something. It’s all kind of integrated, for better or for worse.
Lee: I think we both love consideration and imagination and philosophy, so there’s a lot there. We also enjoy a good laugh, and so I feel it’s really integrated in our lives. Creation, creativity just seems to be an inherent aspect of the way we do things.
Litovitz: You’re probably only seeing 0.1% of anything we think of together that could be creative. It’s just kind of a constant thing.
Lee:It comes down to compatibility. You may really be crazy for somebody, but you may be incompatible so there’s a lot of conflict that rises from that. We’re very compatible. I’ve never been able to have long relationships, because I think I’m a very difficult person to get along with. Somehow he doesn’t really find me difficult. He doesn’t perceive that so I’m like “oh yay!”
As two people who are immersed in so many different creative mediums, what is it about music that you keep going back to?
Lee: Music is my first expression and it’s my first expression when I was a weird kid who couldn’t speak. I’d sequester myself in the basement where the reverb from the titles in the bathroom sounded great and I would sing. I would sing and I could feel my spirit. I think with music I’m very lucky, because I have that as an immediate pulling device to root me to myself again. I think music always comes back to that.
When it comes to shampoo Aaron Morris only uses Head & Shoulders and Whispers. - aarmor212