Published Mar 18, 2009At a time when dance music is obsessed with throwing back to the old school, Junior Boys are a welcome breath of fresh air. Since the early 2000s, the Hamilton duo have never failed to march to a different drum machine, not so much by being fearless innovators but by boiling down a quarter-century of influences into a style that's theirs and theirs alone. Take their latest, Begone Dull Care, an album that drops all smoke and mirrors to stand as one of the most forward-thinking electronic pop records in ages. Compared to one and two, album number three shows Jeremy Greenspan and Matt Didemus at their most cool, calm and collected, sounding less like a night at a club than the comedown that follows. And yet all of Junior Boys' signatures are here - Greenspan's sentimental R&B croon, the drive-by-night synths, the rhythmic disco-sis - but with subtlety powering this slow-motion romance, and a beautifully complex subtlety at that. Overstatement or not, Begone Dull Care quite easily marks a high in a career already littered with them.
Maybe we could start off by you telling me how you approached this Junior Boys album differently than your past ones?
Greenspan: Well, the main difference was that Matt [Didemus] had relocated to Germany, so the recording of this album meant a lot of transcontinental flights. I would say the bulk of the writing and vocal recordings were done in Germany. The mixing and early writing stuff was done in Hamilton. Also, we're a very technologically reliant band and we bought a lot of different equipment since the last album. And I'm a firm believer that the equipment shapes the music in just as profound ways as whatever the musician thinks they're going through.
How do you think all that travelling affected the record?
Well, it made the process slow, for one thing. I mean, the album took a really long time to make. We were very precious about everything. We wanted to make sure that every idea we had for the album got used in some capacity. So what ended up happening was that instead of working on a large amount of songs all at once, we just worked on a few extremely laboriously so that every song became quite long. And it all made this album denser in terms of musical ideas than our previous ones have been.
At the same time, this seems like your most subtle album.
Well, I think that was sort of the conceit. We wanted to make it so the album was less immediate than previous ones, so you could actually hear the writing process involved in the songs themselves and everything is revealed really slowly. The songs are long and drawn out, and we wanted it to be where you could hear what it was like to write it. And at that point, it started coalescing with the concept of the album, which is about work and being involved in creative work in particular.
Could you elaborate on what the theme or concept of this record is?
Basically, the record has a very strong underlying concept, which is that we wanted it to be about where we were at: making a third album. And making a third album is a difficult one because it is the first time where you sort of have to think about yourself as a professional musician. At a certain point - because the album was going to be about making an album - I didn't want it to become so overly self-referential that it became absurd. The first song on the album ["Parallel Lines"] is the only song that is very literally about writing and writing a lyric. But a lot of the other songs were either about touring and working as filtered through a pop song or a love song or something like that. The rest of the songs are essentially about this animator Norman McLaren, who I sort of used as a placeholder or an artistic ideal through which I could express my own opinion about what it's like to work so that it wouldn't just be about me and became something more universal.
What drew you to McLaren?
I think a lot of things drew me to him. The first thing was the sense of nostalgia. I had seen his movies as a kid on TVOntario and I saw them again later. But then I started getting more and more interested in him, not only because I liked his movies so much, but because he happened to be a really innovative electronic music pioneer. So that doubled my interest in him. And the more I became involved in learning about him and his techniques and his biography, the more I realized he was grappling with a lot of similar problems that we do, that he sort of approached his films in a very similar way to how we approach music. Because of that it created a kinship in my mind and I was able to use him as a lightning rod for all sorts of different ideas.
What problems would you say Junior Boys grapple with?
Well, the main problem that he faced and I think we do as well is that he wanted to do film that was very much a stream of consciousness. The whole thing was supposed to be based on that surrealist notion, just sort of trying to filter out your most basic ideas and let things happen very naturally and without correction, without editing. And I wanted to bring that trend to my music, especially because I think that it is very lacking in electronic music - that excitement of unpredictability. But the problem with both McLaren and us is that his films, like our music, are hard to make. It's laborious and requires a lot fiddling around. So how do you balance doing something that feels free when you have to sit down and spend so much time at it?
So have you succeeded in doing that?
Well, I don't know. I'd say probably not yet.
In an old story we did on you, you said that you wanted to keep your life separate from the music you make. Do you think you've changed in this sense?
Yeah, I don't feel that way nearly as much anymore. The fact of the matter is we're a difficult band to market because we aren't particularly marketable, in the sense that what people are generally inclined to think about us isn't true, and a lot of things people want us to be, we don't want to be. That sort of thing. I think we come from the perspective of dance music, but we don't want to be involved in the club scene because I find it depressing and I find it vacuous and completely uninteresting a lot of the time. And I don't want to be part of some indie rock scene either. I don't like the idea of being in a scene that still celebrates guitar music because I find that boring. Because of that, we're difficult for our record label to deal with, just because we don't look the part of a dance band and don't act the part, necessarily. I guess I didn't want to be an actor, so in the beginning, it just felt easier to write stuff that didn't really speak to my life in particular. But I think that was probably a cop-out. I think all the albums have largely been about my life and in particular from a very specific southern Ontario perspective.
