Published Oct 01, 2004Jeremy Greenspan lives on Tin Pan Alley, if only in spirit. Even when he's relaxing in the lobby of a Montreal hotel, the most senior of the Junior Boys seems like the sort of guy who could have worked in Manhattan's hectic songwriting sweatshops a century ago his collared shirt rumpled, its sleeves rolled up, his eyes weary. Stick a fedora on his head, a cigar in his mouth and guide him over to the hotel piano and Greenspan might just pound you out some of the saddest music in all the world.
When the first Junior Boys' songs started circulating the internet in early 2003, you'd be forgiven for believing them voiced by a suicidal waif, by the sort of boy who routinely gets his heart stamped on by friends, lovers, even strangers. "You've gone and then you missed my birthday," crooned Greenspan on the group's 12-inch split vinyl debut, "Birthday"/"Last Exit," a lament so exquisitely tuneful that it could be forgiven its maudlin sense of self-pity. Like the best sad songs, "Birthday" connoted such implicit joy in the fact of its very existence audible in the whip-smart house breakdown at mid-song as to overshadow its cheerless lyrical veneer. Indeed, if blue-eyed blues music has any right to exist, it must be made in this manner or none at all.
Thus we should be relieved to discover at this year's Mutek festival that Greenspan is neither a waif nor a sullen brat, but simply a man who grasps how integral these archetypes are to pop music. Still, in listening to the Junior Boys' full-length Last Exit with its skittish rhythms, fragile melodies and faint sighs it's hard to tell just where fiction ends and Jeremy Greenspan begins.
"People always ask questions about the lyrics assuming that they reflect something that I'm personally going through," says the singer/producer, reached at his Hamilton, Ontario home ten weeks after Mutek. "Most of my lyrics are about desires that are unfulfilled and there's a degree of pathological neurotic behaviour about them. But I'm only writing about those subjects because I find them interesting and because they fit in with my whole philosophy of lyric writing not necessarily because I've experienced them."
If Greenspan is breaking some implicit agreement between a singer and his audience that is, if he's lying to us he seems not to care, instead taking refuge in a lost era of musicianship, one he'd dearly like to see resurrected.
"I have this idea that songwriting particularly in terms of lyrical content has been co-opted in the last 40 years by this notion of the singer-songwriter who is speaking about his own experiences and doing things in a very personal way," he explains. "I'm more inspired by a George Gershwin approach to songwriting where you're making songs on universal themes that don't really have anything to do with you. You pick a theme and go with it and no one ever asks you how you're feeling."
If contemporary CanLit teaches us anything, it's that middle-class Canada can be an insufferably boring place; in that light, the Hamilton native's desire to "make [himself] as absent as possible" in his music seems altogether reasonable, even humble.
"I think that in order to write about yourself, you have to buy into your own mythology to some extent," he says. "Someone like, say, Dizzee Rascal has to buy into his own experience and think that his life is really interesting to want to write about it. I'm not comfortable buying into myself in that kind of way. As much as possible, I want to keep my life separated from the music I make."
In the process, Greenspan has gone about crafting one of the year's most compelling records, an album that will make you believe heartache is contagious. To tell the truth, Last Exit might just be the best-sounding lie you'll hear all year.
From June 2003 to June 2004, Chicago's Loren Jan Wilson performed a laborious study of the album reviews on the Pitchfork Media web site, generating a set of songwriting guidelines based on critics' preferences. (The results of the research are viewable at pitchformula.com.) Finding that sad songs rated highest among the site's critics, the college student recorded two original numbers, one based on heroin addiction, the other on a failed romance. Freely downloadable to the public, Wilson's songs are indeed sad, but not for the reasons he intended.
Dreadful as its musical results are, Wilson's study is one that Jeremy Greenspan would probably find fascinating. Greenspan, you see, is an avid fan of music criticism, the sort of person who can not only list his favourite artists (like Talk Talk and Timbaland) but also favourite critics (Kodwo Eshun and Simon Reynolds), a devotion that he figures gives him a leg up on the competition.
"When you're making music, you're not supposed to respect or like music writers," he offers in the Montreal hotel lobby. "But I grew up loving criticism, so I think I understand what a critic likes and that works to my advantage."
What critics like, almost invariably, is music that manages to be both formally inventive and reminiscent of styles gone by. So for those skinny white journalists who grew up raving and venerating Timbaland, a pop band with those same influences is positively heaven sent, especially when that band writes such criminally blissful ballads as are contained on Last Exit.
Were the Junior Boys merely the sum of their influences, they might be considered noteworthy, but hardly worth the attention they're currently getting. Just what makes this group so special? Well, like all serious artists, Greenspan and his collaborators Matt Didemus and Johnny Dark are capable of making the familiar seem strange, re-imagining new romantic pop as the logical precursor to 90s R&B producers like Rodney Jerkins (Brandy, Toni Braxton).
Nowhere is this blessed confluence of styles more fruitful than the album opener "More Than Real," a track that lays bare the Boys' simultaneous reverence and disregard for contemporary recording techniques. With its mechanical beat pattern and bulbous synth tones, the song is integrally digital, but listen closely and you'll detect all manner of imperfections, from Greenspan's between-line gasps to Dark's imperfect vocal scat, which steps out of time with the underlying rhythm, obeying a groove all its own.
"When we recorded this, we made a conscious decision to avoid certain technologies," explains Greenspan in Montreal. "For example, we did most of the album on ProTools but we avoided any of the auto-tune plug-ins for correcting vocal mistakes. Most people, when they're doing vocals, use filters and use a lot of gates" devices used to reduce noise or create effects "but my vocals are almost never gated, which is a real no-no. When we got the record mastered, the mastering guy said, You guys made a mistake. You guys didn't put a gate and a filter on the vocals.' We had to explain to him that we knew what we were doing."
Indeed, both Didemus and Greenspan (who co-mixed the album together) have lengthy experience in recording studios; the former's father once owned a Hamilton studio specialising in folk music while the latter spent his late teenage years working as an engineer in Birmingham, England.
"I was the studio's demo deal guy," recalls Greenspan of his overseas gig. "So a band would walk in off the street, any shit band, and they'd say, We want a three-song demo and we want it done in 12 hours.' And that was my job. You learn a lot doing that, trying to record three songs of every possible combination of shit music."
Before he moved to England, Greenspan had started producing drum & bass tracks with Didemus, a phase each describes in separate interviews as "unmemorable." On his return to Hamilton, Greenspan started up a band with another friend, Johnny Dark, a formation that would eventually turn into the Junior Boys. (Dark has since left the group, leaving Didemus to step in as a full-time member.)
"In the late 90s, me and John started listening to a lot of UK garage and there were people like Dem 2 and MJ Cole who put out some records we really liked," says Greenspan. "I thought this was the type of music that we should do: it's dance music but it's also pop music. So we thought we would do that and incorporate some of the new wave that we were listening to at the time, like John Foxx, Visage and Japan."
Such was the impetus behind "Birthday" and "Last Exit," which were posted on Hyperdub.com, a web site operated by Greenspan's friend Steve Goodman (a London-based breakstep producer who works under the name Kode 9). Within weeks, the JBs started receiving emails from journalists who'd downloaded the tracks and wished to hear more. Just when Greenspan had given up on sending demos to labels, the critical interest took him by surprise.
"In retrospect, I could say that my whole career is based on a network of music critics," he contends. "When most people make music, it's some A&R guy who hears it first, and the critics come after that. It wasn't like that for me at all. I made music and a bunch of critics picked up on it long before any label had the slightest interest."
With online scribes raving about the band, Warp Records' Nick Kilroy approached Greenspan, divulging that the venerable label might wish to release the Boys' tracks as part of a 12-inch series devoted to unknown artists. Warp later backed away from that concept, giving Kilroy all the motivation he needed to start his own label, Kin, with which Greenspan happily signed. Where before it had existed only as a rumour, the Junior Boys' music took material form, pressed onto a vinyl disc adorned by the image of a blood-splattered dove. Finally, the Junior Boys were for sale.
Thus far in our discussion of Jeremy Greenspan, we've sketched a portrait of the artist as a young manipulator, a songwriter who a) lies to us about being sad and b) capitalises on his familiarity with critics to produce music designed to please them. Viewed in this light, Jeremy Greenspan is either the smartest musician in the world, or the most callous. The truth, insists the singer, is that he's neither.
"The funny thing is that I'm pretty far from having hip tastes," he confesses in Montreal. "I had a journalist asking me recently what I was listening to and when I told him it was Yes's Close To The Edge, he was visibly disappointed."
Not nearly as stylish nor as calculating as the JB's back story makes him appear, the Hamilton native can more rightly be grouped among the most tuneful young artists in the country. But because he grew up listening to electronic music, even the most classic of his melodic gestures are mere elements within the larger play of dilation and compression, the trademark build and breakdown for which dance music is best known. Last Exit's "Under The Sun" embodies this approach, positing Greenspan's doleful plea ("sweet one, sweet one, under the sun") as the central driver of the backing track's slow-burning pace. Like a brooding new romantic counterpart to a vocal house tune, "Under The Sun" could have only been produced by one-time ravers with a latent interest in ballads.
"Loop-based dance music is so ingrained in me that I don't have any fear of losing it or any fear that I would descend into straight pop," explains Greenspan. "Dance music has been the major part of my life since I was a teenager, so even if I'm writing songs in the most conventional sense, I know the whole dance music attitude is always going to be there."