Could you tell me a bit more about how you feel about the electronic music scene there days? What do you think of the trends that are going on?
There are a lot of clichés that go along with dance music and electronic music, and none of them interest me and none of them have been what drew me to dance music at all. The dance music going on right now is particularly vacuous, uninteresting and unexperimental. I have no affinity with that. The trend in a lot of music these days is to make stuff that's easily marketable and to make stuff that's as loud as possible and has no dynamics. The notion in music these days, all the way from indie rock to dance music, is "the bigger, the better." How self-important can you make your music sound? How loud can you make it sound? How bombastic can you make it sound? And that's my great pet peeve in music: music that is self-importantly bombastic, the U2 effect.
Do you then still feel rooted in the electronic music scene?
I do in the sense that I listen to just as much electronic music as I ever did. I listened to a huge amount of electronic music when making this record, and I was inspired by electronic music. And I think a lot of trends with instrument makers have been extremely positive these days. There are a lot of different companies making some very interesting stuff and that's always a good sign. In the terms of electronic musicians, there are people who have made albums recently that have totally blown me away, like the Kelley Polar album that came out last year [I Need You to Hold On, While the Sky Is Falling]. Some of my favourite records in the past decade have been made within the last year. In that respect, I'm encouraged. But what is going on in most clubs and what's popular in dance music, I don't find interesting.
These days people seem to be picking up more on the romantic aspects that might be in Junior Boys and even going as far as calling you "new romantics." Do you guys see yourselves in this way? As being romantics?
You know, a lot of people think that a lot of my songs are love songs, but a lot of the time they're not. I do that on purpose and do a love song conceit sometimes, try to make it sound like a love song even though it's not. I don't know why I do that. I guess to make it palatable or something like that or more relatable.
I put on that last Morgan Geist record the other night, Double Night Times, which you contributed tons of vocals to. I was wondering what it was like working on that and with Geist.
It was a funny kind of experience. I feel like that album hasn't quite found its audience yet. I think it's a really strong album and that people will like it in time. I can say that from the benefit of having absolutely nothing to do with it creatively. Like I can be as big of fan of that album without being a dick because I didn't write a thing. I mean, I wrote some lyrics and part of the melody of one song, but the rest of the stuff I sang was written down to the syllable by Morgan. And he's a real perfectionist about things, so if I sang a song the way I thought it should be sung, he would correct me. I'm proud of it, though, and I think he did a great job. But I was just sort of a session guy for that, where I came and did a job. It's funny, since I've done that, I've got tons of emails from bands asking me to sing on their tracks. I mean, I also did a track on the Caribou record [Andorra's "She's the One"] and I'm doing something now with the guys from Mouse on Mars and helping them out on their next record. But I don't want to become like some weird version of Akon or something like that. I don't want to be that guy.
So would I know any of the bands that have asked you to sing on their records?
Oh yeah, definitely. But I don't want to name any names because otherwise I'll sound like an asshole. I get weird requests from big dance bands asking me to be on their records but of course I don't. I'm not a singer, some trained professional. I sang on our records, because when we started the band it was between John [Dark] and myself, and I just sang better than he did. We even flirted with the idea of hiring a real singer, but I guess we figured my voice was good enough.
I was wondering why you continue to live in Canada, instead moving to other more culturally vibrant parts of the world, like say Berlin or Brooklyn or something. I mean, Junior Boys have this really atypical sound in dance music and I sometimes wonder if you enjoy living in such a large but sparsely populated country, where you can have this really isolated, vacuum-type existence, especially musically.
Yeah, absolutely. That is one of the reasons I like to live in Canada, and in particular Hamilton, because Hamilton is sort of a microcosm of the whole country. I mean, Hamilton is a fairly large city by Canadian standards, but like Canada's relationship with the U.S., it's completely dwarfed by Toronto. It's a working-class city that has lots of problems but is often completely forgotten about by the rest of the country. Hamilton sort of feels like this post-apocalyptic playground, just filled with poverty and decay. But because of that, it means it's really cheap to live here and people like me can own a home and make music, and the city is really exciting because of that. ... There is no pressure to impress anyone or be part of any scene, like you'd get in Vancouver or Toronto or something.
Have you given much thought with what you want to do with the next Junior Boys record after Begone Dull Care?
Yeah, I think the idea is that we are going to do a huge amount of work, in terms of doing a lot of material and then sorting through it all. There have just been so many unrecorded songs partially written that we're really happy with. I also want to explore more unconventional formats, making some songs even longer than I already have, and there is a lot of new equipment that we have that we really want to play around with. ... I want to spend a long time writing, but my hope is to get the next record out a lot quicker than we just did with the last one.
Ultimately, what do you hope people take away from Begone Dull Care?
Well, I hope people like it and it has some shelf life. That's the main thing with an album: "Will this record stand some test of time?" I hope this one does to some extent. In my mind, when I think about our three records there's no question that this is the best record we've ever done, even though I know it's not the most immediate. We certainly haven't laboured over a record as much before. But I'm sure all musicians say their latest record is their favourite and I'll probably say our next record is our best. (Domino)