In this respect, the Junior Boys occupy a middle ground between electronic music and straightforward pop, a terrain that has yielded some of the decade's best albums, ranging from Radiohead's Kid A to Matthew Dear's Leave Luck To Heaven. For his part, Greenspan is happy to have licensed his record's North American release to Domino Records, which also boasts such pop-electronic fusionists as the Notwist, Four Tet and Ulrich Schnauss.
"I'm glad that we're with Domino instead of a really niche electronic label," he claims. "With labels like Kompakt and Ghostly International doing so well, there seems to be somewhat of a push towards having electronic artists being regarded more as songwriters as opposed to being part of a faceless collective of track makers. I think we're riding that wave to an extent."
Only to the extent, he might add, that most electronic pop bands come at the form from a rock perspective, using computer-made sounds as mere exotic flavouring in their indie rock stew. Didemus, for one, is not convinced by that scene's half-hearted adoption of laptops.
"That whole trend reminds of the late 90s when all these bad rock bands started putting DJs in their line-up," he says with a laugh. "There are so many indie bands going electronic; what makes us different is that we're doing it in reverse."
As a matter of fact, Greenspan is writing many of the band's new songs on a piano, tracing out melodic figures before bringing them to Didemus, whose expertise lies in the realms of rhythm and sound design. Like the Neptunes, the Junior Boys want to make computer music sound like it's acoustic, and to make acoustic music sound like it's computer-made.
"When I take a song from the piano to the machines, I try my hardest to make sure that it doesn't sound like it was written on a piano," says Greenspan. "I want it to sound as though it was worked out as a loop-based piece. And when I compose something on a computer, just working out a bunch of loops, I figure out how to structure it as a conventional song that you would play on a piano."
As he's saying this, you get the feeling that the singer is chomping at the bit to record some new numbers, especially because the oldest songs on Last Exit are now over three years old. Alas, given that the album's only just now been released in North America, the Junior Boys have a good six months of live playing ahead of them. If their performance at Mutek is any indication, the band's current tour which features Didemus manning the electronics and Greenspan on vocals and guitar will go down as one of the year's must-see indie events.
Upon their return from the road, the duo will have plenty of tracks to finish off, namely a single for London's Hand on the Plow label and Greenspan's vocal contribution to a track made by his breakstep counterpart Kode 9. And as mentioned, the JBs have already started work on their new album, which Greenspan touts as sounding "more lush, more dense" than its predecessor. Asked to describe its emotional tenor, the singer insists that the sophomore effort will make Last Exit seem like a carefree jaunt. It seems Greenspan's fallen in love with Frank Sinatra, specifically 1959's No One Cares, by far the most depressing album the Jersey crooner ever cut.
"What I like about that record is that there's this really over-the-top melancholy feel to the songs on it," says Greenspan of such dismal numbers as "I'll Never Smile Again" and "None But the Lonely Heart." "There's this extremely exhausted feel to his voice through the whole album. I mean, if you were to take him seriously, you would think the guy is suicidal and gloomy 24 hours a day.
"I really like the idea of having the Junior Boys do this over-the-top melancholy record," he continues. "My whole idea is that the best love songs are the most pathological ones."
While it hardly seems possible that he could pen sadder tracks than those on Last Exit, Greenspan is not a man to be underestimated. After all, if Sinatra once saw fit to cut a disco version of "Night And Day," it shouldn't seem strange to picture ex-ravers doing his material justice. All it takes is a little imagination.
Jeremy Greenspan's Five Favourite Singers
Mark Hollis (Talk Talk)
"His is the closest thing to true spiritual singing. The one thing that's true about almost all the singers I like is that they have relaxed and controlled voices; they're not people who belt it out. Sometimes Mark Hollis sings so quietly that you don't realise he's singing. He just drifts through you."
John Foxx (Ultravox)
"[Foxx's] Metamatic might be the most important record in terms of me wanting to start the Junior Boys. He's probably my favourite lyricist. He's not a great singer by any stretch of the imagination. But he's one of the great commentators on urban living and the whole modern sheen of big-city life."
Colin Blunstone (The Zombies)
"I would pick him only because he has the voice of an angel. To me, he's got the most perfect-sounding voice. If I could have anybody's singing ability, it would be his."
"I think she was the great soul singer of our generation. She's the only big R&B artist of the last 20 years to have enough musicality to tone her voice down and still be powerful. In this era of American Idol, the whole idea of singing well has become how loud you are and how many vocal gymnastics you can do. Aaliyah could do all those tricks, but she did it softly."
"As a singer, he embodies that ragged humanity. He's the reason why I adamantly refuse to use the kind of vocal production techniques that are pretty standard practice in recording today. Just the way his voice sounds he sounds exactly like whatever subject he's singing about."